Our favorite selection of App Store gems for children
We elsewhere cover the best apps for the very wee (ages 2–4), but if your child is a little older, they may pine for something meatier to dig their teeth into. So we’re following up with our top picks for kids aged 5–8.
Note that our line in the sand splitting ‘apps for toddlers’ and ‘apps for children’ isn’t a hard and fast rule. Some of this selection will be fine for younger ones, and many of the apps in the other roundup will provide entertainment long after school starts.
Similarly, some of our recommendations aren’t specifically designed for children; they’re just suitable for them. As such, you may find your adult mind enjoying them more than you might imagine.
Before we move on, a reminder of our advice for digital parenting. First, small children shouldn’t be glued to a screen for long, and so ensure ‘device time’ is supervised, and doesn’t last for hours. Secondly, put your iPhone or iPad in a protective case if you know what’s good for it. Thirdly, before you hand over your device to a toddler, set restrictions to stop apps from being deleted – it turns out kids are adept at removing things if you hand over your device for a while. You can do this as follows:
1. In the Settings app, go to Screen Time, and tap Content & Privacy Restrictions.
2. In iTunes & App Store Purchases, disable Deleting Apps. You may also want to adjust settings within Allowed Apps and Content Restrictions.
3. Set a Screen Time Passcode on the main Screen Time page.
And now for the best apps for young children!
Duolingo Math (free)
Chances are your school district has children regularly using devices to work through math drills, to avoid them soaking up valuable class time. If not – or you want something more colorful for your child – try Duolingo’s take.
Lessons are broken down into units such as multiplication and area. There’s no timer, and children are encouraged by way of a breezy interface and streaks. The app also helpfully notes adults can use it for a spot of brain training as well.
This chill-out puzzler is a game about color recognition and spatial positioning. Each level starts out with a room full of objects. The aim is to manipulate the room so these objects ‘disappear’ into flat surfaces of the same hue.
With no IAPs or timers, this is a stress-free experience, augmented by soothing audio. There are 19 scenes in all, although be mindful small people might need a bit of help with the introductions that are screens of text.
Hidden Folks ($4.99/£4.99)
Should your child be a fan of hidden object books, Hidden Folks is a must. You get a whopping 32 hand-drawn scenes, some of which are massive. Between them, there are over 300 targets to find, each of which has a mildly cryptic (but mostly helpful) clue.
The entire production feels like a labor of love, from its sketch-like animated imagery to the mouth-originated noises that often play when you tap something. Better value, then, than paper equivalents, and also immeasurably superior in every other way. Note also that this app is available as part of Apple Arcade.
How does The Human Body Work? ($4.99/£4.99)
A voyage of discovery into your innards, How does The Human Body Work? has you check out a child’s various components, including bones, organs, and the nervous system. This is all done by way of manipulating a steampunk machine – all levers and big buttons.
This is one to sit with while your nipper pokes around – the app doesn’t really do hand-holding, and uncovering its secrets requires exploration and experimentation. It’s fun doing so.
OLogy: Science for Kids (free)
This American Museum of Natural History app is a grab bag of activities. There are over 30, allowing a little critter to dive into all kinds of subjects, including astronomy, volcanos, bacteria, whales, and the global nature of food.
There’s diversity in the nature of the activities too. Some are heavy on writing. Others are videos. There are interactive elements as well. For a free app that’ll inject facts into young brains, it’s a winner.
Pango Paper Color ($3.99/£3.99)
This unique experience invites you to decorate what’s essentially a living origami movie. In each of the four tiny universes, the world before you wheels and spins, occasionally presenting a new model to color.
A tap is all that’s required to add a hue to an object, and new colors can be mixed, if the basic palette doesn’t suffice. The result is dazzling – to the point we imagine adults will enjoy a quick sneaky go on their own of an evening.
Sizzle & Stew ($2.99/£2.99)
Only a nutter puts a llama and a sloth in a fully-stocked kitchen. And that’s because this furry pair make a mess, on the road to fixing something that could only very charitably be described as a meal.
Interaction is all exaggerated bouncy physics, and the visuals are bright and cartoonish. But the best bit is – especially on iPad – a split-screen two-player mode, where two friends get to play with food in a way parents will actually be happy with.
Super Robot Bros ($4.99/£4.99)
Whether coding does become a key language everyone needs to learn or humans end up barking at AIs to make scripts and apps, broad logic principles are a smart thing to infuse into a child’s mind. And this is a smart app for doing so.
The gamified and intuitive interface makes grasping the basics of programming accessible even for many younger children within this age range. And the ability to create your own levels adds longevity.
Tayasui Color 2 ($1.99/£1.99)
Most traditional coloring apps require expensive subscriptions. Tayasui Color 2 – and its predecessor, Tayasui Color – instead apes a paper coloring book, in giving you a small selection of pages for a one-off price.
It mimics the real world in other ways, too. Not only do the tools look realistic, but they sound the part as well, having your device emit suitably scribbly sounds as your kid fashions a miniature artistic masterpiece.
Thinkrolls Space ($4.99/£4.99)
This game is effectively many dozens of cleverly designed brainteasers for kids. It involves the titular Thinkrolls, who want to trundle their way through planets. To do so, they must outwit a number of logic puzzles.
It’s varied stuff, encouraging problem solving, experimentation, and reasoning, whether filling holes with obliging square robots, encouraging a purple monster to munch through space cheese that’s inconveniently blocking a corridor, or figuring out the precise order to shift objects around, to reach the exit.
Toca Blocks ($3.99/£3.99)
If there’s a building app that can grow with your child, it’s Toca Blocks. The app invites you to create and explore worlds fashioned by drawing blocks on the screen. There are no rules nor timers – but the game rewards experimentation.
Block attributes can change by merging them, and there are other surprises to find, such as a tool that can clone pieces of landscape captured by an in-app camera. That our (at the time) six-year-old explained how to use this complex interaction without any assistance showcases how wonderfully accessible the app is.
Toca Hair Salon 3 ($3.99/£3.99)
This bonkers game lets your kids run riot in a virtual salon. They can snip hair, color it, and add all kinds of decorations. That might not sound terribly exciting, but Toca’s take is very much larger than life.
You can go from giant curls to a buzz-cut in seconds, then use a magic potion to grow the hair back and turn it into massive rainbow spikes. If your kid fancies dress-up over hair-styling, check out the equally entertaining Toca Fairy Tales (free) instead.
Toca Life World (free + IAP)
There are plenty of individual Toca Life and Toca City apps and they’re all great – akin to visual doll houses, where you move characters, make them hold things, and discover all kinds of cunningly hidden surprises.
Toca Life World effectively mashes all these apps together, allowing you to unlock over 100 locations and hundreds of characters – and pets. Each purchase is a one-off – there’s no subscription – and we’ve yet to find a single one that doesn’t offer ongoing moments of joy.
Toca Nature ($3.99/£3.99)
This gorgeous app gives you a square slab of land and invites you to shape it with a finger. You can raise mountains and dig rivers. You then dot trees about and wait for animals to appear.
Although you can enjoy the view from on high, a zoom mode enables you to walk around the woodlands and rivers, collecting food and feeding deer, foxes, birds, and bears. It’s a lovely introduction to the magic of nature – and a relaxing app we imagine many adults will also enjoy.
Universe In a Nutshell ($2.99/£2.99)
Plenty of wall charts exist that attempt to compare the sizes of objects. Universe in a Nutshell takes that to the extreme – all the way from the Planck length up to the size of the observable universe.
Interaction here is simple – you pinch in and out to change zoom level. Colorful items beg to be tapped and serve up some breezily written text when you do. Joyful stuff for children and adults alike.
Weather by Tinybop ($2.99/£2.99)
This app’s aimed at children fascinated by the weather and the effect heat, water and air have on our world. you can head inside a cloud, freeze a drink, or unsportingly demolish a house with a surprise tornado.
Unlike its contemporaries, Weather eschews a cartoonish style, instead going for something modern, stylish and icon-driven. This might make it appear opaque to adults, but kids seem happy experimenting, seeing how their interactions change the on-screen conditions.
Women Who Changed the World ($3.99/£3.99)
Too often, history lessons involve stories about great men, and many amazing women are essentially sidelined. But our penultimate pick aims to set that right. This digital book provides insight into the fascinating lives of Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, Rosa Parks, and more.
There are no ads here, and no IAP – just a range of beautiful interactive illustrations to dazzle the eyes, and exciting stories to excite the mind. This is important stuff – after all, everyone needs a role model.