We set out to investigate the special Danish method for designing play experiences, so we had a talk with Karen Feder, Design School Kolding’s Manager of the LAB for Play & Design. As the manager for Play & Design at Denmark’s second-largest design school, Karen Feder has gained extensive experience in describing the Danish method of creating play adventures.
A few years ago, Karen Feder and her team launched a research project in collaboration with the LEGO Foundation and the Capital of Children office in Billund, Denmark. The goal of the research project was to create a better understanding of what characterises the Danish approach to play.
DANISH™: How do Danish companies such as LEGO, PlayAlive and MONSTRUM incorporate play into their solutions?
Karen Feder: Danish companies are particularly good at focusing on the actual play experience. They design a product in which the focus is on understanding the product’s ability to create play experiences when it is in the hands of children. The children’s experiences count, not the product itself.
Danish companies are aware that the toy first becomes a toy when the child actually puts it into play. The children have the ability to create play out of a given product, while the designers have the responsibility to create the right settings in which the children can do so. I believe these are some things that are characteristic of the way in which Danish companies incorporate play into their solutions.
DANISH™: What is the distinctive Danish method of designing play experiences?
KF: It is clear that there is a special set of values and that a lot of research goes into the way in which we design play experiences in Denmark. Our intention is that the play experience must matter for the child. The child must get something out of the play experience.
In Scandinavia, there is a tradition of user-centred design, and I believe that tradition is a way of putting the child first. The companies typically focus on the play experience and ensuring that the quality of their offering depends on not only the quality of the product but also, and more importantly, the quality of the play activity it supports. The companies were not conscious of this aspect before our research study, but it turned out that it was the general approach.
DANISH™: Why is play so important?
KF: Play can aid both the physical and mental development of children and grown-ups. Building cognitive and social skills is another positive effect of playing. When we look at Danish companies, we see that they regard play as a natural part of human development—we cannot develop into complete human beings if we do not have the opportunity to play.
We see a bit of the same pattern among our students at Design School Kolding. If our students get the opportunity to play in their design processes, they come up with new ideas and new ways of viewing the world—and the same thing happens with children. They develop.
Creating great products for play starts with considering the play experience, so the product becomes the result of the experience you want the product to support and not the other way around.
DANISH™: What is the biggest challenge in designing play experiences?
KF: The companies have a hard time putting themselves into the child’s place. It is difficult to know what children want and to understand them and how they see the world.
For designers, developing with help from children comes more naturally because user empathy and play are built-in elements of the design process. However, involving children directly in the process is a very important aspect of designing for play because empathy can support—but not replace—actual user involvement.
DANISH™: What does the future of play look like?
KF: I think we will see further user involvement when developing play solutions. Children are not going to be designing, but they will be a bigger part of the development process. Then we will get better at being inspired by kids because it will allow us to create even better products.
Another aspect of the future of play is the fusion of the digital realm and the physical world. We will see even more of the capabilities of this fusion. Then, I hope we will get better at prioritising play in everyday life. In this way, we can still be harmonic people who develop in a positive way.
DANISH™: Why does everyone look to Denmark, when it comes to play and learning? Indeed, what makes our approach to play so typically Danish?
KF: Playing creates joy, but also provides development and learning opportunities, and in Denmark, we especially like to connect playing and learning. Our approach to playing is characterised by the idea that playing just for the sake of playing is a good thing – and maybe that is why playing also creates learning opportunities.
I guess our approach is typically Danish, because it originates in our views on how to raise children – they should be allowed to develop, to be curious and an opportunity to have a real childhood with loads of play time, rather than just preparing themselves for the serious business of becoming productive adults.