First, full transparency.

When the editor asked me to check out Literary Safari—a company that makes multicultural  apps, she mentioned one possible angle to cover as, “the best results are felt when parents actively mediate digital content for kids instead of sticking a tablet in their hand, expecting them to learn.”

I’m a twenty year-veteran in education. I feel like I’m qualified to say: “Yes!—when parents get involved, it helps. It seems, on the surface, to be so sensible that I like to call it a “Captain Obvious!” statement.

And.

I’ve totally done it. Given the kid the screen, saying “Go do this in your room!” mostly when she is driving me bonkers, when I need three minutes in a row without a barrage of “daddydaddydaddydaddy, doitlikethisnotthatDaaaaddyy!! You’re doing it wrong, again, Daddy!”

I think it’s a reasonable rationalization. Hell, I think every parent does it.

But there is another reason I avoid doing these learning apps with my kid.

They are boring! There, I said it.

Even the ones that have some value drive me a little nuts. One we use, a Japanese drawing app for the kid, does the job getting her to draw the characters. It helps with the phonics, but I’m not sure the entire message—the word with the meaning—is getting through. It’s a “one-trick-pony” app.

And this is one of the apps that try.

The problem with a lot of apps is that they don’t try, frankly. This kind of “economy of scale” has led to a digital version of “cheap plastic toys from overseas.” It doesn’t have to be good—or even work—it just has to be shiny enough that you can’t resist, and hey, it’s only 99 cents, right?

Enter Sandhya Nankani—the founder of Literary Safari, a collective that makes multicultural apps and digital content. She began thinking about the shift from print-based educational media to digital content in the early aughts. “What I started noticing was that, yes, there was a lot of educational content out there, but how much of it has been vetted and co-created in concert with educators?”

She was speaking my language already. But I was a skeptic.

From what she tells me, she began to shift. Play around. See what you could do. In the beginning it wasn’t easy—no one had a script, and the technology was limited. “I remember, when I was still in print publishing, we did a “pdf” issue, and that was such a big deal back then.” For her- and the rest of us—the landscape evolved, quickly. Smartphones, tablets and apps led to, well, a lot of substandard products, unleashed, in volume. Despite serious planning, some of the more thoughtful projects that Sandhya curated didn’t go so well.

“Though what we made involved many other contributors, it sort of fell flat.”

But she persisted with the idea that lots of small failures add up to quality products eventually, and she now has a suite of digital content, described on the Literary Safari  website as, “small batch.” The idea here is that it is, in fact, artisanal. Each project sequesters the input of multiple creators, possibly to the detriment of the economy of scale—it certainly isn’t cost effective to involve educators, artists, authors along with the tech-savvy creators of digital content from the get-go of the production process—but the hope is that it is worth it. It’s a worthy gamble.

Literary Safari adds a third dimension here. The word “safari” in their title isn’t just for the adventure connotation of the word—multiculturalism is right at the forefront. And they run the gamut.

Each project at Literary Safari involves multiple creators—it certainly isn’t cost effective to involve educators, artists, authors along with the tech-savvy creators of digital content in the production process—but the hope is that it is worth it. It’s a worthy gamble.

They go from full immersion to subtle suggestion. One app—Grandma’s Great Gourd—is an adaptation of Chitra Divakaruni’s children’s book, and it takes place entirely in India—it is, in fact a story told to her by her grandfather, and has both a specific sense of place, and universal themes—be careful in the forest, talk to your family, grow a garden, and be creative. On the other end, they employ more subtle techniques—people of multicultural descent strategically sprinkled throughout other games and apps.

I’ve certainly read my share of “culturally diverse” children’s books. We read folktales from all over the globe, and we certainly have books from my daughter’s own cultural background  (India, Michigan and California), and she gets it. She asks questions about the characters, has a notion that they live in other places, and absorbs what she can absorb.
And.

I do sometimes feel that, sometimes, the cultural references are written with unconscious blinders on, and only inward facing. They provide Indian or Jewish or Japanese children insights that might only be relevant if you are a part of that subgroup. And that might be ok, for what it is.

But.

What we need more of is a normalizing of all types of people doing all types of things, especially in today’s political climate. I’m not knocking the cultural heritage stuff—it’s great for what it does. But this niche marketing doesn’t get these perspectives in the hands of people that really might want to see other perspectives, and many companies don’t promote products that won’t turn a dollar in the adult world, and—whether or not we are conscious of it—this type of thinking matriculates down to our children.

I do hope these Literary Safari products help move the needle on that dial. But they are also literacy apps—they have to work—and this is where I’m a little worried.

You see, we have played with our share of literacy apps, particularly around the pre-reading years, and, as an educator, I haven’t been so impressed. They might be more useful in learning how to handle a multiple choice test; all make that funny little ‘boink!’ sound when you move the wrong word to the wrong picture, but don’t really offer any sort of motivation to actually read, other than the sing-song approval of the app’s narrator—“You did great!” You don’t need to learn the word, you just need to move it around a lot. This really doesn’t take long, as long as you don’t mind a ‘boink!’ or two. Most kids don’t. They do great!

We—my daughter and I—tried HangArt for comparison’s sake. It’s a version of Hangman, but it incorporates pictures, art, story-making vehicles, and manages to slip in multicultural images in a a way that doesn’t seem overt or ham-fisted.

I read out the instructions pretty quickly—it certainly helped that I was there. I don’t think she could have figured it out on her own. We started knocking down the first few words—“feet,” “far,” and “sheep,” before we came to “work.”

I was pretty absorbed in the game at this point—we both were—and struggling to figure out what a few kids hovering over what looked like an elevated sandbox could mean—all we had was “_or_.” When we did figure it out—which is tremendously satisfying, let me tell you—I was quite surprised to watch the rest of the picture fill out.

It wasn’t kids, it was adults. And it wasn’t a sandbox, it was a table. It was more akin to a brainstorming session at a tech firm, or what I imagine one to be like, anyway. And the kid in the back? Guy with a turban. It didn’t interrupt the flow of the game, it was just a very subtle insertion of “different” people doing normal things.

And to the literacy aspect—the one we started with? It’s got neat features, like writing the words, a platform to make stories, all types of good stuff that frankly, I haven’t even begun to explore yet. But the most impressive thing I learned was—I’m not proud to admit—what I first thought of as a flaw.

You see, you can rate each word by difficulty after you earn it. But you can only rate it if you can read the rating system, and kids using the app ostensibly can’t read yet.  That, coupled with my umbrge about the picture for the word “far”—it was a view of Earth, with a few other distant planets in the solar system—seemed like it expected a lot of background knowledge from beginning readers.

I didn’t have much time to think about it though—we were playing the game, and I explained this rating system to my daughter, quickly. It was color-coded, so she got it after the first pass,  but then I needed to explain why a view from space meant “far,” when—no pun intended- it dawned on me. I had to be there to explain it. This was engineered.

You see, kids can navigate the app, with a little bit of adult supervision—or, another way to put it, “when parents actively mediate digital content for kids instead of sticking a tablet in their hand, expecting them to learn.”

In other words, kids just need someone to play the game with them. If I am any indication—that might mean sneaking in a little subtle learning for the adults as well.

Shumit DasGupta is a science education professional, bicyclist and musician who writes op-ed pieces and children’s books.  Some of them make it on radio stations and magazines that you have actually heard of.

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