There are two ways to design play for children in the digital age, especially if your game is a product that you want parents to buy to support the learning and development of their children.
You can either: guess or observe.
Guessing is where you imagine what children need, you look at the research on paper, you think about your childhood or your children's experience and you develop an app, a digital learning environment, a toy, a puzzle that you believe will be appropriate for children.
This is a reasonable way to develop a product, it is also very hit and miss. We see a lot of apps being developed in this environment and not enough testing or iterations of an idea. We see simulations of toys and many copies of successful interactive tools. It isn't surprising many fail to meet both the creators' and parents' expectations. Young children, well they just don't give poorly designed learning tools a second chance.
With observation you need more patience. It is the skill that early childhood professional learn and enact in childcare centers and kindergartens and early years settings before most other things. And, it is a wonderful approach to employ when designing play and digital learning environments for young children.
I recently had a terrific discussion about this approach with two people who engage this approach a lot. Deborah Weber is the Senior Manager, Child Research and Kathleen Kremer is the Senior Manager, User Experience at Fisher Price.
They talked to me about the fact Fisher Price were happy to wait and observe the environment in which children and parents were playing together before entering the space of mobile devices and tablets.
Not surprisingly, interactivity doesn't threaten or challenge Fisher Price. Look at their products from the '70s onwards; in many ways their products are analog tablets full of interactivity to support children's various developmental areas. In many of my talks I discuss the fact that my first tablet device was a Fisher Price toy that hung on the side of my cot.
Deborah Weber pointed to the fact that Fisher Price became involved in designing cases for tablets and mobile when they began to observe that in the real world children were engaging with that technology, and engaging with it with their parents. Children were getting to a stage where they found the device familiar and that they needed content for those devices that was also familiar and engaging.
So, Fisher Price entered the space after considered observation, and then applied the same level of testing and engagement that they do with all their products. Kathleen Kremer pointed out that this meant testing apps before they'd barely been developed and coming to understand how the engagement happens. They observed many parents sitting with their children and playing and talking to them about apps they were engaged with. They saw the device being used not just as a babysitter or respite tool, but as an interactive space where parents engaged with their children. Consequently, the apps that Fisher Price have developed in conjunction with their tablet and phone cases focus on interaction between parents & children.
The researchers at Fisher Price talked about the digital devices as a "collaborative tool" and clearly designed environments that encouraged and facilitated that between parents and children.
As we considered this collaboration, Deb was clear to point out that toys and play change and that the context is very important. She explained that:
"Toys are a reflection of our culture and how we build upon that and create the world children play in is important. We recognize that parents interact with their children, so we respond to the world in which children play. Children play with all of their senses."
And this is what makes the digital environment increasing valuable. Aural, visual, and touch are all engaged by well designed apps and digital toys.
A great way to think about digital technology and younger children is that it becomes part of what the people at Fisher Price call "a well rounded toy box." There is room for screens in children's lives and how we use them, and how people design for them is what really matters.
We need to continue to support patient design. We need to continue to support collaborative play between parents and children. We need digital and analog to support children's learning through play in the twenty first century.