It didn’t take long after the iPad arrived to see that young children could use them. In fact, so simple and so compelling is that large, glass, iOS interface that even small pets were getting in on the action. So, while games have been the first big battleground for the app developers, it’s not hard to see why there’s been a boom in the education section - especially those aimed at little ones.
With tablets just as good for learning as they are keeping the younglings entertained, people are prepared to pay for the privilege, so anyone who can really deliver on the promise of the combination of the two is in for some big business.
One such company trying its hand in the sector is Mindshapes. Based in the UK, it's made up of a team of teachers, educators, linguists and scholars who worked at Sony, Sega, CBeebies, Sesame Workshop, HarperCollins and the social games company Playfish. Its mission lies in the game-ification of learning.
“It’s not the easiest of spaces to play in,” admits David Begg, Mindshapes CEO.
“Lots have tried and failed but, if 5-10 per cent of users are there not to learn but to play, then we’ve succeeded. That way we’ll know it’s fun, irrespective, and that’s one of the goals.”
The game in question is the first from Mindshapes known as Magic Town. Magic Town is a web - and soon to be tablet iPad and iPhone - application aimed at the 2 to 6-year-old age group with literacy the focus.
The town in question is a virtual countryside populated by a choice of different houses that the children can visit at the click of a mouse or tap of a finger, and each of these houses represents a different series of stories from popular publishers. So, you’ll find a patchwork residence to represent Elmer the Elephant, a pink castle for the Little Princess and so on. Once inside, there are books to read as well as games to play. Some carefully designed characters guide your children through it all and even provide a call to action to get out of the virtual world and into the real one.
As Begg explains: “Every game is a learning-based game but we have games that take place in the real world too. The idea is to have an hour on-screen and an hour off-screen, so you might find yourself hunting for objects in the woods.”
As a resource for parents, the all round offering sounds undeniably compelling but it’s the Livebook - the core of the experience - on which Magic Town will almost certainly be judged.
The Livebook is the interactive, animated eBook structure on which each storybook is presented and it works in four different ways. The first mode "Watch" is a simple automatic playback of the pages in animated style with the words read out; the second "Play" provides some interaction on top of that; "Explore" offers back questions and games based on the books; and in "Read" the child and parent can read together.
“It’s all centred around typical pre-seven things to learn to set children up for life - morals, creativity, linguistics, problem solving," Says Begg. "These are most effectively told and taught through stories; through a character and explained with a moral context and society and social situation.”
Of course, if this is the case, if stories are of such importance and if, as Begg says continually throughout our meeting, "reading is sacrosanct to the process", then is Magic Town, and the subscription paid to be part of it, really necessary beyond over pure, simple books?
“Books are great,” Begg concedes, “but we need more. Cartoons are enjoyable but too linear and exclusive, and apps are interactive but the narrative is broken. We sit in the middle of these.”
While Mindshapes aims at a deeper engagement, the company doesn't stretch so far as to measure levels of learning or, indeed, promise that you'll see educational benefits of any sort. Nonetheless, sitting down in front of the PC with 2-year-old Toddler-lint, there’s certainly some appeal as far as the target audience goes.
Turning the pages with clicks of the mouse and activating the odd tractor to roll its way across the virtual page is an obvious source of enjoyment but it still seems very early days for Magic Town just yet with the experience, so far, not feeling quite what it's been promised to be.
Its chance to really come to life will be when the application is brought to the iPad, which overlaps the niche of a book far better than something anchored to a desk, keyboard and mouse. The second crucial factor is going to be expanding the library of titles so that every children's favourite can be accessed at the touch of a screen.
“We have 100 hours of content from launch with 42 titles and we’re looking to add a further 10-15 per month,” says Begg.
The likes of Winnie the Witch, Aliens Love Underpants, World of Happy and Elmer the Elephant are certainly a good start, but there’s a whole heap of classic gaps to plug.
“We’ve spoken to all the publishers and they’re very excited,” Begg says and perhaps that’s not so hard to imagine, given the £7.95 a month subscription that the parents need to stump up for unlimited access to all that Magic Town has to offer. With plans to come to the Kindle Fire when it hits the UK as well as a pay-as-you-read payment system, Mindshapes has certainly got it all heading in the right direction. And, if this system does take off, will that be the end of children's books as we know them? Apparently that's not what Mindshapes has got in its sights.
"We're not here to replace books or even TV," Begg reassures. "That said, if we do end up stealing from TV, perhaps that's not such a bad thing."