Sometimes when the afternoons are long and the weather is cold, the path of least resistance involves a screen of some sort. But not all kids’ screentime is created equal. Fortunately for you (and me, because I have kids too), I’ve asked a team of expert educators and parents about which apps and games will entertain and educate your children (and you!) this season.
Parents strive to treat their families to amazing experiences. Catapult, in partnership with Intel, is the field guide for the modern mom, offering tech-based at-home activities that will build lasting memories.
One obligatory note: Nothing can replace a parent’s attention when kids are on screens, but sometimes even the most vigilant of us have to sign for a package or take a shower. Before you hand over the tablet to a little one, familiarize yourself with guided access mode, which lets you lock into a specific app. A special education administrator I know warns, “I am here to tell you, even my students who are MOST impacted by their disabilities find a way to get to YouTube or other preferred apps when left unsupervised...” Guided access is a useful tool to give kids a little independence but still ensure that they are working on what they are supposed to be working on.
Now, the apps:
My PlayHome, $3.99: Described as a “digital doll house,” this award-winning app earns raves from parents who enjoy that it’s a simple discovery game (without a competitive element). PlayHome is blessedly free of ads and in-app purchases. While designed for littler kids, older kids love exploring as well—even much older kids. “My husband and daughter love playing My PlayHome,” one mom told me.
Sago Mini, $19.99 for a 10-app bundle: Parents love the cute, simple animated games that come through Sago Mini—with Forest Flyer, for instance, kids fly a sweet birdie through a forest, land him on branches, guide him in holes, and interact with other adorable creatures. Your child develops fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination with the charming Sago games and the choices he or she makes along the way provide plenty of opportunities for parent-child interaction while you talk about the scenes.
ScratchJr., FREE: Not only is the price right for this interactive coding game, it’s used as a research tool at Northwestern University where development researchers chart what parents and kids learn as they together colorful programming blocks to make characters move, jump, dance, and sing. “It is an engaging introduction to coding and teaching students to think computationally,” says a Montessori math teacher and mom that I spoke with. “There are ways to layer in computation when students are older, but the focus is on ‘If I tell it to do this then this will happen’—There are no flash cards or drilling of operations in Scratch.”
GoNoodle, FREE: When it’s too cold to go outside and the indoor play spaces are closed, cabin fever can set in—enter GoNoodle, which gets kids and grownups moving to silly and informative songs that teach kids about everything from holidays in other cultures to mindfulness and yoga. “My daughter’s teachers use it in their classrooms to help the fourth graders get the wiggles out before a test or anything where they need to focus,” said a mom who’s a fan.
Flocabulary $4.99 per month (with a free-trial option): Hip-hop music? Educational?? Whomever heard of such a thing??? All jokes aside, the beats, the rhymes, and the educational value of this hip-hop learning app are legit with catchy, funny, and laconically cool lyrics. Did my five year old and I recently dance in the kitchen to a Flocabulary song that explains the difference between fact and opinion? Maybe. The musical videos cover topics like math, history, language, and current events to tunes that you won’t mind getting stuck in your head. Teachers in more than 20,000 schools already vouch for the platform so it’s a great way to keep kiddos sharp when school’s out—and you might even find a new favorite song.
National Geographic Kids, prices vary: An oldie but a goodie (as much as app can be an oldie) NatGeo continues to be a favorite of parents, teachers and kids, especially for staying in touch with the natural world during a season when it can be cold and dark, thanks to nature videos, logic games, and prompts for kids to share photos of their world. Even though it’s interactive, no comments or images are uploaded to the app unless approved by an admin, although parents should be mindful that the app comes with plenty of opps to subscribe to the magazine or purchase something from the Nat Geo store if you’re not watching.
Bubbly Primes $3.99: This app is a chill way for kids to stay sharp on factoring and fractions when school’s out, thanks to its charming hand-drawn style and relaxing music designed to allay math anxiety. There’s something addictive about the bubble popping action that will make you want to play, even if you always assumed the best part about being a grownup was not having to do fractions anymore. “So many games involve turn taking, but [Bubbly Primes] is something we can do together while huddled on the couch. It also allows me to easily assess how my child is grasping the prime number concept without my child even being cognizant that I’m doing so,” said one mom who was pleasantly surprised that she even walked away with better prime number skills.
Monument Valley $3.99: When I asked my local Facebook moms group about what educational apps and games they like, the puzzle game Monument Valley was hands down the most popular fan favorite. Players move silent princess Ida through a series of interactive M.C. Escher-like mazes, a soothing, beautifully designed world that piques players of all ages (well, maybe not the littlest kids—the game can get tricky, in a fascinating way.). “My kids love it—and so do I!” was a common refrain from moms, who especially liked seeing a girl protagonist.
Claire Zulkey is a freelance writer and mother of two in Evanston, IL. You can learn much more about her by going to Zulkey.com.
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