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How to Choose the Right Apps for Young Children

How to Choose the Right Apps for-2I downloaded an app for Taj (3.5 years old) the other day. It was a dinosaur app. He LOVES dinosaurs. The app contained talking dinosaurs, it correctly pronounced all of their names (in a fluent way that Mummy just cannot), it contained a jig-saw puzzle, a tonne of information about dinosaurs and lots of other features. I thought this was a winning app.


So when he awoke from his nap I was excited to show him this new app (the benefits of having a Mum as a technology researcher). I really thought that he’d like this app. And he didn’t! He sat with it for no more than two minutes and then asked to go outside to play in his cubby. What??!! Epic fail.


So how did I get it so wrong?


I forgot to consider three really important things before I gave him the app.


1. Look for apps that are simple in design.

Can you mute or adjust the background music? Are there pop-up advertisements in the app? Is the screen cluttered? Are there animated characters dancing across the screen with lots of sound effects? Avoid apps that have too many bells and whistles. App developers often like to show off their technical prowess. I get it. As an academic I sometimes like to use big words. But the research confirms that too many on-screen bells and whistles are distracting for young children (also for children with additional learning needs). If there is too much on-screen action for young children to process their brains go into over-load. They simply cannot process too many things at once.


My mistake- With the dinosaur app there were far too many ‘shiny things’ to distract Taj. He clicked on some of the talking dinosaurs and they not only stated their name but also started to roar and then background music was played. Very loud. Very distracting. He accidentally touched the jig-saw icon and again more music started. It was simply too overwhelming. Too much to process. So he totally disengaged.



2. Find apps that are intuitive to use.

Like adults children like to quickly experience success with apps. Children will not watch the help video or read the accompanying PDF manual. They expect to pick up an app and start to use it. Now. They are the generation of ‘instant gratification’. If it is too complicated they will simply touch the home button and look for another app that appeals. (As an aside, did you know that you can ‘lock’ children into an app so that they cannot tap the home button and jump in and out of apps? Click here to watch).


My mistake With the dinosaur app there were no icons to indicate that the dinosaurs spoke. I had to show Taj (I even found this challenging). The hotspots (places on the screen to show children where to touch) to activate some of the activities were not obvious. They did not flash. They were not highlighted in a particular colour. They did not glow. It really was difficult to figure out what was expected within the app so Taj disengaged.


3. Look for novelty: find apps that let children do something that they couldn’t do without the technology. Avoid ‘digital worksheet’ apps.  Sadly, there are LOTS of these apps. These are the apps that are basically a digital version of worksheets (we all know children don’t like worksheets, so why would they be duped into thinking a digital version is any better? They are not so easily fooled). Does the app let them experience something totally new? For example, the augmented reality app, Happi Full Throttle, allows children to use the iPad as the dashboard in one of four vehicles. Children literally drive (run) around with the iPad acting as a firetruck dashboard. Very cool indeed.

Happi Full Throttle

{Image source}- iTunes


Another app, Color Vacuum allows children to go around and use the device’s camera to take photos of real objects to determine their colour! They literally use the iPad as a colour vacuum. It’s a totally new way of learning about colours and colour mixing.



My mistake When I asked Taj why he didn’t like the dinosaur app (I secretly hoped that he said that he found the dinosaurs scary so I was off the hook) he told me it was,”…just like reading a book expect the dinosaurs roared and said their names in a silly voice. It didn’t tell me information like you Mummy.” And there you have it. The app was not novel to him. It didn’t do anything fancy. It didn’t offer anything ‘different’ to a book. It was just a digital book.


So to sum up, here are the three important things to consider:

1. Simple Design2. Intuitive to Use3.

Tell in the comments below, what apps do your children like? Did it surprise/delight/concern you?


I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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