Kids today spend an appreciable amount of time on computers, tablets, smartphones and other electronic devices.
More than half of teenage smartphone owners go online mostly through their phones; and 58 percent have downloaded apps on them, reports the Pew Research Center in Teens and Technology 2013. Meanwhile, 23 percent own tablets.
Given these demographics, the opportunity for educational companies to reach young minds through mobile technologies that blend learning and entertainment is greater than ever.
In short, we’ve come a long, long way from Speak & Spell and Etch-A-Sketch. That shift will be in sharp focus at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2014, from Jan. 7-10 in Las Vegas, where both major players in the educational industry and some startups will share their latest creations: everything from educational apps to specially designed tablets and 3D printers.
“We don’t want to be a pure school tool or a pure entertainment tool,” says Beth Marcus, founder and CEO of Playrific, an educational app company in North Billerica, Mass. “Parents know their kids are going to have screen time anyway, so we want to make it as valuable as we can.”
Playrific sells apps focused on preschoolers and elementary-school-age children that straddle the fence between educational and fun. One example is “Under the Sea,” an app that provides activities and facts about sea creatures, and features narrated mini-books, memory matching games, and libraries of underwater photography.
Another company, New York-based Speakaboos, focuses on literacy with its hybrid all-in-one applications and games. Famous nursery rhymes and stories are brought to life by celebrity narrators, and educational offerings help students with math and English. One popular Speakaboos app is “Who am I? Wild animals.” The story teaches kids about creatures found in the jungle, and has an interactive element that allows youngsters to choose which animal has which characteristics.
Unlike many companies that sell apps individually for fees, Speakaboos uses a subscription model, charging $4.99 a month for all its content. It develops for Apple iOS but is launching on Android in early January.
“We’re trying to blend what kids enjoy about digital devices, with an educational bent,” says Dr. Alice Wilder, chief content officer of Speakboos. "I don’t believe that kids have such a short attention span they can’t learn on [digital devices]. I think kids will engage in things as long as you make it interesting.”
Tailoring gadgets for young minds
Another clear trend among children’s educational electronics at CES will be “maker mentality” devices that allow students to create and learn visually through building. One company eying this space is Blokify, a New York startup co-founded by former Sesame Street employee Jenny Kortina.
Blokify uses tools and models to encourage kids to create shapes and designs on tablets. They can send the creations to a company called Cubify, have them printed on 3D printers, and then shipped back to them. The 3D printing process costs about $100 per model, depending on the size of what the child has made, plus shipping costs, Kortina says.
“I thought the biggest problem with modeling software on the Web was that there were too many tools, and it was too complicated for kids,” she says. “So we started this very simply, with blocks each having a different design, and then the user can take it from there.”
The common link between all of the aforementioned applications is that they are used on tablets, and that will be another major CES focus. At least six major tablet makers will unveil new machines or upgrades at CES, with companies like KD Group (makers of Kurio tablets for kids and families) and Samsung (maker of the popular Samsung Kids tablet) expected to show off new wares.
“The packaging and everything else they’re doing is designed for kids,” says Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children’s Technology Review magazine. “Parents can use them in ‘parents mode,’ but the software and hardware are bundled and marketed for children’s use.”
The quality varies widely among the new tablets: between price, the number of apps they can run, and the cost for a year’s worth of subscription apps, Buckleitner says.
Indeed, with some tablets, apps can easily run parents more than $300. “And the problem with a lot of them is that they’re so clunky to operate,” Buckleitner adds. “You get into the parent control options, and the fonts are so small that adults can’t read it! But some companies are finally fixing that.”
Of course, whether or not adults will be able to use these tablets in a few years is not something most companies in the educational tablet market are worried about. Hooking children -- and ensuring future customers throughout an entire educational career -- is what’s most important.