Four ways to tell if an educational app will actually help your child learn

She looks very studious. But is she learning? Girl with tablet via CroMary/

Imagine someone telling you that a new technology would be available in five years that has the potential to revolutionise childhood and early education. But the downside is that you will have to choose from among 80,000 possible options. This is the problem currently facing many parents. Following the invention of the iPad in 2010, by January 2015 there were 80,000 apps marketed as “educational” in the Apple App Store alone.

We recently published a large-scale review of more than 200 articles on the question of how we can put the education back in educational apps. We used several well-worn principles that parents, educators and app developers can use to determine what is truly educational and what is simply masquerading as such. Here is what we found.

1. Apps should be minds-on, not minds-off

Have you ever used a GPS to drive to a new location but realised you have no actual knowledge of where you are or how to get home even though you drove there? Instead of actively processing the direction you were travelling in and the composition of the neighbourhood, you passively followed the instructions. Research tells us that these kinds of “minds-off” activities are precisely what you want to avoid when it comes to selecting educational apps for children.

In a study of word learning, children who actively used a process of elimination to figure out what object a new label was referring to showed better learning than those who were explicitly told that same information. Apps should utilise this kind of deeper processing. Before you download, pay attention to whether your child will simply be watching the screen or swiping flying fruit, rather than actively solving problems and thinking deeply.

2. Apps should be engaging, not distracting

Imagine you just opened the refrigerator door and your phone rings. When you get off the phone, you have absolutely no recollection of why you were in the refrigerator in the first place. These kinds of distractions take your attention away from what is happening around you, yet surprisingly these kinds of “bells and whistles” are precisely what many app developers include as “enhancements” in many apps.

A study comparing reading of electronic and traditional books found that when younger children read traditional books with their parents, parents talk more about the story and are less likely to direct the behaviour of the child, for example by saying “push that button”. Further, those reading the traditional book showed increased comprehension and were better able to remember the sequences of events in the story.

This difference is likely because electronic books may distract the child with “extras” such as sound effects or games and detract from the story itself. Apps can and should be “fun” but as a parent, you should look for apps that help your child to stay on task and not become distracted.

3. Apps should be meaningful

While learning the ABC song is an important building block, if your child doesn’t know that there are letters that relate to those sounds and that they form our ability to communicate, this knowledge is really just a song with no deep understanding.

Maths in your food. @Monstruonauta/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Research from our own labs has shown that children learn better when their parents help them play in a way that helps them to build meaning. In other words, seeing triangles in pieces of pizza is more meaningful than simply seeing them in perfectly drawn shapes on a screen with the point always at the top. Apps that teach the letters or numbers are fine but it is crucial for children to know why this knowledge is actually important. They need to see the information in use.

4. Apps that involve social interaction support learning

Research repeatedly shows that the best resource for young children is not a fancy video, DVD, or even an app. Other humans are instead a child’s best resource for deeper learning. We looked at one study of children’s ability to learn the meaning of a new word from different formats. They were taught the word in a live interaction, a digital interaction (think Skype), or a straightforward video. The children learned the new information best when it was presented socially – so that people actually responded to them either live or on screen.
This is just one of the many studies that suggests that humans are the best at teaching other humans. While the idea of an app can sometimes seem inherently unsocial, newer apps hitting the market encourage children to play alongside their parents or other friends. Even feeling as if they have a social relationship with famous characters like Elmo or Mickey Mouse appears to help children feel connected and has the potential to increase learning and engagement.

Finally, one last thing to look for is the context in which your child is learning. When adults set up a learning experience where children are given the tools to solve a problem and the freedom to find the solution on their own, they learn much more.

By asking yourself a few simple questions, you can determine which apps are educational for your child and which might simply be fun.