With summer in full swing, many families will be facing full flights and long road trips. To help maintain order in the back seat and stave off midair meltdowns, do yourself and fellow passengers a favor: Throw out your usual screen time limits and let the children binge on movies and gaming apps for those travel hours.
Quash parental guilt by loading your phone or tablet with apps made to get them thinking, not just entertained. (To keep noise at a safe level for small ears, invest in a good set of headphones with volume controls.) I’ve included nonelectronic options, too. My aim was to find a sweet spot between the addictive thrill of Pokémon Go and the rigor of memorizing multiplication tables. Following are suggestions from professional toy and app reviewers:
Ages 1 to 4
Drawing Pad, for iPad, Android, Kindle Fire, $1.99: This mobile studio allows children to create art using digital paintbrushes, crayons, stickers and more. While young artists can use their fingers to draw and paint, older children will enjoy more advanced tools that allow them to import photos and save their masterpieces. With no cleanup involved, it’s great for families on the go.
Busy Shapes 2, for iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, $2.99: Players manipulate shapes in interactive puzzles, dragging, dropping and moving them through the proper holes, while building reasoning skills. Ever-changing backdrops and increasingly challenging situations involving trap doors and sliding platforms keep children interested. “On long trips, apps with lots of levels that encourage problem-solving, like Busy Shapes 2, keep children challenged and thinking,” said Christine Elgersma, a senior editor at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that helps children and parents navigate media and technology. And knowing the app was inspired by the teachings of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget can help reduce the guilt when the children won’t put it down.
Reading Rainbow, for iPad, Kindle Fire, $4.99 a month or $39.99 a year: “Instead of having to lug a whole bag of picture books in a car or on a plane, this is sort of like having that bag of books in an app,” Elgersma said. This digital remake of the children’s television series offers over 600 children’s books that children can read themselves or listen to. Nostalgic bonus: The ageless LeVar Burton appears as a guide and in videos within the app.
Play-Doh Party Pack,$4.99: Don’t underestimate the power of a squishy, moldable substance when traveling with toddlers who are too young to sit through an in-flight movie and too old to nap in your lap. Play-Doh is not restricted by the Transportation Security Administration, and it is available in one-ounce tubs that are perfect for your carry-on.
Ages 5 to 8
Toca Life: Vacation, for iPhone, iPod, Android, Fire phone, Kindle Fire, $2.99: With outfits, props and the ability to make narrated puppet shows, Toca Life: Vacation is “like taking an unlimited doll set along with you,” said Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children’s Technology Review. Players explore vacation scenes from airport security to hotel check-in with this app designed for open-ended imaginary play. Children can make up their own stories using a cast of cute characters and their own voice recordings.
Back Spin, $14.99: Players must exercise logic to sink all the colored balls back into their matching spots with this spinning, saucer-shaped puzzle. It is compact enough to put in a backpack or purse and has no loose pieces, making play easy in a moving vehicle.
Lightbot Jr, for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android, Fire phone, Kindle Fire, $2.99 or $2.75: Players get a taste of coding by arranging symbols on the screen to guide a robot through blocky obstacle courses. Lightbot, a more challenging version of the same game, may also appeal to this age range. Coding and learning apps are a good bet for long trips, because they “capture attention for long stretches without frying growing brains with twitch action or violence,” said Dan Frakes, a senior editor at the Wirecutter.
Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System, for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android, $3.99: In this digital twist on the Astro Cat book series by quantum device physicist Dominic Walliman, players explore outer space through fun facts, animation and quizzes. Learning is rewarded through medals, sardine treats and rocket ship pieces. A text-heavy design makes it best for strong readers or for use with a parent.
Ages 9 to 12
Dragon Box Elements, for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android, Kindle Fire, $4.99: Players build an army of shapes and work through puzzles based on geometric proofs to conquer a dragon. “Dragon Box Elements turns learning the basics of geometry into a fun adventure,” Frakes said. “Its quest/puzzle theme can keep a kid’s attention for long stretches and encourages show-and-tell with other people, while the use of discrete puzzles means they can stop at any time and pick it up again later.”
Swift Playgrounds, for iPad, Free: Designed to teach players to code using Swift, a programming language made by Apple, this app allows players to drag and drop coding commands to guide Byte, a cute Cyclops, through puzzles and collect gems along the way. “Swift Playgrounds turns learning code into a game,” Frakes said. “If programming piques your child’s interest, Playgrounds can keep them engrossed for hours, as each level builds on what they learned during the previous lessons, encouraging them to keep progressing.”
Coggy, $14.95: Players bend and fold this clicking puzzle, arranging 16 gears to match challenge cards. This tactile brainteaser encourages visual-spatial skills, critical thinking and logic, and keeps fidgeters occupied. The cards and puzzle pieces are self-contained, so you don’t have to worry about losing a piece under the seat. Added appeal: no screen to stare at.