Tots and tech: the best apps to help teach pre-school kids

Some parents worry about children's exposure to technology, but tech can be educational, and incredibly rewarding, for kids too.

Sure, there are times when giving a toddler your phone or tablet seems the best way of keeping them quiet (restaurants? We’ve all been there!). But these powerful little devices can do so much more than hush the tears.

It’s second nature for kids to swipe to unlock now – and when they do, there’s a whole world of learning in those screens.

Sitting with a child, showing them how to play a game is great for bonding, and encourages a sense of achievement  when they manage to do it themselves.

And with these apps, you can help ensure they’re not just left alone with a tablet to rot their brains.


- iOS (Price: £1.49 / $1.99) Android:  (Price: £1.49 / $1.99) Kindle: ($3.99)

Learning to deal with letters can be daunting for young minds, but Metamorphabet throws in some visual stimulation, through color, to make it fun.

It’s aimed at kids from two to five years old, and goes through the alphabet a letter at a time. Each letter fills the screen, with your little one required to tap on it to animate it, and see different words beginning with that letter.

For example, tap the letter ‘B’ and a bird appear; tap it again and he grows a beard; tap it again, and he gets a beak; tap it again, the beak opens and a load of bugs fly out. And so on.

This doesn’t teach kids to spell – some of the words are a couple of characters too long, or just not words they would use at that age (like ‘amble’).

But it’s great at helping them figure out what the phonetics of each letter can sound like – how the letter ‘A’ sounds at the start of many different words, for example, with a helpful voice guiding them.

It’s a well-made app with a simple and colorful, but not garish, look (leaning on Google’s Material Design language); and with six or seven words and animations per letter (and 26 of them in the alphabet), it’s great value for money, but with a caveat: only if you’re using it on Android or iOS.

The Kindle version (which is technically Android) seems to be hugely bumped up in price, with no discernible difference to the Android or iOS versions. But that aside, kids will love being able to manipulate the letters, and they can play this time and time again.

2. Busy Shapes

- iOS (Price: £2.49 / $2.99)

Remember the days when you’d put the tube in the round hole and the cube in the square hole? Of course you do – and now your kids can relive your shape-shifting adventures in the digital age.

The best bit? This time there’s no chance of your pieces getting stuck.
This simple app takes the age-old concept and makes it relevant to the 21st century, using some lovely bright colors and shapes. And your little ones aren’t limited to basic shapes as you were – they even get flower shapes and buttons too.

Busy Shapes starts your kids off gently, with the first few levels giving them just one hole to get them into the groove.

The app even comes with a helpful hint to keep it open for only 10 minutes, as that’s how long children can typically absorb information for before they start to get bored.

Where the old block games excelled was in what they taught kids. As well as recognizing shapes, the idea was that they would improve their motor skills.

Kids will still get some training with this app, but not as much as they would have done had they physically been holding a block – so think of this as an augmentation of, rather than a replacement for, that experience.

This is a simple game – but then kids will want for nothing more at this target age range, which is 18 months onwards. Older kids may get bored a little quickly though and while it is well put together, it costs more than we’d expect for an app of this depth.

3. Sesame Street: Elmo Calls

- iOS (Price: £1.49 / $3.99 plus add-ons) Android (Price: Free with add-ons) Kindle: (Price: £1.99)

The oldies are the goodies, they say, and you’ve got to take your hat off to Sesame Street – it seems to have been around since the time of Julius Caesar.

What the developers have done here is take one Street character we all know and love, and design the app around him.

Your kids get to talk to Elmo himself – and this being 2016, we’re not just talking voice calls, but full-on video conferencing.

So, what’s the point? Well, Elmo takes on the role of your child’s friend, and guides them through certain scenarios that are pertinent to childhood growth.
For example, he’ll chat to you about potty training, help you recognize colors and letters and so on.

The Android version is free for the base level, coming with a few built-in calls, but you’ll have to spend for the educational ones as the included calls are just fun samples.

What’s galling is that the iOS version costs $3.99 and still only comes with a few samplers – parents are going to have to hand over some cash if they want the truly educational tools, which could get expensive.

So while it’s fun to see and interact with Elmo one on one, this app may not be amazing value for money – as is the case with so many ‘freemium’ products, you’re really only going to get out of it what you’re prepared to put in.

4. Sago Mini Toolbox

- iOS (Price: £2.29 / $2.99) Android (Price: $2.99) Kindle: (Price: $2.99)

When DIY disasters strike, it’s bad enough having to deal with the problem – but it’s even worse dealing with a teary toddler at the same time, telling them to stand back and not get too close in case they get hurt.

The problem is that kids love to help – especially when they can’t because it’s dangerous. But this app lets them play with drills, hammers, bolts, spanners and the rest without getting their fingers in harm’s way.

The app places them in the workshop with a whole wall full of dangerous items to pick from with which to wreak havoc, from pumps to spanners and sewing needles.

The downside is that it may encourage the little devils to really cut through the curtains (lock the scissors away), but it’s a great way of channelling those destructive childish impulses, and in a well-presented way.

This will appeal to the younger kids between 18 months and four years old who can move their fingers across the screen, and see themselves being rewarded by the music feeding back to them.

One word of warning: this is an addictive app for adults too. There’s something very therapeutic about cutting through a pair of curtains to a zen soundtrack, or stitching two pieces of fabric together to the sound of a harp. It’s enchanting.

It’ll keep kids entertained for a good half hour,and at this price, it’s a nice buy – if only because the adults will get just as much use out of it as the tots.

5. Mrs Potato Head: Create and Play

- iOS (Price: Free or up to £3.99 or $4.99)

Mr Potato Head’s been entertaining us for years, and a Toy Story revival gave him a new lease of life – so it’s great that the female version is the main focus of this app instead.

This is a good fun way of whiling away 20 minutes, and is sure to extract much laughter from little ones aged three years or more. It’s accompanied by funny sound effects, and there’s a preview of what Mrs Potato Head should look like, just in case your child thought her arm went where her nose should be.

The game is good value, as it’s free with purchasable add-ons. But you can have lots of fun without adding the freemium elements, or you can buy the lot for a extra in-app purchases (although it does seem a little steep.)

One thing we did note is that when we fired the app up on an iPhone 7 Plus we were warned that it would slow down our phone, which, considering it’s made by Hasbro, is pretty poor. That said, the game did actually run smoothly, so we’ll let it off.

6. ABC Gurus

- iOS (Price: £1.49 / $1.99)

Another spelling and phonics learning app – and this one has a twist. It gives your little ones the chance to turn their letters into crazy characters as they play.

The game has the added bonus of being compatible with a number of languages, including English (US and UK), Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese, to help your child’s multi-lingual skills.

It’s a simple concept really: the player chooses a letter which they can dress up with bow ties, hats and other accessories.

And every time they touch the letter to add another element, the letter speaks phonetically, using repetition to help the lesson sink in.

This will appeal to kids in the early stages of reading, so four years old and up. And while it’s not the most advanced of games, what it does do it does very well. At $1.99 it’s a minimal risk, and is sure to have your child copying the right sounds in no time.

7. Toddler Counting 123

- iOS (Price: Free to £0.79 or $0.99) Android (Price: Free to $0.99) Kindle: (Price: Free)

If your child is  learning to count, this app is a great way of helping them get started.

Kids are presented with a number of items on screen and then asked to count them. But to stop them getting confused, they’re walked through the process.

So, for example, an image of five dogs pops up, and they’re asked how many dogs they see. Each one they tap is counted in sequence and the number fed back to them, to help them get from 1-5.

This isn’t a long-term game in terms of creating dynamic mathematics skills, and it won’t keep them amused all night. In fact, it’s fairly basic. But it’s great value for a number of reasons.

First, it’s free. Second, it’s easy for them to use and start learning all by themselves (with your supervision, of course). It’s a glorified interactive video, in a good way.

It’s attractive to look at, and for those daunted by numbers, it’s something that will gently help get them started.

8. Baby’s Musical Hands

- iOS (Price: £0.79 / $0.99) Android (Price: £0.79 / $0.99)

One of the great things about this app is that it’s designed by a developer who’s also a father – and it shows. 

This app isn’t overly complicated – if anything, it’s overly simple, and that’s the beauty. There are no menus, just the main interface.

Kids love music. They love to make music (or noise, in their pursuit of music). And what we have here is a glorified, colored piano. All you do is touch the screen and it plays the chord with a little visual feedback.

But this isn’t designed for the bigger kids – this is for babies. And we can vouch for its effectiveness. We gave an 18-month-old the chance to experience this app, and watched her spend 15 minutes happily jabbing the screen.

What they get out of this app is the feedback from creating music. This nurtures that part of a child that makes them so fond of dancing and clapping, and it’s beautiful to watch.

Even at such a small price, you’re not getting a huge amount for your money. But this is a small app, and it’s put together by somebody who spotted the need for it. And when you see it in use you can really see how and why it hits the spot.

 9. My Very Hungry Caterpillar

- iOS (Price: £2.99 to $4.99) Android (Price: Free with add-ons) Kindle:  (Free with add-ons)

This original book has enchanted children all over the world, and this app really brings the Very Hungry Caterpillar to life. Think Tamogotchi, but less annoying. And for kids. 

You hatch the VHC from an egg and then feed him, nurture him, love him. When he gets big, he lays another egg and you can start all over again.

This is one of those apps that kids will fall in love with. And while it’s not educational in the true sense of the word, what it does teach them is patience, empathy and fun, as they share this journey with their young friend.

Smaller toddlers may not fully be able to understand the app, but those closer to four years of age will. And younger children will still get something from the music, and the fact that they can control an animal with their fingers.

The game is, simply, beautifully put together. For a free experience, you’d be forgiven for having low expectations, but the music, the animation, the quality of the art and the fluidity really do impress.

And this really is a family affair, as you can share the responsibility and help teach your children how to care for their ‘pet’. As always, there are paid add-ons available, but without them you’ll still have a ball.

10. White Noise Baby Sleep Sounds 

- Android (Price: Free)

After all of that app-play, it’s time to get your little treasures to bed to sleep the day off, and let the grown-ups can relax.

The problem is, many kids don’t want to go to sleep if they feel there’s more to gain from the day, and so they don’t relax. But this app should help.

White Noise Baby Sleep Sounds is the perfect way of soothing them – and you. This is an app designed to help kids, but can be just as useful for adults, parents or not.

The design isn’t the best – this has a slightly amateur look compared to other noise-playing apps that are also cross-platform (this is Android only), but it’s free, and you get the full range of sounds without being nagged to spend more money.

True, there are ads on-screen, but you’re not going to be looking at those with your eyes closed, are you?

Sounds range from the classic lullabies to white noise, like a hairdryer, car or washing machine. And on top of that there’s even the sound of a parent rocking their child and saying ‘shhh, shhh’.

Being able to loop sounds is a bonus – it means you don’t have to keep going into the toddler’s room to restart them – and you can also set a timer. 

And the sounds really are perfect – they almost sent us to sleep as we typed this review, and that’s an endorsement if ever there were one.

This article is brought to you in association with Tesco Mobile