It's really important for children to have the opportunity to play outdoors and develop an understanding of how to move their bodies in different ways, as well as life skills like risk assessment and creative problem solving. But outdoor play comes with inherent risks and the potential for kids to get messy or get hurt, which makes it difficult for some early childhood educators to support outdoor play with the children in their care.
What were we building?
Outside Play needed to educate early childhood educators (ECEs) about the benefits and risks of outdoor play in an interactive fashion that would allow for the tool to sit comfortably alongside the older Go Play Outside journey for parents and caregivers. There were a few key goals:
Provide ECEs with knowledge and tools that would equip them to support outdoor play for children entrusted to their care
Create an engaging and interactive experience that accommodated ECEs with a range of English language skills
Integrate research tools that would allow for important data collection
Who were the stakeholders?
As the Digital Lab's Product Lead, I had the privilege of working closely with Dr. Mariana Brussoni and Christina Han of the Brussoni Lab to understand the core requirements for Outside Play. The Brussoni Lab also connected us with a group of experts in early childhood education who were able to provide us not only with fantastic insights into the information that should be encoded into the journey but also how ECEs were most likely to be interacting with Outside Play.
Outside Play was created with the help of Digital Lab's in-house design and development team, and with the guidance of many early childhood educators who donated their time and expertise to provide feedback and star in informative videos.
Kicking things off!
Building on the previous Go Play Outside tool, I knew that it was important to create a branching journey that allowed for ECEs to make their own decisions about outdoor play. As with Go Play Outside, at each decision point, the ECE should be provided with an outcome based on their decision along with information and tools that helps improve their understanding of outdoor play. Beyond this core branching functionality, however, I was given free rein to get creative and come up with an interesting way of representing this journey.
As always, being essentially given carte blanche means that I immediately had decision paralysis, so of course the best way to overcome that is to just start in with an idea, any idea! At the Digital Lab, the tradition is to always come up with at least three different ideas for every pitch, a safe idea that meets every requirement and is aesthetically pleasing but essentially inoffensive, a wild idea that includes at least one new innovation, and an idea that falls somewhere in between the other two. I've found this to be very useful for overcoming the horror of a blank page while also providing for an excellent jumping-off point to open discussions with any project partner. In the case of Outside Play, it sparked some excellent conversations with our expert panel that led to a few rounds of iterative proposals culminating in a green light to start production of an interactive choose your own adventure story with live footage of real children playing in real childcare centres at the beginning of 2020.
Let's get going!
To get everything chugging along smoothly, I consulted with our Lead Developer to ensure that I wasn't asking for the impossible given the timeline, handed my wireframes off to my graphic designer, and started plotting a beautiful gantt chart that accounted for development resources only being freed up later in the year towards summer and front loaded the media production, and worked towards regular milestone checkins with our stakeholders.
So far so good! We leapt into action and begin scouting locations, reviewing scripts, and making casting plans for adorable little toddler actors. We also started to do even more research into how exactly our cast of cute kids would need to act, and that's where we ran into our first set of obstacles.
At the end of 2019, I had spent my Christmas holidays babysitting some very adorable but very opinionated toddlers, and as scripts began to be finalised, I began to have a lot of concerns around the practicalities of attempting to direct very young children in a series of videos that required them to perform the same set of actions in an organic but consistent way while also occasionally falling off a tree. On purpose. To get around this challenge, we started working with our panel of experts to revise the scripts and build in a little more improv and a little less specificity so that we could better accommodate natural outdoor play behaviour from our cast of children.
Problem solved! And then... if you're following along with the timeline, the beginning of 2020 also marked the beginning of everybody's favourite coronavirus pandemic. One day we were just busily making our pre-production preparations, and the next we were no longer allowed to film in-person with children or ECEs without an enormous amount of paperwork that nobody was entirely certain about anyway. But even without our adorable cast of toddlers, realistic videos of children playing outdoors was an absolutely crucial part of Outside Play, so I needed to come up with a new solution. One option would be to create realistic animations to replace the live footage, but neither our timeline nor our resources would stretch to the amount of animation we would need. And then it hit me... Space Jam.
The magic of Space Jam lay in the combination of live action with animation, and while we couldn't fully animate everything, maybe we could animate just the characters over a background footage of real childcare centres! The more I thought through this, the more I liked the idea; we wouldn't have to worry about children getting hurt fake-falling while climbing trees, this was a very Covid-safe solution, and we wouldn't have to worry about not being able to find a diverse cast! We pitched the idea to Dr. Brussoni, she loved it, and we were finally off to the races!
With that huge looming problem solved, everything else went off smoothly... or about as smoothly as technical projects always go. We were able to film some of our early childhood educators outdoors and others over Zoom, and our design team started producing amazing animated characters beautifully composited onto the locations we'd picked out previously. We mapped out a character diversity matrix to ensure that we weren't allowing our in-built biases to influence our character creation, and worked with our expert panel to ensure that the proportion of the children were realistic and weren't skewing towards Disney-style cuteness, with huge eyes and big heads.
As the video production was getting into full swing, we also began development on the platform. From a technical perspective, a few key considerations include:
Questions asked at the beginning and end of the journey that would be used to personalise the final informational package
Responsiveness on desktop and tablet
Support for multiple languages (English and French to start, with more to follow)
Ability to edit content
To accommodate the need for localisation and the ability for all text content to be easily editable, we extracted the text from the videos and displayed them in overlays reminiscent of old school RPGs. This also had the benefit of reducing video length, which helped the videos to load faster for a much smoother experience. A content management system was also built allowed for almost every component of the journey to be edited so that Outside Play could easily be maintained in the long-term. The modular journey design also allowed for users to easily break the experience over multiple sessions, and accommodated any language changes that occurred in the middle of the experience.
Where are we now?
The launch of Outside Play also initiated an in-depth randomised controlled trial research study that will evaluate behaviour change in over 300 early childhood educators, administrators, and licensing officers. If you're curious, you can find the detailed research protocol here!