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Offline/ Online Play: Augmented Reality Apps

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Jackie Marsh is Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield, where she is engaged in research on young children’s digital literacy practices in homes, communities, early years settings and schools. Her recent projects have included a focus on the changing relationship between play and media over the past sixty years, and on transforming educational practices through the creative use of digital technologies. Recent publications include ‘Changing Play: Play, Media and Commercial Culture from the 1950s to the Present Day’ (with Bishop, Open University Press, 2014) and ‘Children's Virtual Play Worlds: Culture, Learning and Participation’ (edited with Burke, Peter Lang, 2013).

For a number of years, my research has been exploring the offline/ online interface in relation to play, as children engage in play in online sites which relates to their toys, artefacts and offline practices (see Burke and Marsh, 2013). Augmented reality apps build on this ‘real’ world/ virtual world dynamic and are a growing area of the apps market for children, and recent work we have been involved in at the University of Sheffield suggests that children have a lot of interest in them.

Many of the apps involve the interaction between a physical toy or object and a digital game played on a tablet. In collaboration with Peter Winter, ICT teacher at Monteney Primary School, Sheffield, we organised a workshop in which a group of primary school children were able to play with a range of augmented reality apps, including some of the Apptivity range (e.g. ‘Hot Wheels’, and ‘Fruit Ninja’). What was of interest in observing the children was the speed and ease with which they were able to grasp the way in which the objects interacted with the game interface and the level of excitement the collaborative games generated. For example, a fishing game app involved a group of children playing together to catch fish on an iPad screen using plastic ‘nets’ and they enjoyed the physical tussling with others that was required to catch their own virtual fish.


However, there were other aspects of the use of the apps that raised some fundamental questions about their value. For example, the ‘Hot Wheels’ app involved children in steering a physical car along a virtual track that twisted and turned on the iPad screen. Apart from the potential benefits of the app in terms of enhancing hand-eye co-ordination, it was difficult to identify additional value and the children soon got bored with using it. Much more promising was the Squigglefish app, which involved children drawing their own fish and sea creatures and uploading them into an onscreen aquarium, where they then swam about. The children were very interested in this app and ran to find reference books on sea life that they could use for inspiration when drawing their own aquarium inhabitants.

It will be interesting to observe the reaction to the launch of the Lego Fusion augmented reality app later this year, which enables users to import their physical Lego brick creations into an app game. I think these apps have much promise, but I would like to see much more focus on the opportunity for children to create their own digital stories and games that incorporate their off-screen creations. In that way, we may begin to realise the true promise of augmented reality apps.


Burke, A. and Marsh, J. (eds) (2013) Children's Virtual Play Worlds: Culture, Learning and Participation. New York: Peter Lang.


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