Early Learning EdTech apps released by Harvard Graduate School of Education

In this article Pana reviews three Early Learning EdTech apps which were recently released by the HGSE to help promote literacy-building conversations between children and parents.

Early Learning EdTech apps released by Harvard Graduate School of Education

In April of this year, the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) released three new early learning EdTech apps developed to help promote early literacy at home. As an early childhood technology and design coach with my own 2-year-old at home, I was very interested to see what these apps had to offer.

Here were the things that piqued my interest:

  1. Developed by an educational institution. A lot of the EdTech apps out there claiming to be educational don’t begin with educators.
  2. Aimed at FAMILY use. These apps weren’t designed for a child to use on their own but alongside a parent or caregiver.
  3. The pandemic has meant more families are stuck at home with their kids. Parents are feeling lost or pressured on how to support their young children’s development.

To give you an overview of the apps you can visit the HGSE site for more detailed descriptions

A Little Background…
I decided to take these EdTech apps for a spin with my own daughter who is currently 2 years and 5 months old. We are a trilingual household, I speak Thai with my daughter, my husband speaks Mandarin, she attends an English preschool (but we are on summer break right now), and her nanny also speaks English with her. My daughter is fully aware that English is the common language that everyone speaks, so this is her strongest and go-to language for communication with anyone. If I had to rank her strength in each language, she has the best grasp of English, followed by Mandarin, and Thai is her weakest language.

Photo Play

Photo Play uses photos on your phone to spark conversation and collaborative play. From an educator’s perspective, I love that it encourages families to revisit memories and talk about them. I also love the options to draw on photos or play hide-and-seek. I used the app in Thai with her, here is my experience:

  • Talking about photos: My 2-year-old was too impatient to answer all the questions in any language. This is something I might revisit when she is a bit older.

  • Hide and seek: She had a little more patience for this one. She enjoyed placing and hiding objects, and we worked together to use prepositions in Thai to describe where the object was hidden. You would think I used prepositions more often in my daily speech but I guess I don’t! This game really helped to reinforce them in Thai.

  • Drawing: This has got to be my daughter’s favorite feature because she can be creative and independent. Together, we talk about what she has made either while she’s adding objects/drawing, or we describe how it makes us feel when we see the final product (it is usually funny!).

Small Wonders

Of the three apps, this is the one that has the most game-like features and is a mixture of both consumption and creation. There are many activity options within this app with the four broader categories being: food, outdoors, faces, and home. Within each category, there are matching games, opportunities to look at photos and talk about them, or interactive games like decorating a room in your home together.

Things I liked:

  • Once again, the opportunity for my daughter to get creative made her more interested in talking to me about her process. Decorating a room or making a pizza together seemed to be the most successful in engaging my daughter in meaningful discussion. I would ask her questions and she in turn would ask me things like, “Do you like pineapples on your pizza?”

  • Under each category, there is a more game-like activity where you get to match objects or pick up riders on a bus. I appreciated how slowly each of these was animated so as to not be overstimulating or force rapid scanning of the screen. There is also very little audio, no added music, just sounds you would normally hear in that environment like the sound of the bus engine. When you successfully do something, there is a quick “ding” to indicate success with some hearts that appear. Again, the thing I appreciated most was the focus on simplicity to avoid unnecessary attention shifts.

Things I didn’t like:

  • My daughter was unwilling to talk to me about the photos of objects. She only wanted to tap on them so they changed quickly. This is again one we’ll have to save for when she’s a bit older.

  • She enjoyed playing the games but didn’t want to talk about any of it, she just wanted to get on to the next game. This will have to also be something I save for later.

  • Each category has a song that encourages an offline activity you can do together like cooking or reading. While I understand the sentiment here, my daughter only wants to watch the videos over and over again. This led to a tantrum when we tried to actually take the device away and start reading time. I’m not sure this would be a motivator for her even when she is older. This is just one perspective though, and it could very well work for other families!

Overall, I think that this is my least favorite of these three Early Learning EdTech apps.

Animal Antics

This was my favorite app, and it is because it served my goal of getting my daughter to use more Thai with me. It is simple, choose a scenario or make your own, your child is one character and you are the other. Then you select how the characters feel in each scene and start making up a story together.

What I like:

  • It is straightforward and focuses on being creative (storytelling and character perspective). We have used the same scene multiple times and come up with different stories each time. Changing the mood of the characters helped us come up with new things to say to change the plot.

  • You can save the videos and revisit them again to encourage further discussion and thinking around the story you created together. Things like “What do you think happened next?” or “What might have happened if we made him angry instead of sad here?”

  • My daughter recalls videos we have made and talks about them using vocabulary she used while making the video.

What I don’t like:

  • Not much to be honest 🙂 It would be great to have even more preset performance options, However, I did notice that there already has been a new one added since I downloaded the app. So, I suspect there will be more over time. I really appreciate the option to make your own with your own photos too.

Here are a few examples of stories my daughter and I recorded together in Thai.


All these Early Learning EdTech apps are very well thought out and truly keep young children in mind. I personally prefer the features that allowed for my daughter and me to work creatively and collaboratively together. It built more of a foundation for deeper conversation and language development. I may revisit a few of the more consumption-based activities when she is old enough to want to discuss what she is doing and seeing.


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