Common Elements of “Educational” Apps: The Tired & the Exceptional, by Carissa Christner
In an app market flooded with apps for kids, all of which claim to be “educational,” how can you tell which apps are truly worth your and your child’s time? First of all, ask yourself if the “game” that the app presents is any better than a set of flashcards. If not, you likely wouldn’t use actual flashcards with your preschooler, so why would you use an app version of the same thing? Here are some other common app activities that many, many app developers are using to make their products seem “educational”:
Coloring Pages: First of all, read this excellent argument against using coloring books at all. Then realize that if the app fills in whole blocks of color with one touch, it even takes away the pleasure (nay, the very option!) of scribbling. Instead, if you want an art app, try Musical Paint Pro which allows users to create art on a blank canvas, determining the size of brush, the opacity and intensity of the paint, and the color. Each color, when painted onto the canvas, creates a different musical tone, the notes changing depending on which part of the canvas is being painted. Users can record and replay their creation to listen to the music they created and watch their art appear as it plays.
Memory Match: So many apps use this game! Most are simply matching exact pictures, but some at least ask users to match related pictures like an animal matched with the first letter of its name. I have found one shining exception to this dullness in Fiete: Match. First of all, this game is only a matching game and they’ve developed it very well. Secondly, the app includes Fiete himself playing against you. This one feature (an opponent) sets this matching game app miles apart from the rest. I also like that it includes lots of options of types of matches (anything from exact picture matches to numbers and sums).
Puzzles: A picture is broken into parts (squares or classic interlocking puzzle-shaped pieces) and the user must put it back together; in and of this self, this isn’t necessarily a strong digital game, especially if the image on the puzzle has no context or meaning for the child playing it. An exceptional example of a puzzle app, however, is Phlip by Curious Hat in which the user takes a photo (which becomes the image for the puzzle) and then chooses how many squares (4-25) it will be broken into, then the squares are shuffled. Users tilt the screen to rotate the squares and when they’re in the proper alignment, tap on the square to lock it in place as you tilt to align the rest.
Shape / Color / Number / Letter Identification Games: Just because an app includes a game that drills users on basic preschool identification skills doesn’t mean it’s high quality, or even educational. Take time to really examine how the app is teaching these skills—is it unique to the app format? Is it engaging for young children? Is it truly better than flashcards?
Unless the developers have employed these activities in a way that you find fresh or especially intriguing, they are not, on their own, reason to download the app. And if these are the only activities included in the app, it’s likely not worth your time.
Carissa Christner is a librarian with Madison Public Library.