Kids learn, at around age 8, that sometimes adults are wrong and don’t have all the answers. Instead of tacitly acknowledging this and moving on, kids tend to exploit this by pushing back. They taunt the adults in their lives with curse words they learned in the playground, they scare younger siblings with dead bugs, and they break the rules they think are dumb. While it can be hard for parents to deal with these behaviors, as designers, we have a responsibility to encourage them and let these kids rule, at least within our environments. By permitting kids to break the rules within the experiences we design, we’re validating their intelligence and sophistication in the safe confines of a digital space.
Of course, you don’t want the interface you design to be a free-for-all. You want all your users to feel comfortable. As a result, you’ll want to curb the particularly outrageous behaviors while encouraging the silly, harmless ones.
A good way to do this is to give kids creative license when developing their online personas. If you let kids pick ridiculous user names (as long as these don’t include obscenities or personally identifiable information,) they’ll feel as though they’ve trumped the system and pulled one over on the adults who are behind the experience. And they’ll feel a secret thrill every time they log in with the name “poopyhead.”
ROBLOX is a fantastic site where kids can create their own virtual worlds for other players to explore. They can build and program items within the world to have specific behaviors, to match their grandiose imaginations. In short, they can create a world in which anything is possible. And, while the name “Poopyhead” is already taken, ROBLOX is quick to provide creative alternatives:
Dear readers, you can now refer to me as QuickPoopyhead.
Another great way to let kids be the authority is to support unconventional behaviors within your experience. While our 6-8s get really uncomfortable when rules get broken, our 8-10s love it. Why can’t the crazy zombie pop out of the tree trunk and scare the next-door neighbor? Or why can’t the cat sprout wings and land on the teacher’s head?
ROBLOX, though its interface is confusing, lets kids pretty much create and build any type of environment they want, with their own rules around behaviors, activities and constructs. They leverage the educational concept of constructionism, a theory of learning developed by MIT professor and mathematician Dr. Seymour Papert. Papert believes kids learn best by building and creating independently. He co-created the Logo programming language to help kids learn via computer programming. This concept is one particularly close to my heart, as my Masters’ thesis advisor, Dr. Amy Bruckman, is a pioneer in this field. Amy’s doctoral dissertation, MOOse Crossing, let kids ages 9-13 create their own text-based virtual world, with object-oriented programming. ROBLOX uses these principles to support learning through its building and programming activities.
Despite its overall awesomeness, ROBLOX is pretty hard to use across the board. It’s got a steep learning curve, despite the common icons and symbols it uses to communicate functionality. A 9 year old will have a difficult time figuring out how to get started building stuff. I got confused simply trying to move items around on the screen, and somehow invoked this situation:
I have two advanced degrees, and I have no idea what a “non-suspended coroutine” is. I do like how the system provides feedback on the user’s actions after they perform them–kids like to jump in and do stuff and learn how to improve after failing–but I’m not sure a 9 year old would be able to understand what to do here. It would be great if the error messages in the ROBLOX code contained some teaching information, like “this means you need to close the builder menu before continuing.” Overall, though, the idea and spirit behind ROBLOX is exciting and inspiring. Letting kids build and explore their own environments supports how our 8-10s behave and allows them to be experts within their own domain.
Of course, you may not have ability, budget or license to design a completely open system where kids can control the behavior of characters or elements. However, you can incorporate some of these ideas on a smaller scale. Let them be silly, give them chances to run the show even in small bursts–user names, avatars etc–and celebrate their unconventional behaviors and ideas.