Kids iPad

Age APPropriateness – How to Design Educational Games for Diverse Age Groups

During my first postdoc, I worked closely with middle school science teachers. “I love this age,” one teacher said. “They are beginning to think analytically, and it’s really interesting to see that develop.” While middle schoolers (grades 6-8, usually between 11 and 14 years of age) have already achieved more obvious developmental milestones earlier in childhood, children around age 12 are undergoing a subtle, yet substantive change in their cognitive development. As Jean Piaget’s classic theory posits, the “formal operational” stage that begins around this age includes the emergence of the ability to think abstractly and to reason hypothetically. It was certainly true that my approach to designing learning materials for these students had to come from entirely different perspectives than those I designed for preschoolers, who were my main focus during graduate school.

Questions of age and developmental appropriateness come up often as I am now designing mobile learning games and educational applications for kids ages 5-13. How do we design challenging, yet engaging activities for kids of diverse age groups and vastly different stages of development? Which principles of learning must we keep in mind while doing so?

Although I am still quite new to the mobile learning industry, here is a brief glimpse into the philosophy that I subscribe to. When I am tasked with developing a plan for learning, I first assess the target age range of the product (i.e., game, activity, lesson, or application), and then look at the specific corresponding age-related developmental milestones as documented in the research literature. For example, while designing a game involving shape, color, and number for pre-kindergartners through first graders, I relied on my knowledge of geometric and numeric development in preschoolers. I then asked a good friend of mine about the acquisition of color words and concepts in young children, as she studied this very topic for her dissertation. In the event that I was to design an activity geared more toward an older audience (let’s say 11-12 year olds), my approach would need to differ based on the cognitive abilities (i.e., abstract thinking and analysis) and interests of kids in that age bracket. A geometry game for kids this age might involve decomposing 3-dimensional shapes and mathematical problem solving, while the kindergarten version requires simple categorization.

I think it’s fair to say that learning is rarely one-size-fits-all. As the mobile learning space grows, it is my hope that claims ostensibly based in science become more than just buzzwords, and that more attention is paid to known developmental milestones as well as other strongly supported theories rooted in well-designed and executed research.

Picture: by Ernst Vikne

Alicia Chang is EDUKWEST's Science & West Coast Editor. She is a cognitive and developmental psychologist (Ph.D., UCLA, 2008) with research interests in language and cognitive development, the effects of language and culture on cognition, and cognitive science applications to STEM education. She lives and works in Silicon Valley. You can follow her on Twitter @aliciac and Google+.

  • Semira

    Alicia – I love your methodical approach. I’m curious about what research literature you find yourself relying on most heavily for the pre-k and kindergarten age group? There is a lot out there; are there go-to references that you would recommend? Thanks!

    • Alicia

      Hi Semira, thanks for your question! I’m a psychologist by training, so I always go to the primary sources – peer-reviewed empirical articles. Some go-to journals for me include Psychological Science, Child Development, Developmental Psychology, and Developmental Science. Please let me know if you have any other questions!

  • Anonymous


    5-13 is a huge gap, and I completely agree that it does really present a huge problem to try to cover this gap with a single game. As an aside, I wonder how many discreet levels you see in this age gap?

    I am working on developing board games for language learning in the 7-year old group. It is my observation that there can be a great deal of variability in this group but I also find that kids at this age are more like 12-year olds than 5-year olds. Amazing what a difference two years can make! With the right scaffolding (from a slowly unfolding game and a nurturing adult) I think they can begin to approach what a 12-year old can achieve.

    Last time we spoke, we talked about opening up games so that they can be played in combination with parents (or the like). The reason I like board games is that they are inherently social and can be “rigged” in a way that makes learning from adults possible. Board games also (and importantly) let you observe how others play so kids can watch and learn from them. This social feedback is very powerful stuff and a great enhancement to learning.

    The only problem with playing with humans is that we get discouraged easily if we lose which I guess rarely happens with machines. Or does it? Do you have to let kids always win? How do you approach the notion of winning and losing with different age groups?

    • Alicia

      Hi Mike! I am terribly sorry that it has taken me so long to get back to you! According to the traditional Piagetian view, ages 5-13 actually encompasses up to 3 stages of cognitive development. There are certainly many things to consider when designing activities with such a wide age range in mind. One method is to try to have enough of a range in terms of levels so a younger child will be entertained with just the first few while an older child can skip ahead to more challenging levels.

      I agree that interactivity with direct social feedback is very important to learning.

      I’m not sure if playing against a computer is necessarily less discouraging than humans, however. I have seen children get really frustrated playing console games to the point where they throw down the controller in exasperation. But I don’t see this type of reaction as all negative, either. Imagine if we could get them so focused in trying to learn a new concept!

      So for me, it’s less about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ a game, especially when learning is involved. Both positive and negative feedback can be learning experiences.