We all want what’s best for our children. We want them to grow, learn, succeed, and be happy. Yet research² confirms that parenting today is harder than ever. Decisions about technology pose real challenges, adding to pressures to make sure that our children keep up, catch up, or get ahead. Tech companies often claim that “educational” apps and games are the solution to these worries, yet not all of these programs are created equally. How do we make sure screen-based learning programs are the best fit for our preschoolers? We’ve designed this guide for you.
This is part 1 of our Safe, Secure, & Smart Guide to Choosing Tech for Your Preschooler. To learn more about this series and read our guides about online videos and connected toys and devices, click here.
Consider how preschoolers learn.
Parents* are children’s first teachers, sometimes without even knowing it. Young children learn best through meaningful experiences with loving adults, peers, open-ended materials, and lots of time for hands-on exploration. The first step to choosing any tech for children is to remember the Four Pillars of Learning that experts³ identify as key to preschoolers’ growth and development. Children learn best when:
- They are active. Kids aren’t empty vessels to fill with knowledge. Active learning invites them to use their bodies and senses as well as their brains. Children learn actively when they jump in puddles, do dishes, build with blocks, and cut with scissors. Each opportunity helps them to build connections in their brain and make sense of the world around them!
- They are engaged. Children need time and space to focus, even for very brief periods of time. When there are many distractions (like advertisements and notifications), learning can be disrupted.
- Learning is meaningful to their lives. Kids make sense of what they are learning more quickly when the content and learning materials relate to their lives, because the concepts have meaning for them.
- They are social. Social interactions, whether with supportive adults or curious peers, are critical to helping children understand information. Even when children play independently, it can be helpful for them to talk about it later.
All of these pillars are most often present when children play! Children need a range of play experiences – alongside adults or independently, inside and outside, and with materials that can be manipulated and transformed with their imaginations. Children learn much better this way than by memorizing and listening to facts.
“A child’s whole development, brain development included, is best supported when young kids have full-on opportunities to use their whole bodies and senses for activity, play, and social interaction.” – Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige,4 Professor Emerita, Lesley University; co-founder, Defending the Early Years
Think, for example, of a basic math equation like 3 + 2 = 5. If children simply memorize this fact, they’ll probably remember it. But, they won’t really know how to add. In fact, while some preschool apps push addition and subtraction on young children, preschoolers’ brains are typically not ready for these concepts. They are too abstract. Instead, preschoolers need to understand how to group, sort, and count before they can add. And it’s when children play with actual physical materials that real learning happens.
Take blocks. As children play with blocks, they learn math through practice. As kids divide blocks into piles, they discover that, wow!, 3 blocks + 2 blocks = 5 blocks, and so does 2 + 2 + 1. They also learn that if they want to make a pile for their sibling, they can’t divide the pile evenly without leaving one block or three blocks behind. Not only do they learn math, but they learn that math has meaning for their relationships! These are essential experiences for later math learning (like addition); math apps that push learning math facts first are not what preschoolers need.
Playing with materials like blocks is fun, and it supports the Four Pillars of Learning: children are active and engaged as they play. They can play alone, with friends, siblings, or you. They aren’t memorizing principles of physics, but they can learn that blocks must be stacked in certain ways or else they tumble down. They learn that certain block shapes align best with others. Their learning is real. It’s this type of hands-on experience that teaches children to love learning and use what they learn.
So, when we look for apps that are educational, they need to offer lots of different opportunities for children to be active and engaged, and for the content to be meaningful and interactive. An ideal app would replicate the magic of play as much as possible (though we know there is no true replacement for real play)!
Q: Why do I want my child to use this app?
Talk about it! Developing a philosophy around choosing tech early on will serve you and your kids in the long run. Family discussions about technology and media, even with small children, are healthy ways to help everyone navigate tech. Acknowledge and validate your preschooler’s desire to use an app or program – even if you decide not to let them use it. “I know you really want to do this, but…“ Share the steps you take in making decisions about technology.
In many families, co-parents disagree about the merit of these apps or children fight the process. It is important to get on the same page as much as possible. Kids get confused when their primary caregivers each have different rules about tech, so try to be consistent. If that’s not possible, establish as much consistency as you can around app use in areas where you have control, and be clear with your child about why.
Q: How do I know if this app is made for preschoolers?
First, look for the age rating. In your app store, there are a number of ways to filter by age. Filter for apps for children “0-5” or “under 6,” depending on your device. If you’re unsure if a specific app is rated for your child’s age, in the Google Play store, look near that app’s name, or in the Apple App store, scroll down on the app information, where an age rating should be provided. This age rating will at least filter out apps that are not age appropriate.
Be skeptical. An app rated for “Everyone” or “4+” does not necessarily protect your child’s personal information or mean it’s appropriate for preschoolers. This simply means that it is rated for everyone over 4 years old.
Don’t trust apps that say “preschool” or “for kids” in the title without listing a matching age range. Some programs use “preschoolers” as a marketing tactic, but are not created by anyone who knows anything about young children’s development and learning.
Q: Will this app engage my children in activities that are appropriate for how preschoolers learn?
The best way to tell this is to use the app yourself and to look for the Four Pillars of Learning:
- Look for: Apps that encourage imagination and provide opportunities for children to use what’s being taught in real-life play or in conversation with friends and family.
- Avoid: Apps that only give kids limited, predetermined choices. These may be entertaining, but don’t necessarily help kids learn or process information in ways that will benefit them in the long run. These apps create a scripted experience, so kids don’t have an active role or use their imagination.
- Look for: Ad-free apps that invite children to be creative. Apps should engage children without mesmerizing them. It’s helpful when they have a clear starting and stopping point.
- Avoid: Apps that have ads or encourage in-app purchases.
- Look for: Apps that match children’s interests and invite them to explore the real world after or during app use. Apps that embed learning into the plot or context of the game are promising, as well as apps that invite kids to reflect on their direct experiences and the experiences of their peers and family.
- Avoid: Apps that are just about memorizing (like flashcards).
- Look For: If the app allows children to connect with others, make sure they can only connect with people you approve of, and only with your permission. Make sure that any communication with others is not recorded or monitored by the app, that there are opportunities to engage together with the app, and that children feel encouraged to communicate about their experience openly.
- Avoid: Apps that have social media aspects that allow children to choose who they connect with, interact with strangers, or post personal information. Also look out for app usage that results in secretive behavior, where children do not share their experiences with you.
Check out the educational claims.
Sometimes, there is a sigh of relief when apps, games, and programs are labelled “educational.” But what does the label “educational” really mean? “Only a handful of apps are designed with an eye toward how children actually learn” says researcher Kathy Hirsh-Pasek5(p. 5). And, there is little research on how apps support children’s learning. A study from the University of California shows that very few popular Android and Apple apps are developmentally appropriate for preschoolers, especially because they lack clear instructions and require a real person to help children understand and be able to use the information.
Regardless of whether the app is labeled “educational” or not, you’ve probably read articles6 or seen information about how apps, computer games, and other programs can support kids’ learning. Be careful before believing this research; much of it applies only to specific age groups, media platforms (such as TV shows), and when used in different contexts. Furthermore, most of this research is conducted by the same companies making the apps, meaning the research process is unclear and often focused on boosting the companies’ own success.
Additionally, any app developer can slap that label “educational” on their product and market it as a learning opportunity for kids. When you look at educational claims, make sure they are supported by available research. Check if those claims match what you understand about child development and keep your eye out for apps with the words “active” and “creative.”
Try to find truly creative apps that allow kids to draw, design, make videos, or provide resources to help children experiment as they learn science or math. These are more likely to be educational.
In apps that do not offer these creative opportunities, the messages that children receive are that their worth is based on right or wrong answers. They also teach children that they need a reward every time they do academic work. Research7 tells us rewards can actually inhibit a child’s motivation to learn, leading to dislike of school and burnout because they begin to rely on that need for constant affirmation. When app-driven kids don’t have the gratification of a reward, they are less likely to persevere8 when learning gets hard.
Finally, some apps that claim to be educational also have features that interrupt or frustrate learning: intrusive ads, paywalls, and content that distracts from the app’s plot are just a few of the disruptive app elements uncovered by researchers in some of the most popular kids’ apps9. The researchers found that nearly 93% of apps marketed as “educational” contained advertising, and about half of educational apps required children to pay money to access the full gameplay experience. So, while your child may be entertained by this app, it means that a large part of their experience is not actually playing. They also learn to want the products being advertised, which teaches them to shop instead of practicing a skill or being creative.
Q: How do I know if an app is really educational?
Labeling an app “educational” does not mean that it really helps kids learn. Remember that use of the term “educational” is not regulated. To assess if an app is actually educational, make sure the app meets the Four Pillars of Learning outlined above, and to establish, together with your child, some goals around using the app.
For example, if your child is interested in learning more about birds, an app that helps kids identify birds or bird calls will be a great choice. If you would like your child to feel more confident identifying letters, a better app would help them to practice finding and using letters in a variety of ways – both off and on the screen.
Be skeptical of educational claims. For instance, SAS Tech’s Preschool Learning: Fun Educational Games for Children, which also contains ads, claims that it can “Improve children’s ability to concentrate, creativity, imagination, visualization, cognitive, problem solving and motor skills by brain exercises. These interactive games will help increasing reaction and response speed, memory capacity and coordination between hand and brain.” Claims like these—very wordy and sometimes full of typos—that promise to teach a wide range of very specific skills are common on apps that seek to make money through advertising or in-app purchases. These app creators rarely, if ever, have conducted any research to support their many claims. Apps from trusted nonprofits like Sesame Workshop or PBS Kids are much more likely to have been created in conjunction with child development experts who understand how young children actually learn.
Q: Does the game have ads? What kinds of ads?
Young children are particularly vulnerable to advertising, and the apps they use should be ad-free. Ads interrupt play and distract children. The app stores should tell you whether the apps contain advertisements. “Sight Words Sentence Builder,” for example, (see photo below) says “Contains ads. Offers in-app purchases” at the top as a warning. Make sure that the app states explicitly that it does not include advertisements.
Q: Does the game offer in-app purchases?
When you download an app, be sure to check if an app has in-game purchases. Many apps marketed as free actually require purchases to access content. Avoid these apps. These games are usually designed to deliberately frustrate children by offering extremely limited play while promising lots of fun if parents shell out for an in-game purchase.
In-app purchases can block children from continuing the game or pop up as advertisements themselves. The pressure to buy from these interruptions also encourages children to want to spend money instead of focus on the app.
For all these reasons, it is better to purchase apps that have a one-time cost rather than use free apps that will be constantly up-selling to your children. If you do use apps with in-app purchases, make sure that children can’t make purchases on their own. Otherwise they can end up inadvertently spending money without your knowledge or permission.
Make sure it’s safe for your child.
It’s important to keep your kids safe while they use devices, especially from online predators, theft, hacking, privacy invasions, and other risk factors that come with being online. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, is the only US law that protects kids’ sensitive data online. However, companies and app developers may disregard the law and illegally share children’s data with third parties, including advertisers.
In one study10, researchers from UC Berkeley found that thousands of popular Android apps shared children’s locations, device information, and other COPPA-protected info with third parties, including advertisers, without getting parental consent. Worse, about 40% of the nearly 6,000 kid-directed apps in this study didn’t properly secure the information being transmitted, which means that information about a child’s location could be easily intercepted. A University of Texas at Dallas study11 of 100 mobile apps for kids found that 72 violated COPPA – and these are apps specifically made for children.
Q. What information does this program collect?
Privacy policies should list what kind of information they collect. This can include names, addresses, phone numbers, device IDs, IP addresses, locations, or email addresses. A good exercise is to ask yourself if it makes sense that the app needs to collect this information for the program it offers – and avoid the apps that appear to be collecting extra info. For example, an app that takes kids on an outdoor scavenger hunt needs to access a child’s location in order to function properly. But a math app shouldn’t track a child’s location.
Be wary of programs that say they don’t collect personal information, but actually allow other companies to do so. These apps might say “we do not collect any personally identifiable information about the users of our apps,” but do allow third party services to “collect information used to identify you.” “Third party services” is tech-speak for companies that pay app developers for the personal information of their users (SAS Tech).
Apps that are COPPA-compliant will only track your child’s data with your consent, but if kids are downloading apps on their own, they may be providing consent on your behalf. This is just another reason to make sure only adults are downloading apps.
As parents of busy preschoolers, searching through privacy policies is not something you have time for. A number of organizations exist that have done some of the work for you. AppCensus, which tests each app to see if their privacy policies match up to how they actually operate, and Privacy Direct, which rates the app’s privacy policies based on online protections for kids, are two great tools for parents. Not all apps have been evaluated, but many of the more popular ones have!
Q: What do they do with this information?
Privacy policies should clearly identify what information is collected. And, to be compliant with COPPA, it should include the name and contact information of anyone receiving this information and what they are using it for. Look for clear statements like: “We do not collect any data from our users.” Some red flags are phrases like “we may,” and “other third parties,” that don’t spell out exactly when, how, and to whom personal information is distributed. Be careful of weak, or confusing statements like this one from ABC Mouse: “Information collected from both Adult and Child Users will not be disclosed except as follows…Where legally required and in certain other cases, we may make such disclosures without first providing notice to Users.”
Q: What happens if they collect my child’s data?
Personally identifiable information, such as your child’s location, could grant predators access to your kids. Reports12 of online sex offenders have increased from 1 million to 4 million over the last year, and the risks for children online have grown. According to University of Texas researcher Dr. Kanad Basu13, “Suppose the app collects information showing that there is a child on Preston Road in Plano, Texas, downloading the app. A trafficker could potentially get the user’s email ID and geographic location and try to kidnap the child. It’s really, really scary.”
In addition, information collected from children playing apps can be used to create profiles and to target kids with advertising.
For these reasons, it’s important to limit the number of apps you download for your child – and to only download apps whose data collection is extremely limited. The more your child’s data gets out there, the more they could be at risk.
Q: Will my children interact with strangers using this app?
Apps that preschoolers use can contain unexpected chat functions and other ways children can connect to, or be contacted by, strangers. Apps like Facetime or Facebook Portal can be great for connecting with grandparents or socially distanced friends, but be sure that you control when and how your children reach out to others. Parents allowing children to use these social tools should be aware that they alone are responsible for setting and maintaining privacy controls so that their children aren’t randomly accepting or seeking out friend requests from strangers.
There is also a difference between apps like Facetime which are designed exclusively for communication and games that allow children to play and chat with others outside their home. At this age, it is best to avoid these games to minimize potential complications and risks.
Finally, some games encourage players to share their scores and pictures of game play on social media. Since all major social media platforms are designed for ages 13 and up, any game that encourages social posting is not really designed for children.
Use the product yourself.
One of the best ways to tell if the app is going to be safe, fun, and developmentally appropriate is to play it yourself! This is a chance to test out whether education and privacy claims are actually supported and whether you really want to give the app to your child.
First, set up your device so that you are the one to download your apps- not your kids. And remember that giving young children their own devices can be problematic. Pediatrician and researcher Dr. Jenny Radesky14 notes that children with their own devices or accounts are able to download whatever they want. Among young kids with their own devices, 31% installed “general audience” apps that are more likely to collect personal information and have inappropriate content. Among preschoolers with their own devices, about 30% played at least one app with violent content. Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Radesky’s research found a significant gap in parents’ understanding of what and how long their preschool children are playing.
As you use an app you may want to give to your child, put on both your parent hat and your kid hat. Are there ads you weren’t expecting? How do you feel after playing? Keep a critical eye out for things that make you pause.
Q: How do I set parental controls to make sure my kids aren’t downloading without permission?
If you download the app, talk with your children about your experience and theirs. You can use phrases like, “I downloaded this new app for you. We are going to try it out and see if it’s the right fit for your brain and body. Will you help me figure that out?” This helps your smart, capable preschooler to begin to be thoughtful about the technology they use, which will serve them for the rest of their lives.
Play alongside your child.
Parents are their children’s first teacher. Sometimes without knowing it, you are modeling different behaviors to your child – even around tech. Children look to you to see how you interact with your devices even in infancy and will mimic or try out what you do. So, it’s never too early to start talking with children about their device use.
If you’re comfortable offering the game to your child, talk about it together. Consider saying, “I looked at the app you asked to play, and it looks okay so far. Let’s play it together for a while and talk about it so we can make sure we both feel good about it.” Then, watch or play along with your little one.
Watching, or playing along, will help you and your children build common understanding and let them know that you can help them with any frustrations or challenges that come up. It’s a great opportunity to model critical thinking and ask questions about screen time. Think out loud, “Hmm, I wonder how we will know when to stop playing this game?” “I feel my heart racing after that. How about you?”
Q: How do I engage my preschooler when they are playing?
If you’re observing your child play, think of the acronym SOUL: Silently Observe, Understand, and Listen. Comment occasionally, starting your sentences with phrases like:
“I notice,” “I wonder,” or “I see.” “I see that there is an ad that popped up.” “I notice you used blue and orange when you were making that. Are there many colors to choose from?”
Q: How do I engage my preschooler about what they are playing?
It’s also important for you to model healthy device use by talking out loud when you are using your own devices. “I am trying to watch this video for work but there are all of these ads that pop up. It’s frustrating me!” “Oops, I was only going to play this one game, but then I got sucked in. Time for me to turn it off.”
You can also help build your child’s critical thinking skills around the app’s content. Use phrases like: “This has a lot of colors and noises and stuff going on, but there’s not much for me to do or try here. I don’t have a lot of choices here.” Or, “This app makes me feel like I have to get the right answer every time. It doesn’t let me come up with my own ideas or ways of doing things.” Or “I like the way this app lets me choose the colors I want to use, the designs I want to make, the paths I want to follow….”
Being a critical consumer out loud is a great way to not only help you thoughtfully choose apps, but it also helps your child understand your thought process and to teach them essential skills that will help them navigate the digital world for their whole lives.
Set clear limits.
The American Academy of Pediatrics 15 recommends that preschoolers have a maximum of 1 hour per day of high-quality screen time (i.e. screen time that meets the Four Pillars of Learning), and that parents should watch or play alongside children to help them to apply what they learn to the world around them. You can establish agreements with your children about when and for how long they might play. Setting timers, especially visual timers or sand timers, can help to make the time more concrete.
Additionally, establish a place in your home where children can use their screens. Make sure that this is a place where you can see your child and interact with them while they play (not a private bedroom, for example). This will keep the dialogue open and help you to monitor your child’s play and provide gentle reminders about time limits to ease the transition away from tech.
Q: How do I avoid an argument every time I ask my child to stop playing?
It is key to set clear expectations before children use a device, uphold those expectations consistently, and remind them of the time while they’re playing. Young children need lots of gentle reminders, like “Five more minutes and then it’s time for a snack.” Many apps are built to keep them playing, so look for that ahead of time. Children can also benefit from concrete or visual tools like timers to help them understand how much time they have while playing.
Navigating technology for children can be overwhelming. The truth is your child doesn’t need apps to “keep up,” “catch up,” or “get ahead.” You have the full power to limit, or say “no” to screen time.
- To help keep your child safe and meet their learning needs, look for apps that have strong, easy-to-read privacy statements and that are specifically designed for a preschool audience, not just for everyone.
- If the “educational” component to the app is important to you, be sure those claims are backed by research or, better yet, make sure that they provide open-ended opportunities to create, construct, and explore.
- And, make sure that play isn’t interrupted by ads or in-app marketing, which can be frustrating, lead to nagging, and take away from your child’s ability to focus!
It’s hard to be a parent, but you’re not alone in the struggle to weigh the options. We’re with you in your journey to find solutions that are safe, secure, and smart for your preschooler.
This project was made possible by a generous grant from the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment.
Need more tools? Check out these additional resources.
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2 Pew Research Center (July 2020). “Parenting Children in the Age of Screens. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/07/28/parenting-children-in-the-age-of-screens/
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