If you've ever handed your phone over to your preschooler and turned him loose on a random kid's app, you're not alone. But you can make those moments productive -- and fun -- if you think of your phone as a preschool learning tool. All it takes is a little advance downloading.
We've collected some of the best contenders in several categories, from ABCs to "soft skills" such as social-emotional learning and creative play. When used in balance with other activities and active play, apps can offer amazing learning potential. See what appeals to your kid, and check out our other lists for more suggestions.
Colors, Shapes, and Logic
Outside of the alphabet and math, there's other knowledge that's good to foster in little ones, including pattern recognition, shapes, attention, and memory. These skill-builders all successfully mix fun and learning.
- Fishing With Grandpa, 3+
With mazes, puzzles, and a gentle, grandfatherly guide, kids can have fun completing activities that bolster basic skills.
- LumiKids Park by Lumosity, Early Learning Play for Kids, 3+
Through simple games, kids practice shape and color identification and test their memories. From adult brain game developer Lumosity, this app is fun -- and free!
- MarcoPolo Weather, 3+
Kids can play with different elements of weather and dress characters accordingly. Since kids can control the wind and temperature within the app, there are lots of opportunities to talk to kids about how we need to dress and take care of ourselves in different types of weather.
- Leo's Pad Enrichment Program for Preschoolers, 4+
Designed by Stanford Ph.D.s, Leo's Pad features cartoon clips that combine a story with interactive tasks such as measurement and problem-solving. For kids who need relatable characters (all based on historical figures, in this case) and a story to carry them along, this one is a good bet.
Creativity is a critical element in learning and play, and these apps offer age-appropriate options for visual art, music, and imaginative storytelling.
- Drawnimal by Yatatoy, 3+
In a unique blend of real-life drawing and on-screen interaction, this artsy app encourages kids to get out the paper and extend the picture that appears. It also covers the ABCs, so it's a double win.
- Lazoo Art Box, 3+
So many art apps either offer too many options or not enough, but this selection strikes the right balance. Kids use their fingers to make colored lines, roll stamps, or place stickers. Age-appropriate prompts get kids thinking, and the animations will delight.
- Toca Band, 3+
As kids play with the characters, they can experiment with music and have fun with rhythm and melody. In typical Toca Boca fashion, there are no rules, so kids can explore the instruments and concepts freely.
- Draw and Tell - by Duck Duck Moose, 4+
If you have a budding storyteller on your hands, this app's scenes and recording ability let your kid create a narrative from start to finish. After they design the art, they can record the story and move things around; when they're finished, they can share with family and friends.
Play is paramount for preschoolers. If they aren't in a place where they can run around, grab toys, and make up a game of their own, kids can use these apps for some open-ended experiences that use screens well.
- My PlayHome, 3+
Essentially a virtual dollhouse, this series of apps lets kids create a diverse family and walks them through lots of possible scenarios. Kids will likely make up a story to accompany their play, giving parents an opportunity to ask questions and interact alongside their play.
- Tiny Builders - Digger, Crane and Dumper for Kids, 3+
If your kid is obsessed with construction vehicles and building (and their toy trucks aren't accessible), this app might be a dream come true. Kids can play with a wide variety of vehicles and tap around to find educational interactive elements.
- Toca Nature, 4+
Truly an original, this open-ended experience lets kids create biomes with a swipe of the finger, and different species of animals appear in each habitat. Gentle and soothing, it has kids creating, exploring, and feeding the animals without rules or goals.
Reading and Math
Getting ready for school is partly about the ABCs and 123s, so these apps can give your kid some preschool-style practice.
- Metamorphabet, 3+
If you've seen one alphabet app, you've seen them all -- right? Not so, since Metamorphabet uses the screen to help kids interact with letters in a new way. Though it's best for very young preschoolers, slightly older kids will still get a kick out of it and may learn some vocabulary.
- Fiete Math, 4+
This charming math app lets kids identify and manipulate numbers. As they play, they'll build skills and fluency, and the app will adjust to their progress.
- Learn With Homer, 4+
Not only can kids explore phonics lessons on the road to literacy, but they can also learn about different topics, draw, and communicate with friends and family.
- Sesame Street Alphabet Kitchen, 4+
This app lets kids fill in vowel sounds for groups of related words and gets increasingly challenging as kids progress. It works with optional Tiggly letter toys which you can buy separately.
Also known as SEL or "soft skills," social-emotional skills help kids learn how to manage their own feelings and play well with others.
- Daniel Tiger's Grr-rific Feelings, 3+
As in the TV show, Daniel Tiger walks kids through feelings and uses songs to reinforce learning. Kids identify emotions and learn some simple techniques for self-soothing.
- Peppy Pals - Fun EQ for Kids, 3+
Different characters have different preferences -- just like real people -- and kids can learn what those are. They also have to practice empathy, help characters through challenges, and identify emotions.
- Sharing with Duckie Deck, 3+
In a series of activities, kids have to divide up items evenly so everyone gets their fair share. If they don't, they get sad or mad, like real kids do. Though the games are pretty simple, it's an excellent reference point for those times when sharing is really hard.
- ustyme, 3+
There's no substitute for interacting with real people, but sometimes family members can't be there in person. This app allows kids and loved ones to read books or play a game together, and since the app includes the books on-screen, there's no awkward holding-up-the-pictures-to-the-camera issue.