If you’ve ever tried to navigate your way through an app store to pick up a ‘few quick games’ for your kids, you’ve probably found it to be a particularly frustrating experience. Which ones do you choose? There are an endless array of apps competing for your money. And it becomes even more brutal if your child is sitting beside you, excitedly pointing, asking you to buy every single thing that comes across the screen.
Hopefully, this list will save you a little aggravation. Below are 25 apps from the last few years that are worth every penny. These games will leave you with the comforting feeling that even though your kids are using screens, they aren’t completely frying their brains…
Well, not completely. Click any picture to learn more about each app. Organized by age appropriateness.
1. Fruit Ninja (All Ages)
If you’re new to parenting or gaming apps, and have never played Fruit Ninja, this is one that lives up to the hype. It’s as simple as it sounds — you slice your finger across the smart screen and chop fruit in half. Endlessly fun and addicting, with smooth graphics and gameplay. Even the littlest kids can have a good time with it.
2. Millie Was Here, Book 1: Meet Millie (All Ages)
Tablet books are risky, because they often are ‘one-and-done’, offering kids very little in the way of repeat value. That said, if you’re going to get one book app, check out the Millie series. These digital books are beautifully and brilliantly designed, with tons of interactivity.
3. Drawing Pad (All Ages)
You should always have a digital sketchpad for kids to doodle on, especially on road trips. This is a great one.
4. Bugs And Bubbles (All Ages)
Gorgeous artwork along with a variety of hands-on games and activities to keep younger kids entertained.
5. Shape Builder (All Ages)
There’s something very satisifying about snapping shapes of a puzzle into place and this is a great one for kids. Pediatrician recommended.
6. Preschool Animal Match (All Ages)
Just like a drawing program, it’s useful to have at least one good matching game in your phone. Almost any will do, but this one comes highly rated. Matching is particularly good because it encourages playing with someone else, either a sibling or a parent, to challenge each other. More engagement with other people is a bonus, but the obvious benefit here is developing memory skills.
7. Disney Princess Story Theater (All Ages)
If you have the kind of daughter that likes to make her dolls talk to one another and shows an interest in storytelling, this is a fun app to help hone those skills. Although limited, you can make little movies as you drag the princesses and their props around the screen, adding your own voices. Then you play back the scenes for a full story. It’s appropriate for all ages, but you will have to work with younger kids to help them get the most out of the app. (Currently Free)
8. Starfall ABCs (All Ages)
Starfall is a popular educator’s tool and many schools use the computer version of this game in their curriculum. The app version isn’t quite as comprehensive, but is still a great tool to get your kids recognizing letters and reading. The one pictured above is the ABC app, but they have a whole suite of programs for childhood education, including Starfall Learn To Read and Starfall Numbers.
9. Memory Block (All Ages)
The digital version of the classic game “Simon” wherein you memorize light patterns. It’s great on a smartphone, but it really shines in the tablet version, with big colorful buttons for the kids to press.
10. Spin Art (All Ages)
Remember the spinning canvas you could drip paint on when you were a kid? This is the computerized version. It doesn’t replace getting your hands dirty with real paint but it’s still surprisingly fun. Your kids won’t get hours of playtime out of it, but it can serve as a nice 15 minute distraction when waiting for a doctor’s appointment. Bonus: you can print out or email your creations.
11. Doodle Jump (Ages 4+)
In Doodle Jump, you bounce from platform to platform, scaling new heights as you attempt to beat your own best score. Like Fruit Ninja and Temple Run, this has reached ‘Classic’ status and is a required addition to any app collection. In fact, it’s become so popular that it’s one of the few games to cross over from smartphones into actual live arcades.
12. Where’s My Water (Ages 5+)
Disney finally delivered a unique, well-developed gaming app. You dig tunnels through the dirt and then release water that has to flow through to a final destination. Good strategy game that makes kids think. There are several versions available, including “Where’s My Perry?” (the Phineas and Ferb edition).
13. Frozen Free Fall (Ages 5+)
Wait, what? You’re sick of Frozen? Don’t let it go yet… there’s still some fun to be had with the billion-dollar franchise. This is basically Frozen’s version of Candy Crush and it delivers. Slide your fingers across matching lines of jewels to clear as many as you can in the allotted time limit. Best part? It’s free!
14. Robot Unicorn Attack (Ages 5+)
This trippy game is like something plucked right out of a little girl’s dream: you are a speedy unicorn leaving a rainbow trail in your wake as you gallop through the clouds, all to the tune of Erasure’s “Always” which plays incessantly in the background. Sounds insane, right? It is. Insanely awesome! One of our daughter’s go-to games since she turned 5.
15. Minecraft (Ages 6+)
It’s the king daddy of games right now and it deserves the title. You are dropped into the middle of an imaginary world, where you can dig and build to your heart’s desire. Or you can switch into Survival mode and play against computer animated ‘creepers’ who try to kill you. But the point of Minecraft is that its only limits are your imagination. It’s one of the most amazing video game experiences for any platform, ever. Which is why Microsoft just bought it for 2.5 billion dollars. Warning: if young kids are playing Minecraft, make sure they are only playing on your local device, not on a server where they can interact with teens and adults.
16. Jetpack Joyride (Ages 6+)
Similar to Robot Unicorn above, but more like something from a boy’s dream: in this speedy side-scroller, you fly a customized jetpack as you dodge oncoming objects while collecting gold coins. Very addicting with lots of “level-ups” for your jetpack. It’s a little trickier than some other games in the genre, hence the higher age recommendation.
17. Ninja Fishing (Ages 6+)
This app was a big hit a few years back and remains a cult favorite. You catch fish by guiding a hook down to the bottom of the ocean and guiding them back up, and then you slice them like sushi. The second part is definitely a rip-off of Fruit Ninja, but the fishing aspect of the game is what’s really special. Colorful graphics, a good sense of humor and plenty of levels to unlock make this highly engaging.
18. Badland (Ages 6+)
One of the most interesting, unique and fresh games to come around in a long time, Badland is hard to explain. Essentially you have to guide a little “poof” ball through a world of gears and hazards that can grind you up. There is a very realistic sense of ‘gravity’ that you are working against as you float through each maze. Sharp graphics and smooth gameplay make this one a favorite, even if it is a little quirky.
19. Temple Run (Ages 6+)
Another app that has reached ‘classic’ status and deserves the praise, Temple Run takes the side-scroller game idea and makes it “3D”. You are a fast-moving jungle explorer on the run from a herd of angry monsters. There are several games in the series and you really can’t go wrong with any of them, although the Disney “Brave” version is probably the least enjoyable.
20. Pokemon TV (Ages 6+)
Television? On the Ipad? Isn’t that like screentime overload? Yeah, a little and maybe it’s not the best use of an Ipad, but there have been plenty of times Pokemon TV has occupied both our kids for a good 30 minutes as they lay on the floor together watching this classic animated show. The App is just so giving: hundreds of Pokemon episodes right there at your fingertips, for free! (note: need a wifi connection to stream an episode).
21. Kingdom Rush (Ages 7+)
Kingdom Rush is a tower defense game, which means you setup towers which shoot enemies on their own – you are more like the “General” of the army, handling most of the strategy. In this case, your army consists of archers, wizards, elves, knights and other mythical characters. You place your men all around the board, as dozens of little monsters come out onto the screen to try to defeat you. The graphics and gameplay are fantastic on this game, and it shows in the consumer response – Kingdom Rush is on its 3rd offering in the series. Play them all if you have a child who is into fantasy and adventure. A very well-thought out and unique game.
22. Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4 (Ages 7+)
The Lego games are all pretty decent and pretty similar, but we really had fun with Harry Potter. You can paly a little, come back to it, paly a little, come back to it. It’s a bit like a moving storybook, a big, lengthy game with hours of playtime. Years 1-4 is obviously where you should start, but FYI they also make years 5-7. If Hogwarts isn’t your thing, check out some of the other Lego games like Batman. Every phone or tablet should have at least one Lego adventure app for the kids. If you’ve played them on any home system like Wii or Xbox, these versions are basically the same exact thing, a combination of puzzles and action.
23. Escape The Room (Ages 7+)
Such a clever game. You are placed into an empty room without any information. By tapping on different objects, you start to assemble clues that eventually lead you to finding the key and escaping the room. Each room is subsequently harder. Kids can have fun playing this solo or together, and it’s fun to hear them shouting out different ideas as to what to do next. Note: may be too hard for the younger set, but consider playing with them. It’s filled with great brain teasers to do with your kids, to enhance their logical thinking and puzzle solving abilities.
24. FX Guru Movie Director (Ages 7+)
There are a few versions of this kind of app, wherein you shoot a live movie with your phone and then add Hollywood caliber special effects. We’ve made some great home movies with the kids using these. Based on reviews, this one is currently the best on the market. Fun for the budding filmmaker.
25. Stack The States (Ages 7+)
A famous game with great reviews that deserves all the accolades, Stack the States is a great way to teach kids something without them realizing they’re being taught. Even kids with a complete aversion to geography will enjoy the stacking challenge.
Bonus: Heads up (For Kids AND Grown-Ups)
A charades-like guessing game that makes clever use of your smartphone by having you hold it up to your head, with a word facing the audience. As your friends and family try to act out the clues, you have 60 seconds to guess as many as you can. You tilt the phone up for every correct answer and tilt it down to pass. Good for groups, and if the kids aren’t around, it can be a great drinking game with other couples. Bonus: while you’re playing, the game activates your video camera so you can record your family and friends’ while they’re acting out the clues.