Do educational apps actually work? Here's how to ensure they're effective

Are those learning apps really doing anything? New research into kids’ apps can help parents choose which ones work and which ones are just distractions.

Photo: Stephanie Han Kim

You might feel a twinge of guilt every time you hand a tablet over to your child, but experts agree that when it comes to educational apps, not all screen time is negative. In fact, digital puzzles, counting activities and problem-solving games can offer real benefits. “Touchscreen apps have the potential to be terrific learning tools for multiple reasons: they can be engaging, fun, and interactive,” says Colleen Russo Johnson, an adjunct professor at Ryerson University in Toronto who is leading a new children’s research hub. “And they can easily increase in difficulty level and be customizable to different learning styles.”

Still, there are some important things to keep in mind before you hit “download.” For one thing, the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) says infants and toddlers under two shouldn’t have any screen time at all. Research shows kids that young haven’t reached a developmental stage where they can translate information from the digital world, and they may experience significant language delays or attention difficulties when they get heavy exposure to screens. For kids over two, the key is finding ways to use this new technology to benefit cognition and learning skills, rather than causing more distraction in the age of technology overload. Here are some things to keep in mind before turning on the tablet.

Choose the right kind of app
It’s important to tailor the apps your child uses to their learning style, says Johnson, who was the lead author on a study entitled “All Tapped Out: Touchscreen Interactivity and Young Children’s Word Learning,” published in Frontiers in Psychology. “One of the biggest takeaways for parents from our recent research is that children interact with touchscreens in vastly different ways, which impact the way they learn from the content,” she says.

For example, some children are “tap happy”—meaning they have trouble inhibiting their desire to tap, so an app that progresses or has a rewarding effect with every tap is not ideal for this child. Johnson’s study also found that some kids benefit more from dragging motions while others are better off simply watching the screen. Watch the way your child interacts with the screen to get an idea of how they learn. “Ultimately, you as the parent know your child best,” says Johnson.

Do your research
There aren’t any regulations over apps and many of the claims app sellers make are not based on science. “There are thousands of apps out there that claim to be educational, but the industry and the marketing moves much quicker than the actual research,” says Lauren J. Myers, a developmental psychologist who studies children’s cognitive and social-cognitive development at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. “Many apps appear to be educational. They throw some letters and numbers on it, but they may not encourage deep, conceptual learning that promotes understanding of underlying principles and concepts rather than rote memorization.”

Research published in 2015 in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest determined four factors to look for in an app for a more effective educational experience:

  • active involvement, meaning the child is actively involved in the task, mentally and physically;
  • engagement, meaning the child stays on task and is undistracted;
  • meaningfulness, which occurs when a child can connect the content to existing knowledge and create new understanding;
  • social interaction, which involves interacting with real life people.

If you vet your app based on these criteria—rather than on the fact that a friend’s child loves it—you are more likely to enhance learning. Also, look into whether an app has a parents’ section, where adults can track their child’s progress, or customization options, where you can turn off distracting noises or background music, recommends Johnson.

Play with your child
Parents incorrectly think of app time as being a solo experience for their child, explains Johnson. While it might be great to have 10 minutes to yourself to throw on dinner, an educational app isn’t meant to be a babysitter.

Just as watching television with your child enriches their experience and learning from the show, the same is true of apps, and many even have options to involve multiple players. Research has found that spending time co-playing apps allows parents to know what their children are doing, gives them a chance to help their kids out where needed. “The adult who is watching alongside can direct their attention, ask the child questions about what they see, or provide modeling behaviours,” says Myers. Children get more out of screen-based experiences when adults can help them understand them.

Don’t assume high-tech apps have an edge on old-school lessons
Just because there’s a fancy app to help your child learn to read doesn’t mean you should use it. “One of the interesting things that has come out of  research is that when parents and children read an e-book, parents do much less scaffolding and interaction and extension questions than they do when they read the actual physical book,” she says. Parents start to feel like they need to keep pace with the screen, so they interact with the child less and offer less opportunity for them to reflect, which is really at the core of helping a child learn.

So while there are many pluses to using an app to learn to read, according to Johnson, such as being able to instantly look up definitions, enhancing images, making notes, or taking quizzes, a mixture of app learning and more traditional learning could be a winning combination for your child.

Don’t give them too much of a good thing
Don’t assume because something is called “educational” that it’s okay to let your child use it for any amount of time. The CPS suggests parents limit screen time to under one hour for children ages two to five. The organization also recommends avoiding the use of screens at least an hour before bed, as it could affect the quality and length of time that your child sleeps, in part because of the screen’s blue light, which suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin. Studies show that young children who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have problems with emotional control, attention and peer relationships so your best efforts could actually be detracting from their learning skills long-term.

The bottom line? Focus on play and learning will be a helpful byproduct. “I think parents today have unnecessary added pressure that their child is ahead of the curve, and they forget the value of encouraging creativity, exploration and play,” says Johnson.

Read more:
All that screen time does real-life harm: Here’s how much kids should actually be getting
6 simple ways to get a handle on your kids’ screen time

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