When it comes to children under the age of two and screen time, early learning specialists and the American Academy of Pediatrics don’t recommend it. For ages two to five? Most experts agree that limited, “intentional and developmentally appropriate” use is acceptable.
In a joint position paper dated January 2012, the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College state further that technology should be considered an additional, “active and creative tool…selected and used based on [its] potential to expand children’s access to new content and skills.” That paper also echoes the long-standing position of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop that co-engagement is an important component of media use with young children.
What do librarians need to consider when designing programs that incorporate technology and/or media? First, bear in mind the whole child’s (or group’s) needs, interests, developmental stage(s), and background—both social and cultural. Second, create balanced, integrated programming that ensures adult-child interaction. Third, look for dynamic, interactive, and where possible, open-ended productions.
Below you’ll find a select list of skill- and concept-building apps recommended by School Library Journal that we believe satisfy this last requirement.
“Playful” is a word often heard when it comes to app criteria for young children, and Endless Alphabet (Originator, Inc. iOS, $5.99; Android, $4.99), a letter-matching, speech-developing production, offers hours of fun. Entering the app, children encounter a bright blue monster that opens its mouth to reveal a carousel of alphabetically arranged cards, each one featuring a word and creature. Tapping the word scrambles its colorful letters, leaving their outlines in the center of the screen. It is up to viewers to drag the letters back into their proper spots. Touching a letter emits its sound; correctly returning it to its location within the word will cause it to be voiced; and when completed, the word is pronounced, defined, enacted, and celebrated. The word bank is updated when the app is reopened. The same developer tackles numbers and sight words with the same exuberance in Endless Numbers and Endless Reader.
Combining story with a lesson on the joys of the “wondrous, mighty, gorgeous alphabet,” Tad Hills’s How Rocket Learned to Read (Random House Digital. iOS, $4.99), based on the book by the same title (Random, 2010), includes activities for pre- and emergent readers. Caught napping under a tree, Rocket, a reluctant canine student, is lured into the classroom of a little yellow bird who reads him stories, teaches him the alphabet, and later, how to sound out words. The app offers gamelike exercises (that vary each time it is viewed) and three- and four-letter sight words (enhanced by animation) to learn as Rocket comes to realize that words and stories can be “as delicious as the earthy smells of fall.”
Ed Emberly’s book Go Away, Big Green Monster! (Little, Brown, 1992) is popular—but fragile when its die-cut pages meet preschoolers’ fingers. The app version (Night & Day Studios. iOS,$2.99; Android, $1.99) eliminates the need for replacement copies, while adding show-stopping music by Adrian Carney. The monster’s face materializes before children’s eyes: first his “two big yellow eyes,” then “a long bluish-greenish nose,” until his complete “scary green face” is visible. What makes this story showcasing colors so satisfying is that children have total control over this innocuous creature with a titillating moniker. Once the full-featured monster appears and is told to “Go Away!” hair, eyes, and so on disappear, until he vanishes completely and is ordered not to return “Until I say so.” Most viewers will choose to play or read again (the vocabulary is suitable for emergent readers).
Harriet Ziefert’s Ten Little Fish (CJ Educations/Blue Apple Books. iOS, $1.99; Kindle, $8.99) offers listeners lessons in counting and opposites through text and song, reinforced with a fishing game. The concept is simple and the art bold and exciting. Elliot Kreloff’s colorful illustrations feature childlike art depicting fish of all shapes and sizes against a vibrant blue background. Watery gurgles, burbles, and splashes accompany the upbeat musical track. Counting opportunities abound, and voiced encouragements are heard throughout the game, which involves catching different numbers of fish each time it is played.
David A. Carter. The name conjures books featuring wildly imaginative paper engineering that send readers on seek-and-find missions. Spot the Dot (Ruckus Media Group. iOS, $2.99) does the same, with 10 activities that require children to locate dots of specific colors hidden among a variety of shapes against black backgrounds. Simple, clearly enunciated instructions begin the games, each one more challenging than the last (the dots begin to move). Success is rewarded with praise or a few notes of music, and gameplay changes when children revisit the app. In addition to practice in shape and color recognition, this production provides a fine motor skills workout. Tips for adults are included.
Franklin Frog (Nosy Crow. iOS, $4.99; Nook, $4.99) and Parker Penguin (iOS, $4.99) by Barry and Emma Tranter are interactive, circular stories that highlight the habits and life cycle of animals. Children follow the subject creatures, helping them as they search for food, avoid predators, and, in the case of Franklin, locate a spot to hibernate. After the animals find mates and their offspring arrive, the stories begin anew, with attention focused on the newly hatched critters. Hot spots lead viewers to more facts and definitions. Slightly older children who are fascinated with nature topics might want to follow these apps with Mary Kay Carson’s Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night (Bookerella/Story. iOS, $2.99), which offers layers of information and an opportunity to direct this mammal’s flight through the night sky.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the many Sesame Workshop apps featuring familiar, beloved Sesame Street characters. Developed with support from its research arm, this production company delivers number lessons in Elmo Loves 123s (iOS and Android, $4.99); Bert’s Bag (iOS, $1.99); and Grover’s Number Special (iOS, $1.99; Android, $2.99); and alphabet and word recognition opportunities in Elmo Loves ABCs (iOS and Android, $4.99); and Big Bird’s Words (iOS and Android, $.99); among others. Enthusiastic, encouraging characters; bright colors; measured interactivity; and humor are hallmarks of these widely popular, edifying apps.
For additional app reviews for all age levels, visit SLJ’s app column Touch and Go.