Many educators and parents are searching for apps that provide the best environment for learning to take place. Generally, this means apps that deliver meaningful content with an in-depth experience incorporating discovery and challenge. These apps are often “free-play” or “choice-filled” games which encourage kids to engage in their own learning. They have activities designed to support the child as they progress and master tasks.
However, a lot of apps don’t fit this ideal. They don’t offer children independent choices and they stay on the surface of educational subjects instead of diving into deep thinking. What about these apps? Is there value in them too or should we encourage people not to use them?
Just because we have an ideal doesn’t mean there isn’t value in the other experiences. To help me make sense of the different kinds of apps I have reviewed and the different values they offer, I created 10 overlapping categories. Sounds like a lot? It is. It gets even more complicated because many apps fit into two or three different categories. There are just so many different kinds of educational apps. We would be remiss to overlook how each gives something a little different to a child’s learning experience.
Breaking Down the 10 Categories
1. Classroom and Educational Best Practices: I know best practices is a catch-phrase, but it means something to me as a teacher. It means that I am incorporating something into my classroom that has a strong research foundation of effectiveness. In the app world, best practices are the ideal app I described above. Apps that integrate depth of content and choice empower learners and construct understanding. You can read a great description at Common Sense Media.
2. Playful Learning: These are the apps that I tend to enjoy the most. They are silly, funny, free form and go anywhere you want to take them. They are user driven and often fall in the art category (which is a shame because educational concepts can be playful too). You want these apps for your kids because they encourage creativity, thought and lead to more playful experiences off the app.
3. eBooks: Oh I love eBooks, but since we don’t review many for KinderTown I don’t get to spend much time with these awesome apps. When reviewing an eBook for educational content, not just a good read, I look for the experience to encourage learning through listening and observation. eBooks that use meaningful interactivity (not just tap to see what happens) for extra practice and play also fall into this category. It is always exciting to find stories that use interactivity to connect learning experiences and vocabulary to real life.
Check out this eBook by Unit 11 to see what I mean: A day with a difference.
4. Workbooks/Worksheet: I often grumble when reviewing worksheet apps because throughout my coursework and classroom experiences, so-called experts admonished me never to use worksheets in the classroom (full disclosure: I used worksheets in my classroom too). These apps usually offer up a question and asks the child to choose between four choices. I wouldn’t encourage this kind of app for play time, but why not use them for homework and extra practice? Especially if you are replacing the time your child is spending with sheets of paper and pencils, the app can have many more benefits. They’re great for fluency, test prep, and direct one step content practice. When choosing apps for this category it’s important to think about when these kinds of apps are most appropriate, not if they utilize the latest best practices.
Check out the Murky Reef apps a high-quality interactive workbook app.
5. Puzzles and Traditional Games: You know all the boxed games that have gathered dust since you purchased the iPad? There are now many puzzle, memory, matching and other classic early learning games available in app form. I can’t make claims to their effectiveness for spatial reasoning, but they have the potential to support cognitive development. “All things in moderation,” which means dust off the traditional puzzles once in a while, but these apps are really fun for kids too. They also cover a lot of thematic vocabulary.
6. Hobby and Theme Experiences: These apps let your child delve into themes that really interest them. If your child can’t get enough of dinosaurs why not grab a few dinosaur apps and let them explore. Just like you would go to the library and grab a few books. You probably don’t have the time to hunt down only the best books available. You know that right now your child is just absorbing so much of their passion that it is hard to keep up.
7. Interactive Encyclopedias: This one is easy – you get to see videos, images and even play games right in the app. Do I need to say more?
Best example: all of the ABC Apps by Peapod Labs.
8. BYOC for kids – Build Your Own Content: These are less games and more open design apps that let adults and kids create their own unique activities from scratch. The benefit of these apps is building what you want instead only using what is being offered. This is very important for kids who need more than what is being taught at school due to being over or under grade level. These apps are also great for parents who want to create a special experience for their child but nothing that currently exists to do it.
9. Not Academic but Child Friendly: Kids need a lot more than Literacy, Math, Social Studies and Science to become successful adults. Yet, educational or academic usually falls into these standard subjects. This kind of app is still educationally appropriate for kids but falls under the category of “expressive play” more than directly academic.
Apps like Toca Doctor let kids playfully explore health and the often scary doctor experiences.
10. Content Exposure: These are the apps that do educational as described in the ideal way above but don’t hit all the criteria. What they do well is give kids a chance to experience educational content again in a different way than the classroom. If your child is struggling with understanding the lifecycle of plants, an app like this might be the way to make the connections to the content they need.
My favorite recent example is Marble Math. If you have a reluctant math learner in your home this is an app you need to own. A lot of learning takes place even though it doesn’t meet all the criteria in the narrow standard of excellence described above.
Throughout my journey in education, I have learned both as a student and through my students that there is not one way that a child is going to learn every time. A variety of app options provide an opportunity to search for what is going to suit each child best. That doesn’t hit on the issue of discovering these apps, but there is much more out there than the “gold standard” that gives a valuable learning experience for your child.
Carolina Nugent | Education Director | KinderTown