By Andy Russell

Picture for a moment the first thing you ever constructed, designed, prototyped, or invented. There’s a pretty good chance that you built your idea using toys like Lego, Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs, or perhaps, to your parents’ dismay, a mix of all of the above (good luck getting Play-Doh out of those bricks).

These are the best kinds of toys — they not only entertain, but ultimately empower kids to design and share their own imaginative inventions. The virtues of great toys remain the same, even in the digital age. The main objective should be to inspire and scaffold imagination, just as LEGO did for generations of kids. To that end, here’s what to look for in a toy that encourages creative play.


While there are hundreds of new toys and games released each year, every one of them is rooted in core play patterns that comes from basic human behaviors. The not-so-great toys (Pet Rocks) are inherently limited to one or two play patterns (collecting and… well, collecting). But the best toys, like LEGOs, appeal to a variety of play patterns (modeling, collecting, storytelling, invention) over a range of ages and developmental stages. These are called “grow-with-me” toys because how kids play with the toys adapts over time with their cognitive development, from DUPLOs to LEGOs to MindStorms.

Take, for example, doll play. Dolls and action figures are some of the most popular toys because they’re (sometimes quite literally) vehicles for so many different play patterns. Some kids collect dolls while others use them for storytelling, battling, or nurture play. Looking closely at kids’ storytelling with dolls and action figures, one might observe that children tell incredible stories through narrative play at a young age, but struggle to share those stories through more formal disciplines like creative writing in class. There’s a gap between what the child imagines and what his or her tools (toys) currently afford.

For toy designers, this insight is invaluable, and can only be reached by watching kids’ natural play patterns. What can we create to help kids bridge this gap and realize their imagination in a way that’s more easily shared with friends and family? The goal here shouldn’t be to replace the child’s imagination, but to spark it with creative tools.


Traditionally, toys and games offer very different approaches to play. Toys are kid-driven, tangible catalysts for imagination. Games, on the other hand, represent a collection of rules and challenges for achieving a pre-determined objective. Until recently, video games (and their digital platforms) have been similarly limited, but with the advent of mobile touch-screen devices like the iPad that allow for digital play, these two worlds are colliding to create tangible, kinesthetic, mobile play experiences for kids.

For years, electronics have been stuffed into toys to make them more empowering, but it did the opposite – in many cases, it made them more limiting. But platforms like the iPad allow the toy to be stuffed into the electronics to create hands-on, open-ended, and narrative play experiences that not only replicate traditional toys, but also infuse them with digital capabilities. In this scenario, play patterns are virtually limitless.


Toys for creative play are not “all-in-one” experiences, but rather components of a larger ecosystem – catalysts for an open-ended world. As such, designers break down their big ideas into small pieces that feed the ecosystem – independent tools that can be flexed, torqued, and manipulated (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally) into new and unique creations.

This brings us to two important distinctions between kids and adults. First, most adults are capable of juggling a variety of complex concepts at the same time. Young children, on the other hand, generally lack the cognitive ability to multitask or follow multi-step sequences. So for kids, it’s important to give them the chance to break down complex processes and concepts into their fundamentals – to create “primitives” as a programmer might say, that are more easily grasped and manipulated.

These primitives can also serve another role: story starters to spark the imagination. Which brings us to the second important distinction between kids and adults: some adults like blank canvases because of their endless possibilities. They’re inspired by the fact that they can create just about anything. For many kids, on the other hand those endless possibilities, at least at first, can be more inhibiting than inspiring.

The biggest hurdle in designing creative play is finding the right level of granularity. Too few components might make for either a conceptually complex or blunt tool. Too many pieces or too much flexibility could overwhelm or under-stimulate.


Would you consider this a “grow-with-me toy” that’s accessible to younger users and older kids? How can older kids’ masterpieces be used to encourage creativity in your younger users? Might those older “experts” in turn become teachers – inspiring a cycle of creative learning and a whole new generation of playful inventors to follow?

Andy Russell is a toy and game producer and a co-founder of Launchpad Toys, a San Francisco-based educational media startup building digital tools that empower kids to create, learn, and share their ideas through play. The company’s first product, Toontastic, is a creative learning tool for the iPad that empowers kids to draw and animate their own cartoons and share them with friends and family around the world.

  • Anonymous

    One dynamic that seems to work against manufacturers designing toys that nurture imagination is that their very protean nature makes the purchase of additional toys less necessary. In contrast closed-ended toys by their very nature offer a specific set of story-lines and play-dynamics and so will become obsolete sooner as the player tires of that specific story-line. Witness how Lego in recent years has proliferated numerous themed-toys around movie and original characters and stories. They certainly realize the value of their original open-ended line of blocks and gears and wheels in cultivating imagination. But they can sell far more closed-ended lines.

    Also, I have a different experience regarding adult and children’s reaction to blank slate. I have found the opposite to be true. Adults are more comfortable with more structured games because their years of acculturation to rules, principles, implicit mores, etc have conditioned them to expect structure. Youth in contrast have far fewer expectations and assumptions and value judgments to constrain their imagination and to incur anxiety. 

    • This is a great article… especially after reading The Creativity Crisis by Paul Bronson and Ashley Merryman!
      We agree with Peter though.  We have also noticed that children are better with blank slates than adults.  They seem to view everything as a blank slate actually. The younger they are the more so…  A small child when given, say, a superman doll might play with it as though it were a small baby or a scuba diver.  They don’t seem to be confined at all to the fact that the toy depicts a man or more specifically a super hero. 🙂

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor