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Learning innovation: Apps for the tiniest of toddlers?

Go Nini by Ele (Fred Rogers)
Go Nini by Ele (Fred Rogers)

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Once upon a time, about fours year ago, apps were something you served before a meal. Today we can barely imagine life without handy digital tools that put a world of information at our fingertips.
 
There are apps for the weather, directions and entertainment, even tools to teach the youngest, down to the tiniest of mobile users. Mobile applications for early childhood learning are one of many exploding spaces, giving rise to a whole generation of children who learn to tap and swipe before they can talk or walk.
 
A recent survey, conducted by Early Childhood Technology Today, reported that 93 percent of children in early childhood settings are using laptops and desktop computers at least five days a week. Another 34 percent use handheld devices and tablets just as frequently, at least five days a week.
 
Asked why they are turning with increasing frequency to digital tools, 80 percent of early childhood educators said that their students “enjoyed it;” another 48 percent said “technology helps children meet the goals of the program.”
 
So what would Fred Rogers, guardian of the sacred psyche of the child, say about this?
 
“Fred would say it’s about content,” says Cathy Droz, director of special projects for the Fred Rogers Company on the South Side, the company that Rogers founded in the Sixties that became Family Communications and produced “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.”
 
“There are a tremendous amount of apps for kids that are child driven, not passive, and encourage creativity and imagination,” says Droz. “Parents need to choose them carefully. They also need to limit their use.”
 
The Fred Rogers Company has produced three apps that were developed for early learning on the PBS Kids website; they are among the best selling apps offered by PBS.  
 
When selecting an app, the best approach starts with the child, says Michael Robb, director of education and research for the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, a different group under the Fred Rogers name, founded at St. Vincent’s College as an academic archive of programs and writings by Fred Rogers.
 
Some children thrive on math games, he says. Others prefer constructing virtual worlds or working with words. There are apps that tackle aspects of STEAM—science, technology, engineering, art and math. Others offer simple assistance with everyday tasks like brushing teeth.
 
“If it is well produced and helps them accomplish a task they might not otherwise be able to accomplish themselves, that’s a good hallmark for an educational game,” says Robb.
 
The ultimate goal of a good app is to bring parent and child together, not to drive them apart by giving them busy work. Parents need to communicate to their child about their digital play. “It gets [children] thinking about their thinking,” adds Robb.
 
The Fred Rogers Center Early Learning Environment (Ele) has a website where early educators, parents and those who care for young children can find high quality digital resources that support early learning from birth to age 5. Pittsburgh-based TrueFit is assisting with two forthcoming apps in Android.
 
With that in mind, here are a handful of high-quality Pittsburgh produced apps recommended by local early childhood educators and developers. Most are free.
 
Play at Home with Daniel Tiger. Designed by Schell Games on the South Side. Daniel Tiger is a musical game based on the animated series by the Fred Roger’s Company as a way to extend its social-emotional curriculum, teaching children skills through play imagination. Children can also make up their own stories as they play with dozens of stickers in Daniel’s house and the neighborhood. For young children two to five.
 
Alien Assignment, available through Ele for ages three to five, is an active scavenger hunt that uses the camera on your smartphone. The game asks children to engage in problem solving to help an alien family, the Gloops, get off the planet. To repair their spacecraft, children work through a series of clues and take pictures that are reviewed with their parents. The experience gets them thinking creatively while solving problems in a silly context.
 
Everyday Grooves, also produced by Ele for one to five years, turns a child’s daily routines into a musical production. Whenever a child transitions into a new activity—whether reading or getting dressed—a song provides a musical prompt that gets everyone singing along to make the transition easier.
 
Go Nini, produced by Ele for children three to five years, helps young children, parents and caregivers understand the importance of healthy food choices and active play. Children help Nini to perform activities through the day by choosing good foods from one of three groups: Go! (anytime foods) Slow! (sometimes foods) and Whoa (occasional foods). The app encourages a dialogue between caregivers and children about healthy food and activity.
 
Out-A-Bout, from Ele for children ages three to five, is an iPhone app that encourages physical play, early literacy and parent-child interaction. Parents and children receive prompts to take still photographs of their child performing activities like running, jumping and climbing. The pictures are uploaded into a story narrative for subsequent viewing together.
 
Zachy the Robot ($2.99) is a series developed by GenevaMars, a company that graduated from Innovation Works’ Alpha Lab. This virtual cartoon app teaches early engineering skills and imparts natural history lessons during gameplay. Zachy embarks on three different missions through three games: Quest for Museum Treasures, The Leaning Tower of Robocity and Taking Pictures With Dinosaurs. Through gameplay, children from three to six learn about engineering and natural history.
 
Name It! was created by Gary Gardiner, Idea Foundry’s manager of entertainment and education initiatives. The app, for high school ages, is a trivia game that challenges players to show what they know about commonly used abbreviations and symbols and the topics they represent in the areas of history, science and health.
 
Lemonade Stand, another creation by Gary Gardiner, teaches children ages three to six about money and work by letting them actually run a virtual lemonade stand. The app was developed through Idea Foundry’s Riveted program.
 
Powers of Minus Ten is a cool companion app developed for the show Scientastic, developed in Pittsburgh by PBS and produced by Planet Earth Television. Middle- and high-school students learn and study the human body by zooming into human bones, studying cells and surrounding organs and watching how they heal.

Taking Pictures with Dinosaurs is another offering from GenevaMars. This fun photo apps plops people into the picture right alongside a Tyrannasaurus Rex, or any number of monster-sized reptiles in an assortment of poses. 

Deb Smit is Innovation Editor of Pop City and a Pittsburgh freelance writer.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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