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You are here: Home 1997 Vol.29 No. 2, April 1997 Columns Computers and Kids: Why Do We Make Technology for Kids?
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Computers and Kids: Why Do We Make Technology for Kids?

Allison Druin

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Some time ago, I was asked a very simple question by an eight year-old girl named Joanna. She said, "Why do you make stuff for kids?" As simple as that question was, I was stumped. I hadn't actually thought about "the why" only "the what". For years I had been so concerned with what I could make for kids, that I hadn't actually spent much time asking myself why I wanted to make technology for kids. Today I have a much better idea of why, but when I least expect it, I find yet one more reason to add to my list of "whys".

When I first considered what this new column for the SIGCHI Bulletin should be, I thought back to my friend Joanna's important question. I realized that this column needed to start off with "the whys". I realized it needed to explain to people who don't make technology for kids, why others do. I also realized it needed to ask people who do make technology for kids, to think more about why they do what they do.

Instead of just offering you my own personal thoughts on the subject, I decided it would be much more interesting to start by sharing with you the thoughts of other professionals in this field. The thoughts below are from a selection of people I have had the good fortune of knowing through SIGCHI. Each is a professional focusing on this emerging field of kids, computers, and HCI. Each have different reasons why they make technology for kids:

Some Thoughts...

"Most kids do not carry around a list of no ways, not possible's, and I don't think so's in their head as many adults do. Kids are more open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Kids don't shut you down just because what you are doing is a little bit (or a lot bit) different. Kids simply do not know it all yet. We can learn a lot from kids." John C. Dailey, Southwest Missouri State University.

"It's the best way to have a big impact on the world. If you can influence the lives of today's kids, you help shape the world of tomorrow. So designing for kids makes me feel like I'm doing something worthwhile. To help kids understand or learn a new concept, you really have to understand it well yourself. So in addition, designing for kids pushes me to understand things in new and deeper ways." Mitchel Resnick, MIT Media Lab.

"When I first started doing computer research, I did the sci-fi end: artificial intelligence. Then we had kids, and it dawned on me. After watching the natural intelligence of a 6-month old, I thought that making kids smarter would be a better use of my time than making computers smarter. I gave up AI in a flash." Elliot Soloway, University of Michigan.

"We've been trying to make a programming language for ordinary people of all ages; people who have never taken a programming class. If we can make it work for kids, I believe we can extend it to adults later. So kids are the cutting edge users for our approach to programming. It's working out great. They've given us lots of valuable feedback." David Smith, Apple Computer.

"Before I started designing for kids, I was first won over to a design philosophy: constructionism. Broadly, it's about empowering users about assuming your users are intelligent and creative, and can achieve great things with quality tools and support. Applying this to adults is unfortunately often viewed as heretical. (As evidence, consider the popularity of the phrase idiot proofing.) On the other hand, a constructionist design philosophy makes complete sense to most people if you're designing for kids. Designing for kids is great because it's safe to assume your users are intelligent, creative, witty, and fond of purple. (Adults are too but people may not believe you when you say so.)" AmyBruckman, MIT Media Lab.

"Too often, we tend to equate education with skill acquisition; but it benefits a student little if he or she has acquired a huge repertoire of mathematical skills, and yet at the same time has learned to loathe mathematics for life. The reason we work on things like HyperGami is to provide children (and adults) with a dignified, rich mathematical activity an activity through which they might develop an actual passion for mathematics. Our work, then, is not simply about getting kids to learn faster or more efficiently; that would be too grim an enterprise. Rather, we hope to offer kids the sense that mathematics can be an avenue of self-expression, a source of pleasure, and a vocation." Michael Eisenberg, University of Colorado.

Some More Thoughts...

My "list of whys" not surprisingly is very similar to what my colleagues have just discussed. What I have found is that the experience of making technology for kids can include:

  • helping make an impact on our future...
  • offering a technology design experience that is less constrained and very creative
  • helping adults learn a lot from kids about kids
  • helping adults learn a lot from kids about adults

So with all of these great reasons for making technology for kids why don't more people do it? I believe one answer could be that only recently has technology for children become a successful commercial industry. Before this, only pockets of people in universities and industry were concerned with kids. For the most part, people didn't see it as being a financially lucrative field. It was felt that since schools generally didn't have a lot of money, this field would never take off. But it has; partially because schools and communities now place an importance on acquiring and using new technology. In addition, computers have found their way into our homes by the millions and parents have found it to be an important entertainment and educational tool.

So the question today has become, how to support this new field with researchers and practitioners? In the coming months of this column, I'll talk more about these issues. Until then, perhaps you might ask yourself why you do, or don't make technology for kids. You might find some interesting answers.

Allison Druin
allisond@unm.edu
http://www.cs.unm.edu/~allisond/

Allison Druin is the founder of the CHIkids Program, and CHIkids Chair for CHI 97. She is co-author of the recent John Wiley book, Designing Multimedia Environments for Children and a researcher at the University of New Mexico. She has been developing educational technology environments for children for over 10 years.

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Vol.29 No.2, April 1997
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