Summer screen time: an app a day keeps kids’ boredom at bay
ABCs, 123s, stickers, Minions, foreign languages, geography, even coding: this selection of first-rate children’s apps will keep little ones entertained if the sun refuses to shine
The Lonely Beast ABC, a charming app based on Chris Judge’s book, which won the Irish Children’s Book of The Year award in 2011
Despicable Me: Minion Rush
There are people who think children should be kept away from digital devices until they are old enough to shave (legs or faces) and should be happy with paper and a pencil or a ball and a yard of grass. There are others who happily plonk their kids in front of the TV, the tablet or the phone for hours on end.
Wherever you stand on screentime, as we face into another long, inevitably damp, occasionally sunny Irish summer, apps can be just the thing to silence that seasonal song: “I’m bored!”
But of the millions of apps out there – some of which involve those dreaded in-app purchases and others that are of dubious merit – which are the must-have ones for kids, and how do you find them?
Here’s our list of children’s apps for summer. You can thank me when it’s lashing outside and a contented silence reigns in the caravan. And if you think we have left out something utterly brilliant, do let us know at email@example.com or in the comments below.
THE LONELY BEAST ABC
€2.99; 2-5 years
This is a charming app based on Chris Judge’s book The Lonely Beast, which won the Irish Children’s Book of the Year award in 2011. The Beast is a shaggy, inky-black creature alone in a bright and colourful world. It’s a straightforward ABC app with some lovely touches: at D you can play the drums, while at E you can blow raspberries at an elephant. There are multiple hats, wobbly jelly and all sorts of other tactile turns. It contains enough surprises to keep a child coming back to it over and over again. We particularly like R for robot and and an X that gives you a melodic xylophone to play.
€2.99; 6-9 years
This is one of the most gorgeous apps out there. It features a deciduous forest and a desert filled with plants and animals that go about their daily business almost oblivious to the watchers – until, that is, they are poked and prodded. Children can explore individual parts of plants, watch seasons change and observe animal behaviour in an open-ended set-up that encourages concentration and exploration. The birds tweeting and the breezes blowing through the trees are hypnotic, and make a nice change from the gaudy shrieking of some apps. This company also makes apps that focus on the body and the home; a bundle of all three can be bought for €2.99.
THE LONELY BEAST 123
€3.99; 2-5 years
There can’t be many apps for youngsters that give guest appearances to James Joyce and Herman Melville. This does. Like its lettered cousin, it is based on Chris Judge’s Beast and is perfectly charming.
€3.99; 7-10 years
When it comes to beautifully designed games about a princess trying to climb a series of Escher-style staircases to get to the top of 10 different towers, this is impossible to beat. The princess responds to a player’s taps while the tower blocks on each level can be turned and reshaped to make way for her regal procession. Kids who are good at games might fly through this and feel somewhat short-changed, but it is still imaginative, ingenious and lovely to look at – which explains why Apple awarded it the Game of the Year 2014 and the Apple Design Award.
TOCA BOCA HAIR SALON 2
€2.99; 8-11 years
When it comes to apps for children, Toca Boca is up there with the best. Children can choose from four customers to attend to. Each of the four can have their hair cut, combed or coloured with scissors or hair trimmers. They can then have their hair washed and towel- or blow-dried. There’s also a curling iron, a straightener, a hair crimper and a razor. The graphics are sharp and the attention to detail is staggering, while the ability to take pictures of the characters and their hairdos brings an element of permanence.
SAGO MINI ROAD TRIP
€2.99; 3-5 years
Sago is the sister company of Toca Boca, so you can expect certain standards to be maintained. In this engaging game for under-fives, children get to pack a suitcase, hire a car and buy petrol – you know, all those things adults absolutely love doing in real life. There are six destinations, and the rules of the road on this trip are kind of loose; if you want your car to fly, then it can fly.
€3.99; 5-8 years
Any parent of little girls will know of their love of sticker books, and Usborne is the top dog when it comes to such books. The books aren’t cheap, mind you, which is why the sticker dressing app (based on Sticker Dolly Dressing books) is such a godsend. The dolls can be dressed up again and again and – unlike the books – the stickers never get frayed or torn.
DESPICABLE ME: MINION RUSH
Free; 8-11 years
This spin-off, from the hugely popular Despicable Me franchise, sees the Minion you control run for the craic rather than being chased by anything remotely scary. The Minion has to navigate his way past all sorts of obstacles while collecting bananas along the way. It is loud and brash, but the graphics are great, and kids who liked the movies will love the game. Parents won’t like the in-app purchase options (that’s always something to be aware of with games that are ostensibly free) and players are urged to log in with Facebook to compete against their friends. Which is fine if you have a Facebook account, but not so fine if you want to keep your young ones away from social networks until they are older.
MICKEY’S MAGICAL MATHS WORLD
Free; 3-5 years
“Magical” and “maths” are two words you rarely see together, but in this context it works. This is a Disney app, so, as you might expect, no corners have been cut and it looks suitably lavish. A great aspect of this app is its recognition that parents can and should be an active part of the process. There is a parental “dashboard” that allows grown-ups to access the games from their own devices to see what their children are doing and learning. The maths is fairly basic and the free content limited: much of the good stuff requires in-app purchases. The dashboard idea and the parental involvement is good, though.
This is brilliant. Duolingo offers free, interactive foreign-language education covering at least 21 languages. It is ridiculously easy to use and both children and adults will learn from it. We came across an independent study on the effectiveness of Duolingo as a language learning tool, which found that someone without a word of Spanish would need about 34 hours to cover the material for the first term of a third-level Spanish degree.
This free app was designed by MIT to help kids learn programming. Scratch is aimed at children older than seven, and the junior version is intended for ages five and up. To best explain what Scratch is, we went to the website, which was written by some very smart people. “Coding is the new literacy! With ScratchJr, young children can programme their own interactive stories and games. In the process, they learn to solve problems, design projects and express themselves creatively on the computer.” Yes, by using this simple app children can develop their own computer games, make art and design apps of their own. Get them into this and you could retire by the time they are 18.
Algebra. It is enough to send shivers down many spines, so imagine our alarm when we came across an app designed to secretly teach it to children aged five and up. There are 200 levels for children to make their way through without it dawning on them that they are learning – never mind learning something as complex as algebra. It can be just as addictive for adults, even ones who were dense when it came to maths.
There are loads of different apps under the PBS banner, but we like this one because it is the first app that has been designed specifically for parents. It provides more than a dozen games parents can play with their children. The games are themed around various locations, such as the supermarket, the house and the kitchen.
This is not a game but it can be very entertaining and will help your little ones learn geography and astronomy while nosing about the world. The easy-to-navigate app allows you to zoom in and out on any spot on the planet, and you can even travel through the Milky Way. With the satellite imagery, maps, terrain, and 3D buildings, the world is their (virtual) oyster.
SESAME STREET FAMILY PLAY
We asked Twitter to help us identify the best apps out there, and a lot of smart-alecky folk suggested we forget apps and give kids a ball to play with or a sketch pad to draw on. It is true that too much time spent on screens is not good – for adults or for children. This app is something of a compromise. It directs your little darlings to play in the real rather than virtual world. It has all manner of game ideas that kids will like to follow, and, because it comes with the Sesame Street stamp, it won’t lead anyone astray.