Full disclosure: My family is a bunch of Luddites. We're late adopters of new technology, non-gamers, and reluctant distance learners. But we do occasionally use educational apps at home, as a distraction in a car ride, or as a way to pass the time at the dentist's office.
Educational apps are ubiquitous—my nine-year-old daughter uses them in the classroom, and her teachers used them when school pivoted online during the pandemic’s fiercest waves. And even now that school is back in session, her teachers still use Go Noodle, a YouTube-like platform with videos and games focused on wellness, mental health, equanimity, and resilience, and also Epic! Books, a digital reading platform for the 12-and-under set. Fellow Food52 parents also love Khan Academy Kids, an app that teaches core skills like literacy and writing to kids two to six. My personal favorite as a tech-averse parent though is the good old-fashioned library where we can spend hours browsing and reading books before checking out our favorites.
As a parent of color who has written extensively about representation in children’s media, mostly in books, for nearly two decades, I always notice when curriculum-driven products pay attention to diversity. I was recently introduced to Encantos*, an iOS app founded by two Latinx creators for kids ages two to 12. It works with children's content creators—nearly all of color—to teach kids crafts, critical thinking, new languages, and more through storytelling. The “storyteaching” app has videos, games, audio books, e-books, and more.
My daughter used the Encantos app during a recent weekend—while I observed over her shoulder, of course. She loves arts and crafts, so she gravitated toward four channels: Tiny Travelers, Tyrus’ Kids, Pirates: Adventures in Art, and Umigo.
Tiny Travelers’ “India Treasure Quest” offered an overview of India: the Taj Mahal, Bollywood, the Himalayas, tigers, and elephants. The illustrations were vibrant and inviting, especially one of the north Indian spring festival of Holi. My daughter really loved all the craft activities, from Peruvian spin drums to Guatemalan worry dolls, and we hope to do them together in the near future.
As a parent, I appreciated the ageless feminist message in “You Can Be” from Tyrus’ Kids, a content creator that centers Black girls and boys as narrators and in illustrations. Here, a little Black girl describes all the Black and Brown women she might grow up to be: Beyoncé, Selena, Misty Copeland, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ibtihaj Muhammad. “Whatever you decide you can be, make sure it makes you happy,” she says. It served as a wonderful introduction to well-known women of color in pop culture and media.
Meanwhile, my art-loving child greatly enjoyed “Pirates: Adventures in Art,” a series of 12-minute episodes about three pirates who sail the seas in search of art, always dodging the evil art-hating queen Conformia. This Canadian series features animated characters that are ambiguously Brown, as far as I could tell, which is both a con (less specificity) and a pro (it allows a Brown child to imagine themselves as these characters). At this age, she prefers longer narratives, which is why I also think she spent much of her allotted screen time on this channel. For those with an Amazon Prime account, the series is also available on Prime Video.
Umigo, short for “You Make It Go,” is a series of interactive “app-isodes” that align with Common Core Mathematics Standards for first and second grade. Each app-isode of Umigo is accompanied by a catchy music video (in both English and Spanish) that reinforces a particular math concept, which was fun and appealing, even to me—and I’m 43 years old.
The app is for kids two to 12, but currently has much more content for preschoolers and early elementary schoolers. The reading and math levels skewed young for my fourth grader, but upon reading that in India you say “namaste” instead of “hello,” she excitedly said, “Hey, I know that!” She also appreciated the fun facts in “India Treasure Quest,” especially for things she didn’t know about her grandparents’ birth country.
The app’s many Spanish-English bilingual resources are the most robust area of content in my opinion, but we could only explore so much during one weekend. Many of the bilingual resources seem to be for the youngest users and perhaps for heritage learners, but older second-language learners, like my daughter, also benefit.
While it’s difficult to measure how much she held onto, Encantos is entertaining and intuitive for my daughter. She already wants to dive into the app again to find more art activities—though it’ll have to happen during our next long car ride.