Children have reminded me of how important stories are; what it means to be brave; how difficult it is to be different; how hard it is to go to school; and how important it is to be with other people. Children have taught me they have much to say if only we adults would listen.

Janusz Korczak, a champion for children’s rights, whose work led to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, explained, “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect.” Young people have their own needs and desires that can vary by age, abilities and even gender.

As we know, children play games, chat with friends, tell stories, study history or math, and we must now accept that these activities can be supported by various hardware and software technologies. Whether children are learners in school, at home, or in public spaces, they are also consumers of technology and creators of information. From mobile phones, tablets, and social media to storage in the ‘cloud’, hi-tech tools are changing the way children live and learn. As these new technologies become ever more critical to our children’s lives, we need to understand how they can support children in ways that make sense for them as young learners, explorers and avid technology users.

“I’ve come to realize that the best way to understand what young people need is to give them a voice.”

Thanks to my work with children over the years, I’ve come to realize that the best way to understand what young people need is to give them a voice in the design and revision of new technologies. Without a child’s unique perspective, as one 9-year-old boy explained, “It’s like making clothes for someone you don’t know the size of.”

Since 1999, I have led an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Maryland in computer science, information science, education and engineering to work with children (ages 7–11) as co-designers of educational technologies. On average, 10 adults (faculty, staff, or students) and 7 children make a yearly commitment to work in the lab two afternoons a week during the school year, and two weeks during the summer. The children typically stay for two years and meet with our interdisciplinary team of adults to brainstorm, sketch ideas, prototype new technologies, and test their impact in educational settings.

Over many years, we created a process of working with children called ‘cooperative inquiry’. It is a process that enables adults and children to share their ideas, minimizing differences in age and communication styles. For example, children and adults brainstorm together by sketching their ideas using simple art supplies such as paper, clay, paste and pipe cleaners to create low-tech prototypes or models of new technologies. Cooperative inquiry comprises many techniques, from using big paper to sketch ideas to filling sticky notes with likes and dislikes, but whatever the technique, the goal remains the same – to give voice to all ideas.

From these ideas, innovation is born. Innovation is embodied in the numerous new mobile apps, large-scale digital libraries or storytelling applications that we have built. However, what is most empowering is coming to better understand children. The brainstorming co-design experience offers us a bridge to connect with children, through which we can learn about who they are and what they need. Yes, some of our brainstorming leads to fanciful ideas – children regularly suggest magic sofas, interactive footsteps, superpower necklaces and magic wands. But over the years we also learned that children want:

“…a computer to help people who speak different languages talk to each other. Right now everybody fights and my dad says it’s because nobody understands each other. With my computer every time people don’t get it, they could press a button and make it right.” [Researcher Notes, 1997]

“…a new super computer that lets me learn anything I want. I hate school and that’s where the teachers are. I don’t want to go. I want to be anywhere to learn.” [Researcher Notes, 2001]

“…a cellphone that only tells me nice texts. I can shut off my cellphone and I don’t have to see the bullies. But I’d rather make it impossible for anyone to bully anyone else ever again.”

My partnerships with children are changing the way I see what is possible. Children challenge me to ask hard questions. Their honesty and fearless curiosity make it possible to explore uncharted territory. I am grateful to have learned that children have a lot to say, not only about new technologies, but also about the world they live in.