Between homework, piano recitals, school plays, and soccer games, most kids these days have plenty of pressure in their lives. You know what they don’t have? Enough mellowness.
We like tense, timed, high-scoring games as much as the next family, but sometimes you need something a little lazier. Like playing in a mental sandbox. Here are five apps that are fun and relaxing for kids.
1. AVOKIDDO EMOTIONS
Dress, feed and play with three funny animals.
iPhone, iPad | Age: 3+ | Price: $2.99
Introduce your kids to a zany zebra, a shy sheep, and a jolly giraffe, then sit back and watch them giggle as they feed them, dress them up, and share toys with them. This game has no rules or expectations. Just funny, unscripted interactions.
There are some nice touches here as well. If you put the flower lei on the zebra, the background changes to tropical. The knit hat takes you to a snowy scene. The sombrero takes you to a Mexican desert complete with bullfighting music.
2. TOCA CARS
Drivers start your engines!
iPhone, iPad | Age: 5+ | Price: $0.99
World’s cutest car racing app! When you race in this stylish cardboard world, there are no rules. Want to mow down all the trees? Go for it. Drive through ice cream? No problem. Jump over a robot…while driving in reverse? Hey, it’s your racecourse.
Kids younger than five will want to play, but may need a little help navigating. If, like me, you knocked over all the buildings and landscaping on your first time around the track, just push the restore button! Come to think of it, I’d like a button like that… for my house.
MY PLAYHOME STORES
Hours of imagination-driven play.
iPhone, iPad | Age: 3+ | Price: $1.99
From the creators of the wonderful, award-winning My Playhome comes this opportunity for kids to goof around in the business world! Take a walk down the street into four beautifully illustrated shops.
Kids will enjoy going to the ice cream shop, doing a little grocery shopping, and even picking out a new outfit (which is ironic of course, because seriously, what kid likes picking out a new outfit!?). Even better, this app is fully integrated with My Playhome, so your kids can bring their purchases home.
4. WEE ROCKETS
iPhone, iPad | Age: 3+ | Price: $1.99
Kids aged 2-6 will enjoy designing and building their own rockets, launching them into space, and then racing through an asteroid field to rescue all the stranded aliens.
There are 64 parts to choose from when tricking out your rocket, and 10 astronauts, so kids won’t run out of original missions any time soon. This is a text-free and intuitive game, so it works well for readers and pre-readers alike.
5. QUELL +
A peaceful puzzle game for all ages.
iPhone, iPad | Age: 6+ | Price: $1.99
Quell+ is a deceptively simple puzzle app with a Zen flavor. Some puzzle apps lead to aggravation. Quell just leads to feelings of peace and contentedness. Don’t ask us why.
There is a raindrop on a game board that you must swipe vertically and horizontally in order to “collect” a series of pearls. Unlike many games, the learning curve is smooth and gradual. Even very young kids will be able to play a few levels before they get stumped. Also? Soothing spa music!
(There are in-app purchases, so make sure you turn them off in your device’s settings if that’s a concern for you.)
Most parents — myself included — aren’t willing to delegate their child’s safety to a handheld electronic device. We’re more focused on the risks smartphones bring than the ways they can make our kids safer. Still, there are a handful of apps that can give parents some peace of mind.
No matter how much trust and independence play a part of your parenting style, here are five apps that can keep kids a little safer both online and off:
1. LIFE 360
Keeps kids safe from: Endless parent check-ins
Keeps parents safe from: Worrying
This location-sharing app for iPhone and Android users allows families to create circles with private maps, messaging, and check-ins. If you’re the kind of parent who finds yourself texting your kids, “Did you make it?”, this is the app for you. Whenever someone in your circle leaves a zone (like school) and arrives at a zone (like home), you’ll get a notification.
Two warnings: 1) if you’re thinking of using this app to keep teens in line, you should know that they can uninstall and therefore outsmart it — it’s not really meant for that, and 2) the maps include the locations and pictures of registered sex offenders (this information isn’t reliably correct and up-to-date, but it is always alarming).
2. ANTI-SOCIAL (FOR MAC AND WINDOWS)
Keeps kids safe from: Time suck websites
Keeps parents safe from: Nagging
You know when your teen is trying to get homework done, but ends up wasting time on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Vine, Pinterest, Instagram, TMZ, and so on? Download a free trial of Anti-social, and block websites that prove distracting during certain hours. If you like it, subscribe. Who knows, you might decide to try it for yourself.
If you really, really, really need to use Facebook while it’s disabled for some reason, you can get around the block by re-booting your computer.
3. ZACT CONTROL
Keeps kids safe from: Late night texting
Keeps parents safe from: Grouchy, tired kids
Zact is an iPhone and Android app that lets parents monitor (and budget, and top off) their kids cell phone usage, set curfews, permit or restrict contacts, and approve or block apps. Not everyone needs that level of micromanagement, of course, and many people object to it. The killer feature is setting curfews. Don’t want your kid to be able to send and receive texts between 9pm and 7am on school nights? That functionality is just a finger tap away.
A word of warning: my high school student often needs to get in touch with project partners later at night than I would like, so don’t set the curfew too early.
4. MOBICIP SAFE BROWSER WITH PARENTAL CONTROLS
Keeps kids safe from: “Accidentally” viewing something inappropriate
Keeps parents safe from: Worrying
Don’t think you need web safe browsing? Consider this. According to a 2008 study in CyberPsychology & Behavior, 93% of boys and 62% of girls have seen internet porn before they turn 18 (or so says Nancy Jo Sales in her Vanity Fair article, Friends Without Benefits). Will installing a web browser with parental controls completely circumvent this? Of course not. Will it delay it? I think so.
You can filter based on age, and comprehensive reporting means you can monitor your child’s web browsing history (and use it to have important conversations about what is and isn’t okay).
Toonstastic Jr. Pirates is a storytelling app that allows young kids to make their own pirate-themed animated movies.
Kids choose the beginning, middle, and end of their stories by scrolling through sets of scene starters. The characters act out the beginning of a scene, such as “Love at First Catch”, then kids finish the story. They record their own narration (with funny voices, matey) as they move the characters through the scenes.
Why we love it:
The original Toontastic app is one of the best free creative apps for school-aged kids. Teachers use it because it teaches storytelling concepts through imaginative play. This junior version simplifies the process for preschoolers.
Watch out for:
It’s difficult to scroll through the scenes when they move at the speed of a slot machine, so slow it down by tapping the screen gently. The app also doesn’t give kids much time to think of the narration as it counts down quickly to record. To get the perfect movie, kids will need to use the redo button a lot.