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Sesame Street Meets the App Age: How to Nurture Creative Learning

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By Björn Jeffery and Michael H. Levine

All over the world—from East Asia to South Africa to the Caribbean Basin—ministers of government, captains of industry, and scholars are discussing the best ways to foment innovation. Many experts still regard the United States as a leader in promoting creative uses of capital, technology, and people, with unrivaled access to new ideas and cultures—all prerequisites for innovation. Others point out that open societies value—and foster—creativity.

But can we measure creativity? And if so, what is the best way to promote it right from the start? A new working paper published by the Global Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development OECD for the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester in England defines creativity as focused on five core dispositions. Anne Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Blog (one of our favorites) reports that their research finds that a creative mind is Inquisitive: wondering and questioning; Persistent: sticking with difficulty, daring to be different; Imaginative: playing with possibilities, making connections, Collaborative: sharing, giving and receiving feedback; cooperating and Disciplined: developing techniques, reflecting critically.

As experts in media creation for families and young children, we wondered whether there are specific ways to navigate through the sometimes overwhelming deluge of content available to young children in the apps marketplace; we were looking specifically for apps that speak to these five “seeds of creativity.” Stated simply: we think so! The remarkable ongoing appeal of educational media properties like Sesame Street—which has endured over 40 years of market tumult and change and now reaches some 125 million children in 150 countries, and more recently the global phenomenon of apps and games in the market proves that playful, creative products consumed not just by kids alone, but with the adults around them, can be both fun and engaging.

As the recent report Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West makes clear, the apps market for young children is robust, but the content is disappointing. Educational apps are usually ‘‘skill and drill,” and many of those that pass for storytelling or complex literacy experiences leave much to be desired. Here are some of the design choices that Toca Boca has made in order to be both a commercial market success and to pioneer “creative expression” in the Wild West. Not coincidentally, these same lessons also pertain to the remarkable run that Sesame has had for over four decades.

Focus on Playful and Imaginative Learning


Kids crave playful, imagination-based, inquisitive learning, but they hate most “educational games,” which to their palates taste like a “spinach sundae.”  Kids are honest critics—sometimes brutally honest! They won’t give a boring product a second chance. The only way of knowing if it is fun enough is to test with kids directly. Companies that create valuable educational games take their constituency seriously. Sesame Workshop—now entering its 44th “experimental” season in the United States—still provides “formative testing” on every major new line of work with children themselves. Toca Boca cancelled projects simply because kids didn't like them. When game and app developers start with a goal that adults like (i.e., "Let's make kids eat healthy food") and try to make that fun, sometimes it works, but often it doesn't. As Jim Henson and others found long ago: start with the fun and make it stick. The creative process is the best way to unleash educational power.

Failure is an Option: Persistence Matters and Risks are Good

Seen any coloring books with princesses? What about memory games with farm animals? While imitation has been called the most sincere form of flattery, we find that the work of so many developers is too often predictable and boring. To avoid clichés, take some risks! Just because no one has done it before doesn’t mean that it won’t work. Sesame Workshop has pioneered work in areas ranging from social issues (loss and divorce, economic uncertainty, resilience in military families) to cultural memes like Cookie Monster’s efforts to cut back on his addiction to sweets.  Recently the Workshop’s value as a cultural icon was reinforced when its YouTube channel, which includes both vintage “old school” videos as well as newer content, reached 1 billion views—the first non-profit to reach that peak. Toca Boca's content is new, but based on classic play patterns in a touch-screen environment. The theme can be familiar, but the concept and the interaction of the toy or app should evoke something special, perhaps including inter-generational appeal. If you test it and you get the right reactions from kids and the adults in their lives, then you are onto something.

Target a Global, Interactive Community

The App Store is a difficult market to penetrate —as of March 2013, there were nearly 800k apps in the iTunes store alone that's a lot of competition. The way Toca Boca has attempted to distinguish itself is by designing apps without unnecessary text and voice. Kids should be able to have fun with the apps without sitting through long instructions. What's more, localization is built in to the experience—kids all over the world are experiencing the exact same product. At Sesame, a different approach works: the Muppets are localized to meet the cultural and educational needs defined by the people who know children best. Today’s apps can be sold in more than 150 countries worldwide—why not make the most of that? Let’s build a community of kids who are presenting their own creations as the next generation of content creators.

Design for All

Let's design toys not for boys or girls, but for all kids. Let families decide for themselves what they want to have fun with. Both Sesame Workshop and Toca Boca aim to meet the needs of all children at different developmental levels.

Go Your Own Way

To quote Fleetwood Mac, designers should go their own way! Although it's part of a book publisher with access to existing stories, Toca Boca avoided all third-party characters and created original products. Sure—a world famous brand will help with some recognition, but is the brand made to be interactive? Only sometimes. While Sesame Street maintains its brand equity with great dexterity, and has unique intergenerational appeal, Toca Boca is a case study that shows that you don't need a big, well-recognized brand to succeed today. Need another example? Think about a familiar series of apps about some birds that are upset.

Building creative apps demands something old and something new. Our organizations have distinct approaches, but there's a strong common thread: to create digital canvases and tools that allow kids to produce their own stories and to promote generational currency so that young children can also learn from adults and peers.

There's so much more to do, and tens of millions of kids—especially in those nations that are looking for “an innovation edge” now face a paucity of fun and creative play experiences. So fellow developers, drop the princesses, the phonemes and the memory games and give something new a go!


Michael Levine, Ph.D. is founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, an independent research and innovation lab focusing on education, children, and media. Bjorn Jeffery is CEO and founder of Toca Boca, a digital game studio that currently has nine out of the top 25 Education apps for iPhone in the U.S. and eight on iPad.

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