Professor Lydia Plowman examined how UK preschool children used apps (2015) and the impact on children’s play.
There are thousands of apps available for all kinds of devices. While some apps come pre-installed on devices, others are added via an online App store. Using the search tool within the online store, you may find thousands of apps to choose from – but what makes a good app, and what should educators and families look for when deciding what app to install for children’s use?
Professor Lydia Plowman’s team examined how and whether apps were used to promote creativity and play. The study showed that while parents favoured educational and story-based apps, children preferred using video/audio apps, visual play and drawing apps.
Her research gives us five characteristics to consider when selecting apps for young children’s use.
- The purpose of the app
Consider the purpose of the app, that is – what is the aim of this app, and what curriculum areas does this app meet? What non-screen based activity could be complemented or extended by this app?
Is the purpose of the app as advertised on the app store consistent with how the app actually functions?
- Overall design features
There is a lot to consider in the design of apps, but looking at the colours and design features is a good place to start – is it overly bright and colourful? Does the app contain pictures or videos and if so are these clear on the screen?
Most apps will allow you to activate and deactivate certain features, such as sound and if the app access to the internet. Ensuring that an adult can restrict features of an app for a younger user will assist in navigation and safe use.
- Commercial properties
Apps, both free and paid, often make money by hosting advertisements within the in-app content. When downloading an app to your device, it’s important to note if there are any in-app advertisements, which could include pop-ups, banner advertisements or even auto-play videos. Are there any elements of the app which need to be purchased (including in-app currency or extra lives)?
- Supporting the use of the app
Is the app developmentally appropriate? Lydia suggests for pre-schoolers, apps should have little to no text, with any text-to-speech spoken instructions delivered clearly and at a speed appropriate to enable comprehension. Grammar and language should be sound, with the use of upper and lower case letters consistent.
- Promotion of play and creativity
Are the apps open-ended – do they enable children to experiment for themselves and focus on the process rather than an end product? Apps that do are more likely to promote play and creativity, critical problem solving skills and abstract reasoning activities, rather than apps which have a linear storyline.
Does the app provide any opportunities for co-production, either within the app such as two children working together to solve a puzzle, or outside of the app with an educator extending on the experience, including linking to physical movement and play with offline, non-digital tools.
Not all apps will meet these characteristics, and will still provide rich learning experiences for children, but Lydia Plowman’s research offers educators and parents a guideline for identifying quality learning apps in what is often a sea of products.
To read more about Professor Lydia Plowman’s findings and the ‘Exploring play and creativity in preschoolers’ use of apps: Report for the children’s media industry’ (2015) click here.
Explore more with the ECA Statement on young children and digital technologies
, available here. Keep an eye out for new modules on online technology and safety developed in partnership with the eSafety Commissioner.