Learning by Design – Tools and Games for Ages 13+

From the age of thirteen and beyond, the interests of the individual diversify into so many avenues that there is no way to classify the myriad skill combinations a person can develop.  This is also the age at which the most complex ideas for game design become attainable as they require a high level of abstraction and/or moving parts to work properly.  Not coincidentally, these are the same design tools used for modern video games with their branching paths and use of multiple strategies to solve intricate puzzles.  This makes it difficult to focus on any one design structure, but it does increase the level of sophistication that can be brought to bear on an idea.

Despite all of the ways game design begins to diversify with interest, there’s a few thematic elements that traverse the range of design at this point.  Most of these come down to the individual’s skill set and design processes that inform each game developed.  What they have in common is how the games explore skills in different applications while still retaining those core skills and how they translate to varying situations.  Given this desire to hone skills, it should come as no surprise that the core design tools for this group tends towards the abstract and narrative play.  These are both areas where meaningful production arise.

Creating game with meaning is trickier as the idea of conscious decision has to balance with the need for chance to play some role in the game.  Rather than being arbitrary, every choice should be driven by individual agency with decisions favoring one or another participant decided by an outside arbiter.  This is where the dice, cards, etc. determine outcome.  This isn’t to say that games that use random chance as the start point aren’t valid designs, but rather that their inclusion should make use of individual choice to plan against or utilize that random element for the possible strategies players can employ.  Thus designers from this point on have been exposed to subsystems, synergistic effects, complex storylines, and a full modularity of a game’s assets, which may be represented in expansion sets, adventure modules, or add-ons.  The design tools for this group include:

  • Decision tree/branching storylines
  • Mini-games, and other puzzles that enhance game play but are optional
  • Optional rules and components that extend the life of the game
  • House rules that modify an existing set to adapt the games to the usage of the usual players, in computer terms this is akin to “modding”

Learning by Design – Tools and Games for Ages 11-13

Yes, there is some overlap here with the previous grouping and the following one.  That said, there are a few key differences in game play that makes this age group appropriate to discuss on its own.  Part of this comes not from the biological changes this audience undergoes or faces, but rather in the core competencies of game play development that occur in this transitory period.  What is different here is the level of sophistication in the style of play and the enjoyment of established concepts matures to incorporate deeper levels of meaning.  What is often embraced at this time are more immersive experiences and a greater awareness of resource management.

What kids can create at this age range starts to include games with storylines of increasing complexity, the use of multiple resources, and more integrated systems.  Rather than being a new skill or tool, this coincides with the greater understanding that comes along with information the child learns.  This is also a continuation of the growing modularity of game systems and the recognition of analogous structures.  Thus, while much of the material is derivative and linear, the games at this age begin to incorporate nonlinear elements as well as a greater level of choice in game play (which coincides with greater awareness of other viewpoints).  The two game tools that fit this intermediary phase are:


  • Introductory resource management systems
  • Development of storylines, predominantly linear, interspersed between game play

Learning by Design – Interactions and Play for Ages 9-12

The developmental milestones for kids in this age group sees a lot of rapid change from year-to-year that makes condensing it into a brief overview difficult.  Kids start out growing use not only to using tools with increasing skill, but also a greater body awareness that, by the latter half of this age range grows into greater awareness of gender differences.  As such, the mastery over self and tools and working until exhausted are some of the key identifiers of this age group.  Sports also become more important as they help with the exploration of physicality and eventually being in a constant state of motion while awake by the end of this age range.  The types of games tend to take these developments into account.

In terms of information and intellectual development, the younger end of this age range is still in the information gathering phase as they continue to commit facts to memory.  It is not until the latter half of this age range that they begin to use logic, categorization, and deep though to better understand and use that knowledge.  The child also starts to internalize physical lessons into mental ones as analogous structures.  Conceptual frames, like time, are elusive for the 9-10 year-old crowd, but become easier to manage and use and can be applied to the worldviews of others.  This growing awareness helps with the social developments of the child discussed below.

Kids begin this age range unwilling to do anything they find unpleasant, which includes chores and often being around the opposite sex.  They can be responsible and carry out chores.  Emotions have more sway over the first half of this age, but mellow out as reason develops.  Friendships grow in importance, but it is not until the second half of this stage that relationship with parents begins to change.  Group activities continue to become more important to the child and by the end of this age range, the desire to conform to peer pressure begins to develop as the drive to feel connected to a social fabric of shared interests grows.  Interests grow more important and sharing is communicated as much by enthusiasm as it is dislikes, which may be more prominent than the former.

Learning by Design – Tools and Games for Ages 9-12

When children reach this age, they no longer can be tracked as a group with all the same milestones.  The individual child has learned not only how to maneuver and manipulate the environment he or she has grown up in, but also developed skill sets that sow the seeds of future specialization.  This accounts for the greater variety of products and activities available to them.  Some will gravitate towards physical pursuits while others find pleasure in more mental disciplines.  Game play for this age reflects this diversification with myriad forms of physical and mental games children enjoy.

One of the things that games for this age group take advantage of is the growing level of abstraction children engage in.  This can be seen in other media children consume as well: books, television, music, etc.  The increasing abstraction allows for more immersive storylines as well as longer ones, which hold the child’s engagement for longer periods of time.  Thus, while there will be some straightforward linear elements in a game, the emphasis as the child ages shifts towards ones involving more strategy and planning.  The players move from straight victory conditions where everyone can see what their opponents are doing to one where multiple avenues are available, even if they become increasingly improbable roads to winning.

Designers in this age range should have enough experience with a good selection of game mechanics that include simplified multidimensional rules (where routes to victory lay in differing strategies), multiple playing pieces, and variable game play.  This is a good assortment of tools to create a large variety of game types where the designer can manipulate the math and information used in one game to create an entirely different one where both theme and rules feel unique.  The sources of inspiration will likely be easy to spot, but this is a good yardstick to measure success as you can help the designer avoid any pitfalls by seeing where they might take their idea.  The exploration kids enjoy at this age allows for designers to grasp and isolate the concepts embedded in a game system, which is why the yardstick technique works so well.  Game tools for this age include:

  • Simple card mechanics
  • Modularity in boards and pieces
  • Higher level of abstraction in gameplay using real-world equivalents (e.g. skill-focused design)

Learning by Design – Interactions and Play for Ages 6-8

Children in this age range begin to exhibit creativity and deviate from the constraints of mimicry to explore the world, though they still enjoy copying patterns and shapes.  They also prefer to play with children similar to themselves and want to spend increasing amounts of time with friends.  As their physical skills develop, these children want to test their skills and get better with them.  And this is where differentiation between children begins in earnest.  Their likes and dislikes become more pronounced as a child gravitates towards their particular interests.

The games a child often plays during this time take into account the increased desire to problem-solve, plan, and build.  Games like Monopoly, Aggravation, and Battleship, play into these strengths and foster further development of these skills.  Physical games like tag; hide and seek; and duck, duck, goose (a game about risk assessment) also help this age range learn to navigate the world through snap decisions while also acclimating the child to the growth changes they undergo with the lengthening of their limbs.  These games also help combat the ungainliness children may feel during this phase of their lives.  The awkwardness they experience includes growing awareness of not just the world, but the distinctness of gender identification.  It is partially from this and cultural norms that gendered board games exist and garner the children’s attention.

Some of the areas where individualization comes in is the concept of personal collections.  Kids begin to create collections of their belongings.  This coincides with their growing sense of order and structure.  At the same time, this age group sees the dawning of empathy as the child goes from being self-centered to viewing things from the perspective of others.  While these kids may or may not be selfless, they are more likely to share and prefer communal activities.  Kids of this age are also starting to internalize information and rely on conceptual frameworks as much as literal and external references.

Learning by Design – Tools and Games for Ages 6-8

At this age range, children have passed through many of the developmental milestones necessary to be fully independent (they can dress, eat, and bathe themselves without assistance).  They are able to participate in most perennial favorites found in many retail stores.  Such games have a mass appeal and cover the base mechanics found in more complex games found in hobby shops.  The games that kids start to play more often have a higher level of abstraction so that the skills rewarded in game play become the focus.  Games of this type include Sorry! and Parcheesi/Ludo alongside Trouble and the like.

This age group also sees kids play games that have systems of multiple moving parts (checkers, chess and Stratego) and those that require multi-dimensional thought (Battleship and Connect Four).  One of the things to note is that kids at this age start to specialize in game play that interests them the most.  Thematically, games also start to diversify, some enter the territory of gendered roles.  Such games have biological motivations informing their design, but the predominant motive is social constructs of gender identity.  Kids should be encouraged to play whatever games they want, effectively ignoring such messaging unless it makes them uncomfortable.

In regards to games this age group should be able to play and design, they are still at the stage of replicating some of their favorite games.  That said, this age group also sees kids experimenting with rules by adding new twists on their favorite games (e.g. freeze tag) and adding new rules that make games more challenging without losing the original game in the process.  The mastery of the previous level and the mechanics tested and mastered at this age gives a larger body of experiences and source material for the designer to draw from.  As such, the designer can begin to experiment with concepts not yet fully grasped to fully learn them.  Tools include the following:

  • Multiple pieces in play per side.
  • Pieces may have their own rules for movement as with chess.
  • Rules are still linear procedures, but allow for freedom of exploration and variation.

Learning by Design – Interactions and Play for Pre-K – Kindergarten

As with the 0-24 month crowd, this age group has a lot of developmental milestones, but they are spaced further apart as a child masters the use of their own body and begin to manipulate the world around them.  This increases the sense of independence a child has as they are no longer subject to the world happening to them.  But there is also a bit of stress that occurs at this time for a child.  There is the sense of freedom coupled with constraints and anxiety.  Children want to explore the world they are able to change while needing reassurance that it will remain the same.  The terrible twos is a direct reflection of this as children simultaneously need security and push the boundaries of what they can do, hence in part the use of “no” for everything.  Emotions are still overwhelming and often get expressed in violent behavior (throwing objects, kicking, etc.).

By the time children reach three, they can communicate some of their ideas, needs, and wants.  They also begin to understand causality, which leads to the “why” phase.  The brain is still trying to process how the world works, but now it perceives that there is some sort of order hidden and adults somehow know the answers since they easily move through the world.  This is also the age where games of random chance start to fascinate kids, which is why such games dominate the toy aisle for this age.  Three-year-olds also start sharing more and find joy in group play, start drawing pictures, and balancing on one leg.

Four-year-olds are well on the way to mastering basic grammar and often do so before Kindergarten begins.  They often are starting to transition from single-piece games to those with multiple pieces per player.  The base mechanics of such games are often the same, but the added strategy of choice enters their play options.  Thus, by the time a child reaches five years of age, most of the experiences are in place for kids to play any number of games relying on sensory input, communication, and body coordination.  At this age, the child is likely to play a game like hide-and-seek as easily as a sit-down game without losing interest.

Learning by Design – Tools and Games for Pre-K – Kindergarten

From age two through five, kids develop a lot of skills that help them navigate through the world.  Games design is possible around age four and up, but from three on, kids can duplicate some of the games they play.  This is a marker of the need to feel stability in their lives as the world grows increasingly larger.  Like the 0-24 months crowd, kids from two to three are still learning how their bodies function and how to communicate with their parents.  They also pass through a few stages that span the transition from purely physical games to conceptual ones that use boards.  Some of these younger players may not have yet mastered object permanency and object constancy, which makes some types of games too difficult to play.

Finger plays, nursery rhymes, playfully twisting language into nonsensical words, and the like are part of the activities that many two- and three-year olds enjoy as it combines both the familiarity they need to feel secure as well as the stretching of their sense of agency.  These play activities are crucial for development of the child’s imagination and library of experiences that help them move out of a pure sensory world to one that requires reasoning problem solving and logic skills.  This accounts for the seemingly uniform design in many of the games kids play.  Most of the games available for children from three on focus primarily on simple random events while reinforcing concepts of colors, shapes, numbers, and so on.  By the time children are ready for kindergarten, they often are ready for more challenging games, like chess and checkers.

Game design is quite limited for this group and most of the games that they can create require a lot of assistance from caregivers to not only articulate, but also require a bit of pre-fabricated pieces as framework for their expression.  This is due in part to the lack of experiences.  One of the biggest contributors beyond the child’s memories is the internalization mechanisms needed to make games, which they start to develop by the end of kindergarten.

Imitation games are one of the game types kids of this age enjoy.  Part of this can be attributed to the desire to grow up faster, but it is a further attempt to understand the world as it exists.  This is the age range where kids go through the “why” phase as well as testing the limits of their autonomy.  Kids see their caregivers as being able to do whatever they want and the child wants to do the same.  The mimicry exhibited is an attempt to create a sense of authority and power while learning roles in the household, which often is the extent of the child’s world.  Kids use this play to internalize behaviors they see.  All of this leads this age range to absorb as much information as possible.

As kids in this age range often play board games that work to improve memory skills, counting, matching, and object/color recognition, the types of games they can design will be close facsimiles of the games they play.  The types of tools available to help them include:

  • Cut-and-paste track pieces
  • Pre-made boards
  • Track templates of various shapes for tracing out the game’s spaces (also useful for the disabled)

Learning by Design – Interactions and Play for 0-24 Months

Games and toys for this age group focus on developing these early skills.  Hence, there are a lot of tactile features for textures, colors and shapes, agency, and an assortment of sounds from language to music.  Games are also highly dependent on parental interaction as this is the primary source of child development given the presence of the baby’s parents is a source of constancy and provides assurance that as overwhelming as things may be, the world can be learned.  Rattles and the like contribute to this as the connections are made that the infant’s actions give it some control over the environment.

Brain development at this age is rapid and can seem overwhelming.  The mind has to accumulate as much information as it can to navigate the world.  Thus, infants begin babbling, grasping, and tugging on their bodies as soon as their muscle strength allows them to, which is within the first seven months.  During this time, babies also start using their hands using a claw-like grip on objects before learning to use a more sophisticated pinching grip and finally progressing to something adults take for granted: a normal-style grip.  Babies also begin to babble at this time as their brains work to acquire language skills.  Their eyesight takes time to develop from seeing less than a foot away to developing binocular vision, giving them depth perception.

There are a lot of games to play with babies and they all have to do with further developing their senses and physical capabilities.  The web is full of articles that cover this topic and provide not just the games to play by month, but also the areas of development they foster.  All of these show the importance of play.  These activities encourage a child’s mastery of their bodies and their imagination.  Encouraging this behavior is not only good for child development, it also lays the groundwork for the experiences that let kids design their own games.

Learning by Design – Tools and Games for 0-24 Months

Game design for the youngest kids is understandably well outside the scope of any program, let alone something most children at this age would understand.  That does not mean you cannot include anything design related, it just means that you have to keep that well in reserve.  This is perhaps the most crucial stage of development of the brain, but the focus is on acquiring as much experience as possible.  Infants have very few options for exploring their environment and the world is a vast and terrifying place for them.  Their chief ability for expression at this age is crying and laughing or the fixed stare of wonderment.

With this in mind, the focus for game design should be on play and exploration, not creation.  You can sneak that in during the last few months of this period as a transition to the age of two.  It is important to keep in mind that kids at this age are still learning their environment and how much they can manipulate it and what is in it.  One of the reasons babies place things in their mouths and touch everything is to build up the suite of sensual experiences needed to not only determine what tastes good, but also to identify the world at large through physical sensations.  Remember, infants’ eyes still develop in the first few months and object permanence does not yet exist for them.  If they cannot see it, they are unaware of it.  Hearing helps, but sight is the main sense of humans.

For these reasons and others, rather than zeroing in on game design practices, kids should be encouraged to play.  The type of play that helps with game design has some structure to it, but still freeform enough that it does not feel controlled.  The play also invites failure and includes it as part of the fun.  Silliness is a great way to diffuse any feelings of judgment for failed attempts.  Some of the activities that help build the playfulness and imagination useful for game design includes:


  • Playing with the sounds of language/singing
  • Playing with shapes and colors
  • Using tools/toys in unintended ways (e.g. pots and pans as drums)
  • Programs like First 5’s “Read. Talk. Sing.”


Games and toys for this age group focus on developing these early skills.  Hence, there are a lot of tactile features for textures, colors and shapes, agency, and an assortment of sounds from language to music.  Games are also highly dependent on parental interaction as this is the primary source of child development given the presence of the baby’s parents is a source of constancy and provides assurance that as overwhelming as things may be, the world can be learned.  Rattles and the like contribute to this as the connections are made that the infant’s actions give it some control over the environment.