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Appy Monday! Best apps for children

We very often get asked to recommend our favourite apps for children and as we've been writing app reviews for almost a year now, we thought that we would bring our reviews together in one place and recommend our absolute favourite apps for children. We've rounded up the best apps for babies, the best book apps for children, the best fun apps for children and the best educational apps. We've enjoyed testing all of these, we hope you'll enjoy using them.

Best Apps for Babies and very young children

Sound Touch is a very simple and intuitive app greatly loved by North London Toddler. Simple screens show pictures of animals, birds, musical instruments, familiar household objects and vehicles and when the child presses the symbol they are shown a photograph of the animal/object and the sound it makes accompanies the photo. Very simple, very good fun and a great way for children to learn the names of different things and animal sounds.

What we loved: Very easy to use and intuitive. There is a really wide range of sounds available on SoundTouch Lite which is free and even more on the upgraded version, so it doesn't become annoying. The musical instruments in particular have a really great range and play long pieces of music so introduce children to many new instruments.

What we didn't: Hard to think of anything except that as this is an American design, the vehicles depicted are also American and so the 'nee-naas' aren't instantly recognisable to British children.

Eric Carle's My Very First App - Most of us will have at least one Eric Carle book at home, and this lovely app brings his easily identifiable colourful style to the iPad. Adapted from his My Very First Books series, it is an easy matching and identification game that teaches young children about matching colours and shapes and animals and their homes. It has three levels too (easy, medium, hard) that children can move through as they grow older.

What we loved: The best thing about this by a long way is the illustrations. It is really lovely to look at and a nice tie in to the books. It is also a good aid to teaching children colours.

What we didn't: The voiceover that accompanies the app, is quite annoying. The app itself only comes with two sections - (colours and animal homes) and additional ones (numbers, shapes, animal sounds, food) have to be bought separately as plug-ins at a cost of 69p each. Also the app is not always easy to navigate around even for adults as the home button is not intuitively placed.

Peekaboo Ladybird Baby Touch - Published by Penguin, this is the virtual version of the Peekaboo touch book which was a staple with North London Toddler a couple of years ago.

With calming background music and lighthearted sound effects, the app brings up four scenes for a baby to explore: Farm, sea, animals and vehicles and is really easy for a baby to navigate round- North London Baby was certainly drawn to touch the screen to reveal the different animals and characters.

What we loved: the bright colours, and fun introduction to nursery characters and scenes. The App really brings the original touch book to life and has a good selection of different scenes to keep a baby occupied for some time.

What we didn't: In some ways the book works better as you lose the different textures that draw babies to the book. 

Best Educational Apps

Pocket Phonics was recommended to me as a good app for young children who are already starting to sound out letters and show an interest in reading. It is a very simple app which asks children to trace letters that are sounded out using the phonics sounds they are taught in nursery/school. Once they have done this they then put the letters together to make very simple words which once done correctly are animated.

Once they have completed a group of letter sounds they can progress to the next one and this app is probably suitable for children up to fully confident readers as there are some quite complex sound groups such igh words and ph words that I would have thought older children would still need to practise and learn about.

My daughter is 3.5 and so perhaps a little young for this yet but she was interested in practising the writing and sounds but got bored quite quickly. The app is very forgiving of toddler hands and when the tracing of the letter only loosely resembled the letter itself, she still got a cheer!

What We Loved: This is very intuitive and easy to learn to use. There is a lot of positive reinforcement for children and it can easily be picked up and put down at any time so there is no pressure to complete any groups in one sitting. I think it is a great well thought out tool for teaching reading.

What We Didn't: The word sound sections are very long and so the concentration of smaller children lapses before they progress to the next section making this probably better for older (4+) children

IF Poems  for iPhone and IPad was launched in November 2011. It was conceived by two mums, Allie Esiri and Rachel Kelly.

Billed at the first poetry app for children, the app contains 230 classic poems, many of which are read by the illustrious Helena Bonham Carter and Bill Nighy. The carefully chosen selection include works from T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Siegfried Sassoon, Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Rupert Brooke, and William Shakespeare. 

The App caused a stir as soon as it was launched- it was downloaded 2000 times for iPhone and iPad within the first day of its release.

The App is cleverly organised by age range (0-6, 7-12 or 13+)  or by category such as Lessons for Life, Tell me a Tale, Short and Sweet, or by author- and is simple to navigate on both the iPhone and iPad versions. The whole look and feel of the app is like an old fashioned children's illustrated story- so  a refreshing change from the bright graphics of many kids apps.The iPad version has all the same elements but is optimised for the iPad experience.

Each poem is presented as if on a piece of paper, and gives you the options to find out more about the author, add it to your favourites, record a version of it or play a pre-recorded version. The fantastic audio versions really grabbed the attention of North London girlies.

What we loved: This is genuinely unique and a treasure trove of poems which you can go back to again and again.

What we didn't: Nothing- Quite simply, we love this app.

Best App Books

Spot Goes To School  - This is an absolutely fab and interactive Spot book that has all the features that we know and love from the traditional lift-the-flap books plus the added extra of voices and sound effects.Some of the reviews on the App Store are negative but we, and our toddlers really love this.

What we loved: The app is really easy to navigate so children are able to follow the story themselves and work out the extra features. Even very young children can enjoy the book although the game is probably only suitable for 3+.

What we didn't: If you click on the 'More' signpost shown above you expect to be taken to more of the story or more games but are in fact taken to some static pages telling you where you more about Spot books. 

Jack and The Beanstalk Children's Interactive Storybook - I discivered this app one week when my daughter was covering Jack and The Beanstalk at nursery. The story really seemed to appeal to her so we downloaded the app to see what it was like and have really enjoyed using it since.

What we loved: This is very beautifully illustrated, reminding me of the Disney films of my youth. The more you read the book, the more interactive features you discover but these don't impede the reading of the book at all as you can't trigger the interactive features until you have heard the story. 

What we didn't: The book is very long so although smaller children can enjoy it, it is probably more suitable for over 3s. It is also sometimes a bit hard to work out which are the interactive features. 

Alice For The iPad - This is a really beautiful, engaging app. The full version costs £5.99 but is well worth the spend as this takes the iPad book to a new level with absolutely stunning animations. Readers (and that is definitely not just children) can shake the iPad to make things happen, tilt it to make Alice grow and generally interact with the text in a new and exciting way that make this a must for lovers of classic children's literature.

What we loved: This looks simply stunning and the illustrations and interactive features are totally in keeping with the eccentricities of the book. We love that you can test it for free by downloading the Lite version. This is the app that convinces us that the future for interactive books is a very exciting one. We can't wait til our kids are old enough to enjoy the full version!

What we didn't: The price for the full version is steep.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore was recommended to us by one of our twitter followers and is somewhere between an animated short film and a book. The animation is absolutely fantastic and the app is also quite interactive, really taking you into the story. I enjoyed reading it as an adult too, it's whimsical story and beautiful animation making it a joy to experience. There are also a couple of nice games for older children in the app - playing pop goes the weasel on the piano and an alphabet game. This is probably suitable for ages 5+ and would make a great gift for a child who has an iPad and enjoys reading. However it is also great to read to younger children.

Alice in New York, the follow up app book to Alice for the iPad from the same makers. Like Alice, you can get a lite version totally free before you invest in the book itself. We loved Alice for it's creativity and exciting use of technology to enhance the reading experience, and we love Alice in New York for the very same reaons.  You need to touch, tilt and shake the screen to move the story along and the animation is really amazing. This totally brings the story to life and is suitable for ages 5+ although younger children will get something out of it and it is a great one for a bedtime story for younger children (as long as their imaginations not too active!)

Another really great app book is Cinderella from Nosy Crow. This is fun and beautifully illustrated. Although it tells the traditional story, it manages to also be funny and have a heroine that's not too princessy and insipid. We really recommend. 

Me Books bring the bookshelves of our childhood to life on the iPad and are a lovely way to introduce your children to the books you loved as a child. I still have some of these little Penguin Classic books and so have enjoyed reading them to my daughter and then showing her the interactive version alongside.

They allow parents and children to interact with and personalize picture books in an entirely new way. When you download the app (69p) you get the Ladybird Classic "The Zoo" with it and then you can download thirteen additional titles, including Cinderella, Gingerbread Man, Jack and The Beanstalk and The Three Billy Goats Gruff, which are available through In-App Purchase at £1.99 each.

So what can you do with it and why shouldn't you just read a book? The app includes a range of innovative features that make them good fun for children and different from reading the book.

· You can create interactive audio ‘hotspots’ anywhere on the page by drawing around images or text with your fingers and then record any sound you want so that you can narrate the story anyway you like

· You can bring the story to life by touching hotspots that already exist on the pages and listen to the sound effects  (such as the trumpeting of an elephant to the chattering of monkeys in The Zoo) and  commentary.

What we loved: We absolutely love the look of these apps. They combine nostalgia with a modern look in the nicest way we've seen anything done on the iPad and are a real pleasure for adults to use. Useability is also really good as the instructions are clear and the pages easy to navigate through. Thumbs up for this.

What we didn't:  We would have liked to see additional books being cheaper. We would have preferred to pay £1.99 initially (or even £2.49 as quality is very high) and then 69p to add to our bookshelves. £1.99 per book feels quite steep to us and means that sadly our bookshelf is staying quite small for now.

Best Fun Apps for Children

Special mention must go to Toca Boca here, who we think make apps that outclass all others in this category. When my daughter hears a new Toca Boca app is coming out, she literally counts the days until she can get her hands on it.

Toca Robot Lab allows your child to create your robot with a clever conveyor belt which rolls pieces out of the lab. Once the robot is completed, it moves to a testing area where it can pick up stars and knock over balls and blocks as it zooms around. It was a bit unclear what was meant to be happening in the test part, and we were a bit disappointed that there wasn't much depth to the game, but the building part is fun.

Toca Hair Salon is hilarious! On entering the hair salon you have a choice of 6 characters. Once you select one,  then you can cut, colour, comb, shave and blow-dry lifelike hair using the different things which appear in front of the character. It's extremely therapeutic- and easy to do- I don't know what North London Toddler thinks as she hasn't been given the chance to play! Great sounds effects too from the street outside and the individual characters. Get a feel for the game with the trailer here.

Toca Tea Party is a really clever idea and well executed. This remains our favourite Toca Boca app.  It allows your child to set up a virtual tea party on the iPad- for friends and dolls alike! Your child can choose from a number of table cloths, plates, cups and glasses to set the table, and when everyone is finished your child can do the dishes! This is perfect for children who like to role play- and mums and dads can easily join in too. There's a great You Tube promo too.

Those familiar with Toca Boca apps already will love Toca Store. It has all of the features we have come to expect - really great visuals, highly interactive and allows children to use their imagination at the same time.Children can either take the role of shopkeeper or customer (or both) and chose what to sell in the store and what to buy. The app will also teach them about numbers and counting as they count out the money and ring it in to the till.

What we loved: This app looks great and is intuitive and easy to learn to use as well as being really great fun for children to play. It can keep them engaged for hours as they can sell different things in the shop each time and chose from a really wide range.

What we didn't: Hmmm. Hard to think of anything! My daughter just loves playing this.

The newest Toca Boca app on the block is Toca House where children can tidy up the house, and it's fun. If only...!

Hickory Dickory Dock promises to introduce children to the basics of time-telling. Mindshapes' core philosophy is that learning should be fun, and Hickory Dickory Dock is both fun and great to look at. Using the familiar nursery rhyme, children move around the clock with the little mouse and each number on the clock has an activity for them to do that fits in with the nursery rhyme.
North London Toddler is not quite up to learning to tell the time yet but was definitely curious and engaged with the app and we will definitely come back to it when she is older. The app is versatile as younger children can just enjoy it as a game, whereas with older children you will be able to engage them in conversations about the time.

What We Loved: This app looks absolutely great - surreal, colourful and visually exciting. There is plenty to engage a young child with. It is great to see a very traditional nursery rhyme being used to such good effect in conjunction with modern technology.

What We Didn't: Even as adults we found some of the numbers quite hard to work out. We still haven't puzzled out what you do with 8 O Clock, despite much touching of the iPad! Also, in order for children to learn the time, they will definitely need to use this with an adult as a basis for discussion as on its own it will not teach them the time - not necessarily a bad thing!

For the iPad only, Peppa's Party is made by the same developer and has a lot of similarities in look and feel to the iPhone game apps. In this app you can come to Peppa's party and pay along with her friends in this selection of games. The added feature here is that the app allows the player to personalise the gameplay- so when you start the app you can enter your name and select an icon. There are 5 games to get stuck in to. The games are diverse and cleverly pick up the theme of a party to create different engaging scenarios such as baking a cake or decorating a gift bag.

What we loved:  The games allow you to really engage with the lovable characters from the TV series.  Musical chairs is hysterical- all the fun without any of the effort!

What we didn't: We loved pretty much everything about this app- it's really fun and engaging!

Topsy and Tim Start School - Remember Topsy and Tim? The staple toddlers' story books from the 70's (first published in the 60's) about the adventures of the loveable twins, Topsy and Tim. If, like me, you do- then you will be pleased to know that they have hit the 21st century in full swing with this iPhone/iPad App. If not, then welcome to their loveable world!
The purpose of the app is to follow Topsy and Tim as they start school. Youfollow the preparations for school, personalising an avatar and then follow a story with games along the way to getting ready for and going to school, such as putting objects in a school bag. All this set to rather 70's style elevator music!
What we loved: the games are great- they require a bit of skill and memory to get them right so North London Toddler was happy to play them again and again.
What we didn't: The story element is (rightly) aimed at slightly older children so an adult needs to navigate through it for littler people. If you leave the app you lose your place in the story-but we were quite happy to start again!

Best Soothing Apps

Goodnight Safari was launched in January 2012 and listed on both "New and Noteworthy" and "What's Hot' in the App Store. It is developed by Polk Street Press - a member of Moms with Apps which is a collaborative group of family-friendly developers seeking to promote quality apps for kids and families.
This is an interactive book where you can help the safari animals prepare for bed by tapping on the baby animals. So you (or your child!) can help the rhino have a bath, the zebra find his mum, the giraffe reach the leaves in the trees. There are also other interactive elements in each page to explore, such as swarming butterflies around the zebras. The story can be either narrated or read.

The graphics are really impressive- beautiful 2D animation with wonderful textures which jump out of the screen- for example the lions look like they have been knitted.

And yes- this is a really calm and peaceful book, particularly with the sleepy sounds of wildlife at night in the background, and the gently snoozing animals in the final scene (little "ZZZs float up if you touch them).

What we loved: This really is beautiful animation and a sweet story- yawn- we feel sleepy just reviewing it!

What we didn't: We would have liked to be able to navigate through more simply- you are directed by arrows but they don't appear until the task is finished.

These are our favourite apps for children. We'd love to hear some of your recommendations too.  We'll round up our favourite apps for adults soon so watch this space...

My PlayHome 7 May 2012 at 11:13 said...

You're missing one of the best kids apps of the year!

My PlayHome: http://bit.ly/playhome

Bianca / Little Scandinavian 7 May 2012 at 15:59 said...

OMG -what a great list of the very best of child friendly apps! Have RT!

Planethalder 8 May 2012 at 16:42 said...

The Buildo sticker apps (Museum, Rescue, History) are much loved by my nearly-4 yo.

Unknown 24 August 2012 at 14:43 said...

My family and I use Haystacks. It finds kids friendly stuff in London.


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