11 tips to making great preschool digital content

Gary Pope, ceo of Kids Industries, highlights the 11 principles that should be top of mind when building digital products for preschoolers.

While homeschooling proved to be hell on earth for many parents, what’s been possibly even tougher is looking after preschoolers while trying to work from home, too.

With no school timetable to follow, even the most robust and hands on parents have found establishing and keeping a routine going hard as they navigated through the Zoom calls while building block towers and potty training.

And this combination of lockdown and no nursery meant little socialisation – so what happened? Well, lots of creative parenting, of course, but unsurprisingly, screen time among preschoolers during lockdown went through the roof with many carers taking the easy option and letting their kids watch YouTube and play games – reports put the average increase at between 15% and 18% additional time each day for each child. That is a lot.

And before you assume I’m here to judge, I’m not. As an ex-educator and creator of content I believe in the power of the digital space as a brilliant learning tool. But I do question the quality of the content they are (or not) interacting with.

Looking back at the top grossing apps for young children over the last year it is a very mixed bag. You’ve got great stuff like LEGO’s DUPLO WORLD and Playtime Island from CBeebies. And then perhaps the not-so-great stuff, which will remain nameless. But the thing is there is lots of rubbish. And how are parents to know what is and what isn’t good? It’s a difficult ask.

If you take a look at the top grossing apps/digital content for preschoolers over the last year, I would say 10% are brilliant, 20% average – won’t harm but won’t do much good either – and 70% are really not very good at all. And there lies the issue. If we look at those in the ‘brilliant’ category, what do they have in common?

If we want to make better product for preschoolers, we need more digital content developers to consider the audience more closely to ensure our children are absorbing powerful, educational, inspirational content that will contribute positively to their development while they are being exposed to increased screen time.

Whomever a digital product is for the golden rule is always the same: know your audience. I’m not convinced that many developers either do or care. Sorry, not sorry.

We can all agree that preschoolers are a particularly special audience. Not just because they are amazing – but because of where they are in terms of development. They’re no longer babies, but not yet in classrooms. They can’t read, yet they can recognise words. They are starting to follow simple instruction, but with limited memory and concentration.

Preschoolers are at what Jean Piaget called the pre-operational stage of cognitive development – the most wondrous time – and perhaps what we might think of as ‘real childhood’. They are unhindered by reality. Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are very, very real, and very, very important. This stage begins at roughly two years of age and transitions into the concrete operational stage at around seven.

A solid understanding of the cognitive development of this unique audience is perhaps the best way to begin building digital products for them. So, here are 11 of the principles we apply that we’ve learned from our creative and technical work on some of the biggest preschool brands, including Peppa Pig and PJ Masks.

1. Encourage, empower, enlighten

The first seconds of a child’s experience of a digital product are the most important. They will either engage because they are empowered, or they will pull away.

All children need a sense of control from their digital experiences. Encourage interactions they understand and empower them to make choices that enlighten them. Once they get the buzz of success, they’ll be hungry for more.

2. Deliver cause and response

Preschoolers are sponges and need feedback on everything they do – whether looking at parents for approval or pressing a physical button on a toy to see what happens. And it’s the same for digital products.

Preschoolers expect visual, audio or haptic rewards when interacting with digital products. The trick is to make sure that our interactive elements are intuitively obvious for these little users.

3. Again, again, again

Repetition is one of the principles of learning – repetition of words, actions, stories and nursery rhymes are daily occurrences in life. It provides the practice that children need to master new skills.

Avoiding any unexpected behaviour in their digital experience is key. There’s nothing wrong with establishing a mechanic and repeating time and again… perhaps adding a little twist to it every now and then to build their understanding. And sometimes it’s worth pleasantly surprising them by doing the complete opposite.

4. Differentiation, extension and enrichment

All children are different. Differentiating the same experience for various groups of children is really important and really tricky.

Design must consider the vast range of abilities. Open-ended play allows for differentiation by outcome. Extension and enrichment activities that can be unlocked once mastery is achieved keep even the most able toddler learning and progressing. In other words, a good app evolves with the child.

5. They can’t read… but can recognise words

Most children can recognise some word and icons, the most prominent being the word ‘play’ and the icon for play. Without established literacy skills, all primary instructions need to be shown through voice overs and visual indicators. We don’t need to completely remove text from products, as this can help grown-ups navigate when a child is stuck – but never lead with text for UI.

6. Never forget the grown-ups… especially 1st time UX

The first digital experiences of a preschooler will often be with a grown-up. Once the grown-up is confident that the product can be used by the child, then you can expect it to be a child-only experience.

Having text and UI hints for the grown-ups – especially during the first time experience – can create an easier and more confident experience for them. And more trust in your product and its benefits for the most important person in their lives.

7. The meaning of colour

The effective use of colour is one of the most important aspects of creating a memorable experience for children. Preschoolers can recognise primary colours and preference colours that are highly contrasting – not necessarily just the brightest ones.

Children quickly come to understand the meaning of colours – green means go and red means danger – so don’t be afraid to choose colour for meaning rather than aesthetics.

8. Consistent UI

Children need structure, so a consistent UI interpreted well on different devices is vital to success of your product.

Establishing a visual hierarchy quickly and cleanly is important to differentiate the different types of UI – be it a navigation to another screen, or an action on the same screen. This can be achieved through sizing, colours, strokes and subtle animations.

9. Let them start over

Simple navigation sounds, well, simple. But simple to you isn’t necessarily simple to them. When it all gets too much, preschoolers like to rub things out and start again. Having ‘home buttons’ that allow a child to return to a familiar space does the job perfectly.

10. The never-ending story

One of the most important need-states for all children is the need for independent exploration. Children want to explore and discover, and digital products offer a (hopefully) safe environment to do just this.

Creating paths through products that deliver a sense of complete open-endedness is a quick fire way to ensure repeat sessions, time and time again.

11. Keep them wanting more

An established and well-known principle for all gaming is that early success is important. It keeps you coming back for more.

Products should be designed to include surprises and new features that a child can stumble upon. Simple easter eggs and highly sensorial events within the product have a way of keeping the child wanting to explore more.

Of course, there are a thousand other tips, tricks and rules to making great preschool digital content, and we love talking to people about theirs. So, get in touch to add any to the list or to chat about how we can help you deliver this in your content and digital products.

Gary Pope is ceo of Kids Industries. He can be contacted on gary.pope@kidsindustries.com.

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