How to Build Learning Apps for Kids?

Making things for children is a true art. When you make something for a child, it does not mean that you make an adult thing but smaller. No, when your target audience is children, the rules of the game are different. You should always keep in mind that children's mentality is not that same as that of the adults and that they perceive the world in a different way.

The same is true for mobile application development, especially the development of educational applications for children. In addition to the specifics of children's psychology, developers building a mobile app for kids have to take into account all sorts of other aspects – methodological, health-related, and legal.

So, what should we consider while developing a mobile educational app?

Educational or «Educational»?

Among the gazillion of children's applications, it is sometimes hard to distinguish whether the particular app has a true educational value. So, let's begin with what makes an application educational.


[Image source: Google Play]

In their article «Putting Education in “Educational” Apps: Lessons from the Science of Learning» Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Jennifer M. Zosh, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, James H. Gray, Michael B. Robb, and Jordy Kaufman define the following criteria of an educational application:

  • Active involvement. In the context of educational applications, active involvement means thinking activity that a child performs while using the app. For example, shooting games require no thinking activity, as they are mostly about moving your finger on the screen to direct shots. At the same time, applications built around solving various problems involve children and thus fulfill this criterion of educational value.
  • Engagement. Educational applications for children are the most successful when based on a certain story which at some points requires children to solve various tasks and problems. For an app to keep user's attention it has to engage – the child should proceed along the story and not be distracted. Any side-effects or mini-games not related to the subject of the application have no educational value but only manage to divert kid's attention.
  • Meaningfulness. An educational application makes children create connections between the things and concepts of the app and the things and concepts found in real life. In this case, education is more successful than when the application is full of abstract things for which the child has no real-life reference. For example, learning geometrical shapes will sink deeper into the mind when the shapes are represented by dinner plates and picture frames instead of abstract circles and squares.
  • Social interaction. When an application includes remote teamwork with other children to resolve a task in the gameplay or when it encourages children to talk about it with their parents or friends, it means that the application stimulates social interaction.

Of course, not all educational applications conform to all four criteria, however, the closer an application is to this “golden ratio”, the higher its educational value is.

Application Development for Kids or Adults – What's the Difference?

OK, now that we have found the criteria of educational applications, let's see what we should remember while creating an app for children and what makes an app for kids different from an app for adults.

The Challenge is as Important as the Result

As opposed to the adults who primarily seek to reach the goal of the application with minimum effort, kids love the process of reaching the goal. This gives us the first important requirement for an application which children will love – the gameplay should be truly exciting and challenging for kids to enjoy progressing towards the result. There are various ways of making an app fascinating – by implementing creative designs, interesting characters and mini-games to keep users engaged.

A good example of a challenging gameplay is Monster Physics, an iOS game by Freecloud Design Inc. The tasks include building various mechanisms and other structures to reach the set goal. By putting together the objects, kids learn the basics of physics getting the fundamental concepts of velocity, mass, speed, etc.


[Image source: Monster Physics App Store]

Feedback and Praise – Major Component of the Gameplay

Kids love being praised and rewarded for their accomplishments. And playing games is no different in this aspect – whenever a child reaches a goal, they expect to hear that they are super-cool and receive something valuable. Developers making educational applications for kids should keep this in mind and include some feedback or reward at the end of each level or task.

Points, prizes, trophies – kids will be excited to get these valuable rewards and will want to play more. In Alphabet for Kids – Learn ABC by 123 Kids Fun Apps, the child earns stickers after completing each round. There is a special sticker book where young pupils can admire their collections. Each new sticker encourages a kid to go on to complete the set.


[Image source: 123 Kids Fun ALPHABET: Alphabet Games for Kids]

At the same time, avoid negative feedback. Even if a child does something incorrectly, the app message should direct them to the correct solution rather than discourage them. Kids like being praised, thus the application should always be positive to gently push the child to try again and achieve the correct result.

Trust – Kids Tend to Express It Much Stronger Than Adults

Due to their mentality, kids are more trusting than adults, and this should be factored in while developing learning apps for kids. For lack of experience and mindset specifics, kids cannot predict the consequences of their decisions and actions during the gameplay. This can raise security issues, and this is the direct responsibility of the developer to provide sufficient protection.

On the other hand, the educational content should be one hundred percent valid, reliable and consistent, as kids have less ability of critical thinking than adults and tend to accept information at face value.

Consider the Age Groups

When developing educational applications for adults, developers hardly ever differentiate the content according to the age – an adult is anyone between the ages of 18 and 99. With kids, the approach to developing learning apps is totally different, as what is exciting for a three-year-old will be boring for a kid of nine, and vice versa.

The common idea is that you should create apps in the range of two years. Children develop fast, and in two years they possess a quite different set of skills and are fascinated with different things. A good practice will be engaging a methodologist or an educational expert to help you define the scope of content, tasks, achievements, and to shape the whole gameplay for each age group.

Make sure that your application description clearly states the age group for which it is designed.


[Image source: Preschool and Kindergarten Learning Games]

Technical Aspects of Creating Apps for Children Learning

The specifics of the children's mentality and motor skills call for special recommendations to game app development for kids.

Application Settings

The Settings screen in a children's app should not be too complicated. Kids may be confused with too many different options and feel immediately discouraged to continue. Small setting controls may be too difficult for children's fingers, so we recommend using large icons and convenient adjustment mechanisms in the Settings section.

Another point is that different settings should not dramatically alter the gameplay so that the child doesn't feel disoriented after selecting a different option.


[Image source: Preschool Learning Games Kids]

Using Gestures

While designing app controls for small children, take into account that they may still be somewhat clumsy with finger gestures. Kids can be quite confident with tapping the screen, however, swiping or pinching may be too difficult for them.

Thus, try to build an app with as many tapping controls as you can, keeping other gestures to the minimum.

Tutorials and Onboarding Screens

The onboarding screen of your application should be clear and informative. Explain how the game is played and what is expected of the child during the gameplay as clearly and in as much detail, as possible. Try using as little text as possible describing the game with images and animation instead.

If possible, implement a step-by-step guided tutorial in which user can try solving simple tasks and get the feeling of the game.


Define Your Target Audience

So far, we have been discussing kids, their habits, skills, preferences, however, are kids really the target audience of educational applications? It is not the kids who make the decision of purchasing or downloading the app, especially, when we are talking about kids up to four or five years old.

So, who should you impress – the children or their parents? The application should make parents want it for their kids. Nobody knows a child better than their parents, so your product should look perfect for the child in their parents' eyes.

All the educational application specifics we have talked about should create an overall positive image for the parents. Thus, the best advice is, probably, to look at the app through the child's eyes but to think like an adult.

As a side note, the same reasoning should be applied while choosing the monetization strategy for educational applications. In-app purchases do not seem a good idea, as it will anyway be the parents who make the decision, but an offer to buy something may interrupt the game and frustrate the child.

A better strategy is to offer paid download or subscription, as in this case the adults make the decision at the very beginning and there is no risk of unplanned purchases or long arguments with the kid.

Final Thoughts

From what we have seen so far, it may seem that making educational applications for children is a very hard work with too many restrictions, concerns, and hidden dangers. That's true when you decide to create something for kids, you assume a much greater responsibility than when your product is targeted at adults. At the same time, think of how rewarding the work is because you will be indirectly participating in children's education, bringing them both knowledge and fun.

And, let's admit it, all adults secretly want to play the games their children play – so grab this chance of plunging deep into this wonderful world of childhood again!
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