There are myriad educational apps and devices out there, and Crave's Eric Mack has found many of them disappointing, but he reports that School Zone's Android tablet is a notable exception.
For much of this summer, including five weeks on the road throughout the southern United States, my family had School Zone's Little Scholar educational Android tablet on loan. I handed it over to my 6-year-old daughter with minimal instructions and then watched what happened.
Going into this little experiment, I was highly skeptical. We've run through dozens of educational Android apps in the Google Play store, installing them on the family devices to provide a little extra practice time for reading, math,and geography, among other subjects. Almost universally, those apps have proven to be too easy, simplistic, or just plain boring to hold my daughter's attention for long and she inevitably ends up asking to play Temple Run instead after a short while.
But the selection of exclusive apps pre-loaded onto the Little Scholar tablet, along with a limited number of read-along e-books, songs, and short story videos, not only holds her attention, it's also helped propel her math, reading, and geography skills forward during the summer months when some kids are more likely busy forgetting what was learned during the previous school year.
While the Little Scholar runs on Android 4.2.2, it's fully skinned up -- kids are greeted with a home screen that provides access to a funky camera app, digital books, songs, and videos, and more than 150 learning apps subdivided into preschool, kindergarten, and first-grade levels. It's also possible to connect to a special app store and download additional pre-curated apps.
Without any prompting or nudging from her parents, my daughter seemed to naturally gravitate toward the first-grade level apps in search of a challenge. She also fully bought into the reward and incentives the apps offer, frequently showing off the number of gold stars, ribbons, and other forms of digital recognition she'd received.
Parents can also keep tabs on children's activity on the Little Scholar with a report card app that tracks and graphs how the tablet is being used down to the minute. Much to my surprise, I found that my daughter spends the vast majority of her time using the math-based apps on the tablet. She's especially eager to practice things that have a tangible use in the real world, like keeping track of time, money, and fractions.
On several occasions, she would put away the device of her own accord in favor of playing with an actual stack of coins. My favorite moment was when she shoved the tablet to the side to instead start working out some math problems with pen and paper... for fun.
Spelling, sorting, reading, and geography round out my daughter's top interest areas, according to the Little Scholar report card app. Just this week I was informed with absolute confidence that the state flower of South Carolina is the Yellow Jessamine and that the state bird of Florida is the northern mockingbird.
"That doesn't seem right, sweetie, Florida is in the south," I protested. But a quick Google on the topic had Daddy eating crow, er...uh, northern mockingbird.
There are a few downsides to the Little Scholar tablet. While it comes with a USB charger, it really needs the extra proprietary charger, which has a strangely short cord. It's also roughly twice as expensive as other kids' tablet products like the LeapPad, at $199.
But that extra expense provides access to more robust hardware and software with the backing of the Android ecosystem -- things that seem to be helping my daughter become a better student rather than just a champion Temple Runner.