Building Numerical Literacy in the Very Young

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My children adore tablets and they're now so accustomed to touch screens that their fingerprints can be seen on my TV set when they forget it doesn't work that way. But my wife and I are careful about the apps they can use. Although we've installed a few that are purely games, there are many inspiring educational apps that are just as much fun. Their numeracy skills have definitely been helped by the counting and math apps.

Basic counting apps are one way to interest the children in numbers and math. Toddler Counting 123 ($1 on iOS) is a good one for adults to use alongside very young children.

The app is simple and well executed with straightforward menus and good graphics. Its voice asks children how many squares, saxophones and so on they can see on the screen. When the child taps each item, its count is read aloud, and they even get a congratulatory message when they've tapped them all. It's cute, and there's the option to switch to a language like Spanish or French for extra fun. But the app counts only to 20, which is a bit of a shame.

Kids Maths, a $1 Android app, has a similar counting feature. It displays cute graphics, like a cartoon drawing of four lions, and then reads out the number of items.

Under another option, the app asks youngsters to count how many items they've seen, offering the answer in a short list of possible numbers. The app counts only to 10 and there are no settings, but it's well designed and free of Android quirks like in-app advertisements or awkward menus.

Kids Numbers and Math ($1 on iOS and $3 on Android) is for slightly older children because after counting and numbers, the next numeracy challenge is basic arithmetic. This app teaches basic numbers as well as topics like addition, subtraction, maximums and minimums. It's simple to use with big areas on the screen for little fingers to tap along, and clear menu items so adults can control the app and adjust its difficulty settings.

One of the more challenging puzzles is to tap on the biggest number of the three shown on floating balloon graphics. The app has well-drawn cartoon images and clear audio along with amusing extras to keep young minds interested. Shaking your device will cause different things to happen inside each part of the app, like making apples fall from a tree. The app also has advanced puzzles, which include numbers above 100, for an extra challenge.

Ninja Math, a $2 Android app, combines learning math with a physics-based puzzle so it's suitable for older children who need to review their numeracy. The app poses arithmetic questions, with different possible answers written on a gong. You have to touch the screen to maneuver a little cartoon ninja figure across rotating bamboo poles and other obstacles so he hits the gong bearing the right answer.

The puzzle aspect of this game may keep youngsters amused -- and it's a game older ones can play alone. But this is all there is. The app's so simple it may become boring before long, despite the increasing difficulty of the physics puzzles.

A similar gamelike app is the $3 iPad app Operation Math. It's more complex than Ninja Math and it has a secret agent theme. A James Bond-like cartoon character has to type in answers on a smart wristwatch to crack enemy codes. The app has a basic story line about beating the evil "Dr. Odd," and there are lots of different missions of varying difficulty in terms of the number of puzzles to solve in a given time.

The simpler missions, for example, have only a few code doors to break through and involve only simple addition or subtraction puzzles. The more complex missions require fast mental arithmetic and can include multiplication and division functions.

A player who solves enough missions is rewarded with new outfits for the secret agent and different watch designs. This app is definitely fun, though it's a shame that the only secret agent character is male.

Thanks to its game features, adults may find Operation Math a great way to brush up on their own skills -- it's just complex enough to make it fun. But if you, or your oldest children, want a real challenge, then Sakura Quick Math ($2 on iOS) is excellent. Its puzzles are more complex and you have to solve them against the clock by writing the answer on the screen. Sadly, it doesn't have more complex functions like powers or fractions, but it's attractive and enjoyable.

Quick Calls

Twitter's free Android app has had a big overhaul, with better navigation, on-screen menus and suggestions for words while you're searching and posting. If you've never tried Twitter, now is a great time to check out this social networking service. ... Rovio's entertaining physics game Amazing Alex, where you create tricky Rube Goldberg-like machines, has hit Windows Phone 7 and Windows Phone 8 devices for $1.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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