Next Step for Kids’ Apps: Developing New Literacies

GUEST COLUMN | by Bjorn Jeffery

Toca Boca Tea PartyApps for kids are becoming increasingly popular in education. While this is a very positive development, the kids’ app community needs to think broader about what kind of skills and traits we should be fostering. What types of new literacies are important in the 21st century? And are there apps for them?

I have always looked at education as a subset of learning. Since I’m a university drop-out with a curious mind, perhaps that isn’t very surprising. I found myself asking loads of questions that my university courses were not able to answer. So I decided to head out into the world and find out about them myself. I did fine on my own, but I can’t help thinking sometimes that there could have been so much more for me to learn there, had I just found the right area to do so. I am not thinking about specific skills or knowledge, but rather a broader skill set. What if college could have taught me to be more creative; or perhaps, to think laterally?

I believe the same applies to apps and kids today. Obviously reading, writing and arithmetic are all basic skills that should be developed extensively. But maybe they aren’t enough. Maybe we need to redefine what skills are considered to be literacy in a new age. Social skills, like being a good friend. Creative skills, like art and music. Collaborative skills, like teamwork. Personal skills, like learning to be brave. There should be just as many apps for these areas as there are for learning basic math or state capitals.

Secondly, the two are not mutually exclusive. What good is knowledge that can’t be applied or presented? I think there is a lot of potential in developing ways of applying traditional knowledge in non-traditional ways. Think about classes on how to use chemistry in the kitchen while cooking? We’re already seeing leading chefs do this and getting praise for “inspiring dishes”, so why not prompt this exploration in the classroom as well? Or perhaps shopping apps for youngsters may prove a beneficial means to supplement what is being taught in pre-K and early elementary math classes. Either way, the combination of the two has the possibility of both making knowledge more accessible and fun for everyone.

The topics of learning can be discussed, but so can the methods. When we started Toca Boca, we began by looking at different types of play. It is our method of choice for child development. And when we spent time in the App Store looking at what people had done within this area, we found that most offerings fell into two single areas: games and books. Where are the other fun ways of learning through play? It doesn’t have to include levels to be fun, and it doesn’t have to be read to be a learning experience.

Personally, I think apps have great potential in many different areas. It can be both a great way to learn how to read and write, and also a great way to be creative. Or for that matter – a great way to just have fun, which is something that should not be forgotten in this context. Our ambition when making an app is always to find the fun – first and foremost. If it then can be used in a learning context too – that is even better. Starting with what is fun is a recommended approach no matter what ambition you might have with your apps.

For kids’ apps to take the next step, I think we as a community need to take a step back and think about the kind of skills and traits that will become more important in the 21st century. We need to start thinking about what kind of apps we can make to support, help and develop these skills. Because even if the educational value is very high today, there is still loads left to learn in the adjacent spaces, too. We need to develop new skills for a new time, and new methods to do so too.

Björn Jeffery is the Co-Founder and CEO of Toca Boca ( Since March of 2011, the award-winning play studio has launched digital toy apps for kids that have been downloaded more than 28 million times in 146 countries. Some of the company’s most popular apps include Toca Hair Salon 2, Toca Tailor, Toca Kitchen and Toca Band.

  • cafecasey


    This is an important post, and it’s a conversation that needs to happen more with educators, policymakers, and entrepreneurs at the table. If we can get that to happen more, we can set better goals for getting technology in the hands of the people at the front lines–the teachers and parents, which will support policy goals as the learning will hopefully be aligned to major educational initiatives. Then entrepreneurs will have a better time in the process of bringing their ideas through the design and beta stage–hopefully at a cost savings.

    This is something we’ve been working hard to do in Rhode Island, but it’s a universal theme, to be sure.

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