Bach vs Beethoven. Tupac vs Biggie. Fun vs Education?

It was all a big misunderstanding. When making children's media, you CAN have your fun and make it educational, too.
October 7, 2013

Dr. Carla Fisher is a game designer and digital strategist with fingerprints on more than 300 games for kids and families. She continues her musings outside this blog via a free weekly newsletter (sign up here) that curates articles, videos, and games that catch her eye. She can be reached at or @NoCrusts.

We all love a good rivalry, be it Bach vs Beethoven, Tupac vs Biggie, Jets vs Sharks, Jets vs Giants, Dinocroc vs Supergator, Jack Ryan vs Jason Bourne… Even better is the fun of debating the sides with friends and families.

Time and time again, I find myself debating fun and education. The simple frequency by which I’m asked how I handle balancing the two in my products indicates that it clearly plagues a lot of people in our field. How do I balance the two? Can fun and education co-exist. Is the answer chocolate-covered-broccoli?


Fun and education are not locked in a battle to the death.

One is not inherently good nor evil, light nor dark. One will not triumph over the other nor spawn numerous sequels. Fun and education are not two points at opposite ends of a single spectrum. They are not clashing, diametrically opposed, mutually exclusive, nor irreconcilable.

Now that I’ve stated my position for the record, let me explain.

It’s time to adjust your expectations of “fun.” As makers of educational products, adults seem to have an uncomfortable relationship with the idea of “fun.” I suspect they hold themselves to an impossible standard, secretly believing that the only satisfactory product reaction is for the child to vomit rainbows and panda bears of happiness.

That’s not realistic, folks.

The degree to which a user will have “fun” depends on a number of factors. When people ask, “How do you balance fun and education in your products?” they are really asking, “What is the right tone for conveying educational information without being too heavy-handed?”

There’s no single right answer, because every product is different. For me, the tone and treatment of the educational content comes from a numbers of factors we define at the beginning of a product’s development:

1. The audience’s preferences and developmental needs (I know, big surprise that I’m recommending developmental psychology.) By understanding your audience, you understand their preferences, their learning styles, their motivations. Preschoolers will gobble up educational content that bores adults to pieces if it’s presented by their favorite character. What motivates your audience? Use that to your advantage.

A brief recapitulation of the above point about expecting children to vomit rainbows of happiness — a lot of kids, particularly the wee ones, find learning itself fun. That’s why user testing is so powerful. It reminds us that kids frequently have very different preferences and that the learning doesn’t have to be hidden! Knowing the dev psy behind the target age group also helps you understand these preferences.

2. The setting for the content What kids will tolerate in a classroom can vary radically from what they’ll play in the backseat of a car. What’s competing for their time in the target setting? What’s the context in which it will be used? Is it for test prep or for passing the time while waiting in line? Defining that setting and/or context helps put the product vision into perspective.

3. The educational goals The information that must be conveyed to the child figures heavily into the tone of the product. Multiplication tables require memorization, which is just not as flexible as other curricula, like say, sneeze hygiene. Letter names can be taught in numerous ways, leaving lots of options.

4. The flexibility I’m granted in how to meet those goals Sometimes my project goal is, by the end of the experience, the child must be able to do skill X. But sometimes the goals have flexibility, where the client is happy if the child is simply exposed to the ideas of skill X. Developing a product being used in an evaluative study for literacy intervention for struggling readers in low-income neighborhoods means I need to be more “by the book” than I would for the average commercial product.

As a practical example, when we designed Kids’ CBC Little Wally Ball-y Ball for iPad, the goal was the mathematical idea of slope. But we were also granted flexibility to play with the design, resulting in a unique game with aspects of popular physics games as well as educational merit.


So, what, exactly, is this “Fun” that everyone is worried about? You might have caught a whiff of ire in my recent post on communication when I said “It’s not fun” is useless feedback.

That’s because “fun” is this amorphous concept that could be measured in myriad ways. Remember, I’m a data person. How would you quantify fun? What are the variables? Positive affect? Positive statements? Time spent on task? Conversations generated by the experience? Standardized test scores? Heart rate? Volume of laughter? Number of blinks? Repeat visits? Body temperature? Accurate retelling of the experience?

Before you start worrying about whether something is fun, make sure you’ve clearly defined what fun means for you.

Which means, education has many, many flavors.   By discussing the factors influencing how educational the product needs to be, I can then zero in on the degree of educational-ness that we need to be. It means that I have made some seriously didactic, heavy-handed educational products, because that’s what the situation dictated. I have also made some ridiculously light-hearted, barely educational products. (Cats and mustaches anyone?) It’s the situation in which we develop that informs how much latitude we have to address the educational content.

At the same time, those factors define how we measure fun, whether it’s by gains in knowledge, physical expressions of happiness, or other variables. We define “fun” to reflect the goals of the project, not some fuzzy, amorphous, impossible dream of ecstasy.

That’s how fun and education co-exist in my world.

Never apologize for making educational products. In a final note, I’ve noticed that far too many people apologize for the educational content in their product, sometimes even uttering the “chocolate covered broccoli” phrase.

Begin educational is not a bad thing.

Pretty much all media we consume is educational in one way or another. (Frankly, pretty much every experience we have is educational.) You can learn from Top Chef, Animal Planet, The Voice, or ESPN. Sure, it’s not the traditional form of learning, we’re not memorizing and rehearsing facts, but the experiences are shaping our ideals and we are picking up new bits of information.

Because of this, the idea of “edutainment” (education + entertainment) really doesn’t exist in my book. I make entertainment. And because I make children’s entertainment specifically, it’s largely driven by specific learning goals, many of which will be visible to the audience. But that’s OK. Part of being a kid is learning. So there’s no need to be embarrassed by making educational content for kids. Just because it’s educational doesn’t mean that fun is out of the picture.

With that, I hereby dispense of the whole battle of Fun vs Education. Know your goals, create accordingly, and be proud of what you make.

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