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.