3 Ways Parents Can Help Young Kids Get the Most Out of Apps

Are you a "pass-back" parent? We've all been there! Here are some tips for engaging with young kids as they play.

Jennie Ito, Ph.D.
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Jennie Ito, Ph.D., Toca Magazine Guest Writer
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Editor’s note: Toca Boca’s sister studio, Sago Sago, makes apps for toddlers and preschoolers that build on kids’ natural sense of curiosity, experimentation and self-expression. Play consultant Jennie Ito shares her tips especially for parents of toddlers and preschoolers.

Recently I attended the Come Out and Play Festival in San Francisco with my husband and two young kids. After we played for a few hours, we headed out for lunch together in the city. When we sat down at the restaurant, I couldn’t help but notice the number of kids sitting quietly beside their parents, mobile devices in hand, while their parents conversed and enjoyed their meals. In fact, as I looked around, I discovered that my children were the only two kids in the entire restaurant without a device in their hands (and the only two kids not sitting quietly I might add)!

I guess this shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, as the practice of giving, or “passing back,” a device to kids to entertain them so that parents can engage in other activities has become more prevalent across all families (Chiong & Shuler, 2010). And I get it, I’m a mom. I know that there are times when parents need a break or need something to distract or entertain their child.

But it got me thinking about Lisa Guernsey’s recommendations on when and how to use screen media with young children. Her research tells us that it’s not enough to focus on the amount of time children are interacting with digital media, and that instead, we need to consider what she refers to as the three C’s —Content, Context and the Child.

Context is as important as content

As a play and toy consultant, my job is to help parents figure out the first C, and find the best, developmentally appropriate digital content for children. And by looking around the restaurant at all the little eyes locked on the screens, it is safe to assume that parents are taking at least part of the third C into account — and tuning into the games and shows that are of interest to their child. But what about the second C — context?

What takes place around the viewing or playing of an app is as important as content. When we focus on context, we are aware of what is happening before, during and after kids are playing with an app and take the time to talk with kids about what they’ve seen.

It also means that we play apps together. Many experts believe that the educational value of media is enhanced when kids and parents use media together (Takeuchi & Stevens, 2011). And research tells us that kids learn best in the context of interactions and relationships with tuned-in, caring and responsive adults (Donohue, 2015). So if playing apps together leads to more learning, how can we as parents make screen time “family time” instead of “just me time”?

What takes place around the viewing or playing of an app is as important as content.

Tips and resources for using apps together

A recent guide by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center highlights the importance of context and helps families turn screen time into family time by using apps together. The guide encourages parents to think of apps as tools that can help families play and learn together, and provides parents with tips and resources. While the guide provides a wonderful overview, here are a few more ways to use apps together:

  • 1. Play Games Together

sago_mini_soundThere are many ways for families to play games together. It can be as simple as asking your child to show you how to play one of her favorite games and then take turns playing while you talk about the game. When I play games with my kids, I like to look for apps that allow more than one player to play at a time. Two of our family favorites are Sago Mini Sound Box and Sago Mini Friends. With these apps, multiple players can interact on the screen at the same time so that everyone can play together, as opposed to one person controlling the app while the other watches. Not only do I play these apps with my kids, they love to play them with each other as well.

sago_mini_babiesAnother thing I look for when I am choosing apps to play together are apps that encourage exploration and discovery, such as Sago Mini Babies and Sago Mini Road Trip. Although these apps tend to be controlled by one player, parents and children can enjoy the shared experience of each discovery and make up stories as they explore together.

  • 2. Collaborate

doodlecastA great way to play apps together as a family is to collaborate on creative projects. With Sago Mini Doodlecast, parents and kids can take turns drawing, or create stories and art together. It is also a great way to connect with distant family by sharing your joint creations with them. 

  • 3. Extend Play Beyond the Screen

Games that extend play beyond the screen also encourage kids and parents to play together. One of my favorite Toca Boca apps, Toca Tea Party, is a great example of a game that allows you and your child to engage in imaginative play together —and takes that experience beyond the screen, and into the physical world.

Sesame Street also has an app called Sesame Play that is specifically designed to get parents and kids playing together at home, away from home or while traveling. This unique app helps parents lead games offline, like Cookie Monster Tag, for any number of kids and adults in all kinds of settings.

So instead of “passing back” our devices, let’s start “passing back and forth”!

Jennie Ito, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist and founder of The Play Kitchen. She currently works as a Family Content Quality Consultant for Google Play Families.

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