By Lela Nargi
Screentime for kids doesn't get a whole lot of love in the parenting media. But there's no denying that we live in an increasingly digital world in which we grownups use technology to our benefit, for everything from navigating local kid-friendly restaurants to figuring out where to gas up the car when the "empty" light flashes on. Can't children enjoy similar benefits?
"The basic misconception about screen time stems from the notion that the screen itself is more important than the action being performed," says Björn Jeffery, co-founder of the kids game development studio Toca Boca. "But tablets can be used for language learning, playing games, watching educational videos, or video chatting with family. We like to think of a tablet as a tool with endless possibilities to tap into different emotions, skills, and parts of the brain."
With this in mind, we've rounded up 14 truly terrific educational, gender-neutral apps for kids of all ages, to be used alone or with their parents. Because, as Jeffrey maintains, "All kids should have the opportunity to learn about subjects they are interested in and play with toys they find fun."
Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Even on a day when you can’t make it to a zoo near you to get up close and personal with all the animals, children can visit them virtually with this app’s giant panda cam, as well as five others that zone in on gorillas, tigers, flamingos, lions, and golden lion tamarins. The app also includes an animal index that lets kids test their species knowledge, and a whole host of information about animals noises and ecosystems (iPad, iPhone & Android, ages 2+, $2).
Avokiddo Emotions. Kids will come down with a serious case of the giggles when they’re introduced to a zany zebra, shy sheep, jolly giraffe, and modest moose. These characters are meant to introduce children to the vast and confusing landscape of their own emotions as they dress up, feed, and interact with little essential pieces of themselves (iPhone, iPad, & Android, ages 2-5, $3).
Sesame Street Family Play. This is an app that’s actually an anti-app, offering parents stuck with their kids in the waiting room or on the train with over 150 fun games they can play together on the spot. Because sometimes, you've all had more than enough screentime for the day (iPhone & iPad ages 2-5, $1).
National Geographic’s Look & Learn: Animals Vol. 1. This bundle of three apps—Animal Bounce, Animal Match, and Animal Words—encourages awareness of the natural world through photographs, animal sounds, and game play. Really, this is a theme that never seems to get old among the under-5 set (iPad & iPhone, ages 3-5, $3).
Gro Garden. Kids become virtual gardeners as they plant and care for crops, feed hungry animals, and make compost from food scraps. It’s the next best thing to getting your kids to plant their own gardens on your windowsill—and infinitely more tidy (iPhone, iPad, Android, ages 5+, $3).
NASA’s Rocket Science 101. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to launch a NASA rocket! Select a mission and build your own rocket that you can then send into orbit. Kids will learn the details of particular NASA missions as well as all about the various components of the launch vehicles and what it takes to get one of these amazing pieces of machinery to break free of gravity (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 5-10, free).
It’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. Join this fierce predator as she shatters the stillness of the prehistoric forest! Kids can explore pictures, learn new vocabulary, and personalize the app’s story with their own narration. Because seriously, have you ever met a toddler who wasn't into dinosaurs? (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 3-5 $3)
Thinkrolls. This is a logic puzzler for elementary kids that’s meant to enhance problem solving, memory, and spatial cognition skills. Every time children sit down to use it, they learn a little something about force, acceleration, buoyancy, heat, elasticity, and gravity while helping 22 Thinkrolls characters navigate through a maze (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 3-8, $3).
Toca Lab. This colorful STEM-savvy app lets children discover all 118 of the elements from the periodic table (which is more than their parents are likely to know, unless they're chemists) by experimenting with the various tools provided. Bonus: they won’t be able to blow anything up! (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 6-8, $3)
The Robot Factory: Build Robots. Children can create any robot they can imagine from 100 parts including exoskeletons, telescopic arms, and spider legs. They can test them by running them through a fantastical world full of obstacles. Then, they can take them out to play (virtually, of course) with whenever they choose (iPhone & iPad, ages 6-8, $4).
Sky Map. This clever app turns your device answers (almost) all your questions about the night sky. Just point your smartphone upwards and Sky Map will tell you exactly what stars, planets, moon phases, constellations, messier objects and meteor showers you see (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, free).
Leafsnap. This electronic field guides uses visual recognition software to help kids (and their parents) identify tree species found in the Northeastern US and Canada from photographs you take of their leaves. Great for budding (har) botanists and arborists, and a super way for kids and parents to learn together (iPad & iPhone, all ages, free).
Audubon Birds Pro. This mobile field guide will help you and your kids identify 821 bird species, let you explore an advanced gallery for easy comparison, and contribute to NatureShare, a social community of birders who observe, identify, and share their observations online. Once you get started, you'll be amazed at how many birds that aren't pigeons you'll find hanging out at the local park (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, $10).
Project Noah. This super tool lets you explore and document insects, animals, plants and trees on a platform designed to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere. Just upload your own photo of a species and within hours, other users will weigh in with their expertise to identify it. A great way to learn about your environment as a family, and to discover that there are many other like-minded, nature-loving urbanites among you (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, free).