Are play-along apps appropriate for kids?

Can children play along and watch TV?

SyncScreen is one of the first UK companies to have developed working play-along apps (or so-called “second-screen” apps) for children that they can use alongside a TV show…
But given our collective history working in the children’s sector, we’ve all be very conscious that we can’t make assumptions about what’s appropriate or how children can or should react. That’s why this last year I’ve done more one-to-one testing than on any product I’ve worked on since specialising as in the children’s digital media space.

Having worked in children’s sector for the last seven years (and in digital for the last 20), I was personally curious to see how a dual-screen experience could be made to work for young children and at what ages of children could cope with instructions from more than one device at a time. The last thing we wanted to do was be criticised for adding yet more distractions or fuelling the attention deficit generation. So we took an evidence based approached and tested our ideas iteratively over the best part of a year.

From my previous work at CBeebies, I know even very young children are competent on apps and websites, but can they really watch TV and do something at the same time? Would it be too much for them, particularly as we all know children can get so mesmerised by TV? These were the sorts of questions we needed answers to and two of recent development jobs have helped us get a much better understanding of what does and doesn’t work.

Turn me into Mister Maker – 4-6 year olds

In 2013, SyncScreen partnered with Zodiak (courtesy of the IC Tomorrow and the Technology Strategy Board) to create a proof of concept for the art show Mister Maker. This was tested with 4-6 year olds and the results were analysed by Professor Lydia Plowman (Chair of Education and Technology, University of Edinburgh). She noted how the prototype allowed for the children to successfully shift their attention from one screen to the other (attentional control) and how we had sufficient taken steps to ensure that the cognitive load (i.e. the amount of mental activity required to hold information and to perform a function) was appropriate. In fact, instead of creating distraction, when the two screens were both promoting the same ‘single global task’ (as opposed to requiring a multi-tasking approach) the children seemed more attentive than ever and Professor Plowman independently highlighted the positive learning potential of this approach on future projects.

Although it seems self-evident now, with the Mister Maker project, success was all down to the pacing and timing, making sure the different on-screen visuals and narrative matched perfectly and not asking a child to do too much in the app when a lot was happening on the TV screen.

What I saw from the children was that they were overjoyed to be able to make something that was as good as Mister Maker’s and they clearly still enjoyed watching the show. The parents liked it too, pleased that their child could join in without necessarily covering the house in glitter and glue.

Quiz me on Gory Games – 7-11 year olds

More recently SyncScreen has been working on partner apps for CBBC. I’ve been working on the Horrible Histories: Gory Games app (live in May 2014). The premise is simple – the child at home plays against the studio contestants by answering the same quiz questions in real time. The simplicity of the Gory Games quiz lends itself particularly well to two- screen – there’s no learning involved for how to play – simply sit down, turn on the app and like magic you can play along by guessing true/false or multiple choice answers.

In testing this app, I’ve noticed that these older children (age 7 and up) are clearly able to cope with the two devices at once and have not had any trouble adjusting to looking up and down. They have most fun playing next to each other on a device each (e.g. a phone and a tablet, if households can stretch that far) so they can compare scores. It’s usual to hear “Yesssssss!” when they get a question right and “How many poos have you got?” (Poos being the points icon, in true Horrible Histories’ style.) There has also been a lot of laughing, not least because of the brilliant scripts from the Citrus/Lion TV team.

Timing is key

For both Mister Maker and Gory Games we’ve developed code that logs how long interactions take and this has been really useful in setting our benchmarks for pacing in the app and the show. We’ve worked with the programme makers to create shows with enough breathing space and this is the basis for all successful dual screen products. Ideally we should be working with programmes in pre-production, rather than with finished episodes.

Kids can do it

What I’ve realised is that children can play along with TV shows – even very young children – and that it’s a question of fine-tuning the app and the programme to complement one another. We’ve been talking about a 360-degree approach for many years and this is essential in play-along production. But what I’ve realised most is that with the right editorial content and approach you can help children play and engage with TV in a new and exciting way.

Becky Palmer;  Executive Product Manager on the Gory Games play-along app production

For more information, contact Keith Johnson

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