Schooled by 5-8 Year Olds: STOP TALKING TO ME!

Soon after we completed our first round of beta testing with our very first version of DreamBox (think 40 games as compared to our current 350+), I attended an incredible conference called Dust or Magic, an annual Children’s New Media Design Institute, organized by Warren Buckleitner, editor of the Children’s Technology Review. Buckleitner has reviewed thousands of children’s technology products in order to accomplish his mission: to help parents, librarians, and teachers find quality interactive media/technology products for children.

As Buckleitner talks, he tells stories. Stories about toys that talk, even when one isn’t playing with them. Have you ever been eating dinner and heard some toy on the ground start singing a song? The toy is shouting, “Play with me.” He talked about kids wanting control of the game and their need to think as they play. Often toys interrupt kids’ thinking, which interferes with their ability to continue their own creativity and growth. This made so much sense. And we had made this mistake in our earliest version of the product!

DreamBox Online Learning: The Nuts and Bolts of our Math Education Software


Luckily, we only had 40 math games built. We went back to each one and dramatically changed our use of audio instruction. We replaced the long, explicit directions before each game with a simple introduction, often  a single line of audio. We implemented a Help button. If kids want more instruction, they’ll ask for it.

Click on Help once and you’ll hear quick, simple one- or two- sentence directions. Click on Help twice and you’ll receive more explicit how-to directions. Are you finished with the directions or other audio hints? The help button often becomes a Skip button. Press Skip and the audio stops. Tired of the background music? Turn it off by clicking on the little speaker in the top right corner of the screen. Basically, we empower our young users to choose how much noise they want while playing our online math learning game.

Another surprise: many parents prefer the old way! They want to be told exactly how to complete a game, with a sample problem and all. Ultimately, we deferred to the kids. (Shhh. Hey parents — click Help twice and you’ll still get the explicit directions!)