On mobile game storefronts, “free” games aimed at children are often laden with artificial barriers, advertisements and optional purchases designed to keep kids logging in every day and engrossed for as long as possible with a never-ending flow of tasks and bonuses.
Play researcher Chris Lindgren.
Toca Boca games aren’t like that. As a parent of a toddler, they are my go-to digital toys. Costing a few quid each, they are relaxed, well-designed and visually appealing, have no goals, scores or adverts, and present an imaginative little virtual sandbox for kids to play in. Toca Train lets children drive a colourful train around a track, picking up passengers and cargo; Toca Store has them setting up a little shop and handing out change; Toca Hair Salon involves giving characters wacky haircuts. To an adult, these digital toys seem weird: we’re so conditioned to goal-oriented activities, in games as in real life, that the absence of direction is confusing. But put a Toca Boca game in front of a young child and they just start experimenting and finding their own fun.
The latest in the range, Toca Kitchen Sushi, arrives in the App Store and on Google Play today, and is aimed at 6-to 9-year-olds. You can play around with ingredients to create perfect little nigiri and serve them to appreciative characters, or stack plates with wild creations, or serve up an entire raw fish just to see the reaction. At Toca Boca’s Stockholm studio, which is festooned with real retro and modern toys from all corners of the world, I sit in on a playtest where a small girl creates a mad tower of rice and vegetables. Play researcher and playtesting lead Chris Lindgren tells me with a smile that she sees a lot of kids go out of their way to make something disgusting to provoke a funny reaction. Feeding lemons to an unimpressed cat, for example.
Trailer for Toca Kitchen Sushi.
For today’s parents, finding apps for kids that are safe, imaginative and free from exploitative mechanics is more important and more difficult than ever. Toca Boca was founded eight years ago, when iPhones and iPads were only just beginning to be a part of family life. “Nobody was making anything interactive and interesting based on how kids play with technology,” says co-founder Emil Ovemar, whose children were three and five at the time. He found inspiration in watching the way they incorporated devices into their play, using FaceTime to play hide and seek, or incorporating a phone screen into a Lego cinema.
“Kids were playing games, and there were [educational] CD-roms, but nobody was taking kids’ imaginative behaviours and need for freeform play into a digital space. Children are not afraid to use technology, they don’t wait for instructions, they just start seeing what they can do. To them it’s a toy like any other toy. You should be able to muck around and do weird things. You can do whatever you like with your Barbie dolls so why shouldn’t we support that in a digital toy?”
Learning to keep shop with Toca Store.
Toca Boca’s games are infused with a very Scandinavian egalitarianism: Lindgren and Ovemar joke that when they were growing up in 1970s Sweden, boys and girls were dressed so identically, you couldn’t tell them apart. During playtesting, kids are asked if they see a character who is like them – often with surprising results. The games avoid giving kids a binary choice between characters of opposite gender, instead offering three or more diverse, appealingly weird characters. The studio’s visual style differs from game to game but generally lands somewhere between the super-cute Japanese style and a more naturalistic Western approach.
“I would say Sweden has an important history of believing in play and understanding its importance, with what we did with playgrounds in the early 70s and the proud tradition of creating children’s culture with public service TV and radio,” says Ovemar. “In kids’ everyday lives in Sweden, play is valued very highly, and in education too,” agrees Lindgren – something that will hardly be news to British parents inundated with jealousy-inducing articles about Scandinavian forest schools and Swedish parents’ amazing work-life balance.
The Toca Boca studio is located opposite a nursery school just outside central Stockholm, and their young neighbours are sometimes invited to be enthusiastic playtesters. Littler kids desire different things from a digital toy than older ones, explains Lindgren. “Younger kids are content exploring and being in the moment, enjoying tactile play, while some of the older kids might want to develop a strategy, show off skills. Younger kids love repetition and being familiar with what they are doing, where older kids want something more, something new each time. We try to cater to both.”
Recent studies on children’s screen time have shown that it’s the nature and quality of it that matters more than the minutes. Parents tend to feel guilty if they don’t stick to strict limits, but engaging with what kids are watching or playing can turn iPad time into family time rather than a solo activity. William Sampson, a transplant from the UK working at Toca Boca as a producer, discovered the company through playing its games with his kids, who have now spent most of their childhoods in Sweden. “Playing games with my kids is quality time if we play together and they can talk about what they’re doing,” he says. “But if they’re sitting in front of a screen for six hours straight I wouldn’t be happy about it. I have fond memories of playing Toca Pet Doctor with my youngest daughter – she would make up stories about the animals and tell different tales about what she was doing. Understanding your child and the way that they play is a lot of fun.”
‘A playful mind is important’ … Toca Boca’s Stockholm studio. Photograph: Toca Boca
Like all small children, my two-year-old adores trains, so Toca Train has been a hit. We sit together to play – I help him stop the train at the station and he decides which passengers to board and what cargo to accept (giant pumpkins preferred, bottles of milk unilaterally rejected). He’s still at an age when anything that diverts my attention from him must be vanquished, so attempting to get him to watch me play Pokémon or Forza results in shouts of “NONO PIKACHU, MAMA!”. Finding something we can enjoy together, and a rainy-day activity that has nothing to do with Peppa Pig, has been a real pleasure. I get a lot out of watching him play, whether it’s with virtual trains or his wooden kitchen.
“Having a playful mind is really important,” says Ovemar. “Being successful in life is not just about applying what you learn in school. Being creative, being playful, that’s one of the most important skills for your future. A lot of innovation comes from daring to think differently, from not being serious. Play will make you successful.”