Apps for Learning That Can Be Fun Too

August 01, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Out-of-School Learning, Parents and Families, Students, Tools

PBS Kids Interactive has a history of producing strong, multiplatform content for children, and it has been particularly successful with transmedia storytelling in bridging the gap between TV and mobile. As Wired’s GeekDad writer Daniel Donahoo put it, PBS Kids is “setting up a platform that demonstrates how to convert existing content and characters into digital content that both respects the mobile space, but also the children who will be engaging with it.”

Donahoo interviewed PBS Kids Interactive vice president Sara Dewitt to discuss what PBS Kids strives for when creating interactive, mobile content, and how they achieve these goals. One of the most interesting takeaways from the interview was Dewitt’s response to the question of what is most important in developing mobile content for children. 

“When we are developing an app we think about what kids love most — true, immersive character engagement that’s exciting,” said Dewitt. “Apps should center on relevant, age-appropriate content that balances engagement with learning. Other networks will tell you this balance is impossible, but PBS Kids continually draws new audiences to content that is both funny and smart.” Dewitt also stressed the importance of accounting for children’s motor skills, and testing apps to guarantee they are developmentally appropriate.

PBS has created two advisory boards to ensure their efforts remain purposeful, thoughtful and developmentally appropriate. Dewitt explained the rigorous process for vetting PBS Kids content:

Advisory board members include academics, teachers, organizations that advocate for children, and digital content experts. In addition to working with these outside folks on a regular basis, we also make sure all of our producers do usability testing throughout production. In addition, many of our games are included in rigorous formative and summative evaluations, including pre- and post-tests to understand what children may have learned from playing with our content.

The project is supported in part by the U.S. Department of Education's Ready to Learn grant program, which funds projects designed to build math and literacy skills among children.  Particularly helpful for parents and educators is that the games and apps are sorted by age group and type of technology, and parents can trust that they’re not simply time-wasters, but are imparting some solid learning. Here’s the mobile apps site, for example.

“We have made a strategic investment to offer our content wherever kids and parents are — on TV, online, mobile devices, in the classroom — to be truly multi-platform,” said Dewitt. “Our characters go beyond the television screen, and most importantly, our audience can expect to have a consistent experience with them whether they are interacting with them in a mobile app, watching them on-screen, or playing games with them online.”

In addition, many of the games are accompanied with offline activities that kids can play with their peers, parents and educators. I especially liked the Fetch! Lunch Rush app (free) for iPhone, iPod touch, and other mobile devices because it experiments with augmented reality and has the kids (age 6+) running around like mad in real time to fill lunch orders for Ruff Ruffman. And they learned some math skills to boot.

According to Dewitt, PBS Kids is constantly exploring ways to adapt to developing technologies and has many new exciting projects on the horizon. They’re currently working on body input navigation using webcams, 3D collaborating games that help hone math skills, and developing a new virtual world. All of these upcoming developments help contribute to PBS Kids’ innovations, or what Dewitt refers to as “some of the most cutting-edge media available to young learners today.”