Björn Jeffery: Why Play Doesn’t Need To Be Educational [PSFK 2014]

The CEO of digital toy company Toca Boca talks about why play in itself is a good thing.


PSFK is excited to host Björn Jeffery, the CEO of Toca Boca, a play studio that makes digital toys for kids. Björn will speak at PSFK CONFERENCE 2014 on April 11th about how he started a new kind of toy company that outsold Disney in the App Store in less than three years.

In advance of his stage appearance, we had a chat with Björn about Toca Boca and the new way kids play in the digital age.

What inspired you to start Toca Boca?

My co-founder Emil Ovemar and I were working together at Bonnier R&D; in Sweden, working with various project within future media. We saw how the launch of the iPad changed kids access to touchscreen devices at home. Smartphones had previously been lent to kids frequently, but the iPad changed the direct access by being a device that was shared by the whole family. This made us look at what was available in the App Store for kids, and we quickly realized that it was very skewed towards gaming and books. Kids, however, play in many different ways and games is just one of them. This in turn led us to the insight that we should be making digital toys instead – products that you can’t win or lose with. And that’s how it started.

How are kids playing differently today?

They are playing in new ways given all the new opportunities available. But the fundamental patterns of what children like has not really changed that much, even if people often think so. It takes much, much longer to change things that are on such a primal level. So what we do is that we offer digital toys that lends classic themes and play patterns, but we adapt them to the touch screen and create new kinds of play experiences.

kids-play-ipads

How important is it to maintain a balance between analog and digital play?

The two aren’t mutually exclusive in any way, and I think a balance between all types of play is a healthy way of looking at things. All kids are different and have different interests, and as a parent you often know what they are. The important thing here is what is being done – not where. I think the notion of screen time is a fundamentally flawed concept since it doesn’t address the wide variety of things that can be done with a screen. You can watch TV, read a book, learn a language or play with your siblings. I can’t see it making sense to put all of those activities in one bucket.

What insights have you gained while creating these apps that can be applied to the field of education as a whole?

Well, the biggest insight is that everything doesn’t have to be educational and trying to force that into every product is a losing strategy. We make toys that kids like to play with, because we believe play has a great value in its own right. In a time where extracurricular activities match up with parents stress over their kids not succeeding in life, I think the most fundamental thing to go back to is what kids themselves actually want to do. What are the interested in? Ask not what you can teach them, but what they want to learn. That lesson could – and should – be applied to a lot of education in general.

Toca Boca designs toys without gender in mind. Why have you made this choice, and how does it affect your products?

We design products to be gender neutral, which actually requires taking gender in consideration to a high degree. We need to remove stereotypes in order to not exclude any kids that might be interested in what we make. We test all our apps with both boys and girls and we know that they work for both. There are differences between the two sometimes, but the differences between individual interests and personalities are often much greater.

What’s one thing we can look forward to (without giving too much away) in your talk at PSFK CONFERENCE 2014?

I’m going to explain how we created and developed Toca Boca through research and taking the long road in creating a brand that works for kids all over the world. And one that managed to outsell Disney in the App Store in December after less than three years since conception.

Thanks Björn!

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