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Updated Jul 14, 2012 - 10:55 am

Educational apps the smart way to keep kids entertained

For years, parents struggled with the seemingly
impossible task of keeping their children entertained
while waiting. Whether it was waiting to be seated at a
restaurant or waiting for someone to be discharged from
the hospital, kids get bored and they get bored quickly.
So when tablets and smartphones came into prominence, with
all their easy-to-play games, many parents rejoiced.

However, the time for celebrations has not quite come.
Even though an iPad does a much better job of keeping
children busy than a baggie of Cheerios, there is no real
intrinsic value in Angry Birds. For parents desirous of
apps and games that are not only entertaining but
educational, I have thrown together a list of
today’s best tools to keep your kids from tearing up
Red Lobster out of boredom.

Redshift, Apple App Store, $11.99

As an unrepentant astronomy fanatic, I cannot recommend
Redshift highly enough. Getting kids interested in
astronomy is about as hard as getting them to watch
fireworks. Redshift is designed for both the iPhone and
iPad and features a complete 3D model of the closer part
of our galaxy. Beyond allowing exploration of over 100,000
stars and their associated celestial bodies, the app also
allows you to enter orbit around these bodies to study
them further.

Another feature made famous by an iPhone commercial allows
you to point your phone at the sky and watch as it labels
the stars and galaxies you’re looking at in real
time. Forget Angry Birds in Space, Redshift is the best
“space” for your kids to play in.

Phone for Kids, Apple App Store, $1.99

For parents looking for more of a bang for their buck, it
doesn’t get much better than Phone for Kids for the
iPhone and iPad. Built with young children (babies and
toddlers) in mind, the app features 24 educational
activities that help kids learn anything from numbers to
their ABCs. Feel free to try out the free version of the
app — which features six of the 24 games —
before deciding if it’s right for you.

Kids Preschool Puzzle, Android Marketplace, $2.99

Studies have shown that one of the best ways to cultivate
young minds is with constant challenges like puzzles and
brain teasers. Kids Preschool Puzzle is an excellent
example of that. Teaching children basic shapes, animal
names and letters, the game allows children to drag puzzle
pieces into their appropriate place. The game is simple
and easy to pick up. Developed by acclaimed preschool game
developer Itellijoy, the game is accompanied by a number
of other preschool apps worth checking out, including Kids
Numbers and Math and Kids Learn to Read.

Callaway Digital Arts books, Apple App Store, $1.99

Receiving praise from Wired, Publishers Weekly and
Gizmodo, Callaway is one of the best children’s app
developers on the market today. Making reading a more
interactive experience, Callaway’s titles such as
Sesame Street: The Monster at the End of This Book and
Angelina Ballerina’s Bubble Pop make for an easier
introduction to reading. Using narration and touch
navigation, the books teach children how to recognize
words and associate their meaning. As interactive
storybooks go, they don’t get much better than
Callaway’s books. One of their most popular, Miss
Spider’s Tea Party, is currently free for a limited
time for anyone looking to check them out.

Word Wagon, Apple App Store, $1.99

Teaching kids basic phonics and spelling with what is
essentially a matching game, Word Wagon is a great game
for any children who are learning to or struggling with
reading. The game varies in difficulty, allowing children
to attempt spelling words without any hints. Visual and
audio cues are used well to help kids along. The game
features fun animations and voices that will make sure
your child is having fun while learning the basics of
language.

Toddler Tapping Zoo, Android Marketplace, $.99

A simpler title, definitely designed for babies and
toddlers, Toddler Tapping Zoo helps children learn animals
and the sounds they make. Not the best app for a crowded
area as the sounds quickly get annoying, but it can still
provide some solid entertainment for young children,
requiring nothing more than a tap on the screen. Using
realistic HD pictures instead of illustrations, the app
helps children learn what a variety of common animals
actually look like.

While I believe all of these apps are great learning
tools, they are in no way a substitute for real-world
learning. Indeed, children should learn about the world
around them first-hand, not at the end of yet another
glowing rectangle. They’ll have enough time for
those later. Childhood is about turning over rocks and
playing with bugs, not squishing them on a computer
screen. But if you’re caught between a rock and a
hard place (that is, a 45-minute wait for a table while
calming a crying toddler), these apps are the perfect
solution.

Nationally unacclaimed freelance
writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing for dozens of
weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to
Peruvian history and, of course, anything with buttons.
Check out his Twitter feed, @Deesing.

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