What's Wrong with Pre-K Game Apps

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explains why some Pre-K educational game apps may actually be disrupting the learning process.

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topics of Designing for Demographics and Game-Based Learning.]

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center recently released the report, "Getting a Read on the App Stores: A Market Scan and Analysis of Children's Literacy Apps." Disappointingly, the majority of children's apps, although labeled "educational," didn't have any benchmark of educational quality and moreover, they weren't even game-like, featuring content that had wrong or right answers or actions.  Basically, they were interactive quizzes.

I had suggested in Journal Review: Game-Based Learning in India that perhaps we should be thinking about designing an app for a group of children rather than just one.  It turns out that young children learn best when an app is designed for co-use by a child and another caring individual, like a parent, babysitter, or sibling.  Only 2 of the 170 apps reviewed in the children's literacy report had any support for co-use.

Have we been designing children's apps wrongly?  An April 2015 study entitled "Putting Education in 'Educational' Apps: Lessons From the Science of Learning" describes what not to do:

"The app began by reading the story to the child, and the narrative was progressing naturally with an introduction of the main characters and a story arc when buttons were suddenly displayed on the screen and children were asked to find things that “begin with the letter C.”

Adding these interactive activities or interactive hotspots, sections of the screen that move or make noise but are not essential to the story, may seem natural to game designers, but it turns out this is detrimental to the child's learning process.  And it's worse when the app is for pre-schoolers.  Older children may be able to focus, but pre-schoolers are especially susceptible to distraction.  Researchers have studied the areas of distraction and attention extensively in children. 

Furthermore, very few Pre-K apps are open-ended enough that the child can direct the play.  I have always heard that children's games should be very directed, with big arrows guiding the child to do the programmed activity, but according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, "When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest and ultimately engage fully."

This kind of play is so important that neuroscientist Sergio Pellis found in studies of baby rats that the brains of play-deprived rats do not develop normally.

As developers, let's learn to optimize learning rather than destroy it!

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


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