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With Christmas approaching, many of us with preschool children or grandchildren will be considering the purchase of apps for our devices.

We are often portrayed in the media as “bad parents or grandparents” for purchasing apps for young family members. But in fact, appropriate educational apps can prepare children for life in an increasingly digital world where the availability of apps is growing every year.

Not all screen time is equal

Concerns about the negative effects of technology are not new. In the past, television, VCR’s, computers, laptops and PlayStation have each been labelled as potential destroyers of the natural order of childhood through media overuse. But the easy availability of apps has made this topic a hot button issue.

The main concern is “screen time”. Sedentary use of digital devices, like TV, computers and iPads, is associated with childhood obesity, poor verbal communication, damaging eyesight, the death of nursery rhymes, or digital addiction.

Apps are often labelled as “digital babysitters”, used to give parents and grandparents a bit of adult time to prepare dinner or answer work emails or even sleep in.

While we acknowledge that extensive and unsupervised use of digital technologies may be harmful, not all screen time is equal in terms of outcomes for children.

For most children in the developed world, apps are a normal, everyday part of their life and will remain so. Apps are not new to young children. They interact with them in different ways to their parents and grandparents. Children use apps as a form of digital play.

Government investment in app development

The Australian government has invested in developing apps for children in the year before formal schooling under the supervision of a degree-qualified early learning teacher in a preschool service.

These apps are aligned with the Early Years Learning Framework. So, activities are underpinned by nationally-agreed educational policy for young children.

In 2017, the Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) program was expanded across Australia with A$15.7 million to include more than 1,800 preschools and 61,000 children. It supports the development of languages other than English through seven apps in seven languages. An independent report pointed to overwhelmingly positive feedback.

The Australian government is also providing A$5.6 million over three years to pilot the development and use of apps to inspire young children in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The program called [Early Learning STEM Australia ](https://www.education.gov.au/nisa-early-learning-initiatives (ELSA) will be piloted in 100 preschool centres across Australia in 2018.

Given this substantial investment, as well as the expanding use of apps by preschool children, parents and grandparents should consider how they might maximise the benefits associated with app use by selecting apps appropriate for young children.

Good apps for young children

Over the past five years, as part of a range of university research projects, we have explored hundreds of children’s apps. While it’s accurate to say many apps for young children are very poor and model inappropriate levels of violence, stereotyping, or mindless activity, some apps may be an appropriate addition in the virtual Christmas stocking this year.

There are over 260 000 “educational” apps available at the app store alone. So, to save valuable Christmas shopping time we suggest ten appropriate apps for preschool children:

  1. Starfall ABC helps children develop reading skills

  2. TouchCounts lets children use their fingers, eyes and ears to learn to count, add and subtract

  3. Play School Play Time encourages kids to play with time while celebrating Humpty’s birthday

  4. Play-Doh Touch allows children to shape a creation with Play-Doh, scan it into virtual reality with the app and build a world of their own creation

  5. LOOPIMAL is an app to help young children learn about making music

  6. Shape Gurus allows children to solve puzzles with shapes and colours as they make their way through an interactive story

  7. uKloo is a fun seek-and-find literacy game for preschool children

  8. Code Karts introduces pre-coding to children from the age of four through a series of logical puzzles presented in the form of a raceway

  9. Crazy Gears is a digital puzzle game, designed with a real mechanical engine and with children’s critical thinking skills in mind

  10. Go Noodle gets kids moving with screen-time, and has simple mindfulness and yoga activities to help kids relax.

We looked for apps that form a bridge between digital and non-digital play and encourage children to develop literacy, numeracy, and STEM understanding in playful ways.

Apps then become digital toys to be used by children to design, create, build, investigate and imagine as they play.

In the digital world we live in now, the decision for parents and grandparents is not the “should or should not” of app use, but rather “how”.

- The Conversation

The Conversation