As a prudent parent, you often fear that too much tech will lead to a child who's tuned in but completely out of touch. Sure, some apps sharpen your child's academic skills, but it's hard to see how screen time can help develop less tangible qualities like empathy, understanding and responsiveness to others.
The science is still out, but some developers are betting that tech tools can have positive effects on emotional states and encourage kids to become more kind, caring or social—and some child development professionals agree. In his book Video Game Play and Addiction: A Guide for Parents, Dr. Kourosh Dini, a Chicago-based psychiatrist, says that age-appropriate video games that involve many players can actually help kids develop the ability to see things through the eyes of others.
Here are six apps that aim to teach children to identify feelings, recognize nonverbal cues and develop an awareness of others in the real world:
iTouchiLearn Feelings for Preschool Kids. (Staytooned; ages 2–4; free–$0.99; iOS and Android) Preschoolers are bubbling over with primal emotions. Learning to label and name feelings is an essential first step for tots in the tantrum years and beyond, especially as they transition into school and start interacting with others. This tool has games and music that let little ones learn all about emotions and expressions. Toddlers can touch the crisp cartoon graphics and match feelings to faces. Other activities ask them to guess whether characters are sick, scared, sad or happy. This is a very visually app, featuring almost no text, that's appropriate for the littlest learners.
Moody Monster Manor HD. (ALEX Toys; ages 2–5; free; iOS) Did you know that monsters have homework too—and that they're very worried about it? This adorable app has a wide range of cute and cranky creatures that kids can play with while learning all about everyday emotions. This tool goes beyond the basics of happy and sad; there are many monster moods to choose from, including silly, sorry and surprised. Kids can learn all about feelings by playing with the moody mutants, or they can build their own beast by adding the right facial features and gestures.
Be a Buddy, Not a Bully—A Tales of Midlandia Storybook. (Midlandia Press; ages 2–6; $1.99; iOS) This simple and beautifully illustrated interactive tale about how to handle conflict and bullying is designed for kids and grown-ups to use together. Parents can read with young children and talk about friendship and tolerance, and teachers can use the book as a storytime aid or as a starting point for a discussion on school bullying. The app includes questions that prompt kids to think about the feelings of others and about how to manage emotions like anger and sadness.
Once Upon a Mutant. (Lana Sultan; ages 2–6; $1.99; iOS) "Life is a road, not a rigid code,” says the hero of this charming storybook about a misfit in a land full of mean mutants. This charming story app has a very positive point of view that parents and kids can explore together. The message? You don't have to answer meanness with meanness, and it's okay to be different. Simple, but effective.
Leo's Pad Appisode 1 & 2. (Kidadaptive; ages 5–10; free–$1.99; iPad only) This is a full-fledged learning app with stunning graphics and a wide variety of activities for little learners. Lessons on social skills like taking turns, patience and considering the feelings of others are integrated throughout. The first episode is free and features a fictional young Leonardo Da Vinci as he builds things like a telescope or paints a homemade birthday card for his friend—little Galileo. Parents will be captivated by quality of the illustrations and the in-depth interactivity.
Touch Pets Dogs 2. (Ngmoco; ages 7–10; free; iOS) Kids learn to look after a virtual animal pal with this in-depth pet care app. Your child can practice feeding, petting and cleaning up after her puppy and, in the process, discover that pets need more than just playtime. Practical tasks must be accomplished before players can progress in this game. Your child is rewarded with a happy companion and the opportunity to interact with other virtual "pet owners" online.
Always remember that as good as these apps are, they're just one part of your "parent toolbox.” Don't simply purchase them and park your kid. "The best way to scaffold cognitive and developmental skills is talking with children and interacting directly with them,” says Tricia Striano, Ph.D., psychology professor at Hunter College and founder of HowBabiesLearn.com. “Whether you're reading a book together or exploring a new app on emotions, the key to learning is engaging and playing together with your child."