Artistry founder, Todd Mitchell, was invited to host last week’s EdAppTalk (introduced here) and participate in a Q&A session for a closed group of nearly 4,000 child development professionals. Below is a compilation of questions from the group, and their answers. Much of the content is edited for clarity. EdAppTalk will be listed as EAT below, with specifics about the participant where it’s helpful.
EAT: (Admin) Welcome to Todd Mitchell for hosting EdAppTalk developer of Letter Taps. So wonderful to have you join us!
Mitchell: Thank you, and thanks so much to the group for having me tonight! I have followed the [TeachersWithApps] site for a while, certainly since Letter Taps launched, and it’s exciting to get in with this community and connect. I know you all have spoken with some very successful and established creators and teams, I hope to provide an interesting perspective from a much smaller operation.
EAT: (A user asks for some clarification about the official YouTube trailer and for more information about the content of the app)
Mitchell: That video took a lot of careful work with my phone attached to the laptop to create. 30 seconds was the maximum time allowable in the iOS store. Communicating my game’s purpose in that timespan was quite a challenge!
Letter Taps is focused on teaching young children, primarily 5 and under, but certainly older kids as needed, to recognize and learn the lowercase and uppercase alphabet as well as the numbers 1 – 25 by sight and sound. Most levels are simply for learning and progressing through those character sets by touch, but there is also a quiz game that the older kids seem to enjoy quite a bit.
EAT: (Admin comment) We all need to help each other with this mission of getting the word out about the changing educational landscape.
Mitchell: I couldn’t agree more. The birth of my son, Will, changed my focus as an app and game developer. It is a very different world than marketing and promoting a game outside the educational category. There has been a lot of trial and error! I’ve actually submitted an application to present to other developers later in the summer on my findings. I’ve written about it elsewhere on the web as well. It’s been fascinating!
EAT: (Admin follow-up) Parents and teachers need to understand screentime doesn’t mean just rewards or busytime.
Mitchell: This comes up for me regularly now. People ask my feedback on studies about the impact of screen time on small children, how I justify creating games for an age group that some experts wouldn’t allow near screens at all, etc. My wife is a physician and as parents and professionals we’ve had to spend a lot of time with this. I could write about this forever, but the biggest guideline remains, no set of guidelines or rules will replace attentive parenting. To take away devices removes a valuable educational tool. To let it be misused, clearly that’s negative also. More interesting material for thought and discussion!
EAT: (Different user follow-up) As a grandparent, I sometimes don’t know how to react to my grandkids’ not-so-valuable time at the computer. What do I offer them? How do I manage it?
Mitchell: I find that one of the most important things you can do is show a child that you are paying attention and interested in what they’re doing on the computer or device. Have them explain it to you and see if it’s something you can do together. Being connected to a group like this is a phenomenal resource for guiding the way to the valuable tools and games. I’m excited not only as a developer but more so as a parent myself.
EAT: (Different user follow-up, a pediatric speech-language pathologist) I have had several patients with Autism that made progress when I used my iPad with high quality apps as a tool but had meltdowns at the sight of flashcards or other more traditional materials. My iPad is by far one of the best tools in my therapy toolkit.
Mitchell: On that point, the flashcard method is the driving force for most of Letter Taps. The teaching levels are little more than flashcards in disguise, with voice-overs done in part by my lovely wife. There’s no sense struggling against what we know works, but I found that dressing it up with fun backgrounds and poofing clouds, etc. was a big bonus for holding little attention spans.
EAT: (Different user follow-up) I actually believe that the screen can also be an interactive tool–not to replace attentive parenting but to engage it–to interact with your child as you do something together on the screen (not just one person watching the other do something, or leaving the child on their own with the screen)! I’m a physician too (child psychiatrist) and I have made apps that bring parents and kids into an interaction together as they read and play the app on the screen. I think more apps could engage both parties–not just one person doing it and another watching…
Mitchell: I’m right there with you. If I hadn’t made a habit of showing my son what I do with the mysterious rectangle that is my iPhone, I never would have dreamed how early he was ready to figure out those well-defined actions we find in apps. This made prototyping for the game very easy, because I already knew what he was capable of. Parents who don’t watch their kids on mobile devices are REALLY missing out! I love that idea and I’m glad you’re doing it. I’d love to check that out.
EAT: (A pediatric therapist) Screens are invaluable for kids with dyspraxia
Mitchell: This is an interesting point, and I found that it’s also great for kids who are ahead in learning while they are still physically too small for toys that match their learning speed. My son was definitely ready for letters and numbers around 1 year old, but we found that many of the toys had buttons he couldn’t push, levers he couldn’t manipulate, etc. But I discovered even a child that small can usually grasp one well-defined action on a screen, and that was the main mechanic I used to build out Letter Taps. No printed words (except a screen for parents), little spoken instruction, but always one main thing for the child to do at any given time.
EAT: I have seen this also with gifted kids
EAT: (Another user) Fascinating! I can confirm that one well known to me, an 18-month-old boy, behaves exactly the way Todd described.
Mitchell: It’s worth saying that development for this age range is an enormous challenge because of how different each child learns and responds and at what pace they develop. Some of my success has been through trial and error with my own child but I asked every parent I could find to try the game with their child before release and learned so much from that exercise. Some of the best choices were pure educated guesses! Then I found myself changing things I was sure would work well, and didn’t at all.
EAT: (Admin comment) I am so tired of defending the value of tech, especially with teachers!
Mitchell: I was initially discouraged about this. I was a 90s kid and my family would actually hide my interest in electronics and games. But as I was completing the development cycle, I volunteered for a great “Hour of Code” event in the area through code.org, and though I didn’t connect with any participants in the program in my area, I did end up presenting my workflow to kids and parents at a school during a nighttime event and was asked to come demo Letter Taps and other things I made to multiple classrooms the following day. This gave me hope! There is definitely a movement placing value on STEM and coding and some schools are doing an exceptional job with it. I’m hoping it picks up momentum!
EAT: (User follow-up, speech-language pathologist) I see posts from fellow SLPs almost every day denouncing the evils of screen time. They have no clue about the powerful tool that an iPad can be.
Mitchell: Let alone the pesky viral videos equating screen time with things like cocaine use because “They affect dopamine in the brain!” I’ve had to point out that “So do things like baseball and exercise.” Your experience may be different, but my 2.5 year old melts down much worse when he has to come in from playing outside than when I take the phone away or turn off the TV. Moderation in all things, of course.
EAT: (Participant) Do I understand correctly, that your app could be used in kindergarten?
Mitchell: Yes! I made sure when releasing the app that discount licensing would apply for registered educational organizations. I’ve since learned that the Google Play store is moving away from this program, but I have spoken with school teachers and administrators who are looking into licensing the app for the classroom. I love it!
EAT: And you lead me to my next question: the connection with teachers & administrators. Do you use your app at kindergartens/elementary school?
Mitchell: So far I have only gone to an elementary school to demonstrate the app with the kids for kindergarten level and talk to them about what I do for a living. I had positive feedback from the kids and teachers and it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had since opening my studio. I am not a teacher by profession but I would love to help more in the education process in this way.
EAT: (Speech-language pathologist) Does your app adjust to “landscape” orientation? Or is it only in “portrait” orientation? The reason I ask is that I use Gripcase cases on all my iPads and usually have them in the Gripcase Base stand in therapy. The iPad is much more stable in the stand in “landscape” orientation so I tend to look for apps that offer that as an option.
Mitchell: It currently only supports portrait mode. I went back and forth about this quite a bit, and ended up developing for portrait because it seemed to be all my son could do reliably, and this was just with my phone. After that decision was made I stuck with it due to the amount of additional design work that would have gone into supporting both (and Letter Taps was created 100% in code without some of the convenience of systems like Unity that take care of some of this for you.) You present a solid use case for landscape though. A later update could be possible for the future but that would be a tough thing to commit to for sure without investigating further.
EAT: (Different participant follow-up) given the same circumstance I use landscape for the same reason.
Mitchell: 2 votes for landscape. I’ll look into it! this is something I would announce in a newsletter update once it was planned. Feel free to join up!
EAT: Your son was the inspiration for your app?
Mitchell: Very much so. I love the idea of creating material to aid my son’s development as he grows. Before he was born I would have made much less meaningful content. Hopefully it still would have been fun.
EAT: (Admin question) Who did the adorable graphics?
Mitchell: I created the artwork using an open-source vector suite called Inkscape. In fairness, the simple style was due to the fact that I’m primarily a coder and I had doubts about my own abilities. But I think that it took on a little bit of a personality of its own around halfway through! My son’s favorite level is the underwater screen where he can tap the fishy to make him swim away. You can hear his laughter throughout the house.
EAT: (Participant follow-up) How old is your son now? How much time do you allow him to work with tablet?
Mitchell: My son is about 2 and 6 months right now. I’m lucky to be in a phase where he is interested in playing with mobile devices only for short stretches. I don’t think he’s ever played with one longer than 20 minutes. As he gets older, I’m prepared to watch this much more carefully.
Mitchell: I’ll take a quick moment to tell this group first: I’m working on a follow-up app teaching shapes and colors! It will be geared toward the same age range and use a similar teaching style. This is something else you can hear more about as it happens in the newsletter (that I only started working on this week).
EAT: (speech language pathologist) shapes and colors fall under “basic concepts” that I address pretty regularly with my patients. Sounds cool!
Mitchell: This is something else that I’m trying to follow my son’s lead on, and it definitely seems to be the next direction to go. A close second was identification of animals. His guesses are just too cute to correct for now. “What’s that buddy?” (It’s a giraffe) “Doggy! Woof Woof!”
EAT: (another participant) That’s great…a lot of color apps are becoming obsolete from devs not being able to afford updating…it’s very sad.
EAT: (another participant) Very sad to see so many apps disappearing from the App Store. My fear is even more will go away after iOS 11 rolls out.
Mitchell: Keeping up with iOS is harder than riding a wild horse. It’s like trying not to be thrown off of a wild animal we haven’t even identified, and don’t know what it’s going to do next. That’s my experience, anyway.
EAT: (speech language pathologist) I’d be glad to help beta test your new colors and shapes app when you get to that point.
Mitchell: Making a note. You’re on!
EAT: (Pediatric specialist) I occasionally have kids working on early literacy and numbers but the next app with shapes and colors would definitely be useful to my patients.
Mitchell: I’ve also been asked to follow up Letter Taps with a full “Learn to Read” app, but the more I think about it, the more intimidating that idea is. I definitely wouldn’t tackle it without a lot of feedback from experts. I’m not a teacher after all! Luckily I have had the opportunity to connect with some stellar educators and I’m definitely looking forward to putting their guidance into practice.
EAT: (Admin) Todd it was a pleasure to learn about your app and THANKS for hosting tonight. I’m sending promocodes to some of our participants, who I also want to thank.
Mitchell: Yes thank you all so much, I was nervous no one would be here!
EAT: (Admin) We always manage to pull together an interesting mixed group and appreciate you joining the group and hope to see more of you!
Mitchell: I’ll be here, love what the group is doing. Thanks again all!