Building better playgrounds

How Toca Life’s makers fill their worlds with wonder.

Its not easy making virtual worlds for kids, but you wouldn’t know it from watching Toca Boca. In just three years, their Toca Life franchise has grown to include eight amazing, sandbox-style apps focused on everything from school to a bustling farm.

To learn what it’s like to build these magical playgrounds and tackle touchy subjects, we chatted with Petter Karlsson, one of the series’ play designers.

Designers at Toca Boca’s Stockholm office. The company has released more than 30 apps since 2011.

Early on, what was the goal of the Toca Life games?
We originally envisioned kids playing different characters – they’d pack their bags and travel. What we found, though, is that kids like to play their everyday life, so we’ve given them a way to create whatever story they want, whether it’s about eating breakfast, going to school, or love.

The developers felt the airplane and beach in Toca Life: Vacation would be settings kids could relate to.

When you’re building a location, how do you know what to add? Is anything surprisingly important?
We always think about what’s relevant for the topic and context. Kids create voices for the characters and meaning for every object – something as trivial as a coffee pot can get a big role and matter a lot. If we build a house, we want to have light and windows so you can change between day and night.

What happens when kids rule the classroom? Hand them Toca Life: School and find out.

Let’s talk about specific apps. With Toca Life: School, was the goal to make school fun?
Definitely. As with everything, it’s about giving the kids control – especially in an environment where, even more than at home, an adult’s always deciding what you can do. Here, you can be the teacher, and school has so many written and unwritten rules about how to behave that it’s easy for kids to do the smallest things they know they’re not supposed to do, and it’s really fun. Also, school is great in the aspirational sense – it’s a really good context for kids to try things and create stories.

Giving children a place to say goodbye was the goal of this special room in Toca Life: Hospital.

From its baby ward to its X-ray machines, Toca Life: Hospital is so well done. It even has a hospice room. How did you decide to address a delicate subject like death?
A hospital is a part of most kids’ lives – from the day of their birth to getting a vaccination, or even a new little sister. And kids go there when they’re injured or sick. So we thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could cover life all the way through death, and also make sure you could say goodbye to loved ones, especially for kids who have lost someone?

From prize ribbons to horse manure, the details in Toca Life: Stable had to be just right.

In general, how has play-testing helped you?
You might think an idea works, but until you’ve tested it with kids, you don’t know. Like with the secret lab in the basement of Toca Life: Hospital – I had to confirm kids would actually touch the machine you use to access that room. With the food-combining machine in Toca Life: Farm, we had to do a lot of testing to make it understandable.

And sometimes you don’t even realise what kids will find funny. I put an elevator in the hotel in Toca Life: Vacation because I thought it’d be nice to play with, but only from testing did I learn how hilarious kids found putting way too many people into an elevator at once. Working with kids and discovering what they love brings so much joy to what I do.

Play-testing sessions help the creators see through kids’ eyes.

What’s your single favourite thing about making these games?
It’s corny, but I almost get tears in my eyes answering this. It’s the joy of the kids, both when we’re play-testing and hearing great feedback. Knowing that the things we do, matter. Something else I’m fond of is how we strive to work with diversity. We don’t want any kids to ever feel excluded when they think of Toca Boca products. We want them to feel like they fit in so they can see themselves and their family in these worlds.

    Toca Life: Office

    Turn work into an adventure!


    Toca Life: School

    Have fun and rule the school


    Toca Life: Hospital

    Treat patients young and old!


    Toca Life: Stable

    Groom horses in the stable!


    Toca Life: Farm

    Work and play the farmer’s way


    Toca Life: Vacation

    Make every day a getaway!


    Toca Life: City

    Visit the big city!


    Toca Life: Town

    Tell tales of everyday life