With so many early learning media and apps available to parents and caregivers, finding ones that are educational and developmentally appropriate can be time-consuming. Moreover, educational apps designed to support parents and caregivers as they engage with young children around science are especially rare. How does the Splash and Bubbles for Parents app aim to address this?
In early childhood, research demonstrates how joint engagement with media—watching and playing together—can result in powerful shared learning experiences. The Splash and Bubbles for Parents app, a second-screen resource, was developed to support parents as they facilitate children’s ocean science learning and discussions when engaging with the PBS KIDS series, “Splash and Bubbles.”
We spoke with Stephanie Wise, director of digital and interactive media at The Jim Henson Company, and early learning researchers Ximena Dominguez, Danae Kamdar, Tiffany Leones, and Elizabeth Rood, about the app features embedded to support science learning at home and how evidence from formative research informed its design and development.
Tell us about the Splash and Bubbles for Parents app. How was the idea born?
Stephanie: When the show was first created and pitched to PBS KIDS, there was always a digital plan in place. In addition to creating online games for children, we wanted to design an app that would serve as a resource to parents and caregivers as they watched the show and engaged in science conversation. At that point, we looked into National Science Foundation grant opportunities, as this app had the potential to contribute to the research literature on joint media engagement in home settings and the effectiveness of second-screen media as a broadly accessible learning tool across informal environments. We then partnered with Curious Media (app developer) and Digital Promise (learning scientists) to construct objectives for the app and determine what research questions we could answer.
What is unique about the app? How do the app features support science learning at home?
Stephanie: The app is unique in that it is designed to be used as a second-screen resource—to help parents facilitate rich discussion around ocean and marine biology themes from the show. Parents are able to automatically sync to episodes and access science ideas and conversation starters that incorporate the Next Generation Science Standards. The app is also meant to spark excitement and conversation about the science connections that occur in children’s and families’ everyday lives through hands-on activities. We designed the app with experts in child development and marine biology to ensure the resources were scientifically accurate and presented in meaningful ways.
What was the research process and how did it inform the design and development of the app?
Ximena: Our work included multiple phases of research. The team first reviewed existing literature, frameworks, and standards, and collected data about how families already engage in science and use media, both of which informed the development of design personas—representative user types, such as parents who often engage in science but don’t often use technology. This information helped the team identify and design app features and supports that parents could find meaningful, feasible, and useful when facilitating their children’s science learning.
Danae: This all informed the development of a learning blueprint that guided the design of project resources, including the app and research instruments we used in user and pilot studies. These studies helped uncover successes and challenges as families used the app. After multiple rounds of iterative refinement, the team conducted a larger field study to determine if and how the resources in the app helped families talk about science together, what science concepts and practices children learned about, and whether families shifted their attitudes, beliefs, or practices around science and media.
How did you engage families in this work? Why was this important?
Danae: As an app geared toward parents, it made sense to involve families in the research process early and often. Throughout the different research phases, families engaged in user testing and providing feedback so we could capture their experiences and perspectives to guide app development and use.
Tiffany: In the context studies, families documented their current practices around science and media and technology use, laying the groundwork for the initial app design. Then, to support an iterative design process, user studies provided parents an opportunity to test prototypes and share valuable feedback on how they utilized the app and its features.
Earlier in the year, we had a different set of families with kindergarten-aged children from diverse backgrounds participate in a field study to explore the extent of their science talk when using the “Splash and Bubbles” resources and other related learning outcomes.
What have families shared with you about their experience with the show and app in the ongoing interviews?
Elizabeth: In our interviews with families during the field study, many parents discussed how engaging the show is for their child. Children often named their favorite episodes, and parents expressed appreciation for the educational content and quality of the show. In addition, parents noted that using the app while participating in the study shifted their thinking or approach to science. When asked if the app helped to have science conversations with her child, one parent shared, “Yes. During the episode, he’d ask me why. And I’d go back to the science of it. He understood that I could look things up.”
When asked about features of the apps, some parents expressed appreciation and excitement about the sync feature. One mother of a kindergartener said, “I like that it has the option to connect the microphone to the videos. [The app] makes it really easy to find out more about what they are talking about in the episode. Especially if it’s something I’ve never heard about.”
Interested in downloading this free app (available in English and Spanish)? Visit the PBS KIDS Splash and Bubbles for Parents App page.
To learn more about Digital Promise’s early learning research work, check out our webpage.