A Kid-First Approach to the Educational App Debate

By Lee Wyndham

“I want apps that help develop thinking skills. I want app developers to think like innovative teachers.”1

Angie Harrison, teacher and literacy coach

The debate is out there: Are children’s apps and ebooks educational, or not? Can they improve literacy, or are they just distracting games, filled with needless bells and whistles?

It is a polarizing question, and studies have shown both sides to be true. Apps and ebooks for kids can be educational, but they can also prove to be distracting. What I take out of the debate is that there is a huge potential for apps and ebooks both as a market for publishers and as a resource for parents and educators. What we’re missing is thorough information – for parents and educators to choose from the ever-growing app list, and for publishers to develop the best possible ebooks.

For context regarding the apps for children debate, I recommend reading two other student papers on the subject of ebooks in early elementary education and apps that promote or hinder literacy. From these and other studies I have concluded that, while many developers have simply added game-like features to excite children, others have put care and thought into developing educational tools that best highlight the strengths of story and imagery. And, of course, ebooks are just another tool in the parents’ and educators’ arsenal, to be used as a compliment to traditional books rather than as a replacement.

I would like to explore what the future of children’s apps has in store. While publishers hold the key to quality ‘book-like’ content, innovative app developers have taken the concept of the book so far that we can no longer define it in familiar terms. Likewise, the line between exploration and distraction has been blurred. A new literacy is emerging, one that will equip the next generation for the media and devices of the future.

Please note that in this context, I’ve used the terms ebook, app and digital book interchangeably.

Children’s Apps: The Ever-Growing Minefield

The market for children’s apps has expanded enormously in the last few years. A recent study by the Digital Book World shows that 54% of kids age 2-13 are reading ebooks – more than double the number of adults. Of those, 85% read digital books at least once a week, and they use tablets more than any other device. These children read a combination of regular and enhanced ebooks.2

Last year, the sales of children’s ebooks rose dramatically in January (475.1% growth) and had steadied at 177% growth over the first three quarters of 2012, with expectations of another rise during the gift-buying season.3 These results show much more rapid growth in the children’s market than in adult ebook purchases.

The number of children who have read at least one ebook is certainly rising. A Scholastic study released in January 2013 shows that the percentage of children who have read an ebook has almost doubled in the last two years, rising to 46 percent.4 The study has raised questions about how many of these readers return and read ebooks with the regularity they read in print. Interestingly, the study shows that more boys have taken to ebooks, while fewer girls reported being consistent readers because they often switch to other online activities. This result points to two things: 1) ebooks are a means to attract boys, who traditionally lag behind girls in reading; and 2) given their internet connectivity, tablet reading leads children to other activities (texting, playing games) that should be closely managed.5

Given this information, how can we help parents and educators navigate the ever-growing list of apps and manage their children’s digital reading experience? And how can publishers develop digital content that attracts and retains new readers?

Tips for Parents and Educators

“To ignore technology is to miss opportunities for delivering new content and better teaching to the children who need it most, inadvertently allowing digital divides to grow wider.”6

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center

It is important to start the digital discussion from the point of view that technology can be a tool to help with literacy and learning, but that it is not the only answer. Our understanding of literacy also has to go beyond simple reading skills and knowledge – literacy includes active discovery and a supportive environment. It is critical that parents and educators be actively engaged in a child’s learning.

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center released a detailed review of digital literacy for parents and educators. Of the apps they studied, most focused on basic skills such as letters and sounds rather than advanced skills like comprehension and grammar. The study provides a list of attributes to look for in educational apps and calls for more support for parents and educators, to help them understand which apps aid in development.7

The study also recommends training for parents to help them mediate their child’s experience with digital reading. For example, when reading ebooks with children, parents should engage and ask questions about the book that relate to the child’s life. One risk came out in a study at Temple University: if parents let the device read to their child, they may focus their conversation on how to use the device rather than on engaging the child with the content of the book.8

Luckily, there is no end of resources for parents and educators available online, if you know where to look. An educational consultant, inov8, has published a detailed survey of apps that support the seven literacy building blocks: print awareness, phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing.9

In addition, there are a number of communities and forums that review and evaluate children’s apps:

Helping Publishers Build Better Apps

To begin with, publishers do not need to invest in the latest and greatest app development. Traditional children’s book publishers have one distinct advantage: really good stories. A lot of apps on the marketplace “have lots of digital bling, but the story is awful.”10 When considering books for app development, publishers should consider the strengths of the story and whether the images or graphics would translate well to a screen. Any enhancements should be thoughtfully included in order to add to the reading experience.

Wired Magazine’s ‘GeekDad’ column raises an interesting point that I think would be a good rule of thumb for creating simpler apps – would it work as a quiet bedtime read? The app Tales for Great Grandchildren, for example, has beautiful illustrations that each capture a single scene from the story. The illustrations are animated, but in a subtle way. The writing is kept clean and separate, allowing the child to become immersed in the reading.11 The app does not need the usual audio or voice recording, and would work well as a bedtime read.

Parents and educators have started speaking out about what they want app developers and publishers to consider. One obvious request is for apps to have less obnoxious music and a mute button. They also suggest locking away everything that isn’t part of the child’s experience, such as in-app marketing, privacy settings, and the difficulty level of educational apps. Other recommendations include ensuring a natural flow (rather than requiring kids to jump between pages and hit the back button) and promoting the app accurately (i.e., don’t say it’s educational if it’s not).12 Again, publishers can look to the resources available online, including the ever-influential mommy bloggers, to get an understanding of what parents are looking for.

Beyond the Book: A Different Kind of Learning

The above section describes a straightforward book-to-app conversion. Simplicity is key, and it is to the advantage of traditional publishers looking to foray into the app market. But with the prominence of the tablet, there is a whole other realm of children’s apps that have little to do with the book as we know it. To get a sense of the range of digital books for children, consider the following categories identified by GeekDad:

  • Traditional (books turned digital);
  • Originals (books written for mobile devices only);
  • Gamified Books;
  • Movie & Cartoon-Inspired Books;
  • Bookshop Apps (leverage a delivery system); and
  • Empowering Storytelling (create your own book).13

So what does the future of digital books hold? I believe it will be the ‘active discovery’ recommended above by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. It seems counter-intuitive, but much of what has been vilified as a distraction in the current ebook discourse may actually be part of a child’s active learning and exploration. For example, books don’t need to be contained entities. We can leverage the internet connectivity of new devices to help children search and discover the rich online world of content and media.

“The new wave of digital publishers […] will create hypertextual eBooks that tap into children’s imagination and their desire to explore and play. They will make room for children to develop skills in media literacy, understand networks and how to organize information and create their own new stories.”14

— Daniel Donahoo, GeekDad

Innovative apps allow kids to control the story and to create, they support a new form of digital literacy that is essential in the 21st century, and they encourage exploration. The success of these apps can be measured not by the sales volume but by the level of engagement (how much time does a child spend with the app?).15 This measure can help differentiate between enhancements added for the sake of it or to make a flashy video trailer, and ones that add a meaningful layer of interaction with a story.

Star Examples

Since the educational merits of apps can be murky at best, I’d like to highlight some developers who have done a particularly excellent job. The first example is Peapod Labs. Their Little Explorers series engages children with apps that include links to Creative Commons content in a contained, Google-like landscape. This brings out the joy of discovery and allows children to research a topic and stumble across new content.16 It requires a lot of work on the developer end to keep the contained landscape active and without broken links, but it is a great way to introduce the power of the internet in a controlled setting.

The second star developer is Oceanhouse Media, the powerhouse behind the Dr. Seuss apps. The company’s founder, Michel Kripalani, has said: “I, for one, don’t believe that games should be packed in with children’s eBooks when the core idea is to teach reading. The game only becomes a distraction.”17 The company has studied the market and child development, and they ensure that their app functionality always supports the goal of teaching children how to read. And, they save their game ideas for separate apps.18

Lastly, the Toontastic app by LaunchPad Toys encourages creativity and storytelling by letting kids take the wheel – they can design their own cartoons. The developers have created a tool that teaches children about the art of storytelling and script writing. Kids can start with simple characters and backgrounds, or draw their own. They can then share their creations on ‘ToonTube’ along with a soundtrack of classical music designed to support the development of emotional intelligence.19

The Good News for Publishers

The work and thought required to develop innovative educational apps for children that actually promote a new kind of literacy and learning is certainly daunting. The good news is that traditional children’s book publishers already have the advantage of good quality, thoughtfully crafted narratives and illustrations. As we’ve seen, sometimes the simplest digital books succeed both in the marketplace and in the hearts of children.

The app playing field is growing and it is rife for experimentation. Publishers who want to explore the new wave of digital publishing can team up with some great developers to showcase their content in different ways.

The most important lessons are that apps should be designed first and foremost with the child’s educational development in mind, and that developers should engage with parents and educators who have researched how best to do this. Lastly, don’t let the ‘bells and whistles’ argument derail you from exploring just what the latest device can do – you just may discover a new way to help children learn.

[1] Angie Harrison, as cited in “GeekDad Opinion: The Future of Children’s eBooks,” Daniel Donahoo, Wired Magazine, February 14, 2011. Accessed January 30, 2013, http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/02/geekdad-opinion-the-future-of-childrens-ebooks/

[2] “New Report from Digital Book World: 54% of U.S. Children Reading Ebooks,” Digital Book World, January 16, 2013. Accessed February 1, 2013, “http://digitalbookworld.com/2013/new-report-from-digital-book-world-54-of-u-s-children-reading-ebooks/

[3] Jeremy Greenfield, “Adult Ebook Sales up 31% in Sept., Continue Slowdown,” Digital Book World, January 25, 2013. Accessed January 28, 2013, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/adult-ebook-sales-up-31-in-sept-continue-slowdown/

[4] Leslie Kaufman, “Digital Reading on the Rise for Children (With a Qualifier),” Media Decoder (New York Times blog), January 13, 2013. Accessed February 2, 2013, http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/digital-reading-rises-among-children-scholastic-study-shows/

[5] Richard Curtis, “More Kids Read E-Books But What Do They Retain?,” Digital Book World, January 20, 2013. Accessed February 1, 2013, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/more-kids-read-e-books-but-what-do-they-retain/

[6] Lisa Guernsey, Michael Levine, Cynthia Chiong and Maggie Severns, “Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West: Empowering Parents and Educators,” Joan Ganz Cooney Center, pg. 2. Accessed January 30, 2013, http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/GLR_TechnologyGuide_final.pdf

[7] Ibid., pg. 2, 8-9, 15-16, 21.

[8] KJ Dell‘Antonia, “Why Books Are Better Than e-Books for Children,” Motherlode, (New York Times blog), December 28, 2011. Accessed February 2, 2013, http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/28/why-books-are-better-than-e-books-for-children/

[9] Andrea Prupas, “There’s a special app for that – Part 7: Apps that support literacy instruction,” inov8, March 28, 2011. Accessed January 31, 2013, http://www.inov8-ed.com/2011/03/theres-a-special-app-for-that-part-7-apps-that-support-literacy-instruction/

[10] Daniel Donahoo, “Can Children’s E-Books Provide ‘A Quiet Bedtime Read’?,” Wired Magazine, March 19, 2012. Accessed February 1, 2013, http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2012/03/a-quiet-read/

[11] Ibid.

[12] Carolina Nugent, “8 Features Found in the BEST Educational Apps for Kids,” KinderTown (blog), July 12, 2012. Accessed January 31, 2013, http://www.kindertown.com/8-features-found-in-the-best-educational-apps-for-kids/

[13] Daniel Donahoo, “Making Sense of Digital Books for Kids – Part 1,” Wired Magazine, October 7, 2011. Accessed January 31, 2012, http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/10/making-sense-of-digital-books-for-kids-part-1/

[14] Daniel Donahoo, “GeekDad Opinion: The Future of Children’s eBooks,” Wired Magazine, February 14, 2011. Accessed January 30, 2013, http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/02/geekdad-opinion-the-future-of-childrens-ebooks/

[15] Daniel Donahoo, “2011: Second Wave of Children’s Mobile Apps Is Coming,” Wired Magazine, January 24, 2011. Accessed January 30, 2013, http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/01/2011-the-second-wave-of-childrens-mobile-apps-is-coming/

[16] Daniel Donahoo, “PeaPod Labs Apps – Media Literacy for Preschoolers,” Wired Magazine, February 7, 2011. Accessed February 1, 2013, http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/02/peapod-labs-apps-media-literacy-for-preschoolers/

[17] Michel Kripalani, as cited in “Bringing Children’s Books Alive as Apps,” Daniel Donahoo, Wired Magazine, November 2, 2010. Accessed January 31, 2013, http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2010/11/bringing-childrens-books-alive-as-apps/

[18] Daniel Donahoo, “Bringing Children’s Books Alive as Apps,” Wired Magazine, November 2, 2010. Accessed January 31, 2013, http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2010/11/bringing-childrens-books-alive-as-apps/

[19] Daniel Donahoo, “Toontastic: New Cartoon Creation and Storytelling App is the Perfect Imagination Tool,” Wired Magazine, January 18, 2011. Accessed January 30, 2103, http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/01/toontastic-new-cartoon-creation-and-storytelling-app-is-the-perfect-imagination-tool/


  1. Great paper Lee! I have to admit, before I first started reading, I was on the fence when it came to apps for children (although, I have a slight bias—my little cousin prefers to play with my iPhone over playing with me, so I’m slightly sour about the whole thing). However, you’ve convinced me!

    I think publishers and app developers have to know their audiences. I don’t think that apps have to be separated into two categories, and that they can either be educational or entertaining, I think they have to have some elements of both to be successful. Television’s main purpose is entertainment, however some shows have been able to prove that they can have some educational merit. Sesame Street was so popular because its producers tested their episodes on children to make sure that the content held their attention. Publishers have to do the same thing. Kids won’t be interested if the app is boring, and parents won’t be interested if the app has no educational value. I think an app has the potential to be widely popular and adopted by many, if enough research and development is put into it.

    Also, if you think about it, educational apps are not much different than the educational programs we used on the class computers in grade school (except for the advancements in technology and overall superior quality of the programs). But just how we were all allotted computer-time, it only makes sense to allot children tablet-time. Like you said, apps are supplementary. Just as we still needed teachers and parents to teach us, children will still need them as well.

    I also think there is something to be said about apps that give children an outlet for independent exploration and development. Not all children learn the same way, so letting them use and experiment with different teaching platforms gives them opportunities that were not available before. Children might find a platform that really works for them and it may help them learn more than traditional teaching methods would teach them. I don’t think any platform should be overlooked.

    Besides, kids are eventually going to be exposed to the wonderful world of technology—there’s no point sheltering them from it.

    Thanks for a great read!

  2. Great paper Lee. A couple of standout points for me:
    1. Know your audience: Develop for the age group, test. As Laura mentions, Sesame Street was so successful because of their focus groups. They’ve carried that through to their apps and ebooks. A worthwhile publisher to explore.

    2. Develop for the age group: Bells and whistles can be fun but they should be age appropriate. Little kids can’t do certain things, or don’t understand the interface in the same way older kids do. I think publishers sometimes get exciting adding the feature without remembering the skill set of their reader.

    3. Not everything needs to be educational, and different kids learn in different ways. Some of the most fun things we did in school were the best learning opportunities so it doesn’t have to be 100% granola to be educational. At the same time, I agree that if you say it’s educational, make sure there is some basis for that.


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