If you watch (endless) amounts of children’s programming as I do, you’ve likely seen commercials for ABCmouse, an online learning center for kids aged 3-8. My 7-year old son Nathan and I recently had an opportunity to test the site. Despite holding firmly to the idea that he was on summer vacation and would not be “doing any learning” until September, Nathan was pleasantly surprised by the scope of activities and incentivized games. Finally, no more arguments over Fortnite.
What is ABCmouse?
ABCmouse is a subscription-based, educational website with over 9,000 interactive learning activities, covering everything from reading and art to science and math. According to the site, they have a board of educational experts that advise on the curriculum, plan their games and ensure state standards are incorporated.
Setting It Up
The subscription stuff
There’s a free trial available, but you’ll be asked to provide a credit card number when you sign up. After the trial, you can either choose to pay $9.95 per month or $79.99 per year (if you’re willing to commit to a year, this is definitely the better deal).
There’s an Android and Apple app available for tablets and iPhones respectively, but I chose to use the site from our laptop. I wanted the opportunity for Nathan and me to learn and share together, which is hard to do on a tiny screen.
The technical stuff
The dashboard is fairly straightforward and very user-friendly. After a brief orientation video, we set up a customized “learning path” based on his age and grade. As your child becomes more agile at solving the games, there are parental controls available to adjust the difficulty level. This ensured Nathan wouldn’t get bored with any of the activities.
The parental stuff
While we haven’t used it yet, ABCmouse has an Assessment Center – a comprehensive, user-friendly resource to reinforce your child’s learning trajectory and improve learning outcomes. I’ve linked a source below for more detailed information.
The fun stuff
After I set up our family account (you can add up to three children on one account), Nathan designed his avatar, which tickled him because “it looks just like me!” He was also asked to choose a virtual hamster (aptly named Furball) and was given his own “room,” complete with a fish tank.
After completing a game or activity, he’d receive tickets, which he could accumulate and redeem at a virtual store for new fish for his tank, furniture for his room, or new tunnels for Furball. We both loved this feature; incentivizing the games, saving up to buy something he wants, engineering a massive hamster maze or furnishing his room – these are all ways he can learn from and impact his world.
Why it rocks
All roads lead to learning. It doesn’t matter if Nathan plays the same games over and over again, there’s inherent value in learning through repetition. Though Nate is very diligent in following his learning path, there are numerous activities outside of his customized “curriculum” that encourage self-directed learning; in one evening, Nate counted money (and made change), created compound words and punctuated sentences. I can also change the level of difficulty in any given activity so Nate is always challenged to try harder.
The user experience (UX) design is pretty agile. Nathan didn’t need any prompting to navigate his way through the dashboard. The graphics are bright and colorful, and there are audio prompts in case he gets stuck, or to encourage participation.
Because ABCmouse is fully COPPA-compliant (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), there are no pop-ups, external links or ads to interrupt the fun (or worse, entice him to click on questionable material).
What Needs Improvement
A few navigational hiccups
While the graphics are engaging and pretty self-explanatory, we did run into a few glitches here and there. For example, there was a bit of hunting for his virtual purchases once he’d acquired them. Some of the tabs aren’t marked clearly, and where we intuitively thought some items should be, we’d find something else instead.
Occasionally, the activity screen would go blank. This only happened once or twice and was easily remedied by refreshing the screen or, on the odd occasion, rebooting.
Remember to cancel
It’s important to note that your card will be billed automatically each month unless you contact ABCmouse to cancel your subscription, so keep an eye on how much use your child is getting from the site.
The final caveat, while not a glitch exactly, is the amount of time my child will willingly sit in front of a screen. While it may be tempting to let him play online because he appears engaged and focused, no website can replace reading a book together, or going to the park. Learning isn’t a passive activity, and it’s very easy to let your child play for hours without setting reasonable limits.
The Bottom Line
I think ABCmouse is definitely a well-designed, well-planned and thoughtfully integrated resource for parents and children. Whether or not Nathan will jump a grade remains to be seen, but I can definitely say that his written language skill sets have improved. Plus, he has a virtual hamster that I don’t have to clean up after.
EndTech Digest: ABCmouse Assessment Center