Spellings, fractions, multiplication tables. All these things can only really be learned through repeated exposure and daily practice. Only, if your kids are like mine, then persuading them to practice their school work every day is at best boring, and at worst a battleground between yourself and your child. I turned to my iPad for help and discovered Key Stage Fun, the developer behind a whole range of fun, intuitive, fully customizable learning apps that my six-year-old son fell in love with.
My first experience with Key Stage Fun was with their Squeebles Spelling app which I bought soon after my son began having weekly tests at school. The app changed the dynamic of homework in our house, taking spelling practice from something I dreaded to something I could set up quickly once a week, then supervise at a distance over the remaining days without having to constantly nag for it to be done. And the app worked. Not only was it helping at home, my son’s spelling test results at school were consistently 9 or 10 out of ten every week.
Since then my son and I have been able to play with the whole Key Stage Fun app range which includes games for multiplication tables, fractions, telling the time, addition and subtraction, and more besides. The apps all follow a formula, with similar designs that allow kids to easily pick up what they have to do. Practice in the games unlocks content in the fun bonus games contained in most of the apps. Play Squeebles Maths Bingo to unlock cones, flavors and toppings in Ruby’s Ice Cream Parlour. Practice in Squeebles Fractions to earn entries into a cake show, along with flavors, fillings, and icings to create your prize winning submissions. Practice telling the time to earn increasingly powerful rockets for SkyDash, a game which involves firing rockets as high as possible and collecting bubble stones. All the bonus games are a lot of fun, but in order to keep playing entries need to be earned through the main game, which brings kids back to learning over, and over again.
As much as my six-year-old enjoys playing the bonus games, as a parent, I love how customizable each app is to my child’s precise needs. I can choose the exact type of questions he is presented with to avoid him becoming discouraged by overly complicated math he has yet to learn at school, but also to avoid him racking up points by sticking with material way below his level. Some apps, such as Squeebles Spelling, and Squeebles Word Search are almost 100% parent-led. Instead of relying on words already stored in the app, I can create tests and games using the weekly word lists sent home by the teacher, or create fun ones based on current interests. A few sets are available to download if you want more content. Other options can be adjusted as well depending on the app, including currency, and clock details such as AM/PM times, and analogue/digital displays. Parents can also view stats which show them how often their child is playing the game and how well they’re doing, and all these settings can be locked in a pin-protected parent/teacher zone to prevent little fingers from making their own changes.
There are, of course, a few issues. For example, I’d love to see each spelling test more individually customizable. At this point, when I select whether or not my son gets to see a word before he is tested on it, my choice applies to all tests on the device. I’d personally like the ability to allow him to get a preview of words on his newest words, but not on historic ones he’s already memorized. My son has some suggestions himself, and has mentioned his desire to have a countdown-free mode for some of the math games; right now the only available option is whether or not the countdown clock is shown on screen. However, as a group, the Key Stage Fun apps are as near to a perfect educational app experience as I could ask for.
I took some time to talk with the developers at Key Stage Fun to discuss the apps, their development process, and what we can expect to see in the future.
GM: How do your apps differ from other educational games in the market?
KSF: “We’ve always tried to deliver apps that focus on the fact that children will learn far more effectively when they’re enjoying the learning, whilst also appreciating that all children are different and need different motivations.
One of the key things is that most of our apps are highly customizable to suit each child’s unique ability level, so you’ll find a lot of flexibility in terms of settings for parents and teachers to change, whilst the part of the app the children see is simple, fun, colorful and motivating.
As well as that, we’ve tried to involve children in the design of our apps – several of the Squeebles characters have been designed by primary school age children via our competitions, and we also consistently gather feedback from the people using our apps so as to make sure we’re giving them what they want. We stay away from any form of in-app purchases or advertising, so as well as being fun and effective learning tools, our apps are also safe for children to use.”
GM: Do you attempt to align your content with National Curriculum and other school programs? If so how do you go about that, and how do you keep up with changes?
KSF: “Squeebles has been designed for a global audience, whose curriculum varies from country to country. To try and cater for this diversity, we take on board advice from educators from around the world and try and build their feedback and suggestions into our apps and, as a result, they seem to have a fairly universal appeal.
Because it’s important for young children to be educated in a way that reflects their day-to-day experience of the country they live in, we provide parents and teachers with lots of options so that they can customise the app to feel ‘just right’ to the child using it. For example, wherever it might be relevant we provide options for displaying text in UK or US English, money that can be shown in various currencies, choice in the phrasing the app will use when it comes to a child learning to tell the time (e.g. past/to after/’til etc).
Very occasionally, we will be slightly more specific – for example, in our Squeebles Spelling Test app, which allows users to create and record their own spelling tests, at the request of teachers where we’re based in England, we also now offer pre-recorded tests that adhere to the UK national curriculum. However, on the whole, we try to keep the content we offer to our users the same across the board.”
GM: Can you tell us about your process of developing apps?
KSF: The process differs from project to project, particularly coming up with the initial concept. We’ve always stuck to the philosophy that children come up with some of the best ideas themselves, so we’ll try to get them involved whenever possible but, as with most creative processes, ideas can come from anywhere! The development of an app itself usually takes between 4 and 6 months, depending on the complexity of the project and the amount of artwork that’s required. As always, proper planning at the start makes a massive difference, but, of course, we regularly come up with totally new ideas half way through the development that we want to include, so it’s a pretty flexible process and one we have great fun being involved with.
GM: How do you go about designing the Squeebles, and the fun games included as rewards in each app?
KSF: The characters themselves are a lot of fun to design. We based some of the personalities on people we knew (all positive traits I should add!) and others were just completely made up. The individual personalities of each character are part of what makes the apps so endearing to children, who love collecting them as they progress through the educational side of each app. Graphically, we wanted something fairly simple, but that also offered lots of opportunity for us to individualize each Squeeble.
The mini-games within the apps that we offer as a reward need to be quick, fun and easy to pick up and play. The balance between the educational side of the app and the reward needs to be carefully balanced so children are motivated to continue learning because they can earn time on the games, but not so much time that it starts to take over.
GM: How do you playtest the apps with children?
KSF: We let them play, without instruction and we watch and get them to tell us what they think. Children have massively different ideas to adults about what is fun. Often it will be some tiny little feature that we barely thought twice about that captures their imagination, whilst the bit we as adults thought would grab them goes largely unnoticed, so working with children is essential. We also get feedback from parents and teachers across the world as to which parts of the apps really work well from a child’s perspective. As I mentioned before, children come up with great ideas, so we’re always open to their suggestions and as with anything, if lots of people tell you the same thing, you have to listen.
GM: What can we expect from you in 2016 and onwards?
KSF: We’re going to be working closely with a school to develop the concept for our next app and we’re really excited about that one! We’re also looking to bring some of our apps to other platforms – there are still a lot of people using desktop computers and other methods of learning digitally. We want to reach as many children as possible with our apps. There are one or two other projects in the pipeline and of course, we’ll continue to update and improve our existing apps so our customers can keep enjoying them.
GeekMom received copies of some Key Stage Fun apps for review purposes.