Playful learning is more than fun and games

Claire Green, president of Parents' Choice Foundation and co-founder of Sandbox Summit, spends more time than most playing with kids' media. Here's her playbook on what it takes to make a great educational app. It's a lesson we should all learn.
March 27, 2013

Claire Green, president of Parents’ Choice Foundation and co-founder of Sandbox Summit, spends more time than most playing with kids’ media. Here’s her playbook on what it takes to make a great educational app. It’s a lesson we should all learn.

Playful learning is a tricky business. We’ve created legions of sophisticated young consumers who want, expect, and demand apps that give them a valuable experience. (Don’t think so? Just watch how often kids dismiss a “bad” app by hitting the home button.)  But good playful learning experiences don’t just happen. It takes a solid understanding of the medium in which you’re developing, and a lot of hard work to hone the message and its delivery. Above all, it takes more than a passing acquaintance with the intended users. Knowing what kind of tasks you can expect a child to accomplish, and at what age, are key to designing a successful product.

In March 2013, using proprietary metrics to measure iTunes store data, the website 148apps.biz released their updated list of their most popular categories.  Education (88188 active) came in #2, behind Games, but ahead of Entertainment and Books.

According to Carly Schuler’s iLearn II Report for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (January 2012) “Over 80% of the top selling paid apps in the Education Category in the iTunes store target children.” Assuming this measurement still holds, that’s a minimum of 70,550 apps categorized as educational apps for children. But just because they’re categorized as educational doesn’t mean they are.

At Parents’ Choice Foundation we’ve been champions for quality children’s media and toys since 1978. When defining quality, we consider production, information, and delivery. We applaud a fresh look at an old subject and we prize a developer’s mastery of the medium and respect for the intended audience. Among the questions we consider when evaluating apps are: How is it designed – both visually and functionally? Does the child interact easily with the work? What are the opportunities for learning? Are they successfully delivered?  What does the intended audience take away from the experience?

In our most recent round of Parents’ Choice Mobile App Awards, we had more submissions than ever before. Our winners included treasures from industry veterans Duck Duck Moose, Toca Boca, OceanHouse Media, FableVision and Montessori, as well as new learning gems from Go Go Games Studios, KiooiK Games, NCSOFT and apppmedia.

What made these Parents’ Choice Award winners? These developers paid attention. They use the technology for and with a purpose. They had clear objectives. They used sight, sound, and touch in elegant and intelligent ways. These award-winners understand which skills a child can master, what makes them laugh, and what encourages them to continue to explore. Most importantly, they use their understanding to inform the design of the tasks at hand. The challenges neither over praise, nor over correct. They put the power of welldesigned playful learning in the hands of the child.

And in our playbook, that’s what makes a winner.

Send your winning comments to Claire@parents-choice.org or to me at wendy@sandboxsummit.org.


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