how to choose and use apps to maximize learning

The facts are in: almost all children, even our youngest, are using mobile devices (96.6%), and most since before their first birthday. By two years, their use of these devices about equals the amount of time they spend watching TV. By three and four years, many children are using these devices without help and one-third engage in “media-multitasking.” By four years, seventy-five percent of children own their own mobile device1. What’s surprising is how not surprising this is.

So if you’re one of the thousands (if not millions) of parents who allows your child to use digital devices, it’s really important to choose content carefully (no small feat, given that 58% of the over 80,000 educational apps in the App Store2 are designed for toddlers and preschoolers3), and to use them in ways that maximize your young child’s learning. Here are some guidelines to inform your decisions about choosing and using apps.

Keep in mind: apps don’t equal learning – they are potential tools for learning. It’s how your child uses the app that determines how rich a learning experience it is, not the app itself. A good rule of thumb is that the more it engages your child’s mind and body, encouraging exploration, experimentation, problem solving, and creative thinking, the more learning that is taking place. So look for apps that promote “minds-On” not “minds-Off” thinking.2 While it might be fun to repeatedly swipe fruit or drag puzzle pieces around the screen until they ‘click,’ children will learn more if they are flexing more brain and body muscles instead of just their fingers.

Be sure the content is relatable and developmentally appropriate. It should reflect your child’s experiences in the real world, such as exploring the playground, learning about animals, or helping your child see that the pizza slice in front of her is a triangle.

Encourage social interaction not social isolation. Social interaction is a key pillar of learning2, so screen media should be a vehicle for, not obstacle to, human connection. Young children develop critical social skills through play (turn-taking, friendship, conflict resolution) that lead not just to creating stronger, more positive relationships as they grow, but also to better outcomes in school and work later in life. So whenever possible, have your child use a digital device with friends and family to make it interactive. Build in turn-taking and conversation. This helps your child tune in to the ideas and feelings of others which is key to developing empathy and strong social skills. And the more words children hear in the context of their daily interactions, the stronger their language skills in the future.

See yourself as a guide. How parents participate in a child’s play is crucial. A growing body of research shows that children who experience guided play4, where an adult follows a child’s lead and supports the experience, show greater learning compared to children who are either told what to do or who play independently. (This is not to say that children should never play on their own. Learning to entertain themselves and figure things out on their own is also important.) Guided play means asking questions that help a child problem-solve. For example, when a child is struggling with a puzzle app, you might ask, Should we start with the corners? What if we turn this piece around?, rather than doing it for them.

Beware the bells and whistles. Recent research suggests that different toys may prompt different kinds of parental involvement. Parents tend to do more teaching5, be more responsive, engage in more complex and meaningful play, and provide more encouragement when using traditional versus electronic toys and e-books.6,7 Digital products provide many features that can be diverting and take up “airspace” leading to reduced parent-child interaction. In the case of e-books, these “extras” can distract the child’s attention away from the story, negatively affecting his comprehension of the plot.8 So when using digital products, avoid getting sidetracked and limit distractions. Learning is hard work. The more distracted your child is, the more challenging it is to process the information in front of her.

Expand your child’s learning. Ask about what your child is seeing and doing. When your child shows mastery of a game, add another step, a new “problem” to solve, or a new dimension. For example, if sorting fruits using an app becomes easy, encourage him to count as he sorts.

Create real-world lessons. True learning means the ability to apply a concept to solve real-world problems. After playing with an app that entails sorting fruits, take some real or plastic fruit and play pretend restaurant. Take a walk through the neighborhood identifying all the shapes you see in the outside world after playing with an app that teaches shapes.

Remember that YOU, not an object or device, make the difference in your child’s learning. When you make the use of digital media a meaningful, socially interactive, minds-On versus minds-Off experience, you can harness the potential power of these devices instead of feeling like they’re overpowering you.

  • To learn more about the impact of screen use on young children and how to make good, science-informed choices for your child, check out Screen Sense.
  • To learn about the specific research cited in this article, click here for the free report.
  • To find out about the best apps for young children, visit Common Sense Media.


1. Kabali, H. K., Irigoyen, M. M., Nunez-Davis, R., Budacki, J. G., Mohanty, S. H., Leister, K. P., & Bonner, R. L. (2015). Exposure and use of mobile media devices by young children. Pediatrics, 136(6). http://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2015-2151.
2. Hirsh-Pasek, K.*, Zosh, J.M.* (*joint first authors), Golinkoff, R., Gray, J., Robb, M., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Harnessing the Science of Learning to promote real educational apps. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16, 3-34. doi: 10.1177/1529100615578662
3. Shuler, C. (2012). iLearn II; An Analysis of the Education Category of the iTunes App Store. New York, NY: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Retrieved from http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/publication/ilearn-ii-an-analysis-of-the-education-category-on-apples-app-store/
4. Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Guided play: Where curricular goals meet a playful pedagogy. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7, 104–112. doi:10.1111/ mbe.12015
5. Zosh, J. M., Verdine, B. N., Filipowicz, A., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Newcombe, N. S. (2015). Talking shape: Parental language with electronic versus traditional shape sorters. Mind, Brain, and Education, 9(3), 136–144. doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12082
6. Korat, O., & Or, T. (2010). How new technology influences parent-child interaction: The case of e-book reading. First Language, 30(2), 139–154. doi.org/10.1177/0142723709359242
7. Wooldridge, M. B., & Shapka, J. (2012). Playing with technology: Mother-toddler interaction scores lower during play with electronic toys. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 33(5), 211–218. doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2012.05.005
8.Parish-Morris, J., Mahajan, N., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Collins, M. F. (2013). Once upon a time: Parent-child dialogue and storybook reading in the electronic era. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7, 200–211. doi:10.1111/mbe.12028

About Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C and Jennifer M. Zosh, Ph.D., Penn State University (Brandywine)

Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE (ZTT) for over 18 years, overseeing the development of all parenting content, print and digital. Recently she has taken on the position of Senior Parenting Advisor to focus on expanding the organization’s reach directly to parents.

Jennifer M. Zosh, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University’s Brandywine campus where she received the Distinguished Teaching Award and currently holds the David and Marjorie Rosenberg Career Development Professorship for Leadership and Innovation. Her areas of expertise and publication include playful learning, the impact of technology on children, working memory, mathematical cognition, and language acquisition.

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  • Becky

    Is Leap Frog or Baby Einstein good choices for a 2 year old? I also was looking at Color Crew, which is an interactive DVD with colors and crayons.