When you want to buy a book for your kid, you might get a recommendation, flip through it, or look up the author online. Choosing an app is a lot trickier: Sure, you can watch a demo video and read iTunes reviews, but there's no way to get the full experience until you've already paid for and downloaded it.
And while each app might not be a big investment, no one wants to waste money or spend kids' limited screen time on low-quality content. To make good choices about the apps you download for your preschooler, use these criteria before you buy, and check out our list of preschool apps worth the money for more recommendations.
It's easy to use and age-appropriate. The last thing you want is for your little one to get frustrated or scared out of the gate, so make sure the app is really made for preschoolers. Look for:
- Little-kid content with no scary, violent, or sexy stuff
- Big buttons to tap
- Simple graphics
- Visual cues and read-to-me instructions
- Limited in-app purchases. To make your life easier, it's best to avoid apps with lots of opportunities to buy more content or items within the game.
- The ability for kids to play independently (but it's good to play with them anyway!)
It introduces school and soft skills. Using screens just for kicks now and then is fine, but it's easy to find preschool apps that combine fun and education, so why not maximize learning potential? Look for:
- School-readiness skills, such as letters, numbers, and patterns
- Social-emotional skills, including managing feelings, sharing, and problem-solving
- Clear learning goals with a description of the things kids can learn (with no unsubstantiated claims)
- Input from users and educators (bonus points for additional resources for parents)
It builds on kids' interests. Finding interactive experiences that tie into something your kid already loves can build a bridge between their offscreen and on-screen lives. Look for:
- Subjects they love already and new topics to stretch interests
- Cool experiences that can't be had offscreen
It's gender-neutral. Even though boys and girls are often drawn to particular activities, characters, and colors, apps designed just for girls or boys can be limiting. Look for:
- Characters that resist stereotypes (female farmers, male nurses)
- A variety of colors (not just Barbie pink or "boy" blue)
- Subjects that appeal to most kids (instead of dolls and cars, dinosaurs, space, and weather, for example)
Privacy and safety. Though most apps comply with the Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), it's still a good idea to make sure the app isn't asking for a kid's personal information, storing sensitive data, or allowing contact with strangers. Look for:
- An easy start, without any sign-up
- No advertising, or very limited, kid-friendly commercials
- Safe social features. If there are any options to communicate with others (pretty rare in preschool apps), make sure it's open to approved family and friends only.
There are other opinions. Though many apps have fake reviews, preschool app reviews tend to be on the up and up. Look for:
- Reviews that share specific strengths of the app
- Unbiased expert endorsements
- Hand-picked recommendations from objective sources such as Common Sense Media