I have always loved math, brain busters, puzzles and board games. I think it is because they encourage you to break out of your normal thinking patterns and use your brain in a new and interesting way. They encourage you to play with your brain in the same way you play with your body in sports. I think it is also because my father introduced me to math through a bonding experience using playing cards. It was not introduced as cold information to force into my brain. It was introduced as a tool for fun. As I went through school, my best and worst educational experiences were a direct result of how much I was able to explore, discover and think critically, maybe even creatively. That is what made school fun. The most important things I learned were how to think, not what to think. Teaching your children to enjoy learning and thinking in new ways is a great way to bond and give them a love for learning that will stay with them for a lifetime.
Children as young as 4 1/2 begin to show signs of higher-level thinking skills. Even if I didn’t think higher-level thinking was inherently fun and interesting, I would still make a point of teaching my son thinking skills because he will be able to use them throughout his life, especially for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs of the future. Katharine Stevens, the founder of Teachers for Tomorrow and an expert in early childhood education states the key to children’s long-term success is developing a range of higher-level thinking skills like reasoning, critical thinking and problem-solving. Further, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17.0 percent from 2008 to 2018, compared to 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM occupations and STEM workers earn 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts. According to John Hopkins’ Science Learning Institute, one of the most important skills you can teach a kid to help them excel in STEM is spacial reasoning — how to analyze space and how things move. Studies have found critical thinking, spacial reasoning and other higher-order thinking skills are teachable skills that can be improved.
Spacial reasoning, critical thinking and other higher-level thinking skills can be effectively taught using apps. Research has shown that technology, especially touchscreens, helps kids learn spatial reasoning. In fact, studies have shown computers can help young children develop many higher-order thinking skills like making choices, altering their strategies and using drawings to solve problems. The reason technology is a great way to teach kids thinking skills is because it allows kids to interact and play with complex concepts with minimal instruction and supervision. They get to use their thinking skills to solve and explore a problem themselves, rather than having an adult tell them what to do. And, they get to do it in a way that teaches them that learning and overcoming problems is fun, not a chore.
Many apps market themselves as educational, but they do not all help kids learn equally effectively. Below is a list of apps that challenge kids’ brains (maybe even adult brains). While they are entertaining, they are still consistent with the general guidelines for choosing apps for preschoolers that I discussed in my previous post. Be sure to monitor the amount of time you allow children to use media and make sure they are using the app in the intended way. While I don’t think you need or should stand over a child’s shoulder as they work with these apps, you should be in the same room and discuss the skills used after the app. This is no challenge for me, since my son loves to share his creations and accomplishments with me. Get ready to hear, “Look what I made!” and “Watch this!” with these apps. This stuff is cool.
1. Puzzle Explorer by Nat Geo (FREE)
Solving mazes helps build spatial reasoning, problem solving and logic skills but the learning doesn’t stop there. Children don’t just solve mazes, they create mazes, too. Creating mazes helps their planning, sequencing and strategy skills. They learn terms like “dynamic obstacles” and how to use them. The best part of this app is when my son creates a maze for me to try to solve. It always starts out impossible. He generously removes obstacles to allow me to complete the maze and congratulates me on my hard work. This app was already wonderful without the added benefit of teaching kids about people, places, plants and animals around the world. The app provides a free version, which is entertaining for young kids for quite a while. Once interest wains, you can extend the fun by purchasing the full app. If your kid likes mazes, ThinkRoll is another maze app she might joy. But, Puzzle Explorer stands out because of the ability to create your own maze and learn about the world.
2. Dragon Shapes (FREE)
Tangrams are an ancient Chinese puzzle that consists of 7 flat shapes, which are put together to form shapes. Tangrams are one of the classic tools used by researchers to teach spatial reasoning. In addition to spatial reasoning, tangrams promote early geometry and problem-solving skills. I’ve purchased physical tangrams for my son but he never showed interest in them. I have tried downloading a basic tangram app that did not catch his interest either. This app, however, was immediately fun and engaging. The game begins with a story and each level continues to develop the story. In addition, kids don’t just learn what shapes look like; the app points out qualities of the shapes like the number of sides. Kids also learn about right angles and parallel and perpendicular sides. The app is free to try but you will need to purchase it to enjoy the full version.
3. 3-D Builder (FREE)
This PBS app is made by a company that I trust. I love this particular app because it helps develop spatial reasoning skills and my son is a fan of Cyberchase. Kids will learn how 2-D shapes are folded to make 3-D shapes and visually determine which flat 2-D shapes will make the desired 3-D, shape. That is spacial reasoning at its best. The app goes further by requiring kids to rotate the shapes to the side that looks like the picture in the upper right corner. This teaches kids’ eyes to find matches and helps them prepare for seeing a visual diagram and creating it in the physical world. This app just might help your kid build their little brother or sister’s Ikea crib. Or, maybe not. But, it is definitely educational. The game includes 70 flat 2-D shapes that transform into 40 3-D structures. Cyberchase has another fun app that helps with spacial learning called ShapeQuest. It is fun and teaches kids about angles. But, the 3-D shape building skills in this game make it a slightly more challenging and a more relevant tool for teaching spatial reasoning skills.
4. Code-a-pillar (FREE)
Code-a-pillar is an accessible way to teach preschoolers about coding. Kids must drop arrows and other codes onto the path to guide the caterpillar on the route to its destination. My son and I have had so much fun dancing with this app. I was amazed to see his little mind pick up the concept of coding so quickly. The hardest part for him was to learn which way to turn. The game is really fun because the path gets progressively harder and the game keeps introducing new tricks for the caterpillar to perform. I have not seen or tried the actual code-a-pillar that Fisher Price sells but I look forward to trying it out one day soon. Coding is a skill of the future. Even more, the process of planning and sequencing helps kids learn to plan to reach a goal and exercise problem-solving skills to get there. There were many times when my son did not get it on the first try but he simply reworked the problem and tried again. Fostering that kind of perseverance is reason enough to love this app.
5. Inventioneers (FREE)
Inventioneers is an amazing engineering game to encouraging little tinkerers. It teaches strategic-thinking and problem-solving skills. My son is a natural tinkerer–building things with household items and furniture. This app was the next natural step to complement trips to the Lego Store and Home Depot. I was amazed that he could figure out how to complete these tasks. These challenges take time, but he tries, fails and tries again. He enjoys the challenge and the mystery. The actual goals and tools are cute and often make him giggle. Although the app is made for older kids, my son enjoys it and doesn’t get frustrated by the complexity because the process itself is fun to him. The initial app is free and includes 14 inventions but the full version is $2.99. The free version will entertain younger kids for quite a while. The developer of this app also has a similar app called Pettson’s Inventions and Peg+Cat’s Tree Problem app is also a similar engineering app. This is the most challenging and entertaining of the three.
6. Where’s My Perry ($2.99)
In addition to problem-solving skills, this app teaches about the states of water and the physics of water. Kids must transform water into solid, liquid and gas to solve the puzzle. I played this app before I even saw Phineas and Ferb. Once I saw the show, I loved it. A similar app is called “Sprinkle,” but once my son saw the show associated with this app, this one became his favorite. This is a challenge because it is more than a maze, it is a puzzle.
7. Brain Jump ($2.99)
Brain Jump uses kid-friendly stories and games to teach children the powerful idea that our brains can grow and get stronger if we take on challenges. The app was designed by teachers and neuro-scientists to give children confidence and improved concentration when learning new things. The thing I love most about Brain Jump is that it actually teaches kids about thinking. Meta-cognition is a great thing to teach kids early so they can become aware of how they are using their brains. The game helps build memory and concentration, which are age-appropriate skills for preschoolers and kindergartners. When kids make a mistake, they take one step back and then try again. Although the games are fun and challenging, this is the most explicit learning app. Kids know they are exercising their brains, not just playing a game.