Today's smartphones and tablets offer a great way for children to learn through interactive sight, sound, and touch, but they can also provide hours of genuine fun. If you have a spare tablet laying around—or at least a nice, durable case—the only thing you need to get your child started in this world of fun and learning is a handful of good apps.
Whether your little one is just now beginning to express interest in your handheld device, or they've already got their very own tablet, we've got you covered with the best free apps for babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and big kids—all listed in separate categories below.
It sure doesn't take long for a baby to start interacting with his or her environment, does it? At this stage in life, one of the best things you can do as a parent is encourage interaction by using learning aids that help correlate sight with sound and touch. The following free Android apps have this basic premise covered in spades.
For generations now, one of everyone's first interactive toys has been a play phone with colorful buttons that make sounds. An app called Baby Phone captures the spirit of this classic toy and whisks it into the 21st century with a few more bells and whistles that your baby will surely love.
As early as 4 months, babies start to look for the source of sounds around them. Satisfying this curiosity is a great way to teach your child the fundamentals of empathy, and a game called Animal Sounds for Baby aligns neatly with this premise. Cute animals come on screen one at a time and make their sounds when pressed, and your baby can even touch elements of the scenery for more interaction.
If you think you've got a mini-Mozart on your hands, or at least a baby that loves the soothing sound of music, you might want to start encouraging their creative side early. Baby Piano offers a cute and simple interface with colorful keys that span the major scale—but hey, even random button mashing can be fun sometimes.
At around 5 months of age, babies start to see colors and depth with full clarity. New-found senses like these are always fun to explore, and an app called Shapes & Colors Music Show is ready to help with its floating interactive shapes and cute sounds.
In a similar vein, Baby Musical Instruments combines elements from the last two apps in our list into one fun and interactive show of shapes and music. There are 3 unique scenes to choose from—a barnyard, a jungle, and the south pole—and each offers a set of cute animals with music instruments that can be tapped to provide feedback and interaction.
The toddler years are perhaps the most important stage in a child's development. Emotional, social, and cognitive skills rapidly take shape from ages 1 to 3, so it's important to surround your child with stimuli that demonstrate how things really work.
Toca Kitchen 2
If your child likes to watch you make dinner, or at least has a general curiosity regarding how things work in the kitchen, Toca Kitchen 2 provides a perfect way for them to explore safely. They can cook just about anything with a tap or two, then even serve the food to guests and get reactions on how their cuisine tastes.
To a toddler, the world is full of magic and mystery, and an app called Animals for Kids Forest can foster their innate desire to explore it while teaching a valuable lesson. Simply pick up trash from around the forest and place it in the bin, and when everything is clear, the animals will chime in with a thank you.
Keeping with the theme of toddlers exploring the world around them, Google Earth can provide hours of fun and learning. It may not seem like it on the surface, but this useful app is definitely kid-friendly with its spinning, zoom-able globe that allows your little one to gain a bit of perspective while having fun at the same time.
If you ever find a three-year-old boy who doesn't like LEGO or DUPLO blocks, let me know. Kids just can't resist the simplicity of snapping two perfectly-fitting cogs together and the satisfaction they derive from creating something on their own. The same principles apply to LEGO DUPLO Train, which lets the user build their own trains, tracks, and bridges while playing the role of train engineer.
All of that toddler curiosity is great for learning, but it can be disastrous if left unchecked on a smartphone with any kind of payment info attached to it. If you'd like to keep your kid within the boundaries of a digital sandbox, so to speak, give Kids Place a try. The launcher lets you choose which apps to show, and can even keep your child from exiting any of these apps and wandering off into other parts of the phone's UI.
Preschool is where we start to learn many of the tools that we'll use for the rest of our lives. Alphabets, numbers, and basic math are all concepts that start to become a bit less foreign at this age, and your youngster's understanding of these should be reinforced at every chance.
When you think about it, letters fit together like puzzle pieces to form words, so learning your ABCs is mostly a matter of knowing where each character fits. Endless Alphabet presents words as a puzzle and uses the phonetic sounds of letters as clues on how to "solve" them, so it's a bit of an alphabet app and a spelling app at the same time.
An app from the same developers as Endless Alphabet can yield similar results when it comes to learning numbers. Endless Numbers uses various visual cues to help children learn the order of numbers and how they relate to real-world circumstances, and it does it all with a fun and interactive flair.
The concept of math can even be scary to some adults, but giving your child a little exposure to basic addition and subtraction at an early age will go a long way towards avoiding this. Math Animals is a very approachable app that incentivizes math curiosity by unlocking customizeable animals after each complete level.
Flashcards take advantage of a mental process called active recall to easily associate one item with another, which is why they've been used as memory aids for centuries. An app called Flashcards for Kids applies these same principles to words and images, making it easy for your preschooler to get a jump on their peers when it comes to spelling.
If you'd rather take a simpler approach to memory building, ABC Toy Matching works a lot like the old Milton Bradley game called Memory. Pairs of matching cards are displayed face-down, and it's up to your child to remember their placement and match them all up.
PBS has tons of fun and educational content for kids, and the best part is it's all available to the public for free (made possible by viewers like you). By installing the PBS Kids Video app, your child will have access to all of these shows, complete with a kid-friendly interface.
Between the ages of 2 and 6, a child's brain physically grows more than any other stage of development. Then, as soon as this period of growth is over, there's an understandable jump in cognitive abilities. As a result of it all, making sure your little one has ample mental stimulation becomes an important part of the early childhood years.
Just like those famous little plastic bricks, LEGO Juniors encourages creativity and forethought by allowing kids to build their own virtual cars and explore surroundings. As they go, users unlock more virtual LEGO sets that can be built with just a few simple taps.
Learning responsibility is a big part of growing up, but before your kid is ready for the full-time gig of owning a cat or dog, it might be a good idea to test the waters first. Pou is a virtual pet alien that needs to be fed and cleaned, but after a steady flow of attention and dedication, your child gets to reap the benefit of watching Pou grow up.
YouTube is the world's biggest stage for independent creators and amateur videographers, and there are endless hours of quality content to prove it. The only trouble is some of this content isn't quite what you would call age-appropriate. Luckily, a youth-friendly curated version called YouTube Kids can put your mind at ease with its parental locks and countless fun videos.
Reading is an important part of learning and getting ready for the school years ahead, but some kids don't take to it quite as well as others. iStoryTime Storybook Library has the potential to get any child inspired by the world of books with its animated storyboards and narrated audio, which make it easy to read along with the pages at the bottom of the screen.
Speaking of reading, there's no telling how many kids have been inspired by Reading Rainbow to pick up a book and dive head first into the magic it contained. The long-running PBS show now has an Android app called Reading Rainbow Skybrary, which itself has more than 500 free children's books and over 150 video "field trips" hosted by none other than LeVar Burton.
This is definitely not an exhaustive list. Of course there are many more awesome Android apps for kids, but we at least hope this served as a good starting point in your search. Have you run across any interesting apps that you'd like to share? Let us know in the comment section below, or drop us a line on Android Hacks' Facebook or Twitter, or on Gadget Hacks' Facebook, Google+, or Twitter.