Books, games, and videos to go
When we were young, life was a whole lot tougher than it is now: We had to rush to get in front of a TV whenever Sesame Street was on. Our games required dice and funny-looking pieces that were always getting lost. And we were forced to physically turn the pages of our picture books, which we walked uphill both ways in the snow to the public library to obtain.
But as easy as our kids have it, our parents love to say the same about us. We’re constantly hearing about how they had to lug bags of toys and books on long car rides. It’s hard to argue—all we need to keep our kids entertained is tablet or smartphone with a full charge. But finding all those engaging and educational apps is anything but easy, so we’ve helped narrow down the selection.
Amazon Prime Instant Video
Netflix may be the streaming service of choice for mature movie buffs. But truly tech-savvy parents know the benefits of Amazon Prime Instant Video, which is front and center on Kindle Fire tablets, and also viewable via an iOS app, as well as desktop and mobile browsers. While it might not have the greatest library of films, our kids think it rocks, with full seasons of all of their favorite shows, whether they’re an explorer like Dora or a member of Team Umizoomi. At $99 a year, a Prime subscription costs about the same as Netflix and includes free 2-day shipping on all those toys and diapers you buy anyway. (The diapers will even be 20 percent off, if you also sign up for Amazon Mom.)
Cookie Monster has never gone out of style. But like anyone who’s stayed fashionable for 45 years, he and his friends are keeping up with the times, too. Sesame Go brings the whole gang right into the 21st century. This very affordable subscription-based service ($4 a month or $30 a year) gives your child access to classic and current episodes of Sesame Street and Pinky Dinky Doo delivered fast and ad-free to any device you want. You don’t even need an app, just use the browser.
Sesame Go has a free two-week trial, and you can get tons of free Sesame Street videos from the official YouTube channel too. Whaddya know, the air is just as sweet as you remember.
We remember the Public Broadcasting Service channel as a bunch of boring stuff between Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, but that’s not the case anymore. Our kids love all of the shows in the PBS Kids block, and you’ll find a rotating carousel of videos and clips in the companion app for iOS and Kindle tablets. (If you use another Android tablet or phone, just load up PBSKids.org/video in your browser.) It won’t cost you a thing but the space freed up on your DVR will be priceless.
Your child might be happy with a video or a book for a short while, but we know how it is—soon enough their attention wanders and their finger reaches for the home button. If you’re struggling to keep them focused on the task at hand, try PlayKids, a video download service that combines the popular shows they love to watch with books and activities into one magical app for iOS and Android. Five bucks a month or $40 a year will unlock it all, but your kids can follow the fun train-based interface to plenty of free content.
Today’s youngsters might not ever know what’s it’s like to wear down the corners of their favorite book, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as ravenous about reading. Epic lets kids 12 and under devour as many ebooks as they can handle for $10 a month, after a free 30-day trial. With an expertly curated library sorted by age group, offline support, and a system of badges to reward bookworms, Epic is sure to satisfy any appetite—even if they’re just hungry for a tenth helping of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Parents even get stats on how much their kids are reading. The app is currently just for iPad, but it’s coming to Android later this year.
Just because something’s educational doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining, too. That’s the philosophy behind ABC Mouse, a clever curriculum of games, puzzles, and activities that teach preschool through kindergarten kids reading, writing and ’rithmetic. Your kids will think they’re just popping bubbles, matching shapes and coloring pictures—but they’ll be having too much fun to realize they’re actually learning math, science and spelling. The service has an iOS app, and Android users can load the Flash site in their browser or grab the beta app. It’ll cost you $8 a month or $80 a year, but can you really put a price on pride?
Not every child believes their parents when they wax on about how much fun reading is. So if your kids ages 12 and under need a little encouragement, ebook subscription service Bookboard will open their eyes. For $9 per month (or $30 for six months), Bookboard crafts a reading list around your child’s interests, and as kids check books off the list they unlock new books for their collection. It’s designed to motivate and entertain your kids without making any of it seem like homework. Currently you’ll need an iPad or a computer running the Chrome browser, but Bookboard intends to support more platforms in the future.
Wallykazam! Letter and Word Magic
Every few years or so a new cartoon character comes along that instantly becomes the theme for every birthday party your child is invited to. This year it’s Nickelodeon’s Wallykazam, and even if you’ve never heard him, your preschool kids will love his new Letter and Word Magic app for iPhone and iPad. With zany plots and interactive scenery, the apps let your kids join Wally and his friends as they climb word towers and hunt for letters—all while learning just how funny the English language can be.
Disney Creativity Studio
All kids love to waste the hours away with a stack of coloring books, but the back seat of a car isn’t the most ideal place to stay between the lines. So instead of crayons and markers, set them up with Disney Creativity Studio on the iPad, where they won’t just be able to color their favorite characters—they can learn how to draw them, too. (Or trace, if they haven’t tapped into their inner Walt Disney just yet.)
The app works with the $40 Disney Deluxe Stylus. But if you don’t have the stylus, you can still get some mileage out of the app, which is free and offers add-ons for $1 or $2 via in-app purchase.
If your little one likes to talk to his imaginary friends and stuffed animals, imagine how stoked he would be if one of them actually talked back. The 20 animal characters in SpeakaZoo (free for iPad) do just that, listening to your child’s thoughts and engaging them in real conversations that will amuse your kids for hours. Just remember to plug in a pair of headphones—because those cute little animals have cute little high-pitched voices to go with them.
Toca Pet Doctor
The excellent TocaBoca apps are gems across the board, designed for kids ages 2 to around 8, and refreshingly gender-neutral. The latest is Toca Pet Doctor, which lets your kids care for 15 sick pets, from a dog and a cat all the way down to a snail named Blob. With no rules, it’s a relaxing way for your kids to explore by tapping and swiping to cure the pets of their ailments and then feed them a delicious snack. And there are no ads or in-app purchases, so you won’t be cajoled into shelling out real-world money for extra iguana snacks. The app is $3 for iOS and Kindle and $1 for Android.
Parents who watched Reading Rainbow as children in the ’80s are probably mashing the “buy” button on the iOS and Kindle app stores right now, and we can’t blame you. The Reading Rainbow app for tablets is just as great as the show, and it’s even hosted by LeVar Burton. You get 5 free books and a sampling of “field trip” videos, and the full library of books and videos costs $10 per month or $30 for six months. For one subscription per family, parents can set up accounts for up to 5 kids, and then the app recommends new fiction and nonfiction books for each child’s age range and interests—the young’ins who can’t read yet can even play along with the Read To Me mode, or poke around each book’s interactive activities.
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