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How to Download Kids' Apps Smarter (and Cheaper)

Learn how to shop and download wisely with these tips on everything from deciding whether an app is right for your kid to determining an app's true cost.

Maybe you're about to wait in a soul-crushing line at the DMV with your 4-year-old. Maybe your kid is begging to use the iPad as if life depended on it. Or maybe there are particular skills and topics you want your kid to explore through a digital device. Whatever your digital dilemma, you want app choices that are safe, engaging, and potentially educational.

With million of apps in the App Store and Google Play Store, it can be tough to choose. Even in the Kids category, there are tons of options, and some are definitely better than others. Just because an app has a cute character and involves the ABCs or 123s doesn't mean it's quality. These tips can lead you to an app that not only will pass the time but also will be time -- and money -- well spent.

Is your kid ready? Keep your kid's age and development in mind. The App Store might say 4+, but those age ratings don't tell the whole story. For example, though the game might be free of violence and other big-kid content, the controls might be too tricky for little hands. Read the description, check out Common Sense's reviews, look at the screenshots, and see if the app fits your kid's abilities and temperament.

What does your kid love? Find a subject or activity your kid likes. From trucks to drawing, bugs to dolls, music to animals, there are apps for every interest. Don't be afraid to stretch your kid, but do make sure there's something familiar that'll hook her imagination.

How do your kids play? The littlest players need more open-ended experiences about exploration and creativity. Some older kids like linear games with clear rules and ways to win while others need an exciting story or puzzle to get them going. No matter the play pattern, an app should offer something offscreen play can't (check out Tinybop apps as a good example), so choose apps that really take advantage of the screen. Then, tie their on-screen experiences to the real world.

What will they learn? Not every game tagged as "educational" in the App Store has solid learning potential. Likewise, kids can learn from plenty of apps in other categories. So, shop around. Both types can get your kid thinking and being creative, depending on the overall quality. However, if you're on the hunt for an app that deals with traditional education topics, first decide which topics or skills your kid is ready for. Then look for education experts on the development team, see if there are clear learning goals, and check to make sure there aren't lots of distractions in the app. Most importantly, use the app with your kid, since research shows that kids learn best when parents are playing along and talking through an app's content. Also, beware big claims about skills and knowledge your kid supposedly will gain; unless there's independent research proving what kids learn from an app, those promises likely are empty.

Is the app safe, and will it collect personal information? Read the privacy policy and check your device's settings. Some kids' apps collect no personal information, have no ads, and have simple privacy policies that don't require a lawyer to understand. Others have banner ads, in-app purchases, and links to social networks. The most important thing is to know what you're getting and adjust the app's and your device's settings to control what you can.

Is it free or freemium? Determine the true cost before buying. Some apps, such as Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame, are completely free; that app has no in-app purchases, ads, or subscription. Other apps are initially free but require payment to unlock more levels. Others nickel-and-dime you from the get-go. Investigate the fee structure before you download. Also, though reputable sources like PBS Kids put out some exceptional free apps, it's often worth the price of a coffee to invest in an app that's kid-appropriate, doesn't have in-app purchases or ads to deal with, and encourages learning.

What do other parents and third-party sites say? Look at ratings and reviews. If an app has reviews, read some to get a flavor for others' experiences. Beware a long list of five-star reviews, however, as some developers have been known to request a five-star review in exchange for a free level or power-up. Use our ratings or the reviews on other reputable sites to see which apps have earned a strong reputation for fun and learning.

Christine Elgersma
Christine Elgersma is the editor for learning app reviews as Senior Editor, Learning Content. Before coming to Common Sense, she helped cultivate and create ELA curriculum for a K-12 app and taught the youth of America as a high school teacher, a community college teacher, a tutor, and a special education instructional aide. Christine is also a writer, primarily of fiction and essays, and loves to read all manner of books. When she's not putting on a spontaneous vaudeville show with her daughter, Christine loves to hike and listen to music, sometimes simultaneously.