Back in the summer, a few hardy Codegent souls huddled on the platform of Euston station at 7.00am waiting for a train to take us to the BBC in Manchester to take part in BBC's Connected Studio event.
The idea was to amass the good and the great of the digital industry and spend a day trying to work out how to solve specific issues that CBeebies audiences had (pre-school children and their parents or carers). We came up with an idea called Playroom, which looked to answer some specific questions:
1. How can we help children and their parents/carers make sense of the large volume of content available on the CBeebies site?
2. How do we encourage user-curated content? In other words, allowing the audience to group and save content relevant to them.
3. How can we track children's learning and development via the BBC over time?
4. And how can we help an audience who can't read and can't write yet, search the site?
Following our initial day, our idea was selected to take to the next level, which was a 2-day prototype hackathon. We were teamed up with Kate Drummond and Tess Foster, who had had a complimentary idea in the first session. We continued trying to answer the four questions above and developing our 'Playroom' idea into something tangible.
Playroom is a home for children's curated content. Within the child's Playroom are a series of content folders that we call 'Toyboxes'. Let's say a child watches a TV show that has a dinosaur in it. Along with their mum or dad, they create a Toybox called 'Dinosaurs' and in it they put the TV show that inspired them. We then intelligently surface other content related to both the TV show that they tagged in there as well as the term 'dinosaurs'.
We also provide games and tasks that feature on CBeebies that are related to Dinosaurs. Children can upload their own dinosaur drawings to the Toybox and the box grows over time. The child's parent would give access to other adults such as grandparents or cousins, who could add related content that they find, too. A grandparent might want to record a video message explaining what they have found and why they think their pre-school grandchild might like it.
As the child progresses, the toybox could move with them through CBBC and beyond. As the child gets older, more age-appropriate content could be surfaced, perhaps from BBC TV shows such as 'Walking with Dinosaurs'.
We mentioned, the search problem. When we were children the concept of 'search' was unknown: we knew where our favourite book in the school library was and we just made a beeline for that. At the same time, our search was limited to the physical content around us. As the internet has evolved, search has become second nature to us. And for young children, the concept of using visual clues to narrow their search is easily understood by children under two (if you don't believe me, watch an 18 month old navigate their way around an iPad).
But most two year olds can't read and they can't write. Children know what they like: 'Dinosaurs', 'Tractors', 'Baby Jake', but they can't type that into a search box. So we introduced some voice-recognition wizardry that was linked into the BBC's search API that we think will allow pre-school children to have more control and ownership over the content they select.
The BBC has decided that our idea has legs and is now commissioning us to develop a pilot of the Playroom idea.