The 18 best apps and games for kids (of all ages)

Parents! Welcome to your emergency holiday survival kit…

30 July 2017
by Stuff Staff

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). Time to start packing your suitcase’s emergency fun kit…

THE BEST APPS FOR PRE-SCHOOLERS

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.

TOCA NATURE

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.

ENDLESS ALPHABET

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.

METAMORPHABET

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.

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.

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.

PEEK-A-ZOO

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.

THE BEST APPS AND GAMES FOR PRIMARY SCHOOLERS

NAMOO

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.

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.

GOLDILOCKS AND LITTLE BEAR

Nosy Crow’s interactive books have long been among our favourite ways to spend child-centered time on the iPad, and its latest is no exception. Goldilocks And Little Bear, which follows the likes of Cinderella and Snow White on to the digital shelves, is a gorgeous thing: beautifully drawn and animated, with no end of lovely details for curious eyes and fingers to discover.

The story is just as special: yes, you’ve heard it before, but Nosy Crow manages to make it sound modern and natural without being gimmicky and naff. It’s also fully interactive; though the very young (or lazy) can just sit and listen as the story is read to them, they’ll get more enjoyment by dragging and swiping around the pages, helping Goldie to clear up the mess she’s made and the bears to eat their porridge. And as they get older, they can read the whole thing for themselves.

TOCA BLOCKS

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.

LOOPIMAL

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.

DNA PLAY

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).

THE BEST APPS FOR BIGGER KIDS

EARTH PRIMER

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.

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.

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.

SOLAR WALK

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 — in Solar Walk 2 — 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).

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.

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