Put a child in the same room as an iPad or an iPhone and they will instinctively reach for it. Perhaps it’s the bright colours and the feel of the touchscreen; the simplicity of the interface in iOS and iPadOS also plays a part. No matter the reason, kids love messing with smartphones and tablets.
Mobile devices can do a great job entertaining and educating your offspring, but not all apps are created equal. In this article we present the apps and games most beloved of our editors and their children; there’s a blend here of learning, creativity and fun.
Best kids’ apps: Ages 5 and under
Here are our recommendations for children aged 5 and under. Age guidance is approximate, of course, and you won’t need to be told that kids learn and mature at different speeds.
Be sure also to click through to the App Store using the links provided. Have a look at screenshots, any available preview videos and so on, to see if the difficulty, complexity and reading level are appropriate for your child.
There are tools for making music and others that are more about experimenting with sound. Bloom is an iPhone take on the latter, a collaboration between software designer Peter Chilvers and musician Brian Eno that enables you to explore generative audio composition.
That probably all sounds a bit highbrow for kids, but it really isn’t in practice. Essentially, you tap on the screen to play a note, which eventually loops. Keep tapping and a composition appears. It’s a beautiful, relaxing app, and simple enough that even a two-year-old can grasp the basics of how it works.
Dino Tim’s family has been abducted by witches, and kids have to solve various educational puzzles in order to save them. The game involves solving colour and geometric shape puzzles, as well as running, flying, jumping and even a little bit of magic.
The aim of the game is to teach kids to recognise basic geometric shapes, as well as to learn about colours and even their first words. The game has been fully translated into a number of languages (French, Spanish and Italian to list a few) which provides your child with a great opportunity to learn a foreign language in a fun way, from a young age.
Endless Alphabet proves that dialling down the surreal doesn’t mean an app about letters has to be boring. On the contrary, Endless Alphabet is a lot of fun as you choose a word, watch the letters scatter, and drag them back into place.
The letters come to life when touched, wriggling under your fingers, and once the word is complete, you’re treated to a little animation that explains what the word means.
It’s more expensive than many of the apps listed here, but hugely popular on the App Store with hundreds of positive reviews.
Laugh & Learn Shapes & Colors
Designed for babies and toddlers, this app from Fisher-Price offers two simple games. In the first, you tap to hear the name of a shape and tilt the device to make it bounce around. In the second, there’s a keyboard to prod, and each shape has its own song to sing along to. This is, in all honesty, not a terribly elegant app, but in our experience it seems captivating to tiny humans grappling with technology for the first time.
There’s nothing especially innovative about Miximal – it’s yet another of those sliding games, where you make strange combinations of animals. But what sets Miximal apart from its peers is the sense of craft and care that’s gone into the app.
The style is cartoonish, yet all of the animals are very recognisable. Each is animated, too.
Tap one of the sections and it moves and jiggles. Fashion a ‘complete’ animal and it will offer a celebratory alternate animation. Additionally, if your child wonders at any point what strange mixed-up creature is currently on the screen, a quick tap of the play button will give you (and read out) its name.
The Monster at the End of This Book with Grover!
This updated and improved digital version of the classic
Sesame Theme-themed kids’ book is a lot of fun. As Grover performs, the words appear on the screen, highlighted as they’re spoken. And you can interact with the app by touching a knot, for example, to make it unravel. Tap Grover to tickle him.
There’s a lot to be said for exploration and play when a child is developing. Monster Mingle’s free-play nature makes it ideal for such things.
You create your own friendly monster by dragging parts to it that are lying about the place, and said monster can then amble about, dive into the ocean or soar into the air. The world features all kinds of strange creatures to discover and interact with, and the goal-free nature of Monster Mingle makes for a stress-free and highly entertaining time.
Montessorium: Intro to Colors
With Intro to Colors, your child learns the basics of colours through a series of matching games. So it starts out matching red, blue and yellow before moving on to secondary levels and gradients. Kids learn to mix and match paint, as well as how to learn to spot and name different colours.
Intro to Colors is a pretty app, which is one reason we like it. But it also makes use of the iPad to deliver something young children would not get from other more traditional means.
London teacher Christopher Thorne must be one of the coolest Sirs on the planet (although he does appear to own several pairs of Timmy Mallet-like specs), and he uses the planets as the theme for his three maths apps.
When you score 10 out of 10 on a particular addition, times table or division test you get to keep a space station or planet, depending on the app you’re using. There’s a mystery challenge when you’ve unlocked all the tests, which is an extra incentive – and different to the Squeebles and Math Bingo reward games.
Each game has three levels: Beginner/Newcomer, First Class/Elite and World Class/Legend. The top level is going to test adults, too, so you can join in and have sum fun.
We recommend all the Mr Thorne maths apps, as they’re simple to use, look great, and should really engage kids in these maths basics.
My Very Hungry Caterpillar
The Very Hungry Caterpillar has munched its way through countless books, a telly animation, and even the odd activities-based app. But My Very Hungry Caterpillar takes a different approach, transforming the ravenous larva’s surroundings into an interactive game.
The result’s not unlike a no-lose Tamagotchi, with you feeding the caterpillar, playing with it, helping it doze under a leaf, and watching it grow. Eventually, like in the original story, the caterpillar transforms into a beautiful butterfly, at which point a new egg is laid for the adventure to begin anew.
There’s an elegant simplicity at the heart of Peek-a-Zoo, and it might at first appear a bit too simple. But any time spent with the app and a small child will dismiss any lingering concerns.
You’ll grow to love the gang of sweet cartoon animals, and the simple questions for the child to answer: who is winking? Who is dressed up? And so on. You soon realise that although this app is very straightforward, it’s cunningly teaching your child all kinds of things, from identifying animals to types of clothing and actions.
Sago Mini Monsters
One for younger monster-creators, before working their way up to the likes of Monster Mingle or DNA Play, Sago Mini Monsters has you coax a monster from gloopy green slime. You then tap colours and paint your beast before interacting with it.
Most interaction comes in the form of feeding the monster dishes that appear, along with prodding and poking horns, eyes and mouths to change their appearance. A quick brush of the teeth and some decorations and the monster’s time is done. You can then take a photo to share before starting the process again.
In this interactive story, children are regularly challenged to complete puzzles based around shape-matching. In one case, a little bird flutters towards the outline of a nest, while five brown triangles wait to be dragged into place. Elsewhere, shape and colour matching creates flowers and a watering can.
The voiceover isn’t the best around, but the 27 puzzles and story should keep a child engrossed for a good while, and the journey’s fun enough that it will warrant repeating a number of times.
Teach Your Monster to Read
Kids will love creating personalised monsters who help them learn the basics of reading, starting with letters, phonics and sound combinations before moving on to combinations of sounds and words. The app takes children through the various stages of teaching their monster to read using various mini games, and we suspect they’ll be having so much fun they won’t even notice that they’re learning.
Thinkrolls 2 is a slight but engaging platform puzzler for tiny hands to tackle. The aim is to help a little ball traverse various traps, collecting coins on the way to meeting up with a friend.
All of the objects you can manipulate (such as expanding platforms, and barrels to drag into water traps) are suitably chunky, and the game is forgiving when it comes to errors, enabling you to replay sections when a mistake is made, such as when tumbling into a hole.
It’s designed for young children and even toddlers can grasp the basic mechanics – although the very young may need a little help from a parent when it comes to the more complex interactions.
This smart, uncomplicated game is all about creating music from a band of colourful characters. You simply drag them to the stage and they get on with playing their instruments; move them to a spot with a different colour and they’ll change what they’re playing.
Any character plonked in the star position (unsubtly marked with a massive yellow star) gives you the chance to explore more sounds as part of a solo performance – perfect for when you think pianist Dancy Nancy or maracas player Shaky McBones hasn’t had enough of the limelight.
Best iPhone & iPad apps for kids: Ages 6 to 8
Now for some apps that are suitable for a slightly older audience. Here are our recommendations for children aged 6-8.
We’ll repeat ourselves, and point out that age recommendations are approximate. Check out our choices on the App Store before spending any money, to see if the difficulty, complexity and reading level are appropriate for your child.
BBC iPlayer Kids
The standard version of iPlayer is the best catch-up app around, providing fast access to shows recently broadcast on the BBC. But while it has age-gating, there’s always the risk a youngster will access something you don’t want them to see.
iPlayer Kids gets around this problem by restricting content to shows from CBBC and CBeebies. The interface is also simpler and chunkier, making it suitable for young children. That said, it still retains important features, notably the option to download shows for offline playback.
The suggestion that DNA Play can teach 6-to-8-year-olds the basics of genetics is perhaps pushing it a bit. But what this toy does allow for is the creation of almost limitless monsters.
This is achieved by completing ‘DNA puzzles’ (basic shape-matching) and subsequently manipulating the ‘DNA’ relating to a monster’s limbs, torso, face and features (by dragging shapes or just prodding the relevant bits of the monster). There’s also a modicum of interaction, where you can take your monster dancing and skating, and take a photo to share with friends.
Smartly, the app enables you to save a monster before creating another, enabling you to revisit favourites at a later date.
Journeys of Invention
One of the most ambitious digital books in existence, Journeys of Invention aims to chart the course of science and technology. It’s essentially a series of interwoven chapters, detailing how various inventions have impacted what followed.
Many pages enable you to interact with objects, spinning 360-degree ‘photographs’ with a finger, clambering inside the Apollo 10 Command Module, or sending coded messages using an Enigma machine. Packed with insight and spectacular imagery, it’s the best educational tome on the iPad.
One of the most valuable skills for a youngster to learn in the digital economy is coding, which is where Kodable comes in (at a very basic level).
SurfScoreLLC’s premise is very simple: “The fuzz family have crash-landed on Smeeborg and they need your help navigating the Technomazes.” The commands to get the fuzzballs through the mazes are all drag and drop so with a little trial and error we can easily find our way through, earn the rewards and get to grips with the fundamentals of coding.
Read our full
Lego DC Super Heroes Chase
There’s not much educational content here, but our six-year-old reviewer literally cannot get enough of it. Very useful for rewarding good behaviour.
It’s a simple racer in which you navigate a superhero through the level, avoiding obstacles and collecting coins, then take down the baddy du jour by chucking batarangs or similar. There doesn’t appear to be any significant chance of failure, but kids still appear to get a kick out of succeeding, and from collecting the various characters.
The idea behind Loopimal is to teach children the basics of making music by way of a colourful and simple-to-use loop sequencer.
That might sound complicated, but it really isn’t. You get a bopping animal, and drag coloured shapes to a looping timeline. When the playhead moves over one of the shapes, the animal performs an animation that alters the music in some way.
Once your child has figured out how it all works, you can split the screen into two or four, creating an oddball four-track menagerie-cum-band that will entertain for hours.
Play the game that’s all about numbers to learn how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Yes, bingo.
Math Bingo’s questions vary according to your child’s maths abilities and personal preferences. There’s a timer, but to start we’d advise disregarding the clock as this can put on undue pressure.
Math Bingo is colourful and features a collection of weird bug aliens to make things more fun. Kids love to win the Bingo Bugs and they can then use them in a game of Bingo Bug Bungie – a sort of pinball game where you fire your collected bugs to knockout coins to beat your highest score. It’s enough to make even reluctant mathematicians give multiplication another chance.
This Apple Design Award winner transforms letters into words, often by way of surreal animations. If you fancy seeing a caterpillar gamely driving a car that you can fling about the screen (complete with crashing noises when it lands) or an ostrich tentatively playing with a very solid-looking orange, this is the app to buy.
For kids, it’ll almost certainly captivate more than traditional fare in this space, because of its playful, interactive design. And although the app was created for the 6-to-8 age range, it’s perfectly suitable for younger children (or, for that matter, much older parents).
One of the most beautiful and captivating games ever released, Monument Valley will keep children and adults engaged for hours working our how to help the silent princess Ida through mysterious and mind-bending, fantastical architecture, uncovering hidden paths, unfolding Escher-like optical illusions of impossible geometry, and outsmarting the barking Crow People.
Monument Valley is both surreal and serene exploration and will surely go down in game history as one of the unique greats.
And once you’ve finished it,
Monument Valley 2 is available too.
Although we’d argue GarageBand is an approachable and accessible music-making app, it’s perhaps a bit too much for very young children, if only because of the sheer wealth of options. For an initial foray into making a noise, Novation Launchpad is a better bet.
On selecting a genre, you simply tap pads to trigger loops that repeat until they’re turned off or another in its group is selected. Performances can be recorded and shared, and for older kids intent on making their own loops, there’s a one-off IAP that unlocks import capabilities.
(Just make sure with very young kids that you don’t miss them hitting record and merrily leaving the app open for ages, or you’ll wonder where your device’s free space has all gone!)
Pure Math has a simpler and cleaner interface than many of the colourful apps in this round-up (hence the ‘pure’ in its name), and a faster difficulty progression, too, so it suits older children best.
You start each level with a score of 1,000, which decreases as time ticks by, and each time you get a question wrong. To begin, the sums are very easy, but with each level, they get harder and harder until even the adults will struggle.
The addition mode is free, but to unlock the subtraction, multiplication and division modes you’ll need to upgrade to the full version for £1.99/$1.99.
Squeebles Times Tables 2
Squeebles Times Tables 2 features an expanded reward system, fun mini game, six tables modes, unlimited players and plenty of stats and reporting for parents and teachers – thankfully without any in-app purchases or adverts. It’s great for testing kids on their times tables and rewarding them for getting them right.
There are other Squeebles apps for addition, division and so on. See the
Key Stage Fun Squeebles website for details of all on offer.
Star Walk Kids
There are quite a few apps that transform your iPhone or iPad into a virtual means to explore the heavens, but the interfaces can be too complex for young children. Star Walk Kids strips back the popular Star Walk app, simplifying how everything works, thereby optimising it for younger users.
That doesn’t mean it’s bereft of information, however: you can still explore the solar system’s planets, constellations, the ISS and Hubble; and there are nine animated films that enable you to delve a bit deeper into the facts and figures behind some of these objects.
Toca Blocks has the appearance of a platform game, but it’s really more about world-building and discovery. You add blocks to a large 2D plane, crafting a chunky world to explore. You can then take control of one of the three characters, each of which has unique abilities that affect how they travel about your tiny world (one can sort of fly, for example, while another smashes through blocks).
Much of the joy in the game comes from experimentation and just seeing what happens, such as when blocks combine to form something new, or a character starts dancing when walking over a glittery floor.
We’ll fully admit a sense of bafflement on first opening up Toca Dance, with its icon-heavy interface that doesn’t appear overly concerned about telling you how anything works. But then perhaps that’s the point – you play and figure out what everything does.
On doing so, a strange world of choreography opens up, with you helping a trio of dancers fashion a routine to be performed on stage. The show itself can be interacted with, too, by way of sound effects, or lobbing things at the stage (money; confetti; tomatoes). And everything’s recorded, so you can share a video with friends.
The developers of Toca Nature aim with their app to capture some of the magic of the great outdoors, and we reckon they’ve succeeded. You get a little square of land, raising mountains or digging rivers with a swipe of a finger. You then tap to plant trees and watch as an ecosystem comes to life.
Brilliantly, you can use a magnifying glass to explore your tiny world, collecting fruit and fish, and using them to feed the animals and birds you find. The blank canvas aspect whenever the app restarts is a pity – it would be nice to have a save slot for ‘your’ world, but otherwise this is one of the finest children’s apps on iOS.
Best iPhone & iPad apps for kids: Ages 9 and over
Finally, here are our recommendations for children aged 9 and over. (Almost all of these focus on the ages 9-11, but we couldn’t resist including Dumb Ways To Die, which is for those aged 12 and over.)
One last time, we will emphasise that age recommendations are approximate. Have a look at screenshots, preview videos and descriptions on the App Store before spending any money, to see if the difficulty, complexity and reading level are appropriate for your youngster.
Comic Life 3
There are plenty of photo apps that enable you to slap on a couple of stickers, or use filters to transform the look of any image. Comic Life, though, is for the more ambitious storyteller. You select a theme (several are included, from elaborate takes on classic comic styles through to bare-bones pages), and import photos into the panels.
You can then add sound effects, speech balloons and other stickers, thereby creating your very own comic book. For those who get really into the apps, there’s a script editor and the means to add multiple pages. Whatever you make can then be exported to a range of formats, including PDF and flat images.
Dumb Ways to Die
Originally conceived as a public safety animation for an Australian metro company, Dumb Ways To Die morphed from a brilliant cartoon and maddeningly catchy tune that kids love to sing into an equally fun game of lethal possibilities. Kids love it and learn how not to get themselves killed at the same time. There are numerous sequels and spinoffs, should the idea appeal.
All together now: “Set fire to your hair, Poke a stick at a grizzly bear. Eat medicine that’s out of date, Use your private parts as piranha bait.”
This beautifully designed app is essentially an interactive textbook, explaining how our planet works. As you leaf through the digital pages, you create volcanos and sculpt mountains, along with, of course, reading through the succinct but informative text alongside the simulations. That should be enough to keep most kids engrossed, but Earth Primer also includes a sandbox that enables you to create and shape a landscape with tools that are only unlocked as you progress through the rest of the book.
We’d say experiencing Earth Primer is reward enough, but turning a textbook into a game is a clever move if a reader needs a little extra encouragement.
Although more expensive than most maths apps MathBoard can be easily configured for school children of all ages, beginning with simple addition and subtraction problems, multiplication and division, and algebra.
The blackboard theme is cute, although most kids won’t come anywhere a blackboard in school these days.
It is built around multiple choice but encourages working out solutions with a neat scratchboard area where pupils can chalk their sums.
MathBoard’s Problem Solver walks students through the steps required to solve the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division equations. There are also quick reference tables to hand.
We especially like the configurable nature of MathBoard, where you can determine number ranges, omit negative answers, etc. Activities and quizzes can be timed, either as a countdown timer or elapsed time.
There’s a free version that tackles addition only so you can have a play before forking out for the full version. You don’t need to be a maths boffin to see the value in that!
Mathmateer is a fun space-themed maths game in which children can build and customise their own rockets using money they’ve earned while soaring through space.
There are 56 different games ranging from simple counting to division and multiplication, so kids of all ages can enjoy playing. Five player profiles can be created, so you can set up one for each child depending on their skill level.
The only downfall (depending on where you live) is that the money system (used to buy extra rocket parts) is in dollars rather than pounds.
The idea behind NAMOO is to encourage children to explore the life of plants. The main screen features a tree and component parts you can tap and then interact with by way of 3D simulations. Each is twinned with some simple but engaging text that explains what’s going on.
The app is perhaps a little slight – it doesn’t take long to work through – but it looks and sounds gorgeous. Most notably, the artwork has a striking low-poly design that helps it stand out from more traditional textbook fare, helping it feel modern; this might rope in a few younglings who’d otherwise give it a pass.
The Americanism in the app’s name might be mildly objectionable to British buyers, but this action-packed maths app has a lot to recommend it. The app mixes basic maths skills for children with a time-based spy game.
You’re a secret agent battling the evil Dr Odd, and you get new uniforms and spy gear for each mission completed. This game is all about beating the clock, so try it first in training mode when the player has more time to think about the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division equations.
The spy theme is a great idea for making maths a fun adventure.
And here’s another delightful astronomical option. Redshift uses your current location to show you which stars, constellations and planets you should be able to see. If you enable the Follow Sky option, RedShift will update what you should expect to see as you point your iPad or iPhone at different spots in the sky while you pan around. It’s not a cheap option at £9.99, but a deep and rewarding experience.
If your kids are feeling bored later tonight, how about a spot of astronomy? The amazing Solar Walk is a great app to get you started. The £4.99/$4.99 app lets you explore the solar system in exquisite detail. You can pinch and zoom around the heavens, examining celestial bodies in an immersive 3D environment from any angle or perspective.
Read our full
Solar Walk review.
Xooloo proved a big hit with a six-year-old who was required to stay home from school during the 2020 virus lockdown, and very much missed his friends. On the whole, however, it’s probably better suited to a slightly older crowd.
It lets you create an avatar and then safely and easily send messages, emoji, pictures and a small number of jokey visual effects (a custard pie, a kiss, confetti and more, gradually unlocking as you make more friends) and keep in touch with friends and family.
To make the app more child-friendly, parents are informed when their kids make new contacts, and can view the contacts list at any time (but not the contents of conversations); it complies fully with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The fact that the app is free yet contains neither advertising nor in-app purchases is a further advantage.
Warnings about iDevice use, and further reading
That concludes our roundup of the best kids’ apps for iPad and iPhone, but it’s certainly not our last word on the subject.
If you’re considering a tablet for your offspring, you should first ponder the question
are iPads safe for young children?
Remember to protect the device with a
kid-friendly case and
protect it using parental controls. Be aware also that some apps are expensive to buy or contain in-app purchases designed to tempt unwary kids. Others aren’t appropriate for youngsters.
If you’re looking for more app recommendations, you’ll be delighted to discover that we’ve also compiled lists of the
best iOS games, the
best free iPhone games and the
best free iPad games for the older kids (and adults) to enjoy.