Archive for the 'Age 05-06/Grade Pre-K/Child' Category

Tricks of the Trade: On Making Magic with Apps

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

[The following is an article I wrote for the November 14, 2013 issue of KidScreen's online iKids Magazine.]

A photo of Theo Gray during his Disney Animated app presentation

Theo Gray, co-founder of Touch Press, presenting the new Disney Animated app. (Click photo to see larger version.)

Every year in early November, there’s a very special children’s interactive media conference called Dust or Magic that’s held a short drive outside of New York City. The name of the event comes from a 17th century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, who wrote, “An idea can turn to dust or magic depending on the talent that rubs against it.”

This is the underlying theme that weaves itself throughout the hundreds of apps that are discussed during the event, and a select few that are presented live. In the ever-expanding world of the children’s interactive media, which products are considered “magic” or “dust?” And why? As an industry of creators, we ask ourselves “What can we learn from the good, as well as the bad?”

Dust or Magic is the brainchild of Warren Buckleitner, who is also the editor of Children’s Technology Review magazine, a former blogger for The New York Times and an expert in the children’s digital world.

This was my 12th year attending Dust or Magic. Over that time I’ve seen the interactive industry grow through talking books from LeapFrog, numerous Tickle Me Elmo dolls, virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Webkins, all the way to today’s vibrant app world for kids. I’ve seen many unknown speakers go on to release top selling products in their field, create new and compelling ways to engage children, and all the while raise the bar of quality for the entire children’s industry. This year there was no shortage of stellar presentations, and three in particular are worth sharing with those who could not attend the event. These three presentations rose the bar.

The opening presentation was delivered by Theo Gray, founder and app developer for the company Touch Press. Gray’s accomplishments include receiving an ig Nobel Prize in chemistry, but his app work is second to none. Gray has created a number of stellar apps, one called The Elements, another the Solar System, which sets new standards for excellence in app creation. However, at this year’s event he presented his latest work, an app for Disney that chronicles its animation history called Disney Animated. This new body of work was completely amazing, and there was one moment in Theo’s presentation, a breathtaking, jaw-dropping moment. Gray had created a single screen, color bar chart that included frames from every single animated movie ever created by Disney. With a touch of the finger, you could call up a single frame of animation from any movie every created by the company. It was a truly amazing moment.

Later, we were treated to a presentation by the founder and CEO of a small startup called Tinybop. Never heard of Tinybop? They launched their first kids’ app in August, and it has blossomed into the industry’s best overnight success story yet. This number-one selling app is called The Human Body and it’s rewriting the rules of child engagement. Simple. Clean. Funny. Engaging. Enlightening. The founder, Raul Gutierrez, shared his business plan with the Dust or Magic community, and you can see why it was a presentation long to be remembered.

The next notable presentation came from Chip Donohue, dean of distance learning and continuing education for the Erikson Institute as well as senior fellow at the Fred Rogers Center. Over the past few years, Donohue has helped define a best practices position paper for using technology in early learning, an excellent road map for using tablets with young children. As he pointed out in his presentation, there’s been a lot happening in the interactive space over just these last few weeks, and he put together a presentation with all the latest recommendations and best practices for engaging children intentionally through new media platforms. A fantastic resource for everyone in the kids’ biz.

These speakers were accompanied by unreleased new work from Toca Boca and its newly acquired sister company Sago Sago, as well as preschool app development tips from Duck Duck Moose. Magic, it was in the air.

Extra links:

Speaker presentation playlist (15 videos)

App demo playlist (23 videos)

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A Conversation With Vicky Rideout

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Summarizing “Zero to Eight Children’s Media Use in America 2013″

[The following is an article I wrote for the November 2013 issue of Children's Technology Review. A PDF copy of the article from this magazine can be downloaded here.]

A photo of Vicky Rideout from an earlier 2013 presentation

For those of us that work in children’s media, there’s nothing like finding a fresh, data filled report.

Zero to Eight Children’s Media Use in America 2013” is Vicki Rideout’s latest in a series of reports commissioned by Common Sense Media. Having followed Vicky’s work for more than a decade, I asked her for an overview of her findings.

The first key finding is this: Television and video game use is down for children compared to just two years ago. (Yes, down, not up!) In addition, overall screen media use is down compared to what was recorded just two years ago.

Television viewing in the bedroom is also down by a sizable amount. As with the television and video game drop Vicky says “I’d like to look back on these data points from a future report to see if this is a bump or a trend.” This finding does beg some additional questions that cannot be answered through the report, like has there been a drop in the number of televisions owned in the home? Has the drop in television viewing in the bedroom shifted to video viewing on a tablet in the bedroom? Vicky says it is too early to tell if this is a trend.

According to Rideout “Little drops in each platform add up to a half hour of less screen time per day on traditional screens. Then when you add in the increase in mobile use it brings that number down to 20 minutes less screen time per day. While this drop in overall screen time is significant and noteworthy, I’d like to see what the research says in another two years.”

There’s a lot of material in this report about tablet and related mobile media use. For example, two years ago only 8% of parents owned a tablet. “Today it’s 40% and children’s tablet ownership is nearly similar to that of their parents from the 2011 report. Years ago handheld video game manufacturers noted that when an older sibling purchased a new handheld gaming device, a younger sibling would ultimately receive the older device. Could the same thing be happening here with parents purchasing a new tablet and giving the children their old one? This report can’t answer that question specifically, but one thing is clear: Tablet ownership by children will increase in the years to come.

Another key trend: there is a giant shift in media use, and “the tablet is a game changer.” Vicky told me that there is “some computer use among young children, starting as early as four years of age, but because the tablet has simplified the interface so much and made things so intuitive, we see really young children successfully using this platform. If a one or two year old child can turn the pages of a board book, that same child can touch and swipe a tablet. If that child can point to an image on a board book, then that child can launch an app. As a result, a large world of content is made available to these young children. The floor for how young children use this platform has gone way down compared to other technological innovations, even compared to the Wii, which was a huge leap forward in terms of intuitive use and interface deign.”

In addition Vicky notes: “People keep saying how children are so technologically smart. We have that notion backwards. It’s the technology that’s become smart, so smart that a kid, or even a baby can use it. This change is also opening up access to content that is not just about passive video watching.

“People keep asking me ‘Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’ Unless you believe that a screen per se is a bad thing for kids no matter what, I usually respond that this is just a thing, it’s just a tablet. The good or bad about a tablet depends on the quality of the content you share with a child through this new medium.”

Vicky’s comments just begin to scratch the surface of what’s included in this new report. However, Vicky also shared she is working on a new report, focused on the same zero to eight demographic, but this time she’s writing it for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. This report will take a deep dive into educational media, eBooks, and joint media engagement (a fancy term for parents who share in the same media experience with their child). The scheduled date of release is January 23, 2014. We look forward to reading more!

Related links:

Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013
Common Sense Media

VIDEO – Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology – Vicky Rideout interview (2013)
360KID

Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology (2013)
Northwestern University


VIDEO – Vicky Rideout interview – Zero to Eight Children’s Media Use Research Overview (2011)

360KID

Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America (2011)
Common Sense Media

Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (2010)
Kaiser Family Foundation


Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Yr-olds (2005)

Kaiser Family Foundation

The Effects of Electronic Media on Children Ages Zero to Six: A History of Research (2005)
Kaiser Family Foundation

Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers (2003)
Kaiser Family Foundation

Kids & Media @ The New Millennium (1999)
Kaiser Family Foundation

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Kid Testing and Facebook – What? Are You Crazy?!

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

How 360KID uses Facebook to find kid testers to improve their digital creations and apps.

This has been a busy year of development for my company. We’ve been creating multiple interactive products for kids. Some are learning apps, some are online games, some electronic toys. Some are for preschoolers, some for tweens. All of them have one thing in common. The completed products must successfully engage kids. In an effort to make sure we are making the best interactive products possible, we need to test our ideas with children. When I say “we” I mean the larger kids industry, not just my company. For those who develop any kind of product or media for kids (especially all those children’s app developers out there! I’m talking to you!) you MUST kid test your products. Get your software builds, your animations, your web games, your characters, your paper prototypes out there in front of real kids! Do not go to market without testing your assumptions, you may find you had it all wrong. Testing is an invaluable part of children’s media development and should be part of every product you make if you work in the kids biz.

There are a number of ways to recruit kids for testing. You can reach out to family and friends, kids in your neighborhood. However, sometimes you need to reach out beyond your known circle and find kids from another location; say kids that live in a city, or bilingual preschoolers, or eight to ten year olds that belong to Girl Scouts, or tweens that like to play baseball. What do you do then?

While you can reach out to specific youth groups, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other kid-focused organizations, you can also use Facebook. Now I know you’re saying “What?! Facebook? For recruiting kid testers? Are you crazy?!” As with all kid testing, you’re starting a conversation with a parent, and recruiting through Facebook means you are looking to have a conversation with a parent about kid testing.

Here’s a more detailed look at one kid testing ad campaign we placed on Facebook. We started by selecting a particular town we wished our testers to come from. The 10 mile radius around that town had 168,000 parents using Facebook. Selecting a thinner slice from that group, parents with children ages 4 to 12 resulted in 1,400 Facebook users. When you start a Facebook ad, you can get very specific about the kind of person you wish to reach. Do you want to reach just men 25 years of age or older? How about just women with a PhD? All of this is possible to define in your campaign. However, the more specific you get with your target demographic, the smaller your audience will become.

We posted an ad for kid testers for 45 days, with a maximum bid of $2.50 per click, not to exceed a cost of $50 a day. Our ad appeared over 712,000 times (impressions), reaching more than 8,200 Facebook users in our target age and location (demographic), resulting in a click-through rate (CTR) of 427. We heard from about 45 parents, leading to 22 parents bringing in 30 children, all for a total cost of $560, or about $1.30 per click.

Another way to look at our recruiting costs: $25 per parent or about $19 per child. This was just our advertising cost and did not include email communication time, phone calls, testing time, analysis of results, or the stipend we offered a parent for having their child come in to test with us.

Was it worth it? Yes, in the end Facebook definitely helped us find kids from a specific geo-targeted location to test with.

Was it perfect? Hardly. There were many frustrating parts to working with Facebook. First time advertisers will be annoyed that once you place an ad, it can take many days before your campaign is approved and goes live. While you’re waiting, all you can do is think about what you did wrong and why your ad is not producing. During this time you’ll probably change your ad copy and up the daily maximum bid thinking it will help. But hold tight, Facebook is just being Facebook. It takes time for an ad to kick in, and you will receive next to no communication from Facebook while you are pulling out your hair, wondering what’s going on.

Were there any surprises? You bet. While many parents found our ad on Facebook, there were some “uber parents” that helped spread the word around their neighborhood that we were looking for kid testers. About four parents that came in were in this category. They were great at helping reach many more parents, including non-Facebook users as well.

In the end we met many great parents with some wonderful kids. All of which helped us refine our product and made it better. We couldn’t be happier, and our finished product shines as a result of the feedback we incorporated back into development! Thank you parents and our 360KID testers!

Bottom line: It doesn’t matter how you find kids to test with, using Facebook or some other means, what matters is that you test! Doing so will only help make your product shine, stand out from the pack, and lead to more successful interactions through your product with kids. Now get out there and start testing!

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Tech Toy Magic at Toy Fair

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

For more than a decade I’ve been going to the annual NY Toy Fair, and I go primarily for one reason. To check out the latest technology toys. I’ve seen some amazing toys over the years, as well as hundreds, maybe thousands of other toys that just didn’t make the cut. This year a few new tech toy products caught my eye, and I’d like to share what excites me about them. I’m not highlighting these products because of their suggested retail price, and my praise has nothing to do with how well I think they might sell come next holiday season. My interest is in the idea, and the execution of that idea. With that as background, let’s dig in.

Barbie’s Makeup Mirror by Mattel

Mattel's new Barbie Makeover Mirror nicely integrates an iPad with pretend play.

Let me start by saying Barbie is not my thing. I’m not really drawn to Barbie, and I usually pass right by all things related to dolls, but not this year. In an iPad world filled with shovelware there are few tangible toy and app collaborations that rise to the level of noteworthy. There have been too many forced mergers of toys and apps together on the iPad that simply don’t work. The toy world has been carelessly forcing this merger, hoping to find an answer without actually understanding the question… and that’s where this Barbie product really shines. Finally, someone merged software and a child’s play pattern together seamlessly. This vanity toy reminds me of the vanity toy tables that were popular with young girls many years ago. Dress up and pretend play have always been a strong play pattern with young children. This app and toy combination hits the nail on the head, by using the iPad’s onboard camera to allow a user to play and try on different personalities through digital makeup, and then easily share those creations with a friend. Lots of fun and lots of strong play. Bravo Mattel! My hope is what you have created will shine as a beacon for the rest of the toy world (and app world as well) to learn from, that you just can’t throw an app and a toy together and call it fun. Find the play pattern first, and build from there. Plain and simple.

Flutterbyes by Spin Master

Spin Master's newest flying creation, the flying fairy.

This next tech toy product defines a real milestone in the toy industry. The Spin Master flying fairy product called Flutterbyes nearly knocked me over when I saw it. Why? The toy industry has been dreaming of bringing a small flying fairy to market long before I started attending Toy Fair. I’ve seen toy inventors talk about it, wonder, plan, scheme, invent, try, fail, try again, and yet there has never been any really great breakthrough. Ever. Until now. Spin Master did it, and it makes sense that they achieved this milestone since they have been sitting on some serious flying toy technology through their Air Hogs line. This milestone marks the beginning of light weight rechargeable batteries that can be a part of all kinds of future flying toys, as well as the flying stabilization technology included within. Just imagine where this will go. This flying fairy is one simple, and elegant toy. Well done Spin Master! (Video clip)

Cubelets by Modular Robotics

Cubelets by Modular Robotics

I grew up on electronics kits. Lot’s of pre-cut wires and metal spring connectors were part of my everyday electronic play. Spending say 30 minutes building a project with another 15 minutes to figure out where the mistake was in order for the whole thing to work. No more! Cubelets has success built-in from the moment you place one cube next to another. Cubelets are a series of electronic cubes where each cube has its own unique characteristic. Some cubes are power sources. Others have motors. Some have lights. Others include sensors and some even include modifiable logic through programming. There’s even a website where you can download sample programming code made by other Cubelet fans to try out on your own. What most electronic kits miss is the ability to experiment and this collection of cubes allows for never ending building and experimentation. Want to make your own motion detection robot? Easy. Want to make a lighthouse? Done. Have an idea for something totally unique and original? You can make it! This is an amazingly powerful toy with endless possibilities. I can’t wait to see how this company grows over the next year. (Video clip)

Romo the controllable, programmable robot by Romotive

These are the big ideas I thought were executed marvelously at this year’s Toy Fair. I do have additions to my list, but I have been following these products and companies long before Toy Fair. They include Romo the robot from Romotive (video clip), Sphero from Orbotix (video clip), and the brainwave sensing technology from the company NeuroSky. All strong contenders to keep an eye out for in the tech toy space this year.

Did you go to Toy Fair? Was there a toy or technology that caught your attention? Was there something you saw that was a step forward in this space? Or maybe a step backward? Please share in the comments below!

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Duck Duck Moose Gets a Golden Egg

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

[Note: this is an excerpt from the upcoming October 2012 issue of Children's Technology Review.].

Children's app developer Duck Duck Moose

When it comes to apps that actively engage young children, one of the companies with products on every list is Duck Duck Moose Design. This three person studio — funny name and all – was one of the first to the children’s app scene, with an app called Wheels on the Bus.

Duck Duck Moose is a three person start-up based in San Mateo, CA. It launched it’s first app in 2009; today there are 14 DDM titles, collectively accounting for about 2.4 million paid downloads (publisher numbers).

On September 26, 2012, Duck Duck Moose announced it will be changing and expanding it’s business, with a $7 million investment from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Sequoia Capital and Stanford University. This type of investment raises questions that every small publisher hopes to deal with. “What do we do with lots of money?” “Is it possible to grow in a smart way, and keep the focus on quality?” And more importantly, “is this type of investment, and the constraints that come with it, a blessing or a curse?”

Of course, only time will tell. But we can say one thing for sure — Duck Duck Moose Design is once again charting new ground, as one of the first small mom-and-pop app publishers to get a big investment. Many other small children’s app publishers will be watching from the sidelines with great interest to see how this cash infusion will affect their work.

Children's app developer Duck Duck Moose
(Duck Duck Moose Founders Nicci Grabiel, Caroline Hu Flexer, and Michael Flexer)

A full interview with DDM co-founder Caroline Hu Flexer will appear in the October issue of Children’s Technology Review. In anticipation of that issue’s release, here are a few questions from the full interview to come.

Scott Traylor: Tell me about the first app you developed.

Caroline Hu Flexer: As a hobby, we started designing the Wheels on the Bus app for our own child. My husband Michael, and our good friend Nicci Gabriel worked on developing the app part-time over a three month period. We all had other full-time jobs. We launched that app in 2009. Later that year we won a KAPi Award, our first children’s industry award, and that was the beginning. That’s when we realized that maybe this could become a business. Wheels on the Bus continues to sell three-and-a-half years after it’s launch, and it’s still in the top charts. It wasn’t until 2010 that Nicci and I started working full-time. Michael started full time in 2011. It was just the three of us up until early this year. Recently our good friend, Jesse Ambrose, a founding engineer at Siebel Systems with my husband Michael, joined our team full-time. The four of us basically created the first 11 titles. Today we’re a team of nine, including the three founders.

ST: How has your thinking changed about developing apps for kids since you started?

CHF: The core of it hasn’t changed. We’ve always put kids at the center of what we do, but we’re always learning different things with each app and with different ages we may be targeting. We’ve done a lot of different types of apps. We started with toddler apps, like The Wheels on the Bus, which had one or two things for a young child to focus on. We didn’t want our apps to be over-stimulating, to have too many things going on at the same time. From a developmental perspective, we wanted our apps for toddlers to have simple interactions, whereas as we develop for older children, our apps have been more open-ended and have evolved into more layered interactions. One example for older children is our Draw and Tell app, where children make their own drawings, record their own voices, and create their own story. It’s a very different approach to the interaction.

ST: While there are many more big companies with big brands going into the children’s app business, would you say big business has seen big success from those efforts?

CHF: There have been some successes. It’s still rare to find interesting new content. There are a lot of big children’s media companies that have good apps and include characters that really appeal to children, but I think it’s a very unique time where we can invent new experiences using new characters because it’s a new platform. We’re able to do something really creative, and I think that’s a pretty rare opportunity. There are not that many companies creating their own original story lines and characters. It’s much more fun to invent something new, and it’s a better business model for us too.

The first children's app from Duck Duck Moose called Wheels on the Bus
(The first children’s app from Duck Duck Moose called Wheels on the Bus)

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