Selecting apps to encourage imaginative play

Written by Lisa Kervin, Irina Verenikina, and Clara Rivera

We know how important play is for young children’s cognitive and social development.

Imaginative or make-believe play is particularly important as children explore, experiment and manipulate as they construct knowledge and demonstrate their understanding of the world.

Parents frequently ask us, “what are good apps to get for my child?”

A reasonable question, but unfortunately one that doesn’t have an easy answer. There are so many digital applications (apps) aimed at young children. Many of these apps, produced for entertainment or in the name of learning, are designed to attract children’s attention. But there are varying degrees of quality. When digital apps are well-designed they can be fun, interactive and provide positive experiences. However, many are programmed according to pre-determined and predictable coding scripts – stimulus, do something, advance level, repeat. This type of pattern doesn’t capitalise on the full potential of interactivity nor creativity possible in the digital context.

Imaginative digital play is significantly different from traditional imaginative play. Imaginative play is typically free and self-regulated, whereas digital imaginative play is often shaped by the design features of the app. Children’s digital play therefore, varies significantly in response to the apps they interact with and the opportunities for play these afford. This has led us to consider how digital apps might encourage and support imaginative play and what the characteristics of these apps might be.

In this post we aim to share some criteria we have been working on for some time, to help parents and carers make decisions about app selection to encourage imaginative digital play. To develop this criteria we have drawn upon our understandings of key characteristics of imaginative play (drawing in particular from Vygotsky’s theoretical perspective) and have used these to analyse apps as we looked to the opportunities that these provide for preschoolers to engage in imaginative play. In what follows we present five key criteria to look for when selecting apps. None is more important that the other, but work together to create powerful imaginative digital play experiences.

1. Apps that motivate children and offer a fun experience.

Digital play should be self-motivated and intrinsically fun. Being in control of the play is important. We have found that children enjoy being able to direct their progression through the app and play at their own pace. Reaching goals is less important than the process of the play.

Some questions to guide app selection:

  • Does the app enable the child to do different things in the play (not just the same sequence of activities on repeat)?
  • Does the app motivate the child to learn something new?
  • Is there opportunity to have fun?
  • Does the child play without extrinsic motivation?

2. Apps that inspire children to use their imagination

Apps can make scenarios and opportunities available to children that may otherwise not be possible. They can provide opportunities for children to act in ‘as if’ situations where there is no right or wrong answer or indeed pathway. Children should be able to enact a discovery-oriented path of play where they make choices, problem solve and manipulate items. The child should have the power to choose how to play within the app – how long they spend in particular sections and ways they interact with design elements.

Some questions to guide app selection:

  • What new experiences are offered in the app?
  • Does the app provide “as if” or pretend situations for the child to act in?
  • Is the play risk-free?
  • What choices does the child get to make?

3. Apps that encourage children to interact and play collaboratively with others

Talk is highly important in traditional imaginative play. Social interactions with others during the play are essential to support, validate and extend children’s digital play. The simple presence of others (such as peers, siblings or a parent working from home) alongside the child does not always stimulate meaningful verbal communication. Features of digital interaction, while encouraging sustained play, can also result in ‘interaction’ only with the app itself. Any interactivity should motivate children to play, but to also talk and engage with others. The opportunity to engage in digital play collaboratively rather than as a single player can encourage interaction.

Some questions to guide app selection:

  • Is the child talking and interacting with others while they play?
  • Is talk encouraged during the play?
  • How are others invited into the play? Networked virtually? Physically side-by-side?
  • Is the play shared?

4. Apps that provide opportunity to produce, not just consume

Passively viewing content, even with the cursory tap or swipe, is not meaningful digital play. Children should be able to control the scenario as they input materials from their context and create their own play mementoes.

Some questions to guide app selection:

  • During the play, can the child produce and create their own responses?
  • Is there opportunity to view and create something?

5. Apps that connect with off-screen play

There is a complex relationship between on-screen and off-screen play. In our experience, children seem to be able to move between the two contexts when there is opportunity for connection. We have captured examples where virtual experiences have been recreated in backyards using physical objects.

Some questions to guide app selection:

  • Can the child take their off-screen play experiences into the digital play?
  • Does the digital play lead them to explore new objects or scenarios in their off-screen play?

Children’s ability to play imaginatively are bound within the parameters of the app design. Children need opportunities to engage with these technologies where they control the app, direct the outcome of the experience, have control over the tools within the app, and make real life connections.

Want to know more? You might like to read these papers:

Kervin, L. (2016). Powerful and playful literacy learning with digital technologies. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 39 (1), 64-73.

Kervin, L., Verenikina, I. & Rivera, M. (2015). Collaborative onscreen and offscreen play: examining meaning-making complexities. Digital Culture and Education, 7 (2), 228-239.

Verenikina, I. & Kervin, L. “iPads, Digital Play and Pre-schoolers,” He Kupu: October 2011, 2, (5)

Verenikina, I., Kervin, L., Rivera, M. & Lidbetter, A. (2016). Digital play: Exploring young children’s perspectives on applications designed for preschoolers. Global Studies of Childhood, online first 1-12.

Verenikina, I., Siraj, I. & Kervin, L. (2018). Learning through digital play in the Australian context of early childhood education and care. In N. Veraksa & S. Sheridan (Eds.), Vygotsky’s Theory in Early Childhood Education and Research: Russian and Western Values (pp. 166-178). Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Keen to read more? 

Our researchers and partners produce regular blog posts and research outputs focused on children and digital technology.