Last updated: December 13, 2018
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When designing a website for kids, the most important thing you need to keep in mind is that kids are constantly changing. What intrigues them at age 5 will bore them at age 7, and what confounds them at 7 will entice them at 13.
Remember Barney, the big purple dinosaur? When you were 4 years old, you probably loved him. When you were 10, you would have strangled anyone caught singing his song!
So if you're looking for a one-size-fits-all solution for your kid-facing website, we're sorry to disappoint you. That's not the purpose of this article, because such as site would be doomed to failure.
Instead, our aim is to present you with information that will help you target your site to a specific age range, create content that will be useful and appealing to an audience of children, and ensure that your site is safe and appropriate for kids.
If you're set on building a site that caters to children of all ages, we highly recommend that you create unique sections for the various age groups, based on some of the suggestions you'll find below.
Don't Underestimate Children
In the field of children's writing, one of the first lessons most new authors learn is to never talk down to kids.
As adults, we all tend to think of children as inferior in some way: they aren't as smart as us, they can't handle complex problems, all they care about is watching television and playing video games.
The reality is, kids are just as smart as adults, they just don't have the level of experience we do. But, they love to learn, and they're better at digesting new information.
No, they won't understand an academic essay on particle physics, but if you reframe it using concepts they understand and words they either recognize or can decode from context, they'll comprehend far more than you expect.
When designing a website for kids, try not to view them as children, but as your peers. Approach them at their level, and treat them as brilliant people who are excited to learn anything, so long as it's presented in an engaging, age-appropriate context.
Understand Children's Ages
Before you so much as purchase a domain name for your website, you should decide what age children you're writing for. Your title, design, and content should all be tailored to the interest, experiences, and understanding of kids at that level.
Here's a general overview of different ages, but remember that even within these ranges, kids vary quite a bit. You may want to provide a variety of content for kids within a range, understanding that even at the same age kids have different abilities and interests.
In general, kids at this age aren't interested in going online, and there is plenty of research suggesting they shouldn't be online. However, enough kids are going online at this age that there's still a market for sites geared toward babies and toddlers.
If you choose to design a site for children under three, keep in mind that you are really building a site for their parents. Kids at this age won't care about words, they won't recognize numbers, and they probably won't understand online games or puzzles.
They will mostly be interested in viewing colors and shapes. Large objects the move around the screen will fascinate them. For really young children, complex black and white images will hold their attention and stimulate their brains. Bonus points if you provide content that can be printed out, so kids don't have to stare at a computer screen!
Think pre-school and kindergarten. Most kids in this age group are fascinated by colors and shapes. They may also be interested in numbers and letters, but they probably won't recognize words or even double-digit numbers. So keep things simple!
Many kids at this age already have experience viewing videos or playing games on their parents' smartphones. They've come to expect simple navigation and an immediate response to actions.
If your website is too confusing to get around, or clicking on an object doesn't have any result — or the result is delayed or just plain boring — chances are they're going to wander back to their favorite app instead.
It's also important to keep in mind that your visitors may be viewing sites on a computer for the first time, and there's a learning curve involved with using a mouse. Keep your objects large, so even kids struggling to keep the mouse steady can click them.
By now, most kids have some experience using a computer and have moved beyond their fascination with colors and shapes. They have better dexterity, so objects can be smaller and the navigation can be a little more complex, but don't go overboard.
You still want to make things as easy to use as possible, or your visitors will quickly become frustrated.
Reading skills vary drastically at this age level, so while it's a good idea to include text, you should keep it simple. Use short sentences, easily-recognized words, and visual context clues. And don't forget the graphics. Kids at this age still love pictures.
By this point, most kids are well-versed in technology, so you can use more complex navigation and smaller objects. They're also much better with language, so go ahead and add all the words you need to.
Just remember, like adults, kids will quickly lose interest if confronted with large blocks of text. Break things up with plenty of images and white space.
There's a temptation to either over-protect this age group or treat them exactly as you would an adult. Both impulses are wrong. While it's important to talk to teenagers like they're adults, you can't forget that their interests and concerns are very different.
This age group also has huge variations in reading level. If you're planning to target struggling readers, make sure you don't fall into the trap of dumbing down your content. You'll want to use simple words and sentence structures, but make sure your information is still geared toward teens.
Keep it Private
If you're creating a site for kids under 13 years of age, you are legally required to adhere to strict privacy regulations, as specified in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
If you plan on collecting any information from children, you first need to get their parents' permission, and you need to provide parents with a way to view that information and remove it if they choose. Parents should also have the option to prevent any information about their child from being collected.
The safest approach is to avoid collecting any personal information from children, including their names.
While this act doesn't cover sites targeting teenagers, you should still take their privacy very seriously.
We tend to assume teenagers are tech savvy, but the reality is they know how to use the internet, not how to use it wisely. Many teens are experiencing free access to the Web for the first time, and they haven't been informed of the potential risks.
If your site does request personal information, make sure to provide information about the risks involved, and caution your visitors against providing anything that could easily identify them in the real world. If there is a social element to your site, be sure to provide cautions against oversharing on there as well.
While your site may be harmless, you should never assume all of your visitors will be.
Don't Forget the Parents
For most young kids, your site will be completely off limits unless it gets their parents' stamp of approval.
Along with providing clear privacy policies and access to their children's information, it's a good idea to provide resources specifically geared toward parents.
This could be as simple as a site overview to let them know what their children will be learning and experiencing, or it could include additional content, such as study guides or learning resources.
To build a successful kid-friendly website, you don't have to start from scratch. There are dozens of popular and well-executed sites on the internet, ranging from purely educational and edutainment (education with game-like elements) to sites that focus on just plain fun.
Before you start designing your site, study several that match your target goals. Note the use of consistent elements (colors, layouts, fonts, etc), how the sites make it easy for kids to get involved, and how well each site's implied goals are met.
The following resources will help you find effective websites and design your own kid-friendly site.
American Library Association: Great Websites for Kids: before you start building your own site for kids, you should become acquainted with other successful children's websites. This site has compiled many of the best, so your homework is half finished. Bonus, it's updated regularly, so you can stay in the know — and maybe one day get your own site added to their list.
Common Sense Media: Best Kid-Friendly Websites: like the ALA site, this page has compiled a list of the best sites for kids. They take it a step further and break that list down by age group. This is particularly useful is you're still deciding your target audience or the type of content that would best suit them.
Intuit Small Business Blog: Building a Kid-Friendly Website: this quick guide provides some useful advice on adhering to federal laws regarding children's privacy and tailoring your content for children. Its content suggestions are primarily geared toward young children, so if you're targeting tweens or teens, you may want to check out the Common Sense Media link above as well, to make sure your site is age appropriate.
Smashing Magazine: Best Practices for Websites for Kids: this lengthier guide provides a range of suggestions, presenting commonality and differences between site design for various age groups.
The Children's Online Privacy Act: the FTC site provides an overview of COPPA regulation, guides to adherence, and a compliance plan you can walk through to make sure your site is taking appropriate steps to protect the privacy of your young visitors.
Designing a website for kids doesn't have to be a daunting task, but you need to do your homework before you begin.
Children's interests and abilities vary greatly, so once you've picked a target audience, study other sites designed for that age range and analyze the type of content they provide.
Most important, remember that your job is not simply to present content you think kids should learn; you need to provide content that engages them, so they get excited and want to learn.
Further Reading and Resources
We have more guides, tutorials, and infographics related to technology and learning:
A+ Math Student Guide & Resources: tips and tools for learning math.
Educational Websites for Kids: a great list of websites to help kids learn.
Web Resources for Digital Literacy in the Classroom: different ways to use the internet in the classroom.
Build an Age Appropriate Kid-Friendly Website
Want to learn to create great websites for children? Check out our infographic, Build an Age Appropriate Kid-Friendly Website: