It’s official. Touchscreen devices are here to stay and they are only getting better. Revolutionary advancements in the field of mobile technology over the past few years suggest that smartphones and tablets are soon to become everyday, household items like the radio or TV. As impressive as this may seem, there is a growing concern among parents nowadays regarding the alleged side effects of the rapid acceleration of the Digital Age, particularly when it comes to their children (technology-dependence, separation anxiety and ADHD, to name a few). Nevertheless, some parents may give a positive response when posed with the following question: Would you give your smartphone to your child?
At the 19th edition of CreativeMornings Utrecht (25 October 2013), graphic designer Xander Wiersma addressed these parental concerns by unveiling mobile technology in a different light. As a father of two and co-founder of Den Haag-based design studio Appracadabra, Wiersma and his team develop visually stunning, educational apps for kids (aged 2 and older), targeted at nurturing specific skills. Purposely made available in a number of different languages, their apps are intuitively designed and are based on the established precepts of how children play.
“If you separate children from technology, they will think it’s much more exciting,” Wiersma says. “You have to give them these devices to show them what’s happening. I think it’s good that they see what they can do with it. But you have to also show them the other world and that technology is just a part of the world.”
Although Wiersma believes in the importance of introducing technology to children at an early age, he was not quite satisfied with the variety of apps available for his kids. While waiting for their flight at an Italian airport during a holiday, he and his partner Marlis Zimmermann struggled to find suitable smartphone apps to entertain their children. “Everything was extremely ugly or boring or in English,” Wiersma recalls. Seeing as their kids only spoke Dutch and Swiss German, the apps they found were rendered useless. As a result of this dilemma, the pair founded Appracadabra in 2010 and launched their first app the following year.
What parents may see as a potential problem, Wiersma considers an opportunity. “I think the future is changing anyway,” the designer claims, “so children have to be educated in this future. If you keep them away from technology, they will not be educated the right way.” Indeed, the advent of mobile devices has drastically changed the way we communicate and, more importantly, how we play. “People who weren’t used to technology before could [now] use software,” he reveals. Compared with “old school” computer games that required a joystick and keyboard or even a controller, touchscreens allow for direct interaction. Playing a game has evolved from assembling a complicated set-up of cables, screens and cartridges to an instantaneous activity that can be initiated by simply tapping on the screen.
Be that as it may, a problem arises when that same mobile device is given to a 2-year-old child: the fact that she may not know exactly what it is or how to operate it. Since toddlers have no perception of numbers or symbols (let alone software), this poses a peculiar challenge for game developers and designers. “[Software] is really strict,” Wiersma explains. “You have to make it really intuitive for children and people who use games. You have to help them a bit.” Naturally, this is where good design comes into play.
For their first app, Appracadabra focused on honing children’s pre-math skills of associating numbers with quantities. ‘Count the Animals!’ teaches toddlers and pre-schoolers how to count from 1 to 20 in their native language by tapping on playfully illustrated animals on the screen. The app opens with an image of a girl riding on a horse and can only commence by actually adhering to what the title says. “All the grown-ups tap on the little girl,” Wiersma attests. “All the children tap on the animals.” Unfortunately, it is exactly this inherent intuitiveness in children that game designers often overlook.
“Most developers, app designers and publishers think that their app is the clearest ever,” Wiersma maintains. The fact remains that the usability of any product cannot be determined until it has been fully tested. “Give it to somebody else and see what they’re doing,” the designer says. “Redesign and design until it is ready.” After all, developing quality software that is appropriate for kids is easier said than done. Given how solitary interaction with a physical object –be it a toy, mobile device, or a piece of string– is just one of the many forms of child’s play, Wiersma and his team had a lot to consider in terms of design than simply making their apps entertaining.
“A lot of parents give their tablets to their child so that they don’t have to give them attention,” Wiersma admits. “That’s something where you’re very focused on the screen.” Although focus and concentration are integral to a child’s overall development, playing games on mobile devices causes what the designer refers to as “instant autism”. “If you use tangible, analog toys, you’re very much productive,” he observes, adding that children (and people in general) pay attention to the object as well as the space surrounding them. “If you’re playing digitally, it’s mostly consuming.”
According to Wiersma, the most adequate solution is to make their games as social and as interactive as possible. Apart from the customary multiplayer format, Appracadabra offers apps that integrate educational activities with a child’s immediate environment (‘Learn Your Colours’) or with special events like the first day of school (‘First Day of School Countdown’). Their ‘Puppet Show’ app encourages kids to let their imaginations soar by making stories come to life on the small screen, while ‘Fresh’ teaches them the benefits (and differences) of fruits and vegetables.
Despite the availability of these mobile applications, Wiersma admits that there is no replacing the conventional toy. “I don’t think one has to go away in place of the other,” the designer believes. “I like digital, but I also like analog.” At the end of the day, it seems that the two are like apples and oranges. “Kids will always love the analog, tangible toys,” he adds. “I don’t know any young kid who can play hours at a time on a tablet. They simply do not have the concentration for it yet.” That being said, the father of two confirms that he is slightly reluctant when his daughters ask for his mobile phone. “I don’t immediately give my phone to them,” Wiersma claims, arguing that there are so many alternatives to technology when it comes to how we play. “And sometimes,” he admits, “getting bored is good [for them] too.” ✌
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