Over the summer, Pok Pok, a company "incubated" in Snowman -- the studio behind games and -- released a new way for kids to experience playtime. Pok Pok Playroom is a games app for kids which was created with the help of educators, occupational therapists and sensory experts. As families get back into the groove of a new school year, Pok Pok Playroom's suite of gentle games could be a helpful supplementary learning tool for parents and kids.
Pok Pok Playroom includes a collection of toys and activities that encourage cognitive and socio-emotional development, according to the team, with no winning or losing. In addition, the game -- meant for ages 2 to 6 -- can grow with the child as playtime changes. The app seeks to empower kids to take risks and feel accomplished when things come together for them, while rewarding them with play, not prizes.
The app includes colorful activities like a mix-and-match block game where kids can build dozens of different characters, a drawing pad, and a Busy Board packed with buttons, switches, bells and musical blobs. Pok Pok Playroom also has a section called Town, which might remind parents and caregivers of the physical rugs in classrooms covered in roads and buildings. And don't forget playing House, but like the rest of Pok Pok's toys, there's more to the game than meets the eye.
Pok Pok Playroom's most recent edition to its digital toy box is called Forest. The app update includes an expansive, natural forest environment packed with things to discover. Forest features a mindful introduction to nature, its lifecycles and weather patterns, accompanied by sounds recorded in a real Canadian forest.
Before the app launched, Pok Pok designers Esther Huybreghts and Mathijs Demaeght told CNET via email that they weren't setting out to create a new children's game, but to climb out of a creative rut while balancing two young kids of their own. When their son James turned 2, they struggled to find something age-appropriate in the App Store for him to play.
"We didn't want anything too gamified, with levels to beat, menus to figure out or something that got him too riled up," the designers said via email. "We worried he'd get stuck all the time and feel discouraged not being able to play independently. That's when we decided we would build it ourselves."
Pok Pok Playroom aims to present playtime in a peaceful way with handmade art and gentle sounds for a calming and exploratory experience.
"When kids enter Pok Pok Playroom they are free to explore, to step outside of their comfort zones, to think outside of the box and to experiment without any fear of failing," Pok Pok CEO Melissa Cash said.
Huybreghts said that instead of in-game prizes and rewards, curiosity is rewarded with more play. I found this to be the case when I tried out the app: The game's highly tactile nature seamlessly urges exploration. Even as an adult, after a few interactions in Town, I was eager to see what other Easter eggs awaited.
"It's really important for kids to feel empowered to lead the way and be able to follow their noses, and a big part of that is being in control," Cash said. "Each toy we make lets kids be completely in control of their own play."
Toymakers for a new generation
The Pok Pok team worked hard to create an accessible, inclusive game experience that can grow with a child. In both play mechanics and the app's presentation, kids can fill in the blanks and tell their own stories, instead of an adult doing so. The game was also designed with accessibility in mind, so young players don't get "stuck" or need to ask for help.
Pok Pok Playroom also aimed to remove language barriers. Any characters the player interacts with will speak in a gibberish language, akin to what one might hear in a Sims game.
"We hope kids will not only see themselves in Pok Pok Playroom, but also their neighbors, families and friends," Cash said. "That's why we try to highlight people of many genders, races, abilities and family structures. We also try to break gender stereotypes wherever we can, and feature a lot of women in typically male-dominated job sectors, such as female construction workers."
Cash said that Pok Pok Playroom aims to show kids the beauty in people's differences while providing diverse content that can spark conversations between kids and caregivers.
Though some parents worry about exposing their young ones to too much screen time, Cash said the new app is meant to work like traditional playroom items such as blocks, puzzles and other toys. Huybreghts likened Pok Pok Playroom to how an adult might remember their favorite teddy bear or set of blocks, and the endless possibilities the toy offered.
"Just like trodding around the backyard with nothing but a stick on a summer afternoon, the play itself is the reward," Huybreghts said. "How often I've found my toddlers inspired by something they saw in Pok Pok Playroom, to then apply to something in real life, and vice versa. Grabbing the iPad, a sheet of paper and the art tools, to then get inspired by what they found in the app."
In addition, Pok Pok Playroom offers kids a healthy, safe way to become accustomed to technology, according to Cash.
Pok Pok Playroom is available on iPhone and iPad. After a 14-day free trial, you can subscribe for $4 a month, or $30 annually, with no in-app purchases or ads.
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