Ranger Rick’s Tree House: Profile in Innovation

The first of several profiles of 2013 Award winners begins with this year’s Gold Innovation Award winner, Ranger Rick’s Tree HouseTree House is published by the National Wildlife Foundation (NWF) and co-created by NWF and FableVision Studios. Read on to hear about the inspiration and development of Tree House from the creators themselves.

The inspiration behind Ranger Rick’s Tree House…

Mary Dalheim, Editorial Director, Ranger Rick Publications at the National Wildlife Foundation: Around February 2012, the editors and marketers at NWF decided it was time to create a digital magazine forRanger Rick readers. We wanted it to be highly interactive and to make good use of cutting-edge technology. To meet this goal, we decided we needed to re-envision how tech-savvy children ages 8 through 12 might want to read and consume magazine-like content on a digital device (preferably the iPad).

One idea that came from noodling over this challenge was to throw out the standard page-by-page format of a print magazine and give young readers electronic content they could explore within the framework of Ranger Rick Raccoon’s tree house. Readers were already familiar with Rick’s tree house home from his cartoon adventures in the printed magazine. In this electronic version, they could actively explore the rooms inside to find videos, digital comic adventures, multi-level games, and clickable jokes—all designed to educate children about wildlife (our mission). We thought that perhaps there could also be some sort of reading table or rack that provided interactive wildlife stories, so that when kids tapped on a story teaser, it would spring to life, offering informative text, eye-popping photos, and fun facts and animations. We all agreed that, like the print magazine, every bit of content within the magazine app should be aligned to national curriculum standards and meet the fun-factor thatRanger Rick readers have grown to know and love.

We knew our talented staff could provide quality research, writing, editing, and design work toward this endeavor, but we didn’t have the technical expertise to do the rest. That’s when we turned to FableVision Studios. These folks are well known for their playful, story-based approach to digital educational products.

Leigh Hallisey, Creative Director, FableVision, Inc.: FableVision was truly honored that NWF placed its trust in FableVision to work with such a beloved and established brand as Ranger Rick. We knew how important it would be to preserve the Ranger Rick character and everything he, the magazine, and NWF stand for, while updating the brand for this new medium and tech-savvy generation. We also needed to promote NWF’s mission to get kids to care about nature and animals in a completely new and interactive way, which was our inspiration for the design of the Tree House living room and navigation.

The process of making Tree House come to life…

Mary: We wanted to have Ranger Rick’s Tree House in the App Store in time for the December holidays. That only gave us nine months to create the product as well as a content management system that would let us publish additional issues (four a year) without reinventing the wheel each time. From the very beginning of the project, the Ranger Rick and FableVision staffs worked closely to develop the Tree House components. Together, NWF and FableVision had to imagine and create the world inhabited by Ranger Rick and his friends. When it came to execution, the Ranger Rick staff did much of the writing and editing (including photo and video editing) as well as some of the design and artwork.

Kate Cotter, Senior Producer, FableVision, Inc.: FableVision did the lion’s share of art and development, from game concepts, to analytics, to a custom Content Management System for the NWF group to use in the creation of each issue. Working with the App store’s newest feature: the Newsstand, brought an opportunity to work directly with folks at Apple to collaborate on how best to utilize all the Newsstand has to offer.

Mary: Within this timeframe we produced three consecutive versions ofTree House that Iris Sroka and her team from Paradigm Research and Consulting tested with children ages 7 through 12. During each round, the researchers skillfully assessed the product’s appeal, navigability, and developmental appropriateness. They also solicited suggestions from the kids for improvements. Each time, we tweaked according to Paradigm’s findings.

During the final six months of product development, our marketing team led a campaign to promote Tree House through print, broadcast, and electronic channels. The team worked closely with 360 PR, a public relations firm based in Boston, to produce effective product messaging and help secure product mentions. 360 PR also scheduled desk-side tours for us with key parenting magazines and staged a mommy blogger event in New York City to coincide with Tree House’sfirst appearance in the App Store. That App Store appearance occurred December 3—right on time for holiday sales!

Memories from the product development process…

Elise Catchings, Art Director, Ranger Rick Publications: One of the greatest memories I have of working on this product was when Mary shared her Tree House idea with our entire staff. I remember her asking us to “dream” with her and think of the most fun, educational and treasured app that a seven-year-old kid would want. It was a really exciting time for our staff and we began to bounce ideas off one another and share concepts that at the time, seemed too far to achieve (or afford), but thankfully made their way into the product nonetheless.

Leigh:  Selecting (as well as composing) music for each game was a really fun process—we tried to capture the spirit of adventure and exploration that Ranger Rick stands for, as well as evoke a feeling of playful silliness that kids love.  We’re not sure if even our NWF friends know this, but many of our theme songs inspired ridiculous dance routines that we love to perform–while we work, of course!

One of our fun challenges in designing the games was striking a balance between maintaining scientific accuracy while employing addictive game mechanics and creating a super-fun world that kids can’t resist.

Kate: Another small hurdle was that the star and host of the experience doesn’t actually speak! He comes from the world of print, so we don’t really know what he sounds like! We needed to find a way to have Ranger Rick connect with kids, and maintain his personality without a voice—a challenge, but a fun one.

Tree House’s secret to success…

Mary: I think there are at least four secrets to the product’s appeal. First, Ranger Rick’s Tree House is much more than a flip-through digital magazine. It’s a game arcade, video screening room, reading nook, and comic book all rolled into one. I think we really did meet our goal of providing tech-savvy kids with a new way to read and consume magazine content. Second, all of the games, videos, articles, and comic adventures in Ranger Rick’s Tree House provide fascinating, scientifically accurate experiences with animals (a topic near and dear to kids’ hearts). Third, each issue is loaded with content—enough for hours of engrossing fun. And fourth, the product is funny, upbeat, and super-playful throughout! It’s what a 21st century Ranger Rick publication should be!

Gary Goldberger, President, FableVision, Inc.: Our partnership is one with great communication, open dialogue and true team chemistry.Ranger Rick’s Tree House was built together from the ground up with a shared vision, which is a special thing in our industry; everyone on the Ranger Rick team is inspired and lives the product every day.

What winning the Gold Innovation Award means…

Mary: It is very rewarding to be recognized by our peers for raising the bar on the development of digital publications.

Leigh: We took a risk re-imaging the magazine format, and it paid off! It shows that an educational app can borrow from the best of casual and entertaining experiences while still maintaining the highest educational standards.

Kate: Winning this award validates FableVision’s belief and goal of respecting kids’ abilities to learn through play. Forcing kids to digest educational content with no consideration of how their brains actually work will most likely backfire—playful learning is, more often than not, the best kind of learning there is. 

Learn more about Ranger Rick’s Tree House.