Screen Smarts and Digital Tools

The following is the full-length version of an article in this month’s “NFamily Magazine.” It is a bit long for a blogpost, but is so chocked full of important information about digital app tools that will spark children’s creativity, we wanted you to have every bit of it:

 screen smarts

Gift packages this year will for many families include something with a screen: a digital tablet or mini-tablet, a new smart phone, a digital camera. Your kid’s name just might be on the tag. Even if your young children don’t have their own digital devices, you’ve no doubt seen their little fingers in action on a touch screen.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, in 2006 ninety percent of parents said their children younger than 2 were users of some form of electronic media. That was before the iPad. Before the big screen phones. By 2010, according to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center which studied children’s media, two-thirds of children ages 4 to 7 had used a smart phone*.

We, as curriculum developers and educators, know that these new technologies provide wonderful tools for young children — and the key word is tool. Digital technology is best (for all of us, not just kids) when it’s used to engage with (rather than substitute for) the sensory and social world. And those tools are even more effective when matched to your child’s creative strong suits.

The world of apps for kids is deep and broad — you probably already have discovered that! Many are educational in the most limited sense, with a carrot-and-stick approach to winning with right answers and losing with wrong ones. Some are just poorly designed, ugly to look at and frustrating for kids and adults alike.

Here are some of our favorite app suggestions that nurture different creative modes of perception and creative thinking, and promote the use of tablets and smart phones as tools and amplifiers of real life experiences, not as stand-ins. We’ve used the Sensory Alphabet as a way of organizing these suggestions. While these terms may at first strike you as words from the world of art and design they actually provide the “pattern language”** that much of our future innovation in science, society, problem-solving and the arts will depend on. Introduce it to your children playfully and early.

Note: All of these apps are available for the iPad (and/or iPhone). Many of them are also available for Android devices as well. Search the store for your device to find out current availability and price. Some have free versions with limited features (and annoying ads), but none cost more than $10. Some apps have in-app purchases, be certain you have the parental controls in place to keep kids from inadvertently buying add-ons! I used our SENSORY ALPHABET (the “missing alphabet” for creative thinking) to organize these suggestions:


The digital camera on a smart phone or tablet is an amazing tool for studying light. Add a simple app for editing (PicShop is easy to use) photo filter apps, and set up some albums or scrapbooks for collecting images. When waiting in line at the supermarket or in a doctor’s office, ask your child to use the camera as a looker and to take photos to explore a category like “little spaces,” “shades of green,” “reflected light.” Suggested apps for photo filters: Popsicolor (cool color effects), Instant Sketch (changes a photo into black and white line drawings) and Poster Me, for pop art images. Consider setting up a private Pinterest  or Flickr account for your child’s digital scrapbooks or use a art scrapbook app like Artkive.


There are lots of elegant line drawing apps out there, but one of our favorite (and super simple, so all ages will enjoy) is Magic Ink. You control the width, color and curliness, and how fast the line fades away. It does seem like magic!

Line Brush, Drawing Pad, and Paper by 53 are a few of the many more complex drawing, coloring and painting apps available. Drawing Pad is the most kid-friendly, but the others are easy to learn to use with a bit of practice and parental help.

Storytelling is also about line (beginning, middle, end), and what better way to get in the habit of telling stories than by keeping a diary. Maxjournal is fairly simple to learn to use, and allows for photos and words. Also look at storytelling apps such as StoryMaker. Kids can also dictate a story while they draw a picture with Doodlecast, and it’s even more fun when parents draw along, sharing story ideas and  discussing what that blue squiggle really is.


It’s simple, but 5 Minute Masterpiece is too much fun not to mention. This app lets you paint with color splats and splashes, and then replay your art-making as a movie. (P.S. Parents will probably want to turn off the annoying sound, just tap the little speaker icon.) Explore color with the drawing apps in the LINE section as well.


Lazoo: Let’s Color  is an app designed for preschoolers (but fun for almost any age) with very open-ended coloring pages.  Once your child draws upon a page, hit Go and the drawing is animated. Good parent controls for sound and content, too.

Noodle Words animates language, just as though the words were toys!

Monster Physics is cartoonish, but has a great set of parts that allow kids to build their own inventions, and then put them into motion. For older kids, try Tinkerbox. This app teaches the laws of physics in a very hands-on fashion. For the most imaginative use of this app, use the invent mode after you master a few of the competitive puzzles..


For playing with rhythm, try some of the virtual percussion instruments available: Ratatap Drums, Drum Kit or Easy Xylophone.

Sketches is another full fledged drawing tool, but it lets you also draw with rhythmic patterns, like grids and dots and lines. Let kids draw with this one to different kinds of music and see what happens.


With Stamp and Draw kids add picture stamps and their own drawings to background scenes, playing with space like a set designer or book illustrator.

Explore the space of the universe with Star Walk, inside or out. And check out NASA ‘s many gallery apps for all kinds of inspiration (NASA Earth As Art for example).


The Museum of Modern Art’s MOMA Art Lab is a beautiful playful art room for a tablet.  It’s shape activities (choose the lightbulb icon) are among the most beautiful out there and you’ll also find great activities here for sound, line, color and even words — all inspired by great contemporary works of art.

Faces iMake is a silly, fun app that lets kids make faces with all kinds of everyday ordinary shapes: fruits, tools, even numbers and letters. The latest version lets you take your own shape object pictures to use in your creations.

For exploring shapes in nature and science, check out the LeafSnap, an app that helps identify leaves by matching photos with your smartphone — many of the leaves are from the northeast, but many Texas trees are included.


Glaze is a great texture adding filter app for photos from your gallery — really cool impressive (and even ghoulish) effects with some of the line and blur tools.


Loop is an interactive composition app that easily lets kids create and record tunes. Bloom, designed by Brian Eno, is another visual sound composition machine.

GraphicBall, the most complicated of these, links sound and drawings that you make by tilting the screen or moving a tiny ball icon with your finger, creating one of a kind sound drawings that can be saved and replayed.

*For this and other timely research, see The Touch-Screen Generation April 2013 issue of The Atlantic, online at



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