LOS ANGELES - School closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic are creating stress for many parents trying to teach and entertain their children at home. While many online educational options provide help, some parents worry about too much screen time while their kids are away from school. 

General view of a sign outside the Parkside Community Primary School in Borehamwood as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Borehamwood, Britain, March 18, 2020.

“If you're wasting your time on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, that's the bad kind of screen time that we want to eliminate,” said David Drobik, co-founder of Vividbooks, an application that uses augmented reality to make physics concepts come to life. His app is among those that aim to combine the real and digital worlds to help children stay mentally active and engaged. 

Augmented reality physics

Traditional physics textbooks, Drobik said, contain illustrations, diagrams and lots of text to describe concepts that might be easier to understand if explained through a more visual medium.

“Physics has a lot of caveats and a lot of concepts that are very visual in the sense that if you apply a digital layer with an animation that explains different concepts, it's much easier to explain rather than having to read a lot of text,” Drobik said. 

Through a desktop or mobile device, a user first prints out Vividbooks pages. Once in the app, holding the mobile device over a Vividbooks page will animate what is on the page on the screen of the device.

“The device recognizes the image on the worksheet, and that's how it knows that it should play a certain type of animation,” Drobik said.

Certain pages include sound when explaining concepts such as how a steam engine works or the mechanical properties of gases with the sound of blowing up a balloon. Other topics include energy, optics, Newton’s law and friction. 

An empty classroom is seen at a closed school in Paris, March 16, 2020. 

The app is currently available only for Apple mobile devices. Web and Android versions are expected in June. During the pandemic, parents can access Vividbooks pages for free. The target age range for the product is 10 to 12 years old. The company plans to add chemistry and biology content and to expand the material for a wider age range.

Creativity and imagination 

Another app attempts to avoid the passivity that causes many children and young adults to be glued to screens.

“Technology is great. It's all around us and there's so many fantastic things out there,” Martin Horstman, founder of Tink Digital, the company that created the app DoodleMatic, said. But, he added, the way children use it can be passive.

Horstman considers social media and video games to be passive because the user is consuming other people’s ideas.

He developed DoodleMatic so that users 6 years old and older could express their own ideas by combining real-world skills with technology.

With the software, a user designs and draws a game on paper, using specific colors that tell the app whether something is an avatar, a goal, a hazard, or is something that can make an object move. The user then takes a photo of the picture with a mobile device through the app, and what was on paper becomes a video game.

Through trial and error, young game developers learn how to avoid past mistakes and develop more complex games, which Horstman said can teach important life skills.

“We believe strongly that creativity and imagination is such an important skill for every career path that you might end up taking,” Horstman said.

Kids can design and animate two games for free. A package costs $29.99, which includes markers, design ideas and a code providing access to create 1,000 additional animated games.

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