Letting children personalize their digital experiences – a useful extrinsic motivator

Creative play is where a child takes elements from their environment and makes something new out of them. My seven-year-old son on is great for this at the moment;  an elbow protector for rollerskating has been transformed into battle armour for his meerkat soft toy; two sticks have been stuck together with duct tape and transformed into a spear; and one of his dad’s socks has been commandeered, cut up and transformed into a special meerkat coat. (The meerkat, called Shapespeare is looming large in his world at the moment.) My three-year-old is more literal in her interpretation of objects when she’s playing – a car is a car, a bunny is a bunny, and woe betide you if you suggest otherwise.


Transformative play in action – a classic sofa fort

An interesting aspect of creative play that Mark Schlichting draws attention to in his book Understanding Kids, Play, and Interactive Design is the notion of Transformative Play. This is where a kid changes their environment, or elements of their environment, to suit their play needs and preferences. Think of a child using blankets, chairs (and anything else they can get their hands on) to make a fort or castle. Through transformative play, children make a space or object their own – it gives them a powerful sense of ownership. So what opportunities does this provide us in the digital world?

Perhaps, most obviously, it means that we can develop apps that allow or encourage transformative play opportunities.

However, it also presents us with a broad opportunity to add an engagement layer to any children’s app, by giving kids the opportunity to make the app their own. There are many, many ways that we can do this, obviously. Let them choose the background music that plays, not merely whether they can turn it off or on. Let them choose the background colour. Let them create artwork to represent their user profile. Letting the child transform an app to make it their own, is a lovely and engaging first step into a digital experience. And crucially, it gets them to emotionally buy into the experience right from the start.

As a child delves further into an app and starts to carry out the activities therein, this sense of ownership will add a meaningful layer of extrinsic motivation that will help her to buy into the experience and stick with it. This is particularly important when we are developing learning-related learning content. Sticking with a task and repeating activities can be vital in terms of helping a child to attain mastery. So any additional lever we can pull to engage a child and make them want to stick with a task is a much-appreciated addition to our box of tricks.

Working my way through Mark Schlichting’s ‘Kids, Play, and Interactive Design.’

So, I’m back developing kids’ digital interactive content after a bit of a hiatus. And it’s a bit like putting on a pair of roller skates after long, long time. I remember the general gist of it, but I need to refresh my skills a bit. No doubt about it. (On the other hand, it definitely helps that my leave of absence from the world of work involved having a child, so I now have a three-year-old in my life. Between her and my seven-year-old son, I now have daily, direct, and ongoing exposure to my target audience. Nice.)

As an initial exercise to help get me back in the game, I started each day reading a section from Susan Winschenk’s excellent book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People. (Which is bloody brilliant, and I highly recommend it for every designer, developer, and PM involved in developing front-end solutions.)  However, soon after I started with Touch Press, Mark Schlichting came to visit and give us a talk about developing interactive solutions for kids, which really inspired me and fired me up. So I am now digesting small sections of his book at the start of every morning, to help develop (and redevelop) my ability to develop really great kids products. (Or rather, to become a really good contributor to the process of creating such products. For, of course, doing this is rarely–if ever–the work of one.)

My children inspired me to create programs that combined the attention-grabbing play aspects of great games with meaningful content.

Mark Schlichting, Understanding Kids, Play, and Interactive Design, Introduction, p. xvii. 

So, initially, at least, this blog is going to consist of my musings in relation to Mark’s book Understanding Kids, Play, and Interactive Design. But, undoubtedly, other aspects that I’m encountering in work will crop up–especially in relation to Learning Design. I hope that some good insights come out of this that cause lightbulb flickers for other people working or studying in the field… That’s the hope anyway!