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Mobile apps reshape toys and learning

The world of apps and mobile devices is reshaping toys and education for kids, who are steering children's media toward a blend of entertainment and education.

The AppBlaster uses an iPhone or iPod Touch to create a virtual shooting gallery, part of a trend in combining interactive media from mobile devices with toys.
Martin LaMonica/CNET

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--While older generations simply had to memorize facts at school, today's children and young adults learn best by playing, often with digital gadgets, according to experts at the Sandbox Summit.

Held at the MIT Media Lab, the conference brings together educators and technologists seeking ways to better reach Generations Y and Z--groups ranging from toddlers to 20 somethings--and equip them with skills for the digital lifestyle of the 21st century. In additional to making compelling online games and educational content, they are also trying to design toys which bridge offline play with online apps.

New technology, particularly multi-touch tablets, has brought interactive media and games to infants barely able to sit up by themselves. Also, today's children and young adults have different expectations from their toys and media, speakers said. These digital natives expect to share information on social media, collaborate, and create their own content.

These technology and demographic changes mean that interactive media and educational toys need to be designed with the idea of "playful learning," or using technology combine entertainment and educational content, speakers said.

"Kids media is in need of disruption," said said Rex Ishibashi, the CEO of Calloway Digital Arts and gaming industry veteran. "The 1980s vision around immersive gaming has played out in spades with Xbox and other things, but kids media has not kept up."

Calloway Digital Arts makes apps for Apple's iOS device which are digital storybooks that include games designed for children's development. Its Thomas the Tank Engine stories, for example, have puzzles and coloring e-books.

Having devices with an intuitive multi-touch interface, such as the iPad or smart phones, opens up many more possibilities than were possible with a PC since children have a far harder time learning how to use a computer mouse, Ishibashi said. The rest of the technology ecosystem, including low-cost content development and ubiquitous wireless networking, is now in place and points to rapid change in children's media and education.

Immersive learning
In addition to developing apps, game and toy developers are seeking to link the physical and online world. The Moshi Monsters games, for example, has a Web site where kids can go online, create worlds for their monsters, and have friends. Other companies are starting to experiment with augmented reality, where mobile devices complement toys.

Life of George is a game where a person makes Lego creations in conjunction with an iPhone or iPod Touch, racing the clock to create something, uploading photos of it, and making their own models. Another toy is AppBlaster, a toy gun that can hold an iPhone or iPod Touch so players can shoot at vertical targets.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is seeking to use the Xbox 360 Kinect gesture interface to change how educational television is watched. The company last fall introduced two games where children alternate between watching a show, such as Sesame Street or a National Geographic nature show, and playing games where they can interact with characters on screen. Using the Kinect gesture interface gets them more actively engaged than just watching, said said Alex Games, education design director at Microsoft.

The notion of creative play is also built into its Kodu project from Microsoft Research, which seeks to teach kids software programming skills.

Bringing educational content to existing products, such as smart phones and gaming consoles, is important because those are the tools children and young adults use every day, either in or outside of school. A survey by research company the Intelligence Group found that 80 percent of young adults sleep with their smart phones next to them.

FlickerLab yesterday gave a demonstration of FlickerStudio, a broadcast-quality video programming software application aimed at children. Martin LaMonica/CNET

But simply putting education material, such as a textbook or math problems, onto digital devices isn't enough. Instead, there needs to be both an element of play and collaboration, said Patty Chang, a co-founder of Scoot&Doodle, an online whiteboard where people can play games or draw from multiple computers.

"We're trying to help teach new skills like collaboration and team work and how to innovate," said Chang. "That can be a tougher sell because it's less prescriptive, which is what parents are used to."

Learning through games or interactive media should improve children's problem-solving skills, which is a break from today's educational system of transferring information from teachers to students, said Microsoft's Games. His hope is that new experiences through interactive games with the Kinect gesture interface can enhance family interactions.

"At the end of the day, all learning will become informal," Microsoft's Games said. "We're transforming the living room and the last bastion of family interaction, which is the TV, into a real interactive experience."