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Active, Engaged, Meaningful and Interactive: Putting the “Education” Back in Educational Apps

Little girl using tablet

By Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD

Are you overwhelmed by the host of stimulating digital toys and games intricately designed to build better brains for the new world order?   As the recent Joan Ganz Coony report noted, there are so many “educational” e-products that it is hard to know which are truly educational and which are just borrowing the “educational” adjective as an add-on label for their latest product. Indeed, the batch of holiday offerings last year even saw the 2-in-1 iPotty from CTA Digital that provided “a comfortable and fun place to learn” while you are potty training your toddler. Oh my.

Hard to believe that the iPad – now so ubiquitous—was only introduced in 2010. Already a third of us own the device. By May of last year, over 775,000 apps had been developed for the iPad and over 20,000 of them were called “educational.” No wonder we are overwhelmed. How are we to sift through all of those apps to know which might or might not be good for our kids? Luckily, a mountain of evidence from the newly amalgamated interdisciplinary field called the science of learning can give us some guideposts.

Let’s start with a helpful tweet in just 65 characters: Humans learn best in active, engaged, meaningful and interactive contexts. Whether the platform is digital or traditional, electronic or paper, the results are the same.

Indeed, some of our own lab research illustrates these principles in the context of playful learning and digital media and provides a way for parents and designers to evaluate and design new learning platforms for children.

Children learn in active environments as illustrated by our experiments with preschool geometry. Learning the names and properties of the shapes – like “triangle” and “square” – are important for success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and are part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. With Dr. Kelly Fisher from Johns Hopkins University and colleague Dr. Nora Newcombe from Temple University, we compared active, playful learning about the shapes with more passive, didactic instruction. In the active case, children had to discover that all triangles – say big and small, fat and thin, upright and slanted — have three sides and three angles. In the passive case, we told the children that triangles had three sides and three angles. Then we asked all the kids to find the REAL triangles. If the point was at the top and it was a beautiful well-drawn isosceles triangle, both groups did well. But the active discover-it-yourself children outperformed the others when that triangle was not as typical. They also did better with the harder shapes like hexagons.

Children learn when they are engaged. Several recent findings suggesting that when the engagement is disrupted (a common problem in television and in digital books), children do not learn. Here Dr. Julia Parish Morris, now at the University of Pennsylvania led the team by having parents read traditional or electronic books with their 3-year-olds. What did we find? When the books are riddled with distracting games that don’t move the storyline forward, children don’t get as much from the book they are reading. No surprise there. Only 2 percent of us can effectively multitask (of course, we all think we fit into that group) and so, when we take our mind off the storyline, we don’t fully process the plot. Other research in our field noted similar findings when the music does not “go with” the story in a television show and even when we spend more time with the pop-up in the pop-up books than with the plot.

Children thrive in meaningful contexts as illustrated by several studies in progress on playful learning in low-income environments. They show that adult-supported play bolsters vocabulary development and mathematical learning. In our language learning tasks – conducted with Dr. David Dickinson from Vanderbilt University, 5-year-olds get to play with story-relevant figurines after they hear a book. They learn the words better when we reinforce the story through meaningful play. And with Dr. Brian Verdine from the University of Delaware, we have investigated advances in mathematics that can come from rotating and copying block designs. Yep – those meaningful playful exchanges in early childhood build real learning capital. They are educational at their core.

Finally, children learn best in social contexts – a finding that we have noted again and again in the research community. In one experiment led by Dr. Sarah Roseberry from the University of Washington, we compared less social television learning to more interactive Skype and live learning where a key ingredient was having that back-and-forth conversation that is contingent on what the child says. Where do the kids learn words best? In the live and Skype conditions. And this has been found repeatedly in the scientific literature.

The bottom line is that we know what to do to ensure high quality educational materials for young children. We simply need to weed the proliferating garden of digital choices. We need to use the science of learning as we adopt evidence –based guidelines on what counts as educational. It’s not educational just because we say so or because we put an upright triangle in a digital sorting task. It’s educational if it really helps children learn. The potential of digital media for learning is enormous if we do it right. And we can do it right. We simply need to design and look for apps that are “active, engaging, meaningful and interactive.”


Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K, Newcombe, N & Golinkoff, R.M. (2013) Taking shape: Supporting preschoolers’ acquisition of geometric knowledge. Child Development, 1872-1878.

Parish-Morris, J., Mahajan, N., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Collins, M. (2013). Once upon a time: Preschoolers and Storybook Reading in the Electronic Era. Mind, Brain & Education,7(3), 200-211

Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Parish-Morris, J. & Golinkoff, R.M. (2009) Live action: Can young children learn verbs from video? Child Development. 80, 1360-1375


Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, is the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University where she serves as Director of the Infant Language Laboratory. Her research in the areas of early language development and infant cognition has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and Human Development, and the Institute of Education Sciences resulting in 11 books and over 200 publications. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society and served as the Associate Editor of Child Development.  Kathy has a strong interest in bridging the gap between research and application. To that end, served as an investigator on the NICHD Study of Early Child Care, is on the Advisory Board of the Fred Rogers Center, Jumpstart and Disney Junior and is an invited blogger for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, holds the H. Rodney Sharp Chair in the School of Education at the University of Delaware and is also a member of the Departments of Psychology and Linguistics. An author of twelve books and numerous professional articles, she founded and directs the Infant Language Project, whose goal it is to understand how children tackle the amazing feat of learning language. The recipient of a prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and a James McKeen Cattell Sabbatical award

An earlier version of this blog post appeared on Huffington Post.

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