Plenty of companies, from the biggest children’s brands to brand new technology startups, are exploring the potential of tablets and apps for kids, so what do they have in store for 2015? Here are some of the key trends for parents to look out for.
1. Digital storytelling finds its identities
It’s no surprise that the first few waves of children’s apps – at least the ones telling stories – took their cues heavily from books, complete with digital pages to turn. There’s still a place for that, but there’s plenty of room for invention too: less about apps trying to be better than books, and more about being different.
How can text, animation and touchscreen interactivity blend together in new and engaging ways? Children’s apps sit neatly between books, TV and games, and I suspect we’ll see more launched this year that manage to mix those three formats unclunkily. Identities? Plural because there won’t be one single format that works.
2. Children are storytellers too
It sounds like a blitheringly obvious statement – of course children tell stories. But until relatively recently, it was something ignored by many developers of book-apps: kids could tap on the screen to interact with characters and scenery, but the actual story remained decidedly linear.
We’ll see more apps this year that aim to put storytelling tools in the hands of children to create their own tales: whether pre-packed collections of characters, scenery and situations to play with, or stories that get children to write/draw in characters as they read.
3. Responsible use of in-app purchases
Children’s apps and in-app purchases is a very sensitive topic, thanks to the all-too-regular examples in recent years of kids blowing their parents’ credit cards on virtual items in mobile games. One under-reported point: it’s rarely children’s apps that they’re playing, but usually games intended for adults.
This has understandably put many parents off any app that uses in-app purchases, but in 2015 we’ll see more actual children’s apps that use the model responsibly: as a way for parents to check if an app is suitable and enjoyable for their child before choosing which bits to pay for.
4. Parents as part of the process
Yes, children do use apps alone, but that doesn’t mean they’re just “digital babysitters” as critics often suggest. Increasingly, developers are designing their apps in the knowledge that parents will often be sitting alongside their kids and being an active part of the process. Expect a fair few of these in 2015.
There’ll also be more development around the idea of parental “dashboards” – ways they can log in from their own devices to see what their children have been doing, and how the apps they’re using are improving various skills. But another encouraging trend is apps that educate parents too: particularly those that suggest more non-digital activities to follow on the learning.
Existing examples: Disney’s Mickey’s Magical Maths World is part of a new series of apps with a separate parental-dashboard app, Disney Imagicademy Parents. Meanwhile Curious Playground gets children making games together.
5. Kids’ coding apps continue to evolve
The introduction of computer programming into the English curriculum for children as young as five has sparked debate, particularly around the demands it places on teachers. 2015 will provide some answers in that debate, although they might not all be positive ones.
Alongside that, though, there is a lot of activity around apps that help children take their first steps in programming (or, at least, programming-like thinking). Can cute characters and blocks of code tempt kids away from pure games, and if so, can they also really be a stepping stone to the programming they’ll be doing later in school? We’ll be finding out over the next 12 months.
6. Rise of the robots and 3D printing
How many children will have access to modern robots or 3D printers at home in 2015? Very few indeed. But there are some technology startups and app developers hoping their products will be an introduction to these areas for children in the year ahead.
US startup Play-i will ship its Bo and Yana spherical robots in 2015 for example, having crowdfunded their first run on its website last year. They’ll come with an app that aims to teach children to program the bots. Elsewhere in hardware, we’ll see what happens next with the Kano computer, as well as startups like Osmo exploring physical toys and apps.
Meanwhile, on the 3D printing side, there are a number of companies working on apps that will get children to create... things, and then get them printed. It’ll be an expensive niche for now, but the idea of digital creation leading to physical objects has wider applications for kids: whether it’s 3D printing or print-out papercraft.
7. YouTube filters and other video apps
Children’s videos are massive on YouTube, as a glance at the charts for its most popular channels will tell you: DC Toys Collector, Stampy and Little Baby Bum are all fixtures in the top 10 for the entire site. Yet as a parent, YouTube can still be problematic when your children are watching it: if you’re not breathing down their neck throughout, it’s easy to end up on inappropriate videos.
In 2015, we’re going to see more attempts to provide child-friendly filters on YouTube as apps, whether focusing on particular niches like nursery rhymes or Minecraft, or more general curators. Plus more of those YouTube channels will launch their own apps, aiming for a slot on parents’ homescreens, and the growth of Angry Birds’ ToonsTV – four billion views and counting – will continue.
8. Next moves for Minecraft
Minecraft as the world’s most popular game for children isn’t a trend of 2015: it’s a long-established fact. But what happens now, with the game’s developer Mojang owned by Microsoft, is going to be very interesting.
Expect more attempts to make educational use of Minecraft, from YouTubers like Stampy – who’s about to launch a second, learning-focused channel – to educational groups and museums. But also watch for more children’s brands doing stuff in and around Minecraft, and children coming up with their own mods that find a wider audience.
Existing examples: The Beano’s official Dennis and Gnasher mod is good fun, while the Tate Worlds project takes a more artistic approach. And the LearnToMod software aims to teach kids to code through Minecraft too.
9. Making a noise through musical apps
There is something potentially very powerful – and largely untapped so far – about tablets, music and children. Not as replacements for learning traditional instruments, but as tools for musical creativity in other ways: interacting with music or creating it from scratch.
This may not always be in apps specifically for children – my seven year-old son discovered GarageBand over Christmas, and we’ve had great fun recording songs together. Again, apps aren’t a replacement for instruments, but there’s a lot more fun to come from them as new ways to explore rhythm and melody.
10. More apps for Android kids
Most of the links above lead to apps made for Apple devices, and that’s no co-incidence. The children’s apps world remains an iOS-first place for several reasons, including the perception that it’s harder to sell apps on Android, and the fact that many kid-app firms worry they don’t have the resources yet to develop for two platforms.
Still, a lot of children are playing on Android tablets nowadays, sold by companies from Amazon and Samsung to Tesco with its impressive Hudl. In 2014, the number of great iPad children’s apps ported to Android increased steadily, and some even came out for both simultaneously. This’ll continue in 2015.
Existing examples: From Endless Reader and Skylanders Trap Team to Toca Boo and Makies Fashion, here’s the Guardian’s top 25 Android children’s apps of 2014.
Bonus trend: All the things that aren’t apps
Maybe by 2016, it won’t be necessary to add this kind of caveat to any article about children’s apps. But to stave off angry comments for now: YES, kids should be reading books, riding bikes, playing sport, drawing pictures with pencils, digging for worms... doing things away from screens.
Using apps shouldn’t replace all that, and it’s a parental responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t.
Actually, many of my favourite apps from the last year were the ones where the play, creativity and/or learning carried on when the tablet was switched off: from chasing one another around the house in sheets (aka Real-World Toca Boo) to mock-dinosaur digs in the garden emulating Dino Dog.
I hope that 2015 includes more awareness of the way apps can be just one among many ways a child explores particular interests, from animals and history to music and maths.
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Monday 5th January 2015 11.46 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010