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Key trends in kids apps: a guest post by Stuart Dredge

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Today we’re very pleased to have a guest post by Stuart Dredge, the UK’s best apps journalist, creator of the Apps Playground website, and author of the new iBook, 100 Best iPad Apps for Kids. Here are some of Stuart’s observations of the key creative trends that emerged in kids’ apps last year.

In September 2010, I registered the domain name appsplayground.com and bodged together a sparse WordPress blog about children’s apps mainly on a whim. I was a technology writer with an iPad, a three year-old son and a curiosity about what kind of apps were being made for children.

More than three years later, Apps Playground has become a labour of love for my wife and I, who as freelancers run it from our home while juggling paid work and our now-six year-old, who’s been joined by a brother two years his junior. Unpaid app review assistants, as we know them.

In 2013, just under 288,000 people visited the site to read about the iOS and Android apps that we’d found through a mixture of app store ferreting and contacts with a widening range of developers. And as the year ended, we were finishing off our first iPad e-book, Apps Playground’s 100 Best Apps for Kids: 2013 Edition, which came out this week on Apple’s iBooks store.

It was a chance to take stock of our favourite apps of the year, and also think about some of the trends in children’s apps that we’re most excited about going into 2014. Nosy Crow have kindly allowed me onto their blog to ramble (a bit) about them.

Children as creators, not just consumers

There are some beautiful storybook apps available for iPad with wonderful wordplay and lovely illustrations. But it’s also good to see apps catering for children’s desire to tell their own stories, or at least influence those they’re reading. Nosy Crow’s Little Red Riding Hood is one of our favourite examples of the latter, with its branching narrative where children can choose what items the heroine uses to defeat the Big Bad Wolf.

But there’s also a growing number of apps that function almost as digital versions of toy theatres – they provide characters and backgrounds, but children create the actual story, often recording their voice telling it, to save and share with family members. Then there’s the clutch of apps going further still, teaching children programming skills – Hopscotch, Hakitzu Elite and Light-bot for example – often through the use of characters and game mechanics.

Digital meets physical

Often when I write about children’s apps for The Guardian, where commenters can be somewhat… grumpy, there is feedback along the lines of ‘children should play with wooden toys / ride bikes / play football rather than staring at screens’, as if digital play has to cannibalise physical play. That’s an entire blog post in itself – if anything, I wonder if apps cannibalise TV viewing – but another response might be to suggest that digital and physical play can complement one another.

There were some good examples last year. Drawnimal gets children to draw animal ears, tails and limbs on paper, then turns the iPhone or iPad screen into the creature’s face. SquiggleFish gets them to draw fish (or, indeed, any sealife) then scan them in to swim in a virtual aquarium.

Leo’s EyePaint involves colouring in on-screen pictures by grabbing tones and textures from the real world via the camera; FriendStrip Kids Pro makes comic strips with your children posing as the characters; Little Zebra Shopper turns the iPad into a pretend cash register to scan cardboard products; Mr Shingu’s Paper Zoo’s origami animals can’t help but make you start folding in the real world, and so on.

Shared experiences

Not so much a specific feature in apps, as something relating to how children use them. The point being that often, they use them with parents. Yes, tablets can fulfil a role as “digital babysitters” (thanks again, grumpy commenters) but a lot of the fun comes from using them together – parent and child, or child and child – when they’re sharing nicely, obviously.

My sons want to show me the characters they’ve made in Toca Mini; get me to do Charlie’s voice in Charlie and Lola Me Books; ask me why there aren’t any goat-turkey hybrids in the real world – Axel Scheffler’s Flip Flap Farm has a lot to answer for there – get my help with maths sums; and craft together in Toca Builders. These are precious shared experiences.

Some apps are tapping in to this more explicitly, like Night Zookeeper Teleporting Torch’s feature where parents set children drawing missions. I think we’ll see more of these in 2014 too: it’s less about monitoring your child’s progress as if apps are developmental tests – that’s happening too – and more about joining in the fun.

Lots of things to be excited about, then, and a lot of this is underpinned by some familiar attributes: storytelling, craft and characters, even for apps that aren’t specifically ‘stories’. 2013 was a good year for children’s apps, but 2014 promises to be even better.

Thank you, Stuart! If you’re interested in reading more about the best new kids apps, take a look at Apps Playground – and you can buy the iBook here.

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