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Reading apps tell stories and work on literacy skills
Starfall Learn to Read uses small "mini-books" to concentrate on isolated letter sounds. The website can be used for free, but the convenience of the app is worth the purchase cost for many families. The app is designed for very early readers, so it's an excellent choice for pre-readers or early readers who are looking for concept reinforcement (Amazon.com, $3).
E-books are a great way to keep kids occupied during car trips or doctors' visits. PlayTales! has a wide title selection, from classic books to modern favorites. The app itself is free, but the books are in-app purchases. PlayTales! offers a Deal of the Week and competitive pricing for children's books (iTunes store, free).
Reinforce math operations with math apps
DragonBox Algebra 5+ teaches algebra concepts to kids, with the recommended age range of 6 to 8 years. One of the great things about DragonBox is that it truly lets kids "play" with the math concepts without much instruction. It feels like a genuine game while supporting learning a different, logical way of solving equations (iTunes store, $6).
Kids can build their own rocket ship and blast into space with Mathmateer™. They "earn" parts for their rocket by completing math operational problems, and up to five profiles can be saved on the app. There are 56 different math "missions," so kids practice more than addition and subtraction — patterns, time-telling and U.S. money are among the missions within the app (iTunes store, $1).
Logic apps combine puzzles with learning
Deliver clean water to an endearing alligator in Where's My Water?, a puzzle app available for a wide variety of devices. Kids clear obstacles out of the way for Swampy the alligator. The puzzles are based on physics concepts, though kids will be having too much fun clearing the board to worry about the semantics of the game's origins (Amazon.com, $1).
Puzzingo is an entertaining puzzle app that helps develop spatial skills. Puzzles are updated frequently, and additional puzzles are available as in-app purchases. Parents and kids can play the game together — though kids can definitely play alone — and the app also helps young children hone their fine motor skills (iTunes store, free).
Music apps for budding musicians
Music apps don't necessarily practice math or reading skills, but exposure to music is a great way to help kids explore musicality. As with all apps, it's a great idea for parents to screen music apps before letting kids loose with a phone or tablet. With music as their prime function, it's important that the music used in the app doesn't make you cringe each time you hear it.
Ariel's Musical Surprise is a beautiful app that includes coloring, familiar music and the ability to have an undersea concert. The app is easy to navigate, and the graphics are designed so kids feel like they're underwater with Ariel and her friends. Kids can incorporate Disney's Dream Play toys with the game, but they are not necessary. Keep in mind that the app itself is free, but in-app purchases cost money. To minimize frustration, show kids immediately how to close out the purchase screen (iTunes store, free).
Kids can play a traditional keyboard or use a collection of silly character sounds to create their own, unique musical tunes with the Kids Music Factory. The app is loaded with 20 recognizable kids' songs, so they can practice keying along with tunes they know. Let their creativity run wild as they compose and record their own original tunes (iTunes store, $3).