How Children Learn: The Four Factors of Intrinsic Motivation

From: Child Development 101 for the Developers of Interactive Media
First edition, 1996. Revised January 6, 2006 by Ellen Wolock, Ed.D, Ann Orr, Ed.D. and Warren Buckleitner, Ph.D.
© 2006 Active Learning Associates. All rights reserved.

The efficiency of children’s learning is increased when they have a stake in the task. It is theorized that intrinsic motivation plays a critical role in the degree to which a child will become engaged with an activity. Several factors have been identified by motivation theorists (Weiner, 1986, White, 1959; Maehr, 1983; Stipek, 1986; Lepper, 1973 to name a few) as being central to the development of intrinsic motivation attributes in a learner's behavior. These factors can be used as a framework for understanding a child's actions when he or she is using software or for assessing the overall quality of the software.

1. Enjoyment — Children choose activities that they like to do, and avoid activities that are frustrating, static or boring.
Implications for software design: First of all, when designing an activity, make sure the child finds initial success within the first 10 to 20 seconds of play. Sign-in screens should be intuitive; the first activities easy and fun. Nothing kills enjoyment faster than failure. Secondly, don’t underestimate kids. Some designers think that children don’t pay attention to fine details because they are too young (“don’t worry ... these are just little kids”). Put yourself in the child’s shoes— would you want to play the activity you are designing? Walt Disney understood that the process of creating a successful children’s film is just as difficult as that of creating a film for adults. Disney films appeal to all ages, stand the test of time and are watched over and over again. Similarly, the success of The Living Books and the Humongous programs can be tied in part to their clever use of animation and humor, which aren’t used randomly or without purpose. When software is easy to use and respectful of children, kids are more likely to enjoy it and use it.

2. Control — Children avoid activities in which they have no control. Good software increases children’s feelings of control by providing an environment where their actions have impact. Implications for software design: First, good software sends instant, snappy control messages (such as an action or audio cue) with each mouse click. A crisp, responsive interface increases feelings of control. Avoid trying so hard to grab the child's attention with music, video or animation that the program’s responsiveness suffers. Second, good software allows many opportunities for child input. Why are programs like Kid Pix such favorites? Because every action the child makes results in something happening on screen. The child is leading the way, not the software. Third, good software also always leaves an intuitive “back door” or “go back” icon that is in a consistent place on every screen. Once a child understands that he or she can reverse a choice or decision, they are more likely to explore further or try a harder challenge.

3. Interest — Children are more likely to engage in an activity when their interest has been sparked.
Implications for software design: First, remember that the adage “variety is the spice of life” holds true for software design. Make sure that each play offers something new or incorporates open-ended elements. Children love surprises and novelty. Don’t make a “one time through and we’re done” program. Second, get to know as many real live kids as you can. What are they interested in? Fads come and go, but kids always want software with characters they can relate to, good story lines, quality music, humor, and familiar items and themes. Programs about animals, for instance, fly off our review shelves. Likewise, adventure programs are always appealing.

4. Feelings of Competence — Children develop feelings of competence if they think they have a reasonable chance of success.
Implications for software design: It is the developer’s responsibility to provide children with materials and activities that are at or near their developmental level. This, of course, refers to program content, but also to its design as well. Make sure you understand the notion of “minimum user competency.” In other words, the challenge should be in the activity itself, not in the physical operation of the program (non-intuitive icons, reading required when the target audience is preschool, etc.) Another important concept to understand is that of “motivation inertia.” In other words, make sure your software includes elements that build on previous success, allowing greater challenge that is tailored to the child’s abilities. Appropriate pacing and leveling of activities is critical— too fast, and the child builds a failure bank rather than competence bank. Too slow, and the intrinsic motivation wanes. Regarding the latter scenario, if extrinsic reinforcers are used such as “nice job” or “try again,” make sure they don’t slow the pace of the activity (especially when there is a timed element). Teachers have learned that one of the most effective punishments is “time out”, because children hate to wait, yet that’s exactly what some software design does.



• Use rollovers and other “tangible” techniques to foster feelings of empowerment. Things like eyeballs that follow the cursor.
• Make the stuff on the screen that catches your eye have a function. The biggest resource you have is a child’s immediate attention (or the first slide, using the preoperational metaphor).
• Provide pointers to the hot spot.
• Use audio to amplify the actions.
• Use “hot spice” that is related to the task at hand.
• Provide status indicators that are meaningful to a child (moving down a path).
• Make it clear when it is “your turn.”

• Clutter the screen with nonfunctional art. Save the frosting for the DVD.
• Underestimate the role of sound in the design.
• Use reinforcements that have no relation to the task. Often times, you can kill two birds with one stone.

Additional reading

Randy Kulman, a developmental psychologist, has been working on what he calls "executive functions" with games. He writes:

"We have recently conducted two pilot studies, one examining the use of brain-training games such as Big Brain Academy and Brain Age in the development of planning and working memory skills. The second study involves the use of Guitar Hero to assess its usefulness for increasing processing speed for youngsters who have difficulty with work completion in the classroom. I have teamed with members of the Psychology and Information Sciences departments at the University of Rhode Island to start on some new studies for this coming summer. (personal email, Sept. 2008).