The Play’s the Thing
By Rob Orchard, Co-founder and editorial director of the Slow Journalism Company
Bhavneet Singh is a man on a mission: to create digital learning games which equip kids for the challenges of the future
“Sixty-five percent of kids aged under 7 will end up doing jobs in the future that do not exist today,” says YPO member Bhavneet Singh, Founder and CEO of education company Sandbox. “That’s a staggeringly scary statistic to know when you have kids.” It’s also a fact that drove Singh and his partners to create a company dedicated to helping children prepare for an unknown future through learning and play.
Singh insists that he’s not in the business of trying to replace what schools do. Rather, he wants to add an extra layer to kids’ education. “Teaching transferable skills has become increasingly important,” he says, “things like dealing with creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, ambiguity and conflict, these will be key.” Singh also believes that the education industry is not personalized enough. Millennial parents expect “super personalization of everything, they expect even commodity industries like transportation, water and electricity to be as personalized as their Facebook is.” They want tailored digital products, he says, adapted to their kids’ particular needs and which allow them to learn through their natural curiosity.
To that end, Sandbox, which launched just three years ago, has acquired and assembled a series of educational products. There’s Hopster, on which “your 3-year-old kid can watch a TV show like ‘Peppa Pig’ or ‘Thomas & Friends’ or whatever, but afterwards it will take them to a contextual game to teach them about colors or the alphabet or sharing. You as a parent then get a notification on your dashboard that says, ‘This is what your kid did today. Why not talk to them about sharing or how not to fight with their siblings or whatever it might be.’”
Then there’s Poptropica, which Sandbox bought from Pearson. “Poptropica was already an extremely popular destinations for kids aged 8 to 11, given its strong creative storytelling foundation, which was built by Jeff Kinney [author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid]” says Singh. “Our goal here was to really nurture the success with the Sandbox ethos of Engage, Entertain and Educate and help bring out some of the edutainment aspects without taking away from the kids’ experience. For example there is an island in the game about Greek Mythology where kids get to know about Zeus while enjoying an adventure and learning something about problem-solving along the way.”
Or how about Sandbox’s latest addition, Tinybop, which offers a series of interactive experiences including ‘The Human Body,’ which allows you to dive into the skeletal, muscular, nervous, circulatory, respiratory, and digestive systems. “It is one of the most downloaded apps on the app store for kids globally,” says Singh. “A kid learns a lot through it because they find it funny. They feed the body junk food versus fresh food and see the difference it makes. Suddenly a 6-year-old is learning about healthy eating and biology and how to think things through logically but as far as they are concerned they are just playing a great game.”
Make screen time count
Personalization and learning through digital play are all very well, but what does Singh say to parents who already believe their children spend too much time in front of screens? “I agree with them!” he says with a laugh. “As a parent, I don’t allow my kids to play on a screen for more than half an hour a day. But to me that half an hour needs to be something that is interesting, engaging and is moving the dial for them. And I always tell them that I don’t want them to just play with Sandbox apps. I think playing a little bit of Minecraft is very interesting, it’s very additive, it’s teaching kids lots of things. There’s nothing wrong with it. The problem comes when an iPad or an iPhone is used as a replacement for a nanny or a pacifier.”
Sandbox’s 360-degree approach to learning includes acquiring and operating products which empower parents and teachers. Its parenting advice portal ‘Family Education’ is one of world’s largest resources for day-to-day parenting and its TeacherVision product comprises activities, worksheets and games designed to help educators to energise a classroom. Meanwhile, Sandbox’s newly launched FutureFit framework is designed to enable teachers to combine 21st century skills and social-emotional learning with a traditional academic curriculum.
With a team split between Boston, Massachusetts, USA; New York, New York, USA; London, England, UK; and India, Sandbox is growing rapidly. “We have 10 products,” says Singh. “We reach 20 million kids, parents and teachers on a monthly basis and now it’s about building on this scale. We’re really trying to build a superstore, a sort of Macy’s of learning products and services, if you will. We’ve built the ground floor, and now we have to build the first and second floors. In the coming years you will see more products on reading and comprehension, on coding, on language learning and on spatial skills as well as new products for parents and teachers to aid them in their day-to-day tasks . We hope to reach in excess of 100 million kids a month, I think that’s critical mass for us.”
The focus is on assembling existing digital products, modifying and growing them rather than starting new ones from scratch. “All of us who launched this startup have come from being intrapreneurs in corporate settings,” says Singh, whose résumé includes stints working as CEO of Pearson English and Informal Learning and as Managing Director for emerging markets at media giant Viacom. “I have been fortunate to have had a diverse set of experiences of building on a foundational set of businesses and scaling them up across geographies and product lines into meaningful, cohesive portfolios. So while it’s quite different in the sense that my partners and I are doing this by ourselves, in many ways it’s not so very different! It’s still about bringing together a strong team who believe in the vision and assembling a portfolio of products and services that resonate with their audience.”
Singh believes there’s major opportunity in the digital learning sector. “We operate at the spot where media meets learning and personalized, engaged learning,” he says. “It’s a wide-open space.” His company’s products are already making their way into mainstream education, with apps like Tinybop being used in some schools as a supplemental way to teach kids science. But what is the real endgame for Singh? “I want our products to become more and more relevant and compelling to their key audience demographic,” he says. “If, 10 years from now, the next generation of 3-year-olds is being given Hopster subscriptions by their grandparents as a matter of course, that’s what success looks like for me.”