Susan Magsamen

Susan Magsamen, CEO and founder of Curiosityville, a new online learning website for children ages 3-8, holds some of the website's characters. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / September 20, 2012)

Can 3-year-olds learn online?

Susan Magsamen believes they can, with moderation and careful monitoring by a mentor or parent. And she's building a company to prove it.

Last month, Magsamen launched Curiosityville.com, a company that focuses on online learning for children ages 3 to 8. The Cockeysville company has raised $2.3 million from investors and has struck several partnerships with some major children's learning brands, including National Geographic Kids and the Goddard School for Early Childhood Development.

Magsamen has spent years studying early childhood learning and is also an adviser for interdisciplinary partnerships at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her experience in the field helped shape the approach she's taking with Curiosityville.

She and her team have designed rich, colorful characters for children to connect with when they go online. But Curiosityville also collects information and data on how well a child engages and learns, and it shares that data with parents. The site offers a way for parents and children to play and learn together, and for parents to get reports on their child's progress even if they are apart.

Magsamen recently spoke with The Baltimore Sun about Curiosityville and what it takes to build a website for helping young children learn.

How did you get interested in helping young children learn?

My first job was at Maryland Public Television, in an educational capacity. I worked on the children's programming side. In those early days, I was exposed to the notion of interdisciplinary learning.

Curiosityville is your second startup. What was your first?

I started Curiosity Kits. We made hands-on learning materials for kids. It grew into a $16 million-a-year business and it was acquired, in 1998.

So how did the idea for Curiosityville begin and evolve?

In the last five years for Curiosity Kits, I had started an early learning brand. I was very interested in early learning. I had been doing a lot of research in how young children learn, and that was where the action was. I learned how young children learn at a biological level. I really wanted to understand the science, and the science was changing a lot. What was the optimal environment for a child? What are the concepts and constructs that the brain is able to understand at a certain age?

Curiosityville has a lot of tools for parents to work and play together with their children. What's that about?

I became interested in the relationship between the primary caregiver and child. What happens when the child has that role model? That one person might change, but in [a] relationship we learn best. How do children learn? Through character, and context, and mentoring.

Children who join Curiosityville are introduced to several characters (Pablo the painter, Ruby the teacher, Joe the gadget guy, Rosie the scientist, Jack the policeman and Olive the dancing chef). How did you develop them?

For the first five years, we did a lot of framework building and starting to build the archetypes with the characters. We worked with educators and psychologists. We took them [the characters] to kids, and everything changed. We listened very, very carefully. The kids built the characters, the kids built Curiosityville. We've been very excited the way the characters came to life. We see that kids are playing equally with the first three characters. They gravitate to the characters.

You've sought money from investors?

I formed the company in 2007. We tried to raise money in 2008, but then the market dropped. We spent two years developing it on paper, building our storyline and our pedagogy. We really put our heads down, and tested and retested. We received a first round of $300,000 and a bridge round of $2 million.

Who are your competitors?