6 Tips for Finding Great Educational Apps for Kids
Here’s a dirty secret the people who build apps for kids rarely talk about: Most so-called “educational” titles suck.
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.
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.