Wednesday, September 18, 2013

iPad apps for kids

A few people have asked me about the educational iPad apps I recommend for children. I've downloaded a lot of apps in my time, I'm on my second iPad-enabled child and I have also seen quite a few children play with these apps. I'm not an expert, though, so these are just some informal recommendations from one parent to another. I've tried to whittle down my list to the stand-out apps below.

I've found that as soon as you put any proper game onto the iPad (like Angry Birds), a child's interest in educational apps essentially evaporates. So my advice is that if you are going to treat the iPad as an educational tool and spend lots of money on these apps, that you don't add any arcade-style games at all, or videos or cartoons. Even if you have only one clip of Sesame Street on your phone, watching this a dozen times is likely going to be more attractive than figuring out how to count apples into a basket for a cartoon hippo.

There are some apps that try to balance educational content with gamification. Sometimes this works, sometimes it does. A toddler app added an arcade-style game to MoreTrucks and it is for this reason that I would not recommend it. But as children get older, the apps do tend to use gamification more and I think this is going to be natural if you expect a child to pick up an app on their own and play with it. What this also means is that if you want to really use the iPad as an educational tool with older children, then you may need to unwrap the content for them a bit and work with them on it, and reward them for completing it.  I'm thinking about Tiny fractions here as an example but there are others. Tiny fractions is a nicely-designed way of teaching a child about fractions but it is unlikely that my son would pick it up and tinker with it unless I'd worked through some of it first with him.

Over the past few years I have also noticed that the educational software available online has definitely improved and there is a lot of free content that we will probably explore such as the Khan Academy. Thus far I've concluded that iPad apps are a great way of supplementing learning in particular areas.

Toddlers/Pre-schoolers (up to roughly age 4)

Endless alphabet - I cannot praise this app enough. When Alexander was learning his letters we didn't have anything like this. None of the early learning apps did phonics, and the first phonics apps were really hard to use. This app encourages children to match letters in a word and as you drag the letter with your finger it wriggles around like an animal and makes its sound. Leo will happily sing along with the letters, and has picked up very quickly on the idea that letters have sounds. Great app.

Pre-school adventure - I've had pre-school adventure on devices for about six years, and it has added new features during this time. It started out as only four mini-games within an app, and was great as it was. You match parts of a body, hear animal sounds, play with shapes. They were all beautifully crafted and good to look at and play with. I'm not as fond of all the new additions, but the app is still fun and educational and popular with youngsters.

Pre-school lunchbox - This is so much silly learning fun. A monkey needs fruit in his lunchbox, you have to count it in, put together pieces of broken fruit, give him all the fruit of a particular colour. You are rewarded with a grin and a headflip and stickers. Irresistible.

Park math - This app comes from Duck Duck Moose which makes a number of very good little educational apps. I rate Park math very highly, a series of mini-games which can be set at various levels of difficulty that encourage counting and subtraction and sorting.

Shape builder - Although this app does not do very much, it does absolutely enough: encourages your child to match shapes to build an image. This is the sort of app that will immediately appeal to a child, is a learning experience and from experience will occupy children of a variety of ages for at least ten minutes. Great way of distracting hungry offspring if you are waiting for a meal at a restaurant.

Cute math - This app is ancient (it was one of the very first educational apps to appear), has heavily Asian accented English, but still somehow manages to appeal because of the cute animations. The counting penguins is particularly useful for learning 1-10, and the basket -filling minigame is good as well. If I had to choose between Park math and Cute math I'd definitely go for the former. But for a bit of variety this is fun.

First words - I get a bit confused over the different First words apps that are out there. When I first bought this there was only one app, then they added another with a set of different words, and another. Then they offered a combined app with all the first three apps. And now there seem to be more new apps. I would recommend you buy one of these apps as a way of encouraging your child to understand word spellings--you'll need to tinker with the settings to make sure that the app is working in an age-appropriate way. This app would useful be in addition to Endless alphabet because First words is more focused on the construction of the word. I would try not to get suckered into buying all their different app options.  Once your child has picked up the basics of reading they are not going to need to be learning each word individually.

Wheels on the Bus - Great. Duck Duck Moose. Now an i-classic. Make sure to try Record mode. Or listen in French or German. Brilliant.

Musical me - Lovely. 100% buy. Another winner from Duck Duck Moose.

Young App Honorable Mentions: Teachme toddler - Worth looking at as an all round app looking to test numbers, shapes, colours etc.;  DeepDeep Sea - ancient app, a bit odd and with heavily accented English. But just weird fun for advanced shape matching. Three and above. Needs a bit of parental guidance at first.

Learning to read

I've described learning to read apps in their own section because the age at which children start to learn to read really does vary from country to country, home to home and from child to child. Although there is no substitute to reading with your child, I would say that these apps were very helpful in encouraging early reading. Besides those below First Words was also useful as the settings can be changed to make it appropriately difficult.

Bobs Books - I didn't realise that these apps were based on American series of reading books when I first bought them. I found the apps beautifully designed and fun to play with, and my son seemed to enjoy them. It has been a while since I've played with them so I cannot recall much more than this. We bought two and they were used.

Lola's Alphabet Train - lot to like about this app. Designed to appeal to 3-7 year olds, and although my 6-year-old now does not use it any more, this will definitely appeal to the "starting to read" crowd--of whatever age. If your child is starting to read English as a second language this would be good too and it also offers foreign language options. I like it because it has a variety of little games you can play, and you collect coins which you can then spend in the game.

Montessori Crossword - again another lovely little app to encourage reading and spelling. Nice rewards for success. Beautiful to look at.

iWrite Words - This is moderately useful as a way of teaching children the shapes that make letters. The problem is that they cannot lean on the screen with their hand and write, so the letter and number work has to be done with a finger.

Older Children (up to 7ish)

Chicktionary - Sound effects start out funny but rapidly become irritating. The reason this app makes it onto my list is that my son likes it and it encourages him to build words. You get a collection of letters and must build as many words as you can. The way the app is designed encourages experimentation with letters, thus it gets a thumbs up from me.

Spell Tower - This can be quite hard and is not for children just starting to read. But the great thing about this app is that adults and children can play it together, particularly on an iPad. You get a tower of letters and the aim is to reduce the size of the tower as much as possible by spelling words. It is actually a lot cooler than it sounds. My oldest didn't really enjoy this until his reading skills had reached a certain level. I think I picked this app up free at Starbucks but I'd definitely pay money for this. I'll sometimes open it myself if I have a few minutes to kill on the train.

Sushi monster - There are things to like and dislike about this game. What I like about it is that my son was really keen to collect all the sushi monsters by working on his adding and subtraction. What I dislike about it was that as multiplication and division is learned a lot later your child will get stuck halfway through the game and not be able to finish it until they have moved quite a lot further into mathematics.

Stack the states - I bought stack the states for myself originally. When we arrived in the US I felt the need to know all my 50 states, the capitals, flags, and monuments. I thought this would be the ideal way to learn. But then my son became glued to it. Before I'd had the chance to get going he had collected all 50 states, could name and locate them all, and nibble an oatmeal bar into the shape of Wisconsin. We then bought him Stack the Countries and although this was a bit more challenging he now seems to know far more about world geography than I do. The premise of both games is simple: answer the questions, win a state or country, make a stack of countries or states to reach a finish line. Its actually quite addictive.

Maths Zombies - a bit game-like, but you have to solve the maths problems to kill the zombies so it has great boy appeal.

Move the Turtle - early introduction to programming. Definitely for a school-aged child, probably from about six or seven depending on child. Learn to write instructions to make a turtle move about on the screen. More fun than it sounds.

Honorable Mentions: Wings, this little maths app introduces children to different ways of looking at numbers, as does Zoom. Also Tiny fractions.


I really like Felt Board, although we do not use it that often. Its a great way of using the iPad to play with the children. Its a digital felt board, with lots of pre-cut shapes that can be coloured and sized. Its fun to create characters and tell stories about them. Another neat way of filling an odd ten minutes. If you want an proper game that can be played with two to four players I'd recommend Marble Mixer. Definitely a good way of having group games on the go.


Rosetta Stone has just launched Kids Lingo Letter Sounds, to practice early reading skills and speak Spanish. Free at the moment. Worth a look. Rosetta Stone has also started a new Kids Division, so I would imagine there will be more of this sort of thing on tablets from a trusted linguistic brand.

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