Tech & Media

5 Ways Kids Can Use Devices to Learn (Without Kids’ Apps)

Jan 7, 2015

There are thousands of apps specially designed for preschoolers. This huge selection of ‘branded-for-kids’ programs means many parents only think about their children’s use of tablets, computers, and smartphones in terms of apps specifically geared toward little ones.

Beyond these apps, some parents help their kids use a device to watch shows or movies or listen to music, but there’s still a lot of cool potential left untapped. By widening the scope of how you allow preschoolers to use your device, there are new opportunities for kids to not only become more familiar with technology, but also have fun and learn.

Of course, it’s important to remember these devices are expensive, delicate, and—especially outside the domain of child-friendly apps—confusing and could potentially leave you open to security problems. Common sense applies in terms of adult direction. With that in mind, here are five areas in which non-kid-specific programs can still be beneficial.

1. Exploring nature and science

My daughter is 4-and-a-half years old, so she asks a million questions for which I have no answer. Thankfully, carefully selected YouTube clips or websites have helped teach both of us about basic science. After a particularly terrifying thunderstorm, we sat together on the couch to watch short videos of lighting or read about those booming sounds to understand what had happened. Then, we followed up with a trip to the library to learn more.

We’ll also frequently use a bird-identifying app (there are at least a half-dozen good ones in varying price ranges) to help figure out what just landed in the backyard. Since the interfaces can be impenetrable to those still working on their ABCs, she still needs my help to do the searching, but still gets a huge kick out of seeing photos to confirm, yes, that’s totally a red-breasted grosbeak in the tree or hearing what those woodpeckers sound like when they’re not flying away from us.

Along those same lines, we’ve used insect apps to remind her which bugs are bees and which are yellowjackets (just avoid both) and animal track-identifying programs to decide whether it was a squirrel or a rabbit that trotted through the snow last night. To find these tools, it just takes a few keyword searches in Google Play or the App Store.

Other not-really-designed-for kids apps help map out constellations, track weather patterns, or convert your phone into a microscope. Our daughter is still a little young for these, but other children would probably love to get their hands on them.

2. Practising writing and spelling

There are many kid-centric spelling and writing apps, but sometimes the straight-up, no-frills word-processing program is king. Our daughter is becoming a fledgling little speller. While fridge magnets are still her go-to choice, she’s also enjoys typing out names of family members on a screen. (Unlike the magnets, she gets unlimited letters.) It’s like a game for her—too little to memorize the QWERTY layout, she needs to search and find each character in the mixed-up alphabet.

Of course, this is a supplement—not a replacement—to her practising with pencils and paper. We, and her kindergarten teacher, still want her to master penmanship. (Although, if we’re being honest, I think the only time I’m writing in cursive is on birthday cards or cheques.)

3. Becoming a photographer

Like the spelling program, there are many preschooler-specific camera apps. Sometimes, though, all the cutesy special effects and options obscure the fact our kid just wants to take pictures. Never much for selfies, she’ll set up tableaus of toys and dioramas of dolls, or try for snapshots of her little brother, while we stand nearby, ready to help and secretly panicking she’s going to drop the thing. Her early photography work, simple as it is, has already helped reinforce very basic lessons about perspective, along with lighting and shadows.

We’ll also use video or sound recording apps to capture her dancing or singing, and watch her face light up during playback.

4. Embracing geography

Whether in the car or at home, we’ll use mapping programs to help our daughter understand concepts like directions and spatial context. Thanks to our talking digital pathfinder, she knows many of the streets and highways on the trip to her grandparents, the zoo, or the lake. She can also grasp, by charting the way with her finger, that her aunt and her uncle live much farther from her than her abuelos, but still a lot closer than the cottage we rented or that Disneyworld we visited. We’ve also used the bird’s-eye aspect of maps to help her understand how her neighbourhood is laid out, and how the short cuts and long ways to school differ.

5. Understanding numbers

Our daughter hasn’t quite hit the right age to play around with calculators in any meaningful way, but those addition and subtraction buttons are waiting for her. In the meantime, she can embrace timers and countdowns. For how many seconds can she stand on one foot? How long is two minutes, really?

There’s also a parental benefit since she loves a good challenge. There have been times when we’ve asked our daughter to help clean her room, and it’s become... frustrating. But ask her if she can put away all her books before the countdown beeps, or offer to time her so she can see exactly how long it takes her to pick up all her stuffed pals? Well, chores magically transform into games.

Have you used any of these app or program types with your kids? Do you use your tablet or smartphone in other ‘non-traditional ways’ with your kids? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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