Fa la la la! Tis' the season. The kids are out of school, the days are cold, the museums are packed, the Legos are scattered under the couch, and Toy Story 3 has been memorized. It's time to refresh that most valuable tool in the modern parent's arsenal: the iPhone. Last year, I wrote about how the iPhone is a Swiss Army knife of digital parenting and asked for your best iPhone apps for kids. Let's do the same thing this year.
A lot has changed; a lot has not. On the scene there's now what my 5-year-old son calls a "big iPhone"—a.k.a. the iPad, which promises a larger, richer, smudged-screen experience. In general, I've found iPad apps for kids either disappointing or merely blown-up versions of already excellent iPhone apps. The iPhone itself has taken on a more social aspect, asking my 2-year-old-son to post his Fruit Ninja scores to Facebook. Another generalization: All of the GameCenter stuff just creates needless complication for a youngster looking to samurai chop some pineapple.
The guilt factor remains. In October, the New York Times reported that the iPhone has become "akin to a treasured stuffed animal" for the under-3 set and quoted tsk-ing psychologists who reiterated the wisdom that young children learn through manipulating the physical environment. Can't we all agree that the iPhone is a playpen for the mind? This year, I heard an audible gasp when I handed my son my iPhone. (Granted, I was in a food co-op.) It's all a little tricky. Cue up another concern for today's mom and dad: Not only should our kids be eating more dirt, they should be playing in it more too.
While I worry about letting my sons become too dependent on digital media, I also feel you should use the tools at hand in the time that you live in. My own childhood was happily complemented by Mastermind, Simon, those red-blip sports games, and other electronic amusements. It seems a little unfair to assume that the iPhone is somehow more capable of melting young minds. This dad let his four-year-old son play Grand Theft Auto. It's actually a sweet story: The boy hews closely to his sense of justice and has a lot of fun putting out fires with the fire truck. The potential lesson: You don't really know how your kids will perceive the world and digital media is best used in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced life.
This year also saw a growing movement toward my hoped-for "toddler mode" on the iPhone. Peter Merholz at Adaptive Path lays out the case for such a feature nicely, and has even mocked up the on-off switch. I must also acknowledge the twisted genius of the Woogie, an iPhone case that turns the phone into a giant stuffed animal. I know some adults who might want one of those, too.
Without further hesitation, the apps that worked well for me this year. These were road-tested on 5-year-old and 2-year-old boys in grocery store lines, during subway delays "due to train traffic ahead of us," the exhausted hours after school, those 10 minutes of distraction needed to get out the door, and just for fun.
Angry Birds: An easy choice, but c'mon: It's saved Finland. This world-conquering app takes seconds to learn, and it's satisfying to destroy things. It gets bonus points for answering the question both boys asked immediately: "Why are the birds angry?"
Build a Train: Select your engine, select your coaches, and then run the train around a track. The game introduces simple tasks that are fun to complete. The 2-year-old nearly fell over when he got the train to go through the tunnel.
Cut the Rope: A delightful game that could only exist on the iPhone. You slice a rope so that a piece of candy falls into the mouth of a cute green creature. The gameplay is tactile, very intuitive, and becomes more challenging at exactly the right pace.
Flight Control: Another oldie but goodie. You land planes by tracing paths with your finger. What keeps this game in heavy rotation (for me) is the pleasurable music, a feature that all kids apps should emulate.
Fruit Ninja: The new star in town. Fruit gets launched in the air, fruit gets sliced in half. If I let him, the 2-year-old will play "Zen" mode until the battery runs out. I've learned a surprising amount about fruit from the "Fruit Facts" that the game displays. I've also had to concede that kiwis do resemble poop.
Geared: This is the strategy game that the 5 year-old will play the most. There's something inherently satisfying to men of all ages about meshed gears.
Gravity Guy: Run away from bad dudes—on the ceiling or on the floor.
Homerun Battle 3-D: An addictive baseball simulation in which you try to smack it out of the park. The pitcher recently changed into Santa, provoking much delight. Dad has been known to play this one while the children are falling asleep.
Intro to Letters/ Intro to Math: I just throw these in there hoping the kids will accidentally press on them. Kidding. These are beautiful apps based on Montessori materials. Very rarely will my sons work with these apps without prompting, but it's a joy when I help trace letters. Even better on the iPad that I borrowed from work.
Monkey Preschool Lunchbox: This is on the list grudgingly. The eeh-eeh-eeh of this monkey has been known to send a parent into the kitchen to fill out applications for Waldorf school. The monkey has it all figured out though: You match fruit or solve puzzles and then you get stickers. Never underestimate the drawing power of a cute, overly expressive animal.
Ragdoll Blaster 2: A game for the kid who takes apart the vacuum cleaner. You shoot ragdolls at targets that are hiding behind all manner of contraptions and obstacles. Teaches physics!
Reckless Racing and Slotz Racer: The requisite car-racing games. My personal pick would be Real Racing, but these are the ones that the boys like best. Slotz is easier to play, but Reckless Racing offers more crashing and mayhem potential.
Solipskier: Draw the slope with your finger and launch the skier into the air while a fabulous guitar solo blares. Another only-on-the-iPhone game that delights with its freedom to experiment.
Talking Carl: Your child shouts words, Talking Carl shouts those words louder, and with a higher-pitched voice. Minutes or hours of hilarity, depending upon your age.
My "kid screen" has become much more game-heavy since last year. That's due in part to the 5-year-old's ability to detect anything that's remotely educational and then promptly pronounce it "boring." (Where does that heat-seeking ability come from?) I should also mention that his second-favorite iPhone activity is going into the app store to look for "cooler" games. He doesn't do the drawing apps, the photo apps, and the reading apps I've heard so many good things about.
Leave your best apps in the comments below or e-mail me at email@example.com.