The American Academy of Pediatrics says that kids should not have more than 2 hours per day of “recreational” screen time, a recommendation that has opened a vehement debate among scholars and parents alike. What is “recreational” screen time? Does a geography iPad game count? How about PBS kids, which includes some educational games but also videos of television shows? There is no easy way for parents to regulate screen time, either. What do you do when your child is over their time limit and doesn’t want to get off the screen? What if they start off on an educational website and then switch to something recreational? Enforcing screen rules is just another thankless job for parents. I needed a way for my children to enjoy good screen time without me watching them constantly.
Here is my 2015 list of 15 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. We now have a family iPad that only has educational content on it, and two computers that have a whitelist internet filter so that my children can only access this content. As long as their homework and chores are done, they can play these games until they are sick of them. Interestingly, they rarely go over two hours per day.
1) Duolingo (website and app): Awarded Google’s “Best of the Best” in 2013, Duolingo provides free interactive foreign-language education. It’s simple, user friendly, and never boring. Duolingo is appropriate for ages 5-adult, and is currently available in 21 languages (more coming soon). 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 the Duolingo app. 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, and your progress is displayed in a graph form after every lesson. You can pay for premium content, but we’ve been using it for about a year and never needed to do so.
2) 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. My 10-year-old has long surpassed me, and my five-year-old is not far behind. Their website reads, “Coding is the new literacy! With ScratchJr, 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.
3) Dragon Box (app): This puzzle-game app is designed to secretly teach algebra to kids ages 5+, although plenty of reviewers find their 4-year-olds love it. 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. On average, it took 41 minutes and 44 seconds for students to master algebra skills using the DragonBox app at the Washington State Algebra Challenge. The puzzles get trickier as you move through the levels… you’ll find yourself as addicted as your child. There is another version intended for children ages 12+. $4.99 in the App Store.
4) Typing.com (Formerly TypingWeb): Even my kindergartener is learning how to touch type for free at Typing.com. Typing.com offers a comprehensive keyboarding/touch typing course that is appropriate for children age 5 and up. 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.
5) Khan Academy (website and app): Backed by big-name funders including Google and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education, Khan Academy provides “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 who knows how to read. Although Khan Academy started as a math-learning site, you can now learn just about anything there. My 10-year-old is learning computer programming and watching a video series called “Crash Course World History.” The Khan platform combines educational videos with practice problems in math, programming, science, test-prep and more. 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. Oh, and grown-ups can use Khan Academy too!
6) IXL (webite and app): Our kids use IXL.com every day to supplement their regular school curriculum. It’s a comprehensive Pre-K through 12 online math program, plus English language arts for grades 2-8. 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. 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 online math offers more visual teaching than any book or parent could ever provide. 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.
7) Splash Math (website and app): Similar to IXL, Splash Math is a comprehensive math practice program for grades K-5 that allows your child to practice a few skills per day for free, or buy a plan starting at $2.75 per child per month. Both Splash Math and IXL use a “smart score” that adapts to your child’s skill and need, so that easier content is covered quickly and content your child struggles with is reinforced. Splash Math has excellent graphics and sounds. You can follow a learning pathway or skip around to specific skills. Kids earn electronic prizes, and parents get progress reports.
8) 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 site. Someone answered my question in about a half hour!
9) PBSKids (website and multiple related apps): Every young child I know plays PBSKids—it’s loaded with characters they love 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. PBS sells many related apps that feature their beloved characters, but they are expensive, usually around $4.99, and I feel the recreation to education ration is too high. I’ve bought a few over the years and have never been impressed. The exception is the PBSKids Parents app, which provides interactive educational activities for preschoolers to do together with their parents. This app is free.
10) 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. It is a paid service for $7.95 per month or $79 per year, but you can get a 30 day free trial. 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.
11) 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 in their own spelling words and then practice them using a few games and quiz modes. We use it daily.
12) Stack the States and other Free Cloud Design apps: 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 onto 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. $1.99 at the app store or play the free lite versions.
13) Classic games with 2 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. They’re strategizing against their siblings and learning how to handle wins and loses. The best part– no little pieces to clean up.
14) iMovie (app and software for iOs or PC): Your kids can film and edit their own home movies with the iMovie app, available for $4.99 at the app store. This user-friendly app allows you to easily edit and add music and titles to your movies, then share them. My kids like to make movies of their siblings, their Legos, their sports events, etc. Movie making is a different kind of screen time, very interactive and social. Teachers are giving kids movie-making homework in every subject now– how else can you prove you had a conversation in Spanish, or acted out a skit about the American Revolution? iMovie is the easiest way to make your movies look and sound great.
15) Google Earth (website and app): Want your kids to learn geography and astronomy all on one site? Just let them go on Google Earth. There are no ads and it is free. You can zoom in and out on the Earth and anything in the Milky Way. Through satellite imagery, maps, terrain, and 3D buildings our kids explore in detail all the points of interest of the whole world and space—the opportunities are limitless. My kids now educate me on dwarf planets and remote islands in Oceania.
Time to get off the screen and do chores? There’s an app for that, too. We’ve been using ChorePadHD for about three 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.
Eventually, though, every child needs quiet time, away from the stimulation of screens. They need active play, outdoor time, and time for creative, unstructured play. By limiting our children to quality screen time, I find they are ready to get off the screens by the end of the two-hour limit set by the American Academy of Pediatrics. I don’t have to be an enforcer, kicking them off Minecraft or television shows. They already know when it is time to play outside or read a book.