Play with a purpose

Mary MacKay
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The super hero character, Auntie Kay, at right is based upon Ooka Island co-founder Kay MacPhee, right, who, with granddaughter Joelle MacPhee, son-in-law Jim Barber, other family members and company staff, are offering a fun adventure game that teaches young children to read while they play.

The folks of Ooka Island Inc. have faced the dragons and are thrilled to tell the tale.

After appearing on a recent airing of popular television show Dragons’ Den, the next chapter for this Prince Edward Island-based company reads like a fairy tale come true. Ooka Island’s comprehensive, early literacy program that is offered exclusively through technology to children ages three to seven has already experienced a 900 per cent jump in web traffic and a 500 per cent increase in e-commerce sales.

“It feels like a million years ago,” laughs Joelle MacPhee, who personally pitched their unique early learning product to the discerning Dragon’s Den panel of venture capitalists back in April 2012 and gained exposure for the company that she and the rest of the Ooka Island crew never thought possible.

Joelle’s grandmother, Kay MacPhee, is the brains behind the tried-and-true teaching methodology that, when married with stories written by Kay’s son-in-law, Jim Barber, and paired with 3-D technology, became the Ooka Island reading game.

When Kay’s son, Lowell, was born profoundly deaf in 1960, there were very few alternatives for him to learn how to communicate. So she went to the United States for training on how to enable people who are hearing impaired to develop language skills and learn how to read.

“I didn’t want him to live in a silent world,” she says.

Kay continually modified and advanced her approach to reading instruction over several decades and launched SpellRead in 1994, which was recognized by the United States Department of Education as the top reading intervention program in the country in 1996.

Her vision to eradicate illiteracy was not complete, so she began to create an early literacy program to reach children before reading ever became a problem

For that, in 2006 and 2007 Barber, who is a teacher and children’s book author, wrote almost 100 books that connect the same characters all the way through from pre-school to Grade 2 reading level.

Meanwhile, Barber noticed that his two young sons were always immersed in technology and he wished they could make better use of their time.

“My youngest, Riley, when he was three he could sit on the computer and just figure it out. Kay and I would just look at it each other (in disbelief). It was almost like it was in his DNA,” says Barber, whose wife, Cammy, is also a founder of Ooka Island.

“I remember we had this conversation ‘Can you imagine if all that time was spent actually doing something that would help his future and teach children how to read? It’s not labourious. It’s fun and engaging?’ The spark was lit.”

The idea was to take Kay’s scientifically proven methodology in her reading intervention program and mesh it with technology in a fun huge quest for the child.

And so Barber started to work on what would eventually become the complete game design of Ooka Island.

“But we didn’t start with an island,” Kay laughs.

“We didn’t know if it was going to be a continent, another planet, we didn’t know. But it worked out perfectly,” adds Barber, who literally completed 100 re-writes to get the perfect one.

The name itself evolved over time.

“We wanted the (word) book somewhere in there. It was Zabooka Island and it just wasn’t testing well. We wanted something magical and fun to say (and it became Ooka Island),” Barber remembers.

“And all of a sudden children were shortening it to Ooka. So it’s not even Ooka Island (anymore),” Joelle adds.

“It’s so adorable how it has kind of become such a strong brand.”

The progress of young readers through the adventure’s 24 levels is dependent upon them acquiring the skills they need to learn to read.

So the continuing adventure becomes customized to individual players as they are redirected to activities related to reading skills they have not yet mastered.

“It really is like a live tutor,” Joelle says.

“When I look at a child playing Ooka, it really does feel like my grandmother sitting down with that child. Every word of encouragement, every notion in the game, every nudge when they’re (getting) off track — it’s like she’s teaching the child right across the table because you have to adapt your teaching style to each individual child.”

Ooka Island also features a private online reporting system for parents or teachers so they can see information about their child’s learning journey and the skills they are building

“We might all have different paths through the game because our skill levels are different or if we have a weakness that needs to be strengthened . . . ,” Barber adds.

“But they all come out the other end where they need to be, reading at the Grade 2 level, even at three, four or five years old.”

Ooka Island Inc. was officially formed in 2008. They approached a number of game developers in Canada and the U.S. and eventually chose a Charlottetown company that agreed to stay true to Kay’s proven methodology

“Just working face to face was the only way a project this big could be done correctly,” Barber says.

After two years of development, the first version of Ooka Island game was launched in August 2010. Version two was released in September 2012.

In March 2012, Kay, Joelle and Cammy travelled to Toronto to appear on the television show, Backyard Inventors, which features innovation expert and marketing guru Doug Hall, whose mission is to find and mentor the next great inventors.

“At that point we were really only focused on schools as a channel and he was horrified. He was like ‘Their budgets are too tight and there’s all this red tape.’ But that’s where we had experience,” Joelle says.

“But he said we were crazy for not going over to the mass market.”

That experience opened their eyes to a whole new world of marketing possibilities. Then came Dragons’ Den. It started with an out-of-the-blue telephone call from Joelle’s mother who said that Dragons’ Den auditions were being held in Charlottetown that very morning. Joelle and two other staff pitched it to two 20-something producers an hour later.

They loved the idea.

“So we got a call and then all of a sudden we were in Toronto for another TV show. (The taping of the two shows) were like three weeks apart,” Joelle says.

Joelle and her father, Lowell MacPhee, with help from three-year-old Cole MacEachern, a relative who lives in Toronto, presented the Ooka Island reading adventure game to the Dragons’ Den panel.

“(Cole) came out with a blankey. It was so precious. He knocked it out of the park. He had been playing for about a month and so he was familiar with the game. He had no fear and now he’s on book 30,” Joelle says.

Two of the dragons offered $1.5 million for 50 per cent of the company. Joelle and Lowell countered with an offer of 35 per cent for that same dollar amount.

It was a no-go for a deal on the show, but things didn’t end there.

“What happens outside the Dragon’s Den is up to you and the dragon,” Joelle says. “We actually did go down that road . . . . So there was a good relationship that had been built up with the dragons. It just wasn’t on TV.”

To date, Ooka Island has been demonstrated twice at the Canadian Technology Accelerator program in New York City and participated in eight trade missions in North America. Ooka Island Adventure products are currently being used in 22 countries worldwide.

“We’re just moving forward,” says Kay, who looks at each of these successes as another avenue to providing children with the opportunity to learn how to read.

“And that’s why we started it. We knew this would be the only way that we could make the impact that we wanted,” she adds.

“Now every child will have the opportunity. Not every child might get it, but the opportunity is there. And that’s why I think it’s been worth all this struggle and all the work we have done and all the work we have to do.”

AT A GLANCE

Fast facts

Ooka Island offers fun and effective reading programs for children ages three to seven.

The unique learning adventure game uses science-based reading methods and technology to increase literacy skills for children.

The goal is to teach children to read fluently and well through online instruction that is fun and compelling.

Ooka Island includes a complete reading program on the computer with enhancing offline components.

Upon arrival on the Island, children ages three to seven customize their own online avatar and embark on a 3-D hero-mission to save the Ooka elves and teach them how to read.

For more information, call 1-877-307-3616 (toll free), email info@ookaisland.com or visit http://www.ookaisland.com.

Organizations: Grade 2, United States Department of Education, Canadian Technology Accelerator Ooka Island Adventure

Geographic location: United States, Toronto, Charlottetown Canada New York City North America

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