There are thousands of great child-friendly apps available for iOS and Android, but finding software that’s appropriate for toddlers can be a challenge. Children ages 1 to 3 can’t read and are still developing their language skills, while many have limited hand-eye coordination. However, with the right apps, youngsters can improve their vocabulary, learn about the world around them, or at least stay calm while their parents are trying to eat at a restaurant. (Note: The American Academy of Pediatricsrecommends that parents severely limit their toddlers’ “screen time”)
Here are eight apps simple enough for 18-month-olds to use, but entertaining enough to keep them occupied. Almost all of these are free, but most require a $1.99 to $2.99 upgrade to unlock all of their features and remove annoying ads.
Toddler Cars (Free; iOS, Android)
If your child likes cars, they’ll love Toddler Cars. This simple but addictive learning app features small thumbnail icons of vehicles that launch fun animations that say the object’s name when you touch them. Tapping a thumbnail of a fire truck, for example, brings up an animation that loudly says “fire truck,” while playing some funky music and showing that truck speeding down a street.
After a few hours with this game, your little one will be pointing to ambulances, vans and fire trucks and calling them by name everywhere you go. For $2.99, Toddler Cars 2 adds another 18 vehicles to tap.
ABC for Kids (Free; iOS, Android)
Like Toddler Cars, which is also made by Russ Puppy Software, ABC for Kids features a set of thumbnails a child can tap to initiate a cute animation. However, instead of cars, the thumbnails are letters that show a funny character when selected to make learning the alphabet fun.
Tapping the letter R brings up an animation of a robot dancing and a voice that says “R — Robot,” while hitting V shows a cartoon vampire with the voice saying “V — Vampire.” One of the buttons also plays the entire ABC song.
Barnyard Games for Kids (Free; iOS, Android)
What child doesn’t like farm animals? The free version of Barnyard Games for Kids provides three farm-themed games for free, along with eight others you can unlock by purchasing the full app for $1.99 on Android, or $2.99 on iOS.
Among the free games is Tap Farm, a graphically compelling title showing a barnyard scene with animals like cows and pigs that move and make noises when a child taps them. The barnyard is fun, but simple enough that even an 18-month-old can enjoy it. Slightly more complicated, Shapes & Colors helps children learn to identify squares, stars, circles, rectangles and triangles in a variety of hues. Alphabet bounce requires kids to pop balloons with letters on them to help them learn the ABCs.
Galante Kids Toy Car (Free on Android, $1.99 on iOS)
For toddlers who love cars, there’s nothing more exciting than the idea of getting behind the wheel. Unfortunately, most driving games involve high-speed races that require strong hand-eye coordination, a long attention span and the ability to work some controls. However, Galante Kids Toy Car puts children in the driver’s seat of a regular car and lets them touch and activate objects on the dashboard.
Curious youngsters can experiment with the virtual car’s turn signals, wiper blades, radio, air conditioning, doors, windows and mirrors. They can even open the glove compartment, where there’s a rubber duck to play with. It goes without saying that kids can also drive the car, but they cannot go off the road or crash, allowing them to keep playing until they get bored.
Peekaboo Zoo (Free; iOS, Android)
Kids love animals and playing peekaboo so bringing the two concepts together only makes sense. Peekaboo Zoo is an extremely simple app that shows a fence and shaking trees, which are presumably scared because there’s an animal behind them. Kids tap on the fence to reveal the animal behind it, which makes a noise while a narrator says its name (example: “Lion”). Children can learn the names and sounds of animals, from Lions to Flamingos. Though the app is free, we recommend paying $1.99 to remove ads and unlock all the features.
Coloring Book for Toddlers (Free; iOS, Android)
While there are many coloring book apps around, we like romeLab’s Coloring Book for Toddlers for being simple to use while still fostering creativity. Many other digital coloring books we tried either restrict the child to coloring within the lines by filling in shapes as soon as they are tapped or have a complex array of pencils and brushes that would confuse a toddler.
Coloring Book for Toddlers provides dozens of drawings available in four categories: Animals, Things, People and Nature. Only Animals is unlocked in the free version, and the full version costs $1.39 on Android, $1.99 on iOS. After choosing a drawing, kids pick from a simple palette on the left side of the screen, and then use their fingers, rather than a digital brush, to do the coloring.
Doodle Buddy (Free; iOS)
A very simple drawing app for the iPad and iPhone, Doodle Buddy provides a blank canvas, along with just a few simple tools, including a color picker, a rubber stamp, a stencil and a few background options. After a master piece is complete, it can be shared via email or Facebook, or saved in the devices’ photo album.
Kids Music Instruments Sounds / Kids Musical Instruments (Free; iOS, Android)
Whether it’s a xylophone, cymbals or a keyboard, your toddler probably already has at least one instrumental toy. However, Kidstatic Apps’ Kids Music Instrument Sounds (called Kids Musical Instruments on iOS) provides seven digital instruments children can play on-screen, including a guitar, drums and a saxophone. And, unlike most musical toys, this app works with headphones and your device’s volume controls.
The instruments are responsive, with large keys, pipes and other touch areas that are easier for children to target. Even better, a set of controls on the top of the screen allows kids to add a loop from an accompanying instrument such as a guitar or tambourine. However, the xylophone is the only primary instrument available on the free version; you can unlock the other instruments for $2.49 on Android, $2.99 on iOS.