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“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning. They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play.” – Fred Rogers
In 1999, I participated in a play-testing session with preschoolers from a Head Start center in Arlington, Virginia. I was just a few weeks into my job as a production associate at PBS KIDS, and we were testing the soon-to-launch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood website.
When I sat down with 4-year-old Marisa, she cautiously moved the mouse across the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. She hovered briefly over X the Owl, when suddenly the character on screen raised his wing and waved. Marisa let go of the mouse, pushed back her chair, jumped up and started waving back. For the next 10 minutes, this was all Marisa wanted to do: make X wave at her, jump up from her chair, wave back, and smile happily.
In 1999, we were in the very early days of the internet; Marisa had never played with a computer before our research session, and I question whether many of today’s 4-year-olds would be enthralled by an animated gif. But that moment with Marisa has remained with me throughout my years in digital content development at PBS KIDS. It’s a reminder that games for preschoolers don’t need to be overly complicated to engage children in meaningful play, and that our strongest engagement opportunities often begin in very natural play patterns.
Many years and technologies later, my team has probably participated in hundreds of usability sessions, and we can still be surprised by our youngest visitors. The difference between “engaging” and “overwhelming” to one room of 5-year-olds was entirely dependent on a background color. After countless conversation about the right “STOP” button for our video player, we discovered the question was moot: when 3-year-olds are finished watching, they just run away from the computer (or, maybe just click on something else entirely).
The “wheel” on the pbskids.org homepage that links to characters? Not unlike Marisa playing with X the Owl, we’ve watched children spin that wheel just so they can identify the characters when they sweep past, approaching our main navigational element as an activity in itself. As our creative director regularly says to interface designers, “Approach everything like it’s a game.” Preschoolers are coming up with new ways to play every time they visit a PBS KIDS experience. Part of our job is keeping the controls accessible, and putting kids in the driver’s seat to play.
Fred Rogers taught us that “play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” Preschoolers bring their own life experiences and daily skill development to every activity, and that’s no different for digital media. Once while testing a finger-painting activity on a smart phone, I watched a little boy use his pointer finger to scribble the color green all over the screen. He then lifted his hand and turned it over, looking to see if he now had green paint on his finger. How did this activity compare to the one he might have done at his table earlier in the day?
And I love it when a new technology emerges and our producers can begin adding new play elements into their games. When cameras became ubiquitous in desktops and laptops, our partners at WGBH developed a Curious George game in which kids could jump up and down to make George do the same on screen. In a Peg + Cat game from the Fred Rogers Company, 9ate7Productions, and CloudKid, children can wave their hands to capture and sort different shapes. And with Wild Kratts, kids can now mimic the behavior of bats and snakes through the camera in order to see how the animals move in the wild. Not only do these games incorporate very natural play patterns for children—jumping, motion—but I’m particularly interested to see how this type of play could reinforce learning.
The Kratt Brothers are now in production on a new tablet game in which kids need to help orangutans swing from vine to vine. In this case, they can use the tilt mechanic, getting a handle on how much momentum and speed is required to make that motion by moving the tablet itself. We’re also testing what types of smartphone and tablet experiences could better promote interactions between preschoolers and their parents—not just on the screen, but away from the computer as well.
At PBS KIDS, this intersection between screen-based play and hands-on activities is central to our mission, and true to the legacy that pioneers like Fred Rogers set for us. I once watched a child hop out of the room like a caracal after play-testing a Wild Kratts game. How can we inspire children to continue to play with new skills and concepts they have encountered in educational media after the screen is turned off?