The Story (and Science) behind Osmo Little Genius ABCs Game

August 1, 2019 / Learn About Osmo

Once upon a time in the far away land of California we started on this quest to come up with an innovative game that would teach children how to form and recognize letters. We wanted our game to be better than any other options available commercially, and to be grounded with the most recent child development research about teaching the alphabetic principle. We had quite the adventure in designing and evolving the Osmo Little Genius Kit game you see today!

During more than a year, a cross-disciplinary international team at Osmo researched everything we could get our hands on about how children learn letters: from eye-tracking studies to foundational educational kindergarten methodologies. We designed, prototyped, and evaluated different possible options for a game that would teach children how to form letters.

We believed that we could combine the tactile hands-on learning of the letter shape and phonics, with the adaptability and personalization of digital applications. And we did!

The game achieved our aims: it is an innovative way to teach letters that is different from any other commercial product out there. It combines foundational research from leading kindergarten educators with modern manipulatives and technological advances.

Our research was recognized to be contributing to science by an international panel of academic reviewers when it was accepted for presentation at the prestigious Interaction Design for Children conference (IDC2019) this summer.

Science behind Osmo Little Genius ABCs game

If children have been learning their ABCs for over a century, you may wonder, what was left for research to discover? Quite a bit as it turns out. For example, eye-tracking studies have shown that younger children do not notice differences in orientation when letters are composed of the same parts — that is why it is so challenging for them to differentiate a “b” ,”d”, “p”, and “q.”

Other studies have shown that it is the tactile sensorimotor action of experiencing the way the hand moves as one makes a letter that helps children learn the letters faster — for example, in the Montessori method.

This is very important because the ease and speed with which young kids recognize letters has been shown to be a very strong predictor (if not the strongest predictor) of educational success up to the 7th grade and beyond.

It makes sense really – the faster you recognize letters, the faster you can learn new words, the easier you find reading, the more you want to do it. The more you read, the better you get at it, and our education system currently depends on literacy!

How Osmo Little Genius ABCs game is uniqe

Many of apps out there teaching letters have kids passively listening, or at best, add a phonics sound clip to letters that the child “stamps” onto the screen.

Much like the refrigerator magnet letters, stamping letters only teaches letter recognition, not letter formation.

Yet the original kindergarten emphasized children learning their letters by learning how to make them. Friedrich Fröbel, the creator of Kindergarten, came up with a set of curriculum activities and manipulatives that would allow children to gradually explore the formation of complex shapes, patterns and relationships. These “kindergarten gifts” were the first “educational toys.” Before then children had books for educational purposes and toys to play with.

Among what Fröebel called the “kindergarten gifts” were wooden sticks and metal rings meant to physically enable children to form letters. Yet metal and wood are not ideal implements for the younger age range, so keen to explore objects with their mouths! Our “sticks-and-rings” tangibles are a modern implementation of Fröebel’s proven educational manipulatives.

And that’s only the beginning of the story – there’s so much more to our design process that we’ll be sharing in our next posts!

To be continued…


The conference paper was published at the Interaction Design and Children Conference. The conference is part of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), the largest scientific and educational computing society in the world.

Sketch note by Kenneth Fernandez