Crafting effective EdTech interactions for the under 5s

With technology's proliferation into our homes and schools, too little is still known about the effects on young children. Specifically, the impact on their development; with reading comprehension, attention and knowledge retention top of the list.

A recent pilot study by Psychologists Piotrowski and Krcmar1 starts to shine a light on the issue and gives insight that would be useful to parents and EdTech designers alike.

96% of children under 4 use mobile devices at home

A huge 96% of children under 42 use mobile devices at home. Touchscreen media’s ease of use and intuitive behaviour mean that younger and younger children are engaging in both entertainment and education through their smartphones and tablets.
Embracing the rich media environments and engaging interactions, through the intergration of sound, haptic feedback and animation to keep children entertained.

The key here, however, is not the entertainment of these interactions, but their developmental value. As children develop and learn, how do these devices affect their comprehension, attention and knowledge retention?

As there is little research into the area, if we look to a related media, TV, we find a well studied and critiqued assessment on child development3. The Capacity Model explains how children extract and process educational content. With learning limited by their working memory – specifically how much they can remember and process at any one time. Under this model, too many distractions have a negative effect in how much children learn as they dominate the working memory capacity[^], capacity that would otherwise be used for learning processes.

This goes some way to explain why children in Piotrowski’s study had smaller attention and were more distracted than in the group where interaction hotspots were turned off. On the flip side, this observed distraction may just be children engaging in more generalised interactive behaviour. Matching their own behaviour to the interactive prompts in the interface. Making them want to pull others into their adventure and verbalising their responses more.

Under the Capacity model, it is assumed then that adding interaction to child based EdTech would be bad for their long-term development. The assumption is incorrect, as the below shows.

When a child is faced with a fun interactive story, a common assumption is that they would dive straight in and start clicking on all the interactive elements. This is proved wrong. This study showed that the majority of children engaged with the interactive hot spots only once they have completed reading the whole page. For designers, this highlights an interesting approach to EdTech interactions. Instead of including interactions as a part of the key storyline and forcing an interaction, instead, they should be used as a supplementary layer to be engaged with at the end.

To add to the great debate as to whether young children should be using technology at young ages, it is encouraging to find that including interactive elements had no effect on the children’s comprehension of the story compared to the control group. Both had the same level of understanding and could recall what the story was about.

As research in this area is still in its infancy, these are positive finding for children and EdTech.


Form for thought - A blog about by Dura design psychology and design thinking for graphic designers, web designers, ui designers, ux and illustrators. Looking into the psychology of colour, user behaviour and advertising psychology.