Empathy in Play

Interview: Phil So - Play and Empathy

Phil So: Freelance Play and Toy Designer - Check out his incredible website: https://www.mrphilso.com/

All Circles: So tell us how you got into toy and play design?

Phil: Well, I had a couple of projects in school that had a playful and charming aspect to them which initially got me interested in the space, and as I began to look for jobs I found myself in a couple of different companies that were oriented around either education or play. I started at a company called Little Robot Friends where we made educational robotics for kids, and then I later joined Sago Mini. They make apps and toys for kids and have this really great approach to play where they empower kids to experiment, and feel free and see what would happen if I were to try this and aren’t required to ask permission or require assistance from their parents - so something that kids would really enjoy, but also parents feel good about giving to their kids.

It's this balance between the two. Satisfying both children and parents with a great product. And after a few years with this experience I decided to begin working for myself as a freelance designer and consultant still primarily working in the toy industry. I really like using the design thinking process in this space: What would a kid like to do? What makes something fun? I like investing my energy in this.

AC: Do you have any advice (as the designer of the toys our kids are playing with) on how we can or should be engaging in play with our kids?

P: I don't know if you've ever done an improv class but the whole idea of “Yes, and..” Sometimes you can be in a mood where it's just like, Oh, what you’re doing doesn't make sense! I mean I get it, if you finish a day of work and you're kind of in this practically minded problem solving state, being confronted with your child playing can all of a sudden feel never ending or pointless. And I think energy should be invested in trying to keep this in check - and maybe it doesn’t require as much effort as you’d expect.  

So when a kid says, “Hey, this is my new friend”, and it’s a sock, “and he’s going on an adventure with his other friend”, and it’s a pencil, rather than questioning the logic, the goal would be to try and wonder with your child where this could all lead. Asking questions like where are they going is an open ended prompt, similar to improv where you recognize this initial cool little idea and then see where it can go.

AC: That’s great advice, resisting the urge to impose a certain structure or logic that we maybe think needs to exist in play, and encouraging them to creatively take things further.

So in terms of engaging with your child in play, or staying engaged when you’re maybe feeling like it’s boring or unproductive, I think a little empathy goes a long way.

P: Kids respond well to it. When you ask them these questions, “where are they going to go?”, “Why are they so excited?”, “What kind of food do they like?” they really start thinking and might say, “I think he likes pizza.” “Wow, what kind of toppings do you think he likes?” and they might say “pencil shavings and crayons”, and if you can resist the urge to say, “what the heck, what are you talking about kid, you know you shouldn’t be eating that stuff”, and instead say, “wow, that would be a colourful meal”, kids will continue to let their imagination run wild which is so important. 

So in terms of engaging with your child in play, or staying engaged when you’re maybe feeling like it’s boring or unproductive, I think a little empathy goes a long way. Actually realizing the play is interesting to them, and wondering yourself what about the activity is interesting? So if you’re playing with a ball and bouncing it off a wall and the child is excited because they’re seeing how high it goes, ask yourself the same question: How high could I get this ball? Could we kick it, or use a stick? Yeah, let’s see how high this can go! And now you might be more engaged than before because you have the same curiosity.

AC: That’s genius! Rather than faking your interest you are discovering something in the play that you’re genuinely interested in - almost seems like advice that could be applied to more than one area in life.

Phil, this has been great. Thanks for sharing with us. 

P: Yeah. My pleasure. I think what you guys are doing sounds really great. Happy to talk.