April 10, 2013

By Michelle Newman

The ABCs and 123s of Preschool Apps

Michelle Newman is a Senior Curriculum Specialist at Sesame Workshop.

Touch screen devices have dramatically changed the way young children interact with technology. Preschoolers no longer have to struggle with a mouse or a laptop touch pad – they can now use their fingers to tap, drag, and trace items directly on the screen. When we started to develop one of our first robust iPad apps in 2010, we were extremely optimistic about all of the affordances of this new technology. What surprised us was the number of new challenges we needed to overcome to create a quality developmentally appropriate learning experience for young children.

Elmo Loves ABCs is an early literacy app that covers uppercase and lowercase letter recognition, as well as tracing, letter sounds, and alliteration. The app includes a free-play area with over 75 videos, coloring pages, and a hide-and-seek game, plus a directed-play section that has asks children to identify letters and objects that begin with certain letters. We also wanted to provide children with a lot of choice, so we put an alphabet boarder on the screen that allows them to select a new letter whenever they like.

As we do with almost all our new apps and games, we go directly to the experts—the children for whom our content is made — and watch as they navigate the experience and listen to what they have to say about it. In this case, children figured out how to play with the app immediately, but there were so many active hot-spots on screen that kids would unintentionally activate nearby letters or other spots where they placed their hands, creating a chaotic and confusing experience.

Our first attempt to resolve the issue of children accidentally activating buttons was to create a “boundary box” around the play screen so that if a child was tracing or drawing and accidentally dragged her finger over a button, it would not register. She would have to pick her finger up and place it on a letter to select it. The boundary box helped, but it wasn’t enough. Children were still resting their hands and wrists on the bottoms and sides of the iPad screen and unintentionally launching new activities and letters.

Our second attempt was to add “touch with intent” where the child would need to lift his finger and place it on a button for at least half a second to make a selection. The hope was that if we could discern an accidental tap from an intentional tap, we could provide children with more control over their experience. It didn’t work – children were no longer accidentally triggering new letters, but now they couldn’t select the ones they wanted. Rather than holding their finger on a button longer, children started to rapidly tap the screen expecting immediate feedback. Kids now thought the app was “broken” because it wasn’t responding to their initial touch in the way they expected.

Finally, one of our brilliant producers came up with the idea of using a two-step activation where an initial tap on the border lights up the buttons for five seconds to show that they are now “on”, and a second tap makes the selection. It worked! Young children were now in control of their experience and were able to freely explore letters.

Given that we successfully tackled a literacy app, we thought the math version, Elmo Loves 123s, (the sequel to ABCs) should be easy. However, when we started to work on the companion app a year and a half later the tablet market had already changed.  There was now a variety of new tablets with different screen sizes for which we had to plan. Some of the tablets were substantially smaller than the iPad, so if we used the same type of border that we have in Elmo Loves ABCs, the rest of the screen to watch videos, color, and play games would be very small. We had a brand new design challenge to conquer.

In developing Elmo Loves 123s, we decided to abandon the border entirely, and instead put all of the number choices and the directed play button on a menu that could be accessed at any time from an arrow at the top of the screen. To ensure that children remember how to access the number choices given that they are not constantly visible on the screen, Elmo provides reminders and the arrow blinks. The new design worked – we found that children were even more successful in navigating the app and freely exploring the numbers 1-20 in both the free play and directed play sections.

One of the best parts of creating a sequel app is that we can apply the knowledge from the formative testing of the first app to the development of the second app. For Elmo Loves 123s, we were able to include everything from its predecessor, add even more activities to the free play section (including a number find game, a counting activity, and 60 jigsaw puzzles), and provide more intuitive navigation for children.

Despite the thousands of hours we spend creating games and watching children engage with them, each new piece of technology brings another set of opportunities and obstacles, which, at the end of the day, is what keeps my job of creating content for digital games so exciting. And the children for whom we create these educational digital offerings make it all worthwhile.

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