A Design Challenge On Kid’s Digital Play

It’s not the screen that’s harmful, it’s how you use it that matters.

Elle Marcus
MassArt Innovation


Photo by Ke Vin on Unsplash

This article is part 1 of 3 in explaining the design process of developing a kid’s digital play experience.

I remember when I was 7 years old I clutched a small, bright red, egg-shaped key chain while walking single file in a line of other 7 years old on our way to recess. More than half the class were also holding Tamagotchis, creating a rainbow of small dots across the playground. We would run around “connecting” our Tamagotchis with one another, frantically making sure we kept our little creature alive. That simple little egg with 3 buttons and no internet connection was my first digital play device.

Today, 7-year-olds can be seen sporting iPads and Nintendo Switches. Kids now have endless methods to connect with one another — methods that don’t involve butting heads of two Tamagotchis. As this technological world develops around us, our MassArt Design Innovation graduate school team decided to take on a challenge put out by CoC Playful Minds and LEGO Ventures: the Future Digital Play Design Challenge.

Digital Play is any method of play that involves a digital device. For this challenge, it involves digital play for kids. Like the growing technology industry, digital play is inevitable. However, this growing trend is sparking concern amongst parents. The parents we spoke to during our research echoed this trend. They wondered if they should restrict their child’s screen time. But by how much? They mentioned reading that screen time should be kept at one hour maximum. But then they had a new concern: how could they maintain this during a pandemic with limited options to occupy their kids? To begin this challenge, we spoke to parents and experts in the kid’s digital play space to learn more about designing a successful and beneficial digital play experience.


My team surveyed 14 parents with kids ranging from age 4 to 14 years old and interviewed 7 parents with kids age 3–10 years old. We also interviewed 3 experts: a design strategist for kid’s games, a kid’s game designer, and a toy store employee.

From the start, we learned from the game designer that in order to have a successful game, it’s important to involve kids in the process and constantly update the play experience according to current trends. We used the Digital Design Guide by the D4CR Association to guide us as we gathered insights from our interviews and observations.

Important factors to keep in mind while designing:

1. The game is accessible (anyone can use it)

3. It makes them feel safe and protected

2. It gives them room to explore and supports their growth

4. It encourages them to be active and play with others

5. Co-create during the design process

6. Do not misuse your game participants’ data

7. Help them recognize and understand commercial activities

8. Use communication they can relate to

Through talking to experts, we learned that some effective ways to gauge if a kid likes a game is to simply observe them. With a pandemic, observing kids in person in their natural play habitat is not advisable. In addition, we quickly learned that interviewing young kids can be ineffective depending on the kid’s age. Our normal approach of “Why do you enjoy this?” was met with “I don’t know”, and further probing was futile. One expert mentioned that during the pandemic, they use an Owl Labs camera to observe kids playing with digital games in their natural environment. However, being graduate students, we had to forego this expensive method. Instead, we interviewed each parent for about 30 minutes and then had them turn the camera on their kid for 15 minutes during playtime. We observed the kids playing, and the parent was able to assist us with asking questions and getting their kid’s attention. For the older kids, getting interviewed seemed to be a fun experience for them. They loved running off-camera and coming back with a craft they made or a toy they liked.

A child we interviewed showing a video game character he made out of paper.

General Observations

First, let’s lump the kids we interviewed into 2 segments: toddler and preschoolers (3–7) and school-aged kids (8–10). According to psychologists, the segmentations based on cognitive development and play style are much smaller ranges. However, due to our small sample size, we will lump them into 2 groups for simplicity.

For the young kids, they didn’t seem interested in socializing with friends. This was strictly an in-person activity. This may be because at this age, kids are learning sensorimotor skills and are very curious about the world around them. Interacting with another child through a screen may not seem as interesting. The game design strategist we spoke to mentioned that they try to pursue ways to insert digital capabilities into physical toys in order to engage more senses.

For older kids, chatting with friends while playing a video game was a common occurrence from our observations. Although in all cases, they were chatting about game strategy and not so much about their lives.

For both age groups, we noticed that kids have the ability to be occupied by toys and games for long periods of time. The young kids were engrossed in their toys, imagining new scenarios and reenacting scenes from movies. One began reciting the entire Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie — and was still going when it was time for me to hang up. The older kids’ parents reported that they can play video games for 3 hours straight before being told to get off the computer. No matter the age group or medium, it seems that kids have found ways to amuse themselves.

In addition, we noticed that if a kid used an iPad for play, it was their own iPad. (Note: we only interviewed parents that can be considered affluent, but a study done by Common Sense Media shows that about 40% of kids have their own iPad.) We noted that this may give the kid a certain level of autonomy, something that the game designer we spoke with stressed was important when they designed games. Kids want to be given the space and freedom to explore and try new things.

Digital play isn’t necessarily damaging. It’s the method of interaction with digital play that’s important.

One parent, we spoke to did not let her kids use digital devices, and she offered some interesting perspectives as to why. She practices a type of parenting called “active parenting”. She is constantly asking her kids critical thinking questions as they interact with the world around them. For example, if her daughter is playing with a horse, she asks: What do horses eat? Where do you think horses live? How many horses do you think there are in the world? She believes a digital, 2D screen makes it harder to perform this type of parenting. If her child plays with physical toys, she’s able to sit next to her child and interact with the toys alongside her.

It was interesting to hear that her reasoning for not using digital devices was not because of the potentially harmful effects of digital devices, but because of how limited she is with her interactions. She also stated the same theme we’ve been hearing across our primary and secondary research: it’s not the digital device, it’s how you use them that matters. Expanding critical thinking and allowing kids to use their imagination, even in digital situations, maybe just as beneficial as methods of physical play that develop the same skills. Any type of play that allows children to use their imagination and develop cognitive skills is a positive type of play.

But digital play does have disadvantages.

One of the reasons video games can be so addictive is because they cause your brain to be in a state of hyperarousal. According to Mayo Clinic, this triggers a fight or flight response that makes it hard to stop playing.

According to the NIH, video games are possibly leading to higher rates of bullying. Games such as first-person shooter games do not help build empathy in kids. Referring back to our psychologist parent, she mentioned that the active parenting style allows her kids to learn how to interact with the people around them. Another parent who battles with her son’s video game addiction has noticed that he is much more irritable after playing video games versus when he’s playing with physical toys.

Narrowing the Scope

After sorting our insights, our team decided to move forward with designing a digital play experience that focused on kids ages 8–10. At this age, kids begin taking a greater interest in connecting with peers through online mediums. They also enjoy picking up experiences where they left off. For example, they enjoy playing online games that they are able to save and continue later. This hopefully will make it easier to gauge how engaging our game is during the testing process since kids are able to better focus on a game and can imagine if it’s something they’d want to play long term.

As previously mentioned, observing and interviewing young kids during a pandemic has been challenging. During the interview process, we received the most effective and articulate feedback from kids age 8–10. Kids younger than this seemed to have a harder time articulating their thoughts.

Given the above, we believe this allowed us the most flexibility and creativity with designing our digital play experience.

After researching this topic and interviewing our users, we sorted through the repeated themes of what we heard. The first theme is that kids are not able to connect with friends during the pandemic and primarily chat by connecting while playing video games. Parents are also concerned about the addictive properties of video games, and games that don’t help them think critically. And finally, physical toys can help build sensorimotor skills and allow kids to be more mobile during playtime.

Based on these insights, we determined a set of factors that we wanted to keep in mind while designing our digital game experience:

  • A safe digital experience that still allows kids to socialize
  • Help develop critical thinking skills
  • Possibly integrate physical and digital play