Designing an interactive online play-and-learn environment for young children

By: Ellen Rohaan and Rutger van de Sande

The COVID-19 crisis has caused an enormous boost in the use of online social learning technologies in education. This can be seen as a positive effect regarding the development towards more hybrid forms of education. However, the online tools that are mostly currently used in education  (e.g. MS Teams, YouTube, Facebook, Zoom) have serious limitations, especially when it comes to younger pupils in primary schools (aged 4 to 7). For this group, playing and learning through social interactions is of great importance for their development and, consequently, curricula for these age groups focus on social-emotional and motoric rather than cognitive skills. Besides, while their verbal communication skills are not yet fully developed, the widely used online tools heavily rely on this way of communication. Furthermore, the urge to move while playing and learning is much stronger in younger children. And last but not least: young children learn through play. 

In our opinion, an online play-and-learn environment that better fits the needs of young children, hence that supports play, movement and interaction, would be highly beneficial, not only in times of a COVID-19 crisis, but also in other situations when face-to-face contact is impossible. As a result, we have recently started a project called ‘Exploring Effective Social Learning Technologies For Young Children’ in the Netherlands. The main goal of this design-oriented research project is to develop a proof of concept of an interactive online play-and-learn environment for young children in which they experience real play with peers.

But how would that environment look like? What (social learning) technologies would be useful to integrate? During several expert meetings and brainstorm sessions we gradually formed a rough picture of the ingredients. First of all, the online environment should have a focus on play. Options for communication in the environment should be less verbal and more diverse. For instance, visual and tactile information could be used to connect with each other. Clearly, we do not want to design a ready-to-use online game, but we aim at designing a tool that facilitates interaction while playing.  

In play, it is essential that children can form and adapt their own rules. By presenting simple cues, we want to slightly influence their play in certain directions, but not control it. In other words, the environment should have enough ‘degrees of freedom’ and enhance children’s engagement. Some examples of technological ingredients that might support the online environment are a camera and screen, VR glasses, AR apps, and kinetic devices. With these initial thoughts, we will soon start with the next phases in our project: ideation and experimentation. We are looking forward to it! Our driver is not the possibility of another pandemic. Our main aspiration is for the play-and-learn environment which we are creating to encourage play among children worldwide.

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