Like anyone who retires, Frances Judd had to decide what was next when she left her job teaching kindergarten at Francis Parker School in 2010. As she puts it, she stared into “the abyss.” Only for her, the abyss wasn’t existential, it was the iPad’s App Store: Few games designed expressly for educational purposes existed, and they were difficult to find.
It turned out that Steve Gradman, a Francis Parker parent who made marketing apps for corporations, was feeling the same way. Recalls Judd, “Steve was asking the same questions I was: Are there any high-quality educational apps that aren’t just flashcard experiences? Where is the teacher’s voice, articulating what’s going on educationally?”
The answer to that question is Mrs. Judd’s Games, a Chicago-based tablet-gaming company that now has a roster of six games under its belt. The apps distinguish themselves by teaching skills rather than emphasizing memorization. Both Crabby Writer and Chalk Walk encourage development of a child’s “pincer grip,” instrumental in learning to write. Left Right Pup teaches kids directions and turn-taking, and the superheroics of Rhinomite teach categorization. (All are available for iOS devices; so far, only Rhinomite works on Android.)
“One of the most important things is the empowerment of certain skills that unlock the power of learning,” Judd says. “I never liked teaching skills. It’s what children want to learn, but if you go at it directly, you often don’t get it. They don’t want to feel like they’re being taught something; they want to figure it out.” So in Crabby Writer, kids spell out words by tracing letters (made from seashells) with two fingers, in the same pincer grip used to hold a pen. In Snowflake Station, kids learn basic math and patterning by participating in a virtual version of constructing paper snowflakes.
Going from lesson plans to video games might seem like a stretch, but it’s actually a return to form for Judd. In the ’80s, she worked as a board-game and activity-card designer for Playskool and Hasbro, and has since worked as a freelance toy tester. (Remember the old educational robot games of the ’80s? Judd worked on Alphie II.) Still, developing ideas for tablet games is an entirely new beast.
“It’s difficult, but I love the difficulty,” Judd says about the transition. “The beauty of it and the difficulty of it is the level of collaboration it takes. I can’t do any programming, so the biggest challenge for me has been learning what is easy for the programmers and what’s hard for them to do.”
While Mrs. Judd’s Games continues to produce new work (Judd says there are another six on the way), the company is most excited about Juddly, an innovative service that can e-mail files from the app. Mrs. Judd’s latest game—Sendy, a drawing game with a steampunk aesthetic—functions with Juddly, so kids can send the photos and storyboards they make to their parents’ in-boxes. It’s a way for kids to safely and securely interact with the larger digital landscape, says Judd. Soon, a message from Judd will accompany that e-mail, explaining to parents the educational moment that occurred.
As more games and Juddly apps emerge over the horizon and the company’s profile grows, its founder is broadening her company’s scope, offering her services to other companies, helping them explain the educational value of their games.
“We had two goals for this company, and one was to offer apps where the education is like the hands-on learning in a classroom,” Judd says. “The other is to create that parent-teacher conference moment, where parents can hear the why behind the activity.”
Check out Crabby Writer, Snowflake Station and more at mrsjuddsgames.com, available on iTunes for free–$1.99.