A new study from the NPD Group shows that tablet usage among kids age 2 to 12 is on the rise, from 38% in 2012 to 48% in 2014.
According to the data, most of the educational learning is going on between the ages of 6 and 8, a time during which kids spend about 50 minutes a day on tablets. Children older than that seem to use the tablets for about 42 minutes per day, and are playing traditional games rather than using the technology for educational purposes.
A 2014 survey from the Cooney Center showed 39% of parents reporting their child learning "a lot" from the mobile apps, while 52% report the same from TV shows. However, 87% of children talked about, asked questions about (77%) or wanted to do a project (61%) on something they learned from an educational app.
Of the 367,960 apps for children in the Apple app store, the top five paid iPad apps in the country are focused on learning new skills like telling time or early math skills, as well as apps meant to promote creativity in children. Almost one in five of all apps within the app store are suitable for young children, with 60% of those located within the kids section placed in the education category.
With all the choices out there, how is a parent to know which apps to choose?
"Candidly, a lot of these apps are terrible," says Dylan Arena, co-founder and chief learning scientist for Kidaptive, a developer of adaptive learning tools. "The people who build them are well-intentioned, but they tend to overestimate how much they know about learning."
The process begins with a little research. Sites like Common Sense Media and Children's Technology Review Exchange are a great help as they offer reviews of apps previously tested out by the experts. Apps are rated across a variety of topics, including educational value and gameplay.
Another source for finding worthwhile apps is to ask a teacher or technology coordinator at the school.
After completing all this research, the next step is to test the top contenders out. A good idea is to let the child who is going to use the app try them out themselves. Most of the educational apps for children are adaptive, so it is harder for adults to test them out. Also, what is fun for an adult may not be as entertaining for a young child. After the testing period, it is important to have a conversation about the app.
"You want to ask [the child] what he was playing and how it works, see if he can verbalize what the rules are," CEO of Motion Math Jacon Klein says. "You want him to be challenged but not frustrated. Sometimes things that seem simple or boring to us can be utterly fascinating to third-graders."
A separate report attributes the rise in educational apps for children to the recent trend of exposing children to smartphones as early as birth, for everything from taking photos to video chatting with family members. The report discovered 38% of children under 2 have used a smartphone within the past year. That number jumps to 72% for children under 8.
With all this time being spent on these devices, it is important to find the best apps out there. Just because an app has a child singing the ABC's it doesn't mean they are learning how letters relate to different sounds. It is important to find apps that apply knowledge rather than simply parroting back answers.
Most importantly, remember that these apps need to be fun. If a child is not enjoying apps, they won't use them.