Friday, July 12, 2013

Online Tools: Websites for Making Avatars (for kids under 13)

I'm doing a program for 3rd-6th graders this summer, at the public library.  After a rocky start, I've sort of focused on the goal of teaching kids how to make stuff online.  I'm sure I'm being influenced by the whole Maker movement, but I also notice that lots of kids use the computer passively--watching videos and clicking madly, but rarely contributing by commenting or creating something new.  So now I'm on a mission to change that.

So what's the easiest thing to make online?  An avatar.  And it also helps me teach kids part one of online citizenship: creating a safe online identity.  I've been telling kids that
There are three parts to your "online secret identity": username, password, profile, and avatar.  The avatar is a picture that represents you, but is not a photo of the real you. 
And we talked about why you might not want to use a real photo.   Of course I'm using Edmodo as the site where they create their online secret identity.  It's awesome, and it allows you to upload your own avatar, which Biblionasium, for example, does not.

Making avatars also gives me a chance to teach them the basics of uploading, downloading, and right-clicking to save.  We haven't talked about copyright concerns yet, but this is good: they're using their right-clicking power on images they created.  We'll deal with other images later.

So here are the avatar-creating sites that worked and were popular with the kids.  Since I'm working with kids who are under 13, I am only using sites that require no registration--which narrows things down fast, let me tell you.

The Sites

1.  Clay Yourself.
Style: This site allows students to create a claymation-style versions of themselves.  It's just the head and shoulders, so the final image is perfect for uploading to a profile, and this turned out to be the avatar that most participants used on Edmodo.  It also has some urban accessories, like headphones and airbrushed baseball caps, that the kids loved.

Performance: The site takes a minute or so to load completely before you can start making your avatar, but then it works smoothly.  It does require Flash.  The site also allows you to upload a photo for reference so you can make the avatar look more like you, but we didn't try that.

Saving: And although you can log in to take advantage of extra features, you don't have to log in--you can just click "finished" and then "download" to get a nice jpg to open in your browser.  Then you do your right-click magic and save to desktop.  We used this website first, because it was perfect for teaching basic downloading and because it inspired kids to create an avatar that really looked like them.  Oh, also, if you click "finished" before adding a certain feature, like ears, a speech bubble pops up and reminds you to add ears, so it also helps kids explore all their options and prevents them from giving up too soon.

2. The Hero Factory.
Style: This site allows students to create a superhero version of themselves.  However, most kids just wanted to make a cool looking character as opposed to anything that looked like them.

Performance: The site loads instantly, uses Flash, and includes a crazy number of options in drop-down menus.  The only aspect that confused some kids was that there's a separate section just for colors.  So if you're in the "head" section, no matter what hairstyle you click on, it comes out orange, even if the image you clicked on is brown or black.  You have to actually switch to the "color" section to change the hair color.

Saving: Similarly to "Clay Yourself," you click "finished" and then "download" when you're done.  This site automatically opens a "save as" window, so you don't have to right click.  And there's not options or incentive to log in.

3.  Build Your Wild Self. 
Style: This site is noisy, FYI.  Every time you click on something it makes noise, including animal noises when you click on animal body parts.  Fun, but noisy.  The site was created by the New York Zoos and Aquarium and it allows kids to choose some human features (eyes, nose, mouth) and then animal features (horns, wings, tentacles).  The result is awesomely creepy and has a children's book illustration aesthetic instead of something cartoony.  It's my most favorite and probably the kids' least favorite, which is not to say they didn't like it, because they liked all of them.

Performance: However, the site is a little glitchier than the others--in older browsers some the menus don't work correctly--you click on a picture of horns and you get the moth feelers.  Also, there's no easy way to undo a feature you don't like.  You have to replace it with something different or start over.  And it's weird that first you choose human features, but then you just cover them up with the animal features.  Why choose human eyes in the first place?  However, the site is also the most educational--it tells you the name of the creature you have created and then what special adaptations you have selected.

Saving: When you're finished, you have to type in your name, click "I'm done," and then click "get a wild desktop" in order to get your file.  Then you get a jpg in your browser and you can right-click.  It's not hard, but the language is a little different from the others.

4.  Mess Dudes.
Style: I almost didn't include this site because its aesthetics did not appeal to me at all. You get these short, squat cartoony avatars with tons of possible accessories.  But then I remembered that the program isn't for me.  It's for the kids.  And guess what?  The kids loved it.

Performance: This site requires Flash and a plugin to download your image.   Everything works quickly.  The site does have ads, which the others do not. 

Saving: There's a button under your avatar that says "Click HERE to download," and when you click it, it asks you to choose your resolution and click "get download," which is an added step.  Then you can also choose the size of your image, and then you right-click to save.  However, this does require a plugin that was not included on the Google Chrome browsers I used for the program.  It worked fine on my outdated Firefox browser, and I didn't investigate to see what was needed, but this is definitely a site you need to test drive in the setting where you will be using it.


A couple thoughts on making avatars: the first thing all of these sites do is have you choose gender and then skin color.  It's sort of an interesting commentary on how we think about identity.  It's also interesting that all but one of the sites default to the lightest skin color rather than something in the middle.  It's even more interesting to see whether or not kids try to match their actual skin and hair color.  I was working with a group of black and Latino kids.  I'm sure it would depend on the population you were working with. 

The difference between the male and female bodies were interesting not only because of differences in shape, but because of differences in stance.

When you put all of this together, it makes Clay Yourself seem even more awesome.  Although it does have you choose between male and female headshapes, the differences are basically just that the female headshapes have more neck.   And then the only difference in the following options is that male headshapes can have beards and female headshapes can have earrings.  Also, they get different hair and shirt choices.  However, they get the same hats, the same eyes, the same mouths.  In general, the site de-emphasizes gender difference, although it could go farther.  (Women can't choose the hoodie option for clothes, which is stupid.)  Also, it defaults to no skin color as opposed to white. 

Finally, note that Hero Factory and Mess Dudes allow users to choose guns as accessories.  In the context of the Hero Factory, it makes sense, but I can imagine that some educators would be uncomfortable with that in a school setting. 

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