Great Apps for Young Learners

Page Lennig, Director of Technology
Tim Hebda, Teacher of Grades 4-5

Parents often ask us “Are there really any ‘good’ apps for children?” This is often followed by “Why do we use electronic devices and apps in our classrooms?” We find that the right apps and technology can be great learning tools. They can help students develop coherent and compelling stories and share them through drawings, paintings, dictation, recordings, songwriting, and engineering projects. We know that telling a story is more than creating a narrative—it is learning how to put things in a logical sequence. In other words, making stories is a powerful way of learning how to think.

The right applications and technology can also foster the 4 C’s that are critical to success in and out of the classroom: Creativity, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Collaboration. Used the right way, technology can engage and educate young learners in each of these critical areas.

Most parents are familiar with apps like Drawing Pad, which allow kids to explore different art mediums using virtual pencils, markers, crayons, and even watercolors. Or there’s Google Earth, in which kids can “fly” down the Amazon, “climb” Mount Everest, or photograph the Coliseum in Rome.

Based on our experience in the classroom, here are a few of our favorite apps that do much more than entertain:

iMovie (ages 5 and up)

The iMovie app on the iPad comes with a trailer template that is particularly suitable for younger learners. The template guides them through every step of creating a video. It includes a library of images, video, and music that students can use to customize their creation. Once they get the hang of making a trailer, students can move on to making their own movies—complete with their own music, captions, and special effects.

PuppetPals (Ages 3 through 9)

This is the perfect app for young storytellers. Students can act out their stories with animated puppets, or better yet, create their own animated characters and record a story in their own voice.

Lightbot and Cargo-bot (6 years and up) and Scratch (10 years and up)

These apps all promote critical thinking and problem solving while building a basic understanding of computer coding. Simply put, coding provides the instructions that computers follow. Lightbot and Cargo-bot provide an opportunity, through a game-based platform, for students to create a set of commands that a robot will follow. Students revise their commands again and again until they succeed.

Scratch is slightly more sophisticated. It operates by linking together puzzle pieces to create commands. Once the script has been created, a “sprite” will execute the commands. Again, students have the opportunity to test their work and revise as needed. This app is particularly good for budding engineers, illustrators, and programmers.

Minecraft (ages 8 and up)

Minecraft is an online game that many young students look forward to playing the minute school is out, but it’s also a powerful tool for collaboration, creation, and problem solving. Minecraft is an open sandbox platform, which means that anybody can build anything (using virtual 3-D blocks), rip it apart, and build it again. Unlike Legos or real blocks, the building blocks of Minecraft have realistic properties, so the things you build have to obey real physical laws, such as motion and gravity, in order to work. If you’re building a roller coaster, for example, and you don’t provide your car with enough downward distance, it will not make it up the next hill.

We’ve used Minecraft, in “creative mode,” to build animal food webs and strands of DNA, and to re-create the Oregon Trail. Minecraft allows students to collaborate in a shared virtual world and to refine their work easily. With Minecraft, students can build, revise, reevaluate, and rebuild. In the end, we find their retention of material is noticeably greater.

Explain Everything (Ages 6 and up)

Just as the title says, this app allows students to “explain everything.” It allows students to create their own content using images, text, and voice. It is the perfect app to help students document (and store) their own learning. They can use it to explain (and remember) how they solved a tough math problem, show the results of a science experiment, build an exciting presentation, or peer edit written work. The scenarios are endless with this app.

Montessori Crosswords (Kindergarten-Grade 3)

This app is geared for the beginning speller (in kindergarten through third grade). Montessori Crosswords presents students with small crossword puzzles with three-, four-, and five-letter words. Games can also be set to practice on certain vowel or letter sounds. This app directly supports skill-building.

Teach Me (Kindergarten-Grade 1 )

The Teach Me series is another great skill-building app. Young learners are presented with math, letter formation, and spelling challenges through engaging and interactive scenarios. Students are rewarded with “coins” that they can use to “buy” goldfish and supplies for their fish bowls. Students seem to enjoy acquiring new skills as much, if not more, than amassing new coins.

Marble Math Junior (Kindergarten-Grade 3) and Marble Math (Grades 3-5)

This is our skill-building math app of choice. In both versions of Marble Math, students solve math problems by dragging or rolling a marble through a series of mazes, selecting the right numbers as they go. For instance, students will be asked to sort a series of fractions (which are inside the maze) from smallest to largest. As they “win” the game, students move from one level of difficulty to the next. Math concepts covered in this app include number sense, basic operations (addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication), fractions, sequencing, and currency.