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Newport Beach

Volume 5, Issue 85  |  October 23, 2020


Take Five: Meet Gretchen Sheppard, Helio creative director and app developer

By AMY SENK

Newport Beach resident Gretchen Sheppard knows a thing or two about early childhood education – being a kindergarten aide for nearly a decade and being a mother of two would make anyone a pro. These days, she’s been putting those skills to use as a creative director at Helio, a company owned by her brother, John Fyke. Their latest effort is a new children’s app called ABC Cool Kid PreSchool Academy, and I caught up with her to learn more.

Take Five Gretchen Sheppard

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Gretchen Sheppard

Gretchen Sheppard

Q: We’ve heard about your company’s new app, ABC Cool Kid PreSchool Academy. How does it work, and is it a game or an educational tool?

A: Our company, Helio, is known for educational nightlight projection systems. We started thinking about creating an app that would work at bedtime with the nightlight, but screen time at bedtime was a little tricky for some parents. John and I brainstormed and decided to start with a foundation – the start, if you will – to education, and make fundamentals like letters, numbers, sequencing, patterns and problem solving exciting without feeling like a school. So, it is both a game and an educational tool. ABC Cool Kid PreSchool Academy is an audio directive app, which means our characters ask your little one to follow auditory prompts to accomplish the goal, so it needs to be heard. Engaging while in a loud restaurant or next to an adult on a Zoom meeting would not be ideal. So far, our feedback has been great from parents. Strengthening auditory processing was a pretty important skill parents wanted to see, and a goal we achieved by using step-by-step directions, engaging gross and fine motor skills, and incorporating these visual recognition and bilateral skills – crossing an object from one side of the screen to the other using spatial awareness and reasoning. Feedback these days comes if you ask for it or not. We just want to make something safe, educational and fun.

Q: How did the idea for this program come to be?

A: I started helping my brother, John, at the Helio kiosk in Fashion Island. Shortly thereafter, Fashion Island shut all the kiosks down, but I didn’t want to stop working. I loved interacting with people shopping and fell in love with the nightlight product. I joined John in the office day-to-day, and we started collaborating with Barbara Milne, a longtime educator/singer/child whisperer, and we thought an app would be a great way to go. ABC Cool Kid PreSchool Academy was created for all kids, with academic and developmental levels in mind. 

Q: I’ve heard you describe this app as a family labor of love. Can you elaborate?

A: Helio is definitely a family business! My brother, John Fyke, is the CEO of Helio, I am the creative director and the voice of Professor Helio, and my husband, Rodney, is the voice of Chomp the monster, who created all the music in the app. It has been fantastic watching all of us put our own individual pieces into this puzzle and making it work as a team. I feel so blessed to work daily with my family and create fun and whimsical characters that kids actually love.

Q: What would you say to parents who want to limit screen time? 

A: I totally get it. Screen time is extremely important and what is on the screen is equally crucial. I have always used age as a good guideline for all things monitored in my house. If my child is 3, then I would just double the number, and that’s the screen time per day. So, a 3 year old should be limited to 33 minutes a day. I can hear the gasps now, but as every family is different, that just worked for me. Now with distance learning, that model has flown out the window. With our app, the kids feel like they are playing a game so letting them play a little extra will only strengthen their skills.

Q: When you aren’t working on the app, how do you and your family spend your time?

A: Well life in the Sheppard house has drastically changed with COVID. My husband, Rodney, is the guitarist for Sugar Ray, and due to the virus, live shows are on hold. When he isn’t working doing Zoom concerts, he is helping me with app content or spending time with our horse, Werner. Charlotte, our daughter, is a senior at Corona del Mar, a Hunter equestrian, and is Zooming her way through college applications and social distance learning. Our son, Campbell, is a junior at the University of Alabama studying Creative Media Production and is navigating college life behind a mask like a pro. We are just going day by day, communicating and trying new ways to stay busy, focused and sane.

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Amy Senk is a longtime resident of Corona del Mar and a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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