Introduction

The Internet today is a part of kids’ natural environment. Most children have access to the Internet at school and/or at home. In 2000 there were 55,475,000 U.S. households with personal computers.[11] 99 percent of public schools have access to the Internet.[8] The number of Internet users worldwide is expected to grow to 300 million by 2005, from roughly 150 million currently, according to an estimate by IDC. The greatest growth will be in Asia and South America. The number of online users will rise 61 percent to 95 million in the US, more than double to 88 million in Europe and quadruple to 118 million in the rest of the world. NUA Internet Survey, on the other hand, estimated total number of people online to be 407.1 million in November 2000 .[5] In November 2000 almost 20 percent of all digital media users were children. [4] A recent National School Boards Foundation telephone survey of 1,735 randomly-chosen households showed that children predominantly use Internet at home and in school. [9] In a survey of 10,000 students aged 12 to 24, from 16 countries, Ipsos-Reid Group found Internet to be widely available to Swedish and Canadian students. 78  percent of students in Sweden and 74 percent in Canada are able to go online at school. 80 percent of Swedish children and 71 percent of Canadian students have web access at home. Taiwan ranked third, with 63 percent accessibility at school, followed by the UK, US, Netherlands, Australia, South Korea, Mexico, Japan, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Brazil, and Urban China.[6]
Internet usage by age
Parents and teachers consider Internet to be a primarily educational/developmental tool. The Kids.net study showed that children find the Internet easy to use, and like to use it for fun, games, e-mail, chat and instant messaging. Two-thirds of the children think that it helps them with their learning, and one-third would like to use it for lessons if they were home sick from school. [13] Children also go online for learning activities that are not connected directly with school. The absence of information filters, such as editors and peer reviewing, on the Internet presents a challenge to students, who are using the web to find information for their assignments. Children cannot properly estimate the validity of the information they find on the web. They rely upon search engines and accept information in visually appealing easily accessible pages. [7] Potential exposure of children to controversial information on the web resulted in many practical guidelines on Internet safety for parents and children and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 on the Internet.[1] This act provides an official definition of a website directed to children. However, despite the abundance of web sites for kids, principles of web design for children are not yet well defined. Kids’ active, extensive and rapidly growing presence on the Internet poses both a challenge and an opportunity for researchers and web designers.Where children use internet How teens use internet

As any other user-interface design process, web design for children should start with analysis of the user and the tasks. [10] It is practically impossible to design for children in general. Defining the following age groups as subcategories of children users might be one of the appropriate subdivisions:

  •  3-5 years old pre-readers
    • these children can remember and apply what they have learned a day before. They cannot separate fantasy from reality and live in preoperational world. Their attention span is 8 to 15 minutes [12]
  •  5-8 years old beginning readers
    • 5 – 6 years old children form their identities, play cooperatively, develop fine motor skills. Between ages 6 and 8 child’s world expands beyond the immediate surrounding [3]
  • 8-12 years old children
    • at 9 or 10 children begin to think in abstract terms, become more focused on interactions with others [3]
  • teenagers
    • teenagers like to experiment with new products, but spend less time online than adults [4] 

In general boys and girls are equally involved in the Internet. E-mail, search, and instant messaging are the top three activities for both girls and boys. Both girls and boys participate in contests, chat rooms, and viewing personal home pages. However, girls are more likely to use Internet for education, schoolwork, music and shopping. Boys are more interested in technology, entertainment and games.[9]
Designing for all these age groups requires keeping in mind children and teenagers with disabilities. Presently one out of six students ages 6 to 17 (more than 5 million) have special needs. For an overview of the role of computer technology and the Internet in their education see an article by Ted S. Hasselbring and Candyce H. Williams Glaser at http://www.futureofchildren.org/cct/cct_05.pdf
Tasks domain for children can be roughly subdivided into education and entertainment. These categories tend to overlap so much that the term edutainment was coined to describe software that seeks both to entertain and educate.
Educational tasks include use by teachers for instruction during class time (66 percent of teachers in public schools), assigned research using the Internet (30 percent), complete home schooling or extracurricular courses, expert tutoring or help with homework assignments. Community Learning Network is a good place to find an Internet project for a class (http://www.cln.org/int_projects.html)
A very interesting approach to design for children is designing with children as design partners. Three design methodologies have been proposed for work with children outside the school environment: contextual inquiry, technology immersion, and participatory design.[2] World Kids Network is an attempt to implement this approach on the web. It describes itself as an ongoing project, rather than a website. 80 percent of it is created and maintained by children. (http://www.worldkids.net/)
Webmonkey for kids suggests helping kids with their first steps in web design. This tool and some practical advice from teachers, who are using it in their classrooms can be found at http://hotwired.lycos.com/webmonkey/kids/

 Web design for children builds upon general principles of good web design. Sometimes tradeoffs are necessary, for example, web sites for preschoolers should be almost purely graphical and include audio alternatives for text. At the same time these children will switch to some other activity if nothing happens on the computer screen.
CNET Builder.com [14] proposes ten key dos and don’ts of web design for children

  • Do: Know your target audience
    • Define the age range of the target audience
  • Do: Include interaction
    • Offer chat rooms, e-mail, discussion groups, collaborative storytelling; a possibility to customize the site: change  the computer’s wallpaper, layout; interactive games
  • Do: Be careful with private info
    • Tell children and their parents what information you collect and why. Commercial sites need parental consent before collecting personal information from children 12 years old or younger. [1]
  • Do: Test with kids
    • Find representative children and ask them to perform typical tasks or just watch how they use the site
  • Do: Use characters
    • Characters can present useful, but boring information in a fun easy to learn way
  • Don’t: Be lame
    • Don’t be afraid to address complicated issues, don’t be condescending or boring
  • Don’t: Rely on tired design metaphors 
    • Use straightforward icons and obvious category names for navigation
  • Don’t: Neglect your content
    • Present quality information, update it regularly and change the layout
  • Don’t: Even start if you don’t love kids
  • Don’t: Forget to check out other stuff for kids

Allison Druin and coauthors [2] give practical advice on implementation of the methodologies they suggested for designing with children:
Contextual Inquiry with children

  • Observe children in their own rooms or other familiar to them places
  • Give children time
  • Wear informal clothing
  • Do not stand with young children. Rather than being an authority or outsider, be one of the kids
  • Use an object, such as computer, as a bridge to develop relationship 
  • Ask about their opinions and feelings, show that you need their help
  • Use informal language
  • The interactor must not take notes
  • Note-taking should be very discreet. Use small notepads
  • Note-takers must become a background nonmoving part of the environment

Technology immersion:

  • Give children unlimited time, access to technology-rich environment and freedom of choice to find out what children do  and want.

Participatory design:

  • 7-10 years old children are ideal partners
  • Two or three adults with three to four children form an ideal team
  • Adult-to-adult interaction is as important as adult-to-child and child-to-child interaction
  • Use diverse low-tech prototyping tools: crayons, paper, LEGO blocks, etc.
  • Freely combine this tools 
  • Introduce low-tech prototyping tools as early as possible
  • Children open up faster to informal and playful adults
  • Goals should be flexible

Microsoft team [2] developed guidelines for design of activities, instructions and  screen layout observing children interacting with both successful and unsuccessful interfaces.
Activities:

  •  Design activities to be inherently interesting and challenging
  • Design activities to allow for expanding complexity and support children as they move from one level to the next
  • Design supportive reward structures that take children’s developmental level and context of use into account

Instructions

  • Present instructions in an age-appropriate format
  • Design instructions to be easy to comprehend and remember
  • On-screen character interventions should be supportive rather than distracting
  • Allow children to control access to information

Screen Layout

  • Design icons to be visually meaningful to children
    • The best icons are easily recognizable, look clickable and are at least size of a quarter
  •  Use cursor design to help communicate functionality
  • Use rollover audio, animation and highlighting to indicate functionality

All experts on online education warn that students may get lost in the mass of available information. An interactive concept map is a good solution to this problem.  

  Given the enormous amount of web sites for children of all ages it is not easy to find a good or a useful one. There are some excellent starting points for parents and teachers to find appropriate sites, such as Cool Sites for Kids, a large collection of websites for children and parents reviewed and organized by the American Library Association; Brendan Kehoe’s running catalog of web sites related to kids: The Kids on the Web; Berit Ericson’s best sites for children; Net-mom®’s list organized by interests and many others.
On the other hand several sites might be used by children directly, or with a little help from a parent. 123 Sesame Street online is a great web site for children that very thoughtfully implements many of the mentioned before guidelines. This and other toddlers’ and preschoolers’ websites help parents to enhance creativity in children and offer an excellent opportunity to spend time together.  Some of the sites have very nice ideas and great implementation in general, but can cause frustration because of little details. For example, Tool Shed Trouble at  NickJr.com   is a great idea to teach kids tool names and develop fine motor skills. In this game children have to pick up a tool and place it into its slot, but the ‘hot’ areas seem to be much smaller than the tool shapes, moreover these areas are often obscured by text balloons.
All good sites for under-ten kids offer coloring pages, music, stories and games. Coloring pages range from very simple ones, where one mouse click randomly changes one detail, to somewhat creative, where kids can select colors (Coloring 4 Kids), to more complicated, where  fine motor skills are needed (Arthur: D.W.’s Art Studio). Yahooligans! is a good site for older children to explore on their own. MaMaMedia.com offers very good examples of interaction and visually appealing regularly changing environment. Although Lycos Zone is a great award winning site, it lacks originality. For example it reuses the Sesame Street’s site map.

home page of 123 Sesame street                home page of lycos zone for kids

Funschool.com offers edutainment for preschool, kindergarten, 1st, 2nd ,  3rd/4th, and 5th/6th grades. All above mentioned sites for children require shockwave and load time from one to four minutes, depending on  connection, but they offer some fun activity while the site is loading (funschool offers a tic-tac-toe game or a car race). Funbrain.com is an extensive educational web site, with minimal graphics and relatively useful help and feedback. Even the best educational and homework helpers sites provide little help on how to use the site and no explanations how the correct answer was obtained.  Often graphics seems to be the goal of the designer, rather than an illustration to the problem. Surprisingly there are sites for children almost completely void of illustrations. For example,Storybookonline.net that, in its own words, “presents novels and short stories for children from age 4 to 13” does just that. Below on the left is its idea of a suitable web presentation for the Little Red Cap. On the right is one of the pictures from the slide show that comes with it, when the links are not broken.         little red riding hood text only version          little red riding hood cartoon

The site also offers to look up words. This link leads to  WordNet 1.6 search, which might be not the best choice for a beginning reader. This site needs a better implementation of its many wonderful ideas. 

Conclusions

A web site for children will be truly useful only when the target age group, task and the site’s content  are determined before the design process begins. Involving children into design process and evaluation of the site might be a key to success. Visually rich graphical presentation might well be a vital element in capturing and holding the attention of younger users, but it should add to the effectiveness of the site, and not replace its content. Effective real time help strategies need to be developed. Although many parents and teachers are comfortable with computers, the lack of help and directions regarding software necessary to see the site, absence of walkthroughs and tutorials might deepen the digital divide and/or repel potential users. Rapid development of technology will permit new forms of interaction and collaboration. Children, their teachers and parents need easy to use interactive programming environments to increase their role in creating high quality edutainment. More research is needed to assess the ways in which children interact with internet and its impact on child’s development.

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