In this article, we contribute to child-computer interaction (CCI) as an evolving area of research and design. Our goal is to explore early elementary school students' (K–1) happiness in a learning environment. We collected drawings by children to learn about their perceptions of happiness in the classroom and to consider their experiences with animate and inanimate objects. Our initial research shows that drawings are a useful entry point for envisioning interactive "companion toys" for young children's happiness.
Nel Noddings notes that "happiness and education are, properly, intimately connected. Happiness should be an aim of education, and a good education should contribute significantly to personal and collective happiness" . She also notes that schools today pay some attention to the satisfaction of physical needs. What is missing are the therapeutic interactions that enhance young people's happy experiences in the classroom . Noddings asks, "Why, then, is happiness rarely mentioned as a goal of education?" . Motivated by her question, our goal is to explore ways in which to make schools and classrooms happier places.
Other articles provide insight on how we might do so. Pykhtina et al.  say that interactive and playful teaching methods make schools and classrooms happier places for children. Marcella Campbell  believes that from an early age children develop emotional expressions for people (e.g., their mothers) and inanimate objects (e.g., toys). Inspired by these scholars, we explore the roles that people and inanimate objects play in making classrooms a happier educational environment for children.
Our design and research method was a drawing technique. Asking children to explain their perceptions through a quick drawing is both effective and fun . Hence, we used the drawings in our curation and interpretations to elicit children's perceptions of their happiness while in the classroom.
Over a one-month period, we conducted "sandboxes"—single-session 30-minute drawing workshops with individual children—engaging 22 first graders (six- and seven-year-olds) to draw their favorite toys, places, animals, or animate or inanimate objects that made them happy in the classroom. Each sandbox was conducted in a laboratory school, a pre-K–12 inquiry-based, university-affiliated school. The environment was one with which the children were familiar and comfortable. The research was approved by our internal ethics review board, and all participants, including parents and teachers, gave informed consent for the study to be conducted.
The school's art teacher assisted us in clustering and interpreting the children's drawings. As we categorized the drawings, four broad clusters emerged, aligning them with the children themselves and their families, pets, and playthings.
We present the children's drawings as artistic contributions in the following sections.
Self-portraits. Drawings 1, 2, and 3 are by three young girls. The girls mentioned that they are observant of themselves in comparison with female classmates, and that that awareness enables them to develop a version of themselves based on their likes and dislikes.
Although the drawings show a resemblance to the girls in real life, they involve more-vibrant colors, for instance brightly colored, Rapunzel-length hair. The girls mentioned that thinking about modifying their appearance based on their likes and dislikes enhances their imaginations and self-image, which makes them happy while at school.
Families. Drawing 4 is a family portrait by a girl, depicting her parents and younger sister. The girl indicated that this visual reminder of her family makes her happy during the school day and eager to go home and spend time with them. Drawing 5 is by a boy whose parents are divorced. It shows the boy's sister, who lives apart from him with their mother. The boy said he felt happy when thinking about spending more time with his sister. She had given him a doll, whose rosy cheeks he liked, as a reminder of her. When the boy washed the doll in the washing machine, its cheeks were discolored; he said that he wished he had not washed it.
Pets. Three girls made drawings 6, 7, and 8, depicting their family pets, including three cats and a dog. Drawings 6 and 7 show a light brown cat and a dark brown dog, respectively. The two blue cats in drawing 8, one of which has a humanlike body and stance, represent more-imaginary animals. The girls said that they love their pets and that thinking about them while in the classroom encourages positivity and happiness. They expressed their wish that they could bring their pets to the classroom to accompany them throughout the day.
Playful things. Drawing 9 is of a boy's Nintendo Switch. Thinking about it and the games he can play after school makes him happy. Drawings 10 and 11 illustrate the love of two boys for playing with imaginary animate/inanimate toys. Drawing 10 resembles a humanlike ant, while drawing 11 shows a humanlike bird. The boys indicated that they would like to spend more time in class drawing fictional toys because it would keep them motivated.
A boy captured his love of cars and trucks in drawing 12. He noted that he dreams about the day when he can drive a truck, which would bring him extreme joy.
Drawing 13 is by a girl who loves the soft yellow pillow she cuddles at night and that makes her feel safe and unafraid of nightmares. The girl said that throughout the day she misses her yellow pillow and that thinking about it gives her happiness and comfort.
Drawing 14 is of a Halloween party. The boy who drew it said his memory of the party is the happiest one of the past year. He mentioned that thinking about various Halloween costumes and characters makes him happy and motivated for the next Halloween.
Drawing 15 is by a boy who loves robots. It was also inspired by his favorite cartoon characters. He said that creating the game depicted in the drawing keeps him enthusiastic about school and homework.
Drawings 16, 17, 18, and 19 are by four boys. These images capture the school playground (drawing 16), a zoo playground (drawing 17), an amusement park (drawing 18), and a candy shop (drawing 19). The boys said that thinking about those four places generates the most happiness for them.
In drawing 20, a boy depicted his house surrounded by pets and homemade food as a happy reminder of his life with his family, whom he considers the best people in the world.
Drawing 21 is by a girl who was happy when she looked out the classroom window and saw a giant rainbow. She said that seeing the rainbow while at school meant a lot to her.
In drawing 22, a girl expressed her enthusiasm for math games and solving math problems. Her dream is to become a mathematician. She likes her dog, she said, but math is her favorite topic. She indicated that doing math makes her less sad about her parents' divorce, which has led to members of her family living in different homes.
We are inspired by the research and design of playful animate and inanimate objects for a happier educational environment. Hence, we probed children's drawing to explore their companionship or interpersonal relationships with interactive animate and inanimate things in relation to their happiness in the classroom.
Sooyeon Jeong and Cynthia Breazeal  believe that "companion robots" enhance people's emotional well-being (i.e., happiness) through their apparent companionship with humans. Our drawing workshops revealed that children's happiness in the classroom was encouraged through their interpersonal relationships with their families, pets, toys, and other items. In addition, the children's personalization of their drawings showed that their imagined journeys through happiness were assisted by their companionship with these animate and inanimate things.
Our interpretation of children's drawings further generalizes and extends the interplay between so-called companion robots and our "companion toys." This is also a useful entry point for envisioning playful and interactive companion toys for children's happiness in the classroom.
Next steps for this work include exploring the aspects of interaction design for companion toys with the purpose of creating happier spaces for children in the classroom.
We thank all the children and teachers for their participation and inspiration. Their contribution to this study is greatly appreciated.
2. Pykhtina, O., Balaam, M., Wood, G., Pattison, S., Kharrufa, A., and Olivier, P. Magic land: The design and evaluation of an interactive tabletop supporting therapeutic play with children. Proc. of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, New York, 2012, 136–145.
4. Nicol, E. and Hornecker, E. Using children's drawings to elicit feedback on interactive museum prototypes. Proc. of the 11th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children. ACM, New York, 2012, 276.
5. Jeong, S. and Breazeal, C. Toward robotic companions that enhance psychological wellbeing with smartphone technology. Proc. of the Companion of the 2017 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction. ACM, New York, 2017, 345–346.
Rojin Vishkaie is an assistant professor of interaction design at the Design School at Arizona State University. Her research currently focuses on user-centered design for interactions and experiences aimed at social innovation and impact. [email protected]
©2021 ACM 1072-5520/21/07 $15.00
Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.
The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.