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Modernizing child's play: Advice for building learning apps for kids

While not completely different from creating apps for adults, there are things developers need to keep in mind when designing learning apps for kids.

Inspired by an analog tool designed to teach preverbal children about scheduling, freelance developer Kathryn Rotondo is working to bring the effective game to mobile devices. During her O'Reilly Fluent 2014 session, So easy a child could do it, Rotondo will discuss best practices for developing learning apps for kids.

Child using smart device

Special considerations for children's apps

As with most application development, a one-size-fits-all approach shouldn't be adopted. It's critical for developers to do the appropriate legwork that ensures their design efforts are appropriate for the intended user. Unlike when designing applications geared toward adults, cognitive development and physical limitations need to be considered when creating learning apps for kids. "Figure out who you are developing for and what skills kids at that age have," Rotondo said, noting abilities will vary greatly between a 3-year-old and a 10-year-old. "You have to be really careful as to what sort of finger gestures they are able to do on a touch device," she added.

Case in point, tapping a touchscreen may seem like a simple enough action, but young children don't process the action the same way as adults. "We already have a sense of how long we are supposed to tap; little kids don't necessarily," Rotondo said. "If they don't see anything happen right when they tap, they might hold their finger down and wait."

You have to be really careful as to what sort of finger gestures they are able to do on a touch device

-Kathryn Rotondo

It can be easy to overlook the simple fact that engaging with an application on a touchscreen requires different types of gestures. Some actions are easier for children to perform than others. Gestures that require two fingers, such as pinching, can be difficult and even frustrating for children who are still developing certain motor skills. While that tidbit of information may not seem like a big deal, it can definitely make the difference in how children engage with an application.

It's also important to note that not all operating systems interpret gestures the same way. On iOS, for example, a tap versus more of a tap and hold action is not the same. Similarly, when building applications geared for adults for the Web, clicks often aren't registered until the user releases the mouse. "The idea is to ensure they really made the decision to click on something and not change their mind right away," Rotondo said. "If you wait like that with a kid, they will think nothing happened."

Research for successful mobile app development

While there isn't a plethora of resources available for developers getting their feet wet in building learning apps for kids, they do exist. Online forums and Facebook groups are a couple of good places where developers can get feedback from others faced with similar challenges. Rotondo noted the Sesame Workshop has a document with information gleaned from more than 50 studies.

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Taking note of where children are developmentally is essential to keeping young users engaged with an application. Depending on the type of application being built, it may be important to repeat a goal if a child hasn't touched the screen for a certain amount of time. Rotondo noted that in such situations, it may be appropriate to give the user hints so he or she can get the right answer and move on.

Whether you are an experienced professional or just starting to work in development, it's important to do the appropriate research and get in the correct mindset when creating learning apps for kids. "It's not rocket science, but it is a bit different," Rotondo said. "Unless you start to look into it, you wouldn't know."

About the author:
Maxine Giza is the associate site editor for and can be reached at

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