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Apps that are child's play for iPhone and iPad

November 6, 2011 | 11:01 am

While there are numerous reasons to not use your handy tech devices with your little ones -- developmental and hygienic -- some of us find exposure to the ubiquitous small screens unavoidable.

Although in my family we do try to limit our use of digital devices, with a preference for face-to-face and real-world interactions, my 5-month-old has become familiar enough with the smartphones and tablets in our household that he can scroll, swipe and perform several multi-touch actions.

It's not that we have tried to show him any of this, but we use the devices so often to shoot photos and video of his every move and Skype with his grandmother, who lives out of town. Because he has quickly adapted to them, I have acquiesced somewhat and created a folder on my phone with apps just for him.

I'm more interested in saving money for his college (or heck, even preschool) than spending on apps and in having him engage with the real world than focus on a small glowing screen. So the apps that I do use with my son, first, are free or cheap, and second, are less about bells and whistles and killer graphics than they are about encouraging engagement and reinforcing experiences with a causal connection.

Animal sounds for babyHere are five apps (with a few bonus items) in my baby's folder on my iPhone and iPad:

1. Animal Sounds for Baby: Fisher Price offers three free Laugh & Learn iPhone/iPod apps designed for babies ages 6 months and up. Among them is this, featuring a selection of animated animals that smile, dance and growl, quack or make their other appropriate sounds. Your child can get a response from the animal by tapping, tilting and shaking the screen.

A cheerful woman's voice says the name of the animal as it is highlighted on the screen. (I usually join her.) After a series of animals, there's a catchy little song and dance.

The app runs through two groups of animals and then repeats. (Honestly, though, I can usually make it through only about two reps before the song takes root in my head.)

There's also Let's Count Animals! for Baby using the same animals from the former app to demonstrate counting from 1 to 5 and Where's Puppy's Nose? for Baby to playfully demonstrate where the nose, ears, eyes, mouth, tummy, head, hands and feet are.


2. Puppet Show: You can create your very own on-the-spot show with "Strasmo" by tilting your device to move him and tapping the screen to make his mouth move.

It's still up to you to provide the real magic -- the personality, the voice and the story. (If you watch the video above, I know Kevin Clash and his little alter ego aren't worried about a challenge from me and my puppet voice -- yet.)

Again, it's not the most graphically brilliant app you've seen, but it's brilliant in its simplicity. And it surely beats dragging off your own sock in public and pulling it over your hand. 

3. Build a Baby BragBook for iPad: With this app, you can build the story of your baby's arrival in photo, text and audio. For each page of the story template, you have 100 characters per page and can upload in multiple photos that you and your baby can enlarge and scroll through as you read the story. If you're in a sharing mood, you can also post the finished product on Facebook, TwitPic and in email.

PhotoOne of the best parts, I think, is the ability to record your voice reading the text for each page. Children love to be part of the action, and this story is all about them. If you're feeling particularly ambitious, you could have the other characters mentioned in the story (Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa, for example) record their parts as well.

The story reads (or plays) a little like a real page-turner as you tap the arrow to turn the page. Of course, swiping might feel a little more natural.

Although this one costs 99 cents, there is a free version that builds a story based on a template for which you answer questions. But that one doesn't have the audio recording feature. They also sell vacation and birthday versions.

StoryrobeOne little gripe: The templates on this app don’t allow users to accurately reflect the breadth of diversity that makes up today’s families, offering only a white family in the drawings. Of course, inserting your pictures in the picture frames of the story reflects your own family's mix.

4. Storyrobe: My baby has a stuffed giraffe that accompanies him on many of life's little adventures these days. I thought it would be fun to piece together a series of "Adventures With Jeffrey" video stories. We snap so many photos and videos anyway, they beg to be pieced together in story form.

Like the previous app but not as advanced as iMovie (another option, at the cost of $4.99), this app lets you use your own photos or video and record narration to go with each element. Storyrobe does cost 99 cents, but it's well worth it.

The video you create plays seamlessly and is made without the same level of effort a grander production in iMovie would have taken. A blessing for weary parents.

5. My coloring book free My Coloring Book Free: This is a tap-and-fill coloring book made for iPhone and iPad. At this early point in his development, my kid really has no clue yet what color the sky is or a whale should be, but he can make out distinctions among them. The app is a hit with some of his older toddler pals, and, besides, there are no crayons or pens for him to try to stick in his mouth. 

The app comprises nearly 60 hand-drawn pictures with varying degrees of detail. You can save your little darling's work of art to the photo library if you'd like.

Really and truly, though, the apps I’ve found most engaging with my little one are three that come pre-loaded on the device: photo library, camera and music. Photo library is our absolute go-to app. It keeps my child endlessly entertained. By the time he was 3 months old, my son was scrolling through family photos. He loves to study the faces, touch them, make them bigger, and watch videos of himself and friends.

Along the same lines, the camera, using the front-facing lens, is another one that mesmerizes curious children, in my experience. My son sees himself mirrored on the screen and is immediately intrigued.

Although my family does admittedly rely heavily on technology, we also use the iPhone as a background tool, not always the main attraction.

As experts advise, reading and singing to children assist in their critical development. A couple of the best uses for these hand-held computers my family has come up with are to assist our reading aloud and supplement our singing interactions while out and about. We read to the baby books we have in our various reading apps or news on the Web in a child-appropriate voice. Or we launch the baby’s own playlist on the music app to join in an animated family chorus of “Don't Worry, Be Happy” whenever we need to turn a looming frown upside down.

Share with us in the comments section: What apps do you use with your kids?


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-- Michelle Maltais