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What Would Sesame Street Do?

by Tracy Bissette on April 27, 2011

What Online Pre-School Games Teach us about Adult E-Learning Design

I have two daughters: ages six and eight. When they each turned two, I introduced them to Sesame Street’s online games. Sesame Street provides free online games designed for children on topics such as potty training, learning the alphabet, counting, identifying patterns, and more.

They became instantly engaged with these learning games and over the years, have continued to learn new topics on other sites such as Discovery Kids, BBC Schools, Nick Jr., Poptropica, PBS Kids and more. Many elementary schools are recognizing the teaching power of these games and are incorporating them into the curriculum.

So what makes this e-learning so fun? And what are the instructional strategies when a child can’t yet read? Let’s take a look at a few examples.

This Cookie Monster game teaches pattern recognition. The object of the game is for the learner to click on the food on the shelf that completes the pattern. The instructions are explained verbally by Cookie Monster. When the learner clicks on the correct food, Cookie Monster identifies the pattern, modeling the thought process, and then the conveyor belt loads the food into the bag. Finally, Cookie Monster eats all of the food in the bag and more food appears on the conveyor belt.

Why is this game motivating? It grabs their attention right away, very simple graphics, a grocery store scenario that young children are familiar with and the reward of seeing Cookie Monster gobble everything up. It also builds their confidence by allowing them to try until they get it right. The ARCS Motivation theory is implemented well.

Notice that there is no upfront instruction explaining the concept of patterns to children. There is no complex introduction about how to navigate through the game or listing the objectives. And there is no text. The children are able to start playing immediately. The instruction is through modeling, clear explanation of the decision-making processes, trial and error and repetition. These games are also brief. You won’t find any two-hour learning modules on these sites. It works with children; couldn’t it work for adults?

Many adult e-learning programs contain a “Resources” area where learners can explore more about the topic. But what do you find in that section? Text-based PDFs available for download. How many learners actually download and read these documents? How are resources for children different? PBS Kids has several dinosaur-themed games for children. To explore more about the dinosaurs, children click on Field Guide. The field guide is intuitively designed with the menu at the left and sections at the right. The menu is primarily visual, although simple supporting text is added. The instruction is delivered through a combination of verbal explanation and simple graphics. For example, the size of each dinosaur is taught by saying and showing how many kids high he was.

The next time you find yourself faced with an instructional design challenge, you might want to begin by asking yourself, “What would Sesame Street do?”

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