I got introduced to Kaju, the Green-eyed baby alien, when my elder son Aditya began working for Nayi Disha Studios in Delhi. A playmate of thousands of preschoolers across India, Kaju is the brain child of Kartik Aneja (lovingly known as, “Kaju’s Papa”) and Kushal Bhagia.
After seeing the enthusiasm and dedication of this young creative team I decided to do a feature on them and ask Kartik about his journey with ‘Kaju’ and his dream startup. You don’t have to be an educational expert to see how their innovative engaging games have changed the face of learning for little children. Nayi Disha is changing the way children are taught in schools with the help of immersive technologies and stories.
I remember my children’s preschool days and how keenly they used to engage in the fun learning at the preschool as well as at home. We did not have technology to support it then but it was evident that learning through activities which required active engagement helped them much more than just regular chalk talk and routine classroom studies.
Fun means engagement, doing and learning what has meaning and purpose, and it means being challenged. Embracing this belief definitely has a profound effect on what and how we teach in the informative years.
It is amazing how the technology rich world has come up with 3D rendered collaborative games developed with a creative and sensitive approach to understanding of age appropriate content. The concept has completely transformed learning abilities in young children.
In early school setting it is very important to tap the boundless energy and inquisitive minds of the children and engage them physically. Children of this age group are extremely active and mobile and most of the time the controlled classroom learning does not go well with them. Not all children are able to grasp the lessons effectively through rote technique. Their energetic minds and bodies are constantly looking for change in learning modalities .
“Young children exhibit a diversity of learning styles, and the optimum way for many children to learn is other than by traditional teacher-directed verbal and mathematical approaches (Gardner, 1983). We must be sensitive to these different learning styles, especially as we serve an ever-larger diversity of children. Using alternative learning techniques and adjusting them to their individual needs has shown very positive results in preschool learning and has also shown tremendous potential for young children with various disabilities.”
“Brain research suggests that fun is not just beneficial to learning but, by many reports, required for authentic learning and long-term memory. According to Neurologist and educator Judy Willis,”when the joy and comfort are scrubbed from the classroom and replaced with homogeneity, and when spontaneity is replaced with conformity, students’ brains are distanced from effective information processing and long-term memory storage.” The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and “aha” moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of “exuberant discovery,” where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning. ”
NDS specializes in designing educational games based on Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences and are mainly based on motion sensing technology (Microsoft Kinect) which requires kinesthetic participation from children.
Schools across India are exploring new options to replace the age old rote technology and infuse innovation in the process of teaching. Nayi Disha Studios has a similar initiative and that is to help make learning fun for young children through computer based educational games.
Founded by Kartik Aneja, Kushal Bhagia and Kunal Chawla, NDS specializes in games that are designed to engage a child on four levels
- Kinaesthetic: All games encourage physical participation from the child.
- Auditory: All games have music, background sounds and prompts that are composed to reinforce the learning.
- Visual: All games have rich 3D worlds and adorable characters that children love.
- Emotional: All games have short stories weaved around them that give children an emotional connect with the characters. Besides the stories, since every concept is taught via a game, children feel the need to “win” the game and this keeps them thoroughly engaged.
An interview with Kartik Aneja about his dream start-up and future plans.
How long has it been since inception of Nayi Disha?
We consider the founding date for Nayi Disha in June, 2012 – even though,the real work started in September 2012.
Building a startup from a scratch and taking it to this level is a daunting task. What challenges did you face and how did you combat them?
We went through the typical challenges of starting a startup – Money is always a problem. Because money is a problem, often getting access to good talent becomes even a bigger problem. If you don’t have smart people working with you, its difficult making a good product, which makes it difficult for you to make money later on – it is kind of vicious cycle.
Apart from that, the Indian society is still very apprehensive about starting up – suddenly all uncles and aunties consider you as failures, and put you under the bus going to Infosys (as opposed to the shining stars on it).
But it’s alright – All these are very generic problems, which I am sure everybody who starts up faces. It’s a part of the job. 🙂
What was the initial idea with which you thought of designing educational games for young children? What subject lines are covered by your games till now and what more potential do you see in future?
I came up with the original project during my internship at HP Labs. I designed two very basic games by myself then, and tried them at a girl’s orphanage in a slum in Bangalore. I made a short video of that, and put it online – the video then went pseudo-viral, where people tweeted and blogged about it.
However, the idea then was very different.While working at HP Labs, I got early access to the Akash Tablet, India’s attempt at the OLPC. I didn’t like it, and I thought to myself ‘even I could do something better’. The pilot project started only as a small experiment, but gained momentum with time. The only concept taught then was Hygiene. As opposed to now, when we cover more than 20 topics in the pre-school curriculum spanning Math, General Knowledge and the Languages.
Tell us the story about Kaju? Why did you choose an alien as your flagship character and how did he get his name?
After a lot of observations and studying, we felt children these days are really excited by space. The name Kaju, however, has its roots on earth (more specifically, India!).
Both Kushal and I are absolutely in love with Goa (having spent 4 years of college at BITS-Pilani, Goa). “Kaju” is basically a small tribute to Goa. Moreover, we studied the names of all popular characters throughout History, and noticed a definite pattern – all names are made up of two or less syllables (“Mick-key”, “Min-nee”, “Goo-fee” and so on). Kaju (“Kaa-joo”) is short, easy to pronounce, and has a familiar ring to it for children throughout India.
Do you feel that the concept that started as a dream has finally taken off and you have been able to overcome the challenges that the educational games usually face? Is your venture directed towards high or middle end schools only or you want to reach out to low-end schools and underprivileged kids too?
Building your dreams is an ongoing process. We are much further on the road, than where we were yesterday. However, we need to go even a longer way tomorrow. At the end of the day, we want learning to be fun for everybody. We feel our solutions are highly affordable even for the lower-middle class in the country. However, with time we wish to bring it down even further, and reach out to more and more people at all the levels of the pyramid.
How do you visualize the changes learning with Kaju has brought in schools? Tell us about some of your experiences with children and educators. How do you train teachers to make them adept with the technology and what are the other requirements to install your games in schools. How about customer support ? How often do you visit the schools for feedback and how do you implement required changes?
The children absolutely love Kaju. My top 3 Kaju stories from 2013 can be found here – http://kartikaneja.wordpress.com . Some of the stories that all of us at Nayi Disha go through are truly heart-warming.
Apart from sharing on how to get the technology working, we share lesson plans for each game with the teacher. Here, we discuss them, on what are the best practices related to our games, and how these games can be used to teach multiple topics. We share with them on what other teachers do before, during and after our games, and so on.
Most schools have had at the most 2-3 issues in the last 8 months of having used our games. They were also software-based issues, and were quickly resolved at our end. As the we get more mature, we constantly work on making the software smarter .
At the same time, we keep visiting our client schools to get valuable feedback. We sit in the classroom to see how children react to our games. Learning is a constant process for not only the children, but for us as well. So focusing on the feedback loop is crucial to our product life-cycle.
Each day Prateek, Aditya and Rizwan, our animation team, are learning more and making the cinematic more beautiful and relevant for our children. Nitish, one of our developers, is constantly on his toes modifying and updating UI based on observations and results produced by our psych-research team. We then keep pushing our updates back to our clients’ computers.
Kaju’s Number line
Are the school managements open to bringing changes in the teaching methodology? What challenges do you face? If any.
We would certainly like them to be more open. There seems to be a general disappointment with ICT in schools after the Smart Board bubble burst. However, most people we have talked to immediately see the value in our offering. Multiple Intelligences is a growing movement throughout classrooms in India, and most educationists immediately see how our system helps in that regard. The biggest challenge has been… our age. Senior level managements are usually people beyond their 50s. They find it very hard to trust a bunch of 20 year olds in this domain. Education unfortunately is a field where reputations are often defined by age.
I feel that it is highly important for the game developers to know the psychology of the children for whom the games are being designed. Tell us about your team and their working methodology. How does your team go about conceptualizing, designing a user-friendly interface and simultaneously incorporating educational lessons in your games?
We constantly work with child psychologists, educationists and teachers on conceptualizing, building and refining our games. Even before we started building Kaju (or any of the games), Kushal and I spent a month at a school in Ahmedabad attending Nursery to 12th. We would go to school in the school-bus in the morning, attend classes with them, and come back. We made notes of how children at each level moved, how they thought, what they liked/disliked and so on.
We continue to have an in-house psychologist, and work with many interns who help us both build and test our games.
We have introduced Kaju in many prestigious schools/Preschools across India including Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Jaipur, Hyderabad and Baner, Ahemdabad.
The Nayi Disha Team
Feel free to write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like a demo conducted at your pre-school.
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