Having played many, many educational apps for kids (I think my last count is around 1,200), I have accumulated a short list of features that I really like. I have shared many of these favorite features through this blog. Today though, I’m writing about the list of features I’d like to see more of. This post is largely in response to reoccurring design choices I see when reviewing that need to be improved or used less frequently in kids apps.
1. Add settings that let adults choose the concepts or levels their child can access It’s not fun and kids lose interest when they have to go through levels that are too easy to finally get to the part of the game that is right for them. When apps are being used in classrooms and for home learning it is important both parents and teachers can set the app for their child’s needs.
Marble Math has an exceptional amount of customization.
2. Add speech If you are making an app for kids in 2nd grade and below you should add speech. At these ages, kids are not fluent readers. Giving them an option to have the text read increases success and motivation to keep using the app. I recommend apps targeting older kids add an option to tap to hear the text read. Giving this choice creates a nice balance between encouraging reading and providing support. A bonus feature: highlight the text as it’s being read too.
Swapsies, an app for mostly non-readers, thoughtfully added text into their app.
Plants HD, for older kids, has a speaker button to read aloud the main text which is also underlined.
3. Give kids more than questions to answer Learning is more than fluency. There are a lot of popular apps that build fluency and not much else. Instead of having kids focus their energy on activities to memorize and recall information quickly, add in some depth of understanding, creativity, critical thinking, application or problem solving.
Bugs and Buttons blends together instructional games, fluency practice, problem solving, and application and it’s all done with an incredible amount of leveling and really engaging activities.
4. Use good music AND a mute button Make music more than 8 bars on repeat. Kids may not balk at the repetitive, electronic background music but it’s fair to say they don’t enjoy it and you can bet grownups hate it.
I don’t mind having the Duck Duck Moose apps on during the day because the music doesn’t make my home feel like a circus. Thankfully in the classroom most kids use headphones, but almost every review I get from our parent review team comments on how they are so glad there was a mute button in the app.
5. Lock everything that isn’t part of the child’s activity in a settings or parent page In-app purchases don’t bother me as much as they do many other reviewers, parents and teachers, but I think that is because I have seen it done really well. I’m a big fan of being able to check out a free version of an app and then make the decision if I want to pay for it. What I don’t like are ads, pop-ups, links, social media or anything else unrelated to the learning in the “kids space.” Lock it up! Put all the marketing in a page that is only accessible by someone who knows how to multiply or follow advanced touch directions.
Get creative with bonus material to get parents to access the setting page and then see your marketing. Here are some ideas:
- Checking a kid’s progress
- Bonus materials and levels that can be unlocked
- Options for customization (see number 1)
- A great learning page filled with activities and tips for using the app
6. Promote your app accurately Don’t say you teach or do something the app doesn’t do consistently. Just because you have one small problem solving game in your app doesn’t mean you should market your app as a problem solving app. As an educator I am more aware of this issue than the common user. I encourage being thoughtful about the claims you make in your marketing, including alignment to the Common Core State Standards.
Look at “Toca Doctor,” they classify themselves as a game and don’t advertise any specific learning. There are lots of ways parents and teachers can add educational value to the app which is why it is in KinderTown, but Toca Boca accurately promotes this app as a digital toy for kids.
7. Keep the app flowing! Kids loose focus when they are encouraged to jump around between pages, have to tap back buttons three times or the worst offender, having to close the app to get back to the main screen. Here are some strategies for keeping the flow:
- Have buttons easily designed for going back and forth between pages. A child should never have to exit the app to get to the home screen.
- If you have hot-spots or interactivity make sure it is relevant to the content. If kids are practicing their letters I don’t want to hear them tapping the cow and listening to it moo over and over again.
- No Pop-ups. Ever. In the middle of any games.
- Take the kids where you want them to go in the app. Too many choices means less focus on the activity.
- Keep buttons to a minimum on the screen to prevent bumping and unintended actions.
- Do I need to say it again? NO LINKS in the kids space.
8. Thoughtfully use feedback to support all learning. If you only give positive feedback for the right answers kids don’t get to practice learning from their mistakes. Use the opportunity of incorrect answers as part of the learning process. Structure your activities to have a broader learning goal. Kids love challenge and will spend much more time on an app that gives them an engaging challenge.
Monster Physics is a great example (but really hard to show with a screen shot). There are plenty of ways kids are motivated to keep trying without ever putting the emphasis on them being wrong. They don’t need to rely on cliches like Xs or frowning faces in this app – your solution to each mission either works or it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, kids want to go back and keep at it (or just try an easier mission). Great job Dan Russell-Pinson in designing this app!
Carolina Nugent | Education Director | KinderTown