The American Academy of Pediatrics has changed their screen time recommendations, finally doing away with the 2-hour-a-day limit. Instead, the new recommendations focus more on quality of screen time rather than quantity. More than 80,000 apps are labeled as educational, but little research validates their quality. As a pediatrician and homeschooling mother of five children, policing my kids’ media use has become a daily occupation. Here is my 2016 list of 16 websites and apps that are educational enough that I will allow my children to play them for an unlimited time, yet fun enough that my kids want to play them.
- Khan Academy (website and app): Khan Academy now collaborates with the U.S. Department of Education and myriad public and private educational institutions to provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere”. It’s incredibly easy to use, there are no ads, and it’s appropriate for any school-aged child that knows how to read. Although Khan Academy started as a math-learning site, you can now learn just about anything there, from art history to economics. My kids will spend hours looking at computer science projects that other kids have shared and incorporating ideas into their own programs. The Khan platform combines educational videos with practice problems and project assignments. In math, your child starts with a tutorial and pre-test that designs a customized learning plan just for them. Kids are encouraged with reward “badges” when they complete work. Log in as a parent and start an account for your family. Kids can have individual usernames and passwords that all link to one parent’s email address. Cost: Free; Ads: None
- Duolingo (website and app): Awarded Google’s “Best of the Best” in 2013, Duolingo provides free interactive foreign-language education in 15 languages (more coming soon). It’s simple, user friendly, and never boring. Install the app on your phone and get your language lessons done while you are on the elevator or waiting in line. Duolingo is appropriate for ages 5-adult. One independent study on the effectiveness of Duolingo concluded that a person with no knowledge of Spanish would need about 34 hours to cover the material for the first college semester of Spanish.Our family is learning Spanish through Duolingo. Our oldest kids use the website and move at their own pace. For our 4 and 6 year-olds, we use Apple TV to display the iPad app on our big screen TV, so we can all participate together. Our kids never want to miss it– if I forget, they remind me! You can earn digital awards called “lingots” and use them to “buy” special content. Your progress is displayed in a graph form after every lesson. Cost: Free; Ads: None
- EdX: EdX provides college and high school courses from leading universities online for free. There are more than 60 courses appropriate for high school students. In 2015, EdX joined forces with the College Board to provide online AP courses. Founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, EdX now has more than 85 global partner institutions. Now anyone can learn anything from the very best teachers. Cost: Free, extra fees apply for official transcripts and college credit; Ads: None
- IXL (website and app): IXL has been massively updated in the past year to incorporate more subjects and allow kids to skip through content if they get enough questions right. It is appropriate for Pre-K through grade 12. If you’ve tried IXL in the past but didn’t love it, try it again and I bet you’ll like it. Our kids use IXL.com every day to supplement their regular school curriculum in math, English language arts, social studies and science. IXL is one of the few sites with great math content for non-reading children. Children earn simple online prize pictures for completing milestones. Each skill adjusts to your child’s level—if you get enough problems right, it skips to the end, but if you get some wrong you have to do more. The IXL curriculum is entirely practice problems– there are no videos. Written explanations are given for incorrect answers, although non-readers can click on an icon to get audio explanations. Our kids like it because you can skip around and try skills of every type, even those outside of your grade level. I like it because I can assign practice content that coordinates with their regular curriculum. Your child can do a few sets of problems per day for free, or you can subscribe for $9.99 per month or $79 per year for a family membership. Cost: Free limited use or $9.99/month; Ads: None
- Typing.com (Formerly TypingWeb): Typing.com offers a comprehensive keyboarding/touch typing course that is appropriate for children from Kindergarden through college. Many schools use this program for their keyboarding courses. It is free, although there are ads. For $15, you can remove ads and also access a few premium lessons. Even with a free account your child will learn to type well following their user-friendly curriculum and playing their typing games. My 11-year-old has mastered typing thanks to Typing.com, and it has improved his schoolwork in almost every subject. Writing papers and doing web-based research is faster, easier and more fun now that he can type. Cost: Free; Ads: May be removed for $15
- Scratch and Scratch Jr (website and app): Scratch is a free online tool and app designed by MIT to help kids learn programming. Scratch is intended for kids ages 7-adult. Scratch Jr. is an iPad app designed for ages 5-7. Their website reads, “Coding is the new literacy! With Scratch Jr, young children can program their own interactive stories and games. In the process, they learn to solve problems, design projects and express themselves creatively on the computer.” Kids program their own computer games, art and applications, and then share them with the rest of the online community, so everyone else gets to try it! Your child will get comments from real users about their game, and see how many people viewed their project. It is well monitored and I have never seen any inappropriate content. Most kids start by just playing other people’s games, and then looking at how they built the program. Before long, your kids will be programming, too. My 10-year-old has long surpassed me, and my 5-year-old is not far behind. Cost: Free; Ads: None
- BiblioNasium: Now used in many schools, this website will convince even the most reluctant reader to love reading. Founder Margan Ghara describes BiblioNasium as, “Part kids social network, part parent’s guide, part teacher’s tool.” BiblioNasium blends technology with personal connection to create a supportive, engaging space for reading success. Cost: Free; Ads: Digital books are recommended and sold on site
- Dragon Box (multiple apps): Better than anyone else, Dragon Box has succeeded in making math into a very fun game. These puzzle-game apps are designed to secretly teach math, algebra and geometry. Kids move through 200 levels without ever realizing they are doing math. Using pictures instead of numbers, kids learn basic algebraic concepts, such as making two sides equal. Dragon Box Numbers is intended for kids aged 4-8, and teaches basic numbers and early math. Two apps teach algebra: Dragon Box 5+ is intended for kids aged 5+, and Dragon Box 12+ for kids aged 12 and up. DragonBox Elements, which teaches geometry, is for ages 9 and up. The puzzles get trickier as you move through the levels… you’ll find yourself as addicted as your child. Cost: $4.99-$7.99 in the App Store; Ads: None (also, no in-app purchases)
- Hooda Math (website): HoodaMath.com is a free online game site with more than 700 math and logic games. Games are organized by grade level and game type, so you can quickly find something you will like. There are a lot of escape-type games and logic games that indirectly teach math and logic. Cost: Free; Ads: Present throughout site but not offensive
- Quizlet and Brainscape (websites and apps): These two separate companies provide a similar free service: create-your-own flashcards and quizzes and then practice your content online. You can enter your content online and then use your mobile device to practice whenever you get a chance. You can also access a huge library of content that other people have created. Quizlet and Brainscape are especially powerful for standardized test-prep.
Quizlet allows anyone to create and share content, so it’s easy to find ready-made content to study almost any common textbook. If my children need to study for a science test, I can find pre-made flashcards and quiz material for the exact chapter of the exact book they are studying. Quizlet is free with ads, or you can pay $15 per year to remove ads and get additional features such as image uploading and voice recording.
Brainscape is an online flashcard-based learning system that uses “an optimized version of spaced repetition” that they call “Confidence-Based Repetition.” They’ve used cognitive science to help maximize learning and retention. It’s free if you enter your own flashcards, or you can buy learning modules on just about any topic. Brainscape is especially effective for learning languages and memorizing facts. We use Brainscape for learning languages and it has really helped my kids more than traditional flashcards and drills, and they like doing it. I’m impressed with their customer service, especially for a free site. I had some trouble syncing my mobile app with the website, so I posted a note on their Facebook page. Someone answered my question in about a half hour! Cost: Quizlet– free with ads, or small fee to go ad-free. Brainscape– free but pay for premium content; no ads.
- PBSKids (website and multiple related apps): Every young child I know plays PBSKids—it’s loaded with characters they know and it’s free with no ads. It’s a huge site with enormous amounts of content, so kids won’t get bored. But I don’t love PBSKids. The entertainment to education ratio is just too high. Kids might learn a few facts or concepts, but it’s not always a good use of their time. There’s a lot of video content, and many kids just turn their computer into a TV once they get to the site. I’ll often catch my older kids playing games that are below their level, so although they still enjoy the game, there is no educational value. We do let our kids play PBSKids, but when I find my older kids on it I redirect them. PBSKids also has a PBS Parents app, which provides interactive educational activities for preschoolers to do together with their parents. This app is free. Cost: Free; Ads: None
- Abcmouse (website and app): ABCMouse.com is a preschool and Kindergarten online educational website that offers a more comprehensive curriculum than PBSKids and tracks your child’s progress. We’ve used it for three of our children and they love it. There’s a ton of content and they will never run out of new things to do. It’s possible to totally waste your time on this site, though. You earn prize tickets for each activity completed, and you can use them to buy all kinds of crazy things for your virtual room, yard, and avatar. Our kids quickly learned how to cheat by doing too many easy activities and would waste time collecting tickets and buying dream beds and exotic pets for their avatar. Once we redirect them, though, they get back to all the excellent content like virtual books, reading, and math activities. Kids can almost always make any activity easier, though, so they never really have to push themselves too much. It’s a good tool to drive home preschool concepts that you’ve already taught. Cost: $7.95 per month or $79 per year, 30 day free trial; Ads: None
- Bitsboard and other Alligator Apps (multiple apps): Alligator Apps is a company that has created an entire line of early childhood learning apps, many of which we use every day, and most of which are free. Their best app is Bitsboard, which was named a Top 5 Education Game in the US App Store. Bitsboard allows children (and adults!) to study almost anything for free across 25 addictive mini-games in one app. Bitsboard is an app all your kids will like, from toddler through adulthood. You can easily create your own study sets or download study sets from a huge library of content. Alligator apps has many other apps that our family uses daily. Our favorites include: little writer, little finder, sight word ninja, story creator, memory king, and A+ spelling. Little writer is an interactive letter tracing app that helps preschoolers learn to write letters and numbers and draw shapes. Little finder is a preschool vocabulary building game for toddlers. Sight-word ninja helps early readers master sight words. Story creator allows children to write and illustrate their own digital books. Memory king is an electronic version of the classic memory game we used to play with cards, and accommodates up to four players on a phone or tablet. It’s my favorite game to entertain kids together in a waiting room with just one electronic device. A+ Spelling is a simple app that allows your child to enter their own spelling words and then practice them using a few games and quiz modes. We use it daily. Cost: most $1.99; Ads: None
- Stack the States and Stack the Countries: Voted best kids app for iPad, Stack the States is the fastest, easiest, and most fun way to learn United States geography. My 8-year-old was instantly glued to it, and within a month had it all memorized. He moved on to Stack the Countries, and within months had memorized the name and location of every country in the world. He’s now working his way through another app by Free Cloud Design called Presidents vs. Aliens, which teaches presidential history. Cost: $1.99 at the app store or play the free lite versions; Ads: None
- Classic games with two or more players (multiple apps): Chess, Checkers, Connect 4, Othello, Battleship, and all those classic logic games you played as a child are available on tablets. I love watching my children play these games together– it’s a different use of screen time because they are sharing a tablet and playing together. They’re strategizing against their siblings and learning how to handle wins and loses. The best part– no little pieces to clean up.
- Time to get off the screen and do chores? There’s an app for that, too. We’ve been using ChorePadHD for about four years now, and it’s working. Our kids have to get their chore checkmarks done on ChorePad before we let them have any other screen time.
What about Minecraft, Lego.com, television shows and the American Girl Doll website? We call this “junky” screen time, and our kids understand that it is like junk food. A little bit is OK, but too much is not healthy. They do get junky screen time, but only after all their schoolwork and chores are done and they have to use a timer. If they are aren’t behaving or if they just haven’t been outside all day, there is no junky screentime. My older kids are so busy with extracurricular activities, schoolwork and chores that there just isn’t time for junky screentime many days. They get used to going without junky screen time, which is a good lifetime habit even for adults.
We finish the day with screen-free dinner and bedtime. Screentime before bed makes it harder for kids to fall asleep, so we try not to use screens after dinner. Talking and spending time with family before bed prevents sleep anxiety and helps kids get the good night’s sleep they need to wake up ready for a new day.