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It's Not "Just An App"

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It's Not "Just An App"

Nancy Weinstein

MyloWrites is pleased to host this guest post written by Nancy Weinstein, founder and CEO of Mindprint Learning. Mindprint Learning is the first ever valid at-home cognitive assessment that provides accompanying plans and strategies for success. With an extensive business background and perspective as both parent and educator, Nancy's mission is to help parents navigate the world of education and technology.

I realize, it’s just an app. In most cases it’s only a few dollars, if that, and perhaps doesn’t necessarily feel worth the time investment of sifting through all those choices on the app store. Sometimes it might feel okay to let your kid pick an app they want. But in most cases, that’s simply not the right way to go.

Taking the extra few minutes to select the right app for your child can make the difference between a successful learning experience and, let’s just say, a very meaningless one. My team of teachers and I offer some simple yet important guidelines that can help ensure that your child’s device time includes both fun and learning…that will keep your child coming back, wanting to learn more.

Start by Defining Your Objectives

Simple enough but very important to be clear in what you want to achieve. Are you hoping for your child to learn something new? Reinforce or practice a skill that he or she might be struggling with? Have a new challenge in an area where he or she excels? There are thousands upon thousands of apps available. Being clear about your goal will make it easier to narrow down your choices.

Know Your Child

Never underestimate how much children will appreciate that you took into consideration their specific strengths, challenges and preferences. If you choose apps that they find boring, too easy, or too hard, children will become reluctant to try your recommendations. But when you put some extra thought into your choices from the get-go, you will earn your child’s trust to willingly try the apps you suggest. (As a mother of two middle schoolers, I am well beyond the days of telling them to “just do it” and expecting them to obediently listen.)

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At Mindprint, our teachers work very hard to spotlight the best apps available. But we also make a point to let adults know which types of learners may or may not be a good fit with a given app. There’s no one size fits all. If you’re not a Mindprint subscriber, consider reading the user reviews in the app store. You can often get a good sense for who has used the app successfully and where they have run into difficulties.

That said, even moms and dads are not mind readers. You can’t possibly predict everything your child will like or do well with. Consider giving your child a few good choices. Maybe pick three or four apps and let them choose the one or two they want to try. Giving choices will demonstrate that you understand their needs, yet respect their opinions. It also fosters their ownership of the learning process and a greater likelihood that the app will be used.

Getting Started

Try the app before your child. Letting children figure out apps on their own can be a great opportunity to develop reasoning skills. But this approach is not appropriate for all apps or all children. Some apps are simply too complicated for children to navigate on their own the first time. Some children struggle without explicit instructions. Mindprint’s reviews will tell you which apps might require your initial support. However, trying an app on your own first is always the best rule of thumb. Then you can offer your child appropriate guidance, and they are less likely to want to give up if navigating the app the first time is confusing.

Adjust settings before your child plays. Many educational apps have settings that you can adjust so the app can grow with your child. You want settings to be a “just right challenge” similar to helping your child select a “right fit” book. Adjust settings based on specific needs including the timer on/off, sound/silent, and the difficulty level. Set your children up for success the first time they play, so they will want to play again. Be careful not to make the settings so easy that the child will think the app is not sufficiently challenging. Starting with the proper settings can make all the difference in your child’s positive experience and ongoing enthusiasm.

Try the free version first. Many apps, especially expensive ones, can be sampled before buying. We recommend taking full advantage of this option. In most cases, if there is both a free and a paid version, it’s likely you will eventually want to buy the app so your child receives the app’s full benefit and avoids distracting ads.

Keep the Experience Positive

Remember that children expect apps to be fun. Many children expect apps on their  home devices to be enjoyable. Educational apps might be more work than fun, but there are plenty of apps that do a great job balancing work and play. Those tend to be the best choices for parents to supplement. Of course, there are times when more hard work is necessary. In those cases, managing your child’s expectations upfront will be key to a successful experience.

Remember, it’s just an app. While it is important to put in the effort to make your child’s experience a good one, we are fortunate to live at a time when there are many, many apps available and they are generally far less expensive than games and workbooks. If you discover that the app is no longer helping your child or providing any enjoyment, move on and find another. There are so many good options that there is no need to stay with one that no longer meets your child’s needs.

My Personal Favorite Tip

I stumbled on this approach accidentally while scouring for good apps for my teachers to evaluate for Mindprint. My personal iPad was littered with apps for my team of teachers. Of course, I also had my kids’ choices like Subway Surf and Candy Crush. To my amazement, I noticed that my kids were playing my educational apps and had, for the most part, abandoned the ones most of their friends were playing. Without any encouragement from me!

So now when my team finds great apps, I just download them on my iPad and let my kids “discover” for themselves. I don’t say a word unless they ask me for help. Among the most pleasant surprises of the apps they play the most are: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s Pocket Law Firm which taught them the Bill of Rights, Who Was? Adventure, an extension of the book series on historical figures and Mathtopia, a combination of math facts and Tetris.

So if you’re willing to share your iPad, download a bunch of interesting apps, don’t say a word, and I’m willing to bet that you, too, will be pleasantly surprised.

App Recommendations for Writers

One of the biggest challenges for student writers is the need to rely on several important cognitive skills simultaneously. Three of the most important skills involved in successful writing are working memory (the ability to mentally juggle information for multi-step tasks), verbal reasoning (inferring from limited information or making connections between multiple ideas), and vocabulary and verbal memory (recalling and accessing word-based information). A weakness in any one of those skills can make writing challenging. So if you want to help your student develop his or her writing skills, consider these winning apps that require no writing at all.

Quandary: This free role playing app helps students improve their understanding of community, governance and decision-making in a “choose your own adventure” format. Good for middle and high school students, it develops skills including, verbal reasoning, working memory, and flexible thinking. 

Mind the Gap!: This app can be challenging but excellent for building inferencing skills, while learning about interesting topics ranging from Louis Armstrong to Cinderella to DNA. The app includes over 500 famous texts. In each round, students are presented with 15 lines of text. They must figure out 30 missing words by inferring the context. Students can pick a topic they care about and develop their vocabulary, working memory, verbal reasoning and verbal memory. Great for middle schoolers to adults. 

The Opposites: One of the keys to great writing is vivid language. This word game centers around a brother and sister who face off with antonyms. As the siblings speak words, the player must tap on the correct antonym pairs before they bubble up to the ceiling. Students have the option to read the definitions and hear the words spoken aloud. The words grow increasingly challenging so it can be good for 7 year olds to adults to improve vocabulary and verbal memory. 

myHomework Student Planner: Okay, this isn’t a writing app, it’s a planner. But remembering your homework is the first step to doing it well. This is an excellent visual planner that easily enables students to input, track and color code classes and assignments. We offer the major caveat that our experts prefer written planners for students with organizational challenges. We find the physical act of writing and checking off assignments to be far more effective. We acknowledge our digital native children might disagree, so try this one. 

Kidspiration Maps: If your teacher hasn’t yet encouraged your child to use a mind map, it’s time to try it. Mind maps can be an excellent way for students to organize their ideas, particularly students who tend to prefer visual materials over words. Kidspiration Maps is one of our favorites for elementary and early middle school. There is an adult version for older students. Quite simply, it is easier to use than most alternative mind mapping tools and has cute graphics.

At Mindprint, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out the simple recipe of what makes a great app.  Unfortunately, it can’t be boiled down to a few key ingredients. That’s why we spend so much time on each app we review. However, if you decide to try to navigate the Wild West of the App Store on your own, make sure you consider these factors from your child’s perspective:

1) Is the content appropriate for me? Is it so easy that it’s boring? Or is it so hard that I don’t even want to try?

2) Is it easy-to-use and navigate to find what I need?

3) Does it look fun?

4) Does it encourage me to want to keep trying? Or does it make me feel bad when I make a mistake?

5) Can I see my progress so I want to keep improving?

If you decide you want more guidance, please visit us at Mindprint Learning. It’s easy to search for apps that meet your child’s specific needs. Or email us ([email protected]) and let us know what you’re looking for. We are always happy to help.