[You might also be interested in an article about iPads and elementary math, by a teacher who has figured it out: 10 Practical [and engaging] Ways to Use Apps in Primary Mathematics Teaching.]
The are many excellent apps for emerging readers and early writers and many apps that provide elementary students with opportunities to create digital products and communications beyond what can be created with non-digital tools. There are a few excellent problem-solving apps for this age. The technology exists and is getting better daily - it should be used.
On the other hand, most apps available for elementary students in the area of literacy are no more and no better than paper practice, story hour or TV.
My grand kids (1-6) use adult iPads (with selected kid apps) as part of the learning conversation - they create, practice, manipulate, problem-solve, read, listen, compose, view, explore, discuss. It is one door into a world larger than their physical living spaces. For each of them, the iPad is a source of new content. Children this age are sponges for content. The iPad is also a source of new experiences, which can be as simple as "shake me" effects and unique animations, or as complex as virtual physics manipulations. I celebrate apps that provide creativity, variety, and challenge. Few parents or classrooms can, for example, handle dinosaurs or space as well as a good app (some are listed below).
On the other hand, most of the time my grand kids prefer to be engaged imaginatively or socially IN their physical living spaces, which are much richer in opportunities and stimuli than any digital device can be. Why watch Mike the Knight reruns, for example, when Aidan can dress like a knight and have a 2 hour adventure in the park?
The question that schools need to ask honestly and up front is: How many of our children do not have access to this rich experiential world, at home or at school? If the answer is most of them, or even many of them, or even a small cohort, I think that iPads have a role to play in the classroom.
It is a valid concern that the iPad is an engaging tool that can block out social interaction - as, in fact, most apps are designed to do. Some apps are best suited for an almost hypnotic form of immersion in a touch-based interactive environment (music, visual creation and manipulation, reading, problem-solving with the "laws of physics"). Others are simply passive entertainment (Weet Woo and other TV-based products especially). Are these bad? Of course not. We have always expected students to practice immersion in the classroom, even in the elementary classroom, ranging from water play to independent "reading"/book time. We lie to ourselves if we think that immersion and repetitive quiet play do not play a role in learning. The iPad is simply another tool for this - and at its best it is a very good one.
Luckily, there are apps that lend themselves to more social, creative interaction as well, which is to say some apps are best used "socially" - with another child or with an adult. These vary, of course, with child age and readiness, as do the classroom activities that they most replicate. The best of these will stimulate discussion to the extent that the child advances in understanding or content knowledge AND moves away from the iPad in order to extend or act upon this new learning in some way, connecting the digital world to the physical world. Aha!
In my family, we strike a balance between total immersion and conversational engagement (creation and discovery, challenging up in skills). There is no reason why this can not also be true in a classroom.
So we come down to how the tool is used in a classroom - how a teacher guides, structures, and mentors its use. Teachers need to be trained to do all of these things, but that training need not involve an outside guru. A PLC armed with iPads and time will figure it out. "It" has got to be differentiated for every single child - or the device is not worth the cost.
App selection is key. Apps that simply replace books or another form of interactive technology must be of the best quality. These should be used only when the engagement of the iPad make immersive learning possible for a child. The possibility is real for children of all ages to be bored to death with repetitive apps, even those with sounds, motion, and rewards.
Load the iPads thoughtfully, richly, and carefully. Allow students to explore (and track this exploration), but also create specific challenges that will support learning goals.
I recommend that each school invest in an "exploration iPad" and load it with apps for teachers to explore, individually, in PLC groups, and with students in the classroom. Purchase and selection decisions have to be based on experience, not lists.
But isn't this all what elementary teaching is about? Good teachers should find this challenge interesting - and they should be good at it.
The favorite elementary level literacy (and some STEM) apps in my family:
Millie - age 1 - she prefers the iPhone, but will do certain activities on the iPad:
- FaceTime - used with mom to help with "naming of parts, people, places"
- Photos - looking at them endlessly, swiping
- Talking Tom Cat - entertaining, expecially when used socially
- Doodle Buddy - just doodling (not saving)
Beatrice - age 3 - can both immerse and use socially all of the following - many of them are actually too challenging for her, but she has patience as long as there is humor in the app
- Animalia - used socially with parents (several of the activities are too hard for her, so this is a learning time)
- ABC Food
- The Monster at the End of This Book and Another Monster at the End of This Book
- Millie (Meet Millie, The Lost Key)
- Jewel River
- Animal Train
- Helicopter Taxi
- Where's My Water
- Cut the Rope
- Fish School HD
- Dinosaur Train Eggspress
- All Aboard the Dinosaur Train
- Build a Train
- Angry Birds
- Weet Woo - this is just TV-like entertainment, but since it involves choice, sequencing, and manipulation it gets my support
- Tiny Wings
- A Day at the Beach
- My 1st Hidden Pictures
- Little Writer
- Touch and Write
- Butterflying - another simply engaging app, but introduces the concept of image import and uses scientifically accurate butterflies (named)
- Butterfly HD - this is social science - she needs support, but will be able to do app independently
- MyReef 3D Aquarium 2 HD
- Paper Fifty-three (53)
- has outgrown these good apps:
- Peakaboo (Forest, Wild)
- Counting With the Very Hungry Caterpillar
- Splash HD
- Itsy Bitsy Spider
- Snowman HD
- Photos - favorite iPad activity is looking at and talking with adult about photographs and videos
- Music - playing and listening to songs on the iPad
- PBS KidsPlayer
- Weet Woo
- My 1st Hidden Pictures
Angus - age 6 (just), reading, beginning to write on his own, a science content sponge
- ShowMe - creates illustrated stories or informational slide shows then shares them socially
- Screen Chomp - see ShowMe
- Story Kit - see ShowMe
- Camera - taking his own pictures and shooting video
- Wood Puzzle (states and capitals)
- Star Walk - with adult
- Angry Birds
- Dinosaurs (American Museum of Natural History)
- The Ultimate Dinopedia
- Teach Me Kindergarten (my least favorite, along with others in the series, but it is an immersive app)
- Smithsonian Channel
- Paper 53
- Touch Physics HD
- Sketch Nation
- The Artifacts
- Pic Stitch
- Voice Memos
- Explain Everything
- Garage Band