The 3 Cs for Choosing the Right Mobile Apps for Children

A mother teaching her young son with the help of a tablet

The 3 Cs for Choosing the Right Mobile Apps for Children

“There’s an app for that!” With instant information literally at our fingertips, we are beginning to rely more and more on our smartphones and tablets. And while today’s touch technology was originally designed to make life easier for adults, because they are so intuitive to use, children as young as infants are quickly becoming smart device connoisseurs. But does this technology help or harm the development of young children?

Thousands of apps today claim to be educational; however, it is important to do your research. Many claims come from companies whose profits depend on appealing to parents and children. What may look to be educational may not actually offer any true benefit and can even hinder long-term learning for your child.

So how do we best support our children’s learning and development in this fast-paced, ever-changing, high-tech world? Lisa Guernsey, a mother, author and journalist, boils down her recommendations to the ‘3 Cs’ – Context, Content and the Child.1 Even though her book focuses on choosing mobile apps for children, the three Cs also can apply to TV and video games. Consider the three Cs and the following guidelines from Primrose Schools when selecting mobile apps to ensure you are providing a valuable learning experience for your preschooler.


Context refers to the purpose of the activity and what happens before, during and after your child uses the program. Research confirms that young children learn through their senses. They flourish when someone talks, reads and plays with them. Children need time for hands-on creative, physical and exploratory play.2 Before you hand over your tablet or smartphone to your child, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What will my child learn from this activity? Could my child gain the same learning in a more natural way?
  2. Is my child really engaged and learning or just tapping buttons?
  3. What would my child be doing if the device was not available?
  4. Am I taking the time to talk with my child about the activity? Can the two of us play together? 
  5. Does my child spend more time with media and technology than other activities?
  6. Is my child getting enough time for pretend and active play?


A recent study has shown that less than 4% of the top “education” apps on iTunes allow for open-ended discovery and exploration for young children.3 Many so-called educational apps actually limit creativity as they are designed for one intended answer or a limited number of ways to arrive at a solution. Children should be in control of the activity and encouraged to use their imaginations with open-ended opportunities.

Many digital games also include violence. Exposure to media violence can be linked to fear, aggression and desensitization to offensive behavior.4 As parents, we must choose digital and media activities carefully – with the right content – using the following guiding questions:

  1. What exactly is my child playing or watching?
  2. What value will the content contribute that non-screen activities cannot? Are there negative ways that it could affect my child? 
  3. Can my child make sense of or learn from the activity?
  4. Is the activity child-controlled? 
  5. Is the activity something that I would want my child to imitate?
  6. Does the content promote playing with others? If so, how?
  7. What types of media experiences trigger the most curious questions, the most playful reenactments, the most engagement, the most joy?


Children need a variety of active, sensory and language experiences to maximize their brain development and learning. Appropriate digital activities should generate “talk time” rather than replace it. These new technologies haven’t been exchanged for television and video; in many cases, they’ve just added to total screen time,5 detracting from other activities beneficial to their growth and development.

Set limits around the amount of time your child can spend in front of a screen, but beware if your child has an emotional breakdown when the time is up. Temper tantrums could be a sign that your child is becoming addicted to the technology. Moderation and common sense are key. With your child’s interests in mind, ask these questions:

  1. How do I ensure that my child uses technology in ways that enrich and deepen knowledge and skills, and not just pass time?
  2. Can I provide clear boundaries for screen activities so that my child does not become dependent on them and is lured away from active, hands-on play?

No matter how interactive an app appears to be, it is not as responsive and communicative as a live teacher, parent or playmate. So before handing your smartphone or tablet to your child, make sure you decide if it’s the best use of time and brain cells for your child.



1Guernsey, L. Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects your Young Child. Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2012.

2Schonkoff, J. & Phillips, D. (Eds.). From Neurons to Nighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000.

3Goodwin, K., & Highfield, K. iTouch and iLearn: An Examination of ‘Educational’ Apps. Paper presented at the Early Education and Technology for Children conference, March 14-16, 2012, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2012.

4American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications. “Media Violence.” Pediatrics, 124, pp.1495-1503. 2009.

5Rideout, V. Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America, p.44. San Francisco, CA: Commonsense, 2011.

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