Arabic-language app Lamsa leads the way in digital learning for kids

We catch up with Badr Ward, the creator of popular Arabic-language app Lamsa, which encourages children to be creative while learning through discovery and touch.

Badr Ward, creator of Lamsa. Antonie Robertson / The National
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“Never underestimate a child’s imagination,” says Badr Ward, the chief executive of Lamsa, one of the region’s top educational ­Arabic-language apps for children.

That’s the underlying premise of the app: encouraging a child’s creativity and allowing him or her to tell a story.

“To us, Lamsa is a movement,” says the Palestinian father of two, who strongly felt the lack of quality and culturally relevant educational material available in Arabic for children.

“We want to bring a love and natural appreciation of Arabic back to this new generation, a pride in the language, in a fun, exciting and engaging manner, but also with the purpose of educating.”

Lamsa, as he puts it, is about “edutainment”.

“Kids learn through play,” he says. “We know this. And kids, these days, can easily access information. So we can’t expect them to just memorise. They want to think for themselves, and explore, search, find solutions and make sense out of the different things around them. This is what we took into account with our relaunch of the app.”

The relaunch

The app’s new interface – developed last year following the relocation of Lamsa’s offices from Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to new headquarters at twofour54 in Abu Dhabi – clearly reflects Ward’s sentiments.

It is geared towards children between the ages of 1 and 8, which the Lamsa team believed is the crucial age group for learning a language and acquiring values and understanding. “These are the years that shape a child’s personality and instil habits such as reading and curiosity,” says Ward.

Since its soft launch in 2013, Lamsa has been making waves. Last year, the app won the Arabic e-content Award at the United Nations’ World Summit Awards and was selected and featured by Apple as one of the “Best New Apps & Games” on its app store for ­children.

Despite its winning formula, Ward felt the responsibility to address what he described as a “reading crisis” among young children. The app was already making learning fun, engaging and interactive for the 1 to 3 and the 4 to 6 age groups, but presenting it as a book to be read, rather than one-­dimensional icons, and increasing the stories accessible through the app meant that books and reading could be fun for children again. So while it introduces young children to basic numbers, alphabet, colours, animal names, letters and words, the app now also raises awareness about a range of environmental and humanitarian issues through the hundreds of stories and videos developed exclusively for Lamsa.

“We want kids to be interested; to be informed,” says Ward. “We want to teach them about recycling, about renewable energy, about the wonders of space, about what it means to appreciate each other’s differences, whether cultural or religious or racial. We are building future citizens, so this isn’t just about learning colours and letters. This is about value and sustainability and human relationships and innovation – and we can talk about all these things in a fun way to engage the digital child.”

The app

“Lamsa” means “touch” in Arabic, referencing the idea that information and “edutainment” is out there and accessible at the simple touch of a button. The app has been redesigned to resemble a book, with a mystery to be revealed with the turning of each page, as opposed to the app’s original interface of two lines of icons that Ward believed limited a child’s choice and did not allow for as much creativity or autonomy when using the app. Instead, the book-design approach leads to a treasure trove of stories, games, interactive worksheets, colouring pages, songs and more.

And, best of all, the app’s characters and mascots are about to come to life. By March, Lamsa will expand from solely being an app and add a retail aspect, with books and educational toys available across the UAE, starting with Virgin Megastores and expanding later to Hamleys and Toys R US. The books and figurines of Lamsa’s characters can be registered online and linked with the app through augmented reality.

“The products we are creating will complement what’s available on the app,” says Bilal Tahrawi from Jordan, head of content production at Lamsa. The physical books, for example, can be read with the e-book on the app, and an augmented-reality feature will allow the characters in the books to come to life when viewed on a device with a camera that is pointing at the open pages.

“We need to nurture a love of reading in children who are preferring the screen over a book these days, and this is one way to do it,” explains Tahrawi.

The mascots

Red-haired Joory and green-haired Adam help children connect with the various interactive aspects of the app, and are named after and based on Ward’s 8-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son.

“My daughter loves science and inventing and discovering, and I based Lamsa’s Joory on her exactly. My son Adam is passionate about art, just like Lamsa’s Adam, who always has paint splattered in his hair. We are breaking stereotypes with these types of ambassadors. We are saying, girls can be scientists and inventors, and there’s nothing wrong with boys loving art.

“These are important messages for us,” says Ward.

The content

Lamsa’s content is created in two ways. First, there is an in-house team of 50 staff, all working from the headquarters in twofour54, some of whom have backgrounds working at Disney or in the animation industry in Japan, and all of whom are developing original content. There are also partnerships with content providers, such as children’s authors, including Fatima Sharafeddine and Rola Saada, illustrators and publishers, as well as academic institutions, NGOs and government entities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

It was through these partnerships, and link-ups with MBC, Iftah Ya Simsim and soon Virgin Megastore, that Ward and Tahrawi realised they could make Lamsa even better.

“Children like to have autonomy, to feel responsible and make decisions, and that’s how we approached the redesign of the app,” says Ward.

“The child can have more control and doesn’t need to be confined. They can decide the outcome of a story, they can create or sketch the image they want to colour. They will learn through play and touch and discovery, so we need to let them do it.”

“We need more creativity and innovation in this region, and the best way to get it is to plant the seeds of creativity in our own children. With Lamsa, that’s what we hope to do.”