How to choose the best educational apps for children

There is now so much educational apps out there for children that parents and educators often struggle to know what tools are most useful for supporting children’s learning, educating them while they are entertained and have a level of quality that previously has been curated for us by other professionals.

There is no effective regulation around what makes an app or digital content educational. Anyone can put that label on an app and it does not mean it is well designed to support learning, just that the people involved in the creation of the app believe it is. This does not mean the app doesn’t have amazing educational value and can support children to learn, but it is not a given. As parents and educators we have to remember that.

So, here are the principles we came up with to guide your children in selecting the perfect educational apps.

“Educational” doesn’t mean “drill and kill.”

New children’s apps are continuously released, with many claiming to be educational. The interactive and playful nature of apps is often appealing and engaging for children. And, mobile apps offer a great opportunity for exposing young children to educational concepts before they start school. But, if these apps aren’t designed to meet the unique developmental abilities of young children, then are they really educational?

The 5 main criteria to work on when assessing the educational potential of apps: engagement, developmental appropriateness, instructional design, motivation, and accessibility.

  • Engagement: User Friendly, Intuitive interface
  • Developmental Appropriateness: Age appropriate content and interface
  • Instructional Design: Supports learning goals, meet learner’s expectations, features that allow for feedback, assessment and reflection
  • Motivation: Gaming principles and motivating methods, connects with Life-world experiences
  • Accessibility: Personalization features, Multiple learning styles for different types of users

The above five criteria is based on Apple’s Apps in The Classroom Guide.

Open-ended play is enriching, too.

Children, especially young children, have a developmental need to play and use their imaginations. Open-ended play gives kids a chance to explore their world in ways that are often out of reach to them. Here are three reasons open-ended digital play experiences are great for young kids.

1. Empowerment. Little kids are used to being told what to do most of the day. Even when they have choices it’s often either-or (and both options are decided by adults). High-quality open-ended apps put kids in control of where they go, when they go there and what they’ll do when they get there. Kids can practice decision-making skills and see how their own actions affect their experience.

2. Opportunities for role play. Role play is one of the ways kids learn about their world, practice social skills, explore feelings, prepare for scary things or make sense of them afterward, and more — all in a safe, comfortable and fun way. High-quality open-ended apps give kids the freedom to explore roles without having a story imposed upon them; they can tailor the stories to their own experiences.

3. The thrill of exploration and discovery. In high-quality open-ended play, kids aren’t focused on reaching a goal imposed by others. Instead, these toys allow kids to experience what it’s like to explore new areas and delight in the discovery of new things. Kids are motivated by their own curiosity; any goals are ones they set for themselves.

Consider what you’d like your kid to learn

Are you interested in boosting certain academic subjects such as math and reading, or are you looking for skill builders for creativity, logical thinking, or social-emotional learning? Or a combination of these? Educational App Store learning outcomes evaluate each app’s potential for facilitating your child’s learning in these broad areas.


*A grid for determining the pedigree of an app. Putting Education in “Educational” Apps by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek et al.

Watch out for ads and add-ons.

The cost of apps has no observable impact on either achievement or engagement. Some kids’ apps are free to play initially, but dangle all kinds of extra goodies that cost money. Earlier this year, Amazon was forced to refund over $70 million in in-app purchases made by children without their parent’s knowledge. Apple and Google have had to do the same in years past.

Always look for apps that have a flat fee or subscription model, maybe with a free trial so you can check it out before you commit. The iTunes store now provides a list of in-app purchases, so caveat emptor.

Enjoy the Adventure

Now that you have an idea of what to consider when choosing apps, where do you start? How do you find apps that are developmentally appropriate and will keep students and kids engaged? Which apps will meet your learning goals, keep your children motivated, and reach every type of learner?

One great place to start is right in the Parent and Teacher App Library. The handpicked, subject-focused Education Collections cover a wide range of subjects for a variety of levels and learning styles.

It’s an exciting time of innovation in learning. We’re seeing apps that provide engaging, Multi-Touch, rich experiences that were never before possible. Have fun exploring the amazing world of education apps.

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