Reviewing at KinderTown is not a simple task. After reading reviews, descriptions, and screenshots, we independently make the call to put an app through the review matrix. Apps that pass the review matrix by meeting a portion of the criteria described below also may get a second round of evaluating with children, parents and teachers.
The KinderTown Review Matrix is built around four sets of criteria. Two sets focus on educational strategies, and two sets focus on user features.
Set 1: Educational Value
To evaluate educational value we look for explicit, authentic learning paired with effective feedback.
Explicit learning means that the objective presented in the app is easily identifiable. Before we even look at game play or the activity, we want to see a clear learning objective or educational experience.
Authentic is often thrown around lightly to describe educational activities. When we use authentic to describe learning we take it very seriously. For an app to use authentic learning it should simulate real experiences and be relevant to a child’s world. This is especially important for our 3-6 age range.
Authentic environments support children who are not developmentally ready to be making sophisticated, abstract connections make sense of difficult concepts. Play is the best example of authentic learning because with play, children actively explore, role play and discover to engage in the world around them.
The beautiful thing about app technology is that children can interact in authentic environments that are difficult to recreate at home or in the classroom. Speaking from my own experience designing lessons for the classroom, consistently creating authentic learning environments can be difficult to achieve. Apps that are not clearly authentic but use best practices from lesson design are always considered at KinderTown.
Feedback is a critical element that has long-lasting effects on children. Anyone working with children questions what is the best way to be constructive with praise. Research points to praising children for their effort instead of the product produced. We look for apps that model feedback on rewarding and praising children for the attempts they make or for reaching a goal instead of giving feedback only for answers right or wrong.
Set 2: Engagement
To evaluate engagement we look for meaningful, fun activities that use scaffolding to keep children motivated and create a long shelf life for the app.
Meaningful and fun can vary greatly from child to child. We evaluate these areas based on if the content would be relevant to different learning styles and if the app uses incentive strategies to keep children engaged. We believe the most powerful incentive is effective feedback as it develops intrinsic motivation. Strategies such as earning collections, sensory breaks, and social engagement also add to length of engagement.
Scaffolding is vital to educational app design and is directly related to engagement. Scaffolding is the way concepts and skills are thoughtfully layered on previous learning. Scaffolding lessens frustration by making every task slightly more challenging but not to the point where the child feels they can not accomplish the task. Often apps provide multiple levels or build in analytics that modifies the difficulty based on how the user interacts in the app.
Set 1: Ease of Use
Apps for children age 3-6 need to take into account a large span of developmental growth. A 3 year old is going to engage with a device in a much different way than a 6-year-old.
We look for apps that pair developmental appropriate content with suitable design. If the app is teaching number identification geared towards 3 and 4 year-olds but the user is required to drag and drop small items across the screen, or pinch and reverse pinch to get through the game there is a gap between design and educational value.
Ease of use also means that the child is safe in the app. Buttons for tweeting, liking, emailing, getting more apps, or upgrading the content are not necessary for children to engage in independently. We understand that these buttons are excellent tools for parents but we prefer they be locked or hidden from the child.
Set 2: Design Features
This last set is where we look for how apps integrate extra features that add to the whole experience.
We especially like to see apps that add parent features: Apps that use speech, which is critical for independent use and vocabulary development; Apps that allow multiple children to use the app, save their work, and personalize their experience. Finally, we appreciate apps that have a recording or reporting feature for parents.
Let me remind you what kinds of apps get approved by KinderTown:
We believe just about any app (even the oft-cited Angry Birds!) can be amazing in the hands of a parent or teacher who knows how to tie it to meaningful knowledge and activities. Since children are often using apps independently and don’t always have a parent or teacher to make the content meaningful, KinderTown looks for stand-alone apps that children can enjoy and learn from without the assistance of an adult.
Our objective is to do the time consuming job of discovery for parents. We aim to approve apps that meet the needs of the majority of children. We look for apps that possess quality design and demonstrate a knowledge of how young children learn. We approve a limited amount of apps so that parents can find what they need without having to spend a lot of time searching.