Applying a Developmental Lens to Educational Game Designs for Preschoolers

Applying a Developmental Lens to Educational Game Designs for Preschoolers

Melissa N. Callaghan, Stephanie M. Reich
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/IJMBL.2020040101
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Preschool-aged learners process information differently from older individuals, making it critical to design digital educational games that are tailored to capitalize on young children's learning capabilities. This in-depth literature synthesis connects features of digital educational game design - including visuals, feedback, scaffolding challenge, rewards, and physical interactions to how young children learn. Preschoolers' interests and abilities (e.g., limited attention-span, early reading skills, etc.) are different than older users. As such, developmental science should be used to guide the design of educational games from aesthetic decisions that capture preschoolers' initial interest (e.g., meaningful characters) to carefully select end-of-game rewards (e.g., leveling up). This article connects learning and developmental science research to the design of digital educational games, offering insights into how best to design games for young users and how to select developmentally appropriate games for children.
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Prior to formal schooling, young children often learn through devices in their homes (Plowman, McPake, & Stephen, 2010), which may explain why 58% of educational mobile games (apps) are made for preschool-aged users (Highfield & Goodwin, 2013; Shuler, 2012). Digital educational games (referred to here as educational games) for tablets, phones, and computers have been designed to teach a broad range of content (e.g., math, literacy, geography, etc.), creating a high market demand (Highfield & Goodwin, 2013) for use in home and school environments (Barab, Thomas, Dodge, Carteaux, & Tuzun, 2005; Tuzun et al., 2009), that will continue to grow in popularity (Plowman et al., 2012). Thus, designing educational games that harness preschoolers’ natural enjoyment of play (Samuelsson & Johansson, 2006) may create a highly useful medium for young children’s learning.

Educational games use interactive platforms to fuse play with learning (Hirsh-Pasek, Zosh, Golinkoff, Gray, Robb, & Kaufman, 2015), building games’ capacity to increase users’ academic engagement, motivation, and knowledge (Annetta et al., 2009; Huizenga et al., 2009; Papastergiou, 2009; Tuzun et al., 2009; Wouters & Oostendrop, 2013). Yet, if digital games for young children are not designed with an understanding of how they develop and learn (Reich & Black, 2012), educators and caregivers could waste time, money, and resources on products that do not actually teach children (Cuban, 2001; Rutherford et al., 2015). This qualitative review connects extant learning and developmental sciences research to game design to illuminate how educational game features could be designed to support 3-5-year-old learners.

Developing educational games for preschool-aged children can be particularly challenging since they process information differently than older individuals (e.g., shorter attention-spans, developing reading skills, etc.) (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015). However, since preschool learning is crucial for later educational success (Campbell, Ramey, Pungello, Sparling, & Miller-Johnson, 2002) and research shows that it is desirable to interweave play with teaching (Gmitrova, Podhajecka & Gmitrova, 2009), educational games could be an ideal platform for teaching preschoolers. Yet, to be such, game designers must consider how young children typically learn by addressing age-specific interests, cognitive and physical abilities, and responsiveness to feedback and rewards. This review integrates key factors of early childhood learning research – cognitive, emotional, and physical – to inform how educational games could be designed to fit the developmental needs of preschool-aged learners. Though there are often individual differences in how children learn, research has identified teaching strategies that are typically effective for preschoolers in face-to-face settings and with digital technology. Importantly, researchers have previously explored how digital media have the capacity to connect to key factors of child learning (Chiasson & Gutwin, 2005; Cooper, 2005; Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015; Kankaanranta et al., 2017; Lieberman, Bates, & So, 2009). This review extends prior research by merging these key strategies for teaching preschoolers and applying them to educational game design. The research question addressed is: How could applying a developmental lens to digital game design make educational games for preschoolers developmentally appropriate and truly educational?

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