After a summer of fun, the shift back into schoolwork can be tough for kids. Feeling out-of-practice when it comes to math facts, logical thinking or even, for younger kids, the alphabet can make the transition even harder. It’s time for a little review, but that review will go over much more sweetly if it seems more like fun than work.
The right apps can do that better than almost anything else, but when you’re downloading apps for their educational value, it’s important to be cautious. In far too many apps, the learning is easy to circumvent, either by playing the game only up to a certain point, or (especially for very small kids) by trying random swipes and pokes rather than solving the problems. Other apps offer learning somewhat incidentally to entertainment, much like most educational television.
Here’s a list of apps that blend the fun and the learning into the same package, some with more parental involvement than others. Nearly all cost more than the 99 cents we’re used to paying. But if you’re really planning to see that they get used, they’re worth it.
ABCMouse, ABCMouse.com. A “full online curriculum” for ages 2 to 7, it offers very early learning (alphabet, colors, shapes) along with introductory reading and math and even some core curriculum-style basics like literature (Aesop’s Fables), geography and simple science (plants, weather, the planets). At $7.95 a month, ABCMouse is only worth the investment if your child is a regular user (and do set up an alert to remind you to consider that automatic charge on your credit card before it renews monthly). Available online and on iPad, iPhone, Kindle Fire (second generation and above) and most Android phones and tablets.
Various games, Motion Math Its games are all stellar, and there are games available for math levels through elementary school and slightly beyond. My rising fifth- and seventh-grade math kids enjoyed Cupcake (iPad, iPhone, $4.99), which required them to run a cupcake business, solving word problems to fill orders, setting prices, evaluating ingredients and using a coordinate system to make deliveries and Pizza (iPad, iPhone, $4.99), which was similar.
My rising fourth grader, who has long struggled with the basics of fractions, was challenged by Fractions, the app (iPad, iPhone and most Android phones and tablets, $4.99). Fractions gives the player a fraction in the form of numerator over denominator (1/2), percents (50 percent), decimals (0.5), or pie charts, then has the player bounce the representation of the fraction off a number line at the right place. To succeed, the player has to have a visceral understanding of fraction concepts, which my daughter has been working on for over a year.
I fell immediately in love with Fractions on her behalf. It moves too quickly for her to resort to her usual fraction-avoidance strategies (ask a sibling for help); it’s physical (you have to tilt the device) which is a style of learning that works well for her; and by using all of those different representations of fractions, it insists on a deeper understanding than she’s achieved so far. In a controlled study,students who played Fractions for 20 minutes a day for five days improved their test scores by 15 percent, and I’m convinced the app could help her break through her fractions block. But it isn’t a game she’ll choose to play. I’ll have to make it a game that earns other privileges.
Wings (free to download, but requires in-app purchases of $2.99 for pre-multiplication and $3.99 for basic or advanced sets) could serve the same purpose for a child struggling with multiplication concepts. It’s an entertaining but solid app that offers visual multiplication (similar to what my children bring home on worksheets) as well as the 3 x 6 numeric variety. Again, it’s probably not a game a child would choose over Agar.io (the latest craze at our house), but it’s a dramatic improvement over worksheets.
Fraction Mash, NYSCI (iPad only, $2.99) offers a more entertaining way into fractions, allowing kids to create fractional mash-ups of two pictures they take or choose. Realistically, a child doesn’t have to learn the fraction to have fun making a picture that’s half your dog and half your cat, but it does help bring the concepts home.
Noticing Tools, NYSCI If you’re prepared to spend some time with your children getting them back into a learning frame of mind, these apps, developed by the New York Hall of Science in partnership with Local Projects, turn an iPad into a serious tool of inquiry (all are still iPad only, $2.99 each or $9.99 for all 5 as part of the Noticing Tools STEM Pack). The most delightful, Playground Physics, invites children to make a video of anything in motion, from a playground swing to a leaping cat, and then to use the app to discover the motion, forces and energy involved.
Other apps allow children to use the iPad camera to expand their understanding of a physical object. Size Wise encourages kids to explore ratios and proportions while making funny pictures that make things look wildly bigger and smaller than they really are;Volumize encourages them to think of photographed objects as 3-D models composed of simple shapes like cones and cylinders andChoreograph allows them to animate friends, animals and objects and explore the angles that make up the animations. These apps would be fantastic for home schoolers; lesson plans are available on the NYSCI website.