an article by Neil MacQueen
Originally posted September 2012.
Updated several times since.
Last Updated July 2017
(*sigh* …still nothing that great)
The iPad, Android tablet, and “app” market continues to evolve right in front of us. I’ve updated this article several times, and will continue to do so.
At the end of this article are a few current recommendations for Bible apps. With the exception of one, they’re all for younger children, which is part of the disappointing reality of this medium right now. Where are the engaging Bible apps for OLDER children and younger youth?
Verdict to date:
I’m still waiting for a “Bible app for children” to get even mildly excited about.
If you have young children, you’ll find a few good Bible story apps. But if you’re looking for Bible apps your 3rd, 4th and 5th graders will like, good luck. Most available apps are still made for little kids, and still amount to nothing more than “nice narrated Bible story pictures with modest animation. The “activity” they promise is usually something a kid will like, but rarely educational.
I recently downloaded the updated version of the highly touted “Bible App for Kids” by YouVersion, after one parent gushed how much their children “love it.” Looks great, nicely illustrated, kid friendly text, but a yawner for older kids, and activities bordering on “simplistic.” While it might be a good alternative to a boring teacher or popsicle-stick craft, it’s still not something a good Sunday School or older children will find satisfying.
On a related note…. I continue to hear or read that a teacher has found an interesting “creativity” app that let’s kids draw/doodle something they’ve learned about a Bible story. At most, it’s one app they’ve found, which is hardly a recommendation to go out and buy a stack of iPads. And they almost NEVER tell you what app it is they are using! Strange.
Looking back over the year… CBN has released its Superbook videos on an “app.” And I saw at least one VBS curriculum publisher offer apps to participants (Group Publishing), but they discontinued it due to cost. Every year seems to bring a new “Bible coloring book” app (like we needed another one).
If you have a good Bible app for grades 3-6th, email me and I will advertise it here for free.
It must do more than just re-tell the story, and any associated activity must have some educational value related to the lesson, and not just be a fun time-waster.
I’m frequently asked two questions regarding iPads/tablets:
1) “What about iPads or Tablet computers for our kids in Sunday School?”
2) “Do you have any, or recommend any “apps” for iPads or tablets?”
In short the answer is “NOT YET, and A Few.”
There simply aren’t enough Bible software “apps” for grades 3 and up, -good or bad, for me to recommend a church go out and buy a stack of iPads for their kids. Yes, there are some interesting Bible “apps” and utilities, such as, drawing/animation tools (see below), but very little with good Bible story content, especially for older children.
IMO: It looks sexy to do so, but the amount of good content simply isn’t there, yet, to justify buying a stack of tablets at $150 each. …unless you are seriously committed to finding the limited web content, –have somewhat low expectations for what you’ll find, –are happy with kids searching for and reading TEXT in one of the plentiful Bible apps, + have the money to burn.
Some imagine surfing the Web in the classroom for kid-friendly Bible content. I wish. There is DANG LITTLE useful kid-friendly Bible content of reasonable quality on the WEB for Sunday School use. DANG little. (Did I mention, “Little” and “Dang”?) Those of us with PC and Mac desktops in our churches have been asking the same question, -for years.
Short of watching some YouTube videos, searching for Bible text, or finding some of the incredibly amateurish Bible story pages created by well meaning volunteers, the amount of quality kid-friendly Christian internet content is severely lacking. It’s even more paltry if you expect to easily find it. I know a few youth pastors who spend a lot of time searching for YouTube videos to illustrate their discussions. But is that “enough” to go out and buy a stack of iPads right now? Not in most churches. And if you’re NOT of the evangelical persuasion, you’ll find even less.
If you do want to view the few useful webpages and occasional youtube video, all you really need is a laptop hooked up to a projector anyway. Tablets (and PCs) in Sunday School should be about interacting with content, not just giving each kid their own screen.
Note: I find a lot of great YouTube content to show in Sunday School, but you have to be careful about other videos that get advertised alongside them. For this reason I don’t recommend having the kids look at the videos on tablets. The teacher needs to control what they can access.
These CAVEATS are all especially true for churches where the teachers won’t spend the time looking for good content. I’m a realist about that. Most of our teachers need ready-to-use, easy-to-find content.
You may have noticed that SOME published curriculum, like Group’s new “Grapple” stuff appears to offer software for computer-based learning! Sadly, they are just short (but nice) videos you can view on line (or order on DVD). It’s video curriculum by a different mechanism, not true interactive learning. Zondervan put together something ‘gamey’ to supplement one of its printed currics. Not exactly computer-assisted learning.
What about “tablets and apps for kids to use during worship?” (I’ve actually people ask me about that.)
–> Insert Scream Here <–
Older kids should be paying attention. And if you want to distract your Younger kids in worship, you can do it a lot more cheaply with other things than tablets. Without good apps and adult supervision, it’s an expensive way to keep them occupied. (See my separate note about “touchscreens” below.)
Oh Dear…. I’ve taken some heat for these opinions!
Occasionally I get a young pastor or techie very excited about the idea of putting tablets/pads in the hands of their older children. I agree, it would be exciting, –if there were enough good programs for that age group to download, access, or view online. When I say, “I don’t know of enough good apps or site,” some of them get upset thinking I’m throwing cold water on them. No, I’m simply saying what I’ve always said: you don’t teach with the hardware. You have to teach with the software. Having cool tablets is not enough. Before someone buys your church the hardware, ask them to show you what they plan on doing with it over the course of the year. One or two apps are not enough.
Please remember that I’m the guy who started teaching with computers when there was almost NO Christian software, basic computers cost $1800 a piece, and most church offices still didn’t have them. People looked at me as if I was crazy back then. Told me that computers were “elitist.” (This was also back when nobody owned home computers.) We taught with a lot of utility software –but really wanted interactive BIBLE software with content. It took years for good content to arrive. And that’s where we are right now for iPads/tablets: little or no good teaching software + only a few can afford to put iPads in each child’s hands. But we DO have inexpensive desktops + plenty of good Bible software programs that work great on them.
So why aren’t WE developing apps?
It would be pretty cheap to develop apps for smartphones and tablets, versus, 3d games like our Exodus Adventures CD. But you simply can’t put the kind of content in an app like you can a desktop piece of software. And our computer lab concept is all about the content. If I thought the tools and time was right, I’d be all over it. As well, my standard is “cooperative learning” in Sunday School, and true interactivity, ….not a few animated Bible pages and a game to fling stones at Goliath. An last but not least, there’s the issue of how fast the tablet market is moving. We can make a CD for Windows that works on a brand new computer AND a ten year old donated computer. The shelf-life of an APP is about a year or two. And that’s simply NOT good math for your budget or mine.
DESKTOP PRICES ARE CRAZY LOW THESE DAYS
Every few weeks when I stroll through the computer aisle at Staples or Best Buy I’m AMAZED at the low-cost, high-powered desktops they are selling. My first PC in Sunday School cost $1800! (had all of 614 kb of ram too.) Even DELL is selling 15″ laptops for $250 now. And TWO kids can use a laptop. Three for a desktop. ONE kid for a 10″ $250 iPad that has almost no software for it.
It’s about math, content, and concept of use.
The real world “church-math” is still in the Desktops’ favor…
ONE inexpensive $300 Windows PC with a $100 20″ LCD screen
that can run existing software for 2 to 3 kids and a teacher per station
ONE $200 10″ pad -two kids max per pad
(which the teacher or third kid won’t be able to see what’s on it)
that CANNOT run currently available Christian software,
with dang few available Bible ‘apps’ of any quality or quantity.
Desktops with 23″ screens and a mouse/keyboard that can be passed around promote COOPERATIVE LEARNING in our Sunday School classrooms. Whereas “pads” are mostly solitary learning devices. Two kids can see the pad, but not a third, and not the teacher standing back.
Kids sharing equipment and talking together with their teacher AS they go through the software is a good thing.
What about Big Touchscreens instead of monitors?
The hardware manufacturers are working hard to get people to believe they will be comfortable at a DESK working with both a keyboard, mouse and touchscreen. This might be the way to go for a home computer in your living room to manage media, Netflix and iTunes, but interactive educational software for several children to use all at once? No. Not with currently existing software. Part of the issue is always, “what is the software you want to use? If you are using educational software that asks for keyboarding input and uses arrow keys to move through a landscape or game screen, then TOUCH screens simply become an expensive feature you won’t use as much as you think. If you are just drawing or clicking on things to make them happen (as is often the case in little kids ‘storybook’ software), then maybe, but I’d have a hard time justifying it to my church when 90% of the time an inexpensive LCD screen, keyboard and mouse is what we will be using.
Aside: What about smartboards? Have you ever seen one outside a science classroom that the teacher used for anything other than writing on or projecting a laptop on? Smartboards are expensive whiteboards, especially for volunteer teachers. And most have little software written for them that is of any use to Sunday School.
What about replacing PC screens with big Tablets?
A 10″ tablet has a SIZE and viewing angle problem that is hard to get around as this photo accidentally illustrates. If you’re like most churches, you can’t afford one screen per kid. And if you’ve been reading our stuff, you know we believe in COOPERATIVE learning anyway. For the same reason we don’t recommend laptops for groups of 3 or more kids. It’s about screen real estate, …and the number of kids who will feel like they are going to get their turn.
What software is out there now for Tablets:
Search the iTunes, Android, or Windows store on your device for Bible apps for children and you’ll see the answer to this one: Few and far between.
The entire Bible on an app. This is a big category of what’s out there. And most are very ho-hum. Other than the GLO Bible (which is mostly for youth/adults), the Bible apps are piles of text. Not very engaging.
Okay, so it is worth $300 a tablet to be able to put the Glo Bible in front of your kids??? I wish.
There are quite a few Bible stories for Preschoolers and Kindergartners out there now. These have story pages and a few clicky do’s. Most are very limited in scope and age. I will get excited when I see Bible stories on tablets/iPads for older elementary kids, but have yet to see any.
Other types of apps for Sunday School?
There is a cool free drawing program called TOONTASTIC. And there are some very simple Bible story apps which are like clickable flipbooks. A couple of curriculum publishers are now adding “apps” to give their expensive curriculum a marketing edge, but the apps tend to be gamey, not overtly educational.
Where is Sunday Software, with “App” development?
A few people have accused me of putting down tablets and apps because I make software for PCs. The dopes. In fact, I could make software that ran on BOTH your iPad and a PC. I’ve experimented with the app development tools. They are relatively cheaper and quicker to work with than PC development tools. The reason most current Bible apps for children look rudimentary is because most of the “app” development tools are rudimentary, -unless you have a huge development budget, which only happens if the market is there, and according to the Bible app developers I have talked to, the market just isn’t there. Maybe one day.
There are other reasons too…
1. The pad/tablet market is evolving rapidly and so are the development tools. In the past 20 years, NOT A SINGLE Christian software developer has survived making software only to find two years later that it WON’T WORK on the newer devices coming out because the devices no longer support the code. Yet this is what’s happening in the app market. It’s not just the operating systems of the pads that are evolving, the hardware is evolving even more rapidly.
Making good Christian software requires a commitment to BACKWARDS COMPATIBILITY from the OS and device manufacturers. Apple in particular, thinks backwards compatibility means “two years”. This will mean that for the forseeable future, developing a range of “Bible” apps for Sunday School will be a fools-errand for all but the extremely well-funded ones (which are few and far between). Again, I wish that weren’t true, but I’m not an idiot.
2. Most Sunday Schools cannot afford to dump their PCs and go out and buy brand new iPads and Tablets. This software development issue is called, “installed base”. If we were just making software to play at home, that would be different. Sunday Software is aimed at helping Sunday Schools attract kids.
3. Most of the “app maker” tools right now are extremely basic. That’s why most apps look alike. That’s why most apps are good at doing just a FEW things, not many, and not with extensive content. The more advanced pad-only development tools are rapidly evolving and going defunct, which means any software you make on them now may not work in a year or two. Simple is easy right now, but developing a “Christian Angry Birds” is not our idea of success. We’re trying to do Christian education, not entertainment, and the Xtian software/app market is miniscule by comparison.
4. Where I think the content will really take off is when it’s put on the WEB and operates in the browser rather than an app. But most churches are not wired for wifi, and many simply can’t afford to do it right now. The Big Recession killed that momentum. And the “subscription model” for content is problematic. So we’re waiting.
I regularly look for apps.
I’m regularly approached by people selling or promoting apps.
I will continue to explore possibilities.
Presbyterian Outlook, my denomination’s magazine, asked me to find and write about some Bible apps for iPad and Android tablets. Here’s the article. I’ve since updated the app listing.
Children’s Bible Apps for Tablets, iPads, and Smartphones
By Rev. Neil MacQueen
for Presbyterian Outlook magazine
Christian software for kids has existed for two decades, and new titles are beginning to emerge specifically for tablets, iPads, and smartphones. Some are free; most are between $.99 and $1.99. The best place to look for them is on your device’s “app store.” You can also google them. There are some turkeys, so make sure to read users reviews, and try before you buy.
Here are few noteworthy choices (updated since this article was originally published). Most are rather “limited,” or one-dimensional, or rather “young,” –but if you’re looking for an “app” you can start with these:
The ABC’s of GOD [Made in 2013, Updated in 2014]
An ipad/iphone app for preschoolers. ABC’s of God includes letter recognition, handwriting, capital and lower case matching and word searches with Bible verses and what God is like. Kids choose a letter of the alphabet to “play” and each letter describes an attribute of God, such as Gracious, Zealous, and Truthful, and includes a simple verse.
The Adventure Bible [Made in 2013, updated in 2014.]
An iPad app for ages 7 to 12 from Zondervan. Kids play games to memorize Bible verses. Choose level of difficulty and verse. Players earn in-app prizes that make memory fun. Kids can add verses to favorites list, and play the “new verse each day” game. Also includes a Bible books scramble. Free version has just two books.
The Beginner’s Bible [Updated in 2016]
An iPad app for ages 2-6 from Zonderkids. Based on the Beginner’s Bible, the first six stories are free, subsequent story packs are $1.99. Some of the graphics are interactive.
ToonTastic [Updated in 2017]
A cross platform app for drawing/animating stories in a storyboard fashion. Pretty cool! But the TIME it takes to decently create/develop one story is LONGER than the average Sunday School class. That’s a serious problem. Cool for home and public school use, however. Ages 5-12
Bible App for Kids by YouVersion [Updated in 2017]
YouVersion seems to be committed to producing Bible story app for younger children. Nice graphics and interface. “Activities” aren’t very educational.
As parents and Presbyterians, we are of course concerned with the message, and I’m happy to say that the aforementioned are ecumenical. The same cannot be said for all Bible apps. There are some groups putting out apps that subtly reflect their “unique” point of view, or are designed to sell you their other resources. Most Bible apps come in “lite” (free) versions you can try. App stores and Amazon app sites have worthwhile user reviews. You can also see many in action on Youtube.
What seems to be missing are Bible apps for older children and youth (if you exclude “the Bible” and Bible trivia apps, of which there are many). Almost all decent Bible apps for children are written for preschoolers and young children, and not for older kids or youth. This was true of software for PCs at one point, so we should eventually see more for older kids. What’s also lacking is “quality in quantity”. The number of good Bible apps for any age is not that great, …yet. And like a lot of secular apps, many Bible apps look hastily, lack interactivity, and lack depth.
Bible Trivia Apps are a good alternative for older children and youth. Especially if you have an Android phone or tablet, you’ll be glad to see all the Bible Trivia apps available. Watch for theBible version they use, the degree of “triviality,” and any ‘themes’ which the questions seem to be pushing..
One of the better ones is Bible Trivia for Children. This iPad/iPhone app features 197 multiple choice questions, including 50 bonus general knowledge questions. 9 different game modes and both single and multiplayer options. This would be fun for a car ride, family table, or Sunday School game.
Another good one is Bible Trivia Quiz Game for Android. It has a large database of questions and great user reviews.
As a proponent of software use in Sunday School, I’m often asked about “iPads for our Sunday School”. Right now, I just don’t see enough good apps with Sunday School level depth to justify the equipment expense. This may change in a year or two, but by then, the equipment and operating systems requirements will have changed too, so hang in there.