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Apps to Fill the Hours

With school vacation week approaching, a guide for families to make the best use of their digital time

December 15, 2014
Holiday apps

For families with younger children, school vacation can be a time of joy and bonding. It can also be an incredibly long week of trying to fill the passing hours with activities that will hold the attention of kids and parents alike.

To help channel this time in a productive manner, the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) has released a list of free and low-cost apps and online opportunities in anticipation of the upcoming holidays. With selections that include English- and Spanish-language eBooks, phonics games, book and art creators, and even a tour of the renowned dinosaur exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, a world of educational exploration is just a click or two away.

With all suggestions carefully hand-picked by Julie M. Wood and Nicole Ponsford — authors of TechnoTeaching: Taking Practice to the Next Level in a Digital World and edtech consultants — the criteria for selection included age-appropriate choices that would be fun and engaging for preschool- to middle school-age children.

“We’re trying to make playing and learning together something that is easy and accessible,” says HFRP Founder and Director Heather Weiss. “We also want to have families supporting the productive use of digital media by children.” The joint engagement over an app, says Weiss, “is fun as well as a powerful learning experience and tool, just as watching and having a conversation about Sesame Street and joint engagement with reading are.”

With all of the selections falling into the free or low-cost category with options for all digital platforms — from androids to iPhones to tablets — Wood says this type of joint activity can easily translate to supported learning.

“When thinking about education technology, my preference is to use open-ended tools,” says Wood, meaning apps and games that place children in the driver’s seat with plenty of room for creative exploration. “We want children to control the activity versus it controlling them.”

For interested families, HFRP has provided four simple rules to guide digital media selections:

  1. Is the activity engaging to the child?
  2. Does the activity encourage rich exploration?
  3. Does the activity stimulate language development?
  4. Does the activity offer children a new way of experiencing the world?

“In many cases, the adults will learn from the kids,” says Weiss. “Hopefully we are creating a pathway that promotes playing and learning together.”

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