OK Play is a mobile app filled with activities and non-device play prompts that aim to spark creation, conversation, and connection. This isn’t an app just aimed at occupying your child (though it does), it also integrates lessons and games with valuable opportunities for discussion and social-emotional learning.
And the inspiration behind it? None other than Mister Rogers.
Origins of the OK Play App
Serial tech entrepreneur and OK Play co-founder Chris Ovitz says he drew inspiration from how Rogers had harnessed the power of television “to reach millions of families and talk to them about emotions, especially the tough ones,” he said in an interview with Business Insider.
Today, when droves of children sit passively, glazed over and addicted to their screens, Ovitz wanted to use screens, tablets, and smartphones for good, “to use the device to connect, to help people bond, to express, to problem solve, to teach kids important skills, and most of all, to use it to facilitate play with your children.”
Developed in part by Dr. Colleen Russo Johnson, co-founder and chief scientist at OK Play, the curriculum behind the app is focused on three main areas of development: social, emotional, and cognitive learning. While emotional development focuses on identifying, expressing and regulating a child’s feelings, “Cognitive development speaks to the ability to think about things in new ways, to be flexible, as well as building around focus and attention” she tells Parentology.
Aimed at preschoolers 3-6 years-old, Russo Johnson says this age group hits the “sweet spot,” not only for benefitting from the educational material about social-emotional learning, but for using the app as a bonding experience with their parents.
“I’m a media technology specialist and a new mom, so I feel the pressures that are on parents. It is just ridiculous and unfair. And I think people’s minds are open to using screens in new ways,” says Russo Johnson, who has a background in developmental psychology. “We did two big rounds of beta testing. And the number one thing that came out of both of them was the bonding experience. Maybe parents thought they already had a good parent/child bond, but didn’t realize how much deeper it could get. And a big part of that is because they’re playing together.”
The research-based activities are designed to encourage social and emotional growth by helping families establish a daily practice of bonding and sharing together through play. “Every single activity invites the parent in,” Russo Johnson explains. “All of the apps out there support this headspace where the child uses it as a solo activity, and while there’s definitely a need for that, it’s such a missed opportunity when the parent doesn’t feel like it’s there for them as well.”
How the Games Work
The app is easy to navigate. After signing up for an account, you and your child can browse through a wealth of content aimed at developing specific skills. Each day, there’s new content to peruse, and every activity has information for the parent, including tips, insights, and any materials that might be required. You can also add a particular activity to a list of favorites, and save your work to a “moments” section, where your child can describe what made that activity special.
Most of OK Play’s activities focus on nurturing social-emotional skills such as kindness, emotional regulation, and conflict resolution. This is dense material in any medium, but the content is delivered in short, digestible bits, making it easier for children, and parents, to absorb. There’s also a sense of fun cultivated into the app’s development, with programs called “Anger 101,” “Happy 101,” or “Sad 101.”
And if the parents ever feel lost? OK Play has resources available to navigate child and parent through the muddy waters of emotional well-being.
“I’ll create a pack of our various activities and combine them into a curated curriculum for that week based on the topic,” Russo Johnson says. “One week, we might cover taking turns, another week might be about understanding others.”
However, when it comes to retention, the integral part surrounds parents and children using the app together. OK Play’s activities often invite sharing and collaboration, either by passing the device back and forth or by uploading a “favorite moment.”
“When you read a book with your child, you’re naturally taking the time to pause and ask questions and talk with them. When you’re watching a TV show, you’re not going to pause the show, but my research has shown that if you do that, it actually will lead to a lot more learning. So that’s when we implemented these short little videos. So not only do we pause at a good point for conversation questions, we give the parents the good questions to ask because not every parent is a child development expert,” says Russo Johnson.
In this way, the app is helping teach parents these skills as well, so that when they’re faced with a child’s meltdown, they have the skills to handle it.
Put the App Down
The idea of interactivity and off-play, self-directed design is new in the digital app-sphere; it’s not often that an app encourages a child to put the device down. As such, co-founder and CCO Travis Chen considers OK Play to be the catalyst for play.
“The type of play that we design around and encourage is what kids naturally do and have done forever; things like pretend play, dress up, building, dancing, singing. There’s a lot of creativity and agency around how kids approach that play,” Chen tells Parentology.
The success of OK Play is due in part to the fact that science and education teams have walked this journey in tandem. “The creative works with science, hand in hand,” Russo Johnson says. “We’re always in step with each other. That’s why it doesn’t really feel like learning all the time, because it’s woven together in such a meaningful way.”
Chen echoes this sentiment from the tech perspective. “We’ve had parents tell us they’ve had trouble in the past having conversations about recognizing emotions. Some of the activities have really opened that line of dialogue, so you get meaningful connection between parent and child beyond, ‘It was fun to watch.’ And I think we’re just scratching the surface for the real-world impact that this is having in the lives of children and their parents.”
OK Play is a free app on iOS and Android. Free users have approximately 5 different activities available every day. If parents opt to subscribe, starting at $9.99/month, they receive access to all activities.