When I speak to app developers, it’s usually about controls, or marketing, or sales, because they have a lot to think about outside the design of their products, especially when so many of them are operating independently of a publisher or large studio. What I don’t talk to them about is children’s app design, but it’s a good topic to raise given how many developers work on projects that are aimed at younger minds.
Quite frequently I come across apps where I think “this would be great for kids… but wait, what about this bit?” It’s problematic, because sometimes it’s due to the dark mood of a puzzle game, or the difficulty level, and I feel like concepts that children would adore are being removed from their list of possible experiences until years later because of those blocks.
Now, that’s not to say that these apps can’t exist, but there are plenty of ways of thinking about the aesthetics that you’re using with kids in mind. Angry Birds, love it or loathe it, is a good example of what happens when you take a simple concept and use artwork to make it accessible to every single age range, whether you’re an adult or a child on an iPad. The Room, however, is puzzle game that while very pretty, does contain some content that I’d classify as creepy, if anything. The difference between the two is that the former I’d happily hand to a kid, but the latter? Not so much.
Age ratings are a huge help, and I’m really pleased that Apple implemented them – even if it may have been for their own safety as much as anyone else’s. But those age ratings can also be put to a developer’s advantage, as it means they can start targeting apps at a market who is as open to learning as it is to playing around with cartoon birds. The children’s app market is an exciting place to be if you want to create something that educates as it entertains.
Going about creating game that is both educational and entertaining is a difficult task. Designing fun mechanics can be quite easy, at times, as all you need to remember is that kids like exciting, engaging games full of puzzles, movement, and action or mystery that keeps them interested – like any adult, really. But when it comes to educating children, each mechanic must have a specific purpose, and that’s where this becomes complicated.
The reason for this is that mechanics designed to educate must constantly tread the line between making a child think and ensuring that it doesn’t just feel like school – which is why a lot of developers may avoid this sort of project. But if you’re willing to include mechanics and themes in your games that don’t patronize and will actually mentally challenge a child, even if they’re not obvious bits of academia – such as the unlock-the-box puzzles in The Room – then a child’s spatial awareness, logical reasoning and general aptitude for considered problem-solving benefits.
The end result of a project that can do anything from ask a child to solve a maths problem to unlock a door to having them remember long patterns of symbols is game that can supplement a curriculum. That’s not to say some games shouldn’t just be for play – all children deserve some downtime. But I salute developers who are aiming to go further and develop apps that result in a child being able to utilize skills gained on a screen in real life, whether it’s during a test or everyday life. Keep at it, and if you’re not doing it, consider it! The benefits for the coming generation are significant enough to make this a cause worth rallying behind.