Research News

Education experts offer 18 apps that make learning fun

Smart phones and tablets are the new way to play.

Everywhere you look, children—from toddlers on up—are engrossed in handheld devices. But parents needn’t see screen time as the enemy. When chosen wisely, apps can help a child learn important skills such as reading, algebra, fractions and even computer coding—all while having fun.

Being actively involved in the selection process is key, as all apps are not created equal, says Georgene Troseth, associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

“The designers of digital products sometimes know very little about child development and learning, and there is almost no regulation,” she says. “Parents should look for high-quality media and devices that are not only fun but enhance a child’s learning and development at the same time.”

Tips for picking a great educational app

How to decide amongst the thousands of apps available? Troseth suggests start with consumer review sites like Common Sense Media, which rate apps from an educational standpoint.

“There are a few things to look for when selecting an app,” says National Science Foundation graduate fellow Colleen Russo, who conducts research with Troseth. “Look for a well-designed interface, so your child won’t get frustrated when they tap or trace imperfectly. Also, the app should be designed to notice if your child keeps getting something wrong, and prompt them to revisit the original lesson.”

  • Be sure the instructions are readily available and clear. They should stay long enough for your child to understand how to play.
  • There should be a parent/teacher section built into the app stating the intended educational gains and the research behind the app.
  • Watch out for free apps, which often display distracting (and sometimes inappropriate) banner ads.
  • Stay involved in the decision-making, not only in choosing the apps, but keeping a close watch on how long a child spends on touch screens.
  • “Apps and tech toys should not act as a replacement for real-world play and experiences with family,” Russo says. “A ‘balanced diet’ of screen time and other activities will promote better development.”

Favorite educational apps

Troseth, Russo and their colleagues selected a few of their favorite apps for a variety of age groups. They do not officially endorse any particular app and advise parents to choose wisely based on their child’s needs.

Watch a video of researcher Colleen Russo talking about four favorite apps.


Endless Alphabet (ages 3 and up)
Kids will have fun learning their ABCs and building vocabulary with the adorable monsters in Endless Alphabet. Each word features an interactive puzzle with talking letters and a short animation illustrating the definition.

Nosy Crow eBooks (ages 3 and up)
Nosy Crow eBooks offer a wide variety of both fiction and nonfiction interactive reading opportunities for children of all ages. Stories include the familiar, such as Cinderella, and original stories like Parker Penguin.

AlphaTots (ages 3 and up)
AlphaTots is a good resource for children just learning the alphabet. The player interacts with letters, like assembling a building for the letter B.

Another Monster at the End of This Book! (ages 3 and up)
This interactive eBook begs players not to turn the page in order to keep Grover and Elmo from running into the monster at the end. Fun tasks are embedded in each page that teach skills like following directions, expressing empathy and resolving conflict.

Elmo Loves ABCs (ages 3 and up)
Players learn the alphabet by tracing letters, watching video clips, coloring, playing hide and seek, working puzzles, singing songs and more.

Learn with Homer (ages 3-6)
A beautiful map on the main page draws the child into the world of reading. Players travel to different locations on the map in order to play games and read stories that promote a variety of reading skills.

Don’t Let The Pigeon Run This App! (ages 5 and up)
Based on the popular book series, children can either listen to a brand new story each time or create their own story by selecting multiple-choice options or speaking into a microphone in a “Mad Libs” format.

Book Creator (ages 8 and up)
Tapping into design skills and creativity, the child chooses images, places text and selects backgrounds for assembling their own book.


Eddy’s Number Party! (age 4)
This counting game asks the player to help make Eddy the Dog’s birthday party special. A fun way to prepare for kindergarten math, the player tracks the number of balloons, dots and dog barks as they create their own party scene.

Gracie and Friends (ages 4 and up)
Gracie and Friends is a series of eight math-focused apps and curricula funded by the National Science Foundation. These apps are focused on important math building blocks and are designed to allow children to progress at their own comfort level.

DragonBox Algebra 5+ (ages 5 and up)
DragonBox is an effective way to sneak algebra into play without labeling the problems as “math.” The player solves for “X” as the player manipulates cards and tries to isolate the DragonBox on one side of the game board.

Slice Fractions (ages 6-8)
Children learn about fractions by slicing through lava and ice as they take an animated wooly mammoth through different levels of the game. The player uses shapes and objects to visualize fractions, an important step in understanding them.

Motion Math: Pizza! (ages 9-11)
Problem-solving and math games are intertwined and part of the fun, as the player is responsible for their own pizzeria, from purchasing ingredients to running the store. The players develop responsibility and decision-making skills as they go.


Kodable (ages 5 and up)
Kodable introduces children to the basics of computer programming through the FuzzFamily, who have crashed their spaceship on Smeeborg. The characters need help navigating the planet’s techno-mazes, so the child creates basic code that gives the Fuzzes instructions to follow.

Move the Turtle (ages 9-11)
In this game, children move a turtle to collect a diamond by coding its location. Players are introduced to basic computer programming terms such as procedures, variables and conditional instructions.


Busy Shapes (age 2)
Based on Piaget’s sensorimotor stage of development, the game starts with a hole and an object. The child drags the object into the hole and then, as if they’ve fallen into another world, a new object and a new hole appear.

Cookie Monster’s Challenge (age 3)
This game encourages a child to develop their non-academic school readiness skills. The player helps Cookie Monster eat all his cookies while working on skills like self-control and following directions.

Beck and Bo (age 3)
This beautifully illustrated game follows a brother and sister through everyday life. Players drag and drop objects and characters to create new scenes. Creativity and logic are employed to understand cause and effect.

Watch a video of researcher Colleen Russo talking about four favorite apps.