6 Tips for Finding Great Educational Apps for Kids

Dan Tynan
August 18, 2014

Here’s a dirty secret the people who build apps for kids rarely talk about: Most so-called “educational” titles suck.

Boy with a tablet computer
Boy with a tablet computer


It’s not that developers are trying to build crappy apps. It’s just insanely difficult to get them right. One app might be truly educational but hopelessly boring. Another could be a fun game that rewards rote repetition without teaching. Plenty are attempts by toy and media companies to burn their brands into your child’s brain — and, because they’re labeled “educational,” they allow parents to feel less guilty about parking their kids in front of them.

“Candidly, a lot of these apps are terrible,” says Dylan Arena, co-founder and chief learning scientist for Kidaptive, a developer of adaptive learning tools. “The people who build them are well-intentioned, but they tend to overestimate how much they know about learning.”

Weeding out the good apps from the bad is difficult even for Arena, who holds a Ph.D. in learning sciences and technology design from Stanford.

“When my son turned 2, I thought we’d curl up with my iPad, find a few great educational games, and be rocking and rolling,” Arena says. “I spent an hour combing through the iTunes Store trying to figure out if games were good or not. I’d been studying this stuff for six years, and even I couldn’t tell.”

In app stores, titles tend to look alike. Nearly every game aimed at the pre-K crowd in particular claims to be educational, even if all it really does is tell you that cows go moo or that 1 + 1 = 2.  

It’s no wonder that most parents — myself included — don’t have a clue how to pick the right apps. That’s why I talked to Arena and other people who do. Here’s what they told me:

1. Do your research.
You know how you’re constantly lecturing your kids about doing their homework? Well, now it’s your turn. When it comes to picking the right apps for your kids, there is no substitute for research. Fortunately, sites like Common Sense Media, Balefire Labs ($4 a month), or Children’s Technology Review Exchange help by recommending apps already vetted by experts.

Screenshot from Common Sense Media website
Screenshot from Common Sense Media website

Common Sense Media rates kids’ apps across a broad range of criteria, including educational value, gameplay, blatant consumerism, and more.

These sites are great for finding apps you can give to a toddler, tween, or teen without drowning in parental guilt, but they cover only a fraction of the titles in the app stores. They’re a good start, but you’ll still need to do your own legwork.

You should also check app reviews in the iTunes or Google Play stores, suggests Jacob Klein, CEO of Motion Math, whose games teach math concepts to K-6 kids. Most people don’t have a clue about whether a game is truly educational, he says, but they can tell you if the app has technical problems or if their kids quickly grew bored.

2. Ask a teacher. 
If your kid’s teacher is up to speed on technology, she’ll probably be able to recommend a few apps that fit the lessons she’s trying to teach, says Shira Lee Katz, senior director of educational content for Common Sense Media. Or your school might have a technology coordinator who’s current with the latest titles.

You also want to look at the app’s website and see if the developers have a background in education or use professional teachers as consultants.

3. Go for a spin.
Of course you want to play with the app before you unleash it on the little nubbins, but there are a few important caveats. One is that you’ll probably have to pay for the app first — most educational apps do cost a nominal amount of money up front, and some also feature in-app purchases. That’s why research is important; you don’t want to buy a hundred of these things at $2 to $6 a pop to find three worth keeping.

The second is that you’re not 3 years old anymore, or 5 or 8 or 12. What seems appealing to you might be a complete yawn to your kids. Also, a lot of apps are adaptive — they get harder as you get better at them. So an app that seems like it might be too challenging for your 8-year-old might just be hard because it’s trying to challenge you.

In Motion Math: Wings, you steer your bird toward the correct answers by tilting your iPad.

Better advice, Klein says, is to watch your kid play with the app, and then have a conversation with him afterward.

“You want to ask him what he was playing and how it works, see if he can verbalize what the rules are,” he says. “You want him to be challenged but not frustrated. Sometimes things that seem simple or boring to us can be utterly fascinating to third-graders.”

4. Be wrong.
When you’re testing an app, see what it does when you get something wrong, advises Larisa Ozols, head of marketing and community management for Kata Enterprises, which makes the S.M.A.R.T. Adventures Mission: Math game for girls.

Ozols says her 7- and 9-year-old daughters were playing another math game, and when they got an answer wrong, the app would flash a big red X on the screen.

“The kids were freaking out,” she says. “Our game doesn’t punish you when you get something wrong. That can really turn your kids off math.”

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A well-designed app will use hints or clues to guide you to the right answer, Klein adds. “That’s one of the ways you can tell if the app is merely quizzing you or really trying to teach you something.”

5. Go deep.
Here’s the tricky part: figuring out what the game is really trying to teach your kid and whether it has a chance of succeeding. Many educational games are little more than flash cards delivered via computer, says Kidaptive’s Arena.

“Your child may learn how to sing the ABCs song, but it doesn’t necessarily mean she understands how each letter relates to a sound,” Arena says. “She might just be singing.”

While there’s a place for apps that teach that kind of rote mastery, Arena says, the best ones inspire kids to explore deeper, solve problems, and apply knowledge in more interesting ways than simply parroting back answers.

Tinybop’s Plants game features biomes for kids to explore — no explicit lessons, goals, or right or wrong answers.

You also need to understand your child’s learning style — whether she responds to Khan Academy–style lectures, needs to get wrapped up in an immersive story line, or just wants a virtual world she can wander, says Raul Gutierrez, founder and CEO of app developer Tinybop.

“I think the real learning comes out of the conversation after they’re done playing,” he says. “That’s when their curiosity is piqued and they start asking questions.”

6. Have fun.
When done well, educational apps really do work. In an independent peer-reviewed study commissioned by Motion Math, researchers at USC found that playing the app for a week improved fourth-graders’ ability to understand fractions by 15 percent, Klein says. An SRI study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found similar improvements across all grades when students played digital learning games.

To be truly effective, though, educational apps also need to be fun. Because if they’re not, your kids won’t use them, no matter how much you nag. That makes creating a great educational app especially challenging.

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“A lot of people equate the term ‘educational’ with ‘boring,’ ” says Common Sense Media’s Katz. “That’s a dangerous mentality to get into. The app needs to be compelling enough that kids stick with it. Rote learning tools get old fast. You want something that builds a larger context and relates to their lives.”

Mobile apps have an enormous potential for changing not only how kids are taught but also how they think about the world. Most don’t come close to meeting that potential. But a few do, and as a parent it’s your job to find them.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.