Game-based Learning for Early Childhood (Part 2)

by Neil Peirce PhD

In the first part of this 2-part blog post I highlighted the growing market for early childhood games and some of the emerging best-practices for designing such games. In this post I continue by looking at the evidence of learning as a result of these games and the ethical concerns of using them.

Evidence of Effectiveness

The effectiveness of game-based learning for early childhood is both a divisive topic and an under researched area of academic study (Plowman & Stephen 2005). It has been suggested that there are limited instances of appropriate cognitive development games for this age group (Sung et al. 2008) and moreover, there is a lack of theoretical and empirical support for the use of software in general for early childhood learning (Sarama & Clements 2002).

A survey to ascertain the level of research being conducted in this area was conducted covering two prominent journals and conferences on game-based learning. The publications surveyed were:

The survey found a relatively limited focus on early childhood educational games and supports the findings of (Plowman & Stephen 2005). The suggested reasons for this limited research include poor device ergonomics for this age group, lack of standardised curricula, the limited feedback possible from young children, and challenges of accessing young children for evaluations.


Despite the limited number of papers found, evidence of learning performance was identified in the areas of:

  • Phonological Awareness (Segers & Verhoeven 2002; Segers & Verhoeven 2005)
  • Differentiation of Thematic and Taxonomic Relationships (Sung et al. 2008)
  • Memory Enhancement Strategies (Oyen & Bebko 1996)
  • Motor Skills and Coordination (Marco et al. 2009; Marco et al. 2012)
  • Mathematical Development (Sarama & Clements 2002; Clements & Sarama 2007; Clements & Sarama 2008; Praet & Desoete 2014)

Evidently where educational games are designed appropriately they can be effective learning tools for this age group. However, these games are largely confined to research activities with few commercial games providing evidence of rigorous evaluation.

Ethical Considerations

The use of technology in general with this age group remains a divisive topic. One of the more publicised concerns it that of rising childhood obesity and the link to sedentary activities. Whereas TV watching can be a predictor for BMI in this age group (Jago et al. 2005), it was not also true for sedentary activity in general. It has been suggested that changes in eating habits and food advertising on TV are potentially the causes as opposed to sedentary activity alone (Vandewater & Cummings 2008).

However the effect of physical actions and inactions during digital game play has implications beyond obesity. An increase in sedentary activity can impact crucial psychomotor development at this age (Alliance for Childhood 2000). Moreover, the use of computers or tablets can result in muscular skeletal injury in this age group after prolonged usage (Straker et al. 2008).

Ethical concerns also exists beyond physiological issues in terms of socio-emotional development. It has been noted that excessive media usage under 3 years has been linked to “problems with self-soothing, sleep, emotional regulation, and attention” (Radesky et al. 2014). Evidently media usage can have negative effects, however, these effects can be largely linked to age inappropriate content. In a study by (Garrison & Christakis 2012) it was shown that such inappropriate content caused sleep disruptions in 3-5 year olds. However, when age-appropriate, educational and prosocial content was substituted the disruptions were reduced, despite viewing times remaining the same.

A final ethical concern remains in the use of games that lack validation as to their educational effectiveness. The reality for this age group is that companies continue to market games as educational despite a lack of standardisation and regulation (Rideout 2014). Although evaluating educational content for this age group is challenging it can be done effectively. The educational effectiveness of Sesame Street (3-6 year olds) is well established by numerous studies (Mares & Pan 2013).

The educational efficacy of games marketed to this age group presents considerable concerns especially where parents are naïvely, or even wilfully, believing the marketing and supposed educational benefits many commercial games extol.

“In the absence of a critical pedagogy for digital game-based learning (DGBL), educators unfamiliar with games or gaming culture are faced with confusing and conflicting agendas which they are ill-equipped to interrogate” (Nolan & McBride 2013)


The use of digital games for early-childhood has the potential to provide meaningful learning experiences to an age group keenly focused on play-based activities. However, the proliferation of under-evaluated commercial games, and the ethical concerns of media use with this age group presents considerable challenges for their safe and effective use.

This two part post draws on research conducted at the Learnovate Centre.
Further details are available in the free report “Digital Game-based Learning for Early Childhood: A State of the Art Report”.

Academic Conferences and Publishing International, European Conference on Game-Based Learning.

Alliance for Childhood, 2000. Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood. Colleen Cordes & Edward Miller, eds., College Park, Maryland: Alliance for Childhood.

Clements, D.H. & Sarama, J., 2007. Effects of a preschool mathematics curriculum: Summative research on the Building Blocks project. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 38(2), pp.136–163.

Clements, D.H. & Sarama, J., 2008. Experimental Evaluation of the Effects of a Research-Based Preschool Mathematics Curriculum. American Educational Research Journal, 45(2), pp.443–494.

Garrison, M.M. & Christakis, D. a, 2012. The impact of a healthy media use intervention on sleep in preschool children. Pediatrics, 130(3), pp.492–9.

IEEE Computer Society, Digital Games and Intelligent Toy Enhanced Learning.

Jago, R. et al., 2005. BMI from 3-6 y of age is predicted by TV viewing and physical activity, not diet. International journal of obesity (2005), 29(6), pp.557–64.

Marco, J. et al., 2009. Bringing tabletop technologies to kindergarten children. In HCI 2009. pp. 103–111.

Marco, J., Cerezo, E. & Baldassarri, S., 2012. Bringing tabletop technology to all: evaluating a tangible farm game with kindergarten and special needs children. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, pp.1–15.

Mares, M.-L. & Pan, Z., 2013. Effects of Sesame Street: A meta-analysis of children’s learning in 15 countries. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 34(3), pp.140–151.

Nolan, J. & McBride, M., 2013. Beyond gamification: reconceptualizing game-based learning in early childhood environments. Information, Communication & Society, (March 2014), pp.1–15.

Oyen, A.-S. & Bebko, J.M., 1996. The Effects of Computer Games and Lesson Contexts on Children’s Mnemonic Strategies. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 62(2), pp.173–189.

Plowman, L. & Stephen, C., 2005. Children, play, and computers in pre-school education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(2), pp.145–157.

Praet, M. & Desoete, A., 2014. Enhancing young children’s arithmetic skills through non-intensive, computerised kindergarten interventions: A randomised controlled study. Teaching and Teacher Education, 39, pp.56–65.

Radesky, J.S. et al., 2014. Infant Self-Regulation and Early Childhood Media Exposure. Pediatrics.

Rideout, V., 2014. Learning at home: Media use in America

SAGE Journals, Simulation and Gaming.

Sarama, J. & Clements, D.H., 2002. Building Blocks for Young Children’s Mathematical Development. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 27(1), pp.93–110.

Segers, E. & Verhoeven, L., 2005. Long-term effects of computer training of phonological awareness in kindergarten. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 21(1), pp.17–27.

Segers, E. & Verhoeven, L., 2002. Multimedia support of early literacy learning. Computers & Education, 39(3), pp.207–221.
Springer, LNCS Transactions on Edutainment.

Straker, L.M. et al., 2008. A comparison of posture and muscle activity during tablet computer, desktop computer and paper use by young children. Ergonomics, 51(4), pp.540–55.

Sung, Y.-T., Chang, K.-E. & Lee, M.-D., 2008. Designing multimedia games for young children’s taxonomic concept development. Computers & Education, 50(3), pp.1037–1051.

Vandewater, E.A. & Cummings, H.M., 2008. Media Use and Childhood Obesity. In S. L. Calvert & B. J. Wilson, eds. The Handbook of Children, Media, and Development. Blackwell Publishing Limited, pp. 355–380.

Game-based Learning for Early Childhood (Part 1)

by Neil Peirce PhD

The increasing pervasiveness of computers and mobile digital devices within homes, has opened a new market for game-based learning, that of educational games for early childhood. A survey of the Apple App Store conducted in late 2014 highlighted the prevalence of educational game apps being published for the early childhood market.
For the purpose of this article we are defining early childhood to be between the ages of 3 and 6 years, this avoids the use of terms such as kindergarten and pre-school that vary geographically.
Percentage of educational game apps targetting specific age groups
* Based on a survey of the Education category of the English language Apple App Store where apps were also in the Games category.

Whereas common game-based learning challenges such as learning content integration, practitioner adoption, and game genre preferences are all relevant in this context, there are unique challenges in designing educational games specifically for early childhood. The predominant and overarching challenge being the developmental level of the learners. This factor impacts both the pedagogical approaches that can be used as well as the learning tasks that can reasonably be presented.
Moreover, the use of developmentally appropriate practice across all early childhood education is strongly advocated (Bredekamp & Copple 2009; NAEYC & Fred Rogers Centre 2012; NAEYC 2009; Verenikina & Harris 2003)

Appropriate Game Design

The design of developmentally appropriate games is challenging but guidelines are emerging and research conducted by the Sesame Workshop begins to outline best practices for the design of touch tablet experiences for preschool children (Sesame Workshop 2012).

  • Assume that the children can’t read, any text to be read will need adult assistance
  • Make gameplay goals visually explicit
  • Avoid scrolling content if possible, if necessary use horizontal scrolling as it’s more intuitive
  • Touch hotspots should be large and well isolated to cater for developing fine motor skills
  • Preschool-aged children tend to hold a tablet in landscape view
  • Avoid placing active icons on the bottom edge of the screen, the weight of the tablet often causes children to rest their wrist on the bottom edge
  • Combine auditory instructions with visuals for maximum impact, audio alone is often ignored
  • Multi-touch gestures can happen accidentally with younger children, cater for this by design

Further design considerations in light of cognitive, psychomotor, and socio-emotional development have been highlighted by numerous authors working with this age group including:

  • The role of the parent in play and games is significant this should be accommodated (NCCA 2004)
  • The use of overly complex tasks can cause children to revert to simpler thinking strategies (Gage & Berliner 1998)
  • Children aged 2 and 4 are seen as being irregular in behaviour, whereas those aged 3 and 5 are stable and conformant (Gallahue & Ozmun 2006)
  • Children’s eyes are generally not ready for extended periods of close work due to farsightedness (Gallahue & Ozmun 2006)
  • Emphasis should be placed on concrete, attainable, short term goals (Samuelsson & Carlsson 2008)
  • Focus content narrowly within a developmental age range (Chiong & Shuler 2010)
  • Focus on user-centred design and not on the capabilities of the technology but on the needs of its prospective user (Blumberg et al. 2013)
Despite the emerging best practices there is little evidence that the apps being commercially marketed to this age group are effective learning tools. Although the instructional approaches can be sound, many of these apps have considerable usability issues including the use of text, the complexity of storylines, the pacing of tasks, the lack of multi-modal feedback, and the lack of a role for a parent or guardian.
In the second part of the this blog post I explore research evidence of where games have been used as effective learning tools for early childhood, and the ethical concerns of using digital games with such young learners.


Blumberg, C. et al., 2013. Applying Developmental Theory and Research to the Creation of Educational Games. Digital Games: A Context for Cognitive Development. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2013(139), pp.31–40.

Bredekamp, S. & Copple, C., 2009. Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 S. Bredekamp, ed., National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Chiong, C. & Shuler, C., 2010. Learning: Is there an app for that?, New York.

Gage, N.L. & Berliner, D.C., 1998. Educational Psychology 6th ed., Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Gallahue, D.L. & Ozmun, J.C., 2006. Understanding Motor Development: Infants, Children, Adolescents, Adults Sixth., New York: McGraw-Hill.

NAEYC, 2009. Position Statement: Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8

NAEYC & Fred Rogers Centre, 2012. Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Children, (January), pp.1–15.

NCCA, 2004. Towards a Framework for Early Learning: A Consultative Document, Dublin.

Samuelsson, I.P. & Carlsson, M.A., 2008. The Playing Learning Child: Towards a pedagogy of early childhood. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 52(6), pp.623–641.

Sesame Workshop, 2012. Best Practices : Designing Touch Tablet Experiences for Preschoolers

Verenikina, I. & Harris, P., 2003. Child’s Play : Computer Games, Theories of Play and Children’s Development. Young Children, 3, pp.99–106.