Designing mobile and touch-based games for children’s engagement and learning
From Informal Science Education Evidence Wiki
Researchers at Rockman et al have conducted a series of studies of PBS Kids interactive games – for both STEM and other content areas – on multiple devices and in a range of settings. Two recent studies both draw on earlier findings and provide specific guidelines for educational STEM game design. The studies included an examination of whiteboard game use in schools (PBS Kids Transmedia Gaming, 2011) and iPod Touch game use in homes (PBS Kids iPod, 2010). Both studies revealed key elements that affected kids’ engagement and learning.
Basic features of quality and engaging game play include clear objectives and instructions, which should be verbal or spoken for younger children, finite game play, and simple navigation. Kids appreciate humorous elements, but they should be used judiciously. When humor is used as a reward for an incorrect response, it can encourage kids to deliberately get things wrong for a laugh. Touch devices like the whiteboard and the iPod can be particularly good for engaging kids 5 and under whose fine motor skills are not up to the challenge of manipulating a mouse. Both studies found that kids automatically attempt intuitive touch movements, such as drag-and-drop to move an object. This factor can become a challenge if the designers meant for them to tap the screen to move the object, instead. Finally, buttons placed at the top of a whiteboard screen may be out of reach for young children, depending on its placement.
Educational games need to find the balance between fun and challenge for their target users. Prompts and supportive feedback can encourage kids when a task is just out of their current skill level. This feedback can be built into the games, but it can also come from parents or teachers. Timely prompts can keep kids from becoming frustrated and losing interest and can help them reach the next skill level. With respect to classroom use and the whiteboard study, teachers want to have the flexibility to set difficulty levels based on their students’ abilities, and they would like to be able to pause and rewind games for review, to discuss and ask questions and to allow kids to catch up.
Games with multiple levels lead to sustained play and engagement both at home and at school. Parents in the iPod study indicated that their kids’ interest in the apps waned once they completed all tasks or levels. They wanted to be able to access additional content. Within the classroom, teachers found that changing scenery, characters and varied feedback extended student engagement, especially when games were used with the whole group. Elements of competition also increase engagement, whether they occur within the game (character opponent) or between students. Studies also reveal that it can be problematic when there is a mismatch among content, skill level and/or device. For example, one teacher in the whiteboard study pointed out this issue with Sid the Science Kid games:
“A participant with a child going into 2nd grade felt that the Sid the Science Kid games were sufficiently challenging, even though her child was beyond the target age-range for those games—she also felt that the Sid the Science Kid games, (especially those that required a good deal of eye-hand coordination), were too hard for her four-year-old child to play, even though that child was in the target age-group.”
PBS Kids iPod app study: Findings and outcomes. (2010). Rockman et al. Retrieved January 27, 2011 from http://cl.ly/1k1K1n0f3I0M1E3o1L2L
PBS Kids transmedia gaming: Interactive whiteboard study. (2011). Rockman et al. (Available upon request: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)