I don't know about you, but I still find it shocking to see toddlers walking around with smartphones. Instead of scoffing, Steve Cozzolino saw opportunity. At a fateful dinner party, Cozzolino noticed that eight out of nine children were playing around on some kind of digital device (including a set of 1-year-old twins on an iPhone). At the time, he was in the process of creating Nickster, a physical toy set (inspired by his son Nick) on a Kickstarter mission, which now consists of a physical toy set and a themed app to teach kids basic principles of building, matching shapes and counting. But it was in these digital mavericks—who could barely walk but could tap and swipe—that Cozzolino realized that saw the future of play: In order to be engaging and relevant to today's youth, he needed to create something with a digital component. "What's most unique and innovative about the Nickster Playland app is that it connects children back to physical toys," Cozzolino says. "It encourages them to not just play in the digital world, but also have fun with their toys."
The toys and app don't just stop teaching after a few lessons. "What's nice about the app is that it allows us to build upon the toys by creating an endless number of color and shape combinations and added levels of difficulty, all opportunities to learn more," Cozzolino says. "For example, the Sequence Train toy is 1-4 while the Sequence Train app is 1-5, 1-10 and the complete alphabet." To make the process a little easier, he consulted his in-house tester/designer, Nick. "His drawings of the playground and homes, the Nickster world, were especially inspiring when we developed the animation that then became the story and framework behind the app," Cozzolino says. "He helped storyboard the idea of the animals taking a trip from the country to the city to play in the Nickster playground—what he does most often. He helped name each Wagonimal character, tested the first prototypes (we learned quite a lot from the ones he broke), showed me which colors he liked best for the toys and had fun with the first production parts. He—along with friends—played with multiple prototype builds of the app so we were able to test, evaluate and make the app better."
Anticipating what children are going to do (in general) is a feat in itself. How could someone create an app with the main goal of helping the user interact with the physical toys? It sounds simple. But anticipating how anyone (let alone a toddler) is going to interact with something can be near impossible. Keeping their attention is another feat in itself. "The challenge for the app was marrying the aesthetics and standard of quality set by the 3D animation while keeping the activities simple and age appropriate," Cozzolino says. "We elected to develop the app as 3D visuals rather than 2D graphics, which I believe will enhance the child's connection to our toys as well as help enable the app to stand apart from others. By having multiple activities (some more advanced), the app will maintain a child's interest longer by giving them options to choose from and even engage older children."
There you have it. A father's ode to a modern educational playtime. Read more about the Nickster campaign and contribute here.