You may not yet be familiar with Touch and Learn, an app development studio founded by husband-and-wife team James and Zoe Lewis, but that’s about to change. With their ninth app Fun Town set for a November 27 release, the duo adds to their library of engaging and intuitive educational apps that appeal to an audience as young as 2 years old. We jumped at the chance to learn more about Fun Town and the future of Touch and Learn, and James gave us a unique behind-the-screens look at the creative process of developing a quality educational app.
To say that the couple has a diverse background would be an understatement. “I’ve always been into gaming, and I’ve always been into design,” says James. He ended up studying design and has a Masters in architecture, and when he was asked in high school about what he wanted to do with his life, he told his career counselor that he wanted to design spaceships for the Star Wars films. “She told me not to be so ridiculous, as if that job didn’t exist.”
After school James began his career in film almost two decades ago in the art department of a BBC series. Since then he has added some pretty impressive work to his portfolio, including work on the family film ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and eventually got his big break on the period miniseries ‘Band of Brothers’ – an experience that he recalls fondly as “just bonkers”.
The move to app development began about three years ago after talking with his wife Zoe – who at the time was taking a break from teaching to stay at home with the couple’s two young children. They both recognized the growing popularity of kids’ games in the the Apple App Store but didn’t have a clear vision on which direction they should be traveling.
“We were having a chat about where to go with the company,” James says. “The iPad had just come out and my daughter of three was better at using it than my wife was. I think it’s fascinating how kids interact with these devices.” Touch and Learn was then formed and their first app abc First Step drew on Zoe’s educational background, who James credits with being “brilliant when it comes to the nitty-gritty of the educational side.”
James taught himself the programming language and created the artwork himself, asking freelance friends to contribute here and there. “It’s kind of a homegrown business, really,” he admits. “To be honest it was more of an experiment at first, to see if we can make an app.” Touch and Learn and abc First Step were both well-received and the studio went on to release the line of Peekaboo apps, all of which boast fun soundtracks and retro-kitsch graphics that are bold an engaging.
About 18 months ago James and Zoe started their current and more advanced endeavor yet. James took time out from film projects and focused entirely on the creation of Fun Town. He calls it a culmination of three-and-a-half years of experience and a true labor of love, and something that proved to be, in some ways, far more challenging than his work in Hollywood.
“Our whole ethos is to hand an app to a child and leave them to it,” James explains. “The idea of Fun Town was to create a ‘wrapper’ – a vehicle behind which we can put educational content.” The inspiration behind the app was a book with a mid-century illustration of an American street lined with little shops. James took that idea and created mini-games for each of the shops in Fun Town, making it as simple and graphical as possible so that young players can identify and relate it to their everyday life – as James calls it, “a journey of discovery for the child, the presentation of established educational techniques in a much fresher fashion.”
Simple, bold graphics and open-ended play make Fun Town an appealing game for the 2-6 crowd. There aren’t any in-app purchases, third-party ads, or other distractions that might break the concentration of young players. There’s also a lite version of the game in the works, along with updates and more interactive residents walking the streets. Educational content offered in the 14 mini-games includes color and number recognition, matching skills, sequencing and problem-solving. Players can grow flowers in the flower shop, count and sort money at the bank, or even build a custom bicycle for cruising around Fun Town.
So what does the future hold for James and Zoe? “Ideally I want to build up Touch and Learn so I can become more of an ideas person – I could have published 50 apps this year but there’s not enough time,” James says, laughing. “I’m a real believer in – you know, if you got the talent and the self-belief, you can do anything.”