Finding Great Educational Apps for Your Kids

By AnnMarie Hurtado

Kyle Knight gets “appy” at one of the Pasadena Central Library’s iPad stations. PHOTO BY ANNMARIE HURTADO

Kyle Knight gets “appy” at one of the Pasadena Central Library’s iPad stations. PHOTO BY ANNMARIE HURTADO

It’s amazing to see how education and information are changing, and how that rapid change is largely being driven by handheld devices. Children today have access to so many opportunities, largely because of the plethora of mobile apps. But are children spending their screen time learning, or just being entertained?

A national survey of parents of kids ages 2 to 10 released early this year by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop – the creators of the “Sesame Street” television show – found that the amount of time children spend with educational apps dwindles as they get older, while their overall app use increases. And this is not surprising, since out of the 1.2 million apps in Apple’s App Store, the majority are games.

Even among educational apps, not all are created equal. Many book apps actually detract from reading comprehension with flashy animations that lead the child’s attention away from the purpose and meaning of the text, according to a study presented at this year’s annual conference of the American Educational Research Association. Still, iPads can be a valuable tool for children with learning disabilities, giving them communication tools and access to information through larger text and spoken audio, and for other children as well.

The tablet is clearly here to stay, so how do parents make good decisions about which apps to let their children use?

You can find reviews of educational apps online, but keep in mind that the reviewers are often paid or otherwise courted by app developers to give their apps exposure. Instead of putting your faith in websites with a commercial interest, why not ask your local children’s librarian for suggestions?

Libraries can offer guidance about apps and new media, as well as about the best books for your child. I work at the Pasadena Public Library, where I select not only books for children, but also DVDs and apps. I read reviews of apps in professional sources such as Library Journal, School Library Journal and Kirkus. I look at websites developed by librarians, including as Digital-Storytime.com and LittleeLit.com, to help me stay aware of the best new apps for kids. I am excited about the potential for apps to teach children in a whole new way. I just want to see parents taking advantage of the tablet as a tool for learning, instead of letting the app stores take advantage of their wallets.

Sylvia Burgess and her mom Sabrina Drift check out educational apps together at Pasadena Central Library. PHOTO BY ANNMARIE HURTADO

Sylvia Burgess and her mom Sabrina Drift check out educational apps together at Pasadena Central Library. PHOTO BY ANNMARIE HURTADO

For the past five years, libraries across the country have offered iPad story times or “eStorytimes,” and we recently started this at the Pasadena Public Library. The purpose of our eStorytime is to highlight great early literacy apps for preschoolers, and to model using these apps with children in an interactive way. Both our Central and Lamanda Park libraries hold an eStorytime once a month, using apps that incorporate the five skills every child should practice daily before kindergarten: talking, singing, playing, reading and writing.

For older children, the Pasadena Central Library has a pilot program called “Appy Hour,” to give kids and their parents some free, hands-on experience with high-quality educational apps. At Appy Hour, parents can try out a new app before deciding whether to purchase it. We showcase apps covering a wide variety of educational subjects, and discuss how each one uses the powerful touch, video, audio and sensory capabilities of the tablet to teach children in a new way.

Since many families do not have tablets or smartphones, we provide four iPad stations for children to use in the Children’s Room at the Central Library. They are extremely popular, and give children access to high-quality educational apps whenever the library is open. We curate this collection with the same love we give to our book collections. We also make our app recommendations available 24/7 on our Pinterest page at www.pinterest.com/pasadenalibrary.

Here are a few of the apps you’ll find there, on the library’s board of recommendations for kids 6 and up:

  • SkyView: You point the iPad in any direction, at any time of day, and see the galaxies and constellations that surround us. Children get a better sense of the roundness of our planet and its place in the universe, as well as the different constellations people see in different parts of the world. FREE.
  • My Incredible Body: The first bodily system kids will want to explore in this app will be the digestive system. It’s like a roller coaster ride through the intestines! But they’ll also get lots of information about anatomy, as well as an amazing visual and interactive experience, learning about the body’s various systems and understanding how everything fits together. 99 cents.
  • Chicken Coop Fractions: A ridiculous premise of catching the eggs popping from hens, plus a fast-paced thinking game, equals a fun way to reinforce important concepts about fractions and decimal values. FREE.
  • The Opposites: This game will expand the vocabulary of any child in grades 2 to 12 with a Tetris-like battle to identify antonyms quickly and accurately. 99 cents.
  • MoMA Art Lab: This series of fun, easy art lessons, all based on the techniques of modern abstract artists, can be done together as a family or on your own within the app’s own interface. FREE.
  • LEGO Friends Story Maker: Create your own eBooks, record your own narration and save them in a format that can be read, listened to and enjoyed any time in your iBooks app. FREE.
AnnMarie Hurtado, a children’s librarian in Pasadena, conducts monthly programs to help introduce kids and their parents to the best educational apps around. PHOTO COURTESY ANNMARIE HURTADO

AnnMarie Hurtado, a children’s librarian in Pasadena, conducts monthly programs to help introduce kids and their parents to the best educational apps around. PHOTO COURTESY ANNMARIE HURTADO

If you are lucky enough to have a tablet or smartphone that your child plays with, help them to spend their time learning something or developing their creativity. Make sure the apps you buy have text that is large enough to read easily at your child’s reading level. Ask yourself whether the animated features enhance the message or distract from it. Look for book apps that are well written and expose children to new vocabulary. Keep price in perspective. A $5 book app is a steal compared with a $20 hardcover. Look for apps that expand what you thought your child could learn about the world.

Smart, informed parents will push the industry toward ever more creative and innovative applications, simply by making choices about what to buy. But if you’re ever overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to choose from, your local librarians can help.

AnnMarie Hurtado is a youth services librarian with the Pasadena Public Library at the Central branch on Walnut Street, where she will host her an Appy Hour program at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 8. You can find her on twitter @annmariehurtado or email her at anhurtado@cityofpasadena.net.

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