Apps for Children: A Parent Guide

I am often asked to recommend apps for children, so here I am providing you with some resources to guide you in finding and selecting them.  There is a science / art to choosing the right apps for your child, and in this article I will give you some key pointers.

First, let’s talk about how to find the best apps.

My go-to source is Common Sense Media’s app list.  If you haven’t yet discovered Common Sense Media, I would urge you to investigate all of their resources and to donate if you find yourself feeling as grateful to them as I have felt as a parent over the years.  It is truly an invaluable tool for parents who want to support and protect their children in this hyper technological age.

I typically agree with Common Sense Media’s choices of apps.  I am not as much of a fan of the commercial apps (like the ones that are directly tied to popular kids’ programs) as they are, but those are harmless.  Common Sense does an excellent job of curating truly educational apps that stand the test of time.  And they have fantastic categories like “Best Kids’ Apps to Download Before a Flight.”  Ahh, I feel so understood as a parent.

Test Drive

You should absolutely test drive every single app you download BEFORE offering it to your child.  You will quickly discover whether it’s appropriate or not.  The moment you feel frustrated by something, or feel it’s too complex, or somehow inappropriate, delete it or store it in a “later” folder for when your child grows into it.

Variety

Choose a wide variety of apps, and make them available to your child at once. Perhaps start with just 3-5 apps that are each unique and invite your child to engage various subjects and types of interaction.  You can even vary the complexity of the apps so that you can see which ones frustrate your child and get a better sense for what they can handle.  Then you can start building on the app library as you get a better sense for his/her interests and abilities.

Variety is also important because it helps your child begin to learn how to use apps. The wider the variety of app styles, the more well-versed your child will be in their use, and this is early preparation for use of future technologies, which will require high levels of adaptability.

Participate

Be sure to watch carefully as your child opens and starts to use an app for the first time. You will learn quite a bit about them as you see them making choices, becoming frustrated (or not), and progressing.  Try to avoid showing your child how to use the app.  It will help you learn more about their problem-solving skills and instincts if they are allowed to figure it out on their own.  Plus you will learn which app makers know their stuff based on how easily your child can navigate their options.

But of course if you see that your child is missing something important in launching the app and you feel it’s an app issue and not a critical thinking issue, go ahead and make suggestions to help them explore the app further.

What to Look for in Apps

There are certain features to apps that make them ideal for children.  Here are the biggies:

Interaction

By this I mean that you want an app that invites your child to participate. Verbally or physically.  The app should inspire your child to actively engage the activity that the app is presenting, rather than just watch action happening.

Open Ended

This means that you want apps that present your child with questions or prompts that have more than one correct answer, or more than one path of exploration, or that offer your child extensive creative options in what they are building or designing.

The key exception here is math or puzzles, where often there is only one correct answer.  So how do you deal with that?  Look for “process”.

Process

With math apps, or any other apps that are teaching your child facts, you want the app to offer an opportunity for the child to learn process.  Figuring out the answer is much more important than the answer itself.  So look for math apps that celebrate solution building and avoid apps that just say “good job” or offer stickers for right answers. Trust me, figuring something out is rewarding enough. You don’t need stickers.

Context

You want apps that teach facts to provide contextual information.  If your child is using a math app, then it should present math in context of – say – a grocery store, a garden, an ocean, a story etc.  Avoid apps that rely strictly on numbers for math.  Context is what the brain uses as an anchor to remember facts. The richer the context (eg, a story in which math is needed to move the story along) is more likely to inspire long-term retention than an app that looks like a deck of flash cards.

The same goes for any app that is focused on facts.  Such as apps about history or science.

Multi-Disciplinary

The best apps are those which combine learning areas.  Such as an app that combines art and language, or science and music.  As you test drive the apps, ask yourself if the target content is related to other things.

Emerging Technologies

Our children are soon going to be actively using technologies that we may not yet fully understand. Get used to that feeling.  You will have it more and more frequently with every day. An app that familiarizes your child with emerging tech is a good thing.

The latest major innovation in apps is the use of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).  Don’t be afraid to introduce these to your child. They are going to be a staple of his/her learning and professional setting before you know it.   And whaddya know? Common Sense Media has recommended app lists specific to AR and VR.

These types of apps are going to come out faster than Common Sense can review them, so keep the criteria up above in mind as you see new ones hit the market.

*****

In closing, I will say that many of my son’s intellectual strengths were enhanced by his use of my carefully curated apps.  I started sharing apps with him around age 2, and he has continued to enjoy them 7 years later.  His reading, math, critical thinking and what is now an explosive passion for science were all nurtured in part by my careful selection of his apps and continued maintenance of his app library.

I know sometimes we parents feel judged by others (each other?) for encouraging our children to play with our phones or iPads, but really, that era has passed (or needs to).  This is not about offering our children mindless distraction.  On the contrary, today, certain apps offer children extraordinary opportunities for truly engaged learning. And these dynamic tools represent the types of experiences our children will increasingly have across learning and work going forward.

Enjoy, and please send me your feedback on apps that you discover and love!

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