Data-Driven Parenting App Gives Personalized Tips for Every Kid
Learner Mosaic helps parents come up with activities based on what their kids are learning.
In 2012, P.J. Gunsagar and Dylan Arena founded Kidaptive and released their first iPad app, Leo’s Pad. It stars Leo, a young inventor with a treehouse laboratory, and combines segments of animated story with a variety of mini-games. It’s been downloaded over 800,000 times, with an App Store rating hovering near five stars. Kids love it.
But there is science hiding behind the fun: A tool, built on cutting-edge research in developmental psychology, that closely tracks the cognitive progress of its young users and adjusts the app’s difficulty accordingly. It’s a toy, but it’s one that gathers a tremendous amount of data on how it’s being used.
Now, Gunsagar and Arena want to put that data to use to help parents. Kidaptive’s new free app, Learner Mosaic, serves up ideas for backseat games and dinner table discussion topics that reinforce the skills being learned in the Leo’s Pad app. It takes the latest understanding of what kids ages five and younger should be learning, dices it into activities that are manageable for overworked parents, and surfaces those activities at just the right time in a kid’s development. The vision, as Gunsagar puts it, is to put a really smart preschool teacher in every parent’s pocket.
A New Type of Kids App
When they met in 2011, Gunsagar and Arena were both working with children, albeit in much different ways. Gunsagar owned a production company that worked on movies like Planes and Tinkerbell. Arena was at Stanford, pursuing a PhD related to games and their effect on learning. Gunsagar started spending time at Stanford, learning about Arena’s work and immersing himself in the latest research in developmental psychology. He quickly had a realization: No one was using the stuff.
Gunsagar was teaching his own young kids the ABCs and the 123s. At Stanford, however, he was hearing about the importance of skills like impulse control and cognitive flexibility. Here were entire dimensions of his youngsters’ development that he’d previously been oblivious to.
Leo’s Pad was created to engage all these different types of skills. It teaches kids about colors and counting, sure, but also has games specifically designed around skills like categorization, symbolic representation, and turn-taking. At the heart of the game is an “adaptive learning engine” that evaluates kids’ performance in these skills and adjusts subsequent games accordingly. If your kid’s mastered counting, for instance, the game might introduce more advanced concepts, like grouping and cardinality. The adaptive approach helps the app “ask the right questions at the right time,” Gunsagar says.
A Lightweight Tool for Parents
The aim with the new app is to give parents additional activities to bolster what the kids are already learning. It was designed with the help of design consultancy Frog, which invested in Kidaptive as part of the firm’s incubator program, FrogVentures. In discussions with parents, Frog’s designers zeroed-in on a tricky balance of demands: “The overwhelming message from parents was, ‘we absolutely want to be engaged,’ but the corollary message was, ‘we absolutely don’t have time,'” says Ethan Imboden, Frog’s head of venture design.
The app thus supplies lightweight activities directly linked to their kid’s progress through Leo’s Pad. These could be games, activities, or simply topics for discussions—many of which derive from findings in peer-reviewed studies and have been molded by masters-level preschool teachers. Say your daughter Jessica finishes a Leo’s Pad game that exercises impulse control. Learner Mosaic might suggest a “watery adventure” activity that explores the same skill. In this case, you put a blanket on the floor and tell Jessica it’s a river. You tell her to jump in the river, then you have her jump out. In, out. In, out. Then, you switch up the order of the instructions and see if Jessica will follow. The aim is to get her to delay gratification by listening to the instructions, even when their pattern in changed—kind of like Simon Says.
The idea is to reinforce the skill learned in the game with an activity outside it. “Connecting learning across context is a way to reinforce transfer, and transfer is the fundamental problem of education,” Arena, who serves as Kidaptive’s chief learning scientist, explains. “You teach a kid a thing, but you don’t want them to just reproduce that thing in that context. You want them to take it out into the world.” The more situations in which a kid exercises impulse control, the better chance they have at internalizing it.
Building a Platform for Learning
Gunsagar and Arena hope Learner Mosaic could eventually become a platform that takes in data from all sorts of other activities, as well as third-party apps. Someday, there could be a whole section of games in the App Store that automatically feed information to the app when your kids play with them.
Eventually, Gunsagar says, these learning profiles could be powerful tools for an entirely different type of evaluation. By cross referencing a kid’s performance on certain skills in Leo’s Pad with those same skills as put to work in a new app, Kidaptive’s platform could help sort which other learning apps are effective and which are bunk.
“Just think about the problem that solves for the apps ecosystem,” Gunsagar says. “They’re struggling with app discovery. Parents are buying the hardware, schools are buying the hardware, but they don’t know which apps work. We can start to speak to, with real empirical evidence, which apps work and which apps don’t.” It’s a vision in which Kidaptive becomes an algorithimic gatekeeper for learning apps, crunching the numbers on which new titles are worth your time and growing its own data sets all the while. But now that’s all adult stuff, isn’t it?