Project Description

During the spring semester, I worked on "Curiously" my project for Design Studio. The design challenge was to create a learning experience based on our own personal interests. I decided I wanted to design an informal learning experience for families with young children (2- 6) to go outdoors and learn in and from nature while having a shared experience. The context would be any experience outdoors together, from visiting their local park or even their backyard to going on a trip to the beach, a hike in the woods, or a visit to the pond.

The process of understanding the challenge and the context for learning included looking into the literature and for empathizing with the targeted learner population; I discussed and tested ideas with parents and caregivers. My classmates, subject matter experts, and professors were a great resource for critique and feedback as well. Through a design process of three iterations, I prototyped and tested the technology features, scaffolded prompts, and suggested learning activities with different stakeholders. The final products I designed were an app mockup & a digital guide for caregivers.

Why early childhood, families and nature...

Early childhood is a critical stage of life for learning and development. Research has shown that quality interventions at this stage of life have long-term benefits across a person's lifespan (Heckman, 2003). Building from a cognitive perspective, providing a range of high-quality experiences in the early years is imperative.

By promoting more nodes and connections across memory, networks can be created, strengthened, and serve as prior knowledge needed for preparation for future learning. Furthermore, research shows that curiosity is relevant to children’s cognitive development because it leads to exploratory behaviors and, thus, greater learning (Jiruout & Klahr, 2012).

With these foundations in mind, I wanted to design a series of experiences that children and their caregivers could have to build a rich learning experience over time and that could be revisited, explored, and held in a technology that could afford all of the desirable interactions. That is how I came up with the idea of mocking up an app that families could use in different key moments mainly before and after their adventure outdoors.

Learning Goals & Design Conjectures

In order to achieve the goals and desirable outcomes, I developed a learning conjecture that clarifies the main goals of the design and how I imagine learning happening based on theoretical frameworks, and an engagement conjecture that outlines in which ways I imagine children and their caregivers would be engaged in the experience across its different stages.

Learning outcomes:

  • Children and caregivers would identify themselves as learners, recognize that they are learning and be excited about it.

  • Children would demonstrate curiosity towards a scientific phenomenon and develop islands of expertise in a topic based on their interest related to the experience.

  • Children and caregivers would appreciate nature and learn from it through a shared experience with family members and caregivers (parents, grandparents, siblings and/or other significant people).

  • Children would be proud of themselves and their learning process.

Click down to read the learning and engagement conjectures on how I imagine them happening.

Design Lenses - Theoretical Framework

My design process was driven and informed by different design lenses from the Learning Sciences. These theoretical frameworks guided me to have a solid background in making design decisions, refining ideas and bringing all the elements of the app together.

Click in each of the sections below to learn more about how each theory informed my design...

7 Design principles for Children in Nature & Place-Based Education

I found the "Design principles for Children in Nature" by David Sobel a great framework for my design. Mainly because Sobel draws has identified seven key "play motifs" that are commonly observed in all children while cultivating relationships with nature. Sobel states that it is during these kinds of play that transcendental experiences occur. I decided to consider those natural interactions into account for providing scaffolding and advice for caregivers to help children learn from nature.

Spend time at a safe, woodsy playground and you’ll find children (1) making forts and special places; (2) playing hunting and gathering games; (3) shaping small worlds; (4)developing friendships with animals; (5)constructing adventures; (6) descending into fantasies; (7)and following paths and figuring out shortcuts. ”. - Sobel

Explore how each principle guided design decisions below

1. Adventure

"Environmental education needs to be kinesthetic, in the body".

Design decision: Activities and experiences are framed as “let’s go for an adventure, prepare for the adventure, explore…”. . Also, the scaffolding prompts for engaging during the adventure provide examples of physical activities that could be done outdoors, including exploring with the five senses also and activities for gross motor skills development such as jumping, climbing, etc".


"Young children live in their imaginations... stories are preferred media for early childhood".

Design decision: Before going outdoors, preparation activities include story books embedded in the app so caregivers and children can read them together to build prior knowledge, foster imagination, curiosity, and wonder about the place they are visiting.

3. Animal Allies

"If we aspire to developmentally appropriate science education, then the first talk is to become animals, to understand them from the inside out, before asking children to study them or save them".

Design decision: The stories integrated into the app would be curated to highlight and mark special animals of the particular ecosystem the families decided to explore. Kids might want to dig further and dig islands of expertise around these animals!

4. Maps & Paths

"Children have an inborn desire to explore local geographies. Developing a local sense of place leads organically to a bioregional sense of place and hopefully a biospheric consciousness.”

Design decision: A map feature is integrated into the preparation and planning (before) part of the experience, with the purpose that families choose together where they want to go. Exploring the map together and having prompted conversations around it can help learners sense the place they are visiting and wonder how to explore it together.

5. Special Places

"Children like to find and create places where they can hideaway and retreat into their found or constructed spaces.”

Design decision: Prompts in the caregivers´ guide include modeling dispositions towards wonder and curiosity during adventure by asking questions while following their children's natural curiosity to explore freely and build a sense of place. Taking pictures and making sketches are encouraged to record and keep memories of those special places that further on can be compared and contrasted.

6. Small Worlds

"Children have an inborn desire to explore local geographies. Developing a local sense of place leads organically to a bioregional sense of place and hopefully a biospheric consciousness.”

Design decision: Developing a sense of belonging to planet earth and to the natural world/ place they are visiting is encouraged from the preparation activities before the experience, the prompts for caregivers during the exploration, and the reflective and creation activities post- the adventure. Especially in the "after" activities, children are encouraged to create a mini artifact as a “mini representation” of the adventure (a photo album, video, mini-podcast, storybook, artwork, etc..) to recall, share and revisit with significant caregivers.

7. Hunting & Gathering

"From a genetic perspective, we are still hunting and gathering organisms. Gathering and collecting anything compels us… How do we design learning opportunities like treasure hunts? ”

Design decision: Gathering and collecting pictures, videos, audio, sketches, and special artifacts during the experience as “treasure hunts”, the feature in the app the families can keep these archives is named after this principle. The archives are used later to remix them in creative mini projects.

Building "Islands of expertise"

The overarching idea design is based on Crowley & Jacobs (2002) research paper on Island of Expertise. An island of expertise is a topic in which children happen to become interested and in which they develop relatively deep and rich knowledge. A typical island emerges over weeks, months, or years and is woven throughout multiple family activities. Because of this, developing islands of expertise is a fundamentally sociocultural process.

“Through the joint activity, guided by a combination of children's and parent’s interests, families can build deep, shared domain-specific knowledge bases, which we can refer to as islands of expertise”.

Through rich conversations, the interaction with the natural environment, and the use of complementary tools found embedded in the app families would share time building islands of expertise related to a topic that a child is curious about.

Other lenses that guided my design

Constructionism (Papert): by creating digital artifacts that reflect the learning and the adventure outdoors with wide walls and, low-floors (predetermined templates and photo albums), and high-ceilings (tools for designing their own artifact freely).

Thick Authenticity (Resnick): The experience would take place in an authentic environment such as a beach, natural park or museum. While being shared with authentic significant people (families) and reflecting on authentic experiences (going to an adventure outdoors together)

Situated Learning (Greeno): People learn from all aspects of the situation they are in, encouraging authentic interest and engagement in learning as being more powerful, as the situation is aligned with the learning naturally.

Funds of Knowledge (Moll et al., 1992): Caregivers and children are naturally curious. In my design, I would like to build on the natural conversations parents and children have to improve the quality of those interactions that leads to curiosity and exploratory behaviors in children that can be then associated with a positive relationship with learning. That being said, I believe that another element I would like to explore and further research to design is; what works in engaging parents/caregivers to improve their interactions with their children.

Knowledge-building: Building from a cognitive perspective, it is imperative to provide a range of high-quality experiences in the early years. By promoting more nodes and connections across memory, networks can be created, strengthened, and serve as previous knowledge needed for preparation for future learning. Furthermore, research shows that curiosity is a relevant aspect of children’s cognitive development because it leads to exploratory behaviors and therefore, greater learning.

Learning Design

The embodiment of the learning design is reflected in across different features of an app that helps children and their caregivers to prepare, engage, document, reflect and create artifacts of their experience outdoors in 3 main stages; before, during and after the experience.

Some key resources are; guides of suggested preparation activities such as storybooks to prepare for the experience with prompts to engage in meaningful conversations, a guide for parents and caregivers to mediate the experience outdoors to build knowledge together, and a "creation and share" section for representing the experience in a personalized way and reflection prompts.

Desirable interactions & features of the technology per stage:

Before: Plan

Prepare & Wonder

Activity structure that includes resources for planning the adventure, such as exploring possible venues, a map feature to have a sense of place, a curated storybook library based on the chosen place and age group.

Caregivers and children begin creating a common understanding about the place they’ll visit, some prior knowledge & curiosity by being engaged in conversations, asking open-ended questions about the readings and by identifying things they are curious about.

During: Engage

Explore Outdoors

Activity structure that suggests families go out in nature and suggested actions to do, look for, do, ask questions about, and document their adventures in learning.

Parents and children collect & document their experiences in nature, become aware of their surroundings, and wonder about the natural phenomena

After: Recall/Reflect

Create& Share

Activity structure that provides prompts for looking up to the "data collected", and remembering and reflecting on the experience. Learners create an artifact that reflects their learning experience (story, music, mini-podcast, minimovie).

A sharing feature connects children with a significant family member (grandparents for example) to present their artifact and what they learned in their adventure in nature.

Design Process: Iterations

First Iteration

In the early stages of my design, I decided I needed to test the idea of having a sequence or chunks of main stages of the experience (before, during, and after) and a subset of activities and key resources for each section. To illustrate an example, I created a scenario in which families were going to have an adventure together in a local pond. I tested the overall idea with two families by interviewing them and sharing it with them over a zoom call. Also, in this stage of the process, I interviewed a subject-matter expert on family education, play and, early childhood.

What I learned from this iteration & design decisions:

  • I could empathize and understand the needs and wants of some parents in going outdoors in nature, as well as the variability between families. This experience helped me to build personas.

  • I realized I needed to create a prototype that reflected the ideas I had more clearly in a visual way One of the parents suggested that an app would be helpful to hold all the experiences together "in the same place", this is how I came with the idea of an app.

  • The suggestion of adding a map in the planning section was interesting to all. They also provided suggestions on ideas of activities, features and prompts that could be integrated along with the map.

Second Iteration

For the second iteration, I prototyped and tested through two cycles of testing a first mock-up of the app that visually reflected the desirable interactions of each stage.

For the I shared the mock-up with my colleagues for peer feedback and critique, they give written comments in each screen and overall comments in a focus group format.

After integrating some changes based on my peers´ and professors´ comments, I presented and tested the prototype to 5 families (via zoom and in person) in a semi-functional mock-up with an iPad. I observed their interactions with the mock-up, heard their comments, and afterward conducted a semi-structured interview to learn more about what they liked, what they didn't liked, what they found useful or relevant (or not!), and why, on each main section (before, during and after) . In addition, I provided access to a form that they could answer anytime after the testing session.

What I learned from this iteration & design decisions:

  • I learned that caregivers have different priorities and time availability; constraining the experience to have a fixed order might be overwhelming for some caregivers. I decided to give recommendations on the order of doing the activities without restricting the access or navigation across the different stages so that caregivers can access them based on their goals.

  • I also learned from one of the parents that I needed to be more explicit in integrating UDL principles and in addressing variability among learners (for example, changing the wording of "engage with your 5 senses, to engage with your senses") .

  • Parents appreciate and value well-thought technologies and applications for children that are backed up by the literature and have a purpose for their development. I had to make more explicit David Sobel's principles, for example.

  • Less is more! I had to learn about UX/UI principles to simplify interactions.

  • I realized I needed to have more specific scaffolding prompts for caregivers that guided the whole learning design

Third Iteration

For the third iteration, I decided to create a guide for caregivers with scaffolding prompts to be used across the different stages of the experience. To test the guide, I sent it to two families with kids of different ages; one with a two-year-old and the other with a seven-year-old, along with the guide I curated and sent an age-appropriate digital storybook about the pond. Then, we went outdoors together to a local pond in the Boston area. Lastly, I send a photo album with pictures we took during the adventure at the pond so that they could continue the conversation at home and create a digital photo album if wanted.

The objective of testing the guide was to learn if these prompts are useful to parents to then think about ways that in future app development could be embedded. Also, the guide could always be accessible through the menu “tips for parents”.

Also, I tested the content of the guide by sharing it with a subject matter expert in education for sustainability and getting her feedback.

Caregiver's guide

Curiously- Caregiver's guide (1).pdf

What I learned from this iteration & design decisions:

Two-year-old family insights:

    • Two-year-olds can be very engaged with the activity, they might not document the experience as much or draw lots of connections across the 3 stages, but adaptations could be made so that discovering, playing, and using their senses is encouraged outdoors.

    • I noted very high-quality interactions, activities, and connections that caregivers and the child did naturally, I couldn't identify at which level the guide influenced the interactions.

Such as open-ended questions “are you jumping like a frog?”, “where does this come from, maybe from the tree?” , comparing and contrasting “stand next to the baby tree and see who is taller,” “look, the size of that rock is like a whale”, and, “We can hear the water”, “look at this rock”, marking vocabulary of particular species and elements of nature; "listen, woodpeakers!" "these are blossoms", and, reinforcing identity building “you are an explorer”!

    • I confirmed Sobel’s principles are a great framework for designing experiences in nature with children; treasures, animal allies, special places, using their body, using their senses adventure time, among others… The child loved playing, finding special rocks, and throwing them to the pond to compare the different sizes of splashes. They also walk in rocks, walk in a bridge,

Seven-year-old testing insights:

    • He used his body a lot; he had lots of energy and was moving from one thing to another, skated, climbed a hill, play with the playground tubes.

    • He had a specific goal or interest in mind: turtles! But he was also playing and enjoying the day outdoors overall.

    • He got excited about the app; “Mom, show me the app” “we are doing what the app said”

    • Suggestion from the caregiver- There could be two kinds of adventures:

      1. With a specific goal or learning objective in mind. Maybe this is for older kids, and in the preparation phase they could either do a mini research as an alternative option for the read the storybook.

      2. With no specific target, just follow natural curiosity and ask questions to expand curiosity. (some kids cannot focus on something specific for a long time)

The recording feature of the app would be helpful to keep track of insights, questions and curiosities and then reflect or investigate more about that at home. That's why we need your app because we do a lot of reflections when we go outdoors but we forget them. It would be very useful. Older kids can also record their observations and even visit the place several times and keep track”.

SME content insights:

  • Very well designed and chunked, practical tips to help parents engage with their kids outdoors.

  • In further iterations, add a component of "regeneration", in which parents and kids think about ideas and actions on how to protect and help regenerate the place.

Next steps


What I did well:

  • Addressing variation among learners: Involving a variation of parents and caregivers since the idea's conception helped me a lot to do mini-cycles of refinement of the learning design along the way given the time constraints. Listening was important for not constraining the experience to be restricted to a fixed order, and rather having suggestions of activities to do in each stage and suggestions on order.

    • A good decision was to find families with age variation (2 year old and 7 year old) to test how the learning design was helpful, and supportive for addressing the learning goals nd how it could've been improved/personalized for each targeted age group. Simulating curating storybooks based on their developmental level and sending it to them as a preparation resource along with prompts for parents was also a good idea!

  • Supporting mental model building; It was a good structure to chunk the activity into three main stages. Chunking is a way of helping learners build mental models, as they can process the information in an ordered way through big categories of interactions and content. It gives opportunities to grow the learning overtime and to "come back" to recall, reflect and learn from the experience "bit by bit". Also, this decision helped me identify the key desirable interactions of each stage, as well as the expected mediating processes that could lead to the learning outcomes, and then, design the right resources and supports to make that happen.

Where I could make improvements:

  • Talking with more young children since the conception of the design and include them and their families as co-designers could've give me insights based on their interests and perspective and addressing social justice and accessibility issues. Given the time and logistical constraints it was hard to find them, but definitely, more of their perspectives could've been incorporated more actively. Also, I recognize I need to work with families from different levels of "expertise" and access to outdoors and nature education to identify the supports that different families need.

  • Social justice: I would've been more consistent in applying and grounding the design with UDL principles as I was designing the desirable interactions and features of the mock-up. For future designs that involve digital interactions, I would be more systematic in incorporating these principles and make sure I'm communicating them clearly to the stakeholders.

  • If I were to have more time, I would've liked to test the creation features of the design with young children and their families, maybe having a video with their grandparents and creating something that reflected their learning after the adventure outdoors and sharing it with them to learn if im giving the right supports for sustaining engagement and motivation across the whole process.

  • Addressing learning objetives: Whereas I could recognize in the final testing that recommendations from the app were addressed in the interactions outdoors and led to meaningful parent-child interactions I still need to identify if the learning objectives were reached thanks to the support given or by their natural interactions. I would have to test the design with variation of families and also have a "longer" testing sessions in which I could observe the use of the expected interactions and scaffolding provided overtime and in multiple interactions across the main 3 stages to learn if the learning objectives have been achieved, specially to know if children are developing islands of expertise with the interactions overtime with the design.

What I learned from this project...

Other insights:

  • Observing families gave a lot of insights to design activities and supports for making connections across the different experiences designed and a good sense of their needs and possible constraints such as time, parenting style, etc..

  • While graphic design is not a priority for the early stages of the prototype design, it helps both the designer and the potential learners to have a grasp and more concrete idea of the functions of the desired technology and the affordances of the possible interactions that it might foster.

  • I learned that it is important to Design testing sessions in a way that both participants and designers have the objective of the testing in mind, and a sense of what is expected to gain the information needed, although sometimes the designer has to be open to observe and get “unexpected” insights as well.

  • Conducting a literature review early on in the process to inform my design with solid theoretical frameworks as design lenses from the conception of the idea to the development of the mock-ups and activities was something I did very well. These lenses helped me a lot to make design decisions along the way, design the scaffolding prompts and suggestions, and communicate the overall idea to families by referencing the principles on which is grounded.

  • Even though I shared with parents and caregivers ideas from the early conception of the design, I believe one area of opportunity is could've been to go outdoors and test the activities and scaffolding prompts early on in the process, and then design the interactions in the app based on the insights received. I would've changed the order of the iterations and do the second one after the third one.