Helping Parents Choose Quality Apps for Kids

There are now over 500,000 apps marketed as “educational” in the app stores, the majority of which are targeted towards children and even babies. Parents are led to believe that these apps provide real learning opportunities for their children, but scientific research suggests that many of the apps are nothing more than digital candy.

So what makes an app educational rather than merely entertaining? The authors present four principles, or “pillars,” that lead to a more effective educational experience: active involvement, engagement, meaningfulness, and social interaction.

Technology has paved the way for new and exciting teaching practices within the classrooms. Where there is no shortage of educational apps being made available to the teaching community, more and more schools are investing in mobile applications (for usage on iPads, RM Slates and Android tablets etc) to use creatively and within core subject areas to enhance teaching practices.

Child-PlayHowever, the dilemma that most teachers and parents face is in determining what constitutes as developmentally appropriate applications to support and encourage learning with young children.

According to academic research, the following guidelines are found to be a good starting point when selecting applications to integrate into classroom settings:

1.  Look for apps that are purposeful and educational – While they can be fun or enjoyable, the apps used within a classroom (or even a home setting) must be designed with clarity and include clear learning aims.

In the instance where you are considering apps that encourage children to read, look at the methods that are used within the app to determine the suitability it may have for teaching.

In a scenario where the recognition of the individual sounds of the alphabets, or phoneme awareness, is crucial in the early stages of reading, it is important to find apps that suit the requirements of the subject area in the classroom; be it synthetic letter by letter awareness or whole word analytic word acquisition.

2. Locate apps that are interactive, transparent and intuitive – Particularly, in cases where the app selected should provide for both ‘interactivity and transparency’ in which their functions should be clearly defined and intuitive. This takes into account the design of the app transparency and the child’s intuitiveness, where if the child touches the pad, with the intent to zoom in and out of focus, the app completes the clearly defined task within a single operation.

Effective interactivity in use of apps should encourage children to be more brains-on and hands-on, engaging and empowering, and be able to give the child complete control so as to support the child’s learning potential. High levels of involvement and engagement is a good indicator that the child is focusing on the activity or exploration itself and not on the functionality or jazziness of the app.

Be cautious with apps that include rapid change of images and fast moving illustrations.  This can cause strain on the child’s eyes and can also result, if over used, in producing short attention spans.  At the same time, be aware of non-interactive apps where the child is watching the screen for periods of time which can lead to passive viewing and overexposure of screen time.

3.  Encourage the child to be in control – The child must be in control when using the app and not vice versa where the application is controlling the child through some type of programmed learning.  Where there is evidence to suggest that programmed software may be ‘effective’ in developing a range of mathematical and literacy skills, this approach is contrary to popular conceptions of good practices.

educational app qualityThere are several apps that include ‘closed’ problem solving where there is only one right answer and the child has several attempts to find the correct answer.  In cases where a child cannot progress to the next level because the child is unable to answer the question correctly, and the app is programmed such that there is only one solution, there is general consensus among educators (and parents too) that this type of learning may actually hinder the child’s progress to learn and can result in the child’s loss of motivation and engagement.

More effective apps which offer multiple solutions to the problem are more appropriate and where there is a real challenge for the child to clarify a problem.  In the case of a maths app and young children, look out for apps that have timers attached to them. Unless used as a quiz or a quick test, the use of timer can make children anxious and hinder their self-esteem.

4. Select apps which can encourage collaboration between the teacher/facilitator/parent and child - While this is especially important in the early years between that of teacher and child; this is less instructive in the primary years, where the teacher takes on more of a role as a facilitator.  While many apps can provide for independent exploration, research shows that more collaborative working and ‘engaged joint attention’ can bring about better cognitive challenges

More communication and collaborative approaches of teaching methods are found to be especially rewarding as it encourages a balanced approach of learning setting for both the child and the adult. It is found to combine the provision of independent exploration with more focused group work that can involve adult instruction and facilitation within a more ‘naturalistic’ environment.

This type of learning scenario is highly successful when teachers have a strong grasp of their subject content knowledge along with sound pedagogy practices and technical knowledge of the educational app.

5. Look for apps that can strengthen the home and school connections – Bridge the home and school environment such that the selected app can be transferred from home to school without any additional costs for the parents/guardian.

The use of apps can offer new and more affordable ways for family members to become involved in their child’s educational direction and studies have shown that when parents, teachers and children collaborate towards the same goals it leads to the improved academic performance of children (Siraj-Blatchford, I. et al 2001).

Schools also report that children show a more positive attitude towards learning and are better behaved.  By bridging the home and school environment, and modelling the effective use of learning with the selected app, parents can become better informed ‘teachers’ who can further extend the classroom learning within selected activities at home.

6. Avoid apps that contain any indication of violence or stereotyping – As with any new forms of technology, the chosen apps should be ‘tasteful and suitable in content’ to justify for its use within the educational curriculum.  Avoid apps with images which resemble aggressive actions o which contain images of weaponry.  Be overly cautious and steer clear of stereotypical images or actions related to social class, ethnicity and gender distinctions.

The plethora of apps available can lead to much confusion in understanding what will benefit children the most when used within a learning setting. In the current environment of variety, it is both necessary and important to screen the apps. The six points highlighted above will help start the selection process.

I hope that you find this advice useful! Keep us posted on your experiences with the apps!


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