Seven Questions to Help You Pick Out Good Learning Apps for Kids

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Jan 4, 2018

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The right apps for young kids can be a learning experience; the wrong ones can frustrate development.

They walked into my clinic, husband and wife, in silence. Looking at their stressed faces one could instantly tell they had a strained relationship; it was with their 4-year-old daughter, Rhea*, they said.

Rhea started feeling restless during class, at birthday parties, when playing with peers, and on drives. She would hit peers and refused to follow instructions. Initially, her parents laughed it off as an excess of energy or adjustment to a new school. But a year later, teachers complained, parents refused play dates, and now, they were fighting with each other over what to do.

My questions revealed Rhea was not hyperactive, but showed signs of anxiety — at times. When? When she was not on her tablet playing games, watching videos, or clicking selfies (Yes, Rhea had the perfect pout).

Rhea’s parents, like most parents, used their iPad as a postmodern pacifier. They handed it to her while shopping, eating, travelling, and entertaining guests. They believed it was a productive way to keep their daughter engaged, “a quick fix to a cranky child.” Unwittingly, the constant use of the iPad to soothe Rhea conditioned her to believe that each time she cried, hit someone, or threw things around, her parents would hand her the iPad. Of course, this 4-year-old was not conscious of how her behavior affected her parents; all her subconscious mind knew was: “When I cry I get the iPad; to get the iPad I must cry.”

Spending time with Rhea revealed that she wanted the iPad because, like most 4-year-olds, all she wanted to do was “play,” and she had “no one to play with” but the iPad. Rhea’s parents never ignored her, but they had a limited amount of energy that had to be divided between Rhea, their exhausting jobs, and home responsibilities of a nuclear setup.

Rhea’s parents are not alone. India is changing; along with it are their families, parents, and parenting styles. No longer do we live in big joint families, no longer do mothers have to quit working, and no longer are children limited in their opportunities to learn. With technology, and especially our mobile phones and tablets, everything is but a tap away. But our enthusiasm for technology (or our exhaustion), often outweighs our savviness in navigating this new environment on behalf of our kids.

Many Indian families rely on screens for kids’ entertainment and education, believing the exposure will give their kids an edge in today’s rat race. But that’s only possible if parents sieve through the content first to make sure it’s kid friendly. Rhea’s parents – most parents – did not, leading to undesirable effects on her all-round development. The apps Rhea was playing with did not develop the essential skills needed for a preschooler, encourage desired behavior or use appropriate visual and audio cues.

Certain apps and videos, however, can be a productive source of engagement for children. What matters is the type of app used, duration the child is exposed to the app, and age appropriateness of the app. Here are seven, quick questions you, as a parent, can ask to evaluate content and make sure your child is getting the most out of screen time.

Is the app/video age-appropriate?

Age and developmental requirements must be kept in mind when choosing an app. This means no violent, scary, or “sexy” stuff. The buttons and choice of navigation must be clearly identifiable and easy to tap. The visual and verbal cues must reinforce learning and encourage a feeling of independent play and interaction.

Pro tip: A good example of this is Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame by Sesame Street.

What skills does the app/video strengthen?

Look for apps that help strengthen cognitive, creative, reasoning, problem solving, and language skills.  with the apps should have clear learning goals and a description of what the kid can learn. Be wary of lofty or unsubstantiated claims about knowledge and skills your child will supposedly gain from playing the app or watching the video (unless there is independent research that proves benefits). Remember, ‘educational’ is just a marketing label; not every app under that category actually supports learning, and some that do are under different app categories, so shop around.

Pro tip: Leo’s iPad Enrichment Program is a good example of an app that can combine engagement with learning. It not only covers cognitive skills but also emotional awareness.

Does the app/video match how your kid needs to play?

At different stages, kids require different kinds of play, dependent on their development. Little kids need open-ended experiences that focus on creativity, imagination, and exploration. Older kids need games with rules, ways to win, puzzles, and problem-solving activities.

Regardless of the play pattern, the app should offer something off screenplay cannot offer. Make their on-screen experience different.

Is your kid interested?

Find a subject, activity, or an environment your kid loves, and then choose an app that reflects this. If your kid loves oceans and you would like to focus on their numerical skills, choose an app that focuses on numerical skills and has an underwater theme. Using things and themes they are interested in to help them learn concepts. By connecting their off-screen and on-screen lives, in this format, parents create more receptive learners and active participants.

Is the app/site safe?

Read the privacy policy (even though they are not always easy to read, it’s worth it), check your device settings, and look for child-safety certifications (e.g. Common Sense Media). Some apps are completely kid friendly and kid safe, with simple privacy policies and without ads and collecting personal information; others are not. Ensure the app is not asking for your kids’ personal information, storing sensitive data, or allowing contact with strangers. If the app has social communication features (rare in preschool apps, but common in apps for older children), make sure settings approve family and friends only.  The important thing to do is read the fine print, do your research, and adjust your settings to control what information you give and get.

Will you be able to use it with your kid?

Use the app with your child for the first few times. Kids learn best when their parents are playing them. Using the app with your child gives you an opportunity to interact with them, help them understand concepts better, and is a great way to go through the app and ensure it is kid friendly and kid safe.

What do other people say about the app/video?

Read reviews and ratings from other users to get a sense of the apps’ suitability for your child. However, be aware some app developers request for 5 star ratings in exchange for a power-up or free level. So, use reputable websites like Common Sense Media to understand whether the app is appropriate for your child or not. Look for reviews that share specific strengths of the app, have handpicked recommendations, and unbiased expert reviews.

*Name changed to protect the privacy of a minor.

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Written By Priyanka Varma

Priyanka Kartari is a clinical psychologist, counselor and psychotherapist. She currently consults at Holy Family Hospital, Global Hospitals, and MindCraft. Her true love is homemade chocolate cake, and when she is not daydreaming about it, she pursues her research on Internet addiction and children.

See all articles by Priyanka

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