What are the best apps to get kids through a long restaurant dinner?

Now that I'm working to feel less guilty about screen time, I've been wading into the flood of apps designed for toddlers. I started with the iPhone App Store's top free apps for kids ages 5 and under. I was excited to find PBS Kids (Curious George! On the phone!?) and various Thomas games. I avoided the YouTube app. My child doesn't need to know that he can watch the Elmo's World short about balls anywhere but on my desktop computer. But shortly after downloading, my new exciting finds caused problems. The Thomas games are a bit beyond a two-year-old's skill level, and even those games that he can master require purchases to unlock most of the features. YouTube presented a much bigger problem: I hadn't realized I hadn't changed my WiFi settings when he was using the phone, so George ate up my data in one short episode. 

App folders can be great distractions for your little learner.

App folders can be great distractions for your little learner.

Over the past few months, I've gotten much smarter about downloading kid apps. I now always hide new apps on the very back screen of my phone so that I can preview them first. Once I have an app I think my child will enjoy, I move it to an app folder named "D's iPhone," so that when D tires of one game, he can easily navigate to another. 

The best thing I've done is to venture away from the top downloaded apps for kids and toward companies that I know to produce good material. Two in particular make great games for little learners: Sago Mini and Originator. Their great apps can get your kids through a multi-course-with-wine-pairings dinner. Or a trip to the grocery store. Or wherever you need a little you-time.

Sago Mini

Sago Mini's games are great because they are not goal-driven. There is no right way to play, but rather an invitation to explore a digital world. As the child moves his animal avatar through each world, he'll encounter lots of different cut scenes. Our household favorite: Babies, with Friends a close second. 

You can usually find one or two of the games for free through the app store, as well as paid games like Space Explorer and Pet Cafe for $2.99. You can also bundle games for deeper discounts. Whether paid or free, you will not see any advertisements anywhere but on the home screen of each game, which features one of Sago Mini's paid games. 

Originator's Endless Games

D came into the kitchen one night and said "C-E-A-K. Yum! Yes?" Even though the letters were jumbled, his request was clear. My husband and I just stared at our beautiful little genius, because he's not yet two-and-a-half and spelling dessert.

We were a little less puzzled the next morning when we realized "cake" was one of the words in Endless Reader, one in a trio of games we recently used to keep D entertained on a three-hour flight. Originator's Endless games teach letters, words, and numbers. 

Some of the Endless games (Reader, Numbers, Wordplay, Spanish, and Learning Academy) are free to download but paid to upgrade. The free versions of these games offer plenty of fun to start with, and will let you know if your kid is obsessed enough to warrant the upgrade.  At $6.99, the paid games and upgrades to free games are a bit more expensive than most other kids' games. They are also worth every penny. Expansion after expansion will let your child take on bigger and bigger challenges. I bought one of the Endless Wordplay upgrades recently, and when D noticed the extra levels he squealed "more letters!" I'm beginning to think I should have splurged for 270 levels--90 might not have been enough.