Can an App Help Your Kids Love Math?

Technology can be used to entertain as well as educate and this is no news flash. Sadly, many of the apps that target children are usually more focused on entertainment with the educational apps focused on "skill and drill." While we know an iPod Touch can make a great digital flashcard, apps should really be much more than that. With so many apps available it can be challenging to sort through them to find ones that will actually educate your child. We've found the educational app search to be especially challenging when it comes to math, so we decided to turn to an expert for advice on finding great educational math apps for the primary school aged set.

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While several of us do possess a background in education, we're not parents, so for this piece we decided to ask the advice of someone who is a parent, technology educator, and learning app developer, Stephen Lewis. Here are Stephen's key points to ponder when looking for an app:

1. So Many Apps, So Little Innovation
You’re "app to be" confused about math learning activities for the iPad. Here’s why: there are thousands of them, they all have zippy names, they all promise hours of stand-alone fun for your youngster who will speed through “math facts” and spring to the top of class. Spend 99 cents, buy a dozen, but you may find that they’re almost all the same, they have very little imagination, and they don’t aim at the real problem which isn’t that our kids can’t reel off “math facts”, but that they don’t care about math. They might become engaged in the game that packages the fact-shooters, fact-blasters, fact-racers, but are they really getting at the concepts?

2. What's the Point of a Great Math App?
A great math app should unleash a love of numeracy, logic, probability, number shape and feel, geometry. Mathematicians “feel” numbers, and it’s a nice, almost visceral sense that guides and inspires them.

3. Encourage Curiosity & Intelligence
The goal is to harness the natural curiosity and intelligence of a child. To paraphrase J. Robert Oppenheimer: “There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, if only I could figure out how to pose the question, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.” That’s a frightening challenge--something is slipping away, a chance to actually learn something from our kids--to open a door and keep it open. The key to unlocking this native intelligence and curiosity is to try to understand students’ unique perception of the world and concepts, and to nourish that uniqueness.

4. The Future of Apps
Tablets are amazing devices, think about the iPad for a second. The iPad starts at the CPU, then a crystal surface is added that can magically track ten fingers at once, with a pile of a million colored pixels dazzling like tiny diamonds you can shape any way you want. All in a 1 pound package. What do we currently do with these amazing devices? We create a blue bear wearing a backpack who rollerskates across a farm field and tries to coax a duck to climb a ladder to convince us that 3 + 1 = 4? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to grow a nautilus and play with the magic Fibonacci series? Stretch a number line into a logarithmic scale that can corral vast expanses of time and space into something visible and comprehensible? "Growing” and “stretching” are the keys here, the child is in control. We the parents care about what our children do, what they think, and what they can imagine. I hope in the future we can design more apps that give the child the ability to play with numbers, logic, theorems and lemmas (I love that word) in order to build things up and knock things down, and even invent tools of their own.

5. 4 Great Math App Examples
While there are dozens of apps that are nothing more than repetitive drills and lest I sound like a complete crank (which Wikipedia defines as “in mechanical engineering, a bent portion of an axle, or shaft, or an arm keyed at right angles to the end of a shaft, by which motion is imparted to or received from it”) here are a couple of math apps that have some nice characteristics:

  • Super 7: This app from No Monkeys lets you create moving paths for numbers to follow as you try to combine them to make 7 while trying not to let other numbers collide that don't add up to 7. I like the fact that numbers are represented as shapes which can move and grow larger as they merge and that you can draw their paths with your finger. Now if only the larger numbers had more mass and thus more gravitational attraction, and were correctly proportionally sized.
  • Motion Math: In this app from Motion Math Games you guide a bouncing ball toward a number line, trying to let it hit the line at the point of a given fraction, say ½ or 2/3. It's a bit of a one-liner, but does give a graphical representation of the number line, and some fun guiding the ball.
  • ArithFit: Despite sounding like a painful medical condition that would land you in a Swiss sanitorium, this app from IvpaDev is an action game like Tetris where you guide falling number clusters that must add up to 10. It uses the tilt functions as does Motion Math, but is for an older audience and is quite challenging.
  • SumsStacker: Easily the best math app for the primary school child that I've seen, SumStacker is the product of Daren Carstens. You move numbers around from stack to stack to match given sums. The graphics are homemade, whimsical and pleasantly unpolished. There are many types of representations of numbers to choose from, which is totally great, since it varies the embodiment of the numbers in different forms, conveying the idea more abstractly--words, dice, numbers, Roman numerals, shapes, fingers, Spanish words, etc. Too bad the user can’t customize their own representations by “doodling” some dots or dashes. Dah di dah di dah dah di dah.



Stephen Lewis directs the Invention Lab at Mandell School in New York City, and the iPAD publishing division Mandell Educational Media. He has years of experience developing learning experiences, including CDROMs published by Mattel Media, children's museum exhibits for Liberty Science Center, movies for Sesame Street, children's books published by William Morrow, software and hardware innovations for AutoCAD. Stephen also holds two US Patents. Full disclosure, his new iPad interactive book for children, Zoo City, is in the App Store, and integrates a visual matching activity, movies, word games and a scratch-off game.

What are some great math apps for primary school aged children that you've discovered?

(Images: Joelle Alcaidinho)

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Joelle loves technology and making things and is in an almost perpetual state of problem solving. She's quite fond of airplanes and coffee and is pretty sure she will eventually read all of the books in her library.