In an ideal world, all young children would have access to a brightly colored classroom filled with books, learning resources and creative materials.
They would have a teacher who cares for them, nurtures their curiosity, encourages them to explore and bolsters social experiences with peers. Their days would be structured around early reading and early math as well as physical, creative and social-emotional learning. But this is unfortunately not the reality for many young children, especially in this age of a pandemic. Teachers and parents are having to band together more than ever in a constantly shifting environment.
The good news is that technology can be an aid and a support during these uncertain times. It can flex between classroom and home, providing a bridge to learning when the pandemic upends the best-laid plans. But with more than 500,000 apps that claim to be “educational,” how can parents find the ones that will make a difference? The best educational apps for young kids take after your favorite teachers — teachers who nurture curiosity, encourage children to explore and bolster social-learning experiences with peers. Here are some key questions to consider before downloading an app:
- Who designed the program? Was it designed by early childhood educators and experts who understand how children learn? Is there research to show that the program delivers specific learning outcomes?
- What is the learning content? Does it include academic learning as well as other key developmental areas for early childhood, such as social0emotional and physical development?
- Is it developmentally appropriate? Has the program been designed for the appropriate cognitive and physical developmental stages of young children? Does it mirror how young children learn in the real world and allow them to explore, be creative and make mistakes?
- Is it engaging for young children? Does it spark joy, imagination and wonder in young children? When your child is playing with the program, do they look like they are actively engaged and thinking? Is it inspired by children’s real-world play patterns and reflect how children learn?
- Is the design centered around learning? Do all components of the program contribute to the learning goals (for example, the sound effects, music and animation)? Or are there extra elements (like bells and whistles) that might distract from learning?
For busy parents, Common Sense Media can be a time saver. The nonprofit vets media for kids and provides thorough reviews of children’s apps, including recommendations on free apps for kids.
Parents and teachers have been moving mountains to keep young children learning. But even superheroes need tools. Thankfully, we’re living in an era when 97% of US households possess mobile devices that can include a library of books and lessons for young children designed by early-childhood experts. Technology is here to stay, so let’s use it wisely to give all children access to education, no matter where they are.
Caroline Hu Flexer is the CEO and co-founder of the free learning program Khan Academy Kids and Duck Duck Moose, one of the first educational apps for children.