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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.


Talking About Our Motivations for Using New Media, by Carissa Christner

During a recent group discussion about different ways that families can make a media plan and how we, as librarians and media mentors, can help them with that complicated topic, Tessa M. Schmidt (of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction) made an excellent suggestion and it really stuck with me. She pointed out that we need to talk to children about “purpose” (I think of it also as “motivation”) when we are deciding whether or not to use new media at a given time. For instance, if your child approaches you with a request to use the iPad, ask them what their purpose for using it is. Are they seeking a specific piece of information? Is there a particular app they’re excited to use? Are they just bored? There’s not necessarily one right answer (although perhaps if we begin realizing that our motivation is frequently boredom-based or “just out of habit” we might be motivated to open up a discussion about other alternative activities or ways to break the habit), but talking directly about our motivations can help our usage to become more purposeful and mindful rather than just a frequent force of habit.

Parents can also talk about their own motivations for using their devices: “I’m just going to check my e-mail quickly because I’m expecting a message from your grandma,” or “I need to check the weather forecast to see if we need to wear our rain boots today.” Grown-ups can also share their motivations for saying “yes” to their child’s request for the iPad: “I need to have a conversation with your doctor right now and I know you’re tired of being in this exam room. Why don’t you try out that new app we played together last night for a few minutes while we wrap up this visit?” or “Would you like to read a book app for one of our bedtime stories tonight?” or even, “I’m not feeling well right now and I need to lie down for a few minutes. Why don’t you come sit beside me on the bed and we can turn on the narrator so you can listen to one of your book apps?”

Be honest with yourself and with your kids about your motivation. I think this will be a great way to bring a mindful awareness to your own use of devices as well as lay solid groundwork for a healthy media diet as your child grows up.


Carissa Christner is a librarian with Madison Public Library.


App Review: Keezy

IMG_4447I recently used an app called Keezy in a storytime I was presenting all about music. The app was originally designed for professional (and aspiring) musicians to use as a sound mixing board, but it has a super-simple interface that makes it into a very flexible tool easy enough for kids to use and full of possibilities for different ways to use it.

The main screen of the app consists of 8 colored squares. When you first open the app, you can touch each square to hear a pre-recorded default recording. Some of the sounds are rhythms, some are synthesized voices singing, others are short musical riffs. You can play them one at a time, or layer them in any way you want, pressing as many as all 8 at once.

You can also choose one of the other pre-recorded musical mixes to hear a different selection of sounds.


But the real beauty of this app comes when you choose the “+” symbol from the options menu.


This option will take you back to the main screen, only this time, there is a small microphone symbol on each square.  Press on a square to record your own sound clip and once it’s recorded, the microphone disappears to let you know that that color now has a recording associated with it.


Of course, you can record musical clips (I had my storytime group echo back a few bars I sang to them and then we listened to ourselves on the playback), and one of my favorite features is the fact that there are 8 squares, allowing a full octave of individual notes if that’s what you want, but…. you’re not limited to music. You can record any audio as long as it’s not longer than a few seconds! Some ideas I’ve thought of include:

  1. Recording animal noises (or your own voice making animal noises) for a guessing game.
  2. You could incorporate this app into a re-telling of one of those cumulative tales like “Too Much Noise” and record your audience making each of the animal noises before you begin telling the story and just press the button each time when it’s time to hear that noise in the story.
  3. Same thing for the song, “Bought me a Cat” (of course, the audience can still sing along if they want to!).
  4. You could do a MadLib story with a group and assign a part-of-speech to each color square (as long as your MadLib has no more than 8 blanks) and ask kids to come up and record a word for each square, then as you’re retelling the story, just press the square to playback the word at the right time.
  5.  You could have kids write an 8-sentence story and record a sentence for each color, but in a scrambled order and challenge a friend to figure out which order the colors should be played in to make the story make the most sense.This is a great, easy-to-use, open-ended content creation app with so many possibilities to explore.  Oh, and did I mention? It’s FREE! What will you make with Keezy?

Carissa Christner is a librarian with Madison Public Library.

Little eLit is a collaborative think tank of professionals thinking about the topic of young children, new media, and libraries. Individuals who share their viewpoints, experiences, and presentations in Little eLit blog posts are expressing their personal views and do not represent Little eLit as a whole.

Balancing “Screen Time” Repost From Happy Stuff

Many families are struggling to figure out how to best manage screentime in their own home.  The following is a re-post (lack of capitalization included!) from Happy Stuff, which is run by the inspiring Carissa Christner, long-time LittleeLit contributor and soon-to-be trainer. thanks for sharing balancing “screen time” Carissa!

balancing screen time

i’ve been thinking a lot about the healthiest ways to incorporate apps and technology into our family life. many parents deal with the issue by setting a daily time limit, and while that seems so nice and tidy and easily quantifiable (there’s even an app for that!), i know that if i were playing an interesting game and i was just about to complete a challenge and someone told me i had to turn the game off right at that moment …. i’d whine and complain and possibly even throw a giant fit too. i would also feel like i had a right to use up every minute of my maximum allowed screen time every day, as though if i didn’t use it all up, i’d be getting cheated out of my rightful screen time.

if the happy family tried that option, i’d spend large portions of my day having conversations about “just 5 more minutes” or “but i’ve only had 25 minutes of screen time!” or “that screen time didn’t count because i didn’t like that game” or “what if i called granna on facetime, would that count?”* and other “referee” questions in which i’d be constantly re-interpreting and re-creating arbitrary rules. that makes me cranky. plus, those questions are not teaching my child the bigger life lesson of how to include technology in a balanced diet of daily activities.

my friend carisa kluver created this wonderful model for teaching kids how to balance their own media diet (follow this link! read the article!), but i found that it was too abstract for me to explain to my 4 year old, so i broke down the first component — balance — into a system that he could understand and for now, i’ll judge the quality and engagement components myself.


Want to learn the details of Carissa’s “balance system”?  Read the rest of this post at Happy Stuff!

A Story Before Bed, by Carissa Christner

During my last semester of grad school, I did a project on “Mobile Apps for the Library” and in the course of my research, I discovered an app and online service called A Story Before Bed that allows users to create a video of themselves reading a book. They have hundreds of books in their collection, including both self-published titles and more familiar books available for physical check out in my own library. A Story Before Bed has taken care of all the copyright issues for the titles in their collection. Each recording is assigned a unique URL that doesn’t disappear even after your subscription expires. And they had just created an annual subscription model designed for library use. I couldn’t wait to try it out!


Finding funding
Because their pricing is calculated “per location” it seemed prudent to do a pilot project with only one branch before committing to subscriptions to all 9 of our library’s branches. I took the idea to our Friends of the Library, who like to fund new ventures like this, and they were quite excited by the idea as well and were willing to fund a year’s subscription.

Creating the recordings
Then, it was up to me to start creating the recordings. After experimenting with several different recording set-ups, we determined that the simplest set-up and the best results came from simply using my Apple laptop. A Story Before Bed isn’t equipped to use standard videocamera footage, so no editing is really possible. Each time I was ready to make a few recordings, I found a sunny window to set up near, hung a piece of fabric behind my head to create a neutral backdrop, and started recording! I chose titles based on which books my library owned because I wanted to make a connection between these “virtual” titles and the physical books on our shelves. During each recording session, I usually recorded 3-5 books. Because I wanted to do each one in a single “take” and occasionally something happened halfway through (like my backdrop falling down or an ambulance driving by outside), doing the recordings was more time-consuming than I’d originally thought.


Promoting the service
Once the recordings were complete, I posted them on our library’s website along with a link to finding the physical book in our online catalog. I created posters, bookmarks, and business cards directing people to the page that listed the recordings, along with instructions for how they could listen to the stories on their iPhones or iPads, and how (during our subscription year) patrons of our branch were allowed to create their own recordings for free! I also asked some “local celebrities” to create recordings to add to our website. Inside the front covers of the library books that had A Story Before Bed recordings, we pasted a QR code linking to the recording’s URL.


Results of the pilot project
After our year’s subscription expired, I realized that I had found time to record about 50 books which, after doing the math, wasn’t that much cheaper than buying individual titles would have been. Only a handful of patrons took advantage of the “record your own stories for free” option (perhaps because their recordings were then visible on the library’s A Story Before Bed account and potentially visible to the public?) and I had recorded most of the titles that our library owned, so I decided to end our subscription and switch to the pay-per-title model for now. Many patrons still tell me how much their kids love to watch me reading books to them on their iPad/iPhone/computer, and when I use those same books in library programs now, someone always says, “I have that book on my iPad!” I have also spoken to teachers who like the possibilities that their students who are learning English have a local source for hearing books read by a native speaker and can hear them being read over and over as often as they need to. I have really enjoyed this project and I’m very pleased with the results. Many thanks to A Story Before Bed and the Friends of the Alicia Ashman Library for making this all possible!

P.S. Looking for a more “live” experience? The developers at A Story Before Bed have also created a way to share their same video + book reading experience through Google+ Hangouts! Go try it out for free!!

Carissa Christner is a librarian with Madison Public Library.

On Starting to Use Apps in Storytime, by Carissa Christner

When I first started using apps in storytime, the things that I was surprised by were:

1. The awkwardness of trying to figure out where to look when I’m projecting from an iPad onto a screen (do I look at the big screen? the iPad screen?  do I sit in front of the screen?  no one’s looking at ME (like they do when I read a book), this is WEIRD!). p.s. I ended up taking Cen’s advice and now I stand, to the side of the screen, holding the iPad, but (as much as possible) looking at the same big screen the audience is looking at.

2.  Remembering to actually play an app all the way through to the end and be sure I know what happens BEFORE I present it in storytime.  I’ll admit that I will still occasionally show an app that’s new to me before I’ve had time to really dig into it, but I’m almost always taken by surprise by either content or length or uncertainty of how to navigate within the app and I always WISH I’d taken the time to familiarize myself with the app better before bringing it to a larger crowd.

3.  Technical glitches.  It worked perfectly when I practiced it before storytime, why won’t it project now?  Have a back-up plan.  Can you just show the app from the iPad screen if you need to?  Do you have an alternative activity instead?

4.  Remembering to share the name of the app with your group so that they can try it at home if they want to.  Either write it down on a whiteboard in the room or post it on paper somewhere or print a bookmark or flyer with a list of the apps you’re using…. something so that you can encourage them to try this new tool at home.

Also, I’ve been LOVING these great slideshare presentations by Emily Lloyd of Hennepin County:

She does such a great job of bringing focus to the WHY of this endeavor and has some excellent sound bites to pass along to parents.

Which reminds me of:

5.  Remembering to include a sentence or two about healthy/balanced ways to incorporate apps into home life.  We’ve done this for years when we talk about how reading to children is such an important part of early literacy–let’s do the same for early media literacy!

Carissa Christner is a librarian with Madison Public Library.

Bilingual App for Outreach Storytime, by Carissa Christner

photo(1)This past week, I wanted a few more stories to add to my outreach storytime visit to a local Spanish-immersion daycare center.  I didn’t have time to run to the library to pick up more books before the visit, but I remembered that a few of the new apps I’d tried recently had Spanish options.  I quickly reviewed DADA Company’s story app, “Four Little Corners” and found it charming and the perfect length for the attention span of this group (as a bonus, the themes of the story even supported their weekly theme of “Amor y Amistad” (love & friendship)!).

The kids loved the story and it was nice to have the story read by a native Spanish speaker (my Spanish isn’t fluent, but I usually stumble along in hopes that the kids will take hope that if I’m brave enough to try, even when my Spanish isn’t perfect, maybe they can too).  I did wish that there was the option to turn off the narration (there wasn’t, unless you count the mute button on the iPad), but other than that small complaint, I loved using this app!

I also brought out “Count the Animals” by Appracadabra which has options for charming illustrations for counting in 21 different languages.  The Lite version counts only from 1-5, but that would have been plenty for this particular situation.  Now I’m hunting for other great Spanish titles to bring on the iPad next time!

Carissa Christner is a librarian in Wisconsin.

Tiny Bang Story in Storytime, by Carissa Christner

After reading Carisa Kluver’s great list of Five Great Puzzle Apps to use with kids 4-10, I was excited to try out the Tiny Bang Story app. I have a very popular monthly Saturday storytime called Donuts with Dad that often brings in a wide range of ages. This month’s story theme was “Teeny Tiny,” so the app was a good fit for the group and the theme, but I wasn’t sure how well a puzzle app would work in a storytime setting.

screen480x480In preparation for this demonstration, I played with it for a while the night before with my son (to make sure I knew how it worked) and really enjoyed working together with him on it. If I had heard about the app earlier, I would have preferred to have multiple sessions of playing it together with him before using it in storytime (and to test his long-term interest in and patience for the game—he’s not usually a sitting-still, puzzle-loving kind of kid, so if he can sit still and enjoy it, I feel confident recommending it!), but since I’d only heard about it the day before storytime, I chose to trust Carisa’s recommendation.

Integrating this app into storytime wasn’t quite as seamless as an ebook would have been, but I opened the game (note: it has a really long animated intro the first time you open it, so I let that play all the way through before storytime so we could get straight to the game), gave a brief demonstration (including having one of the kids in the room help me find one of the puzzle pieces that they spotted but that I didn’t see), and then I used the opportunity to talk about how apps can be used the same way that board games and big puzzles are–as a way for families to play TOGETHER!

I explained that the puzzles were probably too difficult for most of the kids in the room to do on their own, but that with an adult and child working together, I thought it could work well for an even wider age range than 4-10. I had several parents come up afterwards to ask about the app (I’d forgotten to write the app name on my whiteboard like I usually do, but my mistake ended up being a nice way to gauge actual interest).

I worried that (even more than usual, since I could really only show them a small teaser) talking about this app would feel like an advertisement in the middle of storytime—advertising a product that I cannot loan the listeners for free, and which some of them won’t even be able to access at home (although at least this one is available on both Apple and Android platforms). I’d like to think that my message about using apps together as a family activity was as strong a message as (or perhaps stronger than) my recommendation of this specific app, but I wonder if any other librarians struggle with this dilemma and if anyone has come up with an answer.

Infiniscroll for Telling Stories, by Carissa Christner

I’ve been playing with apps at my library for a few months now. I use them most frequently in my Preschool Storytime. The apps that feel like the most natural fit are book-based apps because in essence, they’re just a REALLY big “Big Book” with a few moving parts. Occasionally, when I’m feeling brave, or if I’ve found an app that I’m just so excited about that I have to share it with my storytime families, I’ll try out a non-book-based app.


Recently, I did a storytime about fairytales and, although there are a ton of classic fairy tales retold in app version, I really wanted to introduce a new app I’d discovered called “Infiniscroll.” This is a unique storytelling app in which you choose 5 pictures to stack on a sort of virtual “totem pole,” and then you can create (with the option to record) a story that goes along with the 5 images you’ve chosen. I was a bit nervous about the live improv-storytelling concept, so I practiced using the app a few times at home with my son for his bedtime story. (We took turns telling the story. He loved it! Check out our story in the video below.)

a story with infiniscroll from carissaabc on Vimeo.

During my fairytales storytime, I introduced the app by talking to everyone about how, before they were written down with words, stories were simply told and passed down from person to person. I also talked about how all of the fairytales that we read (and indeed ALL books) were stories that at some point came out of someone’s imagination. I then reminded the kids that each of them have an imagination that they can use to create a new story, but sometimes it’s hard to come up with an idea for a story and that’s where Infiniscroll comes in handy. I had the kids help me choose which images to “lock” into our story’s totem pole, and then I told a story (I didn’t bother to record it) about the images they had chosen. It was a lot of fun to use this app in storytime, and I’m looking forward to future developments from Infiniscroll.

Carissa Christner is a librarian in Wisconsin.