And why it's important to limit kids' recreational screen even on the best sites
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids should not have more than two hours per day of “recreational” screen time—a recommendation that has opened a vehement debate among scholars and parents alike. What is “recreational” screen time? Does a geography iPad game count? How about PBS kids, which includes some educational games, but also videos of television shows?
There’s no easy way for parents to regulate screen time, either. What do you do when your child is over their time limit and doesn’t want to get off the screen? What if they start off on an educational website and then switch to something recreational? Enforcing screen rules is just another thankless job for parents. As a parent, I needed a way for my children to enjoy good screen time without me watching them constantly.
Here’s my 2015 list of 15 websites and apps that are educational enough that I’lll allow my children to play them for an unlimited time, yet fun enough that my kids want to play them. We now have a family iPad that only has educational content on it, and two computers that have a whitelist internet filter so that my children can only access this content. As long as their homework and chores are done, they can play these games until they’re sick of them. Interestingly, they rarely go over two hours per day.
Duolingo (website and app): Awarded Google’s “Best of the Best” in 2013, Duolingo provides free interactive foreign-language education. It’s simple, user friendly, and never boring. Duolingo is appropriate for ages 5-adult, and is currently available in 21 languages (more coming soon). One independent study on the effectiveness of Duolingo concluded that a person with no knowledge of Spanish would need about 34 hours to cover the material for the first college semester of Spanish.
Our family is learning Spanish through the Duolingo app. We use Apple TV to display the iPad app on our big screen TV, so we can all participate together. Our kids never want to miss it; if I forget they remind me! You can earn digital awards, and your progress is displayed in a graph form after every lesson. You can pay for premium content, but we’ve been using it for about a year and never needed that.
Scratch and Scratch Jr (website and app): Scratch is a free online tool and app designed by MIT to help kids learn programming. Scratch is intended for kids ages 7-adult. (Scratch Jr. is an iPad app designed for ages 5-7.) My 10-year-old has long surpassed me, and my five-year-old is not far behind. The website reads, “Coding is the new literacy! With Scratch Jr, young children can program their own interactive stories and games. In the process, they learn to solve problems, design projects, and express themselves creatively on the computer.”
Kids program their own computer games, art, and applications, and then share them with the rest of the online community, so everyone else gets to try it! You child will get comments from real users about their game, and see how many people viewed their project. It’s well-monitored and I’ve never seen any inappropriate content. Most kids start by just playing other people’s games, and then looking at how they built the program. Before long your kids will be programming, too.
Dragon Box (app): This puzzle-game app is designed to secretly teach algebra to kids ages 5+, although plenty of reviewers find their 4-year-olds love it. Kids move through 200 levels without ever realizing they’re doing math. Using pictures instead of numbers, kids learn basic algebraic concepts, such as making two sides equal. On average, it took 41 minutes and 44 seconds for students to master algebra skills using the DragonBox app at the Washington State Algebra Challenge. The puzzles get trickier as you move through the levels. You’ll find yourself as addicted as your child. There’s another version intended for children ages 12+. ($4.99 in the App Store)
Typing.com (Formerly TypingWeb): Even my kindergartener is learning how to touch type for free at Typing.com. Typing.com offers a comprehensive keyboarding/touch typing course that is appropriate for children age 5 and up. Many schools use this program for their keyboarding courses. It’s free, although there are ads. For $15 you can remove ads and also access a few premium lessons. Even with a free account, your child will learn to type well following their user-friendly curriculum and playing their typing games.
Khan Academy (website and app): Backed by big-name funders including Google, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education, Khan Academy provides "a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere". It’s incredibly easy to use, there are no ads, and it’s appropriate for any school-aged child that knows how to read. Although Khan Academy started as a math-learning site, you can now learn just about anything there. My 10-year-old is learning computer programming and watching a video series called “Crash Course World History.” The Khan platform combines educational videos with practice problems in math, programming, science, test-prep and more. Your child starts with a tutorial and pre-test that designs a customized learning plan just for them. Kids are encouraged with reward “badges” when they complete work. Log in as a parent and start an account for your family. Kids can have individual usernames and passwords that all link to one parent’s email address. Oh, and grown-ups can use Khan Academy too!
IXL (webite and app): Our kids use IXL.com every day to supplement their regular school curriculum. It’s a comprehensive Pre-K through 12 online math program, plus English language arts for grades 2-8. Children earn simple online prize pictures for completing milestones. Each skill adjusts to your child’s level—if you get enough problems right it skips to the end, but if you get some wrong you have to do more. The IXL curriculum is entirely practice problems; there are no videos. Written explanations are given for incorrect answers. Our kids like it because you can skip around and try skills of every type, even those outside of your grade level. I like it because online math offers more visual teaching than any book or parent could ever provide. Your child can do a few sets of problems per day for free, or you can subscribe for $9.99 per month or $79 per year for a family membership.