Caribu app for reading virtual bedtime stories boomed during pandemic

  • Caribu, an app that lets parents and grandparents read bedtime stories to their children and grandkids virtually, boomed during the pandemic.
  • The app grew tenfold in March, and now its co-founder Maxeme Tuchman says its expanding to the classroom and the home office.
  • Now, the company is pushing for some employers to offer Caribu as a benefit, which could be helpful for parents working from home with young kids. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If you’re familiar with Maxeme Tuchman’s background, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear she runs a company that promotes reading and education among children.

Tuchman spent more than two years as the executive director of Teach for America’s Miami-Dade branch starting in 2013. She also previously managed education projects under Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, and Michelle Ree, the former D.C. public schools chancellor.

But it wasn’t until 2016 that Tuchman and her co-founder began building Caribu, a video calling app on iOS, Android, and the web that lets children read and play games with family members remotely.

In fact, the idea originated from a photo the two came across of a soldier video-chatting on a laptop in a coffee shop. 

“You see him holding up this huge picture book and facing it toward the laptop,” Tuchman said to Business Insider. “There should be better technology in this day and age for families who are distant from their kids to be able to share that ritual of reading a bedtime story together.”

While the app may be best known for its wide selection of children’s books that adults and children can read together virtually, Caribu also offers coloring sheets, games, drawing tools, and recipes that kids and relatives can cook together. The app comes with 15 free books or activities per calendar month and offers unlimited access for $10 per month, or $100 per year.

The company says the app is being used in more than 200 countries and territories around the world. 

Caribu may not be new, but it boomed in 2020 as grandparents, aunts, and uncles were unable to visit their grandkids, nieces, and nephews for months in the pandemic’s early days. The app grew by more than half a million users during the pandemic, the company says. 

According to Tuchman, this was a tenfold increase that occured overnight.

“You could say that I haven’t slept since March 13,” Tuchman said.

It’s no surprise that an app like Caribu would see increased demand at a time when children were unable to attend playdates with friends, attend school in person, or visit relatives. After all, video conferencing tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet also saw a massive uptick in the first half of 2020.

Tuchman is confident that Caribu will continue to grow and is starting to pitch Caribu as an employer benefit, which can be useful for parents who may begin working remotely permanently even after the pandemic. Caribu couldn’t disclose the companies it’s working with to potentially offer its service as a benefit, but it did say they include financial services companies and startups.  

There certainly appears to be interest in more flexible work arrangements that include at least some remote work. Even when the coronavirus is no longer a top concern, 83% of office workers say they want to work from home at least one day per week, according to a June survey from PwC. 

Plus, large tech firms like Twitter and Shopify have said that they will allow employees to work remotely permanently if they wish.  

“You don’t need access to a gym right now,” Tuchman said. “You don’t need access to a happy hour every Friday. You don’t need free snacks. You need something like Caribu which is virtual babysitting.”

Those digital tools are becoming increasingly important for parents and relatives who may be home-schooling their children this year.

The company also recently launched Caribu on the web and made its subscription free to teachers for the 2020-2021 school year so they can use it as a tool in virtual classrooms this fall. 

Interaction that includes a lot of back-and-forth participation can be crucial for developing children’s social skills, according to Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a faculty fellow in Temple University’s psychology department. 

When reading to children, for example, parents, grandparents, and teachers don’t just read the text — they connect the story to real-life experiences. Continuing these types of interactions even in virtual environments is important, Hirsh-Pasek said.

“I like to think of it as going beyond the cover,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “We ask questions like, ‘Oh, remember we saw a monkey at the zoo? Curious George is a monkey like that.’ And the minute you connect it to personal experiences and personal narratives, you have significantly broadened the power of the interaction.”

COVID-19 changes aside, there are always going to be frequently-traveling parents or long-distance relatives looking for ways to keep in touch with the kids in their lives, Tuchman said.

“We help people stay connected and feel connected and feel like they’re together even when they can’t be,” Tuchman said. “We’ve existed in a pre-pandemic world too.”

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