How many of those new ideas have actually been developed with children? Not many. In one of his discussion papers, researcher Ben Williamson of the NESTA FutureLab in the UK suggests only five percent of US companies that develop technologies or products for kids actually involve them at all during any of the phases of their design process. 

Children can have a significant impact as co-designers of solutions. “Children are full of surprises and challenges without which the creative process will stultify”, says Anne Wood, founder and creative director of the British production company Ragdoll (internationally known as the creator of Teletubbies).

According to Wood, “it is such a pity that the fresh eye that children bring to the world and everything in it is not acknowledged in the world generally. In our view, the world loses a great deal by not listening to children.”

Jakub Wejchert, vision and strategy advisor at the European Commission within the Information Society Directorate believes “children’s ideas should be seen as a valuable input to many decision making processes”.

Wejchert has led a research program called Experimental School Environments that looked at the issue of children in the design process. According to Wejchert, there is a lot to be learnt from children’s free outlook on things.

“They can be alarmingly honest and direct, and express deep feelings that many adults have learnt to suppress. You know the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Well I think that says it all!”

How come then, that such potential goes blatantly underutilised in commercial creative processes?

Professor Allison Druin, who pioneered a proactive involvement of children in the design process in her research programs at the University of Maryland (USA), believes that the main issue is timing.

“As a collaboration between adults and children grows, in time, children begin to see themselves as researchers and adults as partners. But it can take as long as six months for the team to move from ‘wondering how this is done,’ to planning ‘what will be done’”, says Druin.

Nor is time the only hurdle. Wejchert quotes the necessity of an ethically minded approach as a challenging element in the development of creative partnerships with children.

He recalls that during the development of the Experimental School Environments projects, there were always a teacher and a psychologist present in the creative sessions. “This was done to ensure that children were not put under some form of unfair pressure, and that what we were doing with them was appreciated by the teachers from an educational standpoint.

"Children have ideas but they are not adults! What is appropriate for an adult may not be for a child. Children played a part in our research, but we approached them with a caring, ethical attitude”. Which, obviously, requires time and personal commitment.

Wejchert is concerned about the issue of intellectual property when a company decides to ‘go commercial’ with ideas developed with children. “How would their IPR be accredited?” wonders Wejchert.

“There is a difference between an educational research project and a commercial venture. If you are developing products for children as a company then you have to take into account a lot different people as users, apart from solely kids: parents, teachers, psychologists etc. In such cases, both the ethical and the ownership models need to be sorted out carefully.”  

The most established role for children in design is that of users. Children are observed, videotaped or tested before, during and after they use a certain technology or product.

Their experiences are collected through qualitative surveys that register their likes, dislikes, difficulties and interest areas. The impressions of the teachers and the other adults who are participating in the experiment are also recorded.

This three-fold type of analysis helps researchers understand the impact that the product has on the child’s learning experience, and to develop recommendations for its future development.

The limitations of this type of approach are mainly in the little input that kids have to the technology development process and in their possible discomfort at being observed and monitored.

Nonetheless, this methodology tends to be the most widely used because it requires less investment of time and provides concrete results even after a one-off session. 

Whilst the results of research carried out with children as users of finished solutions can only provide recommendations for future ranges, by playing a role as testers, children contribute to steer the work of developers in the right direction at a much earlier stage – mainly during prototyping.

Of course, also in this case, kids are not involved neither in the initial brainstorm sessions nor in the design phase.

Companies like LEGO follow this type of approach: “We often involve children in our creative processes when we develop new concepts”, says Mette Uhd Hansen, who is responsible for Corporate Communications of LEGO Europe.

At LEGO, children are often involved in the idea generation phase (they are shown sketches, asked questions and observed in their playing) and in the early prototyping phase (when they are presented with product mock-ups).

“It is very important for us at LEGO to understand children’s behaviors and choices and thus inspire our designers in the development process.” 

The methodologies used to involve kids at LEGO depend on the issues and concepts in question. Continues Hansen: “I would say that children are more testers than co-developers of ideas in our research. It is our experience that we receive the best inputs from consumers when they have a concrete thing to relate to."

Far more time and commitment is required when dealing with children as informants. Within this role, children are involved in the creative product development process at its very early start – they are observed while playing, interacting with existing technologies, and sharing experience with their friends. The information gathered from such observations will then be used to steer the product development.

At IKEA, designers are in constant contact with users, and they use their input for the creative design process. “Our target group is newborn to seven years of age.

"We mainly learn from observing children and from discussing our ideas with professionals who know a lot about children’s development” says Sarah Entwistle, who manages the Swedish furniture manufacturer’s communications in Australia.

“They help us understand how the environment affects them, what we can do to compensate for the stress in children’s lives and how we can stimulate and enable play in peoples’ homes.” 

The methodologies that IKEA uses include kids play panels and test groups, during which children play with the products. “Here we get immediate responses,” continues Entwistle.

“We do home-tests where parents also give their input and tell us what children do and like in the long run. We do similar tests at day-care centres.”

“We also carried out some research projects that involved children in the actual creative process,” explains Entwistle. One of these projects was developed in partnership with the Cognitive Institute of the University of Lund (Sweden).

“Here we measured what was more attractive to children when it comes to what they see. Is the shape more important than colour? What colours are most attractive? What patterns, details, textures?

"We compared the children’s eye movements while observing pictures to what they later choose as favourite toys, and to statements that they made in interviews. This gave us interesting data about children’s preferences.

"We have also done other activities were children have been the creators. With the help of some of our designers, we invited children to invent new products with functions they thought were missing.

"This resulted in some fun postcards with ‘impossible’ products, like water cans with three spouts, a cutlery with fork and knife in the same tool, etc. It did not result in any real products.”

At the University of Maryland, Druin has been working with children as design partners for many years – clearly solely on a research level.

Twice a week, children aged seven to eleven join the researchers of the university, thus forming an ‘intergenerational team’. Creativity spurring methodologies, traditionally used by adults, such as brainstorming, interviews, sketching and so forth, had to be adapted to fit the needs and requirements of such an alternative group of product developers.

For instance, interviews with children need to be as unobtrusive as possible: everything from the dress code of the researchers to the size of the note pads that they use, from the way they pose their questions to the way they receive the answers needs to be fine-tuned to suit the kids’ requirements.

What Druin found, in general, was that the phase of negotiation within the new ‘power structure’ required much longer than anticipated – from both the adults’ and children’s point of view. 

The initial approach to sharing the design process with kids may start with the joint development (adults and children together) of ways to enhance an everyday object. This is very important, according to Ben Williamson, in making the context in which children have to act as ‘authentic’ as possible.

Only in this way, he argues, will it be possible for them to acquire an authentic learning, a learning that they cherish as valuable and important, and that will ultimately stimulate their imagination and creativity.

Throughout all these methodologies, adults do not give assignments to the children; the whole intergenerational team decides on the goals and participate in collaborative design activities – such as low tech prototyping, writing and sketching on journals. 

A similar methodology was used by European researchers engaged in the Experimental School Environments’ program. Within this program there were two interesting applications, totally codeveloped with children: POGO (developed by Philips Design,
in collaboration with the University of Siena, Italy) and KidsStory (that involved almost one hundred children and twenty-five adult researchers from the University of Nottingham, UK and the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden).

The purpose of both research projects was to imagine and develop, together with children, technological solutions for storytelling. It is quite interesting, in this respect, to see that both research groups arrived at fairly similar solutions. Both KidsStory and POGO use computers (properly camouflaged) in connection with LCD projectors, and a series of tools that allow children to take snapshots, make videos and drawings, record sounds.

Each piece of information (be it a sketch, a photo or some music) is digitally stored on a token and can be retrieved whenever it is required for the development of the story. With POGO, the use of physical objects, together with ‘virtual’ ones is also encouraged.

Research that involved children as co-developers formed the basis for the creation of Teletubbies and all other TV productions developed by Ragdoll.

Repetition, slowness, baby talk, coupled with an amazed look upon objects, and with the use of videos featuring real-life scenes performed by children themselves were specifically developed following an approach in which children actually contributed to the creation of the ideas.

“We are constantly in touch with children. They truly are co-developers of our programs,” explains Anne Wood, founder and creative director of Ragdoll. “We employ three full-time staff in our Outreach Program and in addition, run a full time Play Space for children and their carers at our headquarters in Stratford upon Avon (UK).

"We constantly engage children in creative conversations of all kinds from workshops to one-to-one correspondence.” 

The knowledge and understanding of kids, that a research-based approach brings along, through time, is also potentially useful when developing products for adults.

Some of the insights gathered during the POGO experience about the ways in which kids interact and relate to technology was used, for instance, in developing a real application for hospitals, targeted to all sorts of patients.

It is the so-called Ambient Pavilion, designed by Philips: an environment for hospitals where the settings in which the scanning procedures take place can be adjusted by the patient, using a content tag – hence a very similar approach to the one displayed in the prototype POGO.

Each tag releases a cocktail of projections, animations and sounds that engage patients (young and old), and allows them to relax during a potentially stressful experience.

After all, do we not all believe that a child’s outlook on life could help us make a better world?  

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