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)
Thinkrolls: Kings & Queens
All of the entries in the Thinkrolls series are great; but this latest slice of gentle gaming fun brings a regal air to its dozens of logic and gravity puzzles (in the sense the roly-poly protagonists wear crowns, unless you decide to – for some reason – play as a chicken).
The goal is to clear a pathway so the rotund hero can continue progressing through a massive maze. The snag is this involves figuring out how to work with all kinds of contraptions, like gears, bridges, hatches, and even a harp that makes an otherwise ravenous crocodile sleepy.
Just the thing to get tiny minds working overtime, while sneakily getting them interested in videogames.
Download Thinkrolls: Kings & Queens for Android (£free + £4.99 IAP)
Out of this world: Thinkrolls Space
With Thinkrolls Space (Android / £3.49 • iOS / £3.99), the trundling heroes head for the stars. Your nipper must contend with goo monsters, bleeping robots, moon monsters that munch their way through moon cheese, and teleporters that blast protagonists between locations. Star Trek was never this exciting.
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)
The best apps and games for primary schoolers
Kids tend to like the outdoors, hence many parents finding a collection of pine cones and tiny grubby handprints in their house after a walk in the woods. But the weather doesn’t always like kids. When it’s being uncooperative, you can feed interest in plant life with Namoo.
This interactive book has a gorgeous minimal art style and succinct text. Most importantly, the scenes encourage play and exploration, such as a proddable plant cell that makes beepy sci-fi noises, and a fertilisation section that leaves you with a futuristic-looking angular apple you fear would break your teeth if you bit into it.
Download Namoo for iOS (£3.99)
Weather by Tinybop
Given that the British are legally obliged to complain about the weather at least 50 times per day, you might as well start your kids off early learning about all things rain, wind, sun and snow.
In Weather by Tinybop, you tap icons, to discover hot-spots that unlock little interactive scenes you can fiddle about with. Kid in a good mood? Watch as they melt ice to help someone fish, or cool things down for a panting dog. A tiny Trump in waiting? Get concerned while they rip apart a house with a tornado, while laughing maniacally and yelling something about climate change being a hoax.
Download Weather by Tinybop for Android (£free + IAP)
Universe in a Nutshell
Want your kid to fully understand their place in the scheme of things? Then Universe in a Nutshell is a must-install. Via the magic of pinch gestures you can zoom from the Planck length all the way up to the observable universe, comparing the sizes of over 250 objects in between.
Along with being a beautifully illustrated and tactile modern take on a size comparison chart, there’s some learning to be done here as well: tap on an object and you get a bit of writing about it. All this is backed by a suitably chill-out soundtrack that further helps immersion.
Got kids that are dino-mad, to the point it’s making your ears dino-sore? (Oh, just go with it.) This app provides a solution, transforming them into palaeontologists via the power of AR.
Whether you’re in the woods, your garden or your kitchen, point your iPhone’s camera at the ground and with this app you can tap away to unearth fossils. Once enough of your find has been uncovered, hot-spots reveal handy facts about it.
Each skeleton requires a few digs to compile a complete beast, which is then automatically assembled to tower above you in AR. To finish things off, a screenshot button makes it a cinch to snap your budding dino-hunter alongside their hard-earned prize.
Download ARcheology for iOS (£4.99)
Mission To Mars AR
Too often, augmented reality apps are gimmicks or frustratingly short. Mission to Mars AR is neither. Instead, this is an ambitious app that marries fun, exploration and a pile of facts, making it suitable for any wannabe NASA director. You can launch a rocket or have fun driving scale-model rovers across a desk or down your street. There’s a portal you can confidently stride through to then amble around the Red Planet. And if you think you’ve got what it takes, you can tackle a nail-biting ‘7 minutes of terror’ landing sequence and see if you can better robotic automation. (Spoiler: Stuff couldn’t. Things all got a bit smashy.)
Download for iOS (£free)
Download for Android (£free)
Minecraft is great, obviously, but it’s also vast, slightly intimidating and hard to master for the younger end of the gaming spectrum. Toca Blocks is none of those things, while still offering a creative sandbox within which youngsters can let their imaginations run wild.
Like Minecraft, it’s all about digging and building, but because it’s all in 2D it’s a lot easier for younger kids to visualise where their blocks should be placed. Blocks of different types can be very easily combined – just mash them together – to make all manner of different textures and objects and one world can very quickly end up looking completely different from another.
There’s no objective as such, no survival mode, no dangers, so it probably won’t hold their attention past about age five or six – but that’s hardly a problem, as they’ll be ready to level up and move on to Minecraft then anyway.
Download Toca Blocks for iOS (£3.99)
Download Toca Blocks for Android (£3.99)
If you’ve played Underworld and Orbital 24/7 for months, attempting to brainwash your younglings into making electronic music, chances are dumping them in front of ProTools will merely result in bafflement and wide eyes. Enter: Loopimal, essentially ‘My First Sequencing App’.
You drag coloured shapes to empty slots, which trigger canned loops performed by a cartoon creature. Master that and the screen can be split, enabling an animated Fab Four to smash out oddball beats. There’s no going wrong, all songs are in C-major so others can play along, and the funky bass-playing octopus and stompy mammoth need their own record contract immediately. And if you’re hungry for more – or want something a little more advanced – check out the equally awesome Bandimal.
Download Loopimal for iOS (£3.99)
Toca Life World
This app mashes together a slew of existing Toca Life apps and a bunch of additional locations, to make for the biggest and best virtual playhouse on mobile. The quirky scenes are vibrant and imaginative, packed full of figures to dot about and Easter eggs to find.
There’s loads to do, from having evil babies take over the city to, erm, flushing loads of animals down a toilet. But also, Toca Life World deals with IAP fairly. You start off with eight locations and 39 characters, augmented by content from any standalone Toca Life apps you already own; and all other IAPs are one-offs, rather than the app mugging your wallet with a monthly subscription.
Download Toca Life World for Android (£free + IAP)
Download Toca Life World for iOS (£free + IAP)
Busy work: Toca Life: Office
If you just fancy one Toca Life app, Toca Life: Office (Android / £3.99 • iOS / £3.99) lets your kids imagine what parents get up to when they go to that exciting-sounding place called ‘work’. Only their office is much more exciting and colourful than yours – and even has a helicopter. Jealous yet?
We admire the ambition in DNA Play. It aims to introduce kids to the concept of DNA, by way of a puzzle-based interface that results in a monster receiving constant mutations. In reality, we imagine the nuance will be lost, but that doesn’t mean DNA Play isn’t fun to mess about with.
Once your monster’s got all of its parts, further pokes and prods result in radical transformations. Monsters can be further messed with by plonking them on skateboards, scaring them by turning out the lights, and having them dance flamenco (presumably while actual monsters look on, slowly shaking their heads).
Download DNA Play for iOS (£2.99)
Download DNA Play for Android (£2.99)
Zen Studio: Finger Painting
Instead of freeform colouring, Zen Studio offers up a canvas with a grid of triangles. When any slot is tapped, a sound plays. The result is like creating modern art while Brian Eno noodles away in the background. It’s relaxing and thoughtful in precisely the manner scrawling at random with crayons is not.
For kids that prefer more guidance, the app provides a range of template-based tutorials, which are akin to stencils. For free, you get a limited selection of everything (and no white paint, which doubles as an eraser); but the ‘pro’ version is a one-off purchase and is well worth the outlay.
Download Zen Studio: Finger Painting for Android (£free or £1.09)
Download Zen Studio: Finger Painting for iOS (£free or £2.99)
If your kid’s forever bugging you for yet another ‘finding’ book that’ll cost you a tenner and be finished/discarded in approximately 30 minutes, get them Hidden Folks instead.
With its animated hand-drawn black and white scenes and mouth-originated noises, the game has plenty of character. But also, due to the cryptic clues and often gargantuan levels, even the most skilled Where’s Wally? player will take many hours to find the 300 or so targets.
Neatly – and rarely for children’s games – it’s also a lot of fun for any adult folks wanting a game to relax with.
Download Hidden Things for iOS (£4.99)
The best apps for bigger kids
Some kids like books, but a heart may nonetheless sink when you say: “Hey, I just got you a great new iPad book about the Earth, which you can read while we’re travelling”. Any glum expressions should vanish when you add: “And you can make volcanoes with your fingers!”
That’s the magic of Earth Primer, which is a tactile interactive experience imagined into being by Chaim Gingold (Spore Creature Creator). A further slice of genius lies in the book’s sandbox: a tiny hunk of land you can build on, freeze, bake or drown – but only if you’ve read through the relevant chapters first.
Download Earth Primer for iPad (£9.99)
Journeys of Invention
For older kids fascinated by inventions, there’s no better digital book than Journeys of Invention. You browse interconnected pathways to discover the most extraordinary events in science and technology.
Many objects you find can be explored, spinning them around with a finger. But there’s more heavily interactive fare, too. You can examine a flea under a microscope, explore the inside of the Apollo 10 Command Module, and send messages using an Enigma Machine.
And if your kids start doing the last of those all the time, rather than sending you messages in English, you’ve only yourselves to blame for trying to educate the little blighters.
Exploring objects in 3D and taking them to bits is a useful way for children to learn. However, chances are they spend learning time buried in dusty tomes – plus you wouldn’t want them dismantling your headphones, toaster, alarm clock, or a human eye anyway. (Also: where did that eye come from?)
JigSpace can project such items on to a desk – and many more besides, including Coronavirus, a trebuchet, and the entire solar system. There, you can see what makes these things tick, move around them in 3D, and explore text labels, thereby infusing knowledge into your brain in a way a hunk of dead tree just can’t compete with.
Download JigSpace for iOS (£free)
Solar Walk 2
Kids are often captivated by the heavens. A couple of decades ago, they might have received a book to leaf through, with dodgy paintings of planets.
Today, they can hurl themselves across a virtual solar system, scooting between Jupiter and Venus, spinning Saturn about, and hitching a ride on a comet. For those who want to delve deeper, tap the info button to get all kinds of facts and figures about any given planet. You can also peek into its internal structure. (Saturn’s looks like a freaky eyeball – possibly worth the price of entry alone).
Download Solar Walk 2 for iOS (£2.99 + IAP)
Download Solar Walk 2 for Android (£2.99 + IAP)
Love You to Bits
This one’s an old-school point-and-click adventure reimagined for a world of touchscreens. Rookie space explorer Kosmo must search for his robot girlfriend’s components, which have been scattered throughout the galaxy. He visits planets to which her parts have been tracked, and gets them back by solving puzzles.
For kids and adults alike, there’s an ongoing charm offensive and deluge of pop-culture references that are impossible to escape from. The mix of clever puzzles and gorgeous visuals is intoxicating, whether you’re figuring out how to beat a 2D Monument Valley or lurking in a certain cantina in a galaxy far, far away.
Little Alchemy 2
It would be a stretch to claim Little Alchemy 2 would help any little human brush up on their science. There’s certainly a whiff of STEM as you synthesise objects by combining things you’ve discovered, having initially only been in possessions of basics like air, earth and the like.
But this is more a game about thinking outside the box and figuring out how real-world objects might be described in their most basic form. It’s whimsical – even surreal – rather than literal, where a plane is fashioned from metal and a bird. Creative thinking is the order of the day, then, in this safe, finger-friendly, oddball take on crafting.
The Room Three
Barely a minute into The Room Three, you’re scared out of your wits as a ghostly apparition sits before you in a train carriage. The lights go out, and you wake up in a dungeon, with a note from the mysterious Craftsman. Figure your way out (and then from the multi-room complex as a whole) or you’re done for.
Cue: hours of swiping, exploring, puzzle solving, and general weirdness with a dreamlike horror bent. One to (hopefully) captivate older kids for a few hours, while cunningly simultaneously flexing their brain muscles. The two previous entries in the series are also fab, as is spin-off Old Sins.
Download The Room Three for iOS (£1.99)
The other games in the section for older kids are intentionally thoughtful. They’re about puzzle solving and logic – and therefore educational. Ish. But Fancade starts off as a set of breezy mini-games that riff off of popular mobile fare. There’s one-thumb racing and isometric path-finding. One game finds ninja-like critters bounding about 2D platforming worlds, and another has the player urge a massive truck across undulating tracks towards a goal. What is educational is your kid can dig into any of these mini-games and find out what makes them tick. They can then fashion their own versions, or even start from scratch and craft unique game worlds within the Fancade universe. Top stuff for any budding games designers.
Download for iOS (£free)
Download for Android (£free)
Yeah, we’re cheating a bit here in including Apple Arcade. But that’s because as kids grow, they tend to end up with three choices: unsuitable PC and console games; relatively expensive Switch titles; or frequently underhand and exploitative titles on mobile. Apple Arcade deftly cuts through such problems.
There are well north of 100 titles on the service, many of which are suitable for even quite young children, including surreal sports game What The Golf, interactive cartoon Sneaky Sasquatch, photography adventure Alba, and the slew of classic mobile titles and boardgames elsewhere on the service. Check out Stuff‘s top Apple Arcade picks here.
Try Apple Arcade for iOS (free then £4.99 per month)
Make your kids appy: Google Play Pass
If your kids are on Team Android, Google Play Pass (£4.99 per month) is in a similar space to Apple Arcade, featuring ad-free and IAP-free games – along with a handful of educational apps.
There’s a ton of depth lurking in this oddball sampler, including a sequencer, drum patterns, sync capabilities with other iOS audio apps, sample clipping, and MIDI control. But if you’re a kid, sitting in the back of the car, it’s also a hugely entertaining means to make a soundboard from whatever objects happen to be nearby.
A donk on the window. A nearby sibling yelling “GERROFFF”. An amusing sneeze. Whispering the word ‘poo’. All these sounds are ripe material for a subsequent pad-bashing session. It’ll drive you nuts, but Samplebot could be the first step of your pride and joy one day topping the charts.
Download Samplebot for iOS (£3.99)