Tinybop: the New York startup designing apps to inspire children’s curiosity

How US company Tinybop is building beautiful apps to help children learn about the world through free play

Last week, Brooklyn-based startup Tinybop released its eleventh app, Skyscrapers. Within five days, it was among the top ten apps on the US App Store and top of the kids category in both the UK and Germany.

The app allows children to design tall buildings and create their own city skyline. They can also operate lifts, create plumbing leaks and power surges or simply watch residents wander from room to room through bathrooms, offices and kitchens.

It is one of a series from Tinybop which aim to inspire children’s curiosity through open play – other ‘Digital Toys’ created by the company include The Monsters, which lets children mix and match body parts to create cute, comical or frightening creatures and Infinite Arcade, which lets them create their own video games by choosing from a range of backgrounds, characters and obstacles.

Tinybop also has a range of apps which help teach children about biology, physics and the world around them. Its ‘Explorer’s Library’ series includes Plants, which lets kids interact with a series of dioramas, changing the weather and light while learning about seasons and life-cycles, and The Human Body, which acts like an interactive wall chart. Children can assemble a skeleton, make a heart beat or trigger the body’s digestive system.

With beautiful illustrations and no annoying pop-up ads or in-app purchases, Tinybop’s apps are already proving a hit with children and parents around the world. The company says its products have been millions of times by families and around 200,000 schools in 155 countries.

Tinybop was founded by Raul Gutierrez in 2010. Gutierrez previously worked in ecommerce and had the idea for a range of children’s apps after his son, who was then in Kindergarten, asked for an iPhone instead of a birthday party.

“If you know kids, you’ll know their birthday party is pretty much the centre of their year, so the idea that this object had so much meaning to him was really interesting to me,” he says. He was initially wary of his son having too much ‘screen time’ – “I didn’t necessarily think it was a good thing,” he says – but changed his mind after watching how he interacted with his iPhone.

“He called it the everything machine – because it could be a tool, it could provide passive entertainment where he’s sitting watching a video, it could be a game, it could be something educational…. After watching him, I realised my problem wasn’t so much with the form and the device but the nature of a lot of the content that was available,” he explains.

“If you look a lot of the children’s content that was around circa 2010, you’ll find it was very thin. A lot of it was poorly made, the artwork was poor, and the pedagogy was didactic – even storytelling apps weren’t doing a great job of telling stories using the things that make this form interesting [eg features such as sound or animation]. The worst offenders I found were games, especially freemium games. They were essentially using gambling mechanisms to get kids to keep pushing buttons and that was exactly the opposite of what I wanted my child to be doing.”

Skyscrapers-by-Tinybop_blog3
Skyscrapers is illustrated by Mike Ellis

Gutierrez saw an opportunity to create better content that would encourage free play and cover subjects children everywhere would study in school, from nature to how our bodies work.

“We looked at how children play and for me, the best toy my kid can have is a set of blocks. If you just give kids blocks, they’ll be bored, but if you say, ‘build a ship or a zoo or a castle’, suddenly they’re off to the races. So the idea with the Digital Toys was to create these kind of blocks that would come alive with children’s imagination,” he adds.

“For me, this medium [smartphones and tablets] is one that really lends itself to open play because of the interactivity and direct feedback you get from devices,” Gutierrez continues. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with traditional storytelling [on iPhones and iPads] but I’m yet to find many people who do it better than a book … so we were keen to steer clear of traditional, turn-the-page kinds of stories.”

Apps feature little in the way of text or explanations but accompanying handbooks, available to download from Tinybop’s website, list points for discussion and more information about the themes covered in each app. Children and teachers can use the handbooks to start conversations with children around the app, challenging the idea of screen time as a solitary experience or one where children don’t learn anything.

“It’s about helping them to understand the world more deeply and discover what they’re into,” says Gutierrez. “My own kids have played with our apps and often, it has sparked an idea or a conversation. We’ll be in the car and they’ll ask a pretty elaborate question about something, and it will turn out the idea was prompted by the app – as a parent, it’s really satisfying to know you’ve created something that is enhancing their understanding.”

Before designing apps, Gutierrez says Tinybop will usually sit down children to find out what interests them about a particular topic. The company consults with children from a range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, which can often reveal interesting cultural differences. With The Monsters, for example, the team discovered that children in different countries think about monsters very differently – some have grown up with films like Monsters Inc while others are more familiar with mythical beasts and animal fables.

Children are then invited to test apps using iPads that also feature products by rival companies – “It’s really important to give them other choices to see how you measure not only against what you’ve done, but other people in the marketplace,” adds Gutierrez. “Little by little, you get a sense of whether the app works.”

Monsters
The Monsters

One of the things that makes Tinybop’s products stand out on the app store  is their design – apps have a surprisingly minimal aesthetic compared to other children’s offerings and feature beautifully illustrated objects and characters. The company works with a different illustrator for each product – UK-based Owen Davey created a vast library parts for the Robot Factory, which lets kids design their own robot, while Chinese illustrator Tianhua Mao worked on The Monsters and Berlin-based Mike Ellis illustrated Skyscrapers.

Artwork is often inspired by vintage learning aids and visual ephemera from comics to textbooks, but with a modern twist. Artist Kelli Anderson looked to Charley Harper’s Golden Book of Biology and popular emoji to create illustrations for the Human Body, while Plants was loosely inspired by Tin Tin comics. Apps also feature some lovely added touches – in Skyscrapers, the colour of the sky changes depending on where children are in the world, showing a night sky if it’s night time where they are and a sunny blue one if it’s daytime. Gutierrez is passionate about the importance of design and critical of apps that underestimate children’s ability to appreciate good aesthetics.

“There’s so much content for children that is sort of dumbed down in the way of design, and there’s really no reason for it,” he says. “In the 50s and 60s, you had some of the world’s greatest illustrators illustrating children’s books and creating incredibly rich infographics, but a lot of that has been lost. We’re trying to help bring it back.” He does acknowledge, however, that there is a growing number of companies making apps that are both beautiful and engaging.

On its blog, Tinybop offers a fascinating insight into the company’s development process, showing behind the scenes sketches of new products and publishing interviews with illustrators and designers, as well as educational activities for parents and teachers to try. The company also recommends apps, books and resources by other companies on its ‘Tinybop Loves‘ page.

Tinybop is now rolling out apps every few months – a team of 20 split their time between updating existing apps, developing upcoming ones and thinking up ideas for new ones – and Gutierrez says he plans to launch at least two more this year. The company is also working on a package for schools and a project that Gutierrez says will be “a complete break” from what it has done so far. Each of its forthcoming products will have a different look and feel, says Gutierrez, but all have the same aim of encouraging curiosity. “It’s one of the most important traits you can have as a child,” he adds.

For more info about Tinybop’s apps, see tinybop.com

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