Can young children learn from educational apps?

A version of this post was originally published by Parenting Translator. Sign up for the newsletter and follow Parenting Translator on Instagram.

Parents often hear about the dangers of screen time for children, but rarely does there seem to be a distinction among different types of screen time. In particular, apps on smartphones or touchscreen devices for children seem to be growing in popularity, even among young children. In fact, research finds that 90% of children aged 2 to 3 years use a touchscreen device and that infants and toddlers on average spend 10 to 45 min per day on touchscreen devices.

Many apps claim to be “educational” and some apps are used as part of the curriculum in elementary school classrooms and even in early childhood education centers. Yet, apps for young children are largely unregulated and the number of choices alone may be extremely overwhelming for parents. Can young children actually learn from this technology? Are apps more educational than TV shows and movies? And if parents allow their children to engage with apps, which apps are best?

Can children actually learn from apps?

Research broadly finds that young children can learn from interactive apps, but it remains unclear the extent to which this learning is transferable to the real world. A recent meta-analysis based on 36 studies involving 4,206 participants (translation: a meta-analysis combines data from previous studies on a topic which allows you to get a consistent picture across all studies) found that most studies involving children five years and younger show an overall positive impact of touchscreen apps on learning. However, the meta-analysis also found that the findings were mixed. To explain these different findings, the researchers identified several different features of the studies that may have impacted learning, including:

  • Age: Older children were more likely to learn from apps than younger children.
  • Content of the app: Children were more likely to learn STEM-related concepts, such as math, from apps than non-STEM-related concepts, such as reading.
  • Comparison group: Children seemed to learn more from apps when learning from apps was compared to a non-learning task rather than a learning task in another modality, such as on a computer or in person. In other words, while this research provides strong evidence that children can learn from apps, it doesn’t provide as strong of evidence that they learn better from apps than from other modalities, although overall the researchers did find that apps provide an advantage to learning over traditional classroom teaching, mouse-based computers, paper, physical objects, and passively watching something on a touchscreen device.

A 2020 systematic review (translation: a review that uses a specific method for finding and summarizing all previous research on a topic) in the journal Pediatrics also found that children under 6 years old can learn from interactive apps. Again, the researchers found that apps seem to be particularly effective in teaching math skills. They also found some evidence that apps may improve phonics skills, teach science facts and improve executive functioning, although in these areas the findings were more mixed or limited studies were available). The researchers even found that in some cases learning from interactive apps exceeded learning from traditional modes of instruction in the classroom. The review failed to find evidence that apps improved social communication skills, although more research is needed on this topic.

Research also suggests that interactive apps may be linked with improved motor skills. Specifically, toddlers who are exposed to touchscreens at younger ages have more advanced fine motor skills. However, this effect was only found for children who were actively interacting with the touchscreen, not simply watching videos. No relationship, either positive or negative, was found between touchscreen use and gross motor or language development.

Do children transfer learning from apps to the real world?

Although we have consistent evidence that young children can learn from apps, it remains unclear the extent to which they can transfer this knowledge to the real world. It is well documented that young children (particularly children under 3) do not learn as well from video as they do from real life interactions and do not transfer learning from video to real life, which is referred to as the “video deficit.” However, there is some evidence that children can transfer learning when screen time is more interactive such as in FaceTime or video chat. This raises the possibility that younger children may be more likely to transfer learning from apps to the real world (assuming the app has an interactive feature).

Research finds that 15-month-olds can learn how to do a simple task in an interactive app but they have difficulty transferring that learning to the real world. They also have difficulty applying what they learned in the real world to an app. Further research found that even 2.5 to 3 year olds do not transfer learning from an app to the real world (or from the real world to an app). Another study found that 4- to 6-year-olds, but not 3-year-olds, transferred learning on problem-solving tasks from an app to real life and learned just as well from an app as from a physical demonstration.

However, research finds that younger children may be able to transfer learning from an app when an adult engages in the app with them and provides help and support as needed. For example, when the task with 15-month-olds was repeated with an adult helping, the researchers found that the toddlers showed improved transfer of learning and were 19 times more likely to transfer learning if a parent used “high interactional quality” (meaning the parent was structuring the task for the child, using a lot of different language, and providing warmth and encouragement). Research also finds that more subtle involvement from adults helps 2.5- to 3-year-olds to transfer learning. Research finds that even 5- and 6-year-olds show enhanced learning when an adult engages in an app with them.

Do children learn better from apps or from videos?

So the research suggests that children have trouble transferring learning from apps to the real world, just like they do with videos, but does the interactive nature of apps help to enhance the quality of learning, suggesting that parents may want to choose apps over passive TV watching?

The research is mixed with some studies finding enhanced learning from apps and some studies finding enhanced learning from videos. Although some research finds that the interactive nature of apps versus passive shows enhanced learning, other research finds that the interactive features of apps may interfere with learning because it may overtax children’s attention and executive functioning skills, making it difficult for them to learn and interact with the app at the same time. Research also suggests that the interactive nature of the app should be related to what the app is trying to teach rather than irrelevant to the teaching (for example, the toddler must touch where they believe an object is hidden rather than touch anywhere on the screen). There is also some evidence that girls may learn more from certain ways of interacting with apps while boys learn more from watching.

How can parents identify the most educational apps?

So, research finds that it is possible for children to learn from apps and that engaging in apps with them may enhance the transfer of learning to the real world, but does this mean they can learn from just any app? How can you determine which apps are truly educational?

A recent study evaluated 124 popular “educational” apps and found that 58% of popular apps were “low quality” in terms of how they promote learning.

The researchers evaluated apps based on the “Four Pillars” of early learning, which include:

  1. Active learning – whether the app requires critical thinking or intellectual effort versus a simple cause-and-effect
  2. Engagement in the learning process – whether the interactive features enhance or distract from learning, including whether the app has unnecessary visual and sound effects and distracting ads
  3. Meaningful learning – how relevant what the child is learning in the app is to the child’s life and existing knowledge
  4. Social interaction – the extent to which the app encourages children to interact with characters in the app or with their caregivers while engaging with the app

The researchers found that the following apps received the highest scores in terms of promoting learning:

  • My Food – Nutrition for Kids
  • Daniel Tiger’s Stop & Go Potty
  • Toca Life (Neighborhood, School and Hospital)
  • Zoombinis

The following apps also received relatively high scores:

  • Bible App for Kids: Read the Nativity Story
  • Farming Simulator 18
  • Toca Lab: Elements
  • Toca Hair Salon 3
  • Toca Life: World
  • Toca Kitchen 2
  • My Very Hungry Caterpillar AR
  • Melody Jams
  • Sago Mini Holiday Trucks and Diggers
  • Sago Mini Friends
  • Stellarium Mobile Sky Map
  • Star Walk – Night Sky Guide: Planets and Stars Map
  • Brio World – Railway
  • Noggin Preschool
  • SkyView Lite

A recent systematic review of educational apps for young children also found that children can learn from the following apps:

  • Measure That Animal
  • Math Shelf
  • Know Number Free
  • Endless Alphabet
  • Letter School
  • First Word Sampler
  • Word Wall HD
  • Pocket Phonics
  • Skills Builder Spelling
  • Phonic Monster 1
  • ABC Touch and Learn
  • Bee Sees
  • Kindergarten Lite
  • Starfall
  • Super Why

Research has also found no difference in the educational quality of free versus paid apps, so don’t feel like you need to spend a fortune to get high-quality apps for your child.

Overall translation

Research suggests that children can learn from apps yet it is less clear whether they can actually transfer this learning to the real world. However, not all apps are truly educational, and parents, caregivers and teachers should carefully evaluate apps based on the research-backed principles described above before allowing young children to engage with them. It is also important to note that this research does not address whether there are any negative impacts of learning from apps over learning in “real life” such as potential disruptions to sleep, myopia (nearsightedness which may be developed due to excessive screen time), a lack of physical activity, or the potential “addictive” nature of some of these apps. Excessive use of even the most “educational” apps will likely have negative impacts.

This research also provides the following tips for parents related to apps:

  1. If possible, wait until your child is at least 3 years old before trying educational apps. Research finds that although children younger than 3 can learn within an app, they may be less likely to apply this knowledge to the real world.
  2. Engage in apps with your child. Provide some help and assistance without doing the task for them. Help the child to understand the instructions and pay attention to relevant features.
  3. When engaging with apps together, use a lot of language to help to explain the task to the child. Offer frequent praise and encouragement.
  4. Choose apps that require the child to think critically rather than simple cause-and-effect, such as an app in which they have to choose the correct answer rather than an app in which they simply press a button and an animation plays.
  5. Avoid apps with irrelevant or excessive features or advertisements that are not related to the learning process.
  6. Look for apps that teach children skills that they can easily transfer to real life and that are related to their existing knowledge, such as an app that teaches about letters of the alphabet.
  7. Choose apps that encourage your child to interact with the characters in the app and/or with you or other caregivers while engaging with the app.

Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, a mother of three and the founder of Parenting Translator, a nonprofit newsletter that turns scientific research into information that is accurate, relevant and useful for parents.

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