This startup lets your kid design a cardboard castle via tablet

If you’ve ever handed a tablet to a kid and watched them start swiping and tapping like they were born to do it, you know how powerful tech is in the hands of children. Tablets can open an entirely new world to kids, but the rise of tablet play has inevitably led a decline in the amount of time kids spend making their own fun, which is a crucial part of childhood development. There’s a litany of apps that limit screen time in an effort to get kids to unplug and interact with the “real world”, but one startup is taking a different approach and attempting to bridge the gap between digital and imaginative play.

The basic idea behind PopUp Play is that one of the greatest “toys” a kid can have is a giant cardboard box and an imagination, thus transforming a refrigerator box into a castle or spaceship. But recognizing that in today’s world, more playtime on the tablet is translating to less time spent interacting with the world in the jovial, imaginative way that kids are wont to do, Amelia Cosgrove and Bryan Thomas dreamt up PopUp Play, an Austin-based startup that brings tablet play into the real world with cardboard “playscapes” — sturdy cardboard castles that are designed by children via a tablet app.

As a kid, Cosgrove spent a lot of time in cardboard boxes. Co-founder Thomas tells me how their startup started with a conversation over lunch with colleagues during which Cosgrove recounted her experience as a kid, playing in a boxes that became rocket ships and pieces of imagined worlds.

“PopUp Play is this blend between offline, imaginative play and online play,” says Thomas. “Kids start in the PopUp Play Build Lab, which is a 3D design tool for kids, and they design their own custom Playscape –like a castle, a gingerbread house or a rocket ship — and then push a button, and a few days later, we deliver the design to their door, exactly as they designed it in the app. So, they’re literally designing a physical structure in the app that we make and deliver to their house, and they get to play inside.”

PopUp Play starts with letting kids create and design custom Playscapes on its Build Lab app and then gives them the experience of seeing something they designed appear at their doors. Made from rugged, play-tested cardboard, they assemble in a few minutes and can be quickly dismantled and stored flat until playtime comes round again.

Starting from basic frameworks, kids can customize their Playscapes with structural components like drawbridges, towers, and windows, along with design elements like a custom coat of arms or decals of dragons, torches and unicorns. The Build Lab itself is a kid-friendly 3D design program that gives kids a little bit of guidance and a lot of freedom as they create.

“The only thing that’s fixed on the castle is that it has to have four walls. Beyond that, kids can add windows, towers, doors anywhere they want them. And then we provide a little bit of gentle guidance in the app to help them make decisions with respect to the design itself,” says Thomas. “For some of these younger kids, the app has what we call gentle nudges to help them make good decisions about where to put structural components so that the structure actually stands up. Along the way, they’re learning good engineering and design practices.”

Though I’m a bit older than the target demographic, I took the app for a spin and created pretty incredible castle. Really. It has my name, a coat of arms, a dragon and lots of flames. Feel free to tell me how great it is:

  Playscapes are intended for kids age 3-9 and, as such, they’re designed to stand up to a lot of use and abuse. What’s more, playscapes are a flat price of $99 plus $10 for shipping, meaning that whether a kid opts for a simple-but-elegant castle or one that’s got three towers, five windows and a drawbridge, the price is the same. Much unlike the many children’s apps that allow kids to rack up hefty bills with in-app purchases (like the ones that Kanye publicly denounced just a few weeks ago), PopUp Play isn’t looking to limit kids by putting a premium on creatively-designed structures.

“We really wanted kids to feel like they had full breadth of creativity without any incremental costs or repercussions,” says Thomas, “because that’s just lame.”

While the $99 price point might seem a bit high when the alternative is a refrigerator box and a set of markers, the startup believes the educational aspects of the playscapes will provide justification. Though kids have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cool toys, there isn’t much opportunity for them to translate a learning experience into a large physical structure that’s meant for play. PopUp Play’s playscapes present something of a new creative opportunity for kids that comes to life in a big way.

“This is something that a kid designs and actually gets inside,” says Thomas. “When I was a kid, I was really frustrated that everything was always kid-sized and scaled down, and it was never as cool as what you saw in the commercials. So PopUp Play completed focused on this idea that it’s as good as you saw in the commercials. The promise of designing your own thing and then actually going through it is just as awesome as you thought it would be.”

While the castle is the only available framework for now, the end of the month will bring two new frameworks: a gingerbread house and a rocket ship. PopUp Play’s Build Lab is available in the App Store now, and parents and kids will be able to order playscapes right away. And, for those aunts, uncles and grandparents who may want to get in on the action, PopUp Play offers gift codes that kids and parents can redeem in-app for a playscape whenever they’re ready to get to work designing.