25 best apps to keep kids entertained while travelling this summer

Apps

"Are we there yet? Can I have a sweet? Can I have another sweet? Can I have another sweet when we get there then? When are we getting there? Are we there yet? I WANT A SWEET! And a poo..."

Travelling with children can be marvellous fun, as you explore the world, open their minds and realise that it's your turn in I Spy just as a 17th-century three-masted Mediterranean trading ship hoves into view. Fun for all the family.

Alternatively, it can be hellish, because many children get bored easily on long journeys, and it's your job to sort it out. Ideally by getting there already. But also by providing entertainment en route, whether you're in a plane, train or automobile.

I've noticed a trend among friends who are parents: the act of "loading up the tablet" becoming a vital part of the holiday preparation process – referring to the process of loading apps, TV shows, films and/or music onto a device or two, for strategic deployment during the journey.

Apps aren't a replacement for traditional non-digital travel entertainment for children – looking out at the real world, reading books, making polite conversation, hitting siblings with vicious right hooks – but rather a Plan B, C or D, depending on parents' resolve.

With that in mind, here are some of the apps I've turned to in my own family's travels, with an emphasis on those available for both Android and iOS, and a sprinkling of iOS-only ones thrown in. If you're loading up the tablet for a summer holiday, they may come in handy.

Note: some of these apps use in-app purchases (signified by "IAP" alongside the price) but I've taken care to choose ones that do this responsibly, in a way controlled by parents – no £69.99 truckloads of SmurfBerries, in other words.

Endless Alphabet (iOS / Android)
A troupe of colourful monsters teach children the alphabet in this app, which is full of humour and charm. Kids form words by dragging letters into place, before watching comical animations acting them out.
£4.99 (iOS) / Free + IAP (Android)Me Comics (iOS / Android)
Launched earlier this year by British startup Made in Me, this is a collection of digital comics from brands including Disney, The Beano and Transformers. Kids can read and record their own voice narration. Note: the comics are sold as in-app purchases to parents, so you'll want to buy a few before heading off on a trip.
Free + IAP

Disney Storytime (iOS)
Something for Disney fans here: an app providing access to some of Disney's most famous tales, from The Lion King to Frozen. Children can read, listen and/or record their own narration. Parents buy virtual credits which children can then spend on stories, so again, prepare by downloading a few before setting out.
Free + IAP

Toca Mini (iOS / Android)
Toca Mini is a wonderfully open-ended app from publisher Toca Boca, which gets children to create their own characters using colours, stamps and tactile touchscreen controls. Perfect for trips, especially when parents are setting creative challenges for children to complete.
£1.99

Minecraft – Pocket Edition (iOS / Android)
Chances are if your child is one of the millions playing Minecraft, this'll already be on the tablet that they use most often. If not – or if they're new to Minecraft's charms – a long trip is just the thing to get up to speed on crafting, mining and battling things that go boo in the night.
£4.99

Petting Zoo (iOS / Android)
This marvellous app from developer Fox and Sheep has apparently been downloaded more than 1m times, and thus deployed on a number of trips already. It's a series of interactive animal animations by illustrator Christoph Niemann, ready to be stretched, flipped and wobbled by kids' swipes.
£1.99

DreamWorks Dragons Adventure World Explorer (Windows)
This game came out just recently for some Windows Phone smartphones and Windows 8 tablets, and is notable because it's designed specifically for children to play while travelling: using Nokia's Here Maps to turn the world around their current location into gameplay quests, set in the world of the How To Train Your Dragon films. Very inventive.
Free

Dinosaur Mix (iOS)
Created by UK developer Cowly Owl, this is a fun and engaging stomp into the world of dinosaurs, as children put parts together to make a brightly-coloured dinosaur, then wander around picking up the right food, and finding eggs to swap limbs and heads in and out.
£1.99

BBC iPlayer (iOS / Android / Windows Phone)
On iOS and Android here in the UK, the iPlayer app is a must for any parent contemplating a long journey with a child likely to tire quickly. Again, it's all about the pre-trip preparation, using the app's offline feature to download shows from CBeebies and/or CBBC for watching on the go. While the app is available for Windows Phone too, that version requires 3G, 4G or Wi-Fi to work, so may not be as suitable as the iOS and Android editions.
Free (UK)

Mr Shingu's Paper Zoo (iOS / Android)
A zoo populated entirely by paper animals created origami style is a great idea (well, until it rains, obviously) – and it's also the theme of this engaging game. Children fold together animals, then keep them happy by playing with them and buying virtual accessories – the twist being that there are no in-app purchases, so they earn through playing, not paying.
£1.99

Night Zookeeper Teleporting Torch (iOS)
The work of another British startup, this is also a creative app based on a zoo. This zoo is full of magical (non-paper) animals, and forms the basis for a series of drawing, reading and writing activities for children, structured in "missions". When not travelling, parents can join in by setting their own missions from an online dashboard.
Free

BBC CBeebies Playtime (iOS / Android / Windows Phone)
Another app from the Beeb, this time for its preschool channel CBeebies. The app is actually a umbrella for a series of games and creative activities based on individual shows, with new ones being added regularly. The roster currently includes Swashbuckle, Show Me Show Me, Alphablocks and more. UK-only.
Free

Tynker Premium (iOS / Android)
Something more educational, here, and nicely timed ahead of the introduction this September of programming to the British educational curriculum at an earlier age. Tynker aims to introduce kids to coding through fun exercises, with its most recent update adding a sandbox mode for children to make their own games.
£2.99 (iOS) / £2.93 (Android)

Hopster TV (iOS)
Another UK startup, Hopster, has been compared to Netflix – because it charges parents a simple monthly subscription to get unlimited access to streaming TV shows. In this case, for children, with additional educational games around shows like Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom and Paddington Bear. For travelling, it also has a mode to download some videos to watch offline – hence its inclusion here.
Free + IAP

Justin's World - Jigsongs (iOS / Android)
Justin Fletcher is one of the most recognisable faces on British children's TV, and he's also fronted a series of apps in the last year. This one blends music with jigsaws, as children solve the virtual puzzles, then watch Justin sing songs including Old MacDonald, Twinkle Twinkle and The Grand Old Duke of York. Nicely done, even if the earworm risks for parents on a long journey are high...
£0.69

Jack and the Beanstalk by Nosy Crow (iOS)
Whether travelling or not, Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the best-crafted storybook apps on iOS, telling the familiar fairytale with lots of interactivity – including some well-worked mini-games in the giant's castle – but never at the expense of the actual reading.
£2.99

Shu’s Garden (iOS / Android)
Shu's Garden was one of my finds of the last year: a relaxed game for children based on exploring a planet, picking up seeds and then planting them to see what grows. The way the main character rolls and bounces around the world is great fun, but figuring out how the plants grow is what will hold kids' rapt in the longer term.
£0.69 (iOS) / Free (Android)

Yo Gabba Gabba! Music is Awesome! (iOS / Android)
Children's TV show Yo Gabba Gabba! has found a healthy audience of children and adults alike, with music always a central ingredient. This spin-off app sees its colourful cast getting their wiggle on to music played by children using virtual instruments, with a colouring mode thrown in for good measure.
£1.49 (iOS) / £1.17 (Android)

Astropolo (iOS)
The perfect choice for children who are starting to look up and wonder about the galaxies above. Astropolo is a collection of eight space-themed mini-games, making full use of the iPad's features – microphone included. The papercut-style visuals are lovely to look at, while its education is worn lightly, but effectively.
£1.99

Dr Panda’s Toy Cars (iOS / Android)
My younger son loves his toy cars, but they're not much fun when stuck in a car or train seat for a few hours. This, from popular kid-apps brand Dr Panda, is a fun alternative: eight vehicles to drive around a pair of virtual cities, including a police car and fire engine. The play is open-ended too: children can supply their own storylines, just as they would with real toy cars.
£1.99 (iOS) / £1.79 (Android)

First Focus: Ladybird Baby Touch (iOS / Android)
This app's for very young children: those who when they're not sleeping on a long journey tend to be hollering and/or reaching for the nearest device to chew. Ladybird's visual app may (possibly) take their mind of the latter: four animations designed to draw their attention, stimulate their senses and help their eye-tracking and focusing skills in short doses.
£1.99

Sago Mini Space Explorer (iOS)
The Sago Sago studio makes well-crafted apps for pre-school children that are open-ended: children explore an on-screen world at their leisure, rather than follow particular goals or tasks. This latest example is set in space, with lots to discover – including some familiar faces from the company's previous (also thoroughly recommended) apps.
£1.99

Gocco Zoo (iOS / Android)
More drawing in this app from Japanese developer Smart Education – and another zoo. Children choose an animal, paint it whatever colour and texture they like, and then snap photos of their work. Some animals and tools are free, with parents able to make one-off in-app purchases to unlock everything.
Free + IAP (iOS) / £1.99 + IAP (Android)

Dino Dog – A Digging Adventure (iOS)
If dinosaurs are your child's current craze, this sits neatly alongside Dinosaur Mix on an iPad. It's a mixture of gameplay (Boulder Dash-ish digging for prehistoric bones); animation (cut-scenes with Dino Dog and his friend Bonnie the Bear) and education (collecting the different dinosaurs) – a fun package.
£1.49

Kung Fu Robot (iOS)
Finally, this – the off-the-wall adventures of a kung fu-kicking robot, told in an eye-catching interactive comic format, with children swiping down through the story to read it. Extra mini-games add to the fun, with parents able to pay for the second and third episodes once the first free one is done.
Free + IAP

That's 25 recommendations from me, but what apps have your children enjoyed, that you'd suggest other parents may want to try when travelling?

The comments thread is open for your thoughts, while some of The Guardian's previous children's apps roundups are linked below.

30 best Android apps for kids in 2014
50 best Android apps for kids from 2013
50 best iOS / Android apps from 2013 that parents can trust
50 best iOS / Android apps for kids from 2012

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Monday 28th July 2014 12.48 Europe/London

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