As part of our ongoing series of interviews with people making a difference in the education and technology fields, we spoke to Andy Russell, Co-Founder of Launchpad Toys, about the Toontastic app and designing educational apps for kids.
Launchpad Toys develop entertaining and educational apps that help kids learn to tell stories. Find out more at launchpadtoys.com.
SMATOOS: Who came up with the idea for Toontastic? Was it inspired by a love of cartoons?
Andy Russell (AR): Toontastic began as my Graduate School thesis, but has evolved dramatically since then thanks to the remarkable work of my co-founder, Thushan Amarasiriwardena, and our team here at Launchpad. I do like cartoons (a lot), but it was really inspired by a love of play and storytelling (interwoven) and the desire to create a tool that would capture all the stories inherent in imaginative play so that kids can share them with friends and family around the world.
SMATOOS: This is an educational app. Did you have any teachers or education specialists contributing to the development of the app?
AR: Yes – lots! We prototyped the software at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education as a museum exhibit for the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco. In school, I had great input from classmates, professors, and an array of teachers and museum educators. Since starting the company, we’ve maintained and grown those partnerships and continue to test/prototype all of our software with local schools and the Children’s Museum.
SMATOOS: Toontastic helps kids learn how to tell stories. Why do you think that’s necessary? Is “what happens next” the most important question you can ask?
AR: Following in the footsteps of Piaget, Papert and Vygotsky, we believe that kids learn best by designing, creating, sharing, and then iteratively refining their ideas through social feedback loops. As educators, it’s our responsibility to create tools and curricula that empower and scaffold this learning cycle (known as “debugging” to Constructionists) – not just in math and science, but in the humanities as well. With Toontastic, we focused on storytelling because A) it’s the oldest and most universal learning tool known to Man, B) learning to tell (good) stories is a critical life skill, and C) the stories that kids create are inherently educational themselves – enabling us to create not just a great storytelling tool, but a Global Storytelling Network where kids can learn about the world through the stories of other kids. “What happens next?” is an important question, but I think the bigger question is actually “What’s happening in the world around me?”
SMATOOS: The design and interface of the app are really tight and lots of attention has clearly been paid to the details. Plenty of apps for kids are sloppy, cutting corners with the idea that kids won’t notice or mind. Do you think kids care?
AR: My co-founder Thushan, our artists Mark and Sarah, and our programmers go to extraordinary lengths to polish our products to the point where they feel like real-world, tangible objects – less like Video Games and more like Digital Arts and Crafts. For kids to truly immerse themselves in imaginative play, the experience has to be seamless… allowing for an almost movie-like suspension of disbelief. Shoddy graphics, processor delays, and error messages shatter that imaginative immersion.
SMATOOS: What’s the most important thing to remember when developing an app designed to improve kids’ creativity?
AR: I wrote a blog article about this a few months back entitled “Inventing for Playful Invention”. To sum it up: adults like blank canvases because it allows them to create anything they want, but kids like building blocks because they provide a catalyst – a story starter for their imagination. When designing for Creative Learning, the two keys are A) break down big ideas into small building blocks and B) give kids a megaphone so that they can share their ideas with other kids.
SMATOOS: In a time when arts funding for schools in the U.S. is being cut to almost nothing, do you think that technology, like the iPad, and educational apps have the potential to fill the gap?
AR: Nothing could ever “fill the gap” left by a good teacher or parent. “Technology” is just a tool – like a hammer – and kids need to learn to use tools as much as they need to learn concepts and facts. Some tools are more conducive to figuring out on your own (we try) and some are semi-successful at scaffolding lessons, but no software today holds a candle to a dynamic, adaptive, empathetic, pattern-matching teacher or parent. At Launchpad, we create Parent-Teacher guides for our software to encourage collaborative/intergenerational play. Our goal is not to isolate the child with the device nor shut him/her off to the rest of the world, but to bring kids, parents, teachers, cousins, and grandparents together to play and learn from each other.
SMATOOS: Toontastic has received rave reviews as well as plenty of awards this year, including a place in the iTunes Hall of Fame and a Parents’ Choice award. What impact has this had on the company?
AR: It’s been a remarkable year. We launched the app in January as an experiment to test whether young children, given the right hardware/software platform, could create intelligible stories to share with each other. It took all of about two hours (post-launch) to not only confirm our suspicions (boy could they!), but to open our eyes to this extraordinary vein of creativity connecting kids around the world. The awards are great, but they’re really just an affirmation of everything the kids are creating. With that said, they’ve certainly been helpful in raising money to build the company so that we can pursue our dream of a suite of Creative Learning toys just like Toontastic.
SMATOOS: Are there any developers out there that you think are producing really innovative education apps?
AR: Many, though I’m partial to open-ended “Digital Play” and creativity tools. Two of my favorites in that category are Kidoodle Apps and Toca Boca. I recently co-authored an article on the “Top 10 Essentials for the Digital Toy Box” that covers a few more (well, eight more I guess).
SMATOOS: Will users of Android tablets get a version of Toontastic any time soon?
AR: We’re hoping to expand onto as many touchscreen platforms as we can. Fragmentation is still a significant problem for Android, but we’re hoping that platforms like the Fire/Nook help to change that.
SMATOOS: Toontastic was Launchpad Toys’ first app, and a runaway success. What other apps are you working on?
AR: Imagine all your favorite toys as a kid… with record buttons.
Images from Launchpad Toys.