Technologies to help children learn: The good, the bad and the downright creative

are new technologies good for children?

A question I often get asked is whether I think that new technologies are good for young children. Predictably, my answer is it depends. Good for having fun? Good for health? The particular focus of my research is on the role of new technologies on children’s learning. Yet even here there are many factors that will influence whether a particular digital design will benefit children. In this blog, I thought to share some of our recent research projects ( investigating young children and technology and some of my recent thoughts on what role new designs have for learning.

Evaluating learning games

A couple of years ago we were asked to help CBeebies evaluate the learning benefits of some of their games  (  We encountered a methodological problem – there were a range of factors influencing how children interacted with the games. As well as the game design itself, there was the device children were using to access the game, including a PC, laptop, tablet, mobile or even an electronic whiteboard in school. Then there was the children’s own experience with devices (as well as cognitive ability), but most importantly was the influence of others: games were often played with a ‘teaching-minded’ parent or sibling wanting to show how it’s done.

0-3yrs and iPads

Seeing the relationship between different devices and adults’ input led us to a recent project looking at how children aged 0-3 play with iPads in the home. This ongoing project has provided a fascinating window into the flow of parent-child interaction influenced greatly by the balance between children’s independence and the need for a parent to help with various button presses.  Whilst some apps are explicitly educational, many valuable learning opportunities arose when parents were helping their children navigate everyday applications such as YouTube. Unsurprisingly, the adult’s role is often more powerful than any ‘learning design’.

iPads demonstrate how new forms of technology are becoming more accessible for younger children. And there are an increasing number of devices that are able to capture their digital interaction more and more seamlessly. From location detecting watches to physical activity monitors, new technologies demonstrate the potential to design ways to enhance (influence) children’s behavior. An important question often overlooked is how is the child using this data. Such questions arose in a recent project looking at a new form of technology ‘The Internet of Things’, and children.

'The Internet of Things', and children

The Internet of Things is an umbrella term describing the increasing ability to digitally connect real everyday objects (things). Our project looked at an example of this technology: Skylanders[1] and Disney Infinity[2]. These toys consist of a video game, a set of plastic figures, and a portal (plastic base). Simply by placing the toy on the portal, a corresponding avatar appears in the video game. Of course we are familiar with toys associated with on-screen media. The difference here is gameplay requires the toys on the base[3]; and game progress is actually stored on the physical toys. Our project looked at how this physical-digital link influenced the way children interacted with the toys, both when playing the video game, and away (taking toys into school for ‘show and tell’ for example).  The project was small-scale but illustrated the potential of this technology to generate new experiences for children around everyday objects. Unfortunately, in all likelihood it will be adults choosing how to link particular toys and media experiences. Yet, this would miss a great creative opportunity for children to design their own links. We demonstrated this towards the end of the project by showing the children how the technology behind Skylanders worked (using the Magic Cloud[4]) and asking them to think of their own designs.

Embodied Interaction with technologies

Technologies such as the Internet of Things blur the classic distinction between interacting with technology and hands-on play. New technologies enable much more physical interaction which re-opens a longstanding question: what is the importance of hands-on learning? This is the question being addressed by our 3 year project funded by the Economic Social Research Council[5]. The project is built upon recent work enabling us to better understand how children think by attending to how they gesture. What we now know is that the main function of gesture is not to support the listener (although it will), but to help the speaker’s own thinking. By attending to how children gesture, we are able to understand a lot more about how they think.

The project has focused on young children’s number concepts, and demonstrated how, when asked to explain a number relationship such as why 1+8=2+7, most children will gesture. Interestingly, children’s gestures often seem to simulate previous actions with materials such as moving blocks or a mark on a number line. As well as demonstrating how gesture offers an extra window into children’s understanding, this research helps us examine how different learning experiences influence children’s thinking. There are also implications for digital designs. Using a gesture recognition device (Xbox Kinect), the research is now examining how enabling children to create larger gestures influences their learning.

This research nicely brings together a new theoretical perspective of learning: Embodied Cognition (that argues that thinking is linked to body experience) with new technologies that can encourage particular bodily experiences. Several projects around the world saw the potential of gesture and new forms of technology to support learning [6][7][8]. We are lucky enough to have recently been awarded a project with Miami Science Museum, funded by the US National Science Foundation, looking at embodied designs in museums to support young children’s thinking about Science Concepts[9]

Digicubes: Number learning app

New forms of interaction with technology may therefore open up exciting new doors, but the question remains about how best to design software to support learning. The difficulty for many adults is that the app stores are now flooded with thousands of games claiming to support learning. There are sites providing help in filtering through these (eg [10]) although I do question sometimes how they judge learning value. One of the first things I want to know is how many opportunities does the game give children to explore different ways of doing things, and how does the game allow children to reflect on which way is better/preferred. In this regard, there are far too many games that give children a limited set of responses, and focus children on ‘getting it right’. This may be great for practising but less great for developing children’s understanding.

Digicubes is an app we are developing[11] to allow children to explore ideas about numbers. The app consists of an environment where children can attach blocks together. Significantly, the blocks change colour according to the number attached in a row (echoing Cuisenaire Rods). Children can also exchange ten units for a ten block. The app will provide no feedback beyond the colour change, but is developing a way for teachers and children to create and then send environments between devices in the room.



Whether a particular digital design will help children therefore depends on at least four key factors:

  • the design of the software (eg app);
  • the input device (PC, iPad, watch, or physical object);
  • children’s own experiences and ability; and
  • the role of others such as the parent or educator.

Taking these factors together, a good design in my eyes would be one that:

  • allowed children to explore and reflect upon ideas;
  • had an interface that not just facilitated interaction but exploited particular actions linked to ideas;
  • adapted to the ability of the particular child; and finally
  • encouraged children to share what they are doing with others.

A bad design in my eyes is one that might be described as “Chocolate coated Broccoli” where sounds and colourful effects are used to simply disguise a dull rote learning approach. And a creative design? I guess that would be one that lets children lift up the hood, see what’s inside and tinker.



[3] Toys communicate with the base through RFID (Radio Frequency Identification)






[9] No link at the moment



Dr Andrew Manches is the director of PlayTalkLearn and Magic Cloud, and the Chancellor's Fellow of Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh