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Young children’s use of apps


Tuesday 10 March 2020

Increasingly, children are seen using wi-fi enabled devices out and about, on public transport, in cafes or restaurants and in their own homes. On average, children under five are using tablets and other screen media for up to 2.5 hours per day (Australian Child Health Poll, 2017; Rideout, 2017; Marsh et al., 2015). Many children have access to apps in their own home on a regular basis via tablets or smart phones. With the sheer volume of apps available on the market it can be hard to discern which are beneficial for young children. 

There is a huge variety in the quality of apps on offer.  While some can be used to foster children’s play and creativity (Marsh et al., 2018) many have a narrow focus and provide limited opportunities for the child to be creative, explore, extend their language and understanding or use their problem-solving skills. Apps that focus on a single learning outcome, for example learning colours or shape, use drill and practice techniques unsuitable for young children. When evaluating apps, look for those that are non-subject specific and more focused on creativity, innovation, and problem solving (Harwood, 2014).

According to High Scope (2018) a good app should mix entertainment and educational value and put the child in control. When evaluating apps to ensure they are a good fit for young children, work through the following steps (adapted from Siraj-Blatchford & Siraj-Blatchford, 2003)

  1. Use the app yourself first and explore its features. Decide whether it has any possible learning opportunities, however broad. Passive use of screens has been linked to many negative outcomes for children so ensure apps are engaging and have some benefit.
  2. Consider if the app encourages collaboration. Can two or three people work together to use it? Does it encourage discussion or debate?
  3. Reflect on whether the app allows the child to be in control? Children quickly become bored with apps that use closed problem-solving and one outcome solutions. Instead try to find apps that nurture holistic development rather than focusing on directive teaching.
  4. Choose apps that have intuitive features, are easy to use and have a clear focus /function. Otherwise children may become frustrated.
  5. Avoid applications containing marketing to children, violence, or gender or cultural stereotyping.
  6. Be aware of screen times. The use of apps are not appropriate for children under two and for children from 2-6 years screen time should be limited to 20 minute periods (never in the hour before bedtime).
Apps such as Keezy (iOS, with an android version coming soon), Pablo (iOS), YouDoodle (iOS and android), Brian Eno’s Bloom app (iOS and android), and iMotion (iOS) encourage creativity and collaboration and are ideal for supporting group projects in early childhood settings. Keezy, for example, allows children to record sounds in their environment, store them using colour-coded tiles and create songs by layering and arranging these recordings. It is easy to use with minor support from adults, can encourage identity and belonging, provide support for EAL learners and allow children to explore and create.

There are wonderful apps on the market and hopefully the steps outlined above will help you to identify good quality apps to introduce to young children.   



Sandra O’Neill is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education in DCU. Prior to taking on this role she worked for a number of voluntary and government organisations including the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, An Cosán, Preparing for Life and Sophia Housing Association. Research interests include the use of technology as a pedagogical tool in EC settings, Early Childhood Mathematics and Children’s Rights.



Harwood, D. (2014). The Digital World and Young Children. Childlinks, 3 (2014), 3-8.

High Scope (2018). Eight Noteworthy ECE Apps.  The Active learner, HighScope’s Journal for Early Educators. Spring 2018, 16-17.

Marsh, J., Plowman, L., Yamada-Rice, D., Bishop, J., Lahmar, J. & Scott, F. (2018). Play and creativity in young children’s use of apps. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49 (5), 870–882

Marsh, J., Plowman, L., Yamada-Rice, D., Bishop, J.C., Lahmar, J., Scott, F., Davenport, A., Davis, S., French, K., Piras, M., Thornhill, S., Robinson, P. and Winter, P. (2015). Exploring Play and Creativity in Pre-Schoolers’ Use of Apps: Final Project Report. Accessed here.

Siraj-Blatchford, I. & Siraj-Blatchford, J. (2003) More than computers: information and communication technology in the early years. British Association for Early Childhood Education (Early Education), London. 

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