Today’s interview is with Carolyn Saper and Alice Letvin of ReadAskChat. Visit their website.
Thank you for participating our interview. Please tell us a little about yourself.
Carolyn: Alice and I have been colleagues for the last 35 years. Early in my career I taught first and second grade (and a little kindergarten) before joining the Great Books Foundation, where I met Alice. Eventually I became the editorial director. After leaving Great Books, I joined the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute as the senior editor of curriculum and assessment. I was one of the authors of its STEP Literacy Assessment. One of my most pleasurable recent activities—in addition to ReadAskChat, of course!—was to serve on the national advisory committee of the American Writers Museum—another startup education venture. My AB in English literature and MST in K–9 curriculum and instruction are both from the University of Chicago.
Alice: As a child and throughout my life, reading and sharing literature with others has been my passion. After earning my PhD in Comparative Literature from Washington University in St. Louis, I joined the editorial staff at the Great Books Foundation, later serving as president for ten years. While there, we created and implemented nationwide an exemplary interpretive reading, writing, and discussion program to extend the benefits of literature-based, open-ended inquiry to the regular classroom,. Subsequently, as editorial director of the Cricket Magazine Group, I led the publication of its series of world-class literary and science magazines for toddlers through teens, including the beloved Cricket magazine, which has inspired so many young writers, artists, and thinkers. Collaborating with Carolyn on ReadAskChat is the culmination of all that we have learned about engaging both children and adults in the pleasures of imagination and sharing ideas with each other.
Art for “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (c) 2017 by John Sandford for ReadAskChat.
How did the idea for your app come about?
Carolyn: The inspiration for ReadAskChat comes from personal experience. My husband and I are adoptive parents, and when our daughter Jiji came home at 9 months, she was clinically failure to thrive. She couldn’t hold her little head up or babble, or reach for shiny objects—things that 9-month-olds should be doing. But after only one month of reading picture books, singing songs, playing and snuggling, and “chatting” about anything and everything, Jiji was a fully caught up and happy 10-month-old. (And now she’s about to graduate from college with a degree in philosophy.) For years, Alice and I have shared a love of reading and discussing books, so when the stars aligned and we were both ready to pursue a new project, we put our experience of making inspiring literature accessible to children and developed ReadAskChat. Jiji’s cognitive and emotional blossoming as a baby was never far from our memory. We both marveled that the simple act of creating a routine of sharing wonderful stories with a very young child seemed so immediately impactful, with lasting effects. We believe in the potential of ReadAskChat to enable all families to have a similarly joyful and brain-building learning experience with their own babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
How do you suggest parents help limit kids screen time?
Carolyn: Our child grew up in the digital age, so I recognize that parents can find this challenging. But my husband and I grew up in the age of TV, and our parents simply established TV-viewing limits early—which became the accepted family value. In our home, we simply removed devices from our daughter’s room at a set time of day, and said—“light’s out.” But I’m convinced that because we also established a norm of reading and conversation (starting before our daughter was even capable of conversation!) that we set a pattern of live—not virtual—deep communication that continues to this day.
Alice: I want to make the point that we don’t consider engaging with ReadAskChat as traditional “screen time.” ReadAskChat is a digital library and is meant to be used by children and parents together. It’s actually the very opposite of a “babysitting app” that parents hand off to their kids, which would constitute passive “screen time.” ReadAskChat is anything but passive. Our aim is to replicate the picture-book experience in which parents read with their children. We guide parents in a method of interactive reading that involves reading, rereading, asking text-specific questions, and engaging in back-and-forth exchanges. While our selections are short (because our audiences are so young), they are content rich, with illustrations that can support close observation and reward extended conversation.
Reading comes in many forms – digital, physical, storytelling and more. Which of these ways is the best for kids to learn?
Alice: Very young children—the ReadAskChat audience—only learn language from other people. So reading with children, rather than turning on an audiobook or video—is the best way to build reading readiness. But the difference between a digital book and a physical book shouldn’t make any difference. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised its guidelines for recommended screen time with the caveat that digital experiences should be parent-mediated. What’s important is that parents and children read together—sharing ideas, having fun, being silly, taking turns making up stories about characters, and generally having a warm, enjoyable time with each other. There’s more and more research evidence supporting the importance of social-emotional learning. We tell parents: Watch your child’s reactions. Build on what your child says or seems curious about. Talking about richly drawn fictional characters—of the kind we include in ReadAskChat—helps your child practice reading the emotions of others—to understand what is going on under the surface. This is also an important thinking and comprehension skill. Stories teach empathy and the ability to relate to others. This is key because getting along with others is the single most important school readiness skill, according to most kindergarten teachers.
Carolyn: Our background is in print publishing, so we are occasionally asked why we created a digital library. Our primary reason is that we wanted to increase access to high-quality children’s books to families who for many reasons (including income level) may not have high-quality children’s books in their homes. But smartphone and tablet technology now makes it possible for almost all families to have easy access to an app like ReadAskChat. The technology also makes it possible for us to embed suggestions for how to engage with each story at three developmental levels—babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard someone say, “I know I’m supposed to read and talk with my little kid about books, but I have no idea how to do that!” ReadAskChat is particularly designed for those parents.
Art for “Naughty or Nice” (c) 2012 by Jon Goodell. Text (c) 2017 by ReadAskChat.
Tell me more about how parents can help their kids learn?
Carolyn: The research is pretty clear that the single most important learning activity that parents can do with their children is reading and talking about books together. What we would add is that whatever parents do, it should be joyful. This is why we took great care in making sure that the stories and illustrations in ReadAskChat appeal to both child and adult. (Alice and I still laugh at the frogs in Naughty or Nice? and at the hilarious observations of the Animal Tails narrator.) Our long experience has shown us time and time again that when the parent is having fun, the child will too. And we fervently believe that learning should always be fun!
From “Animal Tails,” an African American folk rhyme. (c) 2017 by ReadAskChat.
Can you give an example of how parents can integrate ReadAskChat into their daily routines?
Alice: Children appreciate consistency and routines, so reading and chatting together every night at bedtime is a wonderful opportunity for bonding with your child. Such early shared experiences set the pattern for enjoying reading over a lifetime, and are often our most treasured memories of childhood. I’ll never forget hearing the magical “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” for the first time, as my mother read it to me. But ReadAskChat is also designed to be integrated into busy schedules. While sitting in a waiting room or riding a bus, a parent can make best use of the time by pulling out the ReadAskChat library on her smartphone and engaging her child in conversation inspired by our short but content-rich selections. In addition, the ReadAskChat MORE! activities encourage parents to “keep the conversation going” through hands-on exploration—looking for animal footprints, for example, or by applying story concepts, such as indoor fun, to their own lives. After reading and chatting about “Kitchen Drums,” for example, we suggest parents give their child pots, pans, and spoons to make loud and soft “music” like the children in the story.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Carolyn: Our original vision for ReadAskChat was based on a social justice mission. Our own families have so benefited from a culture of reading and exploration of ideas that we wanted more families to share in those benefits. We have grave inequities in our country, and access to good children’s books is one that we thought we could address. So we actively seek out organizations that focus on early learning, literacy, and/or parenting education and work with them to implement ReadAskChat with their constituencies. We recently developed a robust set of training materials and offer those to organizations. Our app also gives families the option to read all the conversation starters in Spanish because talking about the stories is what we’re all about. The stories remain in English because our mission is to foster school readiness, which in the U.S. means having some exposure to English.
Alice: Carolyn and I share the conviction that all children should be given the opportunity to realize their full potential as lifelong learners and empathic human beings. To achieve this result, ReadAskChat focuses on the first four years of life, when 80 percent of brain development occurs. Because parents play the first and most critical role in their children’s education, we aim to engage parents early on. Rather than dreary skills drills, the distinctive contribution of ReadAskChat is its emphasis on open-ended, imaginative, and joyful exploration of ideas. If parents and children are having fun, both will be learning about each other and the world around them.
Thank you so much for talking with us today and sharing a bit about your company. We really appreciated the chance to get to know you!
Kids learn best through play and explaining what they are seeing and doing. Recently, every time I turn on the television news or tune in to the local radio, I am prompted things that I know I do not want my child to see or things that I might consider to be scary for them. Research has shown that children learn best through play — and playing out situations via role play can help them to better process and understand them. With the recent Hurricane Harvey here in the United States – there has been a lot of news on the television and radio that is overwhelming. As such, I started thinking about some of my favorite apps that would help kids in these situations. Helping children process traumatic events they seen in the news such as the recent Hurricane Harvey and other frightening news, can be overwhelming. Many children learn better with play therapy. Below are a few apps that involve role play, social stories and more to help them process difficult situations as well as explore new situations. Below is a list of some of my favorites.
Kids learn differently than adults. Introducing a new situation can be hard. One of the biggest things I struggle with as a parent is helping my kids understand a new situation. Helping my kids prepare for new experiences can be overwhelming as. One of my favorite thing about the MyPlayhome apps is that there are no rules – kids can play and role play while narrating what they are doing. I love to see all the different games that my toddler comes up with or see my son talking about an upcoming doctors appointment using MyPlayhome Hospital. Using Social Stories like Kid in the Storybook maker can help kids better understand a new situation. Dr. Panda has a series of role play apps including firefighters, daycare, school bus and more. .
Shimon Young is a genius. Shimon is the developer of the universal My PlayHome app and has managed to find a way to keep my iToddler (2.5) entertained for more than just a few minutes. Not an easy task. My PlayHome brings the dollhouse into the digital age by offering an entire virtual home, complete with an adorable family of five that kids can explore and interact with. Also available on the iPhone (Pocket PlayHome!), this app features beautiful hand-drawn illustrations and realistic sounds associated with each interaction. My PlayHome also has a simple user interface very easy for little fingers to control. This app caters for 2-8 year olds which is appropriate as it’s simple enough for the younger users to play with yet detailed enough to keep the older kids entertained too.” Quite a comprehensive app but still very easy to use by its intended audience. One of the best kids apps I have come across on the App Store!” This continues to be a top pick of The iMums for kids of all ages. Read the full review.
When iMum Amanda reviewed the original My PlayHome back in 2011 she described it’s creator Shimon Young as a genius, and I have to agree. After being installed on our iPads for 2 1/2 years my kids still play with My PlayHome regularly, and there are very few apps that retain their appeal long term like that. So when I told my children there was a new My PlayHome app out, to say they were excited is a definite understatement. My PlayHome brings the dolls house into the digital age with an entire interactive house and garden to play in, and My PlayHome Stores expands the play by adding four shops to explore and shop in. The app stars the same characters as the original app – there are 3 moms, 3 dads, 3 girls, 3 boys and 3 babies from a variety of ethnicities and you can mix and match them any way you like to create the family in the app. The twist that my children really love (and that I have not seen in any other app) is when the family go shopping in the stores they can walk home with their purchases, and if you own My PlayHome they can take their purchases from the stores back to their home. Read the full review.
In the fantastic tradition of the Playhome Software Company, comes the latest My Playhome app, My Playhome Hospital. Fully integrated with the other My Playhome apps (Home, School and Store), this new app allows the player to explore all aspects of the hospital experience. When the app is opened, the child is faced with the view of the hospital and an ambulance. No settings tab, no external options, and no parental tab. The only extra button to press is the Tidy the Hospital wheel, which is a great option. It allows the player to actually erase the previous designs created and start fresh. The home page ambulance can be driven to the school, home or store; linking the other apps (one of my favorite features). An interactive app that familiarizes children with the workings and people in the hospital setting. Multiple different scenes with many opportunities to interact with the objects and characters on each page.
One of the best loved toys of all time are doll houses. It brings hours upon hours of enjoyment to boys and girls alike, and it’s only limitation is a child’s imagination. My PlayHome Software Ltd has brought this enjoyment in the most portable form possible in My PlayHome, My PlayHome Stores, and very recently, My PlayHome School. While my children and I enjoyed My PlayHome and My PlayHome Stores, My PlayHome School far exceeded our expectations. It has almost everything you could find in an elementary school: a receptionist desk, the principal’s office, a cafeteria, boys and girls restrooms, a science lab, an auditorium, a janitor’s closet, lockers, and of course, classrooms. Read the full review.
Explaining difficult situations to kids or helping them understand something new is the premise of Kid in the Storybook maker. This app allows you to take photos of an upcoming event — be it a doctors appointment, new school or even a vacation and use your own words, photos and voice to describe it to the reader. I loved using Bluebee Pals with my son when we recently did a social story about his new school.
Enuma, designs assistance and play-based learning apps to empower kids to be independent learners. they have a special interest in producing apps for children with special needs. LocoMotive Labs is located in Berkeley, California and was founded in 2012, its design team includes many of the team who produced the Injini child development suite. Kid in Story was designed to help parents and therapists easily produce their own stories for children. As children with Autism often respond well to social stories that include them, they wanted to include a way to easily add the child into the story. Read our full review.
Entertaining, informative, and kid-friendly podcasts for bedtime, road trips, and more. Best part? They’re screen-free. By Frannie Ucciferri
What if something out there had your kid begging you to turn off the TV or tablet, put away the video games, and listen to a story? It seems practically impossible in today’s media environment. Why would anyone (especially kids who’ve grown up with YouTube and Netflix) bother with screenless entertainment? But with podcasts, “no screens” becomes “no problem.” Podcasts made for — and even by — kids are popping up all over the place. Check out these 20 great podcasts for kids! Be sure to check out our previous article on 8 educational podcasts here.
As always, we encourage you to check out these podcasts prior to listening to them with your child to ensure they are a good fit.
Many adults are already familiar with podcasts, thanks to popular but mature hits such as Serial and Radiolab. But thankfully, podcasters are starting to realize that kids love what they’re doing as much as grown-ups. Teachers are even using them in the classroom. With exciting stories, fascinating facts, and lively sound effects to grab kids’ interest, all you need for an entertaining family-listening experience are some headphones or a set of speakers. Check out these 20 awesome podcasts for kids — including perfect bedtime stories, science exploration, cool news, and more. Plus, find out the best way to get them and use them. (We took our best guess for the target ages but include them as a guide since some of the content can be mature.)
How to Listen
It can be daunting for a first-timer to enter the world of podcasts, but digital tools have made it easier than ever to start listening. Podcasts are available to stream online or with a “podcatcher,” an app you can download specifically for podcasts. Here are some popular options for listening:
- Podcasts. The original podcast app (only available for Apple iOS). FREE!
- Stitcher Radio for Podcasts. “Stitch” together custom podcast playlists with this mobile app
- Pocket Casts. A mobile app with a sleek, easy-to-use interface
- SoundCloud. An online audio-streaming platform for podcasts as well as music (also an app)
- Podbay.fm. Streaming platform specifically for podcasts (app available for Android, but iOS coming soon)
- NPR One. Download content and stream via Bluetooth in your car. Many of the podcasts below are from NPR content
Once you have your favorite app or website, search its library by topic and start exploring everything from science to sports to movies and more. And don’t forget to subscribe! Subscribing lets the app push new episodes directly to your device as soon as they’re available, so you’ll always have the latest update at your fingertips.
Pros and Cons of Podcasts for Kids
On the plus side, podcasts:
- Boost learning. With engaging hosts and compelling stories, podcasts can be great tools to teach kids about science, history, ethics, and more. Listening to stories helps kids build vocabulary, improve reading skills, and even become more empathetic.
- Reduce screen time. With podcasts, families can enjoy the same level of engagement, entertainment, and education as screen-based activities without worrying about staring at a screen.
- Go anywhere. Podcasts are completely portable. You can listen in the car, on the bus, or in a classroom or even while doing chores around the house.
- Cost nothing. Podcasts don’t have subscription or download fees, so anyone with internet access can listen and download for free. Most podcatcher apps are free, too.
- Get two thumbs up from kids! Podcasts are designed to hook kids with music, jokes, compelling stories, and more. Some are designed in a serial format with cliffhangers at the end to get kids to tune back in.
On the downside, podcasts:
- Play lots of ads. Many podcasts run several minutes of ads at the beginning or end. Because they’re often read by the podcast host, the ads can feel like a hard sell.
- Can be confusing. Many podcasts update regularly, so you can jump right in and start listening. Others are styled like radio or TV shows, so the most recent episode is actually the end of a season. Check whether something is serialized or long-form before listening to the most recent update.
- Vary in age-appropriateness. The iTunes Store labels podcasts “Explicit” or “Clean,” but even a “Clean” label doesn’t guarantee kid-friendly content. When in doubt, listen first before sharing with your kids.
Luckily we’ve discovered some excellent kid-friendly podcasts that you and your family will love listening to. Here are 20 of our favorites:
For the Whole Family
Precocious 7-year-old Eva Karpman and her mom interview celebs, award winners, and experts in a range of fields each week, with a hope of encouraging young people to find their passion and follow their dreams. The relatable mother-daughter dynamic and the big-name guests make this a fun choice for kids and their parents to listen to together. Best for: Kids
Wow in the World
One of the newest podcasts to hit the scene, NPR’s first show for kids is exactly the sort of engaging, well-produced content you would expect from the leaders in radio and audio series. Hosts Guy Roz and Mindy Thomas exude joy and curiosity while discussing the latest news in science and technology in a way that’s enjoyable for kids and informative for grown-ups. Best for: Kids
Book Club for Kids
This excellent biweekly podcast features middle schoolers talking about a popular middle-grade or YA book as well as sharing their favorite book recommendations. Public radio figure Kitty Felde runs the discussion, and each episode includes a passage of that week’s book read by a celebrity guest. Best for: Tweens and teens
This American Life
This popular NPR radio show is now also the most downloaded podcast in the country. It combines personal stories, journalism, and even stand-up comedy for an enthralling hour of content. Host Ira Glass does a masterful job of drawing in listeners and weaving together several “acts” or segments on a big, relatable theme. Teens can get easily hooked along with their parents, but keep in mind that many episodes have mature concepts and frequent swearing. Best for: Teens
Best Bedtime Podcasts
Produced by the same people who do Story Time, this is a gentle podcast that encourages relaxation as well as mindfulness. Great for bedtime, but also any time of day when kids could use a calming activity, this podcast combines breathing exercises with whimsical visualizations for a truly peaceful experience. Best for: Preschoolers and little kids
These 10- to 15-minute stories are a perfect way to lull your little one to sleep. The podcast is updated every other week, and each episode contains a kid-friendly story, read by a soothing narrator. Short and sweet, it’s as comforting as listening to your favorite picture book read aloud. Best for: Preschoolers and little kids. PERFECT for getting bedtime stories in on the go!
What If World
With wacky episode titles such as “What if Legos were alive?” and “What if sharks had legs?,” this series takes ridiculous “what if” questions submitted by young listeners and turns them into a new story every two weeks. Host Eric O’Keefe uses silly voices and crazy characters to capture the imaginations of young listeners with a Mad Libs-like randomness. Best for: Kids
One of the first kids’ podcasts to grasp podcasts’ storytelling capabilities, this podcast is still going strong with kid-friendly renditions of classic stories, fairy tales, and original works. These longer stories with a vivid vocabulary are great for bigger kids past the age for picture books but who still love a good bedtime story. Best for: Big kids
Best Podcasts for Road Trips
The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian
This serialized podcast tells the story of an 8-year-old boy living on an interplanetary space station who explores the galaxy and solves mysteries with his friends. With no violence or edgy content and with two seasons totaling over 13 hours of content, this sci-fi adventure is perfect for long car rides. Best for: Kids and tweens
Inspired by old-timey radio shows — complete with over-the-top sound effects — this exciting serial podcast follows a plucky journalist who goes on adventures looking for her big scoop. Tweens will love Eleanor’s wit and daring and might even pick up some great messages along the way. There’s even a “Road Trip Edition” episode with the entire first season in a single audio file. Best for: Tweens
The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel
This Peabody Award-winning scripted mystery series has been called a Stranger Things for tweens. With a voice cast of actual middle schoolers, a gripping, suspenseful plot, and interactive tie-ins, this story about an 11-year-old searching for his missing friends will keep tweens hooked to the speakers for hours — more than five, to be exact. Best for: Tweens
Welcome to Night Vale
Structured like a community radio show for the fictional desert town of Night Vale, the mysterious is ordinary and vice versa in this delightfully eerie series. Both the clever concept and the smooth voice of narrator Cecil Baldwin have helped the show develop a cult-like following. It’s a bit creepy and dark for kids, but older listeners will find it perfect for a nighttime drive along a deserted highway. Best for: Teens
Best Podcasts for Science Lovers
But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids
Kids are always asking seemingly simple questions that have surprisingly complex answers, such as “Why is the sky blue?” and “Who invented words?” This cute biweekly radio show/podcast takes on answering them. Each episode features several kid-submitted questions, usually on a single theme, and with the help of experts, it gives clear, interesting answers. Best for: Kids
Similar to But Why, this is another radio show/podcast that takes kid-submitted science questions and answers them with the help of experts. What makes this one different is it tends to skew a bit older, both in its questions and answers, and it has a different kid co-host each week. The result is a fun show that’s as silly as it is educational. Best for: Kids and tweens
Often compared to a kid-friendly Radiolab, this podcast not only addresses fascinating topics but also tries to foster a love of science itself by interviewing scientists about their process and discoveries. The hosts don’t assume that listeners have a science background — but even kids who think they don’t like science may change their minds after listening to this podcast. Best for: Kids and tweens
Stuff You Should Know
From the people behind the award-winning website HowStuffWorks, this frequently updated podcast explains the ins and outs of everyday things from the major (“How Free Speech Works”) to the mundane (“How Itching Works”). Longer episodes and occasional adult topics such as alcohol, war, and politics make this a better choice for older listeners, but hosts Josh and Chuck keep things engaging and manage to make even complex topics relatable. And with nearly 1,000 episodes in its archive, you might never run out of new things to learn. Best for: Teens
Best Podcasts for Music Fans
The catchy soundtrack is the star in this delightful podcast from children’s music duo Andrew & Polly (not surprising since the hosts have created songs for Wallykazam! and Sesame Studios). But this funny program also covers a range of topics by talking to actual kids as well as experts, providing thoughtful fun for young ones and their grown-ups. Best for: Preschoolers and little kids
The Past & the Curious
Reminiscent of the TV show Drunk History (minus the alcohol), this amusing podcast features people telling interesting, little-known stories from history with an emphasis on fun and humor. Although it’s not specifically a music podcast, each episode contains an often-silly song that’s sure to get stuck in your head. There’s even a quiz segment, so kids will learn something, too. Best for: Kids
Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child
Families can enjoy rock and roll without the downsides with this fun radio show/podcast. Each week there’s a new playlist combining kids’ music from artists such as They Might Be Giants, with kid-appropriate songs from artists that grown-ups will recognize, such as Elvis Costello, The Ramones, and John Legend. It’s a perfect compromise for parents tired of cheesy kids’ music. Best for: Kids
All Songs Considered
This weekly podcast from NPR covers the latest and greatest in new music with a particular focus on emerging artists and indie musicians. It covers a wide range of genres and even includes artist interviews and live performances. Some songs contain adult themes and explicit language, but teens will love discovering a new favorite that you’ve probably never heard of. Best for: Teens
About the author
As catalog data coordinator, Frannie Ucciferri
assists Common Sense Media’s reviewers and editors in making sure each of more than 29,000 reviews
is as complete and comprehensive as possible. Frannie is a graduate of UC Berkeley, where she earned a degree in cognitive science and taught a class on her favorite TV show ever, Arrested Development
. Her passion for reading and writing is paralleled only by her love of Bay Area sports, especially baseball. When she isn’t playing with her dogs or trying out San Francisco restaurants, you can probably find her watching Pixar movies
, Parks and Rec
, or one of her favorite girl power movies
and TV shows
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsensemedia.org