Kids' tech has trapped parents in a perpetual state of uncertainty: New stuff comes out faster than we can determine its effect on young brains. Hundreds of thousands of apps are touted as educational, but what does that even mean? Reviews in the App Store or Google Play Store won't give you a straight answer. Oftentimes, the products with the most accolades are simply the ones that keep little Amaya or Hugo gloriously silent for the longest period of time.
Anya Kamenetz, the author of The Art of Screen Time, writes in AdAge that good tech can inspire curiosity and help kids learn, and if that's what you're looking for, it's important to look at the position it puts your child in. Does an app keep your kid hooked with shots of dopamine via external rewards like flashing stars or applause sound effects? Or does it let your child take the driver's seat, exploring new worlds at his own pace?
A helpful way to think of it, Kamenetz writes, is in terms of "slot machines vs. sandboxes." She describes slot machine-type learning apps as "shallow, rote drills of reading or maths facts paired with encouraging 'dings!,' coins and smiley faces." In education tech circles, she writes, these types of programs are known as "chocolate-covered broccoli." Sure, kids might learn something new, but they probably won't remember it or be able to use it in other contexts.
The antithesis of slot machine apps, and the far better option, experts say, are apps that are built like sandboxes. Kamenetz describes these as open-ended kids' programs in which "concepts emerge organically from their exploration." They're not so much games as much as digital playgrounds. There are no real rules to follow, levels to complete or ways to win. Kids get to be directors rather than passive participants.
Examples of companies that are making these types of apps include Tinybop (The Creature Garden, pictured above, lets kids cross different creatures to create different breeds), and Toca Boca. My five-year-old likes playing the Toca Boca cooking and hair salon games, and I like that we don't have to pry the iPad from her tiny hands when screen time is over. There's no voice that shouts "Great job!" or "You did it!" every three seconds to keep her craving more. Common Sense Media also has a wonderful list of apps that help kids create media rather than simply consume it. Diary Zapp is a written and visual journal app, GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine lets kids make their own stop-motion movies, and Duckie Deck Homemade Orchestra has players tinker with "instruments" made from household objects.
Of course, even if an app is built like a sandbox, you'll still need to monitor it. Play with your kid, exploring the game together. Ask questions about it, and check out the cool pyramid or culinary creation or new mammal breed your child made. And then, when you're all done, maybe go find an actual sandbox.