A creative exploration into play and social- emotional development in children 



Masters research project on how play can facilitate creative emotional expression. The toys were rapidly prototyped & tested and are currently being further developed 


Jan 2020- Present


i.d.e.a Children's Museum, Mesa, AZ

Piyum Fernando, Yeing Santamaria : setting up design research activities



Emotions are a big part of what makes us human.

They are our 'instinctive'

state of mind. 


Emotional Continents

Emotions live in what the Dalai Lama calls ’Emotional Continents’ : rising and fading with time.


Identifying each emotion for what they are, building a vocabulary to express how we feel, and building an awareness for our actions resulting from those emotions, helps us interact with each other in a more constructive way.

Visualization from 

Ekman’s Atlas of emotions in collaboration with the Dalai Lama

For children and adults alike emotions can elicit actions, words and facial expressions. 

Social Psychologist Mita Banerjee says children eventually learn

Emotional Competence; the ability to understand, express and regulate emotions. 


How might we encourage creative emotional expression in 2 to 5 year olds through play? 



Open ended play is a great way to promote creative emotional expression 

Take a simple wooden block for example: it does not tell us what it is, but in a child's mind it could be a flying creature, a car or even a doggie! 


A. Characteristics of

open-ended toys

B. Characteristics of

emotional development toys

C. Finding the

Opportunity Gap

I observed children during their outdoor open play time at the ASU Child Development Lab. I took notes using courtroom style sketches which were later colored. 

Age range: 2 - 5 years

Observation Duration: 2 hours

D. Naturalistic observation 

  • Children talk aloud and make imitative sounds around their imaginative play

  • The stories they tell themselves are as important as the physical play

  • Care - givers prompt storytelling during play by asking imaginative questions

  • Play with even the same toy will differ according to age and attention span 

Key Insights 

What would happy look like?

What would sad sound like?

What would angry behave like? 

E. Brainstorming forms

F. Expert Interview

Conducted 2 contextual interviews with Dena Milliron, Education Curator at i.d.e.a Museum, Mesa, AZ. Initial brainstorm sketches and models were discussed. 

Key Insights 

  • Children are enticed by activities that make them feel awed and accomplished

  • Play must be 'contained' in physical space

  • Must pay attention to choking hazards



Open ended forms help kids build freely and be imaginative

A set of shapes from which kids could build a character with emotions + a guide storybook to help them express were prototyped.


A. Focus Group study and

preliminary User Testing  

We setup a table saying 'Come play with Jojo' at the i.d.e.a museum during Spring break and invited families to join us and play. Children were given the opportunity to freely explore the material provided; 

  • 3 D printed parts with magnets embedded

  • Different sets of 'eyes' painted on turned wood shapes

  • 2 wheel sets repurposed from an old toy set

  • Play Doh

  • Kids were engaged with the amorphous nature of PlayDoh

  • There is a want to make something different each time

  • The spherical shape was too unstable, resulting in the kids getting frustrated 

Key Insights 

B. Iterating the design