Toddler apps can be a beautiful thing for a parent. Just when you think a situation with your child is about to go south—say, waiting in the endless grocery store line—you whip out your digital device and poof! Instant entertainment. But how do you go about finding toddler apps that appeal to your little one and are actually educational? And what constitutes quality digital content for a toddler in the first place? Experts say there are about 120,000 toddler apps out there (and counting!) made especially for preschool-age children—a seemingly impossible number to sort through. Which is why we’re going to help steer you in the right direction. Learn everything you need to know about toddler apps, including what makes for quality content and whether there’s such a thing as too much screen time.
In this article:
Benefits of Toddler Apps
Setting Limits on Screen Time
Best Apps for 2-Year -Olds
Best Apps for 3-Year-Olds
Best Free Apps for Toddlers
Best Educational Apps for Toddlers
Best Coloring Apps for Toddlers
Best Story Apps for Toddlers
Benefits of Toddler Apps
When it comes to comes to giving your toddler apps to play with, we know you’re worried about overdoing screen time. After all, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced just last year that children between the ages of 2 and 5 should be exposed to only one hour of high-quality media per day. And yet, in this digital day and age, it may seem impossible to keep kids away from media. That’s okay—to an extent. What’s important is making sure the toddler apps they’re engaging with consist of quality digital content, the kind that actually provides benefits for your child.
“I think there’s something to be said for developing technological skills and getting a familiarity and a comfort level with digital media at a young age, because this is the way life is now,” says Chrissy Elgersma, apps editor at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that advocates for safe media for kids. “I think most parents have a story about their toddler swiping the TV screen, because they have this innate understanding. I also think that, once they’re developmentally ready, building that comfort level and having kids create things with digital media gives them a sense of power—they’re not just consuming media, they also get a sense that they’re creators too.”
Peter Gray, PhD, a research professor in psychology at Boston University and the author of Free to Learn, agrees. “If the child is interacting with the content and choosing what to play or what to watch on a digital device, she can’t help but learn,” he says. “You’re always learning when you’re actively involved in something. And through toddler apps, kids are learning one of life’s most important lessons: figuring out what interests them.”
But some toddler apps offer more learning opportunities than others. So how can you tell which apps count as quality digital content—the kind that both educates and entertains? Consider these guidelines from Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a faculty fellow in psychology at Temple University and president of the International Congress on Infant studies:
1. Is it active? “When we say ‘active,’ we mean ‘minds-on,’” Hirsh-Pasek says. Toddler apps that just ask kids to swipe their finger don’t count as active.
2. Is it engaging? “Does it capture the child’s interest in a way that doesn’t involve a lot of distractions?” she asks. “With a lot of the games out there, you’ll be looking at something and then you get a pop-up, or it tells you to go somewhere else. That’s the kind of thing that isn’t good for you.”
3. Is it meaningful? “Take a game like like a Minecraft, for example. You’re doing meaningful stuff if you can play it with others,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “Many of the toddler apps out there are silly, like a dog asking, ‘Where is the triangle?’ over and over, and when you find it, there’s this disembodied clapping on the other end.” Her point? Without the feeling of interaction, the game loses power.
4. Is it socially interactive? “While this criteria isn’t necessary, it’s a plus! Especially in a world where we have so many people who are not socially interactive,” she says.
And one more bonus point: Do your toddler apps have a well-established learning goal? If it encourages interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), let’s say, or literacy, then it has the right to call itself an educational app, she explains.
Setting Limits on Screen Time
The main reason behind the AAP’s one-hour screen-time limit is so that your devices don’t take away from the social interactions that are so critical for toddler development. But there’s no magic to the one-hour limit per se. As the experts we spoke with suggest, use it as a guideline to determine what’s best for you, your child and your family. And try not to beat yourself up every time you hand your toddler apps to play with on the iPad or smartphone. “Parents tend to feel really guilty about screen time. But if you’re doing it in a mindful way with quality content, and it’s in balance with other activities, then I think we can let ourselves off the hook a little bit,” Elgersma says.
Making a family media plan can be helpful. It can either outline the amount of time you allow your kids to play with toddler apps on their digital devices (for example: one hour a day) , or it can note which hours of the day those devices are off-limits (e.g., any time after 6 p.m.) or which areas of the house are screen-free zones.
With school-aged children, it can be useful to talk with your family about how digital devices might be interfering with the way you enjoy time together, Gray says. But with toddlers, you may have to handle the situation differently. If your toddler refuses to let go of the tablet or phone, tell her it’s time for the tablet to ‘go to sleep.’ It’s age-appropriate while also conveying that the tablet is off-limits now,” Elgersma says. “That way, hopefully, you can get the tablet back without a tantrum.” But it goes both ways! Parents should also be aware of the degree to which…
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