Learning from Our Childhood

What can we as UX and interaction designers learn from our formative years?

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There is much we do not recognise and there is so much we ignore from our immature days of play, learning and discovery. The relevance of some lessons and understanding may not seem immediately apparent, but I believe they are all mightily important to understanding how we all interact socially, with the physical world around us, and with the many many interfaces we come into contact with on a daily basis.

Children predominantly learn about the surrounding world through many forms of play: alone, role play, in groups, but all creative. It is their work, always taken extremely seriously and “is the hallmark of the paradoxically useful uselessness of extended immaturity” (see From butterfly to caterpillar: How children grow up by Alison Gopnik).

Even if the adult and child may be viewed as quite different in their approaches to their surrounding worlds, there are many lessons interaction designers can learn from the behaviours and interactions a child has with its environment; If we only pay attention to the behaviour of adults we are doing our knowledge a great disservice. We were all children and there is much we can learn.

Children’s playings are not sports and should be deemed as their most serious actions – Montaigne

There are many examples of how children view the world. How behaviours change as babies mature and develop. Below I concentrate on a selection that I believe are most useful and relevant to designing for interaction today. This is just the tip of a very large library of reference and study – I include some suggested further reading at the end. Some may not seem immediately relevant but all resound and if not directly helpful in time I am sure will prove invaluable insights.


As designers we accept some ground rules, some levels of presumption on how those we are designing for look, see, and act, but how do small children look at the world around them and the things in it? What can we learn to break our presumptions and possibly work harder to understand a wider range of human ages and types.

Very small children have no concept of where their physicality ends and the world around them begins: when the mother is gone, the mother ceases to exist. It is widely believed the reason why the game of peek-a-boo is so universal is the fact that for small children the game plays out over and over again the lesson of separation.

Children look at things in a particular way. An example. An object appears and catches a small child’s attention. The length of looking indicates the level of interest it has in what it is looking at. The object then disappears and then reappears. If the pattern is ‘predictable’ they will look for X time. If the pattern is broken, say for example it appears higher or lower than anticipated, the baby will look for X + Y time (longer) and can be said to be more interested in the object.

Up until the age of approximately 12-15 months, small children will only ever look at the adult’s finger pointing, not where it is pointing. After this age they start looking in the direction of where the finger is pointing. The human is the only mammal that does this.

This is a fine example of not taking for granted that everyone sees what you expect them to see (or hope they will see). Just because you design something and point people at it doesn’t necessarily mean they will see it the way you anticipated. (Sometimes they will only look at your pointing.)

(Reference: Colwyn Trevarthen)

Hiding and finding

Much like adults striving to work out Paul Annett’s infamous card trick, young children learn how to look and discover where things are, go to and appear. Example: There are two places to hide a ball: either behind point A or behind point B. To begin with a ball is hidden behind point A. Then while the child is watching, take the ball and hide it behind point B. Then ask the young child: “Where is the ball?” The young child will first look behind point A and then move onto looking behind point B. As they mature, they will find the object behind point B at the first attempt.

Object Permanence

At first when the infant can no longer see an object it ceases to exist. Literally ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Example: A small child in a high chair playing with its food. One after the other, it drops the spoon, the plate, the yogurt pot. It never looks down. Just carries on with the discovery of what is in front of it. As the child gets older it will look down having made the connection with the disappearing spoon and so enters the world of object permanence we take for granted when we design for interaction.

We all recognise the importance, power and relevance of scent when designing, ensuring we do not over simplify or presume but guide. Wayfinding is a vital skill for adults but requires education and it is obvious that the foundation is laid when we are children. (More on Wayfinding by Cennydd Bowles Wayfinding Through Technology). Adults have a propensity to look everywhere – that is why they are so complicated to design for. Adults are also a lot more impatient, a trait that should never be lost on designers.

Separation and attachement

Up to around the age of 4-6 months a child is undifferentiatedly attached. It is happy to be held by anyone. After 6 months it becomes attached to one person (usually the mother). Separation anxiety begins. The self is now recognised as separate from the caregiver. For children up to the age of 6 years old, it is widely accepted that separation anxiety is their predominant concern.

(Reference: Attachement Theory)

Theory of mind

It is a huge development in small children when they learn that people see things in a different way and from different angles than themselves. Equally, it is of huge benefit to us as designers to recognise this and understand that at points in our development as humans we see and visualise what is before us with completely different perspectives.

I believe it is one of the great insights into human interaction and behaviour.

For example Jean Piaget’s A, not-B error: Person A hides an object from Person B in Place X. B then goes away. A then moves it to Place Y. When B returns, A asks B where he will look for the object. Up to a certain age, children will say X. Only when they have acquired Theory of Mind will they know that B could not have known what A had done – ie to have the ability to take another’s perspective.

This links to a very poignant example that I think everyone has experienced. Children will stand in front of you when you are watching the television when they want to watch the television too if they haven’t acquired Theory of Mind. They won’t know that what they see, the television screen, is not what you see (their presence blocking the television screen).

Another example is reading a book with a child. The child will hold it so they can see the book. After acquiring Theory of Mind they will hold the book so that you can see the book too (when they have realised that you have a different perspective, sitting in a different position to them).

Preoperational Thought

A fine example of Piaget’s theory is the way young children do not understand that transforming the shape of a liquid (pouring it from one container into another) does not change the amount. Young children fail to understand the significance of the transformation between states.

In front of a 5 year old child, pour the same amount of milk into one squat glass and one tall glass and then ask the child which glass has the most in it? The child will say the tall glass. Again in front of the child, pour the milk out of the squat glass into a new tall glass and the milk out of the first tall glass into a new squat glass. Again, ask the child which glass has the most in it and it will say the tall glass.

(Reference: Theory of cognitive development)


At approximately 6 years old, most children can tell you what they think you want to know. At this early age you can actually conduct an interview with a child. Discourse Analysis becomes possible and a whole world of understanding is underway.

Learning space

Why is it that classrooms in early years adopt open plan shared tables, promoting shared learning and movement, but as children get older classrooms adopt more and more structured layouts (eg rows of desks that discourage easy interaction in the pursuit of ‘serious’ learning)?

In adult working environments the same problem occurs. Even though open plan offices consistently produce innovative and successful working environments which are directly related to successful products, many employers insist on reproducing that scene in The Apartment with Jack Lemmon as an insurance clerk, sitting in rows and rows of desks.

It’s surely obvious that successful learning and working environments are more likely in open plan, free movement layouts – isn’t it?

Food for thought on handling different behaviours

In a classroom a child incessantly taps a pencil on a desk. Rather than scold, tell off, or stop, what is an alternative and progressive reaction? Answer: give all the other children in the classroom pencils too and allow them to tap along to the rhythm.

Another excellent example is a child in a classroom who whenever they move about bumps into desks and other children causing no end of a nuisance. Again rather than scold the child, the teacher gives the child a pair of rollerblades to get about the classroom. In time the child is able to glide about the space without bumping into anyone or anything. The child’s relationship with the other children also greatly improves.

The more varied your experience of human behaviour of any age, the better designer you will be. Accepting that people are different in nature and do not just behave differently is a vital understanding. Is siloing of user types the happy path or should we strive for more thorough exploration and research?

(Full details of these examples can be found in The British Journal of Play Therapy and are reproduced in this post)


The closer attention we pay to the way that children interact with the world around them – whether they are our own offspring and we view them in close proximity or through relations and or friends – the stronger interaction designers we will be. Understanding why a child does something helps us to understand how they might behave as adults. A level of understanding why children interact and behave the way they do will only enhance our work. We see behaviours that we are unsure of their source and sometimes don’t completely understand, but we recognise the patterns. And the more inquisitive and interested we become, the more we will recognise these patterns and connections and begin to more fully understand the variation of adult behaviour and how it can help us in our daily work lives.

Further Reading
DE Winnicott: Playing and Reality, Home is where we start, The child, the family and the outside world
John Bowlby: The making and breaking of affectional bonds, A secure base

This article would not have been possible without the help of PN Trichardt

Images by woodleywonderworks / cc-attribution

Matthew Solle

Matthew Solle is an experience architect at Lab49. He is a strong supporter of the growing UK UX community and co-runs London IA, the largest UX group in London (http://london-ia.ning.com/). He blogs at http://youtheuser.com and can be found on Twitter as @solle.

5 comments on this article

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  3. Sure, interaction design is often about teaching user so it’s always useful to know teaching techniques… :)

  4. Matthew,

    I spent several years working with pre-kindergarten children with learning disabilities. I was constantly amazed by their capacity to create, interact, and quickly learn from their peers and environment. Always curious. Always questioning to understand.

    The greatest advantage that children have over adults is their capacity to see the world with new eyes and excitement every day! I think we lose that as we grow older. As Picasso once noted, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

    I completely agree with your note on learning spaces. Remove the structure that makes up the “Industrial Revolution” environment for learning, and create open spaces where both students and teachers can interact and learn from one another. Our environment has a huge impact on our motivation to learn and share.

    Wonderful article – thank you for sharing! :)

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