Slippery slide: The digital creep into kids' traditional play spaces

by Charlotte Graham-McLay / 25 March, 2018
Vancouver-based smart playground technology company Biba says it wants to take a little bit of kids' screen fixation and use it to get them back outdoors. Photo / Biba

Vancouver-based smart playground technology company Biba says it wants to take a little bit of kids' screen fixation and use it to get them back outdoors. Photo / Biba

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We’re raising a generation of kids with a discerning and demanding palette for entertainment that’s created specially for them. They’re used to graphics, effects, and magic; they’re not easily impressed and they need never be bored. But as augmented reality and digital gadgetry increasingly form part of public play spaces, parents are pushing back. Is it time to go with the flow and accept device-driven play as a necessary part of enticing kids outside and into physical activity? Or should we put our phones away and make a last stand for the good old swing and slide? Charlotte Graham-McLay investigates.  

“Ugh, that playground!” One mother tells me. We’re conducting this interview on our devices, and I’ve actually got mine in bed with me, staring into the blue screen in contravention of every sleep and stress expert’s advice for healthy living. Amelia is a mum of two, and the playground she’s so frustrated about has removed some of the more traditional children’s play equipment - including a slide - replacing it with games on three large touch screens.

Like most parents I spoke to, Amelia isn’t opposed to screen time. It’s handy to download a distracting educational app on her phone for times when she’s cooking dinner or detangling her daughter’s hair. But, she said, she “doesn’t see the value” of touchscreens in a playspace, when kids have “fewer opportunities to be active these days,” and screens are so prevalent everywhere else.

When the playground Amelia’s talking about, in Takapuna mall Shore City, was reconfigured in August last year to include touch screens for kids (the centre points out that free Wifi also came along with several other features as part of the upgrade), she was among more than a dozen parents who complained on the centre’s Facebook page.

Some said they would shop elsewhere. They didn’t want their kids fighting over the touch screens, they said, or standing around waiting for a turn on the games rather than burning off some energy. Parents claimed their kids could sometimes be grumpy, rude, or aggressive after screen time. One said that if given the opportunity, her four-year-old would “sit on the iPad all day.”

Perhaps surprisingly, two of the companies making cutting-edge digital playground technologies agree that the last point is a fair one for many families - and that parents should be concerned about how hard it is to get kids outside and running around. But they believe that the ship has sailed on device-free spaces. If you can’t tear a kid away from a device to get active, they reckon, why not use the device to lure the kid outside and motivate them to move without even realising it?

Can technology be used to get kids into the outdoors?

When Melanie Langlotz’s step-daughter was seven, she suddenly didn’t want to go to the park anymore. Before that, Langlotz couldn’t tear her away from a playground; at seven, she preferred a device indoors. The CEO of Geo AR Games, an augmented reality app (imagine something a bit like Pokemon Go), Langlotz wanted to create games for the age group too old to be entertained by a traditional play space, but too young for sports grounds.

Magical Park, the company’s game that can be downloaded to devices and played in selected parks throughout New Zealand and Australia, allows kids to go on missions and complete challenges in a digital fantasyland - the 3D, magical gameplay components seen through the screen of a parent’s device. The company hoped to have 200 parks signed up by Australasian Parks Week on March 10, and Langlotz said councils, including Auckland’s, have been eager to trial the technology.


I asked Langlotz about New Zealand’s digital divide, and whether she was worried about the kids who would be left out. Not every parent has a smartphone, English-language skills, or money for data to feed the app. It was not something Langlotz had a ready answer for, but she was adamant that councils wouldn’t keep funding playgrounds that weren’t being used, so they’ve got to innovate or perish.

“The problem councils are having is that families are not using the parks the way they used to,” she said. “They’re staying at home; they’re more device driven. And that’s been a driver for councils to look towards technology for bringing families back to parks.”

Langlotz said that as house prices continued to rise, councils could consider selling off underutilised parks, as lack of use meant rubbish collection and cleaning was increasingly difficult to justify.

"Leave the playgrounds alone"

Angela Cuming, a Hamilton-based playground advocate and mum of three, said that kind of reasoning worried her. Cuming, whose awareness campaign last year helped secure Council funding for the city’s playgrounds, said parks shouldn’t only be seen as a space to play or their importance would be diminished.

“They're a safe, welcoming, non-judgemental community hub, where we can take our children and interact as a community,” Cuming said.

“They’re a place for free birthday parties, they’re a town hall for kids, and they’re the great leveler for all rungs on the socioeconomic ladder.”

Cuming worried that ignoring the social benefits of playgrounds would lead councils to view them as a “nice to have” rather than essential. Besides, she said, she “couldn’t think of anything worse” than time at the park that involved running around after her child, holding a device.

“Leave the playgrounds alone; let them be the one place where we can just take a breath and relax. I would urge caution against introducing devices because I've never seen any need for those things there.”

Levi Park, NZ's first "smart" playground

In Rolleston, the future of a “smart” playground at Levi Park still hangs in the balance, as the Selwyn District Council weighs up the benefits of further using the technology. A spokesperson noted that the playground was the first of its kind in New Zealand, and the trial of it had given the Council valuable information about what worked in child’s play.

The playground has digital markers scattered around traditional play equipment, which when scanned on an app downloaded to a parent’s device, provide challenges to complete. Feedback from parents has been split; comments shared with me by the Council included one caregiver saying their kids had been “more interested” in the playground than before the digital additions, while another said the opposite - the app hadn’t encouraged their child to play more.

Biba markets its games as requiring 90 per cent movement to complete. Photo / screenshot, Biba

The technology at the Rolleston park was created by the Vancouver-based smart playground technology company, Biba, who told me they wanted to take kids’ screen fixation and “use a little bit of it” to get kids playing harder than they would otherwise (they say studies back up their claims of higher heart rates for kids playing on Biba equipment).

Biba’s CEO, Matt Toner, said there were some kids who “absolutely do not need” digital playspaces.

“They’re playing sports and they have real-life social networks,” he said. “We’re looking at kids who have a screen fixation problem. That’s who we’re trying to help.”

As is often the case on a new frontier, the two gamemaker companies I spoke to weren’t in agreement about what kind of device-driven play worked - and what caused more harm than good. Melanie Langlotz at Geo AR Games was sceptical about Biba’s hypothesis, saying the gamemakers had targeted younger children who were still happy to use playgrounds. They were trying, she said, to fix something that wasn’t broken.

For their part, Biba said they were baffled by “kids running around outside holding devices,” as is the case in Geo AR Games’ Magical Park, saying that “the US is so litigious” it wouldn’t work there.

But both agreed that it was too late to reverse the all-digital world into which we’d thrust the current generation of kids.

Eyes on the prize in the playground. Photo / Geo AR Games

Can you avoid the screen-time guilt factor?

For the purposes of balancing this story, it was hard to find a single parent who liked the idea of devices in playgrounds. Parents appreciated the way screens make maths homework fun, or that Youtube Kids could teach their four-year-old a grown-up word in context by watching a video of older kids playing with dolls. But the word “guilt” came up a lot.

Parents felt guilty about screen time, about how much their kid sat in the car, about what other people think about their kids’ use of devices (although my own father said, when I asked him, that he felt the same about television when we were kids). What’s more, parents felt guilty about their own device attachments, too: how can you expect a kid to happily put down the iPad when we groan at the thought of a bus trip home from work with a flat phone battery? Technology is still a fairly new way of life, where the only methods are trial and error.

“I want to go back to the day we ever introduced devices and take that back,” one Auckland mum tells me. She’s got three kids: one at primary school, a toddler, and a baby. They’re “more impatient, grumpy, and at times rude” after they’ve spent too much time on screens.

It’s a refrain Dr. Sarah Watson hears a lot. The clinical psychologist works specifically with children who have ADHD and autism, but she says most families she works with struggle with screen time, or even what she calls device addiction, in their neurotypical kids too.

I’d called her because one parent out of the more than a dozen I spoke to said that unexpected screens in public places weren’t merely an annoyance. Her son has ADHD, she said, and because his brain worked differently, devices could become a fraught issue.

Lucy* explained that it was hard to curb her son’s screen time and his ADHD had also affected his gross motor skills, leaving physical activity even less appealing for him. It was a vicious cycle. Watson said that sounded familiar; many kids with ADHD had all information and stimuli presented to them at once and it was harder for them to filter some of it out.

What’s more, the things that were the most stimulating - like a screen or device - were pushed to the top of the attention queue. That meant ADHD kids might struggle to leave a device once engaged with it - and, like Lucy’s son, were left exhausted afterward, thanks to overstimulation.

“There’s nothing wrong with stimulation-seeking behaviour,” said Watson, “But the problem for parents is when they don’t know what they’re walking into, where there are devices somewhere they weren’t expecting it.”

And what of the digital gamemakers’ claims that since we’ve created a generation who won’t get off the couch for anything short of thrilling, there’s no unringing the bell of digital-driven play?

While Watson doesn’t suggest an outright ban, she’s firm in the belief that devices should be considered a treat or an extra, like lollies.

“A problem for our current generation of kids is that they’re used to being entertained and stimulated to a much higher degree than we ever were,” she said, adding that daydreams could be a casualty of constant entertainment.

“If kids are always supplied with something at a really high rate of entertainment value, your ability to learn things outside of that is diminished.”

* Some names have been changed.




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