National Wildlife Federation
IC conducted a research and strategy project for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) that focused on identifying design opportunities at the unique intersection of technology, indoor-outdoor play, and engagement with nature.
Can smart toys help kids connect with nature?
We deployed a smart toy called Ubooly and a set of Ranger Rick app activities to 5-9 year olds and their parents in Philadelphia, PA, and Reston, VA, to understand their motivations, use, and context for outdoor play and engaging with nature.
We used the diary study method to collect their experiences with the toy using pictures, videos, drawings, and audio recordings.
We hosted a participatory design session at the office where kids collaborated with adults to design new toys for the future.
What’s an Ubooly?
The NWF created a set of Ranger Rick-themed play activities for Ubooly – a combination plushy toy and mobile phone application. The Ubooly toy is a fuzzy creature with an adorable voice and face that comes to life when you slide your phone into its pouch. NWF created the Ranger Rick activities to encourage kids to want to go outside and connect with nature. They wanted our help to understand how, if at all, their strategy was successful and what opportunities there might be for future smart toys.
Getting Down with Data
We had a treasure trove of videos, photos, descriptions, and design prototypes that we now had to make meaning out of. We locked ourselves in a room for a morning and watched, white boarded, and diagrammed our way through a deep analysis process.
Factors that Encourage Kids to Go Outside
We were thrilled to discover that most of our participants really enjoyed the activities. Kids were motivated to spend time in nature when presented with opportunities for physical activity, adventure and imagination, close-knit social interactions, and exploration of natural beauty. A surprising finding to us was how often the idea of safety came up. Participants liked to engage with nature in environments they deemed to be safe – safe from weather, danger, poisonous plants, and potentially dangerous animals. Also, kids were particularly interested in talking with animals.
Parents showed interest in connecting their kids with nature through facilitating outdoor activities or acting as nature companions to their kids, but sometimes seemed unsure of how to proceed.
Quotes from Parents:
“[My daughter] crawled inside the tent with Ubooly and made the loudest bird sounds and wolf calls she could. Her younger sister joined her and did it too. Lots of smiling and laughing…”
“It has been a pleasure to see my daughter take on a more rugged role (albeit she is a nature lover)…and complete tasks that diverge from her tidy princess-focused world.”
“I think they love nature because we love it and aren’t nervous about it.”
Design Principles for Technology + Outdoors + Nature
We distilled all of this great information into a set of 12 design principles for technology + the outdoors + nature, unique to the 5-9 year old age group and their caregivers.
The first 8 principles focus on motivations and social roles:
- Encourage Physical Activity: Incorporate features and activities that support physical activity; this motivates kids to go outside.
- Support Adventure & Imagination: Provide adventure scenarios as a prompt to motivate kids, but keep them open-ended to allow for kids’ imaginations to quickly take over.
- Connect to Close-knit Social Group: Connect kids to their close family and nearby friends through multi-participant or shareable experiences. This isn’t about large social networks, but the ones closest to home.
- Activate the Senses: Activate kids’ senses and help them build an appreciation for natural beauty through colors, sounds, and smells.
- Connect to Animals: Take advantage of kids’ inherent interests in animals through personification and human-to-animal / animal-to-human translation features.
- Create Perceptions of Safety: Create perceptions of safety to help kids feel comfortable outdoors and in nature.
- Consider Caregiver Roles: Provide support for multiple caregiver roles, from those who just want to nudge their kids to play, to those who want to be actively involved in playtime.
- Think about ways to Extend the Experience: Use game-like points, levels, and subscriptions to keep kids engaged beyond the initial novelty of a new toy.
The last 4 principles consider the design of technology for outdoor play:
- Protect Tech for Outdoor Play: Ensure a smart toy is protected from the elements and safe from theft or loss.
- Collect & Store: Incorporate features that allow kids to collect and store their experiences.
- Ensure Hands-free Play: Support hands-free play through wearable features and add-on products (e.g. carriers, satchels).
- Leverage all the Mobile ‘Senses’: Utilize all the features/functions of a mobile device such as camera, sound, geolocation, etc.