How I Homeschooled My 3-Year-Old Using iPad Apps

The WHO recommends that children between the age of 2 and 4 should not have more than one hour of screen time per day. However, not all screen time is created equal. Watching Die Hard with your 3-year-old is probably not the most effective way to spend this hour in your child’s day. 

I’m no teacher. But I’m a dad who’s had to find creative ways to keep my 3-year-old occupied at home when our preschool was shut due to the pandemic earlier this year. Like most dads in my situation, I googled my way through a ton of homeschooling resources to find the right balance of offline and online materials for my kid. 

To be fair, I’ve had a head start with regards to apps. I was until very recently a co-founder of a preschool literacy startup. Nonetheless, putting together an entire homeschool study plan each week for your own kid is really something else. I had to moderate my enthusiasm for fully digital solutions and made sure I included offline learning materials too. In the end, I think I did pretty well with a mix of printables and manipulatives centred around five iPad apps.   

Here’s my list of educational iPad apps that I used to create a fun holistic learning experience at home for my 3-year-old. Also, don’t worry I’ve decided not to shamelessly include my own app in this list.  

Dragonbox Numbers

Photo credit: Dragonbox

(iOS, Google Play/Android – US$7.99)

This is my son’s favourite of all the apps in this list. It’s an easy and enjoyable way to build your child’s early number sense. There are ten different coloured characters called the Nooms. Each character is an animated visual representation of a number from one to ten . You can add characters together to form larger numbers by placing them on top each other. Similarly, you can swipe across a character to divide them into smaller numbers. 

The combination of fun open-ended activities, colourful but distinct visuals, active user involvement and adorable sound clips are the key reasons why my kid still enjoys this game after all these months. More importantly, the app helped him strengthen his number sense without making it feeling like a chore.

I can’t take full credit for my 3-year-old’s growing interest in math and improved number sense but I do believe my decision to buy this app has certainly helped. I have two pro-tips which may be useful if you want to extend the learning beyond the app. Firstly, buy a set of physical unifix or linking math cubes to play with your kid. This will add a tactile and sensory dimension that can reinforce learning. Second tip, if you allow your kid to watch cartoons on the telly, watch the math cartoon “Number Blocks” on Youtube or Netflix. It’s pretty much the same concept with the app but is instead played out in series of short cartoons. I found going through all three activities helped strengthen his overall understanding of basic number concepts.

Endless Reader

Photo credit: Originator

(iOS, Google Play/Android – Free with in-app purchase of US$4.99 per 20 word pack)

I was given a list of sight words for my kid to memorise from our preschool teacher during the lockdown. For the unenlightened, sight words are simply words which are most commonly used in children’s books. Being able to recognise them is an important foundation to a child’s reading fluency. Although I understood how important sight words were, it also became immediately obvious that getting my 3-year-old to remember a plain list of words was not going to be easy. Then I found this nifty app called the Endless Reader.

This is a great app for early literacy. As an app developer in the exact same space, I take my hat off to the creators. It manages to introduce sight words through a series of fun and cute animated scenarios acted out by colourful monsters. My kid sure loves cute monsters. The app also plays out letter sounds during the letter matching exercise. This additional element has been helpful when my kid started learning phonics. Most importantly, with the different interactive elements in play, the whole process of memorising sight words doesn’t seem tedious or boring. I even found some of the animation quite entertaining myself. 

My only pro-tip here is to prepare a printed plain list of sight words you want to tackle for the week. Then pick the same words on the app for your 3-year-old to go through. Then use the list as a way to test how many words can your child remember.       


Photo Credit: Speakaboos

(iOS – US$7.99 per month)

There are a number of reading apps in the market. The notable ones are Homer and Epic. I gave both of these apps a go but for some reason, my kid didn’t take to either of them. We tried Speakaboos, a lesser known reading app, and somehow he got into it. I can’t be absolutely sure why. Maybe it’s the combination of the characters in the app or perhaps how the stories are presented. I don’t really know but I know that he loves this app.  

To be honest, I think some teachers would not recommend this app for reading. The stories are animated and read aloud by the narrator. Some may say that the higher level of interactivity pulls away the child’s attention from reading itself. However, I don’t expect my kid to pick up too much reading from this app. For that, I rely on good old fashioned printed picture books. I’ve used this app as a way to improve my kid’s listening skills. The words are clearly enunciated and well paced. We still use it every week. My only complaint is that the story catalog is quite limited and hardly updated.

The pro-tip I have here is to replace some of your kid’s weekly TV time with this.

Elmo Loves 123s

Photo credit: Sesame Street

(iOS – US$4.99, Google Play/Android – Free with in-app purchase)

I remember watching Sesame Street on TV when I was growing up. To this day, I can still remember the psychedelic number counting songs and the funny segments of the math-obsessed Count von Count. Nostalgia aside, I did think for a while before I invested in this second math app. The reviews for the app were pretty good and it wasn’t too expensive. But the question in my mind was did we really need another math app given that the first one really worked well for us.

I’m really happy I decided to pay the US$4.99. This app provided us with a different but equally fun and engaging way to develop better number sense. The app is centred around Sesame Street characters who take users through the numbers 1 to 20 using professionally produced songs, music videos and games. I do subscribe to the theory that music aids in memorization. It makes the process of remembering something easier and also more fun. My son got into this app very quickly and the catchy tunes didn’t hurt at all. 

The only pro-tip I have is that this app also comes with a decent number tracing activity. You can use this opportunity to introduce handwriting numbers on paper to your 3-year-old after using the app.  

Hair Salon 3

Photo credit: TocaBoca

(iOS – US$3.99, Google Play/Android – US$5.98)

You must be wondering why a cutesy kids hairstyling app is doing in this list. It’s definitely not outwardly educational and might even seem frivolous. However, isn’t all play frivolous? Experts have generally agreed how important play is to a child’s healthy brain development.

I came across the concept of open-ended play in my research for my startup. Open-ended play is very simply “anything that does not have a way it is supposed to be used”. They provide opportunities for “children to make choices, express their creativity and support their independence”. Classic examples are lego bricks and basic art supplies like paper and paints.

In my opinion, this app checks most of the boxes for open ended play. There are an unlimited number of possible outcomes ie. hairstyles and accompanying clothing. Players are allowed to use different types of styling tools like clippers, scissors, brushes etc. There’s no specific learning objective but to have fun and be creative. Though I originally purchased this app for my older daughter, I encouraged my son to play it too during the lockdown. His styling was not as fancy as his big sister’s but he had lots of fun.

My pro-tip is to talk to your 3-year-old about the concept of using different tools for different tasks when he/she is using the app. Follow up by showing in real life them the different tools we use for other tasks. I walked my kid through some tools in my tool box and also the utensils in our kitchen.

And we’re done. Give yourself a pat on the back.

Below is a simple homeschooling study plan checklist with additional activity ideas to support learning with the 5 apps.



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