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A Research-Backed Guide to Educational Apps for Children

The research behind whether children learn from apps and which apps to choose.

In an ideal world, parents would be playing and interacting with their young children for most of the day. However, we do not live in an ideal world and even the best parents may have times when they need to rely on screens to keep their children occupied. In fact, research finds that 90 percent of children aged 2 to 3 years use a touchscreen device and that infants and toddlers on average spend 10 to 45 min per day on touchscreen devices.

When opting for screen time, many parents may wonder—is it okay to give my child a phone or tablet and let them play with an interactive app? Or would it be better to turn on a TV show? Many apps claim to be educational—but does research find that young children can actually learn from this technology? And, if so, which specific apps should you choose?

Research broadly finds that young children can learn from interactive apps but it remains unclear the extent to which this learning is transferable to the real world. A recent meta-analysis based on 36 studies involving 4,206 participants found that most studies involving children five years and younger show a positive impact of touchscreen apps on learning. This impact seems to increase with age, meaning that older children may be more likely to learn from apps than younger children. This seems particularly true for STEM-related concepts, such as math skills. This study also found that children seem to show enhanced learning from apps when compared to learning from computers or traditional classroom teaching.

A systematic review in the journal Pediatrics also found children under 6 years old can learn from interactive apps, particularly apps related to math skills. This study also found some evidence that apps may improve phonics skills.

Some research suggests that interactive apps may improve motor development. The age at which toddlers are first exposed to touchscreens is associated with improved fine motor skills. However, this effect was only found for children who were actively interacting with the touchscreen, not simply watching videos. No relationship was found between touchscreen use and gross motor or language development.

Research even finds that children as young as 15 months old can learn from touchscreens. However, they are 19 times more likely to learn if a parent is present helping them with “high interactional quality” (meaning the parent is structuring the task for the child, using a lot of different language, and providing warmth and encouragement).

However, it remains unclear whether children learn more effectively from apps than from passively watching videos or TV shows. Research is mixed with some studies finding enhanced learning from apps and some studies finding enhanced learning from videos. It is also important to mention that some studies have found that apps do not provide superior learning when compared to physical objects or face-to-face teaching. Research also indicates that apps may not be effective in teaching social-emotional skills. There is also some evidence that children may not transfer learning from the apps to real life.

So, research finds that it is possible for children to learn from apps but does this mean they can learn from any app? How do you determine which apps are truly "educational?"

A recent study evaluated 124 top-downloaded “educational” apps in the Google Play and Apple app stores and found that 58 percent of popular apps were “low quality” in terms of how they promote learning.

The researchers evaluated apps based on the “Four Pillars” of early learning. These Pillars include:

  1. Active Learning (requiring critical thinking or intellectual effort versus a simple cause-and-effect)
  2. Engagement in the Learning Process (whether the interactive features enhance or distract from learning, including whether the app has unnecessary visual and sound effects and distracting ads)
  3. Meaningful Learning (how relevant what the child is learning in the app is to the child’s life and existing knowledge)
  4. Social interaction (the extent to which the app encourages children to interact with characters in the app or with their caregivers while engaging with the app)

The researchers found that the following apps received the highest scores in terms of promoting learning: My Food—Nutrition for Kids, Daniel Tiger’s Stop & Go Potty, Toca Life (Neighborhood, School & Hospital), Lego Duplo Town, Zoombinis. The following apps also received relatively high scores: Bible App for Kids: Read the Nativity Story, Farming Simulator 18, Toca Lab: Elements, My Very Hungry Caterpillar AR, Toca Hair Salon 3, Melody Jams, Sago Mini Holiday Trucks and Diggers, Sago Mini Friends. Stellarium Mobile Sky Map, Star Walk, Brio World- Railway, Noggin Preschool, Sky View Lite, Toca Life: World, and Toca Kitchen 2.

A recent systematic review of “educational” apps for young children also found that children can learn from the following specific apps: Measure That Animal, Math Shelf, Know Number Free, Endless Alphabet, Letter School, First Word Sampler, Word Wall HD, Pocket Phonics, Skills Builder Spelling, Phonic Monster, ABC Touch and Learn, Bee Sees, Kindergarten Lite, Starfall, and Super Why.

So how do you apply this research as a parent, caregiver, or teacher?

  1. Engage in apps with the child. Provide some help and assistance without doing the task for them. Help the child to pay attention to relevant features.
  2. When engaging with apps together, use a lot of language to help to explain the task to the child. Offer frequent praise and encouragement.
  3. Choose apps that require the child to think critically rather than simple cause-and-effect (for example, an app in which they have to choose the correct answer rather than an app in which they simply press a button and an animation plays.)
  4. Avoid apps with irrelevant or excessive features or advertisements that are not related to the learning process.
  5. Look for apps that teach children skills that they can easily transfer to real life and that are related to their existing knowledge (for example, learning about letters of the alphabet versus learning a specific skill that they would not use outside of the app).
  6. Choose apps that encourage your child to interact with the characters in the app and/or with you or other caregivers while engaging with the app.

In summary, research suggests that children can learn from apps. However, not all apps are truly "educational" and parents, caregivers, and teachers should carefully evaluate apps based on the research-backed principles described above before allowing young children to engage with them.

References

Courage, M. L., Frizzell, L. M., Walsh, C. S., & Smith, M. (2021). Toddlers Using Tablets: They Engage, Play, and Learn. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

Xie, H., Peng, J., Qin, M., Huang, X., Tian, F., & Zhou, Z. (2018). Can touchscreen devices be used to facilitate young children's learning? A meta-analysis of touchscreen learning effect. Frontiers in Psychology, 2580.

Griffith, S. F., Hagan, M. B., Heymann, P., Heflin, B. H., & Bagner, D. M. (2020). Apps as learning tools: a systematic review. Pediatrics, 145(1).

Bedford, R., Saez de Urabain, I. R., Cheung, C. H., Karmiloff-Smith, A., & Smith, T. J. (2016). Toddlers’ fine motor milestone achievement is associated with early touchscreen scrolling. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1108.

Zack, E., & Barr, R. (2016). The role of interactional quality in learning from touch screens during infancy: Context matters. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1264.

Huber, B., Tarasuik, J., Antoniou, M. N., Garrett, C., Bowe, S. J., Kaufman, J., & Team, S. B. (2016). Young children's transfer of learning from a touchscreen device. Computers in Human Behavior, 56, 56-64.

Kwok, K., Ghrear, S., Li, V., Haddock, T., Coleman, P., & Birch, S. A. (2016). Children can learn new facts equally well from interactive media versus face to face instruction. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1603.

Moser, A., Zimmermann, L., Dickerson, K., Grenell, A., Barr, R., & Gerhardstein, P. (2015). They can interact, but can they learn? Toddlers’ transfer learning from touchscreens and television. Journal of experimental child psychology, 137, 137-155.

Meyer, M., Zosh, J. M., McLaren, C., Robb, M., McCaffery, H., Golinkoff, R. M., ... & Radesky, J. (2021). How educational are “educational” apps for young children? App store content analysis using the Four Pillars of Learning framework. Journal of Children and Media, 15(4), 526-548.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting education in “educational” apps: Lessons from the science of learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(1), 3-34.

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