When it comes to screen time, I want only the best for my kids. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time to research the mountain of supposedly “educational” apps and websites available.
Luckily, today we have an expert here to guide us all. She’s a tech journalist as well as a mom and she’s researched this topic.. A LOT.
Psst – Don’t miss her two recommendations below for websites that teach kids to code too! Hint: It’s in the section on Minecraft.
Here are her thoughts…
Screen time is a hot-button issue for today’s parents, but one thing we can all agree on is that however long our kids are glued to a screen for, we’d rather that time be spent learning something.
My son is eight, just a year younger than the iPhone, and my daughter is five, a year younger than the iPad. As a tech journalist, I’m an early adopter, so both my children have been exposed to these shiny, addictive devices from a young age.
Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time and effort investigating and playing with dozens of “educational” apps to find the ones that best strike that precarious balance between educational and fun. Here is a round-up of my favorite kid-tested and kid approved apps/websites for children under 10.
Before you dive in, however, a word about cost. We’ve become trained to expect free or really cheap apps. When it comes to good educational apps, throw that notion away. Completely free apps or websites in this category are generally full of ads that distract your child and are hard to navigate.
Apps that cost $2.99 to $5.99 are generally really good choices, as they come with no in-app purchases and enough content to keep your child happily involved. Those with in-app purchase or subscriptions are definitely a level up and many of these are very good, but be prepared to spend $5 to $20, sometimes monthly, to get the experience you want. Consider it similar to buying one of those pricey educational activity books.
Top 9 Educational Apps/Websites for Your Kids
$7.95 (multi-platform), ages 2–7
Given free to all public schools, this first came to my attention when my son started kindergarten. A multi-platform, complete educational experience, the website and apps work well and the benefit of using the same interface he did at school at home was huge.
Simple, colorful games, videos and interactive puzzles lead your child on a learning journey that requires very little parental intervention. The reward system where they earn tickets for each activity to spend on items for their classroom works very well.
While it isn’t the most elegant or flashiest of experiences, it is one that will grow with your child all the way through first grade and, as a bonus, help him or her understand all the different computer interfaces—it’s important they learn how to use a keyboard and mouse as well as a touchscreen.
$3.99 (iOS, Google), ages 5 and up
A beautiful, intuitive app that draws children in with its simple interface and gentle educational prompts. Easy music incorporates memorization and progressive learning with an introduction to notes, rhythm and beats.
Your child can also learn how to play the piano in this app, and compose their own original masterpieces in three fun animal/musical themed rooms—plus record it all and play it back.
$2.99 (iOS), ages 6–8
We tried a lot of different time-telling apps when my son was ready to learn and this was by far the best. It has a fun interface, and most importantly, lets you increase the difficulty as they catch on, rather than having to go through tedious levels.
The company also offers coin, fraction and geometry apps with the same setup and friendly animal faces, making learning new things more familiar.
$0.99 (iOS, Amazon, Google), ages 3–6
This is a really basic app, but its beauty is in its simplicity. A cute, furry creature eats letters fed to him by your child, and spits them out if they choose the wrong one. You get sight words, phonics and fun all in one gamified package.
Free app, $9.99 a month for ad-free subscription (iOS, Google), all ages
YouTube isn’t just for cat videos. There’s a lot of educational and fun content on the ubiquitous website. The YouTube Kids app is a safer space for your child to explore videos restricted to a certain age range determined by you (preschool or school age) in four categories: Shows, Music, Learning and Explore.
You can set a timer when you open the app, plus there’s the option to get rid of ads and watch offline by subscribing to YouTube Red.
$2.99 (iOS), ages 6–8
For the budding scientist, this adorable virtual science lab introduces all 118 elements on the periodic table. Your child can take each element for a spin in the Bunsen burner, explore its properties and create new elements, each with their own quirky personality.
While not entirely scientifically accurate, this is a fun and engaging way for your child to explore the periodic table and the inside of a laboratory.
$6.99 – $29.99 (all platforms), ages 8 and up
“Legos for the digital age” is the best way to describe Minecraft. Yes, it’s a video game, and yes, kids love it, but no, that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time. In fact, some experts believe Minecraft is an excellent way to get children interested in and even prepped for learning how to code.
My children started out with Minecraft Pocket Edition on the iPad, but have now upgraded to the Xbox version. It’s a lot of fun for the whole family, and the only limit is your imagination.
$3.99 (iOS), tinybop.com, ages 6 and up
Sticking with the STEM theme, this app lets you build your own virtual robot from scratch, piecing it together from over 100 parts.
Then, take him or her outside to an obstacle course and put your engineering skills to the test. It’s hours of fun for kids and adults alike.
Free (iOS, Amazon, Google), ages 4 and up
When to give your child his or her own email account is another modern parental dilemma. Start out early, easily and safely with this child-friendly app that lets your little one communicate with trusted family and friends.
Before they can write, they can draw pictures and add stamps and emoticons to messages, and as they grow they can incorporate text and write proper emails. My children use it to “text” each other, and the grandparents love sending emails back and forth.
You can have a copy of every message sent to you or see all the correspondence in the parent settings of the app. Also, every person in the address book has to be approved by a parent.
Controlling Your Child’s Access to the Internet
Of course, no matter how hard you try to steer your child to the educational apps, or how strict you are with screen time limitations, you are going to need some help controlling your child’s access to the internet. While you can set up extensive parental controls on individual devices, iPad, Kindles, even Windows or Macs, one of the easiest ways to stop your child stumbling on, or seeking out, bad websites is through your internet router. You can also use it to set time limits on the internet and schedule it to shut off for certain devices at a certain time (but stay on for your personal laptop or the living room ROKU Box).
There are two relatively easy ways to do this. On older routers, you can go into the router’s settings and create a whitelist of sites so particular devices can only go to those websites (or create a blacklist to do the opposite).
If that’s too techie for you, there is a free software package for your router called OpenDNS.com that offers a range of customizable options to block certain websites and filter adult content.
However, the simplest way to get control over your router is to upgrade to one with built-in parental controls. For example, the Linksys AC1200 Smart Wi-Fi router allows you to easily monitor what websites are being visited, turn Wi-Fi off for certain devices at certain times and prioritize bandwidth to your work laptop over your son’s Kindle.
As a bonus, if you haven’t bought a new router in three or four years, a newer model will bring you a significant boost in speed—something that will make everyone in the household very happy!
Jennifer Tuohy is a mom of two and a gadget geek who is constantly looking for ways to keep her children learning. She provides great advice on the latest kid-safe apps and new tech for The Home Depot. To see a selection of wireless routers that can help you manage your child’s internet access, you can visit Home Depot’s website.