Guilt-Free Apps
to Keep Kids Entertained

We like to think we’re the kind of parents who keep our kids’ playtime off-screen, outdoors, and in the “real world,” but, well, our kids are fiends for their iPads (and gem, coin, and token in-app purchases). That said, we’re always on the look-out for open-ended apps that inspire imaginative play, that might teach a useful skill, too. I mean…who doesn’t want their kid to learn how to code? To that end, we tapped a handful of kids and parents for the latest kid-centric apps that come without guilt—or astronomical iTunes bills.

  • Dinosaur Mix

    Dinosaur Mix

    Kids Like: They can build their own dinosaur from scratch with, for example, Triceratops legs, a Tyrannosaurus Rex head, and a Brachiosaurus body. They can then take their Franken-saur for a spin, see what noises it makes, and what kinds of foods it might like to eat.

    We Like: In this beautifully illustrated app there are no right answers, quizzes, or ways to win a prize. Instead, the fun is in the process of building and exploring. Another major bonus is that there are no in-app purchases to be found in the pre-historic landscape.

  • Drawnimal


    Kids Like: Simple diagrams in the app show kids how to draw an encyclopedia’s worth of animals. When the drawing is complete, the animals make funny faces and noises (in four different languages).

    We Like: Beautifully and simply illustrated by Lucas Zanotto, the app encourages kids to draw—with paper and pencil, no less—and then takes their work to a whole new dimension with a slew of ridiculously cute animations. The bonus is that they learn the alphabet, too.

  • I Hear Ewe

    I Hear Ewe

    Kids Like: Animal sounds! What more can we say? This app gets great reactions even with little ones as young as 1 or 2.

    We Like: You can choose from four languages, so kids can start learning animal names (and sounds) in French, Chinese, and Spanish, too.

  • Little Big Foot

    Little Big Foot

    Kids Like: Not only do kiddos get to read and watch the Little Big Foot story unfold, they also get to help him make his way from the country to the city, with an animated interaction for each step of the way.

    We Like: Created by two dads—a screenwriter and a filmmaker—the story comes equipped with suspense, drama, and a full spectrum of emotions to explore: When Little Big Foot gets to the city he experiences all the highs and lows of fame and stardom—which makes for powerful talking points with kids.

  • MarcoPolo Ocean

    MarcoPolo Ocean

    Kids Like: Little ones get to explore the ocean floor, create their own marine ecosystem, play with dolphins, orcas, and the like, and lead the creatures through the sea. All the while they’re building jigsaw puzzles—the ship, especially, is a hit.

    We Like: It was developed by a pair of dads who were inspired by the kinds of learning and play their preschoolers most responded to. They went for it, and teamed up with a marine biologist and several experts in early childhood education.

  • Sago Mini Space Explorer

    Sago Mini Space Explorer

    Kids Like: Kids get to take Harvey the dog for a trip from home all the way to space where they lead him from space station, to star, to meteor, to planet. Everywhere he turns there’s a new character to meet.

    We Like: This app is full of discovery, presented by a multitude of animated characters, each with its own mini-story. There is no winning or losing, and kids can take as long as they want in each station. And when they’re done exploring space, Sago Mini has a bunch of other similarly open-ended apps to choose from.

  • Book Creator for Ipad

    Book Creator for iPad

    Kids Like: Creating their own story book using their own words and photos and laying them out as they please.

    We Like: This app doesn’t direct the play, instead it’s simply a fairly advanced and user-friendly tool for self-expression and creativity. We love that kids can actually publish their work as an iBook, and we can then keep it in our iPad bookshelf.

  • Codequest


    Kids Like: Coddy Coder and Holly Hacker lead kids through 10 levels of quick-fire games, and by the end, they’re ready to build and publish their own website using the HTML and CSS skills they’ve picked up along the way.

    We Like: With the support of the Disney Accelerator program, the young female founders—Codarica, Lovisa, Rosalyn, and Sanna—were able to create and distribute a free app that teaches kids how to code. We also love their promo video, which is a modern day Revenge of the Nerds.

  • Toca Lab

    Toca Lab

    Kids Like: Hitting the virtual science lab, where they get to pick an element—a round little creature with googly eyes—from the periodic table, and discover its properties by putting it through a set of experiments, from using a centrifuge, to exposing it to ice, heat, and a series of mysterious chemicals.

    We Like: Not only is this app a great way to brush up on chemistry, the graphics and animation are the best we’ve seen. TocaBoca has a slew of other apps—each its own beautiful universe—that are just as ingenious and complex.

  • Ticket to Ride

    Ticket to Ride

    Kids Like: For any kid that’s spent most of their childhood obsessing over building the longest train track, this board-game-turned app is the perfect next step, teaching them about geography as they build train routes across the USA.

    We Like: Let’s just say, we’re no strangers to the original board game, which we also recommend for holiday downtime.

  • Toca Hair Salon

    Toca Hair Salon

    Kids Like: Taking selfies and pictures of friends, families, and pets, and then giving them a total makeover at a virtual hair salon. They can then save the results in the photo library.

    We Like: We couldn’t resist adding another app from Toca Boca. To start, the graphics are pretty mind-blowing, but what we can’t get over is just how creative kids can get with the hair styles, treatments—washes, blow drys, and accessories. It’s like a paint box app.

  • Coloring Farm Touch to Color

    Coloring Farm Touch to Color

    Kids Like: The sense of “coloring” a coloring book, with the added bonus that noisy farm animals continually jump into the screen with each new color they “paint” with their finger.

    We Like: While it’s a relatively simple app, it’s definitely addictive, full of humorously cute animations, and best of all, it’s easy to control whether to buy a larger package of “coloring pages.”