I made a big mistake recently. It ended up really costing me. I bought an app for Olivia that I thought would be decent without reading the reviews first. I was so excited to see this cute Strawberry Shortcake app in which you could style all the girls’ hair with straighteners and decorations of fruit, glitter, and bows before sending them off to exotic locations for a photo shoot. It looked really cute and I didn’t think of the harm it might cause. Why on earth would I think that a Strawberry Shortcake iPad game could cause a rift in our family? What I did not realize before I passed over the iPad with the newly installed game, is that you only get some of the tools and one of the locations with the free version of the app. Each location unlocks additional tools for the girls and each location has its own individual cost to unlock. Almost as soon as Olivia started playing the game she was bored. She finished New York and the game started prompting her to purchase London, Paris, Cairo and Rio. She was in tears that I would not buy it for her. It cost $10.00 to unlock the whole game! A free app that I thought looked cute was going to cost me more money than I had ever spent on any app or days upon days of whining and tears. I tried everything. I gently told her no. But Strawberry told her to buy the rest of the tools so she could color her hair fun shades of the rainbow. So I explained to Olivia that it costs money and she could do enough with the app without buying the rest of the tools. But then Strawberry told her how she could curl her hair and send her friends to Cairo if she bought the rest of the tools. Strawberry seemed to get more and more convincing every day. I told Olivia she would have to use her own money from her piggy bank. Girl did not care. She was all for it. I didn’t really want to go down that road and ended up shutting her down, threatening to delete the app entirely. Tears and begging ensued. Finally, I broke down and bought her the full set of in-app purchases. I try not to think about it. After a day she was done with that app. But what I was not ready for was when she hit an ad in the game and found all the other apps the company puts out. All her favorite characters were there. Hello Kitty, My Little Pony, Barbie, Care Bears, the list goes on. All tempting her to download their free apps that would end up costing us a fortune to unlock all the features. I told her I hated that game. Ugh. Now, instead of playing and enjoying her Strawberry Shortcake game that I paid $10.00 for, she just says she hates that game too. Once in a while, I notice her playing it, but she knows now not to say anything to me about it. She’s afraid it will set me off. She’s smart. And I’ve learned my lesson.
Reflecting on this whole experience prompted me to create this list of what I believe are the best app companies to put forth wonderful apps for children. Being the geek that I am, I started planning for how I would manage the family technology the moment I knew I was pregnant with my first. As a technology coach for teachers, I was tapping into some really great resources already, but the best thing to come across my path was an app that would tell me what apps are free at the moment. Every day they put out a new list of apps that have “gone free.” You have a short time to download an app that would normally cost you anywhere from $0.99 to $2.99 or more. The lists update when the offer has expired, so you can go back and look at previous days without wasting your time visiting links that are no longer offering the full version for free. A lot of the apps are games or productivity apps. But any time a kids app comes up, I download it so I can check it out. I have found a ton of great apps this way. The app was called Apps Gone Free, now App Advice Daily and I’m thrilled that they have expanded to offer daily app and device advice. It looks like their apps are for iOS only, so make sure you add to the comments if you know of something similar for android. This looks similar but I can’t be sure since I don’t have an android device. Let me know in the comments.
So that’s how I grew my library of kids apps for free. And I fell absolutely in love with some of the companies that were putting out these quality apps for kids. After falling in love, I didn’t mind spending a few dollars on subsequent apps put forth by them. I also learned a bit about what apps are total crap and which ones to avoid like the plague. I only wish I had stayed true to my system when I found that Strawberry Shortcake app. Anyhow, here’s my list of the best app companies and why I love them.
- Sago Mini is hands down, my favorite company for apps for kids. The very first app I downloaded and installed for Olivia was Forest Flyer. I used to love sitting with her when she was just a tiny tot and we would talk about all the things the bird was doing as she flew all over the forest. We later found out her name is Robin. The next Sago Mini app we got was Pet Cafe. This app will reach children on different levels. It has counting, sorting, colors, color mixing, and shape matching. All wrapped up in an arcade/story style experience. Kids don’t even realize they are learning. More apps followed, and I bought most of them, but they still throw us a free one now and then. I love every one of their apps. What makes them a really great company is that they consider the way kids explore and learn within their apps. They allow you to turn on or off your camera access so you can save the little scenes and videos your child creates within the apps. They do have ads that are little videos about their characters, toys and other apps. This ad appears on the home screen only, but they allow you to turn off these ads in your device settings (so cool).
- Fox and Sheep Again, I love the exploration opportunities in these apps. The first of these that we downloaded was Nighty Night! – The bedtime story app for children. We got it for free but we loved it so much we ended up making the in-app purchases for additional animals. The whole app is a bedtime story in which your child gets to say good-night to all the animals and turn the lights out for them. Both my girls enjoy saying night-night to the dog, the fish, the cow, the pig, the chickens and all the rest of the cute little animals in the story. When Olivia was around a year old, books were way to stimulating for her at bedtime. She wanted to grab them and turn the pages so actually reading them to her was a struggle. Instead, we played Nighty Night! Every night. For a really, really long time. It was part of our routine. Over time, we added Nighty night Circus – bedtime story for kids, Little Fox music Box – Sing along fun for kids, and just recently, Little Fox Animal Doctor – be a vet.
- Ahoiii Entertainment I have no idea what this is all about, but the apps put out by this company feature a little guy named Fiete. In the first one, called Fiete, you explore islands and sort of help Fiete complete tasks. For instance, it’s raining so you give him his umbrella. You help him make eggs for breakfast or you help him pick out his hat. The illustrations are whimsical and the soundtrack is soothing. I love the calming nature of this game. Ahoiii Entertainment has since put out a slew of Fiete games that include matching, farming activities, cars among others. Olivia is still challenged by the Fiete Choice game while Evette is just beginning to become attached to the little guy and all his tasks. She feels so accomplished after completing each scene.
- Toca Boca. Each of their apps is around $2.99 but they regularly show up in the free apps, you just have to be patient. Their apps are mostly just fun and easy enough for toddlers to figure out. If anything, my kids are entertained by them. Some of their games are for older kids and Olivia is just starting to explore them. They have a bunch of hairstyling apps that she loves and I do not have to worry about in-app purchases or sending anyone on modeling shoots in Milan, thank goodness.
- Duckie Deck. I know they have more apps than this, but the only one we have is called Sharing. It’s a calm little game where you have to split a dish between several children. If you give two pieces to one child and another child gets nothing, that child is sad. Or you can trade toys with the other children. It’s a great prompt for a conversation with little ones about why we should share. *Side note: When I looked up their website for this blog post I discovered they have a ton of games for kids online. As I introduce Olivia to the computer, I will definitely be having her visit this page for more exploration games.
I can’t leave this post without mentioning a few of my other favorites. Peapod Labs (any of the ABC games and Bugsy games), Pepi Play (Pepi Tree, Pepi Bath), Little Phoenix (Cutie Monsters, Xylo), Night & Day Studios (Peekaboo Barn, Peekaboo Fridge, Lemon Lumberjack’s Letter Mill) and zinc Roe (Stella and Sam).
What all the above app companies have in common is that their advertisements are minimal or nonexistent. They’re also all based on exploration and play. What tells me it’s a great app is if I can play it with my kids where they are handling the interaction with the device while I lead us in story play or encouragement. At some point, once the play has been established, I’m okay with backing off and letting them explore on their own without me over their shoulder. I don’t want them getting lost in ads, videos, mindless games or complicated sequences.
What apps do you love? Let me know in the comments.