Flipping the Bit: Reintroducing Children to Technology as a Creative Medium

Two young children using a tablet.

Children can have creative experiences with digital technologies.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are more than 74 million children in the United States and 79 percent of them have Internet access at home. In 2010, Pew Research reported that roughly 75 percent of teens use a mobile phone, and that the percentage was expected to grow. According to Nielsen, 56 percent of households have at least one current-generation gaming console. This technological boom is not restricted to the U.S. alone, but is happening worldwide in both developed and emerging nations.

These statistics and many more point to the massive proliferation of technology in children’s everyday lives. Our children are coming of age immersed in a technological environment—and that technology is an incredible advancement for society. As technology shapes our children’s development, decisions that we make on how to design such technology have a dramatic impact on our children’s social and psychological well-being.

For generations now, radio and television have been common consumptive technologies in our homes. Unlike these technologies, digital technologies began as uniquely interactive and have always been endowed with powerful creative affordances. So how can it be the case that the overwhelming majority of experiences that young children now have with technology take the form of consumptive behavior: watching Netflix videos, playing videogames, reading Facebook posts, or listening to music?

Aside from traditional productivity applications, the technology tools designed to support creative exercises are those primarily used for social networking and communication. We can argue about the pro-social benefits of a changing social-technological landscape, but it is clear that these social networking and computer-mediated social experiences do not alone support a child’s development of deep, diverse creative skills. The consumptive pattern of technology use cannot sustain itself, and technology design that focuses on the construction of tools that scaffold deep creative processes is due for a renaissance.

The UX field can and should reinvigorate the creative experiences that children have in interacting with digital technologies by explicitly leveraging the very same trends in technology design that have led to a broad shift toward consumptive experiences: mobile computing, touch interfaces, increased memory and CPU capacity, graphics capabilities, cloud computing, and social networking. Among the host of potential roles, consider the following three roles as catalysts for integrating technology to support creativity: partner, performer, and provider.

Technology as a Partner

In the partner role, the technology is designed to reciprocate actions by the child as though the technology shared the same goals as the child, and as though the technology had a slightly more advanced set of skills than the child (a key component of successful learning dyads identified by one of the preeminent developmental psychologists, Lev Vygostky).

Consider the roles that two dance partners have as they perform on the dance floor, both recognizing the other’s actions and behaving in a manner that most effectively moves toward the shared goal of a standout performance. Effective partners proactively look for opportunities to improve the overall experience and recognize where their counterpart needs support or guidance while not undermining their partner’s strengths. Partners scaffold each other’s actions in a mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship; in just this way technology can scaffold a child’s activities or respond to scaffolding that a child has put in place.

Perhaps counterintuitively, a limited number of modern videogames are an example of technology as a partner. Game designers often think of games as both partners and challengers. As a partner, the videogame may attempt to assess the player’s capabilities and then adjust the game’s activities with the goal of putting the player in an optimal state of flow—a balanced state between challenge and mastery (as discussed in the works of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Technologies that support children’s creative activities can do the same by identifying the goals of the activity and adjusting the amount of information provided to the child.

Though the term “partner” suggests a social relationship, technological partners do not have to be explicitly social in their interaction design. An interface that behaves like Apple’s Siri is likely to have problematic ramifications for how a child partners with the technology and what expectations a child will have for the technology’s abilities.

As Stanford University’s Clifford Nass has shown in his research, even the most minimal social features in technology can generate social expectations in the user that can lead to frustration and disappointment if the technology does not live up to expectations. There is no need to repeat the failings of Microsoft’s Clippy. Instead of overlaying a social personality that is situated as a distinct entity from the tool itself, we can design applications to fulfill the partner role implicitly through proactive design. We can endow the tool with an ability to predict goals, receive feedback, and adjust the interaction design accordingly.

Technology as a Performer

The partner role attempts to fulfill what is sometimes referred to as an autonomous relationship: two separate entities autonomously interacting as equals to better themselves. The performer role, in contrast, attempts to fulfill a heteronomous relationship that consists of two separate entities functioning as a single unit through a hierarchical relationship. As a performer, technology is directed by a child to enact a vision that the child champions. As with performers in the real world, any technology that plays the role of performer must bring to the relationship a set of skills and autonomous actions that can be adjusted to accommodate the child’s vision.

Consider the most common productivity software on the market today. In its most idealized state, such software ought to act as a performer that is directed by the author to fulfill the author’s vision without requiring the author to push every pixel just so to get the desired output. These technologies are powerful tools that can be mastered and used to create impressive experiences, but the technologies are not yet successful at taking the role of performer in the way that a professional actor performs.

An actor takes the direction and constraints provided to him—a script, a set, other actors, a motivation, a background—and fills the rest with his own performance. A technology that is to act as a performer on behalf of a child must do the same: take the direction and constraints that a child puts in place, reflecting her vision, and then enact a performance that fulfills that vision. This means creating interaction designs that support the child in expressing her vision through potentially unique and as-yet-unrealized interfaces.

As an example, consider Microsoft’s new “Project Spark” experience for PCs and Xbox One, in which users can quickly create worlds from scratch and then play games within those worlds. Similarly, “Little Big Planet” for the Sony PlayStation provides a robust stage and a set of actors and props that users can direct to create highly imaginative experiences.

Technology as a Provider

Finally, a successful provider is one who proactively nourishes a child with a balanced, healthy diet of information that is personalized to the needs of the child in context, and is delivered in a form that is actionable. Information consumption is now a core component of every successful educational curriculum. But the paradigm of consumption often overshadows the critical role that information takes as an enabler of action. The technology industry delivers boatloads of information to users on a second-by-second basis. Users overwhelmed with information respond with anxiety and apathy.

For technology to function as a successful provider to children, we must use technological advancements in information processing and retrieval in context of digital and physical activities to put information into the hands of children in a form that is suited to their needs.

Search engines rank and point to web pages in response to a child searching for a term or phrase, but those search engines have no capacity (at least through traditional search interfaces) to assess a child’s context of inquiry. What is the problem that the child is tackling that motivates him to engage in this search? Is there additional information in his physical or digital environment that can provide clues as to how to format the information in a way that enables action? Maybe the child is creating a collage of favorite cars, writing a poem about his neighborhood, or producing a video about world history. A successful provider will recognize where the child is in the process and will provide information in context that supports the activity without requiring mode shifts, transformations of information, or the expending of energy to filter irrelevant content.

Build for Creativity

There are numerous other roles that technology can take to support children’s creative activities. In addition to the ones just discussed, consider the opportunity for technology to take the role of a publisher, teacher, conductor, director, or peer. The roles that technology can take are multifaceted and can be empowering for children.

Children develop by engaging with their environment with the goal of changing or understanding it such that they can proactively modify their own concepts to match that environment. This proactive, energetic cycle is an ideal point of coupling between children and technology.

As user experience professionals, we have an opportunity—one could argue an obligation—to leverage the powerful capacities of our modern technologies to create a balanced and empowering technological environment. This environment should provide children with scaffolding to generate new experiences that shape their environment and their own development. Doing so will enable a democratic and empowered society that considers technology to be a tool for being and doing better in the world rather than a passive medium through which we receive the opiate of the consumptive experience. Leave pacification to the old and dying television conglomerates and step into your role as a liberator of future generations—build for creativity.

Comments are closed.