The publisher of the "Curious George" children's books expanded its presence in the fast-growing early-childhood education market with the acquisition of Cockeysville-based children's learning website Curiosityville.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which publishes children's books and develops educational assessments, curriculum supplements and professional training for K-12 education, announced the purchase this week but did not disclose the purchase price.
"We have looked for market extensions, and the most natural one is early childhood, served by special education and pre-K," said John Dragoon, chief marketing officer for Boston-based Houghton Mifflin. "Curiosityville was a great fit, not just the content but the expertise."
Cockeysville resident and author Susan Magsamen established Curiosityville in June 2012. The subscription-based site uses characters, games and settings such as an art studio and science lab to guide children ages 3 through 8 through activities online and off.
Dragoon said demand for early-childhood education materials in both the classroom and home has been driven by growth in the age group from 2 to 8 and increased government funding of early-childhood programs.
Besides Curiosityville's content, Houghton Mifflin was attracted by the digital platform and use of research in developing the content, Dragoon said. He expects the company to increase subscribers by appealing to parents, home-schoolers, Head Start programs and schools.
"Some of Susan's solutions are better and more refined ... and will replace some of ours, and we'll invest in them to take them to the next level," he said.
Already, users include families, schools and organizations such as the Goddard Schools, Calvert Education and Maryland Family Network. Dragoon did not disclose how many subscribers Curiosityville has.
The website will become part of Houghton Mifflin's portfolio of early-childhood products, with Magsamen staying on as a senior vice president in early learning and continuing to oversee the website from her Cockeysville office in a converted barn. The deal also includes Curiosityville's "Learning Tree," a data collection and analytics arm that provides real-time information about users' progress and offers personalized recommendations for students.
The site, which adapts activities to the child's abilities, is designed to strengthen creative expression, problem solving, collaboration, and other cognitive and academic skills.
Magsamen built the site based on child development research, critical skill instruction and the role of parent involvement. She helped create and is a senior adviser for the Johns Hopkins University's Science of Learning Institute and has written 10 books on family engagement and early learning.
The site's games, sound effects, animation and characters all are designed with learning in mind. Magsamen said she believes poor rankings by U.S. students in math, science, reading and innovation, compared to international peers, can be improved through stronger early-childhood education with the cooperation of parents.
The idea grew out of a company she founded more than 25 years ago, Curiosity Kits, which created activity-based kits in art and science, that she eventually sold.
"When you started with young children, learning was incredibly robust and you could impact helping children learn to learn," she said. "When you combined that with the primary caregiver — parent, teacher or grandparent — learning was exponential.
"And when you add technology to the mix," she said, "it changes the outcome for young children and their families beyond measure."
She said she and the current five full-time employees of the site will continue to be based out of the existing office.
Children use the site by choosing a place to explore — an open-air classroom, art studio, science lab, cabin in the woods or police station — then choosing activities. Parents meanwhile can get real-time information about what and how their child is learning in 10 core areas. They are sent recommendations for extended learning.
"Curiosityville fits perfectly with our mission and commitment to cultivating curiosity and a passion for learning in young children," said Linda Zecher, Houghton Mifflin's president and CEO, in the company's announcement. "We place enormous value in the impact of early childhood education, both at home and in preschool settings."