Let’s face it. There are times in our very busy, very hectic lives when the best solution is to hand your precious child– gasp– a screen! Whether it is on a seemingly endless road trip to grandma’s house or unexpected trip to Urgent Care where the waiting time is 2.5 hours or you absolutely need to answer a work conference call and cannot be interrupted 400 times in 3 minutes, sometimes an iPad or an iPhone can be a parent’s saving grace.
While reading this article, keep in mind, that the American Academy of Pediatrics‘ latest guidelines on screen time for kids emphasizes the need for balance with other activities. The goal for school-age children is at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Ideally, a parent should be sitting next to their child and engaging with them while they are exploring a game or activity online, but we know in the real world, that isn’t always going to be the case. Luckily, there are creative, fun and educational games out there that parents can feel confident (or at least less guilty) about letting their kids explore on their own.
NPR recently came up with a list of 5 guidelines to help you choose the best apps for your kids- whether it be on road trips or apps that are creative and educational at the same time, apps that are great for our kids to explore on their own.
1. “Educational” doesn’t mean “drill and kill.”
For the youngest kids, ages 2-5, Elgersma recommends an app called Busy Shapes. “It’s puzzle-based and gets increasingly more challenging as kids play,” says Elgersma.
It’s developed by Edoki Academy, which has a group of apps that it says are based on the Montessori method of early childhood education. Montessori emphasizes self-directed and hands-on learning.
Even apps that get at specific skills should be more than digital worksheets, says Elgersma, citing e-learning research by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek at Temple University and others.
“If the experience can be replicated on paper, it doesn’t make sense on an app,” Elgersma says. “A great app offers an experience that can only be had on a screen.” She points to Motion Math, a group of apps that is being used in elementary school classrooms, and offers fun experiences like running a cupcake shop.
2. Open-ended play is enriching, too.
Children, especially young children, have a developmental need to play and use their imaginations.
Many of the most worthy apps for kids are better described as “a toy as opposed to a game,” in the words of Bjorn Jeffery, the former CEO and co-founder of Toca Boca. Toca Boca, one of the most award-winning app companies, is recommended highly by Elgersma. Their first app was Toca Tea Party, basically a play-pretend game, with no points or levels.
(Sidenote: my own children LOVE Toca Boca games!)
“It’s more similar to Lego,” says Jeffery. “You can’t win at Lego, it just is what it is.” In user testing of the tea party game, one surprising, and fun, change that preschoolers asked for was more spilling.
In this category, Elgersma also recommends My Playhome, which is like a digital dollhouse, and Me, by TinyBop, which is a personal scrapbook kids can fill in by answering questions and putting in videos and pictures.
3. Don’t underestimate the power of a good story.
Electronic devices are good for reading and listening, not just watching.
Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited is one major subscription service. Epic! is another. Both include thousands of picture books, chapter books, graphic novels, and even cookbooks grouped by ages. Epic! features a nifty weekly progress email for grownups and some light “game” features that encourage kids to keep reading.
For pre-readers there are backseat options too. A recent brain study showed kids getting a lot out of narrated slideshows (which are available on Epic!, FreeTime Unlimited, YouTube and elsewhere), essentially the automated version of reading a book.
Audiobooks and podcasts are other possibilities that can be fun for the whole family.
Finally, Amazon’s FreeTime app has a “Learn First” feature that allows parents to mandate a certain amount of reading before switching to other screen-based pursuits.
4. Try an app that enhances your vacation experience.
Headed to an amusement park? Pango Build Park is an app for elementary schoolers that involves building roller coasters and other parts of a theme park — there’s a little mapmaking involved too.
Going camping? Toca Nature is aimed at kids older than age 4. Explore different habitats and get a gentle introduction to the food chain.
Going to the beach? A city? Tinybop has an “Explorer’s Library” series that includes Coral Reef and Skyscraper.
And, if you prefer old-fashioned, road-trip diversions, there are several free versions of the license plate game available for iPhone and Android, and a wide range of karaoke apps if singalongs are your thing. These can get the whole family involved together.
5. Watch out for ads and add-ons.
Some kids’ apps are free to play initially, but dangle all kinds of extra goodies that cost money. In 2017, Amazon was forced to refund over $70 million in in-app purchases made by children without their parent’s knowledge. Apple and Google have had to do the same in years past.
Elgersma says to look for apps that have a flat free or subscription model, maybe with a free trial so you can check it out before you commit. The iTunes store now provides a list of in-app purchases.
Project B3 knows that no parent is perfect and life (especially in the summer months) can get hectic. Always remember to be mindful of your children’s screen time and to be a good mentor and role model for them. But, when you feel like it’s been “one of those days” or you’re stuck at the dentist’s office for 2 hours with three kids, go into survival mode and choose the absolute best resources for your children. Don’t let mindlessly search through YouTube. Use that “down time” in the most positive way possible.