What Makes an App Age-Appropriate for Early Learners?


Tips for Choosing a Learning App

Last week, I shared the importance of finding apps that are simple, that stimulate multiple senses in productive — but not overwhelming — ways, and that promote concentration. In addition to these qualities, you also want apps that do the following:

Sweat the Details. A good app breaks procedures into a gazillion little pieces so they have to be learned one at a time. This drives your average adult crazy, because they have practiced all those little pieces so many times that their neuronal connections have glommed them altogether and shoved them into the unconscious part of their brain as a package. Breaking down writing the letter “B” into a zillion fussy steps seems like a lot of unnecessary work to an adult. But that’s just because they have become experts at the process. We instructional designers even have a word for it: “expert blindness.” Kids don’t have this. So look for apps that sweat the details, and give plenty of practice at each step.

Supportive Prompts. It’s best if apps provide support for all the moments of decision. Kids that are working hard at getting the top curve of the letter “R” to reach the upright line may or may not have the cognitive space to remember what to do next. So it’s nice that these apps are ready to step in with “cognitive prompts” (like an insertion point that begins to flash if the kids get lost), just like the list you keep by your sprinkler system to remind you how to reset it.

The Kid’s in Control. No matter how thoughtfully designed, apps are useless if kids don’t use them. What makes a good app from a kid’s point of view? One of the strongest motivators is effectance, or the sense that they have control and mastery over their world.

Creative Guidelines. Kids are endlessly curious and inventive, but just like us they find blank slates overwhelming. Research shows that creativity is most productive and satisfying in constrained situations. So look for apps that provide not just tools for creativity, but models and suggested procedures for those who need them. That’s one reason that Lego has been so successful. They don’t just make blocks. They suggest (without forcing) ways that kids can put them together.

Depth. Finally, look for apps with depth. Kids won’t return to something that doesn’t have new things to offer.

What apps have you used in your classroom or recommended to parents? In your mind, what makes an app effective for an early learner?


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