Communicating, Collaborating and Creating Change at Fred Forward

This spring, I was given an extremely exciting opportunity when the Fred Rogers Center named me an Early Career Fellow. The mission of the Fred Rogers Center is to advance the fields of early learning and children’s media by acting as a catalyst for communication, collaboration, and creative change. This mission complements the work I’ve been doing at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which also focuses on advancing children’s learning through digital media. Here at the Cooney Center, I’ve done research, design, business development and strategy, and partnership building. Now, through the Fred Rogers Center, I will be creating a technological application that takes into account all of my learning and educational experience and puts it into action.

As part of the year-long fellowship, the Fred Rogers Center requires each of the fellows to create a media-based application or some sort of technology that will teach young, pre-school age children socio-emotional skills, a task that Mister Rogers himself so eloquently instilled in children and families all over the world through his work in the fields of music, TV production, ministry and child development. My project will focus on exploring how innovative and new technologies can provide fun, socially-driven play experiences that spur socio-emotional development while inspiring mindfulness and reflection. Professor Katherine Isbister at the NYU Game Innovation Lab, an expert on the social and emotional qualities of Human Computer Interaction in games, will be one of my advisers.

As part of this work, I will be eagerly sharing updates and progress reports with the goal of allowing other designers, developers, and researchers a behind-the-scenes view of educational application development. The game will be developed using research-based, human-centered design methods, which include interviews, brainstorming, prototyping, user testing, and observations as well as application of existing academic research to appropriately address age and developmental levels. I also plan to bring together a cohort of advisers who are experts in socio-emotional development, game design, and joint media engagement to consult with during this iterative development process. Given that this is a Fred Rogers Center project, I will have the great advantage of direct access to this valuable information.

Anna Ly, Makeda May-Greens, and Erica Branch-Ridley hang out with Levar Burton at Fred Forward.

Anna Ly, Makeda May-Greens, and Erica Branch-Ridley hanging out with Levar Burton.

I first got a glimpse of this advantage when I was invited to attend Fred Forward: Connections by Design: Creating Media, Children, and Family Partnerships through Research, Collaboration, and Advocacy. The conference reflects the mission of the Fred Rogers Center and with Fred Rogers’ belief in the positive benefits that television and new media have in supporting young children’s healthy social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. The exciting three day meeting was filled with fantastic talks from children’s media and early learning experts on the role of technology in children’s lives. For the first evening, we got a strong grasp of the importance of nurturing, teaching, and inspiring young generations by hearing young scholars and professionals share their stories of how they got to where they are today with the help of Fred Rogers, and how they themselves have used what they learn to give back to young children. The evening was capped by a keynote from Levar Burton, the beloved host of Reading Rainbow who further highlighted Fred Rogers’ contributions to children’s lives everywhere. Levar also discussed the importance of reading and how Reading Rainbow was created to combat the summer loss phenomenon, which is the loss in academic skills and knowledge during summer vacation. He concluded his talk by discussing his Reading Rainbow app, which has recently taken off (or shall I say blasted off?) on Kickstarter and in the social-media space.

The next two days were just as compelling, with panels like:

  • Research-Based Design in Children’s Media and Technology
  • Technology and Digital Media for Engaging and Supporting Families and
  • Professional Development: Early Childhood-Media Partnerships
  • What Do We Know and What Do We Need to Know? A New Research Agenda

During the Research-Based Design panel, Kathy Hirsch-Pasek from Temple University shared a slide on the four pillars to “cut through the noise and create something fun”: Active, Engage, Meaningful, Socially Interactive. She then discussed how apps can be rated on these four pillars; then the sum of the ratings places them into one of the following four categories: a playful application, an educational application with guided exploration, an educational application but with potential for shallow learning, and a poor application. In the same talk, Barbara Chamberlin from New Mexico State University discussed the importance of starting with a conversation of how parents and kids can select good applications. The members of the panel all expressed the challenges of ensuring that an early childhood expert has a voice on the development team. Other pieces of advice for best doing research-based design were:

  • Have everyone on the team talking to each other – for example, the game design team should feel just as free to send the educational group information on educational research and methods.
  • User test! Though the set up is time consuming, it is well worth it.
  • Worry less about the development and more about the process.
  • Work with creatives who respect research and vice versa.
  • You’re not 3 years old! Know where kids are and meet them where they are.
  • Start with the character and story. Kids like to see characters that they want to be.
  • Test appeal and comprehension!
  • Value the space between the screen and the audience. Observe what happens and build towards supporting that space.
  • Wonder, humor, and weirdness are key for high attention and appeal amongst children.
  • Build an advisory panel to fill in what’s missing in the room.
  • Build applications that get children to notice their own thinking and strategies.

In the Technology and Digital Media for Engaging and Supporting Families panel, the discussants talked about effective collaborations and partnerships for family engagement and support, and how digital media and technology can help provide that support. Lisa Guernsey from New America Foundation presented Seeding Reading, which will be launching through in June 2014 with literacy resources, blog posts, and new research on parental engagement. Michael Robbins from Span Learning talked about the importance of relationship building and how to keep families engaged and informed when collecting data. He gave the example of, to which he is personally willing to provide data to because it gives him valuable information that he can use on his own time. Panelists also chatted about different interactions that should be leveraged such as asynchronous connections so parents could possibly see and interact with their children at camps when they aren’t even there by checking out pre-recorded messages, pictures, and videos during their free time.

In a much more app-focused presentation, Warren Buckleitner from Children’s Technology Review presented Ten Affordances of Multi-touch Every Educator Must Know. He showcased different exemplars that gave children the opportunity to:

  • Be curious (e.g. The Human Body)
  • Hear a story (e.g. Where’s My Monster?)
  • Tell the story (e.g. Doodlecast)
  • Be in the screen (e.g. Toca Hair Salon)
  • Scaffold (e.g. Wonderful World of Ants)
  • Make friends (e.g. Drawnimal)
  • Get a skill (e.g. Slice Fractions)
  • Move (e.g. Geocaching)
  • Create (e.g. Scratch)
  • Make a mess (e.g. Bubl Draw)


There were also extremely informative talks from Allison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, who provided two takeaways in her fascinating example-rich talk:

  • Early childhood education is important and crucial
  • Early childhood education should be exploratory

Patti Miller from Too Small to Fail presented a number of ways that the Too Small to Fail initiative is aiming to close the word gap through forming strategic partnerships with NGOs and media companies to magnify attention and motivate action. She described their recent partnership with Univision to do cross platform campaigns and local news content both online and mobile.

On the last day, Michael Levine from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center convened a group of researchers including Heather Kirkorian from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Shelley Pasnik from the Center for Children and Technology, and Michael Robb from the Fred Rogers Center, to discuss a new research agenda. Heather Kirkorian presented her research on learning from video vs. personal interactions. One piece of advice she provided to the audience was that interactive applications for those under 3 years old are better than just watching videos. Some research questions she threw out to the audience were:

  • How and why does the experience of watching video differ for children under 30 months old?
  • Can interactive media inform learning?

Research questions that Michael Robb proposed were:

  • How can media become an important part of families’ co-learning experience?
  • How should we think about e-books in that capacity?

Shelley Pasnik threw out the following:

  • How can digital platforms help with non-cognitive skills?
  • What does tenacity look like?
  • What’s joyful tenacity?

These are just some sneak peeks into the Fred Forward conference. You can find more information on their Youtube site here:, where they will be posting up videos from the conference!

I am extremely honored to be given this opportunity, and to be working for two centers named after, essentially, the creators of educational children’s media. It’s like having two super heroes guiding me the whole way, which is a very rare opportunity indeed. Won’t you be my neighbor and keep a lookout for how I go about this wonderful fellowship?

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