14 Great Learning Apps for Kids & Families

Screentime for kids doesn’t get a whole lot of love in the parenting media. But there’s no denying that we live in an increasingly digital world in which we grownups use technology to our benefit, for everything from navigating local kid-friendly restaurants to figuring out where to gas up the car when the “empty” light flashes on. Can’t children enjoy similar benefits?

“The basic misconception about screen time stems from the notion that the screen itself is more important than the action being performed,” says Björn Jeffery, co-founder of the kids game development studio Toca Boca. “But tablets can be used for language learning, playing games, watching educational videos, or video chatting with family. We like to think of a tablet as a tool with endless possibilities to tap into different emotions, skills, and parts of the brain.”

With this in mind, we’ve rounded up 14 truly terrific educational, gender-neutral apps for kids of all ages, to be used alone or with their parents. Because, as Jeffrey maintains, “All kids should have the opportunity to learn about subjects they are interested in and play with toys they find fun.”

Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Even on a day when you can’t make it to a zoo near you to get up close and personal with all the animals, children can visit them virtually with this app’s giant panda cam, as well as five others that zone in on gorillas, tigers, flamingos, lions, and golden lion tamarins. The app also includes an animal index that lets kids test their species knowledge, and a whole host of information about animals noises and ecosystems (iPad, iPhone & Android, ages 2+, $2).

Avokiddo Emotions. Kids will come down with a serious case of the giggles when they’re introduced to a zany zebra, shy sheep, jolly giraffe, and modest moose. These characters are meant to introduce children to the vast and confusing landscape of their own emotions as they dress up, feed, and interact with little essential pieces of themselves (iPhone, iPad, & Android, ages 2-5, $3).

Sesame Street Family Play. This is an app that’s actually an anti-app, offering parents stuck with their kids in the waiting room or on the train with over 150 fun games they can play together on the spot. Because sometimes, you’ve all had more than enough screentime for the day (iPhone & iPad ages 2-5, $1).

National Geographic’s Look & Learn: Animals Vol. 1. This bundle of three apps—Animal Bounce, Animal Match, and Animal Words—encourages awareness of the natural world through photographs, animal sounds, and game play. Really, this is a theme that never seems to get old among the under-5 set (iPad & iPhone, ages 3-5, $3).


Gro Garden. Kids become virtual gardeners as they plant and care for crops, feed hungry animals, and make compost from food scraps. It’s the next best thing to getting your kids to plant their own gardens on your windowsill—and infinitely more tidy (iPhone, iPad, Android, ages 5+, $3).


NASA’s Rocket Science 101. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to launch a NASA rocket! Select a mission and build your own rocket that you can then send into orbit. Kids will learn the details of particular NASA missions as well as all about the various components of the launch vehicles and what it takes to get one of these amazing pieces of machinery to break free of gravity (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 5-10, free).



It’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. Join this fierce predator as she shatters the stillness of the prehistoric forest! Kids can explore pictures, learn new vocabulary, and personalize the app’s story with their own narration. Because seriously, have you ever met a toddler who wasn’t into dinosaurs? (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 3-5 $3)


Thinkrolls. This is a logic puzzler for elementary kids that’s meant to enhance problem solving, memory, and spatial cognition skills. Every time children sit down to use it, they learn a little something about force, acceleration, buoyancy, heat, elasticity, and gravity while helping 22 Thinkrolls characters navigate through a maze (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 3-8, $3).

Toca Lab. This colorful STEM-savvy app lets children discover all 118 of the elements from the periodic table (which is more than their parents are likely to know, unless they’re chemists) by experimenting with the various tools provided. Bonus: they won’t be able to blow anything up! (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 6-8, $3)

The Robot Factory: Build Robots. Children can create any robot they can imagine from 100 parts including exoskeletons, telescopic arms, and spider legs. They can test them by running them through a fantastical world full of obstacles. Then, they can take them out to play (virtually, of course) with whenever they choose (iPhone & iPad, ages 6-8, $4).


Sky Map. This clever app turns your device answers (almost) all your questions about the night sky. Just point your smartphone upwards and Sky Map will tell you exactly what stars, planets, moon phases, constellations, messier objects and meteor showers you see (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, free).

Leafsnap. This electronic field guides uses visual recognition software to help kids (and their parents) identify tree species found in the Northeastern US and Canada from photographs you take of their leaves. Great for budding (har) botanists and arborists, and a super way for kids and parents to learn together (iPad & iPhone, all ages, free).

Audubon Birds Pro. This mobile field guide will help you and your kids identify 821 bird species, let you explore an advanced gallery for easy comparison, and contribute to NatureShare, a social community of birders who observe, identify, and share their observations online. Once you get started, you’ll be amazed at how many birds that aren’t pigeons you’ll find hanging out at the local park (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, $10).


Project Noah. This super tool lets you explore and document insects, animals, plants and trees on a platform designed to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere. Just upload your own photo of a species and within hours, other users will weigh in with their expertise to identify it. A great way to learn about your environment as a family, and to discover that there are many other like-minded, nature-loving urbanites among you (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, free).

Making Sense of Screen Time: Is It Really So Bad for Our Kids?

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By Dawn Van Osdell

There’s a lot of contradictory and downright erroneous parenting info floating around out there. We’re not afraid to tackle it head-on!

It’s been drilled into our heads that allowing our kids to watch too much television or play apps and games will rot their growing brains. Over and over we’ve heard from various experts that screen-time overload keeps kids from necessary active or outdoor play, limits human interactions that are critical to proper development, and exposes kids to violence and content that is too mature for them to properly process.

While there’s truth in all of this—families are wise to heed the American Academy of Pediatrics’  recommendation to limit kids’ screen time to no more than two hours per day— it’s also important to recognize the educational and developmental benefits that kids can glean from technology, including better hand-eye coordination, school readiness, and boosts to cognitive development.

To help us dispel common myths around our kids’ use of tech (and ease a little of our guilt about handing over our iPhone), we spoke to Jordan Lloyd Bookey, a mom of two and co-founder of Zoobean, a service that helps families locate children’s books and apps that are worth their time. A former Google employee, Bookey is passionate about tech innovations, and an expert at making smart media choices on behalf of kids. Here she shares her advice on how to create a healthy media diet, and use it to enrich childrens’ ever-curious minds.

Myth #1: Kids should be doing something active or imaginative rather than relying on technology for entertainment.

Truth: Active play and socializing with family and friends should be an integral part of your child’s life, but there’s an important role for technology to play, too. “We just need to remember that all screen time is not created equal,” says Bookey. “It’s about the content and how your child is engaging with it.” You can plop your kids in front a television or a tablet to watch a cartoon or play a game while you’re getting ready for the day—essentially, using the device as a babysitter, which every parent does on occasion. Conversely, you can use technology as a powerful way to engage with your kids. According to Bookey, “It can give us opportunities to co-play together—to ask questions and help kids develop and process a deeper meaning from what they are seeing.” Build a healthy media repertoire that consists of quality, parent-approved content, to balance the occasional just-for-fun cartoons and games with interactive experiences for both of you.

Myth #2: Kids have to choose between inside screen time and outside play.

Truth: “Technology can be an excellent complement to outdoor play,” says Bookey. It can enhance outdoor exploration, spark kids’ curiosity, and get them excited about learning about their surroundings. Using technology outside can be as simple as taking a minute to look up questions about the world around them—for instance, Why do ants build hills? Or why are there so many worms out after it rains? You can use a smart phone to document finds or visit websites like National Geographic to dive deeper into the topic, exploring where insects live, how big they get and what they eat. Apps like the National Park Field Guide act as guide books; others, like Munzee, can be used to initiate a scavenger hunt; and Leafsnap is fun for identifying trees. For kids living in urban environments, technology can provide a window into a bigger world, allowing them to explore and experience nature beyond just a park or green space.

Myth #3: Playing on the computer, iPad, or Mom’s phone is a mindless activity to pass the time, and it’s addictive!

Truth: Every parent should have their own rules about the use of technology at home—setting boundaries on content, restricting devices from the dinner table, and forbidding it before bedtime, for instance—in order to ensure that kids get plenty of human interaction. “If you let kids overload on technology, they are going to miss out on developing good communication skills and building their emotional IQ. But, if you find a balance and allow its use in moderation, you can help your kids embrace new skills that are hugely beneficial,” says Bookey. For instance, kids are often more willing to take risks and make mistakes when playing apps that help them practice math, reading, and writing skills. “Apps are non-judgmental,” says Bookey. “No one knows if a a kid messed up an answer, so they’ll keep trying.” Games like the eternally popular Minecraft can help kids build analytical thinking and drive creativity. “Think of technology like food,” says Bookey. “You want your child to know what’s good for him—to know the difference between a chocolate chip cookie that’s okay in moderation, and healthier alternatives that he should choose more often; and you want him to be able to make smart decisions when choosing between the two.” As with any diet, it’s all about creating a balanced mix.

Photograph by William Iven

10 Positive Kids Apps & eBooks When You Need 30 Minutes


Guest post by Linsly Donnelly, Founder, SmartFeed

As a longtime technology entrepreneur, I truly believe in the power of digital media, but as a parent, I worry about the content that’s out there. That’s why I founded SmartFeed to give parents a tool to manage screen time with customized media options to inspire, educate, and entertain kids. We put together expert playlists for education and entertainment to help more parents, find content they’ll love for the kids and their kids will love them for “allowing.”

Here are a few of our favorite positive, educational kids apps and eBooks when you just need 30 minutes of kid-free time. These titles are recommended for children 2-10 years old as indicated.

Top 10 Positive Kids Educational Apps & eBooks



Dr. Seuss’s ABC (age 3+)
Your favorite zany Dr. Seuss characters come to life in this whimsical yet educational app, designed to reinforce alphabet, rhyming, phonemic awareness, and other pre-reading skills. Read on your own, turn the pages, or hear the words read aloud. Very enjoyable!

2PopOut! The Tale of Peter Rabbit (age 5+)
An innovative spin on the classic book– this app includes the original story’s text (with an option to read on your own or hear the story read aloud), with delightful interactive elements throughout. Make leaves fall, blackberries grow, and bunnies giggle, all while enjoying Beatrix Potter’s beautiful original illustrations and themes of bravery, honesty, and perseverance.

3The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (age 6+)
A touching and mysterious story of love, connection, loss, and hope. This app is based on the book and Academy Award-winning animated short film, and is an interactive blend of both. Ethereal, thought-provoking, and a lovely choice for grownups and kids to enjoy together.

4Count the Animals (age 2-5)
The concept of this app is simple: tap on a series of pictures to count a particular object or element in each scene. As you tap, the app counts along with you. Beautifully designed, with a wry sense of humor and 21 languages to choose from.

5Sago Mini Friends (age 2-5)
The Sago Mini apps are irresistibly appealing and universally excellent, especially for the youngest users. Basic skills using numbers and sorting, and positive character traits like kindness and sharing are reinforced in an adorable, fun context.

6Endless Wordplay (age 4-7)
This award-winning app features a variety of foundational reading skills taught through an engaging, fun interface. Interactive spelling, rhyming, and other phonics activities are presented clearly and thoughtfully, and the app is full of cute robots and other critters and fun settings. An engaging way to learn!

7Pickle’s Paper Dolls (age 4+)
Travel around the world as you design and dress friends from different countries, and learn new words in French, Spanish, Chinese, and more. A cut above many of the dress up apps out there, with kid-centric dolls, clothes, and accessories, and a multicultural, world-centric point of view. Simple to play, adorable, and fun.

8Loopimal (age 5+)
Every so often, an app comes along that makes practically perfect use of the capabilities of a smartphone or tablet– and Loopimal is one of those apps. Creativity is sparked as users explore endless combinations of rhythm and music patterns, with delightful and whimsical results. Create, compose, modify, and play!

9Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System (age 6-9)
Beautifully designed and chock-full of information, this app is a great option for those who are curious about space, planets, the sun, and the universe. Information is colorfully and clearly presented, and interactive and creative elements make for fun (and funny!) learning time.

10Monument Valley (age 7+)
It’s a story. It’s a puzzle. It’s a mysterious, mind-bending logic game. It also happens to be incredibly beautiful, with stunning art and atmospheric music. It’s a great choice for logic and puzzle-oriented kids and adults to play together.

Want more recommendations?

Check out these positive screen time playlists on SmartFeed or create personal playlists based on your family values or favorite character traits, your kids’ interests, and your secret (or not so secret) academic hopes.


Parents can use the SmartFeed website or the SmartFeed IOS App for free, so sign up now.

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Social Media Guidelines to Share with Your Sitter or Nanny

Sharing house rules and policies with your sitter or nanny is key to communicating and understanding each other’s expectations. Social media policies – essentially what you think is and isn’t ok for your sitter to post or share about your family on social media outlets, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – should be an important component of the discussion about what’s expected of her time with your family.

via futurestreet
via futurestreet

Posting updates and sharing photos via social media has become a common, acceptable way of communicating. It’s likely your sitter or nanny uses at least one form of social media, and may be unaware that posting photos or mentions of her time with your kids may not be something your are comfortable with her sharing with the world. A candid discussion regarding the following guidelines, which you can tailor to suit what works for you and your preferences, should also include what you are ok with her sharing.

Social Media Guidelines for Your Babysitter or Nanny

  1. Review privacy settings together. Settings on social media outlets can be changed so that location is not posted when your sitter updates or communicates. You should also ask her to change privacy options so that only her friends and followers can view content, rather than the world at large.
  1. Know Our Photo Policy. Advise your sitter of your preference regarding posting photos of your children. Would you rather her not post any photos of them, or are you comfortable with her posting appropriate photos without using tags?
  1. Respect Our Family’s Privacy. Ask your sitter not to use your family’s full names or give details that could identify you. This includes using location information, such as your street name, the name of your child’s school or the Little Gym branch she attends with your child.
  1. Be Mindful of Focusing on the Kids. Gently remind your sitter that while it’s very tempting to send updates and often necessary for her to communicate with friends and family, it’s important that she be selective about the time she spends on her phone. Time on the phone takes her focus away from the kids. Suggest boundaries that work for you, whether it be that she only use her phone in an emergency or that she limits the use to your child’s nap time or quiet time. Explain that you’d like your kids to view the time they spend with her as special and something they look forward to enjoying.

Sharing these important social media guidelines with your sitter or nanny is part of providing her with the tools she needs to succeed and best care for your kids. If you feel that she’s spending more time than she should be on her phone or engaging with social media while she should be watching your kids, be sure to voice your concerns and reinforce how important the rules are to you. Most sitters would never intentionally put your family in danger, and are more than understanding of the importance of protecting your family and its privacy.

Tips for Managing Kids’ Screen Time

According to a really scary quote from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children in the United States watch an average of three to four hours of television a day. This means that by the time of high school graduation, they will have spent more time watching television than they have in the classroom. Yikes!

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While we are well educated on the detriments too much screen time can have on kids (attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity), we are surrounded by technology everyday, and it’s not always easy to compete with it and to enforce the amount of time our children spend with it. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that kids’ screen time should be limited to two hours or less per day, with no screen time for those age 2 and younger. It’s a reasonable limit, especially when we consider the more productive, educational and outdoor activities kids could do doing instead of watching television or movies, or playing on the iPad or a video game player.

Here is some helpful advice for defining and enforcing screen time guidelines for your family. Included are helpful apps for you to harness of the power of technology to keep your kids from becoming too dependent on it.

  • Create “screen-free” zones at home, including the dinner table and your child’s bed
  • Always turn off the TV during meals and forbid personal electronics at the table. That means yours, too!
  • Get to know the technology your kids are using, making sure parental controls are in place and you know exactly what they are seeing and doing online.
  • Offer plenty of non-electronic formats such as books, newspapers and board games to choose instead of the screen, and make sure they are easily accessible.
  • Review the established ratings systems for shows, movies and games to avoid inappropriate content, such as violence, explicit sexual content or glorified tobacco and alcohol use.
  • Choose apps and sites with care so that your kids are spending their screen time with appropriate, quality entertainment, and make sure there are plenty of educational choices, along with the just for fun picks, available to them.
  • Encourage kids to use time on their computer or tablet to investigate things that interest them, rather than simply playing games. National Geographic Kids is a good choice for an engaging site where kids can learn through play.
  • Encourage vigorous physical activity for at least one hour a day. Kids who are active aren’t thinking about what they are missing on TV. Get kids involved in sports at an early age to keep them active.
  • Share your screen time rules with your sitters. Many parents choose not to allow their child screen time when the sitter is there. Others provide specifics on which shows or sites are allowed and for how long a child can spend watching or playing.
  • Save screen time for a special movie you or your sitter and the kids can watch together.
  • Make use of educational apps geared toward limiting and managing your kids’ screen time and even incentivizing them to find other activities to keep busy. Here are two worthy of a download:

Screen Time: This app allows you to assign daily limit allowances for each child. Allowances can be set to repeat each day or accumulate based on your preference. Kids earn screen minutes by doing chores and good behavior. You can add, change, or remove tasks and rewards to fit yours and your kids’ needs.

ScreenTime App

DinnerTime: This is a parental control app that enables parents to restrict when children can use their smartphones and tablets. With the free app, parents can pause activity on a child’s device so that they can focus on things like homework, exercise and family time. To use the app, parents install it on the child’s device and enter in their phone number to link the two devices. Parents can then set specific break times, ranging from 30 minutes to three hours, when the device will be locked. A countdown screen displayed on the child’s device shows when they can use it again.

DinnerTime App

Technology is an important influence in our lives and in our children’s. It’s important that we embrace the value it adds, while also making sure our kids don’t become so dependent on it for entertainment that they miss out on exploring their own imagination and creativity and on learning to play independently. What are your thoughts on kids and technology? We’d love to hear from you!  

Parenthood Uncensored: Real Confessions and Concessions – Infographic by UrbanSitter.com

Ever wonder if you’re the only parent who breaks from conventional thinking on a common parenting issue or speculate just how common today’s parenting practices really are? We surveyed families across the United States to get the inside scoop on popular parenting conundrums.

  • Wine while pregnant? 35 percent of moms surveyed said, “No way!” while the other 65 percent said they took sips or had a glass now and then.
  • Public or private school? Nearly 40 percent of parents surveyed prefer private schools, but only 1 in 3 of families surveyed can afford to send their children to private school.
  • The Real Housewives. One third of parents surveyed are stay-at-home parents. Of those, 80 percent stay at home by choice, 20 percent do so out of necessity.

Here are the true parenting confessions and concessions, uncensored:

URBS_PARENTHOOD_INFOGRAPHIC_FINAL_900Where do you stand on these and other hot parenting topics? Do you tow the line believing the experts know best or are you a bit of a trailblazer? UrbanSitter wants to know what you think!