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How do I find apps for free? by Carisa Kluver and Claudia Haines

Here at Little eLit, we get asked about free apps a lot. While we consider an app’s content, design, technical features, and age appropriateness before we look at price, the reality is that, just like librarians and teachers everywhere, we know money is a factor. In fact, some of you can’t get apps unless they are free. Not to worry! Little eLit to the rescue! If you want to know how to find quality apps for free, and always-free apps, here is the post you’ve been waiting for.

The 5 Types of Free Apps

First of all, what are we talking about when we say “free app”? There are actually five different categories of free apps.

1. Free apps: These are apps that are always free. While some free apps may not meet the criteria we use when choosing apps for storytime or for recommending to families for anytime use, there are some high quality apps out there that are actually meant to be free. The Exploratorium’s Color Uncovered and Sound Uncovered apps, Software Smoothie’s Felt Board – Mother Goose on the Loose, and the Calgary Public Library’s Grow a Reader are good examples.

2. Free with in-app purchases, ads, and links to full versions: These apps are free but come with strings attached, including links to other apps and even inappropriate content in some cases. However, all of the apps in this category are fully functional at the free level. When we review these apps for programs or for recommendation, we look at the content and how the purchase elements display and are accessed, particularly by kids. In storytime, an ad displayed on the screen is distracting. In-app purchases that are easy for kids to access can get expensive quickly, and they can possibly be purchased without parent or teacher permission. On the positive side, for parents, librarians, and teachers, some of these apps might offer a great opportunity to see how an app works before buying the full version. Note: Most devices have a setting that can be activated to require a password before authorizing in-app purchases. Be sure to know your device and where to find settings like these.

3. Free and it’s just a teaser: These apps are free, but the content of the free version is so limited that the app is not usable without an additional in-app purchase. As usual, be sure to read the app’s description carefully and review the app before using with children or incorporating into a program or classroom so you know what you’re getting.

4. Free temporarily: It costs money to make apps, especially high-quality apps, so some of our favorite apps come with a price tag usually between $.99 and $5.99. If you’re looking for a favorite app, but you can’t buy apps or just want to get the app for free or at a reduced cost, a temporary price reduction is what you’re looking for. Finding apps that are free for a short time does require research and knowing where to find them.

5. Promo codes: A 5th category is also useful to consider when seeking apps, especially for professionals who work with children, families and the community. For every app on iTunes, developers get 50-100 codes that allow users to download an app for free. This system is only in place for Apple, but other formats like Android can also give copies to individuals if you contact the developer directly. These codes are intended for reviewers of apps, journalists and other media outlets, but with frequent updates, especially after a major change to the operating system (e.g. iOS 7), developers often have extra codes that they use for consumer giveaways. They will usually be delighted to hear from a teacher or librarian asking for a free code because of the exposure you can offer their app. The process can also make it possible for you to influence future changes to apps, since the feedback from users is very valuable to independent app developers.

How to Find Temporarily Free Apps

Most app developers reduce an app’s price or make it temporarily free at some point during a six-month period. Traditionally, if developers are going to drop the price of apps, they will do so Wednesday through Friday, or around major holidays like Christmas Day or New Year’s Day, for example. Weekly price drops are usually offered with Thursday evening through Friday evening being the timeframe in which you are most likely to see price changes. With over a million apps in the various markets (Apple, Google Play, Amazon, Nook), it can be difficult to sift through the free apps or reduced-price apps every Thursday and Friday if you don’t have specific apps in mind.

To make the search easier, there are a few sites that can help you keep track of price fluctuations, and some even give you app update notifications. Digital-Storytime, EdApps4Sale (all free, curated for kids apps by Digital-Storytime founder Carisa Kluver), App Shopper, Smart Apps for Kids (+ for Android, for Special Needs), the iMums, App Abled and App Friday are easy-to-navigate sources for price information. We have a full list here, but over time this industry moves fast, so please keep an eye out for new resources and double check to make sure these sites are still active over time:

Recommended Review Sites

– This list is updated on Carisa’s blog & is on the sidebar of every page of her site:

For example, if after searching through the Little eLit Pinterest Apps for Preschool Storytime board you come up with a list of apps you want for your iPad, go to App Shopper and create a wish list. When that app’s price is reduced, you’ll get an email announcing the change. The email will include a link back to App Shopper or to iTunes directly.

Several sources of app price changes can also be found on Twitter and Facebook. Check out @momswithapps or your favorite app developer to see what we mean.

If you need more information about apps, including reviews and storytime, program, or curriculum uses, check out our list of suggested sites.

Carisa Kluver created and operates Digital Storytime, a review site for children’s apps; EdApps4Sale, a site that tracks deals on children’s apps; and The Digital Media Diet, a blog exploring new media with a focus on young children. Claudia Haines is the Curation Coordinator for Little eLit and Youth Services Librarian at Homer Public Library.

Farmer Brown Had 5 Green Apples Felt Board

Carisa Kluver and I were doing a New Media in Storytime workshop for the children’s services staff at the Mission Viejo Library last month. Before our participants arrived I was running through some of the digital storytelling techniques I wanted to demonstrate that day. I had one of my Keynote presentations up on the screen and I was running through Farmer Brown had 5 Green Apples… except that Farmer Brown didn’t have GREEN apples, as I was used to singing the song (I’ve been dong that song far longer than I’ve been using an iPad in storytime!) because the Software Smoothie Felt Board app only had RED apples. So I sang it wrong. Over and over, because I kept forgetting that the apples were red when my brain wanted them to be green.

Eventually Carisa said to me, “Why don’t you just ask Mindy to make you some green apples?”

Carisa was right; both she and I have worked with the folks who make the app and we know they’re always happy to get feedback to make their app a better early literacy tool. What was especially funny about this situation was that it illustrated one of the key points I always try to hammer home: children’s librarians have an unprecedented opportunity to work directly with content developers to raise the overall quality of children’s content offerings in the digital media marketplace.

Long story short, Mindy made me some green apples. You can see them below in my Farmer Brown had 5 Green Apples felt board below. Thanks Mindy!

Reblog: Librarians in the Digital Age – Part 2, by Carisa Kluver

Are you looking for more information about what went down at ALA Annual with regard to new media and children? Carisa Kluver, founder of and a contributor here at the Little eLit community shared her experiences at the conference weekend on her blog. She’s given us permission to share her perspective here. Enjoy!

Librarians in the Digital Age – Part 2: A to Zoo for Apps  Starts the Conversation from The Digital Media Diet

biblio-follies-sm250w-225x300At the end of June, I had the honor of being on a panel at the national ALA (American Library Association) conference in Chicago, IL. Originally I was going to prepare a video or be available remotely by Skype, but at the last minute I decided to visit the windy city, stay with a dear friend and make a little vacation of the whole thing. Chicago was especially lovely, with unseasonably cool weather, so I spent a fair amount of time on foot exploring. It was also a crazy time for parades in the city, fresh from their Blackhawks win and during Pride weekend, making hailing a cab more difficult. All that walking was good for thinking but not so good for hauling things, so the genius of digital books was particularly on my mind.

Exhibits and More …

I also spent many hours wandering around the cavernous exhibit hall booths in addition to meeting with bookish people like the librarian contributors to @LittleeLit‘s blog and ‘think tank’. In person introductions are particularly sweet, after months of contact over email, video-chat, Twitter and other digital means. Meeting others so like-minded probably represents one of the most energizing aspects of attending any large conference. And librarians are one energized group! I found nearly everyone in attendance to be sharp, thoughtful and focused on the future of libraries in the digital age. The conversations were simply abuzz about new ‘technology’ everywhere I went. While sitting at lunch by myself in a cafe over a mile from the convention center I overheard two librarians heatedly comparing the digital initiatives in their two library systems.

In the exhibit hall, there were several large spaces set aside for digital technology, ebooks and even apps. Nearly every booth also had a digital offering, from apps that integrated into their service or product for library management to eBooks in every format. However there was very little to be found about any stand-alone book apps nor much in the way of interactive book or educational software offerings for kids. I know my focus on children’s apps is somewhat singular in the publishing industry, but the lack of discussion or even an understanding of the difference between an ebook, app and bookstore portal was disheartening.

Either my focus is misplaced, leaving me out-of-step, or the industry (publishers, libraries, authors, etc.) itself is missing something. Several people asked me about my site and if I would review or promote their digital book offerings. When I explained that I only review apps, they seemed more bewildered than disappointed. I explained that so far, I couldn’t get enough traction with consumers for an iBookstore review site, and while the Kindle eBook market is much more developed, the market for illustrated children’s content is still in a somewhat embryonic stage. No one seemed to be very sophisticated in their understanding of the industry with regard to digital, but everyone seemed at least engaged in the digital shift in one way or another.

Overall, my impression was that librarians in attendance, and most of those presenting, were engaged, passionate and ready to face a digital future. This was in huge contrast to the publishers and other exhibitors who seemed to show-off a singular naïveté or perhaps ignorance, about format, access, consumer interest and other emerging aspects of the digital publishing industry. As a relative newbie to this ecosystem, I was surprised to find myself explaining (or correcting) misconceptions about digital formats, self-publishing, social media marketing and even COPPA regulations, to people who should be much more informed than I am.

A to Zoo for Apps – Starting the Conversation with LibraryLand

My panel presentation was early in the weekend, a ‘Conversation Starter’ entitled: ”Building A to Zoo for Apps: Time-tested librarian skills meet cutting edge technology for kids” and featured talented librarians:

  • Sarah Houghton, Director, San Rafael Public Library
  • Allison Rose Tran, Teen Services Librarian, Mission Viejo Library
  • Cen Campbell, Founder,
  • Trista Kunkel, Youth Services Librarian, Birchard Public Library

plus special guest:

Chip Donahue, Senior Fellow at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning & Children’s Media and Director of Technology in Early Childhood at the Erikson Center.

and a video presentation from Lisa Guernsey, Director, Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation:

Conversation starters at the ALA are “fast-paced 45-minute sessions intended to jumpstart conversations and highlight emerging topics and trends.” The purpose of this session was to start a conversation within the library community about the best way to approach the curation and evaluation of digital content, like apps, for young children.

What should the role for apps be in libraries? Should they be used in storytimes and if so, why? How can librarians contribute to the evaluation of apps and provide useful information to caregivers, teachers and others seeking information about quality digital content for tablet devices? Should librarians even be recommending apps at all?

A nice summary of our presentation can be found on the @LittleeLit blog by librarian Amy Koester. Or you can watch the whole thing in this video on youtube:

Suffice it to say that 45 minutes was simply not enough time to answer more than a few questions and barely scratched the surface of the conversation that is brewing in the world of children’s early learning and library services. A lot of strong opinions exist about digital content for young kids, especially regarding ‘screen time’ and apps. But the interest in this content is strong among librarians, as evidenced by the overflowing standing-room-only crowd in attendance.

Conversation Started – Trending Topics

Among the most important take-aways from this conversation we’ve started are a series of new questions we must ask ourselves as adults who guide, choose and judge digital content for kids:

  • How do we evaluate, curate or recommend apps and other digital media on tablets?
  • How do we even decide what to evaluate and what to ignore in a sea of content much too large to cover exhaustively?
  • How would evaluations from librarians in particular differ from and add to the already large number of online resources currently available for app reviews (including private review sites, non-profit sites, consumer reviews and a sea of blogs from professionals and laypeople).
  • What qualities of an app would be important to librarians when evaluating?
  • How would app evaluations differ from the curation already done for print materials or other digital content?
  • What are the critical differences between evaluating, reviewing, recommending and curating apps or other digital content for librarians/professionals?
  • What resources, rubrics or other evaluation tools are available for professionals to explore before beginning their own app reviews?
  • What role should libraries and librarians play in the digital shift?
  • Should librarians recommend, model or advise caregivers and professionals about wise use of quality media for kids or primarily discourage ‘screen time’? Is this role different for toddlers under two, children under five or other age groups, like teenagers?
  • How can professionals find good age & stage recommendations for library programs & collections?


In the end, my biggest realization was an anti-climatic epiphany. As I wracked my brain to think of all the ways we might create a resource that an army of librarians could fill in to make relevant and thoughtful, I was also struck by the need to include something more than just curation in my grand plan for library-land … the need for education. Of course we know teachers, librarians and other professionals need training on how to incorporate these digital tools into existing programs and services, but we also need a large scale education effort for the general public.

Much like the world wide web presented us with a sea of content that went beyond our usual ways of cataloging, the sea of publications coming into our digital space may be more than anyone can wrangle into a single resource. There is no equivalent for the web to the ‘yellow pages’ for local business phone numbers, for instance. In a similar vein, there may not be anyway that anyone could truly create the equivalent of “A to Zoo” for kids apps. A to Zoo for Apps can’t help but be inspired by the past, but the real challenge will be making it novel and adaptable to the new digital environment of the 21st century. It appears to be a challenge that is both momentous and exhilarating!

These questions are just a few I heard, among many burning in the hearts and minds of those who attended ALA 2013 and our presentation. We will be working hard to keep this dialog going among librarians in particular and I’ll keep you posted as the conversation continues. Please let me know any questions or comments you might like to add!

California State Library: Early Learning with Families 2.0

I’ve been a little AWOL from the Little eLit blog recently. Many thanks to Amy for keeping content fresh while I’ve been elsewhere! Here’s one of the projects I’m going to be working on, and the official announcement from Gerry Maginnity, the Acting State Librarian of California.

My part in ELF 2.0 will be to create a technology tooklit to help children’s librarians integrate new media and technology for children into library collections, services and programs (It will be free and available to the public once it’s done. The prototype should be ready by November.) This project will be the next iteration of an existing project, the original ELF, but like so many other initiatives, ELF needs to be re-worked to take into account the realities of modern information consumption, especially for families with young children. I’ll be doing a whole lot of talking at the California Library Association Conference in Long Beach in November, where I’ll be working with Dr. Josh Sparrow of the Brazelton Touchpoints CenterCarisa Kluver of Digital StorytimeShira Lee Katz of Common Sense Media, Francie Dillon, Sharon Krull, and a whole pile of library rockstars. We’ll also be putting on some webinars and in-person trainings around California.

There are two related technology for children pilot projects at the Mission Viejo  and Rancho Cucamonga Libraries in Southern California that will give me lots of learning to report on. Mission Viejo is home to Little eLit Think Tankers Genesis Hansen and Allison Tran, and Rancho is a 2013 IMLS Medal Winner.

Drs. Marianne Martens and Virginia Walter will be helping to provide some badly needed library-based research around the issue of children, technology and libraries. The amazing and inspiring Suzanne Flint at the California State Library will be wrangling us all, and Sam Eddington (incoming chair of the ALSC Education Committee) will be helping to facilitate the discussions.

A to Zoo for Apps Conversation Starter Video Uploaded

A special thanks to everyone who came to our A to Zoo for Apps Conversation Starter at ALA in Chicago last weekend! Here’s the video of what transpired for those of you who were unable to make it. We have some next steps in the works with the Erikson Institute and ALSC (and eventually, we hope, the Fred Rogers Center), but nothing I can report on officially yet. Stay tuned, folks. If Little eLit has anything to do with it, this is going to be an unprecedented collaboration, the likes of which has not yet been seen in libraryland. More to come!

eBook vs Tree Book: A technology terminology metadiscussion that ends with “New Media”

People-Press-300x200There’s been a lot of new media meta discussion recently; I wrote a post for the ALSC blog called “Screen Time” is Bad, which discusses the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad phrase “screen time” and Carisa wrote a related piece on the Digital Media Diet entitled Screen Time Vs Screen Quality: Why the Current Media & Kids Debate is About the Wrong Topic.

Then this morning she sent me this report from the Pew Research Center: In a digital age, parents value printed books for their kids. I barely got through the first paragraph when I realized I was confused; they use the word “print” to refer to paper books, as opposed to electronic books. We had a yabber about that, and it was decided that there is little or no ambiguity when you compare the terms “ebook” and “tree book.” But then I got thinking about some of the conference and institute proposals I’ve submitted with a host of other awesome people, and I realize I’m being way too app-centric.

Apps apps apps! That’s all we seem to talk about these days, and I think that’s short sighted. Fran Simon talks about “app mania,” both with reference to the use of technology for technology’s sake, and also in the sense that we ignore simpler tools (like spreadsheets, cameras and text editors) as center points for engagement when using technology with young children. When did the word “apps” come to refer to any kind of technology you might use with a child? (See a fabulous Slideshare presentation by Fran Below)

It’s exciting that we exist in such a tumultuous time, but it means we’re all going to have to renegotiate and redefine the words we use. The words we use shape the thoughts in our heads. For my next conference proposal I’m going to try NOT to use the word “app” too much, in favour of “new media.” We’ll see how that goes.

SPLAMBA Workshop at the Watsonville Library with Carisa Kluver @iPad_storytime

Carisa Kluver and I did our first tag-team workshop on Friday at the Watsonville Library with a group of SPLAMBA members who were interested in learning about using apps in storytime, but had never tried it out and were unsure about why they should even consider it. It’s becoming clear to me that in every session I lead, there is at least one person who will admit to me at the end that they didn’t particularly want to learn about using technology with young children, but that the approach we use, and the philosophical reasoning behind WHY we need to do this now has changed their minds. The fact that I’m a Waldorf mom is reassuring to these people as well; I view technology for kids as a reality that we must face with wisdom and moderation, not technology for technology’s sake. See my presentation below, and please also see Carisa’s Kids App Presentation Handout and Kids App Research Resources.

Children’s Librarians Curating Apps

Children’s Librarians! We need to build a mechanism by which we can work together to evaluate and recommend apps for kids on a large scale, and I know how we can do it.

Yesterday I spoke with Carisa Kluver of Digital Storytime for the first time. She is full of wonderful information, is incredibly well spoken and knows the kids’ app world better than anyone else I know.  She told me that it’s the highest compliment she can receive when someone asks if she’s a children’s librarian (she’s not) because her area of expertise is book-based apps for kids. She told me how in 2010, when she went into her local library to get recommendations for book based apps to share with her son, she was given the cold shoulder by the children’s librarian and told to read a paper book instead. So she took it upon herself to take her background in teacher training and social work and become an expert in digital media for kids.  “If librarians are not going to supervise this new playground of [digital] children’s literature to make sure the equipment is safe, then I am.”  Compared to Carisa’s work, Little eLit is in the dark ages.  She saw a need for this way before I did, and I see the need for this way before most other children’s librarians do.  Colleagues; we have some catching up to do.

I told Carissa about a recent conversation on the ALSC listserv and blog where some librarians were recommending that we as children’s librarians should stick our collective heads in the sand, pretend the technology doesn’t exist and only recommend paper books. She and I agreed that the long-term studies that will support the inclusion of digital media in literacy programming for kids is at least a decade off. Does that mean that we AREN’T going to begin to develop best practices around using this new format with kids?  NO! Tablet technology is pervasive and parents are using it anyway. Abstinence-only education doesn’t work.  Telling parents that they shouldn’t use technology with their less-than-five-year old child is not an acceptable course of action for professionals who pride themselves on evaluating, curating and recommending high quality media for children.

So what can we do?  Carisa had an amazing idea. What if children’s librarians work together to build a tool for evaluating and recommending apps?  Sure there are review sites like SLJHorn BookKirkusAppiticCommon Sense Media and Digital Storytime, but even these only scratch the surface of book based and educational apps for kids.  It’s time we started working together to apply our collection development and programming expertise to the ever-expanding, dynamic, and useful world of children’s interactive media. Carisa has offered to help us build a system by which we can tag, comment on, organize and curate apps that we discover that are high quality, safe, educational and well-designed. All we have to do is tell her what kind of information we’d want in there, and she’ll see what she can do about building the database.

Here are some more specifics from Carisa:

We could set up a test server for you & anyone else from ALSC to test it out. It would be based on the software we built to show price drops on kids apps, with curated ‘tabs’, although most of the elements & visual look of the page can be changed, this give you an idea:
We can customize it quite a bit & remove the price-tracking feature and/or add in other types of categorization, maybe based on a group of at least 6 people willing to act as a steering committee and committed to beta testing before the software is opened to a larger group of librarians (and to help handle technical questions as it launches). Initially I can simply have a version of the blank database set up at one of the url’s we use for testing, just for you to log in and play with it. We can host it, or if you have technical folks who are willing to step-up, we can simply give you the code.

Children’s librarians! Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff in the app world for kids.  Let’s bring those evaluation skills into the digital age. Comment below, contact me on Twitter, or fill out my contact form to start this conversation.

KinderTown and VPL

I’ve been continuing my search for resources and guidance on collection development for apps in libraries. Tess Prendergast, a PhD student at UBC and a Children’s librarian at VPL pointed me to the work of Francesca de Freitas, who uses apps in her position as a Children’s Librarian at the Vancouver Public Library. Carisa Kluver of Digital Storytime sent me  the presentation by Carolina Nugent at KinderTown.