Mobile phones and tablets give today’s young children a new place to play – on screen! Even the youngest child can poke, swipe, and pinch a touch screen to see what might happen next. When the screen reacts quickly with images and sounds, children’s experience can be highly engaging with a kind of conversational back-and-forth quality. Researchers studying this kind of “contingent” interaction find that it helps keep children’s interest and attention focused on the app’s topic, and can provide particularly powerful learning opportunities.
While apps that present high-quality age-appropriate content, can help children learn, the current app marketplace also includes many apps that claim to be educational but fall far short of their promise. How can parents assess if an app will be truly educational for their child? Research in the science of learning suggests there are five qualities that make on-screen interactions educational. Parents and teachers can look for these five “pillars of learning” when choosing educational apps for their child.
Tips for identifying high-quality educational apps:
Active participation: Avoid apps that keep children’s attention through mindless activities, like poking to hear a funny sound or randomly guessing at answers to questions. Instead, look for apps that require real thinking to participate and succeed. For example, choose a math app that lets children learn about the number five by combining a group of two objects on the screen with a group of three, and then doing the same by moving one object into a group of four.
Sustained engagement: Avoid apps that feature a lot of distractions. Instead, look for apps that support sustained engagement with the task at hand. For example, avoid apps that stop a story so children can complete a puzzle that does not move the plot forward or reveal something important about a character. Instead, choose digital stories that keep children’s attention on the story itself and what it means.
Meaningful connections: Avoid apps that present children with the knowledge that is not in context… Instead, look for apps that help children make meaningful connections between new information and what they already know. For example, an app about helping children relax and focus attention might show a character taking a deep breath, in the same way, a child could do it themselves, and describe it with simple words that they already know.
Social interaction: Interacting with other people is one of the most powerful ways that children learn. While many apps are good to play alone – just as quietly reading a book can be beneficial – avoid only downloading or buying apps that isolate children and make it hard to involve others. Instead, look for apps that encourage children to play together, compete, or share what they learn with parents, friends, and teachers.
Guided exploration: Wondering about a topic and exploring it to find out more is another powerful way that children learn. Avoid only having apps that tell your child what to know. Instead, look for apps that guide your child to discover new information that they find interesting. For example, a science app might let children learn about the qualities of light by letting them shine a virtual flashlight at mirrors to explore the resulting patterns of reflections.
While guidelines like these can help parents provide more educational app experiences, it is important to remember that children need a wide range of experiences for healthy development. The highly-engaging quality of apps can lead children to interact on-screen for long periods of time. So, parents should consider the balance of children’s various activities, and be sure that time with apps does not replace experiences that nurture the whole child, like quiet moments in nature, full-body play, and rich social interactions. Even high-quality educational apps should be just a small part of children’s experience of playing and learning in their everyday lives.