How can parents be sure children's educational apps work? Tracy Dumais, a mobile learning consultant and young learner specialist for the British Council, answers.
What are some of the concern parents have about children’s use of apps?
As educational apps become commonplace, both in school and at home, it is natural for parents to have many questions and concerns about the apps they choose for their children to play and learn with. The concerns we hear from parents often revolve around how to ensure the contents of an app will be suitable for their children; how to support their child to get the best out of technology and how much time their child should spend using the app.
We ask these questions because we care about the safety of children and because we want to ensure they are making the most out of the learning opportunities presented in app technology. Good app developers consider all of these questions and more when we create our apps for kids and ultimately, this allows us to provide safe and stimulating educational experiences for kids.
What evidence is there that app technology can help children learn?
For a while now there has been a debate about the appropriate amount of ‘screen time’ for children. But more and more research is being carried out and it’s pointing out the enormous benefits of learning through app technology.
A study carried out by New York University measured the impact of popular reading apps on a group of 95 students. For six weeks, these four- to five-year-old students used reading apps for 12- to 15-minute intervals. After six weeks, those students who had regularly used the app exhibited improvements in critical areas, including print knowledge, phonological awareness and letter sounds.
It is also important to note that good app developers test the app they are creating during the development process and at several different stages afterwards. This helps us make updates and revisions to the product. This way, developers can see first-hand if children engage with the apps and – most importantly – if they are learning from them.
How can parents be sure an app is suitable for children?
The good news for parents is that, if an app can be found in the children's section of the app store, you can be reassured that Apple and Google have checked them for age-appropriate content, and in Apple's case, that any in-app purchasing lies behind a parental gate.
Aside from that, the best way to ensure you choose suitable, child-friendly content is by opting for a trusted brand. Well-known brands won’t risk their reputation by delivering inappropriate content or adverts.
If you aren't familiar with a certain brand or app’s reputation, you can always use a website that specialises in selecting appropriate content for children, like The Good App Guide by Fundamentally Children (UK) or Common Sense Media’s Essential App Guide (US).
Finally, a good indicator of a child-appropriate app is when it states that its content and user interface have been tested by children. This is not just about testing the app product itself, but also about testing the activities in real life. For example, when developing a hidden-object game, app developers could have children looking for objects hidden in sand, and putting objects into boxes to check they understand and enjoy the concept that underpins the games. Once we are happy the games work, we can turn them into digital versions and test them again to get the timing right. We also check the level progression is fast enough to retain a child’s interest, but slow enough to enable the learning of new words.
There are many interesting ways to test how an app helps a child’s development. For example, developers Nosy Crow have talked about their 'let-them-play-and-watch-what-happens' approach to user testing (and the surprises this method yields), and Tinybop love the 'honest, instinctual responses' that children invariably give during hands-on user testing sessions.
How can parents help children get the most out of an app and encourage positive behaviour?
If you ask parents and teachers what keeps their child on-task and motivated when they are in the classroom, they will almost certainly mention some kind of reward. The same is the case with apps. Rewards for completing stages are essential to maintaining a child’s concentration and attention. They help ensure the child continues to return to the app and stays involved in the learning process. Some great examples of this method in games include the animated stickers in Monkey Lunchbox, unlocking new characters in Mario’s Alphabet and video clips in Learning Time with Timmy.
However, adding regular rewards and gradually increasing the level of challenge will only go so far to maintain your child’s interest. Continued praise and support from parents is extremely valuable. Watching your child play with an app will help you notice what excites them, and if you see them getting bored, try commenting on, or supporting, their learning.
As you will notice from your own behaviour with technology, there is often a natural cycle of increasing and waning interest. If your child appears to lose interest in an educational app that you had hoped would interest them longer, don’t delete it. Instead, just leave it for a while and then encourage them to return to the app during a long car journey or a wait at the doctor's. You might find that they will quickly pick it up again with increased enthusiasm.
How much time, and how often, should children use an educational app?
In a sense this is the toughest to answer because all children develop, learn, and derive pleasure differently. Fortunately for parents, the simplest way to identify if an app is right for the child is to allow them to play with an app for a while and observe them.
A good educational app for kids allows for different styles and learning speeds. Some children play carefully and accurately, taking longer to think about their answers and getting more things right the first time. Others might be quicker to select the correct answers. Educational games for children should allow for a varied pace of play.
Make sure the app your child is playing with doesn’t penalise them for making mistakes – getting things wrong is part of the learning process. An error shouldn’t derail the learning journey or require starting over. Children should get as many chances as they need to find the right answer. For very young children, there should be no ticking clock or loud noises to make them feel uncomfortable about choosing the wrong answer.
How can parents know if the app is helping their child’s learning?
With the early-years age group, it is important to note that all children develop at a different pace, and each individual child may take something different from the app depending on a number of factors. These factors include their previous exposure to the subject, the amount of time they spend on the app, how the learning of new knowledge is reinforced, and a number of other factors.
That said, parents can look out for a number of improvements in their child’s ability following continued use of a language-learning app. You might notice them using words from the app; you might hear them speaking with more clarity and joining in with songs, stories or rhymes while they listen to them. By watching your child with the app, you might notice them building word-recognition skills as they find the correct answers quicker. Most importantly, if a child enjoys an educational app, they will show more enthusiasm towards the subject they are learning.
Don't worry if your child is not immediately using words they have encountered in a language-learning app or speaking English in full sentences. All children develop at a different rate. At this young age, apps can be a great way to introduce children to the sounds, words and phrases that lay foundation for mastering the language in later life.
Would you like to help your kids learn new English words and develop their fine motor skills? Then download Learning Time with Timmy 2 today. This brand-new app is available for phones and tablets on all app stores worldwide.
Find out more about British Council apps for children by visiting our LearnEnglish Kids site.