How to create an app for children, with children. In one week

What you are about to read is the diary of the summer camp that Timbuktu organized during the week from 8 to 12 July at the Digital Accademia in Roncade Treviso. The app that we created during the camp is now available in the Apple App Store. If you would like to be notified about our upcoming Timbuktu Camps, sign up to our newsletter.
Diario
Why have a summer camp? Because we wanted to open the doors of Timbuktu to a group of 25 children. We gave ourselves an ambitious objective: to create an app together in one week. But we didn’t want to teach the children about the programs used to make an app. Our ambitious objective was that of working together with them like a big editorial team: sharing goals and tasks, taking responsibility and experiencing failures and successes.

We also wanted to put the culture of collaboration, listening and support that we live every day at Timbuktu to the test and we used this occasion to better understand the role that each one of us has in creating our products.

DAY 1 – One… Two… Timbuktu!

One of the objectives of Timbuktu’s apps is to help children to learn through experience and to get in touch with the context in which they live through the contents of iPads or smartphones. For this reason it is no surprise that our camp started with an exploration of the place where we would be staying for the week: the park and the Digital Accademia building. But first, we had to get to know each other as a group. And what could be better than a war cry? For the entire week ours was “ONE… TWO… TIMBUKTU!”.

Now we were ready to start our exploration. Some of the children knew the area better than us as they had already been there several times, so we let them give the group a guided tour, explaining as they went along the possible dangers to the younger children and helping them to discover the most beautiful corners of the Digital Accademia. In this way we were able to immediately introduce two of the guiding principles of our educative method:

1) Work is based on collaboration. For this to happen you need to learn to share information and expertise.
2) The children need to be allowed to be as independent as possible and to help each other to overcome difficulties, resorting as little as possible to asking an adult for help.

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After the guided tour, we went into the Accademia and into the main room: we were ready to start dismantling an app. We started working with Oscar Pizza Chef, and then we asked ourselves what the ingredients of an app were: images, sounds, text and a program that tells the iPad how these ingredients should be mixed together. Then we started to work on the concept.

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We chose the “dream school” as our starting point and then we were divided into groups so that, at the end of the day, each group could present to the CEO (the children called Elena that for the duration of the camp) their take on the concept.

Behind the scenes on day 1

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Day 1 ended with the presentation of each groups’ projects, based on the drawings that the children had produced to illustrate their team’s proposal. At this point, there were two things to understand: firstly, there was something interesting in each proposal, but obviously none of the projects was perfect; and secondly, each team had presented solutions that were very close to their own experiences, with little imagination.

For example, when faced with questions such as: “How do we create a sound?” or “How do we get to the dream school?”, the children gave answers like “We can download sounds from the internet” or “In a Range Rover”. This did not help either the concept or their interest in the project take off because it was too similar to their daily experience. There was not enough distance to stimulate them to create something new.

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And so during dinner on the first day and breakfast on the second day (while we were still half asleep) the entire team, guided by the creative director (Francesca), tried to think how we could keep the best ideas that they had come up with (and there were lots of them!) while helping the children to take a new direction into unknown lands and use their imagination more actively. After all, this was the third principle:

3) Educating children about innovation does not mean teaching them to use new technology (they don’t need our help for that), it means teaching them the pleasure of impossible problems and encouraging them to imagine new worlds and only then helping them to understand how Google and the iPad can help them to build these new worlds.

And so, over steaks wrapped in Lardo di Colonnata, we had a brain wave. Let’s take the most interesting classes they had suggested, and take away gravity. No. Let’s ask them to bring the best parts of their project and build a school… on the moon! Very early the next morning – can you tell from our faces? – we had a meeting to plan for the day.

DAY 2

Since we believe that it is important that imagination comes from experience, where should we start from to work on the Moon School? It’s obvious: from a special moon landing astronaut course.

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Perhaps you can guess what the fourth principle is:

4) Creativity does not only come from the mind.

To unblock the creative process and use your imagination to its fullest you need to use everything: arms, legs, hands, feet. This is particularly true for children, who have a way of living and a creative process that is much more intense and engaging than that of many adults. Furthermore, exactly like adults, each child has their own way of getting that creative spark, and encouraging children to move gives those that prefer a more physical approach to feel more naturally part of the process.

While Tommaso Lana was leading the course, we built a moon in a room of the Digital Accademia on the floor above, as well as making yellow tickets to get in, putting cushions everywhere and playing the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey for the moon landing.

The children were very excited when finally, in very small groups, they arrived on the moon. And that room that until then had been a room like any other, had become a magical work space, the “moon room”.

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At this point the CEO told the group that the concept we were going to work on was a school on the Moon, and that we would have used one or more of the ideas that each team had presented the day before. We split into groups, this time dividing the children by age and distributing the tasks so that each group could contribute something to developing the concept and we began the production of the assets for the app.

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The mission on the moon had worked! The children began to put forward more daring ideas, to give themselves more ambitious and interesting problems to solve. “How do you go to the toilet on the moon?, “How do the janitors clean on the moon?”, “Where do they park the rockets when they get to the moon?”, “Do the children go back to Earth for recess?”, “What do the children eat in the cafeteria on the moon?” (“Lamps!” – said Margherita, age 5, -“That’s easy, chocolate lamps”).

In the meantime, as well as working on the concept, the older children began to familiarize themselves with some of the tools that we would use in the following days to create the assets necessary for creating the app: iPads, Garage Band, Photoshop, Pro-tools, cameras, the concept of texture and storyboards for visual and audio design.

Together with Samuele Motta, the art director of Timbuktu, the group of designers started working on the app’s storyboard and listing all the assets that would need to be produced to make the app.

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DAY 3 – The Big Trello

At this point we needed some order and everyone (even the five-year-olds) had to be clear on where we were going, why and what exactly needed to be done to be ready for the app launch day (Friday). For this reason we started the day sat around some tables. Each person had yellow cards in front of them and a marker pen.

We examined what we had done the day before and we looked at the storyboard to try to understand what we needed to produce. For each task we wrote a card. Then we divided a big white poster into 4 sections: design, sound, voices, characters. Then each person attached the cards with the tasks in the appropriate section. It was our big Trello (we use Trello a lot in Timbuktu).

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At this point we threw ourselves into the various tasks. To tackle them better we decided to split into teams and we divided the Digital Accademia into areas: the design area, the character area, the recording studio, the material experimentation room, the actors group. The children were encouraged to be responsible for the spaces and each child took care of a particular aspect. The youngest children took over the material room and became its custodians. So when we needed 10 white sheets we asked Rocco. “There should be ten,” replied Rocco. “If there are any extra bring us them back”.

In the character room, Stella was the boss. The design group went to ask things such as “We need an Eegor with a space suit for the bathroom on the moon”, or more difficult requests such as “Can you make us a rhino that is taking dance lessons?” (in the Moon School there is a special classroom dedicated to rhinos who want to study dance to become nicer).

With Samuele, the designers discovered how fascinating a mix of drawings, photos, materials and the digital processing of images can be and how the results can be more interesting and neat from a visual point of view if you work hard on the editing. Around Samuele’s desk exclamations of “Samuele, you’re a genius” were heard when he showed them some of the possible ways of modifying the images they had scanned into the computer. They became a leit motif that made us very jealous.

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The members of the sound team underwent an intense training with Elettra Bargiacchi (who only accepts the best and wants everything to be perfect!). They sampled all kinds of sounds: a ball bouncing, a thump on the radiator, footsteps on gravel, bursting balloons, a hoover (a sound which was to become the rocket’s engine!) and many other sounds.

After they had learned the basic information and how to use the tools, the team was split in two; half worked on the sound and the other half did the voice-overs. The children that did the voice-overs were able to continue the project on their own given the training they had received and knowing that Elettra would not accept anything less that wasn’t very good.

Tobia, 8, after searching desperately for somewhere quiet, without any echo and bird song to record one of the voice-overs, came back with a track which he handed-in saying “It’s not perfect, but we are only kids after all”. It goes without saying that both him and Edoardo were sent away to try again. In the end they succeeded. Exhausted and satisfied Edoardo confessed: “I didn’t think I was that patient”.

The group of authors that wrote the scripts for the voice-overs, led by Francesca, encountered similar problems: the lines had to be short, clear and easy to pronounce. They had to try to explain in a single sentence what was going on in that classroom. We realized that this was a difficult task. But here too, with a lot of patience, they succeeded and handed over 6 sheets to the “actors”.

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This brings us to:

5) It is important that the children experience failure. Failing, trying again and then succeeding gives the children an incredible sense of self-confidence and makes them more independent. If we shield them from failure and pretend that everything is ok (even when it isn’t) we lose the opportunity to teach them to evaluate their own work and to rejoice when they complete a task well.

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4 – Sound Track and Statistics

This was one of the most exciting days for the group of sound designers. During recess the children searched on YouTube for the key words that had emerged during the previous days: comet, star, space… and they got an idea about the type of music they wanted in the app. Then they went to get Elettra, dragging her away from her lunch break because they had to start right in that exact moment. Elettra pretended to be tired, but she immediately left the table and went to the outer-space recording studio, proud of her 7, 8 and 9 year-old eager beavers.

Together with Elettra the children decided on which instruments there would be in the soundtrack of the app, what type of resonance they were looking for and each of the children chose one digital instrument on Garage Band and recorded their own track. The tracks were then loaded onto the computer, elaborated and put together with Protools, a professional program for editing sound.

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In the meantime Erica Capanni, Timbuktu’s Growth Hacker, introduced the children to the concepts of data analysis and the user statistics of an app (Did you think we would have stopped short of statistics? You’re wrong!). To begin with Erica asked the children to go get a piece of paper each. The children came back and together they analyzed how many of each type of paper had been chosen. Erica admitted to them that they should have all got the same type of paper and so she changed the instruction: go and get a piece of paper each from that tree. When the children returned the papers were recounted: they were all the same type! Changing the instruction had worked.

And so they decided what they would like to analyze about the app’s users. “Where do the users come from?”, “Who are the users?”, “What do they use the app for?”, “Do they do what we want them to do?”. At this point the lesson took off and Erica wrote a list of what they needed to know about the app they were making. Statistics 1.0. Done!

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“Now,” said Erica, “we need to tell they creative director about the results of our analyses.” We discussed our results and we decided to tell the designers that the Play button at the beginning needed to be bigger. “That’s when the users get started using the app, we can’t mess it up,” observed Giacomo, 8.

In the meantime Jorge, Timbuktu’s iOS developer, processed all the assets based in the instructions we sent him via email with the children. The next day, he assured us, we would be able to see the first version of the app on our iPads. We could go home with our minds at peace.

DAY 5 – The App Launch

On Friday, as soon as she saw me, Alma, the 5 year-old we had had breakfast with every day during the camp, said: “Today we are going on the moon for the app launch”. But first we had to check Jorge’s prototype! We waited for the others to arrive and then… OOOH! All our hard work was really coming together as an app. We showed the children the version of the app that Jorge had sent us during the night and we noted down what needed to be changed.

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But first we had to prepare everything for the launch. We had to prepare the tickets so that their parents could come on the moon, to choose the ticket collectors and the ticket inspectors, to rehearse the presentation, to tidy up the moon room and make it welcoming, and to bring together all the material that we had produced over the course of the week to explain to the parents how the hell we had managed to produce an app (“Adults don’t believe in magic, you know,” said Camilla, 5).

Matilde took care of this part, putting together an exhibition of all the material produced by the design group and explaining all the problems that they had had to overcome and solve: button state changes (if you put a button in an app you need to design two images, not one, because when you press the button it has to change), the purpose of the splash page, the construction of the home page and the production of the various types of texture for the various classrooms.

The highly disciplined sound team refused to leave the outer-space recording studio (as they had renamed it) and had created a path through the studio to explain how the sounds, noises and music that were in the app were created (entirely composed and played by the children using Garage Band and Pro Tools).

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Once the presentation of that week’s work to the parents was finished there was the moment we had all been waiting for: the launch! The Digital Accademia had an amazing drone arrive that, to the sound of “One… Two… Timbuktu!”, landed in the department of the App Store on the moon.

Our five days of intense work ended in an applause and with everyone’s eyes pointed up at the sky. We confess that we were exhausted by the time of the launch but, while we were going back to the Accademia to pack our bags, we heard Margherita, 5, tell her dad: “Dad, it wasn’t great. It was amazing!” And we asked each other: “When are we going to do this again?”

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The Moon School app is now available in the App Store. If you would like to be notified about our upcoming Timbuktu Camps, sign up to our newsletter.

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