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Parent Spotlight-Dr. Colleen Russo Johnson & Travis Chen

Name: Dr. Colleen Russo Johnson

Location: Toronto, Canada

Occupation: Cofounder and Chief Scientist of The OK Company, makers of the OK Play app

Children: Ripley, 3; Rex, 1.5

Name: Travis Chen

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Occupation: Cofounder and Chief Creative Officer of The OK Company

Children: Elliot, 3.5 - Miles, 1.5

What brings you joy as a parent?:

C: At the core, snuggles and giggles from my kids. That fuels me. But as a developmental psychologist I also find a lot of joy in watching their brains put new things together, develop new skills, and experience that sense of accomplishment.

T: The thing that blows me away everyday is seeing them learn and develop their personalities. I love the mini discoveries that always happen - what they like, what they know, what they’re good at, and how they feel.

What are some of your challenges as a parent?:

C: Balancing work and quality time with my kids. The pandemic and stay-at-home orders have heightened that. My kids are also very stubborn — especially my daughter, just as my husband and I are, so it can be challenging at times to face mini versions of ourselves — they’re powerful forces!

T: Of course the biggest challenge right now is managing having our children at home while also grappling with the question - when to send them back to daycare / preschool? If there is a silver lining though, the close time we’ve gotten to spend with our children this unique year has been very special for us.

What inspired you to create OK Play?:

C: I’ve dedicated my career to figuring out ways to maximize the benefits of media and technology to enhance the lives of families everywhere. OK Play is the accumulation of my research and everything I’ve learned in one app. Plus, it focuses on topics that all young children need some help on, including me, from sharing to regulating emotions. I wanted to create something that was both fun and useful.

T: My career as a play designer has revolved around these passions - using digital as a catalyst for real world play, building human connection through collaborative play and giving people creative tools to express themselves. With OK Play, I wanted to bring these design principles to life in a single product. Beyond that, I wanted to build something for me, my wife Roxanne, Elliot and Miles to have a ton of fun with.

What is the best advice you received or lessons learned as a parent?

C: It’s actually a lesson I detail in an article we just published on our app and website— that it’s OK to let go of the parenting stress and judgment and that there is no such thing as a perfect parent. One of the exciting moments of launch day was when Kris Jenner shared this piece with her audience, because it’s a message I really want all parents to soak in, especially in 2020. Here is a link to the article:

T: For us, it’s making time to really be present, engage and listen. It’s probably the most important thing we’ve learned to make time for as parents and continue to learn. While obvious, it’s so easy and inevitable to fall into distractions from that. Having a routine of being present has been helpful for me. Treat it like a meeting in your calendar :)

How do you practice self care?:

C: I don’t do it enough, but I feel my best when I make time to workout and when I treat myself to a spa afternoon (harder now during COVID!). But on a daily basis, I try and give myself time to zone out and let my mind relax a bit, whether that’s with a TV show, reading a book, scrolling TikTok videos, or playing a game on my iPhone.

T: For me, I gravitate towards activities and play that calm the mind. I love mindless repetition and getting lost in something. I have a number of hobbies in this category - distance running, needle point, calligraphy. On the games side, I’ve recently been playing virtual racing games. I love just driving around the same track over and over trying to find personal perfection (relative to others, I’m really not very good).

How do you make time for your relationship with your partner?:

C: We both love good food and drinks, so date nights are truly our best time to connect. No distractions, just hours sitting and enjoying each others company. We also end most evenings with a glass of wine together… safe to say a lot of wine has been consumed during this pandemic! :)

T: One of our favorite things we do together is play board games. This has always been after the kids are in bed. Board games are so special because through play they engage so much real world conversation, connection and physicality. Some of our favorites - Castles of Burgundy, Viticulture, Roll for the Galaxy, Pandemic Legacy, Patch Work

Are your parenting styles different from your partner's?:

C: We have similar approaches of not being helicopter or bulldozer parents. But he truly makes me a better parent. I admire his patience, energy, and imagination with the kids. He helps me not sweat the small stuff and just let more things go than I normally would. He is definitely the fun one— I knew it would be that way the moment I met him. He writes/directs/produces kids TV which is just about the coolest job a dad can have, and he is such a child at heart. I’ve also watched him be a dad figure to all the kids on set over the years. When I asked a mutual friend what they thought of him when we first started dating, his response was that he would be the most incredible dad. He was made to be a dad, and I can’t wait until my kids realize just how lucky they are to have him as a dad. And I’m thankful that the same goofiness he brings to fatherhood he also brings to our marriage. Keeps us young.

T: Yes! But it’s also complicated for our household because we have Grandma and Grandpa often with us and helping with the kids who have a different approach. And then, add to that the style of learning at our preschool. And approach changes between toddler and baby. To be honest, the centering approach across the entire “village” has been really tricky and it’s not something we’ve really figured out. It’s probably one of the things we struggle most with.

How do you manage parenting with your partner?:

C: The biggest thing is being a united front and having each other's back when parenting. But not doing this blindly, we constantly check each other and our approaches and stay adaptive to both our needs, our kids needs and personalities, and the situation.

T: In the work-from-home world it’s been complicated while also presenting some interesting advantages. It’s complicated because we both have full time jobs. Juggling work while raising two children at home at the same time is tricky (as it has been for a lot of parents). The best strategy we’ve found is to schedule the time for parenting like we’d schedule time in our work day. That said, the clear advantage has been that we’re all at home. Being able to go from work to parenting, back-and-forth, throughout the day without a commute is powerful.

How do you spend quality time with your children?:

C: Reading books, exploring nature, and playing OK Play are my favourite ways on a daily basis. I love snuggling up with them and talking about everything we see on the page— it’s endless conversation. And when we walk in nature it’s like their minds unlock to a whole new level of wonder. The stories they tell, the plants and animals they find, it’s truly magical. And the OK Play app has truly become a staple in our house. My husband and I have found it to be an awesome way to pull out activities anywhere, anytime that get the kids playing collaboratively with us. We practice emotions, deep breathing, and solve hypothetical social problems all while playing and giggling.

T: For me, it’s not just playing with Elliot and Miles but creating with them. One of my favorite things to do with them is to build something together. This often revolves around Duplo or LEGO. We back and forth add pieces, talk about our ideas, imagine what something is and play with our creation. This type of collaborative creation through play really manifests itself in OK Play’s drawing activity where parent and child draw back and forth resulting in a special together-made animation.

What parenting tools work for you and your family?:

C: And as a family, we are all big believers in taking some “me-time” when we need to cool down or reset. We do this as adults, and the kids do it as well. It’s really sweet and extremely effective.

T: We’ve found power in scheduling and trying to build some routine for our children. This has been especially important for us when working and parenting from home because routine isn’t built into this new situation. We hope we’re taking baby steps in building some stability for our kids in an unstable situation.

Favorite parenting books or resources?

C: I have just about every parenting book written, both because I’m interested as a parent and professional in this space. But I can tell most parents don’t have time for reading, I barely do. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited to be able deliver parenting tips/insights via our app. So parents can learn tips and tools as they are also playing with their kids. Two for one! That’s my kind of time management :)

T: Duplo and LEGO! They were so impactful for me growing up as a creative outlet and ultimately the spark that led me into both design and engineering. As a parent though, they have been a catalyst for so many things for my family. Imagination, conversation, creation, connection, play and more. A lot of what we’ve aimed to do with OK Play has modeled LEGO as a centerpiece of play that sparks so much more.

What do you wish for your children?:

C: That they find their passion(s), and better yet if they can build a career around their passion. I grew up with two parents who truly love what they do, and that’s certainly true for my husband and myself as well.

T: A passion. I’m so excited for them to discover their passion in life and for it to bring them happiness. I have no clue what it is yet which is incredibly exciting! Right now, we’re looking for those signals of interest. What do they love doing / making / learning? And I’m so excited for us as parents to help them lean into and grow those passions.

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