Reviewed and written by James Flores, CEO of Subcat Marketing. Subcat Marketing specializes in helping financial marketers reach “sub-categories” such as kids, teens, young adult and family markets. The firm develops fully-custom youth marketing and education programs for financial institutions across the country, and also offers a turnkey program for teens called The Elements of Money, the M3 Money Club for kids, and a financial newsletter for Gen-X parents.
When it comes to engaging kids, the greatest challenge facing any financial institution is sustaining interest. With Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney pumping out children’s programming 24 hours a day, the competition for the attention of a 10-year old is fierce. It’s this fact that makes ING Direct’s newly redesigned kids educational website, Planet Orange, all the more impressive.
Derived from ING Direct’s “Orange” brand, Planet Orange provides learning activities and games designed to teach kids (grades one to six) financial responsibility. Although not quite as entertaining as Spongebob or Ben 10, Planet Orange nevertheless succeeds in delivering much-needed financial literacy in an interesting package — suitable for today’s media-saturated kids.
We Have Liftoff
The Planet Orange website is a multi-dimensional world where kids can complete educational missions set within four exotic continents, each with a quirky ING-inspired name: Orangeopolis, Mandarin Mountains, Navel City and Tangy Town.
Before a child can begin using Planet Orange they must register, which is a pretty easy and safe process. Users provide a first name, grade, state, gender, password and parent’s email address. Kids are also asked to create an astronaut name which is used for their avatar throughout their Planet Orange experience.
Upon login, users find themselves at the Space Station which serves as home base for all the site’s activities. Two young astronauts, Cedric and Amy, serve as tour guides, inviting kids to play games, explore continents and personalize their station.
Here’s the cool part: the only way kids can access all this fun content is by earning and spending virtual money called Obux. Unlike commercial sites such as Webkinz and Club Penguin which require children to use real money to buy virtual items, kids can earn Obux only by completing educational missions or performing virtual jobs. In addition, to complete a mission a child must first buy fuel for their rocket to travel around the planet. Spend too much money on games and accessories, and you won’t have enough for your ride — just like in real life!
This is a great way of introducing the concept of needs and wants. Kids get to experience working, earning their own money and then spending that money responsibly. If they spend too much on fun stuff, there’s a tangible consequence.
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Mission: Financial Education
The lessons taught on Planet Orange cover a wide range of topics including saving, credit, investing, inflation and earning income, with each continent dedicated to teaching a specific financial concept.
As my first educational mission I chose Mandarin Mountains, an ancient and mysterious continent containing many of the oldest secrets about money. My first stop was The Cavern of Time, which focuses on the origins of money, followed by Mandarin Museum (needs and wants), The Great Mandarin Hall (budgeting) and finally The Library of Saving (saving money).
Each lesson was well-written and divided into concise, manageable segments—an important factor when constructing educational material for children. It would probably take about 10 to 15 minutes for a 10-year old to complete each lesson—less time than a child would spend watching a single episode of their favorite cartoon. With four continents to explore, each containing four lessons, there are hours of great educational content here.
A big concern is the age appropriateness of the content. Planet Orange is promoted as an educational website for students in first through sixth grade. However, after reviewing the content and comparing it to established child development characteristics, the site seems more appropriate for third to sixth graders. This becomes even more apparent during the educational missions that cover more mature themes such as “inflation,” “choosing stocks” and “long-term planning,” topics that are simply beyond the grasp of most six- and seven-year olds.
Planet Orange omits crucial foundational concepts important for first and second graders to comprehend before jumping into “advanced” concepts such as investing and borrowing. “Identifying coins and bills” and “understanding that cash and checks are both money,” are just two of the types of lessons that need to be addressed if ING intends to serve early elementary students.
In addition, the content must be delivered at an age-appropriate reading level. A quick check for readability using the Flesch-Kincaid reading scale, and the site scored at nearly a third grade level. This may not seem like a big deal for some, but for a six-year old child, it’s like asking them to read on the level of a student who has had nearly twice as much classroom time.
None of this diminishes the quality of the content. However, ING has some room for improvement regarding how to best serve the needs of younger students. One solution would be to create separate tracks based on the level of each individual child. Since ING is capturing each visitor’s grade level at registration, each user could be sent to an appropriate version of the site. First graders would then have relevant lessons delivered to them, while older kids will have access to information and content suitable for their stage of development. Of course this would take a major overhaul of the back-end structure of the site, but the end result would be a more inclusive and personalized teaching tool.
The Fun Stuff
The Mandarin Mountains mission costs 150 Obux to fuel your rocket, but it is totally worth it. I was able to earn more than twice that much simply by completing four lessons and passing a quiz. So what should I do with my earnings? Spend some money!
“Most banks and
credit unions attempting to
create games fail to compete
with the range of options
kids play every day.”
There are three ways to spend money on Planet Orange: Play games, decorate your space station, or outfit your avatar. Being somewhat of a game junkie, I headed straight for the arcade. Now I must say, I’m not a big fan of games offered at financial websites for kids, so I was a bit skeptical going in. Most bank and credit union attempts games fail to compete with the range of options kids play every day.
The games on Planet Orange are somewhat entertaining, but don’t work as a virtual carrot for learning and earning money. ING will need to up the ante if it expects to create stickiness, especially for older kids. Maybe users can pay more Obux to access higher quality games. It could be a lesson on value and price.
On the other hand, if a child chooses to spend their money decorating or buying clothes for their avatar, they’ll be pleasantly surprised. The ING team did a great job of offering a variety of ways for kids to put their personal stamp on their avatar and space station (note: these type of customizations are a favorite online activity of girls in particular).
“There are tons of decorations and accessories for kids to choose from — definitely enough stuff to keep them coming back for more.”
With my earnings I was able to add a lava lamp, hang a disco ball, change the flooring to a groovy purple polka dot pattern and even purchase a pet robodog. When it came to outfitting my avatar, I opted for the XJ Series 3000 Helmet, Star Modulator Chest Console and Hyperlaunch Jet Pack. There are tons of decorations and accessories for kids to choose from — definitely enough stuff to keep them coming back for more.
Space Travel for Parents and Teachers
The Planet Orange website also has sections for teachers and parents. With the Teacher Center, ING provides comprehensive classroom resources for educators including tutorials, lesson plans and worksheets. Unlike the missions contained in the Planet Orange kids site, the lesson plans are divided by grade level, written to comply with most state standards. By aligning the lesson plans with state standards, ING not only helps bring much-needed financial literacy into the classroom, but also helps teachers meet their state-mandated goals. Definitely a win-win situation and an effective way to position ING as a partner to the educational community. The best part for cash-strapped schools—all these resources are free!
In the Parent Center, there’s the requisite children’s privacy statement, program FAQs, and a handy video which explains the program. The Parent Center seems a little light on useful information, especially when compared to the Teacher Center and the Planet Orange site in general. It would be nice to see content written specifically to parents addressing the challenges they face trying to raise money-smart kids in today’s consumer environment. Topics like “helping kids deal with financial peer-pressure,” “managing allowances,” and “helping kids decipher commercials,” could go a long way in providing the tools parents say they need.
Planet Orange is a huge accomplishment. It’s not perfect — there could be better games, separate grade tracks and expanded content for parents. But it goes a long way towards raising the quality of financial literacy programs offered to younger generations.
ING effectively executes the outerspace theme, which should help keep kids engaged long-enough to consume the lessons. There’s plenty of content to keep them busy, and the ability for kids to earn and spend virtual money is a smart way of teaching financial concepts. It’s this transactional element that is at the heart of Planet Orange and provides the educational heft of the program. Although lessons, exercises and quizzes make up most of the content, it’s the experiential education that will stay with a child long after they sign off the site.
“Planet Orange is a huge accomplishment. It’s not perfect, but it goes a long way towards raising the quality of financial literacy programs.”
Planet Orange’s redesign comes only months after J.P. Morgan Chase announced the cancellation of the School Savings program, an unfortunate casualty of Chase’s purchase of WAMU. The program was an 86-year-old institution created by WAMU, and provided financial education to literally hundreds of thousands of elementary school students across the country. Whether intentional or not, Planet Orange appears capable of filling the void left by this loss.
At a time when so much buzz and attention is being placed on attracting the older segment of Gen Y (ages 18 to 28), it’s refreshing to see a financial institution focus on the youngest of Gen Yers. After all, when it comes to teaching kids positive money habits, the sooner the better. The lifetime benefits of early financial education makes it well-worth the effort. Hopefully we’ll start seeing more educational initiatives of this quality geared toward this age group.