All Work and No Play: How interactive, educational gaming platforms are changing the way the next generation learns

© Appinventiv

Back in the 1960s in the United States, educators and policy experts were facing an unusual problem: school going children in the American suburbs were reading well below their age level. This was puzzling because the American education system had just undergone a renaissance in the post WW2 era, and was deemed as one of the best in the world.

One of the solutions came from an unlikely duo of a TV producer called Joan Ganz Cooney and an experimental psychologist named Lloyd Morrisett, who proposed to use a medium that was growing in popularity with the public: the television. They planned to create a children’s show that would provide an additional layer of learning and practice for young children. Everyone scoffed at the idea. Making kids watch cartoon? The parents were trying to peel them away from television sets in the first place.

Terrible plan, they said.

But what Cooney and Morrisett eventually built, laid the foundation for the use of technology in education and changed the perception of educational content creation for decades to come. The children’s show they created was called Sesame Street. It went onto to become a hit amongst the kids and parents alike and was later translated into multiple languages across the world. Sesame Street is regarded as one of the stickiest shows ever created, meaning its viewers have been returning to the show repeatedly, for over 50 years now.

What the founders of Sesame Street got right was the realization that traditional methods of education alone cannot cement knowledge in a child.

Technology has always played a role in education, at least in the developed nations. Innovations like the radio (1920s), overhead projectors (1930s), video tapes (1950s), televisions (1960s), calculators and personal microcomputers (1980s), the internet (1990s) and handheld devices (2000s), all augmented the learning process in schools and homes across first world countries. Of course, they took a long time to seep down to other nations, but the adoption of technology was an inevitable process.

Fast forward to 2021, when nearly all of schooling happens online with countless hours of Zoom classes, recorded material and online test submissions, we are beginning to understand that learning simply cannot happen as a one-way street. Interaction, and more importantly, involvement from the children plays a massive part in the learning process. This is where new age technology such as augmented reality (AR) and gamified learning comes in. By giving the children a platform to revise and re-learn what they pick up in their classes from textbooks, these technologies lay the foundation for a more wholistic and long-lasting learning experience. And the interactive play involved makes it much easier for parents to convince their children to try this, as opposed to asking them to read from a textbook again. We are not talking about just textbook knowledge being re-fed. These games and toys teach children real world skills such as personal finance, communication, creative thinking etc.

Players in this space:

We are seeing a lot of action in this space, both from traditional toys and gaming companies, as well as startups.

· Mattel: The US toy giant, recently launched AR versions of their beloved games, Hot Wheels, and Pictionary. They have also partnered with US firm Bookful to bring their iconic characters such as Barbie and Thomas, the Tank Engine into children’s books using AR.

· Roblox: The recently public US game development platform Roblox is another key player, who is making significant strides by encouraging more educational gaming content on its platform. Interestingly, more than half of Roblox’s nearly 40 million users (about twice the population of New York) are under the age of 13, which makes it a perfect platform for engaging children in education.

· Osmo: Closer to home, Byju’s shelled out USD 120 mn to acquire US based Osmo that makes hardware based educational games. Osmo kits attach to smartphones and tablets to enable pre-school kids to take their first steps towards learning using augmented reality. Under the new Byju’s management, Osmo is now looking to ramp up its mixed reality products that will propel its growth even further.

· Smartivity: Smartivity makes DIY educational toys and kits for kids to introduce them to practical applications of core STEAM principles at a young age. The kits can help them learn analytical & creative skills, patience, concentration, and a hands-on learning experience. Smartivity toys are used by 50+ lakh parents in 24 countries.

· PlayShifu: Indian startup PlayShifu also makes similar interactive, educational AR games for children, both as accessories for tablets as well as separate tools to teach children STEM subjects and Geography. Over 600,000 children worldwide use PlayShifu’s toys. PlayShifu is now gearing up to launch its AR board game product Tacto in the Indian markets after a successful early adoption in the US.

· Practically: This product by 3rdFlix (focused on for students of classes 6–12) is an immersive learning platform that utilizes AR, simulations, and 3D videos to enable practical and experiential STEM learning, with features like realistic video content, experiential learning, live classes, and an AI assistant. They are also now offering a summer workshop for children to learn popular new skills such as programming using Scratch, YouTube content creation, Chess, Robotics etc.

Breakthroughs are also coming up in the space of using these AR and VR games to better address neurodiversity and helping both children and parents cope with conditions like Asperger’s, Autism, and Down syndrome.

COVID impact:

In 2019, parents in USA spent on an average USD 300 on toys per child per year, whereas in India it was close to Rs 8,400 per child per year. The global COVID-19 pandemic has provided a lot of tailwinds to the global toy market. Parents have started buying more toys resulting in a major uptick in the market for toys due to home schooling. Activities such as board games and puzzle sales worldwide have grown by more than 3x even in matured markets since global lockdowns in March 2020. The introduction of box subscription services is also playing a part in revolutionizing the global toy market, resulting in increase in repeat buyers by way of subscriptions to new products from the same manufacturer.

Future outlook:

Markets are moving towards more innovative and interactive toys that provide a seamless experience between the physical and digital play. This is aided by the fact that globally children 8 years and younger spend a minimum of 2 hours and 19 minutes every day on various screens (Watching TV, video games, internet, etc.) with 35% of their screen time via a mobile device, and parents are always looking to replace this screen time with a more hands-on learning experience. Going back to Roblox’s case, an average user on Roblox spends upwards of 2 hours in a day on the platform, a number that dwarfs the engagement metrics of global tech giants such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok etc., making it the perfect sandbox to test out interactive educational content. Evidently, we are seeing a paradigm shift in the perception of education, and its delivery to the future generations. Expect to see more unorthodox methods of learning being tried, and some succeeding in the years to come.

All work and no play make Jack a dull boy, even in 2021.

Tech / IP focused, sector agnostic, VC fund. We invest in early stage companies solving real world challenges, from Seed to Series A+ stages.