girl sitting at table in front of open notebooks

We are living in a new age of widespread remote, online learning.

Even before COVID-19 forced the shutdown of schools all over the world, investment in edtech (education technology) had reached $18.66 billion in 2019 and the market of online education is projected to be $350 billion by 2025.

Today, the internet is becoming a virtual classroom for a growing number of kids as parents are turning to online resources to help plan lessons and look for activities for their housebound kids. Even high schoolers are also looking for additional test prep help from home. But here’s the good news: The quality of online learning platforms has only grown to meet this demand.

Some offer games that teach young children in a fun, engaging way that barely feels like school, while others offer in-depth curriculums in foreign languages for students whose parents only speak one language.

That said, when you’re looking for an online learning platform for your kids, especially little kids, there are a lot of factors to consider to make sure that your child is actually learning something from it. You want them to be engaged with the material and not fight you every time they need to log on. You also don’t want to waste your money on something clunky or dangerous.

What should you look for in choosing a good online learning platform?

The answer, of course, depends a little on the student you’re looking for, but in general, all good online learning platforms should meet the following criteria:

It should not be weighed down in ads.

Free educational apps might sound good, but bear in mind that free platforms often require advertising to keep the app running — and some of that advertisement might not be kid-friendly.

It is especially important to avoid ads if you’re looking for a learning platform for young children because studies of children under the ages of four or five have shown that this age group doesn’t consistently distinguish what an ad is. This greatly diminishes the educational value of the platform.

Ads can also just be cumbersome, crowding the screen or slowing down how quickly the learning platform loads, making for a clunky user experience.

They should be educational.

This might sound obvious, but just because something is labeled as educational doesn’t mean it actually provides the best educational experience. Games should mostly — if not entirely — be focused on teaching.

They should also engage kids so they’re actively learning. If the platform allows the child to zone out and just “watch,” chances are they won’t remember as much. But if the platform asks them questions, has them create something, or invites them to actively use their new knowledge — much like a teacher in a classroom — chances are the child will pay more attention and recall more information.

They offer something an off-screen experience can’t.

With the rise of remote learning, this is often the feature that gets set aside, especially with early-learning apps that let kids put puzzles together or trace letters on the screen — two activities they can also do in real life instead of the screen.

The best learning platforms are aware of the dramatic increase in children’s screen time and try to offer something pen and paper or physical games cannot. Some teach children how to code, others offer them access to experts in a foreign language that simply wouldn’t be available closer to home. And others still compete with non-educational games by making learning fun.

Some of the best also spark an interest in off-screen activities. Many of the best will offer ideas for kids to continue their learning offline by grabbing a pen and paper to draw, work out a math equation, foster a love of reading books IRL, or experiment with hands-on-art projects.

They should be safe.

This means that they should not expose kids to strangers who could harm them.

Avoid learning platforms that feature online chat rooms that a stranger could join and use to talk to your child. For young children, you’ll also want to avoid platforms that link out of the app because this can lead them to browsing unsafe or unverified sites.

It is against the law, thanks to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA), for websites to collect personal information from children under thirteen without parental consent. That said, make sure you choose an online platform or tool that follows the law and has the necessary privacy settings.

If you’re not sure if a program is safe for use, you can always check with the Common Sense Media Privacy Program.

Even for older children, learning platforms that allow you to create a username — instead of their whole name — can be a wise choice, especially if there is a public aspect to the platform (i.e. a score ranking).

They should allow you or the child to track their progress.

Some will do this with a parental tracker. Others will offer grades. But monitoring progress is key so that kids can see how they’re improving and know where they need to improve. This can boost their confidence and engagement too.

For young children in particular, you might feel more comfortable with an app that also alerts you to their progress and lets you know of an issue or concern early on. This can help you know what you need to work with them on offline and one-on-one. For example, if you know that your child is behind on reading comprehension, you’ll know that you should make more time to work with them offline and find fun ways to read in the evening or on weekends.

Be careful of educational platforms that emphasize rewards instead of actual learning. You want them to be motivated to learn the actual concept being taught, not just reach the next level.

A clear sign of gamified platforms is if they rely on in-app purchases. Those platforms are steered more towards leveling up and making money than actually teaching your children. (Plus, platforms with in-app purchases can get very expensive quickly — another reason to avoid them.)

They should be clear about what age they’re geared for.

Nothing can hamper a kid’s self-esteem or confidence faster than material that is way too hard. Similarly, material that is too easy can bore children. To make sure that neither of these scenarios occurs, parents should know what ages the content is made for so they can help pick an age-appropriate platform.

For younger children, you’ll also want to prioritize platforms that make learning fun or that offer rewards or achievements for every lesson they complete. That way they’ll feel encouraged and engaged.

Do you really need it?

There’s no need to increase your child’s screen time just because. There are lots of offline activities (think: crafts, books, sports, etc.) to keep a child entertained. So there’s no need to just plunk your child in front of a screen if the platform is teaching them something they can already get elsewhere.

That’s why when you’re picking a platform, consider its true purpose and what it really offers your child. Is it teaching them something new or is just keeping them from being bored?

Here are some of our favorite online learning platforms for kids in 2022 that meet these criteria — but keep reading to get the full list below.

Best overall for early learning

ABC Mouse

With more than 950 lessons in math, reading, science, social studies, and art, ABC Mouse is a great overall learning platform for kids ages two to eight.

Best for honing reading skills

Reading Eggs

Reading Eggs is a great platform that will not only teach kids to read but hone their comprehension skills too.

Best for learning to code

CodaKid

CodaKid makes coding fun and teaches kids a range of different coding languages, not just the most popular ones.

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