Enter the PlayMatrix

Long ago, in the dark times of broadcast-only TV, there was limited children's programming: a few shows sufficed for all kids. With the arrival of multi-channel cable, kids channels brought the opportunity for age-targeted program blocks, fostering two dimensions of consideration: content and age.

The Internet added interactivity to the equation, and now the pace of change is accelerating -- mobile, tablets, wearable technology, increasing interaction between digital and physical play. With each new dimension, the considerations multiply for anyone creating content, products or experiences for kids, and they recombine in new and unique combinations.

That's how PlayCollective came to develop the "PlayMatrix" -- six primary factors that combine in different ways to define and distinguish kid-centric development. Think of it as a Rubik's Cube or, as I called a similar concept when writing for the Fred Rogers Center, a "Rubric's Cube."

The PlayMatrix can be formative or diagnostic. It's an essential development tool, but can also be used to reverse engineer a struggling concept to find misalignments.

The PlayMatrix also applies to essential research. In fact, it's perfectly designed to frame many questions we need to answer right now, as we transition from research models developed for understanding TV to gain insight into kids' digital, interactive, mobile immersive world.

The six elements are:

Audience -- for what age and stage are you developing your concept? In the monolithic era, too often something was aimed at "2 - 99."

Pedagogy is the philosophy or method that guides your storytelling or instructive approach. Telling parents what you believe about how your target audience grows and learns, and how you've incorporated that into your work, is far safer and more honest than predicting or promising learning outcomes.

Platform goes beyond technology. Books, art supplies, toys and play in the "real world" are platforms, too!

Form factor is distinct from platform, though in some ways a subset. Developing for a smartphone is different from a tablet is different from an eReader is different from a laptop. Console controller games are different from motion-based games are different from portable games are different from game apps. Similar distinctions occur in physical toys and game, too.

Content is perhaps the most obvious -- the stories you're telling, the curriculum you're teaching, the themes woven into play.

Context is the who, when, where, why and how of play: indoor or outdoor, site specific

Since Rubik's Cubes are all about aligning the correct sides and edges, it's no surprise that the most interesting research questions occur at the intersection of two or more PlayMatrix elements. For example, at the intersection of context, content and pedagogy and with growing interconnection between home and school, how do kids play differently with the same content in a classroom versus free play? What design elements facilitate both or to make each unique but equally beneficial?

The PlayMatrix is just a framework -- a set of foundational elements and questions. It transcends the moment, so as new technologies emerge, or as we learn more about child development, or as we discover new ways of playful teaching and learning, they can be "hung" on the framework. Content and product creators can keep twisting the cube to find new combinations and concepts to engage, educate and entertain.

We use the PlayMatrix with creators of cross- and trans-media, products and even curriculum. It helps to connect industry and academia, and can be an evaluation tool for educators choosing platforms and content for their classrooms.

All this is prologue to the big news: a brand new approach from PlayCollective for research surrounding the PlayMatrix.

Most of today's research happens in one of two contexts: academia or industry. Each has unique methods and culture, benefits and drawbacks. But, for the purposes of foundational research, neither one is especially satisfying.

Academic research tends to take a long time. Results are usually reported in writing that is obfuscating to lay readers, in expensive or restricted academic journals. Frequently, the goal is to illuminate theory more than real-world practice.

Industry research is usually done on a fast track, but typically addresses very specific questions unlikely to have broader resonance. But since it was probably paid for on a proprietary basis, no one else can see it, anyways. Even if something interesting does emerge, the industry funding is likely to taint perceptions about the study's objectivity.

Soon, PlayCollective will launch what we believe to be the first Kickstarter for basic research. Our first proposed study is at the intersection of platform, form factor and content -- how children's play changes when using a physical toy -- Lego bricks, for example -- versus the digital (software or app) manifestation of the same toy. Do they approach a task differently or design in unique ways?

The research design will be transparent. As a reward for giving, we can offer access to the study in process -- either live in our PlayLab or streamed worldwide. For both, we'll have experts providing "play by play."

Supporters will get access to the results -- at various levels, the topline or full results, via webinar in writing, or a personalized briefing.

Our "stretch goals" are more studies, to which givers will also have access. And top-level givers can even work with us to structure questions -- as long as they don't disrupt the focus, clarity and independence.

We'll have levels affordable to everyone from student to corporation; companies that can't afford bespoke research can get insight from our studies.

Watch this space (or, more specifically http://ift.tt/1zOfOdw). We are, needless to say, very excited about this, and look forward to your participation and ideas, about the PlayMatrix or the crowdfunded studies.

This article appeared originally in Kidscreen.

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