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The Future of Apps for Young Children: Beyond ABC & 123

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Apps on multi-touch devices like the iPad or Android smartphones have the potential to revolutionize early childhood education, and help build a stronger foundation for lifelong learning in the 21st century. But, this potential needs to be realized. It is not a given that technology in the hands of young children will benefit their development.

We need everyone who is involved in developing digital tools for children to be thoughtful, purposeful and not settle for second best. Investors, developers, producers, authors, programmers and parents all need to be alert to understanding how and why these tools can support children and make sure we all do our part to make their experience a valuable one.

The "natural" user interface that now exists on screens is cleverly designed to respond to children's core fine motor skill development. This means the tool is designed to meet the capacity of little hands and introduce them to a world of virtual objects, images and sounds that even the youngest children can manipulate as they touch, swipe, or pinch their way around the screen. Designers can even create new ways for children to play with the properties of letters, words, numbers, musical notes and other symbols fundamental to success in modern life.

Interactions like these could be combined with physical world activities to create new ways of engaging children across the early childhood curriculum. While this potential is enormous, the current market of children's apps is relatively narrow. Literacy, math and collections of "early learning" topics -- letter, numbers, shapes and colors -- are the most common. Very few apps promote gross motor activities like running, hopping or jumping, or help children navigate the emotional ups and downs of playing with their peers. Even fewer provide a foundation for developing 21st century skills like network literacy and critical thinking.

So what's the right way to look at potential areas for more app development? We see two major ones. First, consider the full circle of child development that encompasses cognitive, social-emotional and physical development. Second, look to the future of learning in the 21st century, and re-consider what kind of foundation will be most useful to this generation. The remainder of this blog post focuses on the first point.

How can apps address the "whole child"? Children's cognitive development and learning include many domains other than literacy and math. Science, art, music, geography and other traditional subject areas involve unique knowledge and skills that even very young children can engage with in some essential form. For example, Sid's Science Fair lets children think and act like scientists as they categorize objects and observe events unfolding both forward and backward in time.

Social-emotional capacities can be addressed with apps that engage children in imaginative play, collaborative activity or knowledge of emotions. Toca Store is a good example of an app that lets children participate in imaginative play by providing support for taking on multiple roles and playing collaboratively. Toontastic provides a more open-ended set of tools for children to create and share their own animated stories. These kinds of apps provide just enough guidance to get kids started on a play theme, while letting the motivation and content come from them. They learn in the process of playing alone or with a friend, and from the seeing and sharing the results. Apps like Feel Electric! and ABA Flash Cards & Games - Emotions offer other ways of teaching children about feelings and how to express them.

Even children's physical development can be supported when apps are used to prompt off-screen activity, or inform children about health and nutrition. Of course fine motor development can easily be engaged by on-screen drawings, mazes or letter-writing apps. However, gross motor skills can be also be supported by apps like Out-A-Bout, which prompts parents and children to act out a story, photograph each scene, and then enjoy their own personalized ebook creation. Similarly Color Vacuum prompts children to physically move around their environment, hunting for colors and capturing them to their screen. In these cases, apps act as a guide to vigorous physical activity, rather than constraining it.

Healthy eating and hygiene are other aspects of physical development that have great potential for app design beyond what exists to date. They could provide age-appropriate nutritional information to children in a stand-alone game, for example, or in a context-aware app that turns grocery shopping into a nutrition safari. Similarly, apps could use game structures or interesting information to provide new kinds of engagement during tooth brushing, or washing hands before meals. For instance, Brushy Brush is a Sesame Street video that works well as a guide to fun and effective brushing, and as a reward for a job well done. When shown on a smartphone it can be integrated easily into a morning or evening family routine.

In the hands of a knowledgeable parent or teacher, mobile multi-touch devices can bring new
learning dimensions to children's everyday activities in the home, car, school, museum or any other setting. This flexibility means that the educational potential of apps is not just in their content, but also in how they can be used in various contexts to address children's cognitive, social-emotional and physical development.

Most parents, of course, don't have a degree in early childhood education, and have to turn to trusted guides for help. For instance, YogiPlay is a new personalized mobile platform that recommends apps based on principles of child development and learning to help parents discover gems in the current morass of "educational" kid apps. We call on everyone involved in the design, development, marketing, and use of apps for young children to consider the whole child, and not to be limited by traditional academic curriculum. This is a theme that we expand further in a future blog post on 21st century learning.

This post was co-authored with Jim Gray, EdD, Chief Learning Officer at YogiPlay.