So we know that looking at screens is bad for kids, especially toddlers. But sometimes it can't be helped — they see you swiping at your shiny device all day, so it's only natural that they'll want a turn. A toddler on a smartphone also tends to be engrossed and quiet, giving weary parents a well-deserved break.
We've taken a look at some of the best smartphone apps designed for toddlers that will give you at least a few minutes of peace and quiet. Just make sure you don't let them play too long — and get yourself a bulletproof phone case.
Before getting started, it's a good idea to disable your Home button. That way, your kiddo won't accidentally hit Home and start tweeting or emailing your boss without your knowledge. Android owners can download Android-HomeKey-Locker or a similar app that will do it for you, and iOS users can use Guided Access to temporarily restrict device use to a single app. The list is a little Android-centric, but we have included a few apps that are also available on iOS.
1. Animals for Toddlers
This app isn't overly impressive, but it's perfect for really young kids precisely because it is so simple. Toddlers need only tap their favorite animal to hear a "moo" or an "oink." It features opening doors and turning clouds, and there are some bonus animals hiding behind trees and haystacks.
The free version has just a farm scenes, but a few extra dollars will unlock access to jungle, safari, sea, Australian and Antarctic scenes. Best of all, there are no banner ads to be seen anywhere — even on the free version. "Animals for Toddlers" is an Android app, but there are similar apps like "Toddler's Farm" available on iOS.
2. Little Learners
This is a great app for 1- to 2-year-olds. This one also features animals, but it's a little more educational. The app has two games — "Let's Eat" and "Let's Play." The first features a number of animals and encourages toddlers to feed them their favorite food. The latter lets kids play with a few toys, including a jack-in-the-box, drum and rocking horse.
The player is instructed what to do on each page by a friendly English-accented voice. The app is free, but you can purchase two extra games for $2, featuring animals driving an array of vehicles and making sounds. There are again no ads and a password is required before purchasing the additional levels. "Little learners" is available for iPhone, iPad and Android.
3. Kids Match 'Em
This game is probably best for kids aged 2 and up. It's a simple memory-matching game, in which the player can turn over two cards at a time and try to find matching pictures. It features a host of different image cards from animals to vehicles, hats and monsters.
The gamification and slight learning curve means it'll keep your little monster occupied for a decent amount of time. The app is free, but it does have an annoying banner ad at the bottom of the screen. You can purchase an ad-free version for $2.99, though the kids are usually too interested in the game to click the ad. "Kids Match 'Em" comes in both Android and iOS versions.
4. Kids Socks
This simple little app can keep little ones of different ages entertained. Users are prompted to match socks moving along a washing line with a selection of odd socks at the bottom of their screen. My toddler loves the game, but each level is the same as the next — just with socks of different patterns, so she tends to get bored relatively quickly. The free app has an ad when it loads, but it isn't followed by any in-game banner ads. "Kids Socks" is an Android-only app, but there are similar sock games in the Apple App Store.
5. Zebra Paint
This app taps into a toddler's creative side. It features dozens of black-and-white scenes, which kids can fill with color using a palette on the side of the screen. The finished masterpieces can then be saved to your image gallery so you can easily share them with adoring grandparents. The Android-only app is an ad-free zone and won't cost you a penny.
6. Carnival of Animals
This one is aimed at kids aged between 2 and 6. It was designed by music teachers and aims to teach children musical timing through fun animal stories. Toddlers are encouraged to tap the animals on screen in time with the beat, getting a score based on their accuracy. If this is a bit advanced, there's the option of just listening to the music, which still allows children to enjoy the animations.
The free version gives you access to two stories about a kangaroo and lion family, and you can unlock further levels for a fee. The only problem with the app is that it's quite large (119MB) — so if your phone is tight on memory, you might not have room for it. "Carnival of Animals" by Toothy Buddies is available for iPad and Android.
7. Avokiddo Emotions
"Avokiddo Emotions" is a cute app that introduces kids to four cartoon animals – a sheep, giraffe, moose and zebra – that they can interact with, using a variety of props like food, clothes, toys and more. Depending on which item it is presented with, the animal will laugh, cry, smile or frown. The animations are fun and the app can help teach toddlers about emotions. "Avokiddo Emotions" is available on Android or iOS for $2.99.
8. LEGO Duplo Train
This free game for iOS and Android combines two first loves of toddlers — trains and LEGO. Players are invited to build their own trains by choosing from a range of carriages and trailers. They then load up their trains with passengers or cargo and drive them through various levels, where they have to build bridges, assemble tracks or pay fares. In addition to the main features, kids can tap anything in the background to create sounds and actions.
There are literally thousands of other apps on the market designed to distract your kids. Anything to avoid? That would have to be "Talking Tomcat" and his evil-sister app, "Talking Angela" — if not for their annoying habit of repeating everything they say, then for the endless in-app purchases pushed at your child.
There are many more great apps out there — so if you have any suggestions of your own, please post them in the comments. For now, this selection should give you at least a minute or two of downtime.
Photo: R. Nial Bradshaw | Flickr