Top of many a child's Christmas list this year is sure to be a tablet computer or a smartphone device. While your little ones may be looking forward to getting to grips with a handful of gaming apps over the holidays after unwrapping their top tech present, that doesn't necessarily have to be the mind-numbing experience that many parents dread. Mindshapes, a new digital publisher of apps and browser based games (made up in part by the team behind social-gaming juggernaut Playfish) are looking to promote learning through a fusion of gaming and educational principles.
"One of the things that is really important to us is how do you make learning more accessible to a broader range of people? How do you make it more interesting?" Mindshapes CEO David Begg told Tech Digest.
"The delivered learning method isn't always the most effective for the broadest population. We're not trying to challenge the way that schools teach, we're not trying to provide tools for teaching in schools, but we're looking at the ways we can provide accessory products for learning outside of school."
Having secured $5 million of series A investment from its founders and angels, Mindshapes are now preparing to launch two new products, which they describe as "ground-breaking learning worlds."
The first of these is Language City, described as an "immersive, task based, language learning virtual world", which is preparing to launch in closed beta. The next, Magic Town, takes the slightly more familiar shape of an interactive story-book.
"Magic Town as a story-based learning platform has been built with a very deep consideration of the core aspects of learning and development for children in the 2-7 year old age group." said Begg.
"We're not trying to teach cognitive skills, we are trying to teach some of the fundamental underpinnings of learning, that children of that age require. Things like creativity, reasoning, moral understanding, emotional development and social development, involving children in that learning through stories. Our animation content is built on the back of that [...] and the whole of the interactive structure behind those books has been built with the intention of creating the right level of involvement, and driving greater involvement in the story, rather than creating that story as a game."
Though Begg clearly does not want Mindshapes' future as an app publisher be too strictly labelled at this early stage ("I don't want to pigeon-hole us into the space of educational apps," he stresses) a clear effort has been made to maximise the educational potential in each of their products.
"Education isn't an overlay for us, education is deeply embedded in what we are doing from the ground up, and every product we are building comes from a proper understanding of the learning context for that", continued Begg.
"We have an advisory board made up of specialists in education, including Professor Harris from Harvard school of education, one of the leading spokespeople on child development and child psychology, We have within our team people who've previously been teachers, as well as Schoolastic and other educational based bodies. We have deep partnerships with a number of schools that go through pre-school to age 11 and above, as well as specialists in the particular areas that we are working in."
Mindshapes also clearly realise the potential for added engagement that gaming elements bring, with so many youngster these days glued to their games consoles.
"One can gain enormously from playing in a fun, immersive environment that has learning elements to it. Schools are already using a lot of gaming based products, not necessarily in their standard classroom, but certainly in some of the teaching areas beyond the classroom."
That engagement has been greatly increased thanks to the advent of the touchscreen, and larger screen devices like the iPad, believes Begg:
"The touchscreen has had an enormous impact on this category, particularly in the younger children segment, and I think the advent of a lot of products that are evolving, particularly in the younger child segment, would not have been able to have been developed when we were browser based. The touchscreen, and the tablet in particular, is an enormously intuitive device for kids."
Even with the best of intentions, Mindshapes are entering an increasingly crowded area of the app market, with everything from branded children's apps leveraging the likenesses of popular characters to curriculum based apps all vying for the attention of parents and children alike. But Begg remains confident in the Mindshapes vision, and the great potential it holds for the company's young audience:
"We're not trying to be fundamentally revolutionary, but we've learnt a lot from the products that came out previous to ours and a lot of the theory relating to reading content. We're building products that have to stand on their own two feet across multiple platforms, and the responsibility is on us to market those products directly to our customers in the most effective way.
"Mindshapes are really looking to how to apply the interactivity and gameplay that come out of the typical gaming market, and how to incorporate that to make learning more immersive, more fun, more entertaining. We put together a team here that is extra ordinary when it comes to gameplay and interactivity. There is an extra ordinary tech team, and great artists behind that too, and in addition to that we've created a very strong team that have deep educational experience. It's that combination that make us really, really strong."
For more on Mindshapes, click here.