Every now and again, I read something or hear a discussion about how iPads and other digital platforms (computers, TVs, and all things hand-held) are bad for kids. The argument usually goes something like, “Children should be active, not looking at a screen. Take them to a museum!” Now ignoring the fact that any decent science museum is full of interactive screens, I’ve only two things to say about this argument: thpppt and here’s a list of apps developed for some of the world’s leading museums, zoos, and the universe itself. But like any good educational experience, don’t just hand the iPad or smart phone to your child and expect them to learn. Sit down for 10 or 15 minutes and explore with them (note: if your child is older than my 4 year-old, you can sit together longer). These apps don’t replace real life experiences, but they can augment them and teach you and your child something new in the process.
We begin with the artistic works of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and many more artists whose works will rest brilliantly in your palms with the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) app titled AB EX NY (Abstract Expressionist New York). This app lets you and your child explore these 20th century masterpieces with a creative interface and simple navigation. The resolution on the images is fine enough that you can see the individual brush strokes on the paintings, and audio guides by the curator and artists also augment some of the written descriptions of the works. It is a fantastic app and is free here from iTunes.
If abstract art is not your thing, perhaps a collection of Monet’s works is more to your liking. Overdamped has an app that allows the user to browse through examples of Monet’s impressionist works whether your tastes lean towards his Paris works or his time at Giverny. Overdamped also makes apps featuring the works of Van Gogh, Klimt, and more and for the time being Monet HD and Overdamped’s other apps are on sale for .99 at the iTunes store.
Not keen on paintings at all? How about zoos? How about live video cameras in zoos around the world? That’s what the creative minds at Tiny Hearts dreamed up with the award-winning Pocket Zoo HD. This app allows you and your child to visit animals in zoos across the globe via web cams. Just in case your animal might be sleeping or hiding (they sometimes do that), the developers have also included loads of photos with animal sounds, facts about each critter, and hundreds of video links on some website called YouTube. Now this app is not without its quirks, notably the poor video resolution even when the animals are awake and active, but the app is brilliant and is simply too good not to try (no doubt the video feeds look better on the smaller iPhone). Will it replace a trip to an actual zoo? No. Is it much more convenient and always open? Absolutely. You can find it on sale here on iTunes.
Finally, if life on earth is not your child’s thing, then ESO, the European Southern Observatory, has you covered with two simple but brilliant free apps: the ESO Top 100 and the Hubble Top 100. These two apps simply place at your child’s fingertips the most stunning images that ESA and NASA have been able to capture with the Hubble Space Telescope and the collection of telescopes at ESO in Chile. My daughter does not quite grasp the concepts of quasars, dwarf stars, and light years, but she is fascinated by the images of deep space and distant planets and even wants us to make posters of some for her walls. These are must-have apps for the iPad or iPhone and can be downloaded for free (yes, free) from iTunes.
Is that all? No, we’ve hardly scratched the surface of what is available for handheld devices. As more and more museums, libraries, aquariums, and zoos look to reach more members of the public, you can be sure that new apps will be added regularly and that existing ones will only get better. This is not to say you shouldn’t visit actual museums, planetariums, and zoos, but when your child has a few spare moments, it’s much easier to interact with a few images on the iPad then it is to take a trip New York or Chile. Cheaper too.