Thursday, June 15, 2006


Discovering the Fun in Learning.

Here’s an interesting article warning of the dangers of sitting your preschooler in front of the TV or computer screen. Seems like common sense to me: you want your child to experience as much of the full dimension of the real world before you start them down the path of the virtual one. The article, like most press, is alarmist, naturally (that sells ads). In my own experience with my daughter, computers and TV are just part of her life—she’s as engaged by drawing or Legos or dolls as media. Sometimes I have to work hard to get her to play on the computer with me. So it’s likely that a lot of kids, if they’re given the right kind of introduction to media, will simply incorporate it as part of the balance of activities they are drawn to.

Of course, you can really screw that up by plopping them down in front of the TV and ignoring them. But the problem then isn’t TV—it’s ignoring the child. And even then, knowing what I know about parenting, I’m not judging harshly the parent who gives himself a break by letting the kids watch a half hour of Dora the Explorer or Clifford. Parents need a break once in a while—especially from the endless stream of experts who advise them on ways not to screw up their kids.

What’s really interesting about this article is this passage in the middle:

As kids get older, games can be useful, Healy says, but they need to be carefully chosen. For example, if a game has a child do 10 math problems and then rewards them with 10 minutes of shooting aliens, the child is being taught that math is boring. "If children do — quote, unquote — work, then we have to let them do — quote, unquote — play," they're getting the wrong message, she says, when the message should be that "the reward is feeling good about your skills improving."

Which is exactly right. Children are busy at work/play focusing on mastery. They do this naturally, instinctively. My daughter prefers drawing (by hand) to almost anything else, but in part she prefers it because she is very good at it. Like adults, children like to do the things they are good at, and like adults (before they unlearn it), children like to try a lot of things. So it doesn’t really matter what they try. But—and this is the point of the article—HOW they try it is crucial. And here the article is on mark. Since mastery requires active participation, sitting in front of a TV (or filmstrip, or YouTube), is prone to failure. And because you cannot “trick” students into liking an academic subject, they have to explore the intrinsically interesting dimensions of that subject in order to be engaged by it. Language, for example, is full of interesting sounds, word, juxtapositions, nonsense, misunderstandings, puns, homophones, etc. Language is inherently interesting. And so is math: it’s logical, it’s filled with cool patterns and connections and ways of representing the world that make clean, clear sense. Educational applications have to surface the fun inherent in these disciplines, otherwise kids won’t realize how much fun they actually are.

We tested over 60 K-2 students on a variety of software last year. The article is probably right: for the most part, we didn’t see tangible engagement with the computer from K-1 students, with a few exceptions. There are somatic and cognitive issues with K-1 students. They have a hard time mousing and inputing keyboard strokes, and I’m not sure they actually understand the virtual environment. When a K-1 student engages with the computer, for the most part I think they are learning how to click in two dimensions, and almost nothing else.

The only exception that I’ve seen in my work is Headsprout, which is very well designed for this age cohort. Their human-computer interaction is the most sophisticated I have seen in any educational software program, and Headsprout scored highest in our review of educational applications. I highly recommend it, and it should be studied by anyone interested in designing educational applications for students. It looks good, is architected well, and is effective. But most of all it is fun. Not in the sense that it has cool graphics and characters (sometimes this is, in fact, the weakest part of the product), but in the sounds, in the coolness of the letter/sound connection, in the way that children have to put it all together in their minds. Headsprout surfaces the inherent “playability” of phonemic awareness and phonics. They don’t make learning fun. They know that learning is fun, and use it.

Here’s my rating on Headsprout:


Engagement Level

UI Design




Total Score








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