Children playing Gracie & Friends apps

New Apps for New Mathematicians

Geek Culture Toys
Children playing Gracie & Friends apps
Children playing Gracie & Friends apps. Photo credit: Meredith Nierman.

An unusual set of apps just started rolling out at iTunes. At first blush, Gracie and Friends may look like many other math apps for little guys.

But a look under the hood reveals a unique and multi-year endeavor to create a breakthrough in evidence-based, educationally rich digital games for preschoolers. I asked my colleague Christine Zanchi to walk me behind the scenes.

GeekDad: Please tell us who you are in 19 words.

Zanchi: I’m an executive producer in the Children’s Media group at WGBH Educational Foundation and mom of twin 4-year-old boys.

GeekDad: What’s your academic background and current work?

Zanchi: I received my masters in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I studied technology and education as well as human development. I’m working on research and development projects that explore how technology can be integrated into the preschool classroom to support STEM and prosocial learning.

GeekDad: You’ve had a flurry of launches at iTunes and some great promotion from Apple. What can parents find?

Zanchi: Over the past several weeks, we’ve launched the first four of eight apps:

Gracie & Friends Birthday CaféGracie & Friends City Skate, Gracie & Friends Treasure Bubblesand Gracie & Friends Jungle Gym

We’ll be launching the rest, followed by a digital teachers’ guide, over the next several weeks. Although the apps can certainly be downloaded and played at home, they have been designed and tested for use in the preschool classroom.

GeekDad: What is the underlying educational model for these apps?

Zanchi: As part of our research, we did a small, randomized control study and found that children who played the apps and engaged in the hands-on materials demonstrated gains in their math skills. There are a few keys here: that in order for true math learning to occur, children must have a range of exposures to the concepts, both digital (the apps) and non-digital (structured hands-on activities like blocks or bingo). And teachers must be trained in how to support math learning in all areas, including the use of technology. It helps if activities are designed to be collaborative – our Treasure Bubbles game is an example – in order to foster conversations about math between students and between the teacher and students. Games can be a compelling catalyst for these conversations.

Children playing Gracie & Friends apps.
Children playing Gracie & Friends apps. Photo credit: Meredith Nierman.

GeekDad: What’s the wider backstory to these apps?

Zanchi: They are all funded by the National Science Foundation’s Discovery Research for K-12 program. It’s a design-based research project, which means we address our research question – can a media-rich math supplement promote early math learning in low-income preschools – through an iterative cycle of prototyping and testing. In a field where so much is unknown, it is an ideal way to lay the research foundation. WGBH is the materials developer, and the Center for Children and Technology at EDC in New York and SRI International conduct the research. It is a fantastic partnership that brings together an incredibly skilled game and curriculum development team with the best minds in early learning sciences.

GeekDad: How will you learn from these apps?

Zanchi: We spent three years iteratively developing and refining the apps, so we have mounds of data about what worked and what didn’t. The beauty of our mobile development within the design-based research framework is that there is constant research and tweaking happening throughout development. Now that the apps are launching, we are using Google Analytics to get a read on where downloads are coming from (over half are from outside the US), how long people are playing, if they are coming back to play and how far they get in the game.

One thing that we developed but did not release yet is a learning analytics system for four of the apps. There is still more work to be done on it, but in our research it was incredible to see the teachers’ reactions as student learning became more transparent to them.

GeekDad: What’s next for this project?

Zanchi: All eight apps plus a digital teacher’s guide will be launched by March of this year. At SXSWedu, we’ll be releasing the research results. Our hope is to spark a more nuanced discussion about how to use mobile technology for early learning – what it looks like, how to support it.

GeekDad: And who is Gracie?

Zanchi: We want the children we work with to see themselves as math learners, and see themselves reflected back in the digital world. Gracie and the other characters reflect the diversity and adorableness of the children we worked with.

Happy girl in a classroom
One of the beta testers. Photo credit: Meredith Nierman.
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