One of the hardest things about being parent these days is not being consumed with jealousy at all the amazing apps kids get to play with.
Of course, the flip-side to the boom in fun-ducational (and just plain fun) apps is that the options for keeping 'mini you' entertained on long holiday journeys are seemingly infinite.
Yet not all kid-focused apps and games are made equal. That's why, after weeks of testing on the Stuff team's eventual successors, we've narrowed down the most absorbing, ingenious apps for all age groups, from pre-schoolers and primary school kids, to bigger kids – including you.
The best apps for pre-schoolers
Imagine Populous merged with a children’s nature book and that’s Toca Nature. Your tiny person can build hills and dig channels for rivers and lakes, all without getting their hands dirty. Trees are then planted with taps, whereupon rabbits, bears, fish and beavers start mooching about their respective habitats.
Your youngling can then observe their creation from above, like a miniature god, or use the magnifying glass to get up close and personal, lobbing acorns and fruit at their adoring furry and fishy subjects.
Download Toca Nature for iOS (£3.99)
Download Toca Nature for Android (£3.99)
Pok Pok Playroom
The idea behind Pok Pok Playroom is to create a safe exploration-oriented play environment for children that echoes what they might find in the real world. Its games are therefore open-ended and risk-free, but afford young children the means to experiment and grow as they discover new things.
From a visual standpoint, its colourful and minimal aesthetic comes across as friendly and offers great clarity. On the larger display of an iPad, it’s friendly for smaller fingers still discovering their dexterity. The subscription is a touch ambitious, but the app does regularly receive new toys, and at the very least it’s worth trying for a few months to see whether it clicks with your younglings.
Download Pok Pok Playrooom for iOS (£3.49 per month)
If you’ve tiny humans toddling about, chances are you’ll own some wooden puzzles where letters are slotted into a board. If you’re very fortunate, you’ll still actually have a few of the letters, rather than a sad infant pointing forlornly at gaps.
Endless Alphabet should take their minds off of such losses, with dozens of words to sort by dragging letters about, and a bunch of amusing animations when each word is completed. There’s the odd Americanism lurking, but if you can hold yourself back from hurling your device from a moving car on seeing ‘odour’ lacking a 'u', you’ll be fine.
Download Endless Alphabet for Android (£free + £7.49 IAP)
BBC iPlayer Kids
We love BBC iPlayer, but it’s a wee bit easy for kids to ‘accidentally’ end up watching something horrifying that will possibly scar them for life or, worse, get them interested in EastEnders. Hence BBC iPlayer Kids, which cunningly limits nippers to shows broadcast on CBeebies and CBBC.
Like standard iPlayer, there are no adverts, the interface is elegant and simple, search is fast, and you can download shows for offline playback. Which means, naturally, we felt honour-bound to thoroughly test the app for inclusion in these pages by watching 20 episodes of Danger Mouse back to back.
As we all know, ‘A is for apple’, usually badly illustrated and, for most kids, followed by ‘B is for BORED NOW’. But Metamorphabet brings new life to learning the alphabet by way of imaginative, surreal and frequently disturbing animations.
It begins with an 'A'. Tap and it sprouts antlers you can ping about. The 'A' then transforms into an arch and goes for an amble. And that’s just the start. Next, you’re watching a giant 'B' with a bushy beard and a beak belching an endless stream of colourful bugs. It’s weird, creative, brilliant, and usable enough even for an 18-month-old to try their tiny hand at.
Download Metamorphabet for iOS (£4.99)
My Very Hungry Caterpillar
The world’s most loved and gluttonous larva stars in a range of books with holes in, some of which have been awkwardly shoe-horned into apps. But this one’s different, coming across like a virtual pet.
It starts with an egg, which when hatched reveals the titular wriggler, who merrily scarfs down any food plonked in front of him. Then it’s playtime, which, depending on the season, might mean belly-sliding on an icy pond, frantically smacking a bouncy ball around, or popping bubbles. It’s all very charming, and once the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, we imagine your own little critter will want to start all over again.
Download My Very Hungry Caterpillar for Android (£free + £4.99 IAP)
Touchscreens are more intuitive than old-school PCs, but that doesn’t mean interactions from very young children amount to more than them mashing their hands against the display. With Little Digits, though, such actions at least become productive over time, with the app cunningly using multitouch to help a child learn to count.
The mechanics of the basic mode are simple: touch the screen with some digits, and the app chirps the relevant number, while displaying a cuddly number monster. Beyond that, you can delve into basic sums, and even record your own audio for the voiceovers.
Download Little Digits for iPad (£2.99)
Sago Mini Friends
There are loads of Sago apps for kids, but Mini Friends is particularly good. You choose a character and scoot about a neighbourhood, barging into people’s houses and then playing little mini-games.
These are simple enough for most kids – fix a birdhouse by smacking some nails into it; play dress-up; eat some snacks – and they cunningly promote empathy and sharing. For example, when two animals are sitting before a feast, lobbing all the noms at one of them makes the other look like it’s going to burst into tears. Only by sharing is everyone left in a happy place.
Lego Duplo World
We’re not suggesting you should replace all your kid’s real-world toys with virtual ones. But just as Duplo is superb for improving real-world dexterity, so too can this app help younglings navigate touchscreens.
For free, you get access to ‘Number Train’, which features a chunky plastic train and activities based around colour sorting, counting, and using animal blocks to create terrifying creatures that’d even make Doctor Moreau run for the hills.
Unlocking other scenes sets you back a fiver each – or £22 for them all. That might seem a lot, but there’s many hours of play here – and the added advantage of not painfully stepping on a block in the middle of the night.
Download Lego Duplo World for iOS (£free + IAP)
Download Lego Duplo World for Android (£free + IAP)
This single-screen app features a bunch of cartoon animals and initially looks a bit basic. But it’s really quite sneaky, offering a surprising amount of depth. The basic game involves your wee nipper identifying the correct cartoon animal, based on a simple clue. This might be a name, emotion, action, position or sound.
Once the correct character is prodded, a new scene appears. These won’t fail to bring a smile to a supervising parent’s face (assuming they’re not dead inside), such as a seal trying to make a phone call on a banana, or a pig ‘hiding’ on a pink background.
Download Peek-a-Zoo for iOS (£free)
Like the idea of your kid eventually blasting out Beethoven’s Fifth? Tiny Orchestra offers a starting point. The first of its three mini-games showcases a range of musical instruments – give each one a prod and it makes some noise. Next up is ‘ear training’ – a multiple-choice quiz where children try to identify what’s playing, and are awarded with up to three stars, depending on how well they do. Then it’s time for your nipper to create their own orchestral performance, by dragging and dropping characters to the stage, mixing and matching performers to fashion their own sound. It’s simple stuff, but effective and breezy fun.
Download for iOS (£2.99)