Zora’s Astonishing Circus Acts: A Storybook Game

Designing Games for Kids

Assignment: Make a game for little kids (ages 4-6)

Concept: Write a children’s book that has a game embedded into the story.

Research: The first thing that I did was look up other children’s books that had a similar concept. I found a lot of books that had clever lift-the-flap mechanisms:

Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell

Paper ZOO by Marya Dzianová’s

I found other books that had different kinds of animation, like Emily Cedar’s “What Makes the World go ‘Round”:

I also found out about the incredible Hervé Tullet, who is known in France as “The Prince of Pre-school books”. Two examples seen below are The Finger Circus Game and The Game of Shadows:

Because I’m not a visual artist, I didn’t want the game to be based on a clever visual or tactile effect. Instead, I wanted to think of a way to get the children playacting and have some agency over the story.

Refined Concept: I realized that kids love pretending to be animals. So I decided that the main game mechanic would be having kids act out animals doing silly things. I made a long list of animals that I thought young children would recognize and also enjoy mimicking–like jellyfish, shark, grizzly bear, dog and chicken. Then I made a list of actions that included surfing, playing guitar and practicing karate. I used a variety of verbs (instead of just “doing”) in order to make it more educational.

The next step was figuring out what kind of story would facilitate that kind of playacting. Perhaps with Herve Tullet’s Finger Circus fresh in my mind, I realized that a circus would be the perfect place for these animals to perform.

Fabrication: The story has gone through three drafts and two physical prototypes. I created two decks of cards for the animals and the actions that the children would draw at random on their turn. Because I used 20 animals and 20 actions, that means there are 400 possible combinations!

The first prototype used velcro, which made it really easy for the kids to stick their cards directly onto the page of the book. Unfortunately, it made it impossible to stack the cards in decks, and also made the book bulkier. For my second prototype I decided to use plastic sleeves that the kids could slide the cards into, but that made it much harder for the kids to place the cards. I think the plastic sleeve is more elegant than velcro but the design needs some refinement.

Playtesting: So far I have playtested the book twice. Once with my professors kids (who are ages 4 and 8) and with a whole classroom of preschoolers. My professor’s kids really enjoyed it (and they loved goading their dad into acting out animals as well), and it was a huge hit in the classroom! The kids were rapt the entire time, even though my book doesn’t really have illustrations yet (the only illustrations I have are of the different animals). A few of the kids who didn’t get a turn wouldn’t let me leave the classroom until I promised that they would have a turn next time! I have a few other appointments to visit classrooms so hopefully I will be able to get permission to snag a picture and post it here.

Demo: Finally, here is a short video demo. Fortunately the kids are much better at being animals than I am.