Deep thinking

XVI.2 March + April 2009
Page: 27
Digital Citation

LIFELONG INTERACTIONSEmbodied child computer interaction

Alissa Antle

back to top 

When I first read Paul Dourish, I was intrigued and compelled to learn more about the nature of embodied cognition. I was also interested in finding ways to apply embodied cognition to my research in child-computer interaction—where goals often involve the facilitation of engaged and playful learning rather than supporting adult work practices. After reading several more books, numerous articles, and having many conversations with colleagues, I came to that familiar place in human computer interaction research where I asked, but how do I apply these ideas? I was reminded of a paper on physical affordances entitled, "But How, Donald, Tell Us How?" [1]. Only this time, it was "But how, Paul, tell us how to use ideas about embodiment in interaction design for children?"

The first answer to this question came up in cases in which embodied cognition was used as an analytic lens to view users' interactions with existing products and systems. Consideration was given to a larger unit of analysis than a single mind; the social and physical environment, both computational and noncomputational, were scrutinized. However, I was not satisfied. I wanted to understand what embodied cognition meant for me as a designer and a design researcher. What were the consequences for design? This article presents some of my ideas on how embodiment matters to those who design children's interactive technologies.

back to top  Embodied Cognition and Children

There has been a rethinking of the nature of cognition for more than 50 years in philosophy and about 15 in human computer interaction research. Embodiment means how the nature of a living entity's cognition is shaped by the form of its physical manifestation in the world. An embodied perspective on human cognition foregrounds the role of the body, physical activity, and lived experience in cognition. Put simply, embodied cognition emphasizes how the particulars of human bodies acting in complex physical, social, and cultural environments determine perceptual and cognitive structures, processes, and operations. In contrast to traditional views of cognition, an embodied approach suggests that humans should be considered first and foremost as active agents rather than as disembodied symbol processors.

This shift is an extremely important development, one that has been underappreciated in human computer interaction research in general and in child-computer interaction research in particular. Yet a wealth of developmental psychology and media-studies literature provides evidence for the importance of understanding the role of action and the environment in the development of children's thinking skills. Jean Piaget began a long tradition when he suggested that cognitive structuring through schemata accommodation and assimilation requires both physical and mental actions [2]. More recently, social scientist Jane Healy argues for the importance of physicality in childhood. She suggests that children's increased access to TV and video games reduces the amount of time they spend in physical, sensorial, and perceptual activities that foster awareness of relationships in the world, awareness that is crucial to their cognitive development [3]. Designers of digital media for children can benefit from understanding and supporting the ways in which physicality influences cognitive development. Whether interacting with computation through a mouse and keyboard, a tangible user interface, or a handheld device, an embodied perspective on cognition both broadens and changes the focus of design of children's technologies. Conversely, a lack of understanding of the importance of embodiment can lead only to an impoverished view since it ignores the way children (and all humans) create meaning through action.

back to top  Foundations: Embodied Cognition

A number of books have appeared that detail this shift in thinking about cognition. Three in particular are highly relevant for the HCI and design communities: Where the Action Is, by Paul Dourish [4], Being There, by Andy Clark [5], and Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson [6]. Taken together, these works present some important concepts that are particularly relevant for designers of children's interactive technologies.

In general, the embodied cognitive processes of children mirror those of adults. However, the development of such processes depends on children's specific and age-related physical characteristics, their inherited abilities, and their practical activities played out in a physical and social environment. The following ideas from embodied cognition are important in understanding how cognitive development in children depends on their interactions with the world.

Exploiting external scaffolding: restructuring the spatial environment. The first idea of importance relates to how children develop knowledge by exploiting external scaffolding or spatial properties of the environment. Meaning is created through restructuring the spatial configuration of elements in the environment. A highly structured environment does not provide opportunities for restructuring and thus limits knowledge construction. What is required is an environment, either computational or otherwise, that supports multiple spatial configurations. For example, a child may have a nascent understanding of division. When asked to share a bag of candy, the child may restructure their environment by organizing piles of candies into various groups until a satisfactory solution is reached. Through restructuring the spatial configurations of objects, her mind, action, and the environment work in tandem. She not only solves the problem at hand but also better understands the concept of division. Her experiences with spatial structure later give meaning to the symbolic representations used in arithmetic. Children develop new understandings of many phenomena in this way. In doing so, they can test hypotheses, generate new states of information, and actively construct new knowledge in the world by manipulating its spatial properties.

Exploiting physical activity: cognition and action working together. The second idea of importance relates to how children exploit physical action to dynamically offload parts of mental operations to physical action in the environment. Cognitive performance is enhanced through physical strategies that simplify the cognitive aspects of task. For example, in solving a jigsaw puzzle, a child will typically offload some of the difficult task of visualizing puzzle pieces by rotating the pieces with her hands and making spatial comparisons. Children solve many types of problems through this type of tight coupling of mental operations with physical actions in the environment. As they physically manipulate objects, they also learn to manipulate mental models of the world. In doing so, they can successfully tackle problems that require mental abilities they are still developing and concurrently develop the requisite skills.

Exploiting embodied knowledge: building abstract knowledge through metaphor. The third important idea relates to the role that embodied (image) schemata play in the development of children's conceptual thinking. The meaning of many abstract concepts can be traced back to bodily origins. Experiences of repeated linking of bodily experiences with more abstract concepts leads children to implicit understanding of these concepts in bodily terms. For example, a young child may repeatedly experience movement toward a desired object (mother, bottle, toy). Her early physical experiences of reaching goals through movement provide the foundation for her later understanding of how more abstract goals are reached. She comes to understand that goals are destinations that may be achieved through metaphorical movement along a linear path. When she graduates from high school, she may think, look how far I've come. Children come to understand more abstract ideas through implicit, metaphorical elaboration of their physical experiences. In doing so, they build up a system of understanding grounded in physical experiences and extended through metaphor to give meaning to abstract concepts.

back to top  Why Embodiment Matters

In general, interaction designers and researchers must think about new ways in which children can interact with computers—ways that are better tuned to children's developing abilities and how they construct meaning through action. The following examples demonstrate how ideas from embodied cognition may affect what is considered in the design of children's interactive technologies.

Interface design. Understanding how restructuring the environment, either digitally or physically, supports the construction of meaning has implications for how interfaces are designed. For example, in Ferneaus and Tholander's study of tangible support for physical programming, they observed the importance of providing configurable offline space embedded within the computational environment [7]. Children solved programming problems by manipulating the spatial configuration of tangible programming objects offline. Once a potential solution was reached, children changed the status of objects so they were active in the computational program and how they are displayed on the screen In this way, spatially configurable objects served the dual purposes of resources for action and representations.

Design principle: Exploiting external scaffolding in interface design requires the design of computational objects, which offer affordances for action and represent information in their resulting spatial configurations.

Input design. Understanding how offloading cognition to physical action can support developing cognitive abilities has implications for how we choose input methods and design control functions. Tying the hands to a mouse and keyboard may limit children's cognitive performance and inhibit developing mental skills. While many children's designers are constrained to Internet or desktop applications, new gaming platforms like the Nintendo Wii video console and the Nintendo DS handheld gaming platform offer opportunities to support the tight coupling of physical action with mental operations required for learning. In my research comparing tangible and graphical user interfaces for jigsaw puzzles, I investigated the kinds of physical-mental strategies used by children who physically manipulated actual puzzle pieces versus those who digitally manipulated pieces using a mouse [8]. The study provided evidence that children using tangibles more frequently used actions on pieces to offload mental visualization tasks and formed internal representational structures that improved mental performance as the activity proceeded.

Design principle: Exploiting physical activity in input design requires consideration of how mental operations may be simplified through physical actions that control computational objects.

Interaction design. Understanding how abstract concepts are built on bodily schema through metaphor has implications for the design of the interaction model or layer that maps input actions to output responses. It is possible to trace the meaning of abstract concepts represented in a system back to physical actions, and then incorporate those physical actions as input. This approach may better support children in their development of conceptual understandings than relying on abstract representations alone to communicate meaning. Leveraging this kind of embodied knowledge may provide both usability and learning advantages in systems that represent abstract concepts. In my study of a full-body interface to a sound-making application, I found evidence that the strategy of tracing higher-order cognition back to its bodily basis and including this relationship in the interaction model had both performance and experiential benefits for children learning about concepts related to musical sounds [9].

Design principle: Exploiting embodied knowledge in interaction design requires leveraging familiar embodied schema in the mapping layer between input actions and the display of metaphorically related abstract concepts.

back to top  Rethinking Cognition

Giving consideration to underlying mechanisms that support the interplay of action, cognition, and the environment will enforce a commitment to embodiment in children's interaction design. Unlike virtual reality, which aims to bring the user into the world of the computer, designers of interactive technologies for children may find success bringing computation into children's worlds. As new applications and forms of interactive technologies emerge, designers who give consideration to the ways in which cognition is rooted in embodied action will contribute to children's successful development into active, thinking adults.

back to top  References

1. Djajadiningrat, T., K. Overbeeke, and S. Wensveen. "But how, Donald, tell us how? On the creation of meaning in interaction design through feedforward and inherent feedback." Proceedings of DIS '02, 285–291. New York: ACM Press, 2002.

2. Piaget, J. The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York: University Press, 1952.

3. Healy, J.M. Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

4. Dourish, P. Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

5. Clark, A. Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.

6. Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Chicago Press, 1980.

7. Fernaeus, Y. and J. Tholander. "Finding design qualities in a tangible programming space." Proceedings of CHI 2006, 447–456. New York: ACM Press, 2006.

8. Antle, A.N., M. Droumeva, and D. Ha. "Hands on what? Comparing children's mouse-based and tangible-based interaction." (under review, available at

9. Antle, A.N., G. Corness, and M. Droumeva. "What the body knows: Exploring the benefits of embodied metaphors in hybrid physical digital environments." Interacting with Computers, special issue on physicality. Elsevier, (in press).

back to top  Author

Alissa N. Antle is an assistant professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on embodied human computer interaction and the design of tangible user interfaces and responsive environments. Antle's interactive work has been recognized by organizations including the Canadian New Media Awards, New Media Invision Awards (GOLD), SIIA Codie Awards, and Parent's Choice Foundation. She holds bachelor's degrees in systems design engineering and liberal arts from the University of Waterloo, and a Ph.D. in computational geography from the University of British Columbia.

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Exploring the puzzle space: manipulating pieces offloads part of mental visualization to physical action.

back to top 

©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0300  $5.00

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 © 2009 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found