Federal Web sites for kids are—by turns or, perhaps more appropriately, clicks—marvelous, stupendous and a crying shame.
The information they have for kids, the support they offer for school work, the games, the fun, the answers to questions that kids might be loath to ask an adult or even their peers are nothing short of terrific, according to educators, librarians, Web experts and researchers.
Too bad most kids don't know about these federal online gems.
It's not that feds aren't trying, even succeeding in some areas. NASA is metatagging information for kids, students and teachers from all of its sites to make it searchable and accessible via a portal, at www.nasa.gov/forkids, on its home page. The Library of Congress is putting much of its vast collection online, tailored for kids and families, at www.loc.gov/families.
"The amount of content for teachers that some federal Web sites offer is stupendous, and with government sites, I know it's quality knowledge—that someone has looked at it to make sure that it is," says Kathleen Schrock, administrator for technology for the Nauset School District in Orleans, Mass.
Schrock is also creator and curator of the Schrock Guide for Educators. The guide, at school.discovery.com/schrockguide, lists more than 2,500 links to Web sites that meet her stringent criteria for usefulness to teachers.
The Mother Lode
The problem is not a lack of information online. "There's just so much stuff, and so much of it is useless," says Marcia Scott, an Albuquerque, N.M., elementary school teacher.
A wealth of "excellent educational support materials" makes NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab site, at www.spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids, a favorite of Scott's in teaching science. She also taps into information from the Agriculture Department, via local agricultural extension services at www.cahe.nmsu.edu/county, for a class gardening project.
"But most of the teachers I know just use Kathy Schrock's site as their clearinghouse," Scott adds.
Finding the right information in the galaxies of data available is a problem that NASA hopes it can ease by making its home page a gateway to its centers, with all content searchable by audience, says Shelley Canright, director of technology and products for the space agency's Office of Education.
By standardizing Web site structure agencywide, "in three clicks, one can go from the gateway page to a specific NASA center education office," she says.
But the barriers are many and complex. Scott, for instance, teaches in a classroom housed in a temporary metal structure; she has no regular Internet access from the classroom—so even the best of sites, quickly found, are as good as unavailable when she's with her students.
It's a complaint NASA's Canright hears often. The agency actively solicits feedback from users via e-mail and surveys, at teacher conferences, as well as from kids and teachers in the classroom.
"Tell Scott we're taking one step further to get closer to the community," Canright says.
NASA now has an arrangement with a nationwide office supplies company to give users as well as educators greater access to educational materials.
"We hear from our audience that sometimes they can't download the materials or they can't print them out," Canright says. Now, teachers and parents will be able to identify NASA educational products at www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators, have them printed at a nearby store location, and then dash in and pick them up.
A big problem for designers of Web sites for kids is that they think they know what young visitors want—often mistakenly.
"To be a child of the 21st century is difficult for an adult to imagine," says Allison Druin, associate professor of information studies at the University of Maryland. "Our world was different than theirs; today a child starts using the Web at 2 or 3 years old."
How kids use computers and the Web is the focus of Druin's work at the university's Human-Computer Interaction Lab in College Park.
"At HCIL, we work with kids four days a week, either at the lab or in a preschool," Druin says. "What you see on the International Children's Digital Library (ICDL) Web site [at icdlbooks.org] is reflective of our experience."
First, Find Some Kids
The lab has tried to make its site a model for other designers developing Web resources for young surfers. The cheerful-looking ICDL site offers simple and advanced search tools, as well as searches by location and keyword. Or kids can simply click on a large icon of an open book and a label that says, "Enter Library." Clicking on any part of the text or the accompanying 64-pixel icon activates the link.
The size of the icon is important when a site's audience begins with children younger than 5 years old, Druin says. "To achieve the same level of accuracy as adults at 16 pixels, 5-year-olds require 32 pixels, and 4-year-olds 64 pixels," according to a lab study that Druin directed.
Enter the library, and you're offered choices of books by age, genre, length and topic. More mysterious are a row of radio buttons in different colors. Mysterious to an adult, that is.
"Adults generally don't understand," Druin says. "But kids do, and they know immediately. It's the color of the book.
"The problem with many of the government sites for kids is that the pictures and information may be simplified to be accessible to kids, but then it's organized in a way that doesn't make sense to kids," she says.
But search for a book based on the color of its cover? Just ask a bookseller—it happens all the time, Druin says. "Adults come into a bookstore and they don't know the title, the author or the publisher, but they'll say, 'It's about a bear, and it has a yellow cover.' They're thinking of the physicality of the book."
Kids also search for books based on how it will make them feel—a happy book or a scary one, for instance.
"Adults do this, too," she says. "They just don't think about it in the same way." An adult looking for "something light Â is really saying they want a book that will make them feel happy or relaxed. As adults, we forget that we categorize information by our relationship with it."
Most behavior models—and Web sites—treat information seeking as fundamentally problem-centered, but a study by Druin and doctoral candidate Kara Reuter showed that children, especially those younger than 11 or 12, prefer to browse, rather than use keyword searches.
Catch a Clue
kids to hit easily.
to storytelling and compelling information just
like adults do.
kids will sense if you're being patronizing.
the same information.
Source: University of Maryland associate professor Allison Druin
That agencies—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.bam.gov), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (www.nmfs.noaa.gov/kids.htm) and USDA (multiple pages linked off bureau sites)—do not have links from their home pages to their kids' pages "isn't as bad as it might appear at first," says Suzi Gates, CDC consumer information specialist and one of two coordinators for Body and Mind, CDC's health site for kids.
"We know from our research that the way kids usually find out about health-related information is that they Google it," she says.
A reality check with kids confirms Gates' assertion.
15-year-old Elena Talbott of Takoma Park, Md., had never heard of the Government Printing Office's Ben's Guide Web site, at bensguide.gpo.gov. But, she says, "if it's on the Internet, I'd probably find it eventually. I could Google it; that's how I do everything—through Google."
Such differences make it important to "promote your site on sites you know kids go to," Gates says. "And that you make sure your site shows up on Google, and take into account that kids are terrible spellers."
Before CDC launched BAM.gov, Gates and fellow coordinator Dottie Knight talked with parents and teachers, read the research on Web sites for kids and sought out data from firms that market to kids. To select content, Gates began with the agency's mission, surveyed its available information and cross-referenced it with marketing data detailing kids' interests.
After developing three versions of the site, Gates and Knight worked collaboratively with kids to come up with the final site design.
Given the instruction to visit each of about a dozen federal Web sites for kids, Elena's sister, Ava Talbott, 11, dutifully surfed, took notes and reported they were generally "interesting" and "useful."
She called BAM.gov "fun and cool." She eagerly praised the font, the colors and the way it "looks like a comic." She didn't need notes to explain what the links on the main page were about.
But designers of Web sites—even in the government—never rest, and CDC will launch a spiffed-up BAM.gov site in August. The agency did new studies in the winter and is incorporating the results in the update and expansion of the site.