SUPPORTING LONG DISTANCE RELATIONSHIPS WITH CHILDREN
Ping Pong is a project created in response to an interest in families who spend time separated by distance. Long distance families can have to face dealing with significant changes to family life and the challenge of keeping strong bonds and presence while living in different locations.
Technology has been a major beneficial factor in helping families to stay in touch, However, in spite of this it is still often difficult to maintain an engaging experience when relying on communication in this way, particularly when interacting with children.
I was interested in enhancing the communication experience for families by exploring different ways to use existing platforms. From modern social media to more traditional communication methods such as letters and phone calls.
When beginning to research the subject of long distance families, I quickly found that video conversation was clearly the favoured method of communication within families living apart. Articles such as “Skype Dads” a term for parents who are granted virtual visitations by the court when divorced, alongside parenting blogs such as those aimed at deployed military parents, talked about the specific benefits of video chats. The combination of sight and sound helps share activities such as homework or reading stories. However, they also often mention the challenges of keeping a toddler engaged in a video chat conversation.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY
Based on what I had learned through various aspects of research, I began to explore the idea of testing different approaches to using video chat communication. The idea of experimenting with play was developed. The aim was to enable common problems such as short attention span, unsynchronized moods, nearby distractions and the subject of distance itself to be diverted away from the communication experience.
Research into child development and the different capacities and interests that can be expected depending on age, led to the creation of activities or games aimed at specific age groups. I came up with the concept of developing gameplay using a range of ways to communicate: video chat, messaging and traditional post, and embarked on a three part prototype project with my nieces who live in Mexico as an experiment.
Prototype games were created and tested with family in Mexico
The idea was to share the same activities to better engage in conversation when calling and to change the focus from being apart to an activity we could do together. I quickly put together a kit with three different activities which would combine play with a communication means. A sunflower growing kit for sharing pictures and videos on a chat group as part of a long term project, an origami kit where we could play together over video conference and finally, a writing kit intended to used via traditional mail, answering riddles with text. I mailed the kit to Mexico and kept one for myself.
GROWING A SUNFLOWER AT DISTANCE
Planting a sunflower together seemed a fun idea and a great experience to share, as it can help develop patience and perseverance. We created a chat group where we exchanged videos and pictures of our sunflowers, It was great as we had something specific to talk about during calls. The flower became something tangible in my house that reminded me of my nieces and encouraged me to make contact. This was something new both for them and myself and it was interesting to see how we all fit into our routines the responsibility of watering the plant and making sure it was getting enough sun.
PLAYING WITH ORIGAMI
I had read that reading stories or doing crafts via video chatting is a good way to engage with children, however to me it seemed a logical improvement to both share the same activity. I bought and modified an origami kit and sent one half to Mexico keeping half myself. I customized it by adding familiar names of friends and family to each one of the characters, to see if the girls would engage more with the game when we played together. We made a plan to connect at an hour that worked for all of us despite time difference between London and Mexico City. We played for half and hour and the girls took it as a competition towards who could make a faster origami. It was the first time we had had a really fun time together via skype.
THE WRITING KIT
A writing kit was the third prototype. ~ In contrast to technology, we played letter writing games. I developed a set of geometrical rubber stamps, for my niece who cannot write yet, and a secret code game that I've seen in children's magazines, in order to challenge my older niece to interact with me. I designed a riddle with illustrations and she had to send me the answer via text message.
I also conducted a brief survey of various types of parents spending time apart from their families. I aimed to see how much their experiences matched with the research I had read. I asked if they had created any family traditions before their departure or as a result of being apart, and what where the things they missed the most when not together.
A lot was mentioned in reference to routine, and of trying to set times in order to have a structure to cause less anxiety for everyone involved. They also mentioned focusing on specific subjects rather than distance. The ways some families cope with time difference, especially with their children who cannot yet grasp the concept of time were interesting, often coming up with creative ways to count down the days they where going to be away.
I found that my experiments with my nieces were already creating new stories for us. One of them at first was reluctant about the sunflower project, but then was eager and very disciplined to water it every day. (so much so it died from too much water!) She also enjoyed the secret message exercise, trying to send me one back herself. The origami session by video chat, made me feel I was right there with them and it was fun to see how competitive one of them has started to become and how careful and mindful the other one still is.
On deciding how to develop the project into a final design outcome, I found myself facing various questions. Could these games become products one could find and buy in airports, or family places like the supermarket? Could they be part of a blog or website aimed at long distance parents offering activity advice? Many of the existing resources already out there seemed outdated, disorganized and not visually attractive.
I was certain I wanted to create a finished marketable outcome that would consolidate my findings as a recognizable, respectable and conscious brand. I decided to aim this brand specifically to family members who live in long distance relationships with children. It would take into account the positive advice found through research, have an appealing aesthetic to children and also to help tackle the challenges mentioned by parents. It would have a friendly simple language to communicate to any user of any age.
I came up with the name Ping Pong as a fun phrase that is suggestive of a relay back and forwards between two people, and thinking of the word ping in relation to the expression to 'ping a quick message'.
CREATING A Platform
I decided that the most effective way for the brand to function was to have a home, I generated designs for a hypothetical website accessible from anywhere, where people would find helpful information and a brand message, together with activities that would always be designed to be played at distance (though never essentially). I had already found how popular free downloadable activities were for both parents and children and saw this as a very good way to incorporate the principle of my origami game. I also developed my secret message code into an interactive online page that could be emailed or printed and exchanged with others using the site.
All of the activities featured on the site encourage communication as the core principle and feature regular reminders to interact with the others taking part. The intention would be for the number of activities to build on monthly basis, always aiming to have educational value and encourage creativity and curiosity. By playing and interacting, adults can see how much children have developed, how their personalities form, and most importantly everyone involved can have fun and create new memories. Each activity will also have technical advice regarding which platform to use, an approximate time and age recommendation.
In developing the brand concept into a more tangible outcome I created ready made kits, marketable as products, such as the Sunflower Kit, The Letter Writing Kit and the Paper Fables Kit, that encourage different types of communication. These would be available for sale through the site and purchasable as gifts, created to make the games more convenient to play.
The convenience of having a place where the activities are ready-prepared, helps both adults and children feel like it is not a task, but a fun game to stay in contact.
The brand offers an opportunity to create new family traditions by playing on the site while together, and then planning the activities to do when apart. And by building a record of moments and memories it can help as a way of measuring time and to create anticipation.
The potential for the brand to be developed as a real world platform to me seemed strong but It would require a substantial further amount of input from a wide range of professionals such as teachers, psychologists and web developers to realise on a practical level.