What are learning apps?
Based on our research, we think a good learning app should be provocative, exploratory, and open-ended; it should also have been designed with primary input from educators and curriculum developers, or shown in educational research to be an effective learning tool. The apps we cover in this guide are great learning apps not because they're designed to make kids smarter, to drill facts, or to replace in-school learning, but because they're fun and interesting for kids and adults.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist specializing in child development and learning, wrote in a 2015 article (PDF) that educational apps "present a significant opportunity for out-of-school, informal learning when designed in educationally appropriate ways," but that "only a handful ... are designed with an eye toward how children actually learn."
Apps are still fairly uncharted territory for education, and it isn't clear what really helps preschool and early-elementary children learn, as opposed to simply entertaining them. In a similar situation to what we found when researching learning toys, developers and app stores often label apps as "educational" with little research or evidence, and few experts, to support those claims.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a broad report on children's use of digital media, calling for more-rigorous evaluation of apps that claim to be educational: "Unfortunately, very few of the commercially available apps found in the educational section of app stores have evidence-based design input with demonstrated learning effectiveness. In fact, recent reviews of hundreds of toddler/preschooler apps labeled as educational have demonstrated that most apps show low educational potential ... are not based on established curricula, and include almost no input from developmental specialists or educators."
(Parents and educators looking for more advice about choosing whether to incorporate apps into kids' playtime should check out the resources we consulted for this guide, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a nonprofit research group focusing on education and new media.)
How we picked and tested
To find the apps in this guide, we spoke with Jennifer Auten, an award-winning teacher in Cupertino, California, who has been using tablet and smartphone apps in her first- and second-grade curricula since the iPad was released in 2010. For recommendations of coding and STEM apps, we corresponded with representatives from Project Lead The Way, an education nonprofit that promotes STEM curricula for students and teachers. We spoke with Björn Jeffery, former CEO of kids-game developer Toca Boca, to learn about designing games that foster open-ended and imaginative play. We also asked an astronomer, a programmer, and several parents on our staff for recommendations of apps they and their kids love in categories like science, music, and coding.
We read articles and reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, and child developmental psychologists and educational researchers to learn about kids' media use and about principles for designing learning apps. Finally, we read through reviews and ratings from well-regarded children's media sites like Common Sense Media and Children's Technology Review.
As with our guide to learning toys, we focused primarily on apps aimed at kids 3 to 8 years old, though older kids can enjoy many of our recommendations, as well. We chose this age range because, as Kathy Hirsh-Pasek has pointed out (PDF), "there are so many apps targeted toward [children in this range] that parents and educators do not know how to navigate the marketplace of possibilities."
As noted above, experts are still studying what makes learning apps successful pedagogical tools, as well as fun and interesting activities for kids. But after speaking with our experts and reading the aforementioned research, we identified a few features that seem to be common among great learning apps.
- Open-ended, with limits: Most of the apps in this guide are open-ended in the sense that they encourage kids to independently explore, create, and navigate within the app. But researchers say it's important to have built-in limits, as well. The AAP has pointed out that digital games have traditionally been designed with rewards and reinforcement designed to keep kids playing as long as possible. The organization recommends that learning apps instead have "automatic 'stops' as the default design to encourage children and caregivers to pause the game use and turn to the 3-dimensional world."
- Engaging but not distracting: Apps have great potential to engage children through interactive features, but some research has shown that too many bells and whistles can distract children or reduce their comprehension. A good learning app uses interactive, animated, and responsive features to engage kids or enhance their comprehension, not simply to entertain. Hirsh-Pasek says parents should evaluate an app's interactive features and ask: "Do the enhancements actually add value and increase engagement, or do they cause distraction?"
- Encouraging interaction: The AAP and other researchers say that learning apps that encourage real-life interaction among multiple people—adult and child, or child and peers—can be especially strong at facilitating learning. The apps in this guide are fun and interesting for kids and adults, and many foster conversation and play outside of the app itself.
With those guidelines in mind, we divided the apps in this guide into three categories.
- Skill-building apps: These apps are built around a learning goal, such as practicing and exploring mathematics concepts, or introducing coding and programming.
- Exploration apps: These apps let kids explore a subject or field—like astronomy or anatomy—at their own pace and sequence (similar to paging through a book) and with age-appropriate reading and interactive components.
- Sandbox apps: So-called because they're designed to be open-ended, like playing in a sandbox (PDF), these apps encourage kids to play, imagine, and create, but they don't have explicit goals, levels, or achievements.
As with our guide to learning toys, we didn't test scores of apps to try to find the "best" ones. Rather, each app here has been chosen by teachers for their students in classrooms, used by Wirecutter parents and their kids, or recommended by the experts and educators we spoke with.
Bedtime Math (available for iOS and Android)seeks to do for math what the bedtime story does for literacy, by turning math into a bonding ritual between child and caregiver. The free app offers daily math questions designed to foster inquiry, conversation, and group problem-solving.
The result is not just math-skill building (the efficacy of which has been demonstrated in a peer-reviewed study) but also increased math confidence for both children and adults. Auten told us she likes that the questions are written at a middle-school reading level, meaning an adult facilitates the discussion but you have a choice of four levels of difficulty based on the child's age and math level.
DragonBox Numbers (available for iOS, Android, and Amazon), aimed at kids 5 and up, introduces number sense, addition, and subtraction through cute characters called Nooms. (The characters are designed to resemble Cuisenaire rods, math learning aids that introduce kids to arithmetic operations in a hands-on way.) Kids feed, slice, and sort the Nooms, developing familiarity with addition, subtraction, fractions, and ranges.
DragonBox Elements (available for iOS, Android, and Amazon) turns Euclidean geometry into an adventure game for kids 8 and up. Continuing with the quest-and-puzzle theme of the other DragonBox games (tasking you with raising an army of shapes to conquer the dragon Osgard), the app does a surprisingly effective job of taking kids on a tour of Euclid's Elements, the classic 13-volume work that lays out the basic principles of geometry. As you solve puzzles to progress through each stage of the game, you're actually working through clever adaptations of Euclid's own proofs. Wirecutter executive editor Mike Berk's math-curious kid found the interface a bit confusing at first, but after solving the first few puzzles and getting used to the game's idiosyncratic tools (the mechanics of how to identify and select congruent angles, for instance, are not immediately obvious), worked through the entire quest, returning to the game repeatedly over several months and emerging more interested in mathematics than ever.
Coding apps and games
Many great apps teach coding, for kids as young as preschool and progressing through upper elementary grades—so many that when we asked our experts for recommendations, we ended up with a list of more than 15 apps. We've highlighted four of these apps because they offer unique features or are particularly easy to jump into and don't require the child or parent to have a coding background.
The Osmo iPad games, which require a base system (a stand and a mirror that attaches to the iPad's camera), ask kids to use physical game pieces—representing shapes, words, numbers, and more—to play games on the iPad's screen. The Osmo Coding game uses bricks marked with commands, arrows, numbers, and loops that kids arrange into "scripts" to direct a cute character through mazes and challenges, picking up prizes such as strawberries. The physical pieces and the game structure mean that kids don't need to be able to read and write to begin learning the basics of programming.
Teacher Jennifer Auten, who uses Osmo Coding and other Osmo games in her classroom, says the fact that it combines an app with physical pieces makes kids more patient and thoughtful as they work through the challenges: "When something is purely on the screen, kids will sometimes end up just tapping as fast as they can, randomly guessing. With the manipulatives, it slows their thinking down." Auten also noted that the physical pieces make it easier to play the game with multiple people, fostering discussion, collaboration, and group problem-solving. She also likes that Osmo Coding is open-ended: "Kids can explore and create their own paths."
The company recommends the app for ages 6 and older, but younger kids may be able to enjoy the app with or without some adult help. Kalani Craig, a professor of digital history at Indiana University, told us that her 4-year-old son has been playing Osmo Coding for a year. "He has total focus in front of the game," she said.
Project Lead The Way, a nonprofit educational organization that promotes and develops STEM curricula and resources, told us, "The best apps for young students without previous experience are those that teach and help build logic and reasoning skills [and] critical thinking skills, and provide brain teasers." PLTW's curriculum writers like the Lightbot and Lightbot Jr apps as ways to get kids as young as 4 started with the basic concepts and logical structures of coding.
In Lightbot (available for iOS and Android), kids solve a series of simple puzzles by lining up commands that make a robot advance over obstacles and light up squares. As kids master basic concepts, they add more-complex commands, such as conditionals, loops, and nested statements. Lightbot Jr (available for iOS and Android) follows a similar structure but at a slower pace and with simpler challenges that focus on reinforcing the basics. A minimal amount of reading is required, so pre-readers may need adult help at the beginning.
The Lightbot apps don't teach a coding language, but we think that's a positive feature: Once kids get the hang of the basics, they can explore apps that offer more-complex games and let them create their own projects by writing actual code.
Since it debuted in early 2016, Swift Playgrounds (iOS) has been praised for presenting a fun, intuitive interface for kids roughly 8 and up—and motivated adults—to learn to code using Apple's Swift programming language. Swift Playgrounds moves slowly through skill-building lessons that introduce concepts while also letting you write real code.
The app is divided into three lessons, beginning with simple commands, loops, and functions, later adding variables, parameters, event handlers, and more. Swift Playgrounds requires the ability to read and to enter instructions and commands, so it's suited for kids at a third-grade reading level or higher, or for use with a parent. (Kids who can't yet read at all are less likely to "get" the app, even if using it with an adult, since the commands are text rather than icons.)
"The challenges increase in difficulty gradually, without being too difficult too quickly," Erik Krietsch, a software programmer (and brother of Wirecutter science editor Leigh Krietsch-Boerner), told us. Krietsch plays Swift Playgrounds with his 5-year-old daughter, and though he says she got overwhelmed by more-complex tasks like creating her own functions, she was entertained by helping Byte (the cyclopean creature who guides you through the levels) enter portals and collect prizes like gems.
Tinybop's Space app, with little text and beautiful graphics, is accessible for kids as young as 3 to explore the sun, planets, moon, and galaxy. Photo: Chris Heinonen
Jana Grcevich, an astronomer and author who recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has enjoyed the Professor Astro Cat app (available on iOS, Android, and Amazon), along with the popular book series it's based on, with her 6-year-old niece. Kids explore the app much like they would read a book, delving into facts, illustrations, and animations about planets, moons, stars, and space exploration. At various points, quizzes and other challenges let you earn sardine treats for Professor Astro Cat, keeping the app lighthearted. Minilab, the app's maker, gives the age range as 6 to 8 years old, but the reading requirements make it more appropriate for the 8 to 12 range, according to a third-grade teacher we consulted. (The teacher, the sister of this guide's writer, specializes in literacy.)
With sparse text and beautifully illustrated graphics and animations, Space (iOS) from Tinybop allows kids as young as 3 to explore the sun, planets, moon, and galaxy. Kids witness raging volcanos and explosive gases on Venus, a curious rover inspecting the surface of Mars, and ice and rock rotating in Saturn's lonely, winding rings.
Interactive sections let you put two planets on a scale to compare weights, or place them side by side to compare their sizes, giving kids a clear visual understanding of the scale and vastness of the solar system. Little delights include finding astronaut poop on the surface of the moon, and dropping pianos, balloons, and tin cans into the whirling vortex of Jupiter's Great Red Spot.
Also from Tinybop, The Human Body (iOS) presents kids with an explorable human body that is neither cartoonish nor gory. You can toggle on or off the text labels that identify the systems and organs, but no reading is required to get deep into the app. Kids can watch a mouth chew food and swallow drink, slide into a stomach breaking down food, and follow flashing nerve signals as they race up to the brain.
The app's sounds are as compelling and instructive as the visuals: Gurgles, wooshes, creaks, and spurts give a visceral sense of what's happening inside us. The app is aimed at ages 6 through 8, but younger kids who are building familiarity with anatomy and the body can easily interact with the organs and systems.
Created by electronic-music pioneer Morton Subotnick, Pitch Painter (iOS) gives you a blank canvas on which you can "finger paint" musical notes. You select from instrument groupings representative of different musical cultures (North America and Europe, West Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia) and dab and swipe notes across the screen. As you layer instruments, the basic principles of note value, scales, and melody are visually illustrated on the screen. You can also "flip" your composition (changing ascending notes to descending, for example), or play it in reverse. Pitch Painter lets you create only short musical bursts (though you can save your work), and it doesn't allow you to alter other compositional features like time signature. But it's a novel way to introduce kids to open-ended musical experimentation and to the sounds of instruments from around the world, even if they can't yet read music. The app is designed for ages 3 to 5 (executive editor Mike Berk's child loved it as a preschooler before moving on to other music apps that allowed for longer compositions), and the easy-to-interpret icons mean it doesn't require reading or prior musical knowledge to use. Older kids and adults who enjoy experimenting with sound and color will also find the app engaging—though somewhat limited.
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