Favourite Preschool Apps Part One: Books and Book Characters

I know that the use of technology like tablets and smart phones by children remains a divisive parenting topic. However I’ve come to the conclusion that not only is it not all bad, but it’s actually pretty essential that we let our kids master these things. Sure, technology should never be the only tool in the armoury, or a permanent substitute parent or babysitter (but let’s face it, many of us have used a game on a phone on tablet to occupy a child when we have something we must get done) but it’s the way the world is going. Scratch that. It’s the way the world has gone. Children need to master touch controls, web browsing and other associated skills just as much as they need to be able to read and write. And it follows that it makes sense to let them begin to learn these necessary skills as young children.

Add to that the fact that there are a huge number of apps and games available that do have more than a modicum of educational content, and letting a preschooler loose on a tablet really becomes a no-brainer. So in recent months we’ve been increasingly using the iPad together to explore topics from basic maths and phonics through science to creative play and storytelling.

Of course one of the most difficult things to do as a parent is sorting the wheat from the chaff in terms of which games to play. I’ve spent a lot of time searching for reviews of favourites apps for Thomas’s age group – preferably those which aren’t biased and don’t just say “This is great, my three year old really loves it.” Yes, that’s lovely, but the question is will my three year old really love it? I’ve also found that a lot of the summary reviews are US based, which can colour the opinion of an app.

So having spent a lot of time reviewing various apps for ourselves, I decided to put together my own review post of the apps we use the most and our honest thoughts on them. Originally it was going to be just that: a post. But then I realised just how many apps we use and decided it was going to have to be a series if I wanted to cover the subject with any depth and credibility.

So this is Part One (of an as yet undetermined number but future installemnts will include maths and number games, phonics and reading, plus general games). This installment covers our favourite book based apps and games based on famous children’s book characters. (There are of course many, many children’s ebooks available too – lots of them free – but those are beyond the scope of this series.)

A couple of quick notes before we begin:

iOS vs Android: I use an iPhone 5 and an iPad. My husband is Android through and through. Many of the apps I’ve reviewed are available on both, but for various reasons we keep most of Thomas’s stuff to iOS, and I haven’t had the energy to do a full comparison – sorry!

Prices: I’ve included app prices where possible, but obviously these are subject to change. Before anyone concludes that I’m made of money, we did specifically ask for some App Store vouchers for Thomas at Christmas in order to purchase some of these. After all, he has enough toys! In general I prefer apps which have a “Lite” or free version to try first (and in some cases we use this without upgrading). I prefer to avoid lots of in-app purchases, the exception being if the original download is free and then releasing the full content is an in-app purchase, as this is often easier than having to re-download a second “full” app.

Kids are all different: as noted above, all children are different. I’ve reviewed what appeals to me and Thomas (three years and four months at the time of writing) but I hope that I’ve provided enough information for you to decide if it will suit your child. I’ve deliberately avoided calling this a “Top Ten” list, as everyone’s top ten will be different!

And a word about safety: I always use “Guided Access” mode on both my iPhone and iPad (triple click the home button). If you’re not familiar with this fantastic feature, it basically locks your child in to the app they are using and requires the passcode to exit (just make sure you child does not know yours!) You can also customise this mode to suit you in various ways.


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Bizzy Bear on the Farm and Bizzy Bear Builds a House. (£2.49 each. No free trial. No in-app purchases. British Accent and British English)
We’ve had these apps, from Nosy Crow, for quite a while. They are based on the Bizzy Bear board books but in place of the pop ups and sliders in the physical versions, these have various interactive tasks on each “page”. You can help Bizzy Bear to put on his boots, or hard hard, and then complete activities such as feeding the pigs, rounding up sheep, collecting eggs, digging a hole and shovelling and dumping sand.  There is a story woven through each app with the option to have it read aloud or “Read by Myself” for older children. They can get fairly repetitive, but Thomas still loves these apps months on, and they are ones that he can confidently play with by himself with no adult input.


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CBeebies Storytime (Free, no in-app purchases. British Accent and British English)
This app from the BBC is based around favourite CBeebies characters, although even if your child does not watch much CBeebies they will probably enjoy the stories. Certainly Tho,as has never watched the Octonauts or Grandpa in my Pocket, but still enjoys these stories. The app is laid out like a giant story book, and again there are options to read by yourself or hear them out loud. Each story has some interactive elements, such as tapping the mouse’s nose, and at thee d there are multiple choice questions about the story to answer. The only issue with this app – which again Thomas can manage unsupervised – is that it can be buggy, sometimes losing the sound and requiring a restart.


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Gruffalo Games (£2.99 no free trial and no in-app purchases.)
This app has a nice selection of games all beautifully themed around Julia Donaldson’s character with Axel Scheffler’s trademark illustrations. Developed by the creators of the animated film, it also uses music from the animations, giving it a familiar feel throughout. The games include snap, which as a nice touch you can play against the Gruffalo himself, noughts and crosses and matching and jigsaw games. The latter two are unusual amongst preschool games apps as the matching game is not the usual “hidden pairs” type but a timed race to match face-up pictures in wholes or halves. The “jigsaws” are actually slider type puzzles which whilst a bit too complex for Thomas at the moment would be great for older kids for whomthe usual six piece jigsaws in such games are a little too easy. Other games include nut catch – where you need to guide the mouse to catch falling nuts from above whilst avoiding other falling objects – and marching bugs – which is a timed pattern matching and sequencing game. Overall it’s an app with a nice variety, but some supervision tends to be required for my three year old as some elements are a little difficult for him and liable to cause frustration!


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Room on the Broom Games (£2.99 No free trial but no in-app purchases)
Similarly to the Gruffalo Games, this is based on Julia Donaldson’s Characters and Axel Scheffler’s illustrations.  I find the initial menus a bit dizzying, as various objects fly by, but it’s nice that these are not just a re-hash of the Gruffalo Games with different branding. The games include a star chase, where you help the witch fly from star to star and then guess what object her trail has drawn, the chance to search for the witches various lost objects and an interactive dot-to-dot style game. There is the chance to win medals depending on how well you perform in each game too. Overall the level of difficulty is probably slightly higher tha. The Gruffalo Games, but there is still plenty suitable for a three year old too.


IMG_0053Axel Scheffler’s Flip Flap Farm (£0.79 No in-app purchases. British accent and British English)
We bought this app after being given the book version of the Flip Flap Safari. The app is a bargain out price compared to the books, and is fantastic for it’s portability. At this age I feel it is an app to share, as the fun is in making up hilarious animals by matching halves of various farm animals, and pre-schoolers will require an adult to read the mashed up names to them. (the Squrkey is a favourite in this house) Although there is a “Read to Me” option, this is fairly slow and reads out the short poem associated with each animal half every time. Thomas certainly prefers to flip through the animals – each one being met with a peal of laughter – quite quickly initially, so we do this together, selecting specific combinations to read the full prose for. It’s a great value app with lots of entertainment value for the grown ups too!


IMG_0055The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Friends (Trial version available free, full version £2.99 with no in-app purchases. American accent)
We’ve so far only used the free version of this app which has limited functionality. It is a beautiful app, faithful to Eric Carle’s illustrative style and with some stunning 3d pop-up effects. The main potential drawback for a British audience is the American accent. Games include spot-the-difference, an animated sticker book and a fairly standard assisted jigsaw puzzle game. The graphics are lovely, although there doesn’t seem to be anything else particularly special about this app.

Probably the major issues I have with most of these apps is not taking over myself – as beating the high score in the Gruffalo nut catch can be a bit addictive! – and also making sure that Thomas doesn’t spend too much time on them. Lately he’s taken to asking for “an app” first thing every morning. As I said, they have educational value, but not at the expense of all other forms of play. We continue to strive for balance, but apps remain my go-to when I have something pressing to get sorted!

Let me know in the comments if you have any personal favourites and look out for Part Two, coming soon!