What Do Quality Children’s Apps Look Like?

Over the past few months, we’ve hosted three “Quality Conversations” on this blog. We’ve explored issues to keep in mind when selecting digital media for children, with the goal of advancing the discussion that began in 2012 at the Fred Forward Conference. In each of the three conversations, we showed a video of a child using an app and asked readers to rate its quality. Readers were also encouraged to share their comments and the reasons behind their ratings.

We asked viewers to rate:

This final post is certainly not the end of the conversation. In it we summarize our thoughts and experiences about these conversations. It’s important to note that while this particular set of discussions focused on apps, we believe the ideas that came up are generalizable to all screen media.

All three apps were given ratings right around the middle. We found the same result when we began this experiment with the 150 early childhood and children’s media experts at the 2012 Fred Forward Conference. It seems that when everyone comes together to rank the quality of an app, either hardly any app stands out as exceptional or they all stand out. Certainly they all have pros and cons.

These are conversations, not carefully structured research studies. Your participation has helped us move this discussion forward. Here are some themes that emerged:

Multiple Perspectives Matter

Everyone has different needs and expectations when it comes to digital content. A parent who needs to take a call might want an app to entertain his or her child, whereas an educator might be looking for an app to reinforce a curriculum concept. For developers, budget constraints might force difficult decisions about which features to include or not to include (e.g., word highlighting). All of these points of view greatly change what is defined as quality. None of them is right or wrong; they simply depend upon use and expectations.

In our discussion we saw evidence of numerous perspectives, even from the same person. For example, one contributor said, “As a parent, I would rate this higher than I would as an educator. From a parent’s POV [point of view], the app looks great and the kid seems interested. But from an educator’s POV, the app didn’t prompt any interaction between parent and child….”

When discussing the value of any app, the context in which the app is used really matters. For example, “Angry Birds” becomes a higher “quality” app when kids are provided with strategies that incorporate physics concepts.

The perspectives on eBooks were particularly varied. Some preferred that words become highlighted as they are read aloud, while others felt that was an optional feature. Some liked different modes to help kids at varying reading levels, while others thought they were not needed. For some, the animated bells and whistles made the content playful and engaging for kids; others worried that those extras would distract from comprehension and take away from a conversation an adult and child could be having.

Use Matters

When discussing the value of any app, the context in which the app is used really matters. For example, ‘Angry Birds’ becomes a higher ‘quality’ app when kids are provided with strategies that incorporate physics concepts. Conversations about creativity and apps most clearly demonstrated this point.

In our discussion of creativity, a researcher/parent commented that her child quickly bores of these kinds of drawing apps. Following that, another researcher/content creator responded with multiple ways Draw and Tell could be used in classrooms. She suggested that the creativity app could be used to act out creative writing or could be used with English-as-a-second-language students to demonstrate knowledge of different subjects. That comment elicited an “aha” moment for the researcher/parent, who wrote, “At home, most parents expect and want kids to use apps alone, so kids get little guidance. In the classroom, it sounds like the uses can be so much richer!”

Context of Use Matters

Content is only as good as the user’s experience. To that point, the third conversation in the series focused on using apps as a tool for co-play or connecting together over a digital experience. While we all agree in principle that it’s important to play together with children, exactly what those experiences look like can vary widely.

During the discussion about Williamspurrrrg, one parent said, “I am looking for games to play with my toddler. We let her play some games on the iPad for a few minutes a day, but for most it would interrupt the game to discuss what was going on. With this game, it looks like interacting is a natural part of the experience, which means it would be great for my daughter and me to play together.”

Tools that allow parents to record voices, add photos, and personalize the experience are one way to connect over digital experiences. Play patterns that allow kids and parents to cooperate together are another. But in the end, the parent, teacher, or whomever is playing with the child, has to take the initiative to turn it into a truly interactive experience. And sometimes it’s ok to just have the media experience itself and create opportunities for learning outside the media.

Playing the Product with a Child Matters

The only way to know what’s working, what matters to children, and what they are learning or taking away from these experiences is to ask them. This was evident in the comments as well. Parents and teachers said playing alongside a child and listening to the conversations they have while they play often gave them a new understanding of the value of an app.

Where Do We Go from Here?

These conversations underscore that the values and expectations a user brings to the experience are key to their enjoyment of it. Some want content that is creative and open-ended. Some want only content that teaches particular topics. As in all of life, what people deem as “time worth spending” varies. In a world with so much content, the question of where to spend time is a challenging one.

Consumers need information on how to use digital products designed for young children. They need ideas.

There are many product review sites out there, but the work of the Fred Rogers Center is unique in that it aims to provide parents, educators, and media creators with a toolset to help them identify what quality media experiences for very young children look like.

The center’s Framework for Quality in Digital Media for Young Children provides principles for parents, educators, and media creators to consider in identifying quality media experiences. For example, they encourage adults to consider health and well-being, developmentally appropriate use, the content and context of media use, as well as the current evidence base. Instead of just reviewing specific apps, the document aims to help adults evaluate for themselves what works, how, and why.

Tools like these that help users identify their values and then help them match content to those values are key. This conversation is one such tool. So what are some next steps?

Educate the consumer on how to use the product. A recent New York Times story perhaps best illustrates this point. The Rainbow Loom, a tool for making friendship bracelets out of rubber bands, is booming in popularity with kids. Inventor Cheong Choon Ng largely accredits his early success to posting how-to videos on YouTube.

Consumers didn&rsqursquo;t know how to use the product, so the videos helped them understand what to do with it. Many apps, and toys in general, have a video presence on YouTube, largely in the form of informational trailers. Based on our conversations over the past few months, consumers also need information on how to use digital products designed for young children. They need ideas. Parents can ask kids to show them apps. Educators can provide ideas for each other via video or in play labs. Developers and researchers should consider creating videos that don’t just show kids using their products but rather model optimal uses and contexts for digital play.

Have conversations with kids AND with other adults. Resources like this blog, as well as specific conversations like the one this series sparked are needed to help guide developers who are well established in the field as well as those who are exploring it for the first time.

We plan to continue these conversations online as well as offline. We encourage hosting gatherings in your town, at your office, or at conferences to continue discussing products. If anything, we’ve learned that this format—discussing a particular question within the context of a specific app (particularly when seen in the context of a child’s presence)—is great for conversations, expressing point of view and debate.

Through debate, we can work toward a greater understanding of what makes quality content for kids in the context of incredibly varied needs and values.

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