Due to the social distancing measures necessary to combat the coronavirus pandemic, parents are stretched thin as they balance working from home, improvising home-school, feeding everyone, disinfecting the house and coping with general coronavirus anxiety. Thus, strict screen time rules are understandably falling by the wayside, but there are ways for caregivers to vet their children’s programming as they spend a little more time on their devices.
Indeed, kids today have access to a seemingly endless reserve of games, apps and shows that claim to be “educational.” Still, there’s quite a range in quality for media with that label.
HuffPost spoke to experts to find out how parents can make smart decisions and determine if an “educational” game, app or show will be beneficial for their children.
Ask If It Builds Skills
When it comes to educational apps and games, interactivity is key.
“Look for media that gives kids agency and choice, and focuses on building skills, not just drilling facts,” Tanner Higgin, the director of education editorial strategy at Common Sense Media, told HuffPost. “Kids should have a lot of freedom to explore, experiment, think and create. Learning and fun should be intertwined and indistinguishable ― not placed in opposition.”
Educational apps and games shouldn’t feel too rote or didactic, as if the user is “playing through a worksheet,” he added. Otherwise, children will likely get bored quickly. These sorts of apps and games should also give kids feedback on their learning, so they know where they are, where they’re going and how to get there.
The same logic can apply to determining if TV shows and videos have real educational value.
“Similar to apps and games, quality children’s television and video involves kids in the experience, and gets them thinking critically and reflecting on themselves, their world and their place in it,” Higgin said.
Look Into The Creator
“Parents should get in the habit of doing a little digging on apps or games before downloading them,” said Higgin, who advised looking at the developers’ websites and learning about their background.
“It’s important to understand that in the app stores, really anyone can call their game educational, so you can’t just go by the words written on the app.”
Some useful questions are: Who made the game? Do they have learning or curriculum experts on the team? Do they talk about their approach to learning and pedagogy?
“Also look into if they’ve conducted any research,” Higgin advised. “Third-party research that’s not published by the developer or conducted in partnership with them is best, but rare.”
Get Recommendations From Experts
“It’s important to understand that in the app stores, really anyone can call their game educational, so you can’t just go by the words written on the app,” said Sara DeWitt, vice president of PBS Kids Digital. “Really, this is an instance where you need someone to help you make the best decisions.”
She suggested emailing your child’s teacher or librarian to ask what kinds of things they use in the classroom. Library websites also have recommendations.
Both DeWitt and Higgin recommended Common Sense Media as an expert-backed resource. The nonprofit has rated thousands of apps, games and websites for education potential and curated them into a number of helpful lists for families, including a special downloadable list of “50 Favorite Tools for Learning.”
Consider Privacy And Security
Privacy and security are also important considerations when choosing an app or game. Higgin pointed to Common Sense’s privacy evaluations, which inform parents about the options that prioritize safety and security ― and those that don’t.
“Try to see if it’s actively collecting any information about your kids. Does it require a strange login? Is it tracking location?” DeWitt advised.
“I’d also avoid commercialized products with ads or aggressive ‘freemium’ business models that bombard kids with pop-ups for upgrades,” Higgin added.
Test It Out Yourself
Although parents are understandably busy, it can be very valuable to take a few minutes to play around with a game or app and see if it’s a good fit for their kids. This will help determine if it adheres to the above criteria.
“Look to see if the show or creator or channel has resources for learning or parenting that go beyond the program, such as discussion activities or lessons. That’s a good sign they’re thinking about learning and not just entertainment.”
“Play with it yourself before handing it to your child,” said DeWitt. “That can also help determine age appropriateness, which is often a confusing situation. If it’s not age appropriate, it won’t be educational because it will be frustrating for the child.”
When It Doubt, Go With A Trusted Source
The simplest move is to stick to a trusted source of educational media, such as PBS Kids, Scholastic or Sesame Workshop, which lead with learning and base their programming in research. These creators tend to offer a combination of shows, games and apps.
“Look to see if the show or creator or channel has resources for learning or parenting that go beyond the program, such as discussion activities or lessons. That’s a good sign they’re thinking about learning and not just entertainment,” said Higgin.
DeWitt noted that PBS offers educational overviews for its content, which includes shows as well as games tied to the shows available on the PBS Kids Games app. There’s also a new daily newsletter with online and offline activities on different subjects.
Know That You Can Make Most Media Educational
“Don’t forget that all kinds of media ― even those that don’t seem enriching ― can be adapted into great learning experiences,” Higgin explained. “Find ways to take things that your kids already love and seem drawn to and connect them to other activities that extend and deepen learning.”
For example, you can ask your child to create stories or drawings based on any TV show or game they like. If you have time to co-play or co-watch some kind of media with your kid, you can then discuss what they like or dislike about the app or show or ask thought-provoking questions about it.
“One thing that has been so consistent in the research I’ve been engaged with in 20 years of kids’ media is that if a parent has a conversation with a child about what they watched or played, the educational gains are going to be greater,” DeWitt said.
“Even if you can’t watch it with them, you can ask about what they saw,” she added. “Say they watched an episode of ‘Wild Kratts,’ so you know they’ve been introduced to an animal. Ask, ‘What animal did you learn about? How did that animal move? Can you act it out for me?’ Having that conversation makes that media experience more educational.”