Design for Kids Cover

Design for Kids

Digital Products for Playing and Learning

By Debra Levin Gelman

Published: July 2014
Paperback: 248 pages
ISBN: 978-1933820-30-9
Digital ISBN: 978-1933820-43-9

Emotion. Ego. Impatience. Stubbornness. Characteristics like these make creating sites and apps for kids a daunting proposition. However, with a bit of knowledge, you can design experiences that help children think, play, and learn. With Design for Kids, you’ll learn how to create digital products for today’s connected generation.

Paperback + Ebooks i All of our Paperbacks come with a FREE ebook in 4 common formats.


Ebooks only i All ebooks come in DRM-free Kindle (MOBI), PDF, ePub, and DAISY formats.


More about Design for Kids


Designing new tech for kids is an important, complex, messy mission that Debra Gelman explains with candor and brilliance. Her consideration of who children are and how we must design for and with them is a must read. More people need to understand that excellent technologies for children are not just born, but hard work, real time, and careful planning need to happen. It is all spelled out so well in this book.

Dr. Allison Druin, Chief Futurist, University of Maryland Division of Research, Co-Director Future of Information Alliance

As someone intensely interested in patterns of human behavior and technology, I am so thrilled that Debra wrote this book! Learning, play, Piaget, differences by age and gender—Design for Kidscovers it all. And whether you’re designing for children or adults, read this book; you will be inspired by all the examples and Debra’s thoughtful reflections on this challenging design space.

Stephen P. Anderson, author of Seductive Interaction Design and creator of the Mental Notes card deck

During my work as a UX researcher and consultant in kids’ media, I often wished a book like this existed. Debra has done an excellent job at bridging the gap between theory and practice. This book is a must read for anyone who shares her vision of creating accessible, engaging and child-friendly media.

Sabina Idler, Founder of UXkids

If you want to master interface design, then you need to learn to design for kids first. There is no better place to begin learning those skills than with Design For Kids. Debra brings her considerable knowledge and experience to bear in a book that teaches, informs, and enlightens the reader with practical examples of the best work online today.

Jason CranfordTeague,, Core Contributor

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: Kids and Design
  • Chapter 2: Playing and Learning
  • Chapter 3: Development and Cognition
  • Chapter 4: Kids 2-4: Little People, Big Expectations
  • Chapter 5: Kids 4-6: The “Muddy Middle”
  • Chapter 6: Kids 6-8: The Big Kids
  • Chapter 7: Kids 8-10: The “Cool” Factor
  • Chapter 8: Kids 10-12: Growing Up
  • Chapter 9: Design Research
  • Chapter 10: An App for All Ages
  • Chapter 11: Putting It All Together


These common questions about designing for kids and their short answers are taken from Debra Levin Gelman’s book Design for Kids: Digital Products for Playing and Learning. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. How is designing for kids different from designing for adults? How is it similar?
    Similar to designing for adults, designing for kids requires a strong understanding of your users and what they need and want. However, what differentiates designing for a child audience and an adult one is that children change really quickly. In just six months, a 2-year-old experiences significant cognitive, motor, and technical growth, while an adult’s skills in these areas remain pretty stable. It’s important to keep these changes in mind as you develop sites and games that can grow with your audience.Also, while adults usually have a clear end goal in mind when they use an interface, kids are in it for the journey. Just using a computer or an iPad is a treat for them. It’s all part of the adventure. You’ll still have requirements to follow and goals to achieve, but for the most part you can have a little more fun with the details.
    Chapter 2 provides more information about these similarities and differences and what they mean when designing for different audiences.
  2. How much do I need to know about children’s developmental stages in order to design for them?
    It’s good to have a basic understanding of where kids are developmentally when designing for them. While you don’t need extensive knowledge of cognitive psychology, it makes sense to brush up on the stages of cognitive growth and maturation before starting a design project.
    In Chapter 3, you’ll find a primer on Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, which will provide information about the various stages that children go through in order for you to design compelling experiences for them.
  3. What rules and regulations do I need to be aware of when designing for children?
    While there aren’t hard-and-fast rules for the design of sites and apps for children, many countries have strict regulations about the collection of personal information from kids younger than 13. You can find a detailed explanation of the U.S. COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) laws, which are among the most stringent, in my interview with Linnette Attai at the end of Chapter 6, These regulations state that parents or legal guardians must agree in writing to any information collected from kids that will be used to message them, market to them, or in any other way identify them, including any type of behavioral or geographic targeting.In 2008, at the 30th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners held in Strasbourg, a Draft Resolution on Children’s Online Privacy was created. These guidelines are high level, but set the stage for international agreement about protecting kids’ identities online. They include a call for increased collaboration among designers, educators, parents, and kids—and the companies that create digital products for them—to ensure that all personal information is protected.
  4. Are there specific design conventions I should follow when designing for kids?
    You’ll need to be aware of the unique characteristics of the specific age you’re designing for and design to those characteristics. For example, when designing touch-screen apps for kids 2-4-years-old, you’ll need to make sure the touch targets you create are large enough for little clumsy hands, and that the gestures you design map to behaviors kids already do, like swiping, grabbing and smacking instead of flicking, pinching, and tapping. A detailed explanation of these can be found in Chapter 4. In addition, you’ll need to rethink many of the icons and symbols you use, even if they are universally understood icons for adult audiences, since kids are still learning to think abstractly. Finally, you’ll need to rely less on text explanations and more on visual demonstrations, because kids—even those who can read—have a hard time scanning words on a screen.
    Chapters 4-8 provide details on the design patterns that are most effective forkids of different ages.



As a parent as well as a researcher and designer of interactive media for over 30 years, I have found the world of digital design for kids fraught with condescension, oversimplification, and downright sloppiness. Children, because they are not adults, have seemed not to require elegant and thoughtful design. According to many developers, designing for kids must somehow be easier because kids are simpler than adults, aren’t they? All you need is a good property license like Superman or ET (as the old Atari would have it), and you’re good to go.

Debra Levin Gelman has done a great service for kids in the digital world by writing this thoughtful, thorough, example-filled book for the designers of digital games and apps for children. The text itself is remarkably well informed and communicated in a straightforward manner. By including a huge variety of examples with screen shots and excellent critiques, Gelman shows as well as tells. Her case studies and interviews also enrich the reading, and they demonstrate that Gelman knows her subject thoroughly and first-hand. Each chapter addresses a particular two-year age range, tracking developmental and social features of the age group and providing a concise set of design heuristics. A final chapter on design research with children gives designers methods for reaching out to their audiences and “absorbing,” as Gelman puts it, their mind-sets and preferences.

Throughout the book, specific insights caught my eye—sometimes because they matched my own experiences so well, and sometimes because they took me by surprise. In the 2 to 4 age range, for example, I was surprised and pleased to see Gelman’s painstaking analysis of the successful use of visual indicators to communicate hierarchy and focus. Her examples of parents’ frustrations with their kids repeating actions that would lead to certain kinds of noises were illuminating for me (although it did not change my long-held belief that things that make loud, repetitive noises are toys from hell and should probably be taken into the driveway and run over). In the 4 to 6 age group, I was delighted by Gelman’s observation that “sometimes, making something feel social is as easy as presenting it in the first person.” Having conducted many years of research on relationships between gender, technology, and play, I resonated deeply with her heuristic that the designer’s response to gender should be guided by how kids play rather than who we think they are.

I am fondest of the observations and heuristics that have to do with how design may nurture the delicate development of what we may later call “critical thinking skills.” For example, marking the distinction between advertising and content when a child is just beginning to be able to recognize the difference can help kids develop into adults with informed criticality of media and messaging. One of my favorites of Gelman’s bits of advice is that we make younger kids’ experiences of “losing” or “being wrong” more interesting. The notion of an interesting failure can lead to the kinds of criticality and bravery that make for resilient, creative adults. These qualities among others are fostered by application of Gelman’s insights about design.

Although the book is crisp and clear-eyed about its subject, it reveals Gelman’s love and respect for persons of a tender age. I hope that everyone who designs interactive stuff for kids will read it and take it to heart.

Brenda Laurel
Santa Cruz Mountains, California


First, a giant thank you to all the kids I’ve worked with over the years. Some of you are practically adults now, and will prob­ably never know how much you’ve taught me. Extra special thanks go out to the kids who agreed to be interviewed for this book: Noah, Samantha, Andy, Iris, and Alexa.

To my parents, Barbara and Stephen Levin, and my-brother-doctor, Michael Levin, thanks for the unconditional love, support, laughter, and zany adventures. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for you. All my love, always.

Much appreciation and love to my amazing extended family: Stephanie, Andy, Noah, Aunt Arlene, Uncle Barry, Aunt Lucille, Uncle Ed, Irene, Artie, Eric, Robin, Jill, Max, Ryan, Molly, Kami, Josh, Scott, Sherri.

Nicole Rittenhouse, your constant encouragement, faith, and check-ins helped keep me going and got me unstuck many times. Thanks for being there. To my gal pals who are like sisters: Benna Millrood, Melissa Rosenstrach Zimmerman, Jill Cohen Shaw, Lisa Kagel, Jennifer Blauvelt—I so appreciate your friendship and love.

A big thank you to the wonderful UX community, both local and global, for inspiring me, challenging me, and showing me new ways to look at the world. Special shout-outs to Michael Carvin, Kel Smith, Bryce Glass, Jeff Parks, Kevin Hoffman, John Ferrara, David Cooksey, Jeff Gothelf, Steve Portigal, Rachel Hinman, Indi Young, Lynne Polischiuk, Angela Colter, Livia Labate, Andrea Resmini, Adam Connor, Becca Deery, David Farkas, Russ Unger, Yoni Knoll, Will Sansbury, Boon Sheridan, John Yuda, Eduardo Ortiz, Chris Avore, Brad Nunnally, Aaron Irizarry, Marty Focazio, Wendy Green Stengel, Lori Cavallucci, Cennydd Bowles, Andrew Hinton, Chris Risdon, and Erin Cummings for the extra support and encouragement.

To my Refinery-Empathy Lab-Comcast-EPAM pals: Jon Ashley, Andrea Boff-Sutton, Kristin Dudley, Andrew Fegley, David Fiorito, Crystal Kubitsky, Kevin Labick, Ron Lankin, Tom Loder, Jonathan Lupo, Casey Malcolm, Bruce McMahon, Rob Philibert—thanks for 10+ years of love and laughter.

To all of you who helped make this book come alive: Emil Ovemar, Linnette Attai, Sabina Idler, and Catalina Naranjo-Bock for being great interviewees, reviewers, and consultants; Jason CranfordTeague, Stephen Anderson, and Allison Druin for the kind testimonials; and Brenda Laurel for the amazing foreword—my heartfelt thanks and appreciation.

Enormous gratitude to my editor, Marta Justak, for putting up with my liberal interpretation of deadlines and teaching me that writing is messy, imperfect, and non-linear.

Lou Rosenfeld, you’re the reason this book came to fruition. Thanks for taking a chance on me. You’re a leader and an inspiration.

Finally, Josh and Samantha, thanks for this crazy, wonderful, amazing life. I wouldn’t have had the courage to go down this path if it weren’t for you.