Tech with Kids: How to Assess Reviews, Find Quality Apps

tech with kids bannerJune 19, 2015 One of the thorny questions I posed at the recent Tech with Kids Conference involved how to “review the reviewers.”

There are a wide array of reputable resources…Common Sense Media gives a macro view of kids media, as a one stop hub of advocacy, tips, and over-arching views across a vast media spectrum (TV, movies, books, apps, and beyond…) and Tech with Kids takes more of a micro lens, specializing specifically in deep diving the digital sphere as a robust resource for apps, videogames, tech toy integration, virtual worlds and platform play (Xbox, Playstation etc). But there’s a larger question looming for parents and educators: 

In an era of self-proclaimed media mavens, powerful bloggers with pay for play funding tethers, and trusted mainstream media syndication that’s often part and parcel of larger media conglomerates themselves…

Who do you trust and how do you filter with critical thinking skills

to be aware of ‘partnerships’ and industry ties?

The more I started researching the numerous review sites out there I decided it merits an entirely separate media literacy post which I’ll be covering in ‘point/counterpoint’ style to get all lenses and views on paid vs unpaid reviews, label lingo, disclaimers, and FTC digital disclosure policies to help erase some of the “blurred lines.”

I’ve spoken with indie apps creators, big branded media developers, mom and pop shop reviewers, and a flurry of digerati and am fascinated by the pendulum swings in the conversations. If you’d like to add your voice and views, leave a comment. Meanwhile, as kids spill out of school for summer and car and plane vacations often involve packing ‘digital toys,’ it pays to know who’s choosing ‘what’s good’ out there…and why.

Today our focus is specific to APPS ONLY, interviewing author, journalist and seasoned tech reporter  Jinny Gudmundsen who is also Tech with Kids’ founder, and conference host of “Developing Apps for Kids.”

For starters, Tech with Kids does NOT take any payment or perks, as Jinny explained at the unsponsored conference noting her position as a Kids Tech columnist for USA Today and her role with Gannett news syndicated content.

jinny gudmundsen2

As I mentioned in this previous post about the quality and objectivity of curated content on the dais sans speaker deals, this set the entire tone of their conference apart for me, as it enabled focus on industry trends over sifting out the shilling of brand buzz and PR promotion. (See speakers/agenda of important topics and some data highlights from the conference appropriately captured by an attendee using an app called StellerStories.)


Ratings Rubric: Education, Fun, Usability, Value, Tech


Tech with  cross references apps so you can easily search by topic, age/grade, platform, “best picks” lists, or app name, which was seamless and efficient. Personally, I appreciate the micro, niche targeting of Tech with Kids to cut to the chase and search for fresh gems without massive layers of macro content to sift through in kids media, as it enables me to get what I need fast without getting hung up in bloat.

The format is uniform: Each detailed app review kicks off with an overview descriptor and multiple screenshots, delving deeper into distinct ‘what makes it different’ analysis of unique features and aspects that set the app apart and a template of consistent subheads (How to play… Best For…) which offer a handy summary, along with their own star ratings. (see How we rate)

Here’s more in conversation with Jinny Gudmundsen…

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What tips do you have for parents to navigate the discovery of apps? And as a review site, what core criteria do you use or 3rd party validation seals do you look for?

tech with kids seal 300Jinny Gudmundsen, Tech with Kids: As a professional reviewing site and the issuer of an internationally recognized and coveted Award (Tech With Kids’ Best Pick Award), our job is to help others find the best apps to use with their kids.

We use our own rubric for rating, which has 5 main factors: Education, Fun, Usability, Value, and Tech. Under each of these factors we look at over a dozen of other sub-factors.

We rate on a 5 star scale. We issue our Best Pick Award to the best of the best. The app must have a rating of 4 stars or above and represent exceptional design of a children’s app. The Award logo is provided for free use to app developers who win the Award.

We encourage app developers to contact us, and are in constant contact with thousands of developers. We set up “Google Alerts” to help us find new apps that are releasing and regularly research the app stores for apps that we haven’t yet heard of. We do our own research and come to our own conclusions about the quality of apps. While I don’t write all of the reviews on Tech With Kids, I personally edit every one and have played each app that is reviewed.

As with movies and book reviewers, I would encourage parents and others to find a reviewer whose voice they trust. Choose an app you love, then read our review. If you agree with how we are evaluating it, then you have probably found a good fit for you.

Each reviewer is different. We all have our bugaboos. Mine is negative reinforcement in toddler and preschooler apps. I don’t believe that a child’s first experience with an app should make them feel bad!

Shaping Youth: The family’s on summer vacation…what are some creative ways parents are using kids apps to enhance their travel experience? Favorite finds?

road trip bingo hdJinny Gudmundsen, Tech with Kids: Check out our recommended list called Apps for Traveling Kids. On this “best picks” list are a wide range of apps that are great to have downloaded before leaving…If you are off to an amusement park, check out My Dad Drives a Roller Coaster Car. If you are going to be a car, train, or bus for a long period of time, make sure to use Road-Trip-Bingo HD which is an updated way to encourage kids to look out of the window to find things that are zooming by.

When kids get the wiggles from sitting too long, introduce Finger Hoola because it is a way to get kids actively playing in a confined space. And for a family game to keep everyone from thinking “Are we there yet?,” play That’s Baloney! Kids Quiz Game — an educational trivia game that “sorts its questions into grade levels as well as by subject matter.”

Shaping Youth: Any media management tips on ‘digital nutrition’ to abstain from bloat, maintain techno balance?

Jinny Gudmundsen, Tech with Kids: I DO think kid’s app makers should be designing away from compulsion loops. I believe that parents need to monitor and manage their children’s use of tech and seek a balance, the same way they should with good food, exercise, reading, TV time, etc. There are kids who need built-in timers, but most kids need to be taught self-regulation so that when they become adults, they can have good self-control.

Tech With Kids: Some favorite apps by category


Shaping Youth: Your use of themed roundups are helpful for new discoveries, could you point us to your favorites or new finds in music, summer fun and open ended play/creativity?

Jinny Gudmundsen, Tech with Kids: This post might be a helpful overview for your audience: How to Load Your Kid’s Tablet with High Quality Apps.

For the best apps that encourage kids to become makers, check out this recommended list: Apps That Let Kids Create Content.  Some of my favorite kids apps by category? Apps with Standout Visuals (because every single app on this list delivers a “Wow.”) and Creativity Apps to Inspire Kids (because I believe that creativity can be taught and kids need experiences that encourage them to “think outside the box.”) Book Apps Starring Imaginative Kids (“By reading stories fueled by kids’ imaginings, perhaps your child too will learn to put their imagination to work and reach for the stars.”) 

Amy’s Note: As I perused Jinny’s “Apps with Standout Visuals” it was fun to see Tech With Kids’ review of Metamorphabet which just received a 2015 Apple Design Award at the Worldwide Developers Conference held here in San Francisco! Likewise, in her spring visuals/artistic “best picks” it was heartening to see the toddler app Scribbaloo Train  bringing creativity and crafts back into the childhood experience…

scribbaloo train As this CBC Parent article on indie app and game developers makes clear, there’s a strong focus on using digital tech to springboard into free form imaginative play. This is similar to the post I wrote about Amazon’s Creative Galaxy: Inspiring Kids with Art in Everyday Life as a form of reinterpreting media with a ‘view and do’ landscape, starting with a screen and painting on a wide open, messy canvas of free play offline. Fascinating full circle view to ‘get back to where we once belonged’ with imagination stations. 

Shaping Youth: What apps come to mind using STEAM/STEM for active play online that segues to tactile play offline (maker movement manipulatives, art, music for budding musicians/instrument play)

Jinny Gudmundsen, Tech with Kids: One of our newest recommended lists is: Engaging Engineering Apps for Kids. We also have math ones: Best Math Apps and Apps to Promote Logical Thinking And apps that focus on science and nature: Top Nature Apps for Kids and Eco Science Games as well as creative technology use, like Apps for Creating Movies and Comics

Shaping Youth: Finally, beyond STEM/STEAM emerging trends could you preview “what’s coming” in new developments, rating your perception of importance (1-5) of media topics like kids’ “augmented reality” (see Future Of kids’ wearables, 3D, Oculus, apps with toy integration, sensors, and any other trends parents should be aware of in the digital sphere?

Jinny Gudmundsen, Tech with Kids:

1. Apps/toy integration (most important)
2. AR
3. 3D
4. Wearables
5. Oculus (least important)

diversity in appsShaping Youth: Thanks again for your time, Jinny.

I’m looking forward to other conference attendees weighing in with their voices and views, as this is an ‘open call’ for feedback on any of the topics you covered, as well as the ones I mentioned I’ve already got rolling. Tech with Kids was most insightful, especially the gender depictions in children’s apps panel which appears to be keeping with the  emerging movement towards #Diversity in Apps which makes me smile with this macro view of what constitutes mindfulness in media. Ancora Imparo!

Crowdsourcing Request from Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth

Open call: I’m a huge fan of open ended play, very interested in Edweek’s recent query,“Can Technology Get Kids to Play Outside?” so please send any favorite finds my way involving tech use encouraging kids to explore nature (wildlife tracking, citizen science, story based geocaching etc.) I’m especially seeking discovery elements that build from ‘mobile to movement’ with proactive use in outdoor settings (see TumbleLeaf/PreK post about Amazon’s Emmy award-winning show to familiarize kids with nature, science outdoor fun) 

I’m also querying a few of the speakers at the conference about the Maker Movement’s foothold in bridging online to offline buildable play like TinyBop’s new Simple Machines app which uses physics and spatial relations to inspire young engineers through basic concepts and observations that easily translate into DIY summer fun around the house with various maker projects, so if you have direct experience with favorite STEM/STEAM offerings, please ping me with your own thoughts!


Tech With Kids: Rating Rubric


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  1. Can ratings actually improve your rank and visibility in the app stores? … It’s now much harder to buy downloads in bursts to game the app store (although this is …

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