Hop into reading with the Kangaroo Crew and FDU animators!

Kangaroo Crew graphics

By Kenna Caprio

The Kangaroo Crew has been hopping to it and helping children love to read for more than 20 years through engaging paperback books, CD-ROM and Adobe Flash games, and tablet and smartphone apps. Loo-Loo the Kangaroo, Rider the Spider, Regal the Eagle and the rest of the crew star in adventures that teach children the alphabet and word identification. Soon, they want to read!

Lois Mancuso, a mother, grandmother and retired educator, developed this multi-sensory approach over time, working with Robin Barkley, professor of animation and director of the animation and video game animation program at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus. The two — who met when Mancuso’s son took an animation class with Barkley nearly two decades ago — have assembled a development team comprised of FDU alumni, interns and other volunteers. Together the team creates fun and educational games, an extension of Mancuso’s original books and vision. Today, their attention has turned to apps and marketing.

“The whole focus, I would say, is to try and get them (children) to not be afraid of reading and really wanting to learn to read,” says Mancuso.

While teaching high school in New York City, N.Y. and later volunteering at schools in Newark, N.J., Mancuso quickly realized that if her students hadn’t read much or early as a child, they were at a “tremendous disadvantage.” She started writing simple books to change that.

“I developed books with very controlled vocabulary, so that there were no more than 10-12 words in every book,” Mancuso says.

Now those words pop up in the digital games. As technology changed, so too did the Kangaroo Crew approach. When Barkley came on board, she envisioned seeing the characters in Mancuso’s black and white books as animated and colorful, full of movement. She developed the initial animation for both the CD-ROM and Adobe Flash games. For a while, the CD-ROM and books were paired together. Then the focus shifted to the Flash games.

Now though, Whisper Productions, Inc., which produces the Kangaroo Crew, no longer makes the books, CD-ROM or Flash games. Children can still play the Flash games for free on the Kangaroo Crew website, and the books are still in use by after school and English as a second language programs, but production is now focused solely on apps.

Kangaroo Crew book CD
The Kangaroo Crew had humble beginnings in paperback books and CD-ROM computer games. Now, the Crew helps children get excited about reading through tablet and smartphone apps! (Photo by W. Scott Giglio)

“We’ll keep up with whatever the technology demands,” says Barkley. “We have a million ideas — every time the team gets together we come up with more.”

Just last summer they released their first app: Loo-Loo’s Alphabet Matching Game, which is available for purchase through the Apple App Store and on Google Play.

In the app, which has three modes of difficulty, children start by matching letter to letter with the touch of a finger. The next two levels up the challenge, asking the child to match a letter to an object or thing and repeat the word. Each level takes the player through the whole alphabet.

Along the way, Kangaroo Crew characters offer extra positive reinforcement as children find and select each correct answer.

Before releasing Loo-Loo’s Alphabet Matching Game, Mancuso and Barkley tested the app at local schools and after school programs. Working with children ages 3-6 years old, they found that 4-year-olds responded best to the game.

At the F.M. Kirby Children’s Center, part of the Madison Area YMCA in Madison, N.J., Mancuso collaborated with Harriet McCarter, executive director, to sample a cross-section of young children.

“They’ve truly designed something very user-friendly and on the level of a child,” McCarter says. “It was a good way of exposing children to the same content (as in the established curriculum), but in a different medium, and one that they’re somewhat used to and comfortable with.”

The content is designed to either supplement classroom and after-school program curriculum or function as a tool for parents or tutors to use individually.

“Often when children are behind, people assume these youngsters are not smart.And that’s not it at all. They just don’t have the skill. And how do you get the skill? By doing it. The way they get better is by reading and if you make it fun, they want to do it. It’s priceless,” says Mancuso.

“Lois has experience in how kids learn, and she’s able to let us know how to convey that — we establish repetition and use colors effectively,” says Max Becker, BA’14 (Florham), who worked on the matching game app with Barkley. “We build the fun around the learning. The hope and goal is that kids play the game and don’t realize they’re learning — they’re just having a great time and then they know the alphabet.”

Becker, now an adjunct professor in animation at the Florham Campus, and his brother Paul co-founded Blindhack Software, where they do custom app, branding, games and website design. They’re now at work on the second Kangaroo Crew app, a car racing game.

“We’re creating multiple tracks, environments, cars and the ability to unlock difficulty levels,” says Becker. “People like to feel like they’re figuring the game out.”

As Mancuso, Barkley and the Beckers ready for the new app’s release, they’re also focused on marketing the Kangaroo Crew brand. They’re hiring a marketing intern to help them make business and marketing plans. Recently, Kangaroo Crew joined Facebook and Twitter and created a YouTube channel, which features a video preview of Loo-Loo’s Alphabet Matching Game. Mancuso even wants to approach New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration about using the Kangaroo Crew apps in early childhood education classrooms.

At the same time, intern, FDU senior and animation major Will Whitehead is going to animate a crime caper starring Rider the Spider that Mancuso wrote years ago.

There’s no dearth of ideas or enthusiasm from the team. Mancuso also wants to sell plush toy versions of the Kangaroo Crew characters and create apps for older children to keep them interested in reading, too.

“There’s just so much you can do once you get a youngster’s attention. This whole animation thing is magic, and everybody loves magic,” says Mancuso.