By Deborah Stipek
Whether children are attending preschool, in child care, or home with their primary caregivers, opportunities to develop math skills while having fun can be enhanced by early math learning apps. The problem is that there are too many! And they vary greatly in quality and the likelihood of actually supporting children’s learning. This blog provides some guidelines for selecting math apps for young children.
The first and perhaps most important suggestion is to download those that look promising (at least those that are free) and try them out with your child. Don’t make a decision right away because it often takes a child some time to get the hang of an app and learn how to use it productively.
But what does it mean for an app to look promising? Some apps will engage children’s interest because the story line or characters are fun and interesting, regardless of whether they’re learning anything related to math by doing it. So you also want to choose apps on the basis of the real learning opportunities they provide. Ideally, such apps will have narratives with math built into the story, not simple drill-type questions that children are forced to answer in order to keep going.
Below are additional criteria to consider when you are evaluating a math app for a preschool-age child. Any given app may not meet all of these criteria, but it should meet most.
1. Is it interactive, requiring the child to engage in active problem-solving?
2. Does it involve more than remembering number facts? Math is more than just remembering that 2+4=6. Learning to memorize number facts is fine, but look for apps that help the child to think, to reason, and to solve problems.
3. Does it provide directions on how to engage in the activity through demonstrations or step-by-step instructions?
4. Are the child’s roles and actions (e.g., dragging, tapping) clear?
5. Is the feedback for incorrect responses encouraging (e.g., “try again” or even assistance) and for correct responses is it fun (e.g., confetti)?
6. Is the activity playful—presented as a fun game with characters and a story line that appeals to a young child?
7. Do the characters in the app reflect different genders and ethnic backgrounds? (Although often they are animals, monsters, or from outer space.) Girls and children from all ethnic backgrounds need to learn that they can do math well.
8. Does the app story line involve violence? If so, don’t get it.
9. Does the child have some control, such as choosing which character she will play?
10. Is the difficulty level individualized, and does it provide for increasing the level of challenge? For example, if a child has mastered counting up to 10 objects, does it allow her to go on to larger numbers?
11. Does it introduce new math vocabulary in a way that will make sense to the child? Does the child seem confused and frustrated by the words and concepts? If so, the app might not be developmentally appropriate.
12. Is the app available in the child’s primary language?
13. Some math apps allow more than one child to play at a time. This may be valuable for children who have a classmate, friend, or sibling available to play with.
What is most important is how a child responds while using the app.
1. Does the child appear interested? Does she want to “do it again” or persist engaging with the app or ask for it the next day? Does she smile and laugh?
2. Is she able to figure out what the game or activity is expecting her to do so that it is actually a math learning opportunity, as opposed to randomly pushing buttons to make things happen (e.g., sound, colors, movement)? If even with help she is having difficulty understanding what she is supposed to do, the app might be too difficult or complex—or just badly designed.
3. Is the math at the right level? Ideally, the child can do it but occasionally makes mistakes, suggesting that it is just the right level of challenge. If she can do everything easily and quickly it is too easy; if she struggles a lot (such as more than half of the responses are incorrect) or seems confused or just guessing, it may be too hard. Either way, the child is likely to lose interest quickly. Children enjoy activities more, and they learn more, when it is just a little bit but not too challenging.
If a child doesn’t want to use the app, don’t do more than encourage her. Sometimes doing it with a child will get her interested. But if you push hard, you may turn a child off—not only to the app, but also to math!
If you want to read reviews to choose apps and games, try these:
Deborah Stipek is the former dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and current professor of education and faculty director of the Haas Center for Public Service. She chairs the DREME Network.