Why Mobile is the Future of Playful Learning

This article was written for the Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop here.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting on a panel at the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Conference to discuss Mobile Learning. As our good friends at Project Noah and other games/apps like The Hidden Park have shown, mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad present incredible opportunities for developers like ourselves to get kids out of the house, learning about the world around us, and sharing their findings with peers around the globe.

The Million-Dollar-Question arose: How do apps like Toontastic benefit from mobile?

To answer this, let's hop in the DeLorean and take a trip back to a magical time when wearing your jeans backwards was 'ill and Hypercolor seemed like a good idea. Yes, I'm talking about 1995 and the dawn of Edutainment CD-Roms. Throughout the mid-late 90's, multimedia titles like The Magic School Bus, Math Blaster, and Reader Rabbit blended curricular workbooks and cartoon entertainment by turning animated characters into tutors and problem sets into games. The rich affordances of the CD-Rom enabled developers to create engaging and impactful content but ultimately proved to be a double-edged sword – with the luxury of high-quality sound, video, and animation came the strict limitations of the desktop PC. As play moved from the kitchen table and the living room carpet to the home office, it became less collaborative and open-ended and more solitary, linear, and defined. Just as Woody, Buzz, and the fingerpaints found themselves usurped by the mouse and keyboard, parents and siblings began to take a back seat to an animated Barney as kids' play partners and mentors.

Today, mobile devices like the iPad enable kids to play and learn anytime, anywhere. Immediately, our minds leap to interactive museums and nature trails, but the journey from the upstairs office to the kitchen island may be equally if not more impactful. By situating learning in family spaces, we enable kids to play alongside mom and dad while they cook dinner or clean up the house and, in turn, enable parents, siblings, grandparents, and cousins to step in as mentors, tutors, collaborators, and playmates.

Sylvia Marino, a mother of three and an advocate for mobile learning through her work at Startl, explains how the simple convenience of devices like the iPad has changed the play dynamic in her home. "Apps make learning and play portable and easy. Rather than having to go over to the computer every time there is a question or sit and watch what the kids are doing, we can instead hangout together. I may be at my desk working while the kids are playing with an app in my office or we can be simply sitting on the couch, passing the iPad back and forth."

As educational media designers, this new dynamic opens up a world of possibilities – eschewing animated Barneys in favor of Parent Guides and Quick-Help screens with "Questions to Ask" and "Story Starters". Instead of bottling lesson plans and building robot tutors, mobile devices allow us to create online community spaces for teachers and homeschoolers to share best practices for facilitating hands-on learning. Rather than design for one child and one mouse, we can build collaborative playspaces for many fingers and many voices – the holy grail of Intergenerational Play.

It's important, however, to remember that this new collaborative model depends on the parent to step in and participate. As Lorraine Ackemann of MomsWithApps reminds us, "When we bring an iPad into the home, we have a choice about how it is integrated into the menu of family activities. The iPad can either become an exciting new option for "family game night", or it can become an electronic babysitter. My hope is that we choose the former, and the way we do this is by playing alongside our kids." As developers for Mobile Learning, we wholeheartedly agree and are doing everything we can to encourage and support co-play, collaboration, and parent-child dialogue, which is ultimately the greatest learning tool parents can provide. As Dan Donahoo of GeekDad.com points out, "The relationships we have with our children support their development better than any educational theory or learning tool. I look for apps that don't just help my children to learn, but help me to learn to be a more engaged parent."

So what do apps like Toontastic gain from Mobile? In short, devices like the iPad enable designers to move away from solitary "interactive learning adventures" to create open-ended, playful, and collaborative tools for Intergenerational Play – to integrate (instead of exclude) the child's greatest mentor and advocate: Family.