Publication Date
December 17, 2012

"The digital experience should be designed to be engaging and fun with education integrated seamlessly in support of the play pattern (and vice versa)."

From Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organisation behind Sesame Street (seen in over 150 countries around the world), this paper offers key findings from touch screen studies and tips for designing and developing apps and ebooks for preschoolers. Based on more than 50 studies, it shares Sesame Workshop's approach and discoveries in creating effective educational content for these mobile platforms, outlining interactive design points that research has shown to best support child engagement and learning on digital touch platforms. Best Practices also categorises the most and least intuitive gestures for touch screens, tips for visual design, and layout.

As background, the paper explains that, in all of its work, Sesame Workshop strives to ensure that educational topics and gameplay experiences are created in a developmentally appropriate way. The organisation believes that young children can benefit educationally when engaged in "scaffolded, hands-on activities that are of interest to them. Our overall visual design should invite discovery and exploration. The role of the digital experience is to ensure that this hands-on exploration is structured, systematic, and intuitive." Even in digital environments, Sesame uses familiar characters (its Muppets, like Big Bird, for instance) as "hosts" or "guides" throughout the learning process. These characters are intended to bring children a feeling of friendship and fun; "it is critical to build on this relationship in digital media experiences. This creates an environment of extended engagement and dialogue between the child and the character on screen."

Amongst the many findings and tips included in the paper:

  • Creating the best interactive design has been found to involve elements such as using audio and visual feedback that is encouraging and incremental when a wrong answer is provided (this is a "learning moment"). Amongst the other suggestions: Provide context-specific dialogue and visual reinforcements to help preschoolers who usually cannot read.
  • Tapping is one of the most intuitive interactions for preschoolers, while pinching and flicking are often difficult for children with developing motor skills.
  • With regard to screen design, one suggestion is that the necessary steps to achieve the gameplay goal should be immediately and intuitively obvious on each screen. Interactive elements (e.g., buttons, game objects) should be visually distinct (e.g., colour, line weight, art style) from the rest of the screen. "Consider using subtle animation as well as a different line weight and color intensity."
  • In the section of the paper titled "Text on Screen for any Platform", one recommendation is that, when a character counts in dialogue, the numerals appear on screen to reinforce numeral recognition.
  • Findings are offered that might guide visual layout. For instance, preschoolers tend to rest their wrists along the bottom edge of tablets, making hotspots and icons placed along the edge potential triggers for unintentional actions that disrupt the activity. "Strategic positioning of the icons away from the bottom of the tablet will likely minimize frustration and quick game fatigue."
  • In terms of audio design, there are several strategies presented. For instance, "[c]hildren expect immediate feedback from their touch. Sound effects are an effective way to communicate input registration."
  • With regard to intentionality, one suggestion is to require confirmation when a major programme consequence will result, such as deleting a picture. This can be done with an additional confirmation overlay (e.g., Are you sure? Yes or No) that is colour-coded and utilises recognisable icons (e.g., green check mark and red "X").
  • "Include a section for parent tips whenever appropriate. These tips should reinforce curriculum, ideally via suggestions on how to encourage parent-child interaction during the digital experience as well as ideas for extending the overall learning objectives."

The paper also outlines key features for book apps and ebooks such as including reading options with and without narration in ebooks and the ability for parents to turn off potentially distracting hotspots


Email from June Lee to The Communication Initiative on January 10 2014; and "Sesame Workshop Shares Tips For Creating Touch Screen Content for Preschoolers", December 17 2012. "Sesame Street" excerpts provided courtesy of Sesame Workshop (New York, New York) © 2012 Sesame Workshop. "Sesame Street" ® and associated characters, trademarks, and design elements are owned and licensed by Sesame Workshop. All Rights Reserved.