A new company called Kiko Labs is today releasing a series of “brain-training” games for children. Think, perhaps: a Lumosity for the preschool-plus set. Like others claiming to promote cognitive skill development through gameplay, Kiko Labs’ games were developed in partnership with a scientific advisory board, who advised the company on how to best translate dozens of research studies and scientific papers into functional games aim to help kids better develop skills like working memory, reasoning, cognitive flexibility, selective attention, and more.
The idea for the startup comes from founder and CEO, Grace Wardhana, previously an executive producer at social games company Gaia Interactive. Now a parent herself, she was frustrated that she couldn’t find games on the App Store that were based on cognitive science.
“I couldn’t find much content for young children beyond ABC’s and 123’s that was transformative as well as educational,” she explains. “That personally inspired me to apply my experience in gaming to re-imagine what game-based learning would look like on tablet devices.”
She, along with co-founder Tim Lopez, also from Gaia, started Kiko Labs in 2013, and is joined by an advisory board of neuroscientists and researchers who collaborate on the games’ development.
Today, that board includes Dr. Bunge, a Professor, Vice Chair, and Head Graduate Advisor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, and an Associate Professor and Executive Committee Member in the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute; Dr. Wesley Clapp, who researchers neural plasticity in the human cortex, and also sits on Lumosity’s advisory board; and Dr. Jenny Thomson, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and whose work uses both behavioral and neuroscientific tools to study the identification and remediation of reading and writing difficulties.
With the launch of “Kiko’s Thinking Time” out now in the iTunes App Store, aimed at kids ages 3 to 7 years old, the learnings from scientific research are translated into fun, engaging games featuring cute characters and a series of challenges that, when mastered, adapt to the child’s abilities and increase in difficulty.
The games were first released to the App Store as a market test at the end of 2013, to gauge how parents and kids alike would react, but they’ve since been upgraded, revamped and expanded.
The app now includes 10 mini-games, 5 of which parents and kids can try for free before committing to a purchase. Kids can play the “daily training sessions” in each of the five games for free, and if parents choose to upgrade, they pay $7.99 per month (or $49.99 per year) for all 10 of the games out now, plus receive a new game added to the collection every month.
The subscription covers up to four children, and also offers parents a section in the app where they can track each child’s progress across skill sets and see how they compare with other children in their same age group. A website companion that features this and other information is also due out in a few weeks. And parents will be able to sign up for progress reports via email, too.
Longer-term, Wardhana envisions a company where the games “age up” beyond the elementary school years, and are available cross-platform. She would also like to sell the games to schools. Currently, thanks in part to a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Kiko’s Thinking Time is being tested in schools with 55 students and 10 teachers, all of whom said they would like to use the games in the classroom, reports Wardhana.
It’s worth pointing out that there’s been some controversy in years past over the effectiveness of brain-training games among neuroscientists. Some feel that game makers have over-hyped their games’ ability to improve cognitive ability overall, when really the games are helping improve players’ ability on a particular task.
That being said, as a good handful of my kids’ favorite games are those I wish I’d never downloaded – like the dog that eats and burps, for example – putting a game like Kiko’s Thinking Time on my kid’s iPad at least makes me feel a little less like a parental failure.
Kiko Labs has a small amount of seed funding from co.lab (the organization created by Zynga.org and NewSchools Venture Fund, which focuses on developing innovative learning games); 500 startups, the SBIR grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education, and an angel investment from Guitar Hero co-founder Kai Huang.
Kiko’s Thinking Time is free to download for iPad (preferred) or iPhone here on iTunes.