How to choose the best educational apps for kids

Photo credit: Tristan Louis

If you google "best educational apps for kids," it's likely that you'll be quickly overwhelmed by thousands of lists, each claiming to have best-in-class apps for your child's learning path. How do you know which one to trust?

The answer is, "it depends." It depends on you - your goals for your child's digital habits, your child's unique interests and motivations, and a few other factors that we discuss below. Whatever your choice, remember that, as we wrote previously, regardless of which apps you choose, being your child's digital "mentor" is the most important decision you can make when it comes to technology and your child.

As Warren Buckleitner, the founder and editor of the Children's Technology Review points out in the video below when he describes the process of making a quality app for kids, "It's like making a stew. If you have good ingredients, everything else comes together. Very few people understand the psychology of translating a good transaction to a screen."

Under the hood: 3 elements of high-quality educational apps

  1. Does the app actively engage your child?

There's a big difference between passive digital "babysitting" where kids aimlessly tap and drag without understanding what they're learning and a more purposeful experience that provides authentic engagement centered around learning. As Tara Haelle, a former teacher, writes in the Dallas Morning News, "gears in the child's brain should be turning" when a child is engaged in a high-quality app. Ask yourself, "Is my child actually learning something in a unique way through this app, something that the real world can't replicate?" If the answer is "yes," chances are, your kid will truly be engaged.

There's a difference between digital babysitting and authentic engagement centered around learning.

2. Does the app use interactivity for purposeful learning?

Aim for apps that use interactivity to purposefully reinforce learning rather than to simply provide an entertainment-focused distraction. Heather Kirkorian, an associate professor of childhood development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says, "in terms of bells and whistles, use them strategically. You don't want to have a lot of distracting things that pull away from the key lesson." And be sure the learning itself is purposeful. Stay away from apps that feel random, where you can't understand how learning one concept helps you learn the next one. The best apps use a scaffolded approach, where children learn basic concepts and then apply what they've learned to learn something more complex. Ask yourself, "Can my child understand what they'll actually be learning? Do the things they learn build upon one another to help them advance their understanding?

Stay away from apps that feel random, where you can't understand how learning one concept helps you learn the next one.

3. Does the app build in social interactions?

Social interaction (most crucial for younger kids but, as the Dallas Morning News points out, doesn't lose its importance for older kids) is critical offline and online. The best apps, including our own Papumba Academy, which prominently features Family Moments an activity purposefully designed around offline family activities, are designed around social interaction with others. As yourself, "How much is my child encouraged to interact with me, his or her peers, or teachers through the activities in this app?"

Social interaction is critical offline and online.

Behind the scenes: More to a great app than meets the eye

Now that we've delved into which high-quality elements to look for, let's go behind the scenes and look at other factors that may not be apparent just by using the app.

Who's behind the app?

In the same way that you wouldn't just hand your child off to a random stranger, you probably don't want to have your child engage with apps without knowing more about the developer, either. A New York Times article from last year encourages readers to research the company, its values and - most important - whether actual educators played a role in developing it. "If an app is created in conjunction with educators, that's a really good sign," according to Christine Elgersma, a senior editor at Common Sense Media, one of the most trusted sources of credible reviews for media aimed at kids (from apps to TV). Many developers, Papumba included, are eager to promote their educator involvement on their websites.

What do the experts think?

What do experts - from teachers and educators to fellow parents - think? Reviews from trusted sources like Common Sense Media really matter. Dr. Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, director of the Center for Research on Children, Adolescents and the Media at the University of Amsterdam also recommends, Children's Technology Review (which requires an annual $60 subscription). She adds, "Not only do they provide reviews from someone with a pedagogical background, but they provide videos of the app, how educational and entertaining it might be and some of the bugs in it."

Ka-ching! Is that app trying to get your child to buy?

Manipulating children to buy things online not only distracts from learning, but is manipulative and unethical, right? So check to make sure the app isn't trying to manipulate you or your child with ads or tricks designed to get you to buy.

Look for safety and privacy certification.

Forget Facebook. Think about all the information you're entrusting to apps in the name of "customizing" the experience for your child - from birthdays and names to photos and interests. Check out the privacy policy (make sure it is easy to find, read, and understand). As an additional layer, there are certifications that good developers seek out and list on their apps. For example, the kidSAFE Seal Program includes several degrees of certification and lists certified apps on their site (Papumba is one of them).

Good app developers will list privacy and child safety certifications - like the kidSAFE seal program - on their apps.

Know your child - know your child's apps.

You know your child better than anyone - from attention span to interests. There are many apps - whether they are labeled as educational or simply games - that can inspire your child to learning and creativity. Observe your child as they engage with the app. Are they aimlessly tapping without learning or understanding what they're doing as they interact with the app? Do they get too frustrated or bored? Do they seem grumpy or restless after playing with the app? You know your child best. Trust your instincts when it comes to gauging the quality of your child's experiences with the app.

Trust your instincts when it comes to gauging the quality of your child's experiences with the app.

Now that you understand a bit more about how to choose a great educational app for your child, look for next month's article on our own favorites!

Co-Founder of Papumba* *Papumba is one of the U.S.'s top three educational app developers. We fully embrace the idea that young kids get the most out of technology when parents and kids engage in digital experiences together. We design our apps with this in mind.

Along with other committed developers of educational apps, Papumba is dedicated to improving children's access to quality experiences with apps and technology. Learn more about Papumba Academy by visiting www.Papumba.com

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