Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Children and educational apps


Last week, Lynne of Lily's Quilts was asking on Twitter for recommendations for educational apps and it occurred to me then that maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing to take a rare deviation from incessant sewing talk to tell you a little more about the ones made by my husband, and in a less instrumental way, by me too. It will soon be a year since my husband took a massive leap and gave up his job of nearly ten years as the Director of a web design agency and came to work here at home, with me, creating educational apps for iPhones and iPads. I haven't really written about them on my blog as I'd worried that it could look like biased promotion, but in this first year his work has received praise in The Telegraph, The Observer, The Guardian and on BBC radio, so although my views are indeed entirely biased, I think they also coincide with a positive view held by those more objective, which I hope validates them in some way!


Several years ago, when my husband's job shifted from being one where he was involved in the hands-on programming aspect of web design and game programming, to one where he was managing people, he began designing an iPhone app in the evenings purely to keep his brain active by learning a new programming language and to help our daughter, who at that time was beginning to learn her times tables. He had always taken a home-made approach to their education - when our little boy struggled to learn to spell, he made Star Wars Top Trumps featuring basic words that needed to be read in order to win the game - and using technology  just seemed a natural step for him, rather than one that we made a conscious decision about.


We noticed that both our children loved collecting things, so my husband designed a set of characters that could be earned, each with a their own idiosyncratic list of likes and dislikes, that once won through answering times tables correctly, were then displayed in a gallery. He told me he needed a collective name for the group of characters and I suggested Squeebles. It's this collection of characters, Squeebles, that are now featured in all of his games.


Our children come from opposite ends of the spectrum: while most things have come with relative ease to our daughter, our son's dyslexia has meant his achievements are harder-won, so when my husband has designed games he does it with an awareness of meeting the needs of children with very diverse abilities: gently stretching a more able child, whilst providing enough frequent reward to encourage those who struggle with learning.


The games cover Times Tables; Addition and Subtraction; Fractions; Division; and Spelling, and the game play for each is different. In some apps turns can be won on games racing 'Squeeblecarts' through answering questions correctly, while in others children win new toppings, fillings and various flavours of sponge with each turn in order to make an amazing array of cakes that can be put before a panel of Squeebles for judging in a cake show (this is my favourite, obviously).



In my husband's apps he has attempted to create a compelling reason to return to the learning element, rather than simply playing with the rewards already earned; he's created multi-aptitude games so that children come away feeling positive about what they've achieved, rather than demoralised over what they couldn't do; he's also tried to create apps where parents don't feel divorced from their children's learning.


Neither of us feel comfortable with the idea of plugging a child into a device and handing education over to an inanimate object. So while in some apps you can access your child's learning stats and see which aspects they've struggled with, in others, such as the spelling app, it really is an extension of yourself. The spellings app is completely customisable: you type in the words you want your child to learn; you record the words in your own voice (with room to explain the meaning of the word vocally if you wish) and there's even a place to record your own congratulations or reward message that can be played on their successful completion of a spelling test (on top of all this, children also win turns on a game by spelling words correctly).

 
Every app is a self-contained, child-safe area - once you've downloaded one it requires no Internet access, has no in-app advertising, there are no communal areas and your children's details can't be seen or accessed by anyone but you. In many ways I feel these apps are an extension of our approach to parenting - they've come out hours of discussion - as well as being a product of our children: when the game is in its design stages, my little boy has often sat for an hour each morning before school drawing cakes, squeeblecarts or whatever else is being worked on, hoping some of his work will be incorporated into the games (and much of it has been).

Runner-up competition entry by Poppy, aged 6
 
On that note, I wanted to mention the design-a-Squeeble competition that my husband's running at the moment. He ran a similar contest earlier in the year and three of the winning designs which we chose from the adorable entries (you can see the top ten here) were transformed into computerised versions of the children's drawings and have since appeared in subsequent Squeebles games. If you think your own child might enjoy this, then you can find details here - the entry deadline is 30th September.


Several years ago our children lived in something of a technology vacuum. When they were small the tiny playroom in the house where they were born was filled with wooden toys and as they grew we made an active decision that we didn't want them to use hand-held consoles or to play on the computer (aside from when my husband programmed games from scratch with them where they hand-drew and voiced all the characters). However, when they went to school, after a few years we realised our aversion to child-technology meant that in laptop lessons they were far less computer savvy than any of their peers. Why does it matter? I said, I don't want them to use a computer. But actually, it did matter. Today's world is so technology-based, that the ability to use it confidently is now as essential as many other elements of the curriculum and my overly-wholesome approach was meaning they felt anxious and out of their depth in laptop lessons. It's taken a while to find a way of using technology with them that doesn't feel like a compromise of the initial values we set out with, but happily, my husband's games are a big part of that solution.

If the games seem like they may be of any interest to you and your children, you can find them in the app store by searching for 'Squeebles'. Prices start at 69p/$0.99.

Let me know if this kind of thing is of interest to you, and if it is then I'll write a post about some of our favourite magazines, books and other resources (not designed by my husband!).

Florence x

37 comments:

  1. Wow, if I had children, I'ld definatly race over to the appstore on my device to buy some and try them out. It sounds like a really fun way to learn.

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  2. I have to say a big thank you. I downloaded the times table app when you first mentioned it on your blog, and spellings this weekend, now both children (8 &10) love to practice their homework. I liked buying an app having read about the person behind it, it's like buying something handmade direct from the maker!

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    1. I'm so pleased - that's so good to hear, Jacqui. And yes, I know what you mean about it feeling more handmade - that's really lovely.

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  3. I had bought the time table app previously and my eldest really enjoyed it, since then I've lost my ipod and so the game. Now we have windows phones so can't use the apps, so please pass on my message that the apps are so great I would like to see them on windows phones as well, I know not as many people have them as iphones but the numbers are growing!

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    1. I've passed your message on! Many of the games are available for Android, but apparently Windows is another thing entirely. That's so sad about losing your iPod - poor you.

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  4. Absolutely this kind of stuff is of interest. It's always good to know what resources other parents are using because invariably you'll come across something you'd like to use too.
    Congratulations to you husband on his new career and the success he's making of it. I rather suspect you're just jolly proud rather than biased!

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    1. Jolly proud too - yes, you're right! So pleased it's of interest - i'll hopefully follow up with a post about some other things very soon.

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  5. Thank you for sharing! I love the spelling squeezes app, I just got it. So cool how you can create a test of spelling words and record your voice saying them. I just set up this week's words for my son. I think he's going to love doing them this way!

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    1. I quite like it being spelling squeezes - I'm imagining children being squeezed into a giant sausage-making machine and coming out knowing their spellings...perhaps there's another app in that idea!

      I'm so pleased you think your son may enjoy squeezes/Squeebles. x

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  6. Ah autocorrect, I meant squeebles, not squeezes

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  7. thank you! my son has just started year 2 and we have times tables test on the horizon and I have really struggled to find one that worked well for us. Have read your post and downloaded Squeebles and it looks like this would be the answer!
    As for being biased, if you think it's a good product (and this is!) then you should be able to write about it without worrying too much.

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    1. They're so litle for such testing, no?

      There's a free printable download on my husband's website with all the tables on if your son wants a tables grid to refer to as well.

      You'll find it here: http://www.keystagefun.co.uk/fun-stuff.html

      Wishing him luck in his test and hoping he enjoys the game. x

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  8. I bought the addition one last time you mentioned your husbands apps and this time I have bought the spelling one. My son is also not naturally academic (I'm watching to see if he turns out to be dyslexic as I am) so anything that encourages him to practise is worth a try. He's only six and a half at the moment, hopefully I will be able to adapt the spelling app to suit his level. Thanks for the recommendation.
    It was interesting to read about your decision to keep your children away from computers when you both use then so much for your living. But I know where you are coming from. In a bid to stop my son becoming a sedentary computer addict he too doesn't posses the same level of skill on the computer as some others in his class. It is always about balance.

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    1. Oh, I hope the spelling app helps :)

      Yes, you're right - it was very odd that we were both such luddites on behalf of our children, when both of our own lives revolved around computers. I think I had a very idealistic idea of what I wanted their childhoods to be like: essentially to retain some of the naivety that was there for the generations that came before theirs - computers seemed the antithesis of that.

      I think as well as realising that it wasn't right for them in our technology-based climate though, my son's dyslexia taught us much about being more open-minded to exploring ways of learning using whatever medium he found most accessible and computers tend to be a wonderful tool for any learning difficulty.

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  9. After struggling to help my spelling challenged twins learn their words for tomorrow's test, this is music to my ears! I think this app might be just what they need. We try to bring up our children in a similar way to you but I'm not sure we do such a good job. I would love to hear what else you do with them to help them learn.

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    1. I'm sure you do - I've just highlighted the better bits in this post and omitted our many failings :). Parenting feels to be a contant juggle and just as we find we feel we're covering one area we realise we've completely neglected to help them in another!

      I'll hopefully post about some of the magazines and books we love later this week.

      The spelling app takes a little dedication initially in setting up a test, but we've found once it's done it's really effective and they love it. The bit where you can record your own message that plays when they've successfully learnt all their spellings is lovely too - we've had a grandparent record a suprise message on there before, as well as recording the cats mewling and a dictionary definition for a word that me and my daughter find amusing. That little feature of the app has become the most enjoyable part in many ways.

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  10. We squeebled when you first mentioned them and I think of you Teacakes every time we play. First son is a natural speller - second could use a bit more practice, but loathes handwriting. Perhaps an app is the answer - off to explore...

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    1. You are sweet to think of us, Ali - thank you. Ditto - exactly that with my children too.

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  11. Love that you shared this. I'm always looking for good apps & educational things for my children. I too have struggled with how much exposure to handhold consoles & electronics to expose my kids to. Recently I got an iPad and discovered I didn't mind them playing educational apps so much as my staunch other rules. Because watching my just 4 year old learning to read really well is such a joy. It hasn't replaced our love for books for example but more amplifies our experience when we read them together now.

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    1. Luckily, the feeling of elation as you watch your child enjoying something while learning makes the humble pie more palatable, doesn't it :)

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  12. I saw your discussion on Twitter and thought I have to look into Squeebles once we get into the school year a bit as my daughter has only just started reception. She loves the iPad (my husband is a geek and has given her his old one) and I know she will just love learning and earning rewards. Thank you for mentioning the Squeebles apps on your blog as I can now show this post to my husband.

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    1. Hi Elisabeth, Reception seems really young for conquering tables (or it would have been for my two, at least) - how about spelling or addition instead? Love those geeky husbands!

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  13. I'm in a similar boat to you, Florence. I have three small ones (aged 4, 3 and 10 months) and despite my husband and I being very techno-savvy (particularly my hubby - I'm afraid is is a borderline geek!), I have always been very averse to children with technology. I hate seeing young children sat glued to their ipod/ipad/DS (etc) with little to no interest in anything else. I wanted my wee ones to spend as much time outside as possible and not use technology at all - we also went all out with the wooden toys!
    However, as you point out, they do need to use it in school and so I didn't want them to be left behind. My eldest has just started school and we do now allow her to use the iPad to play educational games (only for half an hour at the weekend!). She's a very fluent reader and loves to do the spelling and writing apps, although I have a feeling the Squeebles one might be a little old for her - what is the age it is aimed at?

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    1. Hi Smee, it's odd how those wooden toys seem so much more virtuous, isn't it. I've saved all ours in the loft for grandchildren!

      I think because it's customisable, it's actually appropriate for any age - from learning to spell 'dog' and 'cat' to perfecting the spelling of trickier words like 'pharaoh' (which was one of my daughter's more memorable spellings she was given to learn aged 7, as I had to learn it myself too!). x

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  14. They look fantastic! We invited Carol Vordeman into our life this summer and have not regretted it at all. The Squeebles look like just the thing to wean my child off her Moshi Monsters habit... (I'm with you on the wooden toys thing - letting my tiny children play with a wicker basket of found objects has not prevented them from growing into the wanties when it comes to technology!)

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    1. Who could regret inviting Carol into their life? She's lovely (although we haven't actually used any of her educational material yet).

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  15. Def giving the times table one a try, my girl is in the middle of them at the moment, and quite interested. This will be good for the car trip home to get homework done!

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    1. I agree - that's where apps are really useful for children: that they can be used at times that would otherwise be dead time, meaning that by the time they are home they can get on with relaxing and playing.

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  16. I love the design of the Squeebles! Cool name too :)

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  17. Yesterday morning I sent the link to your post to my daughter. When I arrived last night for a spot of babysitting, the three grandchildren couldn't wait to show me the new apps on their mother's iPad. The 7 year-old granddaughter took delight in showing me the times table app, while her two younger brothers waited patiently for their turn. Please thank your wonderful husband for enlightening children of all ages in such a fun way.

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    1. Your comments always make me smile - thank you! That was so lovely to read! xxx

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  18. Brilliant post, my kids are all in secondary/Uni , but I have sent the link to my nephews who are 3 and 2( their mums!)

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  19. We've had the times table app for awhile and hadn't realised there were more, so have downloaded them all (except for fractions, that can wait!) Am particularly looking forward to the using the spelling app for weekly tests, thanks for sharing.

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  20. Have just downloaded the timestables app for my 8yr old. They will not be learning them officially till next year but hopefully she enjoys it. Will let you know. thanks.

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  21. After reading this post, I immediately downloaded the spelling game and set it up for my 8 and 6 year olds. I absolutely love it! some great features: I can set up different spelling tests for each child; they can take the tests in the car as we drive back and forth to various activities; they love gaining new squeebles and playing squeeberang; I can completely customize the tests for each child (for example, the 8 year old does not get to see the word first but the 6 year gets to see it for a few seconds). I have found other apps to be a waste of money because they are either too hard or too easy and I cannot change them to work for my kids. Not so with this app! I have recommended this one to many parents and the kids' teachers. thanks for telling us about this app and keep them coming!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a message - it's always really lovely to hear from people.

I now tend to reply within the comments section, so please do check back if you've asked a question or wish to chat.

Florence x