Rising EdTech Platform Combines Gaming and Technology to Encourage Literacy In Youth
Over the last year, a new web platform called Night Zookeeper has helped over 100,000 students develop their writing, reading and creative thinking skills. Night Zookeeper team’s World Creative Writing Month initiative generated over 1 million words of original content written by kids in 131 countries.
Developed by former school teacher Paul Hutson, along with his close friend Josh Davidson, the free platform encourages children ages 5-11 to create their own magical zoo animals and write stories about them.
The more animals that a child creates and stories they write, the stronger their zoo becomes (protecting them against potential monster attacks!), and the more new worlds they can unlock within the zoo. Kids can also visit the Midnight Market and collect animals that other kids have created. Once collected, they can then write stories about them, using their friend’s creations as creative stimulus.
Davidson first had his “light bulb moment” in 2007 while studying digital art in Australia, where he discovered that the Melbourne zoo was open 24 hours a day. He wrote a short story about a night zookeeper and began to imagine what the animals got up to after dark.
He and Hutson took this concept into the school where Hutson was teaching, and asked the class to imagine and draw magical animals who lived in the night zoo. The pair was astounded by the results, and have seen kids’ creativity sparked further when playing with a digital game based on their own creations, rather than a set of pre-determined options or characters.
“The whole point of Night Zookeeper is to inspire creativity; to get kids writing and drawing their own stories again, and to add value to creative play through technology, rather than distract from it,” Davidson described.
Since its inception, the platform has gone through various transformations, becoming an app in 2013, then a website in 2014 (which works on computer or mobile devices). Now, over half a million children around the world have contributed drawings to the night zoo in schools and online.
Based on feedback from parents, the Night Zookeeper team worked hard to develop a product that was not only free to use, but free from advertising and in-app purchases. Children can earn currency within the game (called ‘orbs’), but only by completing creative writing and drawing challenges.
In order to sustain this unique business model, Night Zookeeper encourages parents who enjoy the platform and app to contribute to become members of their ‘fan club’, as well as selling licenses to schools, giving them access to premium content and an integrated system that assesses students’ writing against curriculum objectives.
Although students often continue writing at home and almost half of Night Zookeeper’s activity is now taking place after school, the game was designed for in-classroom use, and gives students writing challenges such as specific vocabulary or topics to use, as well as grammar rules to follow. Some teachers such as Karen Gruber have also run special events around their Night Zookeeper programming, having her 3rd Grade class create large cardboard cutouts of their original animals, and having the Night Zookeeper team from London Skype in for a special session.
“We’re an education company trying to make something that’s going to entertain kids, as opposed to an entertainment company trying to get into education,” Managing Director Joshua Davidson told the Guardian.
Born in Cambridge, Ontario, Julie Blake has been a long-time advocate of children’s literacy and has contributed to many non-profit organizations including ABC Literacy Foundation of Canada, The Montréal Children’s Library, 826 Boston, Story Planet and Ministry of Stories. She is currently working to develop the Young Inventor Challenge, a contest encouraging kids ages 6-18 to invent their own original toy or game. Blake holds an honours degree in English, and spends her free time writing, traveling, and teaching her dog to do new tricks.