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December 17, 2012

By Mindy Brooks

Sesame’s Best Practices Guide for Children’s App Development

Touch screen technology is revolutionizing interactive digital experiences for children. No longer do our little ones need to wait to learn to navigate a mouse or press keyboard keys in order to access a host of interactive content designed for them. Instead, we see toddlers and preschoolers confidently navigating their parents’ iPhones, iPads, and other touch screen devices with astonishing agility and purpose. The explosion of apps for young children is not surprising; there is high demand and high appeal.

Sesame Workshop, whose mission is to help children reach their highest potential, is learning as much as we can about these media platforms so that we can use them to best meet children’s educational and developmental needs. We scour academic journals and policy-based reports; we consult experts in the field, and we also spend as much time as we can with children and parents observing and talking to them while they use touch screen devices.

Surprisingly, there are very few resources that are publically available to help guide developers who make educational apps for young children. Much like when Sesame Street was created in the 1960s and little was known at the time about how to best develop educational television, now too there seems to be little standardization for ensuring the best conditions under which children can learn from assets on these new touch screen devices. While understanding learning theories and how children process information through older media can lend some support in these endeavors, we quickly realized that these new technologies were raising additional questions about usability and navigation that could best be answered by experimentation.

Since jumping into the world of touch devices, we’ve learned many things to which we feel can benefit the industry and parents alike. That’s why, after conducting over 60 studies on the ways children interact with tablet devices, we have released our best practices, or “lessons learned.” This document is by no means “final.” Our practices are ever evolving as we learn from our research.

Just as researchers have documented the “formal features” of television, which are the rules, syntax, and indicators of audio and visuals cues designed to help children understand a television show, we are beginning to understand the formal features of touch screen devices. We now know, for example, that hotspots (triggers that take children to new locations within the app) in the lower right and left hand corners of the screen are precisely where children rest their wrists, which inevitably means that children accidentally exited the activity they were in. We have since recommended repositioning hotspots to the top of the screen so that children will not accidentally exit the focal activity. We know that children need both audio and visual clues to help support their play patterns. We have also learned that more complex gestures such as pinching are not as intuitive and easy for the developing dexterity of a preschooler.

As with everything we do, we want to ensure that children learn from their digital experiences. To improve comprehension and learning from games, we provide a three-tiered educational scaffold (three opportunities with increasing support so that children can advance in a game) when children do not know the answers to challenging questions. For book apps and ebooks, we have learned that making the story narration uninterruptable increases story comprehension. We know that the “bells and whistles” of interactivity can, at times, detract from learning. To mitigate distraction, after the page text is read, we then allow a child to interact with the hotspots. We also believe in utilizing a word-by-word highlighting as the text is read out loud in order to support early literacy skills.

In addition to developing best practices for preschoolers, we also take into consideration the parent and how to support co-play between children and adults. In the majority of our apps, we provide parent tips on how to extend the learning experience, and also ways to enrich the digital experience. For example, we have learned that parents want tips to be quick and easy to read. They also want the ability to customize and control the experience for their child by being able to turn the interactivity and audio on and off. Parents also like being able to record and narrate a storybook app or ebook in their own voice.

We hope that our best practices report will serve as a guide to those designing educational experiences for children through touch devices. To read the entire report, click here.

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