Our favorite learning apps for tablets and smartphones

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We spent over 25 hours researching and testing more than 35 educational and learning apps recommended by educators, experts, parents, and kids. We also studied research from child developmental psychologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics about children’s app use and the pedagogical principles for creating learning apps. If your family has a tablet and you want it to be more than a game-playing and video-watching device, or if you’re trying to find apps for your smartphone that will do more than keep your kids occupied in a pinch, we have some great suggestions.

What are learning apps?
Based on our research, we think a good learning app should be provocative, exploratory, and open-ended; it should also have been designed with primary input from educators and curriculum developers, or shown in educational research to be an effective learning tool. The apps we cover in this guide are great learning apps not because they’re designed to make kids smarter, to drill facts, or to replace in-school learning, but because they’re fun and interesting for kids and adults.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist specializing in child development and learning, wrote in a 2015 article (PDF) that educational apps “present a significant opportunity for out-of-school, informal learning when designed in educationally appropriate ways,” but that “only a handful … are designed with an eye toward how children actually learn.”

Apps are still fairly uncharted territory for education, and it isn’t clear what really helps preschool and early-elementary children learn, as opposed to simply entertaining them. In a similar situation to what we found when researching learning toys, developers and app stores often label apps as “educational” with little research or evidence, and few experts, to support those claims.

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