There is nothing like the holidays to bring a family together … together in a car, or on an airplane, together for long stretches of time … time in which children grow bored and frustrated and really really grumpy …
and whiny (don't forget whiny) …
in fact, whiny to the point they could nearly drive a holiday-harried parent to the brink of insanity …
Wait … where was I going with this? Oh yes, I remember - I was about to explain that this time of year is a really really good time of year to invest in some quality children's applications for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch (which uses iPhone-compatible apps).
(As for the other devices out there, while there certainly are ways to entertain your children on Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7, the levels of premium kids-app development there aren't even close to what's available for the Apple products. Next year, that is bound to be a different story, and we promise to let you know when it is.)
In the last year, my husband and I have taken our 3-year-old on several epic trips - from Seattle to Israel, Jordan, Mexico and Alaska. So it's with some confidence that I say a device full of great applications can be an absolute life-saver when it comes to traveling with your very own mini-human.
Before the finger-wagging starts, I'm not advocating turning your child into an iDevice screen zombie. I'm simply suggesting that smartly selected game, book and educational applications can not only save your own sanity, they can make travel far easier on the little wiggle-worms who have to suffer through hours of being cooped up. (Remember, time moves at a crawl for kids locked inside most forms of transportation.)
The very best apps not only entertain like a champ, they also toss a little learnin' into the mix. With that in mind, here's a look at a few of our favorite applications for calming, entertaining and perhaps even teaching your kids something while you're on the road.
Splish Splash Inn
iPhone/iPad – $0.99
This delightful aquatic-themed app will do such a good job entertaining young kids, they'll have no idea they're being schooled (schooled by fish that is…har har). Here children visit an underwater hotel where each room contains a different number of sea creatures. Visit a room with three manta rays or a room with eight jelly fish. The activity not only teaches counting in a fun, colorful way, kids can also touch and move the creatures on screen and listen to the musical sounds they make. Illustrated by artist Divya Srinivasan, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, this is one lovely looking app. (Click here for the iTunes link.)
This beautifully illustrated application from the makers of the excellent "Peekaboo Barn" and "Peekaboo Wild" is simple enough for even very young travelers to use. Children simply touch gorgeously drawn forest scenes to see animals scoot out from their hiding places. Deer, turtle, woodpecker - it's a great way to teach toddlers the words for different creatures and the sounds they make. (Click here for the iTunes link.)
You simply can't go wrong with the superb kid-friendly applications from Duck Duck Moose. These are the folks that made highly regarded interactive applications like "Wheels on the Bus" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider," and more recently have added "Park Math" and "Baa Baa Black Sheep" to their lineup. While the earlier apps are more suited to younger toddlers, "Park Math" is aimed at slightly older youngsters - those ready to work on their basic counting, addition and subtraction skills as well as things like pattern recognition. Children will be asked to do activities like count out the food to feed a hungry hippo or sort a group of adorable doggies from smallest to largest. Meanwhile, there are two different levels for different ages and development levels. "Park Math" (along with the rest of Duck Duck Moose's offerings) is bright, fun and smart … and certainly a must-own for parents. (Click here for the iTunes link.)
Montessorium: Intro to Letters
At first I was skeptical that the austere-if-artful-looking applications from Montessorium would be able to hold my 3 ½-year-old's attention. After all, these apps employ no colorful characters to lure kids in or wacky bells and whistles to keep their attention. Instead, the "Intro to Letters," "Intro to Math" and "Alpha Writer" apps - created by a group of Montessori educators - employ cleanly designed graphics that resemble simple painted wood. But my son was sucked right in, especially to "Intro to Letters." Using Montessori education principles, the app teaches children letter sounds, phonograms and names by having them do things like trace the letters with their fingers and record and listen to their own voices making their sounds. Clearly much love and care went into these apps as everything works so simply and so beautifully. (Click here for the iTunes link.)
Martha Speaks: Dog Party
Personally, I think that giving your child an interactive and even thought-provoking application is a better way to help them pass the travel time than handing them a cartoon to zone out to. But some applications deliver the best of both worlds - an interactive experience that features their favorite animated heroes. My son is a fan of "Martha Speaks," a PBS show about a talking dog. The "Martha Speaks: Dog Party" application in the App Store absolutely delights him. Here Martha herself leads kids through three different activities/games designed to help improve their vocabulary while also making them laugh (your kid will laugh out loud as they make a dog's tongue lick food off a plate … ewww). Meanwhile, the new "Dinosaur Train: Eggspress," "Dora's Skywriting ABCs" and "Penguins of Madagascar: Read and Play" applications also do a pretty good job of bringing favorite animated characters to iDevice life.
Elmo's Monster Maker
Speaking of favorite characters, "Elmo's Monster Maker" isn't the most educational app out there, but it is sure to please the very youngest travelers. Everyone's favorite red-furred monster leads kids through an activity that has them selecting a monster body and then choosing the eyes, nose and hats for it. These monsters then dance, play and pose for photos. Elmo will get 'em every time. (Click here for the iTunes link.)
A Present for Milo
One of the things I love most about the iPad and the iPhone apps are the children's books you can download onto them. There are many to choose from but one of my favorite new offerings is "A Present for Milo." This story about a cat and mouse on a chase through a house is not only fun and funny, it's also highly interactive - kids can touch the screen to bring animations to life. My son loves to search each page to see what hidden surprises and animations each room holds. Publisher Ruckus Media has several other iPhone and iPad books as well, many of them narrated by well-known actors. Check out "Goldilocks" as told by Meg Ryan, and "John Henry" narrated by Denzel Washington. Another do-not-miss book is "PopOut! The Tale of Peter Rabbit" which is absolutely gorgeous and highly touchable.
It's not just the toddlers and the youngest kids who could use a little distraction on the road. Even older kids and pre-teens get antsy when they're cooped up for too long. This adorable new puzzle game - which tasks players with helping a baby polar bear make her way through various icy mazes - is a good way to entertain your growing children while also kicking their critical thinking skills into high gear. Using the iDevice's tilt sensor, players will have to slide blocks of ice out of Floe's way and clear a path for her. But they'll have to put their wits to work if they want to figure out how to do it in the fewest moves possible. (Click here for the iTunes link.)
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4
Speaking of the older kids, this "Harry Potter" game for the iPad and iPhone is just the ticket to a smooth journey. No, it's not especially educational, but it is mightily entertaining. After all, everyone's favorite wizard gets a LEGO makeover for this adventure game which lets players relive Harry's first four years at Hogwarts. And gamers get to play not only Harry but many beloved characters from the books. The game may seem a bit expensive at $4.99 but there are more than 40 levels here and many hours of gameplay. Also, when the kids have finally gone to sleep - this might just be a game you fire up for yourself. (Click here for the iTunes link.)
As they say, everything old is new again. The good ol' tower building game that you might remember playing when you were a kid has been digitized for the new generation. Using the iDevice's touch screen, players pull blocks from within a wooden tower and carefully place them on top. Truly, this is the best (if not only) way to play Jenga on an airplane. It's also a great game to take turns playing with your kids. For more board game action, check out the excellent "Monopoly" and "Scrabble" apps for the iPad and iPhone. (Click here for the "Jenga" app on iTunes.)
Meanwhile, parents, do you have some favorite kid-friendly apps to recommend? Please let us know below.
And for more on this topic, be sure to check out:
iPhone as toy? In the right hands, yes
How iPhone apps saved our family vacation
Superb 'Cut the Rope' game ties up iPhone/iPad charts
Top image: A scene from "Peekaboo Forest," an animal game for young children.