Seeking Better Apps for Young Children

A vast majority of apps for young children are developed with the best intention, but few really support children’s development in a purposeful way (ABC apps being a great example). Digital technology shouldn’t just mimic what and how children already learn—it needs to expand and improve on it.

Children’s media landscape has evolved significantly in recent years, with mobile devices becoming ubiquitous and the number of screens in our homes, our pockets, and our bags growing. Parents and educators can’t stop talking about apps, and the debates over screen time and technology management continue, as they should. But what really matters is what is on those screens.

I am not a “techevangalist” and I value a world that maintains a certain skepticism about exposing children to technology, but I am highly interested in how children and families use and engage with technology. As parents and educators, we should all advocate for rigorous and well-considered development and implementation of the sites and apps our children use.

This belief helped drive the development of the Children’s App Manifesto with app developer Andy Russell. The Manifesto calls for a more nuanced approach to children and technology, one that puts children’s development at the center of the app development process – not the technology for its own sake.

Touchscreen devices now allow young children to engage with technology that was previously beyond their capacity because they lacked the fine motor skills to coordinate a mouse or the capacity to make a distinction between mouse, keyboard, and screen. To understand this, just watch an 18 month old engage with a touchscreen: whereas a computer would have been inaccessible, now they can open apps, choose what content they would like, and engage with the device rather than push randomly on the keyboard. We now see marketplaces and app stores flooded with apps aimed at supporting the learning and development of young children.

Some apps are well designed and really support children to learn more, such as those that teach literacy and storytelling through the use of audio and video. But many apps just replicate resources and learning tools we already have, like flashcards and ABCs, adding little value. We need to work toward understanding what apps will support our children to learn in new and different ways, not just replace everything in their lives with a touchscreen.

In a 2010 article for I called for a rating system for children’s apps. I wanted to develop ways to educate parents about quality apps that support learning and development. Since then, we have seen an evolution, as services like YogiPlay, KinderTown, CommonSense Media’s Learning Ratings, and others are helping parents and others understand how and why apps are useful for their children and in what context they are best used.

Simultaneously, I developed a method of my own, and while working on this, I realized we could work with those who are doing the grunt work – the developers of educational apps.

This idea has become Better Apps.

Better Apps provides an assessment tool and a range of services to help developers understand children’s learning and development. The self-assessment tool asks developers a series of “yes” and “no” questions, then provides feedback on the capacity of the app to engage learners, to teach 21st century skills, and to foster creativity. It is not a complete answer, but it is a way to start a discussion and build a bridge between those creating code and those who know how and why children learn.

Better Apps recognizes that we are all in this together. We all want the best for our children, so we offer Top 5s, not as recommendations (though in a way they are), but as inspiration and even provocation to app developers to say, “Try to improve on this.”

Parents and educators can do this too. Email app developers and tell them what works and what doesn’t. Tell them the functionality your child requires to learn, improve, and play in the digital environments they inhabit.

We are all responsible for helping make better apps. Let’s not settle for less.

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