A guide to introducing your toddler to early learning apps

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  • Children today are growing up in a digital age and parents often struggle to get their children away from their gadgets
  • However, experts say there is a way around this and its through learning apps
  • We speak to experts about children and their use of technology and list apps parents can consider for their children's early learning.

Children today are growing up in the digital age. They regard technology a constant companion and are glued to their screens as they watch videos and photos from various online platforms. The good news is that you can actually incorporate technology into your child’s world in a safe and educational way.

Parents the world over know the battle of wrestling a cellphone or tablet away from their young children’s hands, but the good news is that you can let them have tech fun – guilt free!

New research shows that educational apps can be helpful in supporting early learning. While this doesn’t mean that you give free rein to your kids to access anything they like, the results are promising. A study by researchers at Florida International University’s (FIU) Centre for Children and Families found that guided screen time can be beneficial for toddlers.

Their findings, which were released in December 2019, reviewed 35 studies from all over the world and included nearly5000 children under the age of six playing with interactive apps. The study also measured the children’s academic, cognitive and social-emotional skill outcomes.

Shayl Griffith, lead author and postdoctoral fellow at the FIU’s Centre for Children and Families, said: “This is the first study to review research findings examining young children’s learning from interactive educational apps. These findings are important because they suggest that interactive apps may be a useful and accessible tool to support early academic development.”

The study found strong evidence for a learning benefit in apps targeting early maths skills, followed by early language and literacy skills. It was found that these apps help with letter knowledge, phonological awareness, letter writing and vocabulary.

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Locally, Michelle Lissoos, the director of Think Ahead Education Solutions, agrees that there are benefits associated with early learning apps. She says: “We cannot turn back the clock. The digital age has reached early childhood and the use of touch screens by young children is common. If the balance is correct, the tasks are clearly understood and applications are chosen carefully, early learning apps will contribute to the child’s engagement and learning. It really is about balance and choice of app. For example, apps that encourage reading, engagement, literacy or the possibility for creativity are beneficial.”

However, researchers further explained that more research on educational apps is needed to clarify what app features and content may be best to support learning. “The integration of learning apps into children’s lives at home and at school has outpaced the research needed to provide comprehensive recommendations for their use,” said co-author Daniel Bagner, FIU professor of psychology and director of the Early Childhood Behaviour Lab at the Centre for Children and Families.

“Continued research in this area will be critical to inform the debate around young children’s screen time, as clinicians and researchers try to strike a balance between taking advantage of the potential benefits of new technology while also encouraging limits on screen time.”

Does it work?

Desiree Khumalo, a mom of two, swears by the reading app she used with her son during lockdown last year. “I started using Reading Eggs with my five-year-old son and it’s been wonderful. He has learnt so much and he is now reading fluently. I’ve noticed a marked improvement in his attention span as well as in his fine motor and cognitive capabilities. It’s been a fun journey that we’ve taken together. I was also lucky that my older son, who is 13, could also step in and do the programme with his brother. I found that my little one worked best when he played on the app with someone watching, as he was more focused and even enjoyed showing off a little. I’ve also enjoyed the extra time spent with him and watching him progress,” says Khumalo.

According to Griffith’s research with the FIU, children learn best when watching TV with their parents – and parental behaviours while co-using apps have been linked to positive engagements with, and great benefits for, children. The study recommends that parents be involved while their child engages in screen time. It also advises parents to replace typical screen time, like watching cartoons, with interactive educational apps that may help promote early skills in their child.

 Ilse Kilian-Ross, who started Amazing K–a specialised therapy and remedial facility for children with autism, ADHD, speech and social development issues in Johannesburg – believes strongly in the power of early learning apps. Kilian-Ross says: “We love and strongly support the use of app-based technology, so much so that we’ve installed Apple TV technology in our classrooms– because the power of technology from an app-based learning perspective is incredible. When it comes to early childhood development, children are very visual and tactile learners. So, things that they can see and touch become profoundly important for them and even more so for children on the autism spectrum.”

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Killian-Ross, who oversees has two branches of Amazing K in Johannesburg, started her journey into special education as a parent 15 years ago. This was after her daughter was diagnosed as autistic.

She says: “Early learning apps are great from a skills development point of view, from the learning to the fun stuff, and it can be vital for non-verbal children in terms of communication. We’ve seen first-hand how children can take the skills they’ve gained from apps and transition that into the physical. The autistic child often has such an incredible affinity with the technology – that’s why it makes sense to incorporate technology into their learning process. However, screen time still needs to be monitored and limited.”

Tips for parents

Michelle Lissoos, director of Think Ahead Education Solutions, shares some key tips for parents when it comes to screen time:

- Ensure that there is a purpose for using an app. For young children, apps should not be used just to entertain them or keep them busy.

- It is crucial for parents to monitor how much time their child is spending on these apps. Setting boundaries and limits from the start will play a big part in creating good digital habits.

- Parents also need to role model “screen-time habits” as they need to set the example.

- Don’t just download every app in the App Store. Do your research.Look at the benefits and reviews of the apps to ensure that you are using quality learning materials.Asite like commonsense.org is a great resource to review apps.

- Safety settings are important.

How much screen time?

So, you have decided to allow your little one to access technology, but just how much screen time should they be exposed to? New guidelines released by the World Health Organisation made recommendations with regard to physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under the age of five. This is the first time that the health agency has made these recommendations regarding screen time for children so young.

Children younger than a year-old

Screen time: Infants younger than a year should get no screen time, including watching television.

Sleep: Infants three months old or younger need 14 to 17 hours of quality sleep a day, including naps, while those aged four to 11 months should get 12 to 16 hours of sleep, including naps.

Physical activity: Children need to be physically active several times a day in a variety of ways, such as floor-based play and at least 30 minutes of tummy time.

Children aged 1 to 2

Screen time: Not recommended for one-year-olds, while two-year-olds should be limited to one hour a day.

Sleep: Between 11 and 14 hours a day of sleep, including naps.

Physical activity: They need more physical activity and should get 180 minutes of active play.

Children aged 3 to 4

Screen time: One hour per day.

Sleep: Between 10 to 13 hours of quality sleep each day, which may include a nap.

Physical activity: At least 180 minutes a day in a variety of physical activities. A minimum of 60 minutes should involve moderate-to-intense physical activities that require frequent running or jumping.

Apps to start with

There’s plenty of choice when it comes to early learning apps, but parents need to remember that not all apps are created equal – and what may work for one child may not appeal to another. Downloading a bunch of apps can get expensive, so use a free trial to see how your child reacts to the app before committing.

Here’s a list of apps to try out:

Numeracy apps


Moose Math


Numeracy& literacy app


Literacy apps


Letterland Stories

Reading Eggs


Coding apps

codeSpark Academy


Lightbot: Code Hour

Science app

Science 360

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