Inside the business of children's digital media

Toca talks: Why freedom is best for kids and apps


There’s something about Scandinavia.

The Northern European region has bred such blockbuster brands as Ikea, Lego, Minecraft and Toca Boca, the latter of which currently has eight apps in the iTunes US top 40 paid iPhone category – which is as much as Disney and Nickelodeon combined.

Toca Boca’s Jens Peter de Pedro, who is creative director of stories and consumer products for the Sweden-based studio, believes the key ingredient to his company’s success – and that of his counterparts – rests in the ability to organize and infuse freedom into its products. Here, de Pedro elaborates on his presentation at last week’s iKids conference in New York on why children’s digital platforms must learn to loosen up.

How does the Scandinavian view of childhood promote freedom in play?
We trust children with freedom to a larger extent. For instance, no grades are given until age 12, which I would say is proof that we trust children longer to learn without threats. School itself starts later, at age seven. There are little academics before then. The goal for a child at seven is to be able to write his or her name and to know that reading is done form left to right. Other than that, it’s all play, and some exercises are meant to foster students’ sense of trust and safety in each other.

We also hold a very romantic view of nature which relates to our view of children. We believe in our hearts that the forest is the ultimate backdrop for childhood. Nature is there for children to explore and develop independence. Scandinavia has many forest schools. These are preschools that have only a small indoor space that the children spend a minimal amount of time in, only really during extreme weather conditions. Other than that children are dropped off, picked up, eat, play and sleep outdoors. In Sweden, there are about 200 schools like this, which means every larger town has one or two.

What common themes are threaded across Minecraft, Lego and Toca Boca apps?
These are all three Scandinavian brands that are at the top of the charts in their respective categories. This is no coincidence, as these toys and games trust children’s capabilities and provide them with the opportunity to act freely inside well-designed systems. Björk once said “I tried to organize freedom, how Scandinavian of me,” and this is also precisely what Lego, Minecraft and Toca Boca do. We organize freedom.

How is this notion of free play woven into the development process of Toca Boca apps?
We make digital toys; we don’t decide how you should play with them. We give you no goals or time constraints, nor do we reward certain behavior with points. Where many other companies come up with a so-so toy and build elaborate rules around it, we just keep working at making the world’s best digital toys and then trust children with the freedom to do as they please with them.

But do kids need some rules when they play?
Yes, children need rules. All humans do. That’s why in the absence of rules the first thing children do is make some up. And that’s where the most important learning comes from if you are looking to foster children that will take part in a democratic society. Play is the most democratic activity because it only works if everyone is happy. You can’t force someone to play.

Would you ever consider changing your open-play app model?
I can’t see we will ever change it. It’s who we are. But maybe in the future we will create products or environments that are so open that children will be able organize themselves and create their own play experiences with them. Perhaps they themselves will choose to create something that resembles games with rules and points. Who would we be to stop them?

What’s next for Toca Boca – how can you translate freedom of play to the physical world?
We are working on some physical things and have already done a few clothing items such as a socks collaboration with Happy Socks. On tap are smaller new things that are for playing, too. We will try to make quality stuff that kids can play with freely, but I can’t say anything more at the moment. In terms of apps, our goal is to launch six more this year, with the first one coming soon.

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  • Seref

    What kind of rankings are you talking about? US, Finland? Overall, kids, games? Which Top 40? Either way, are you sure it has more than Disney and Dora combined? Please check your facts.

  • Jens Peter de Pedro

    This is US, iPhone, paid, kids. This past Saturday. Cheers – Jens

  • adach

    My daughter (5 y.o.) and I we are great funs of Toca Boca. We just love it! And she creates some new ideas about, new stories. Creative game. I didn’t know it’s from Scandinavia. Best wishes for your team – and we are looking for a new stuff :)

  • scotttraylor

    Well done JP. Great mantra to follow: “organize freedom”


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