Top 10 Free iPad Apps for Beginners (12-18 months)

April 28, 2015

As an ESL teacher, I found the iPad to be helpful in my classroom. I actually became iPad certified for use in the classroom. I may blog about that another time, but this post is about my favorite apps since becoming a mom. When searching the Internet, I found a lot of ideas for the preschool aged child, but not much for the youngest iPad users.

Let me get this out of the way: The American Academy of Pediatrics says no screen time under the age of 2. I agree with this to some extent. I don’t allow my daughter to watch TV, except for the rare times when she is sick or I am desperate for a break. This has happened maybe 5 times in her 18 months. I do, however, give her some iPad time just about every day. While the TV is about zoning out and staring mindlessly at a screen, the iPad, I feel, is interactive. I still believe it is best to get out in the world and socialize, go on playdates, learn through unstructured play, read books, and sing songs. But I can’t help but be amazed at the progress my daughter has made through the use of educational apps on the iPad. If it’s not for you, that’s okay. Each parent needs to decide what they feel is best for their kids.  If you are a fan of limited use of the iPad, I hope you enjoy and learn from this post!

My Biggest Tip:

Thanks to, I learned how to do something I wish I had known about months ago. My daughter didn’t become successful with the iPad until she was about 17 months old because every time we put a game on, she would press the home button or in some other way get out of the app. I finally did some research and learned about “guided access.” It is so easy to set up and is amazing! It locks the child into just the one app that you put on for them.

Here’s the one time quick set up:

Open the Settings app, go to General, Accessibility, Guided Access. Set a passcode. That’s it.

To use it:

Open up the app you want the child to use. Quickly press the Home button three times and click “start” once the guided access screen appears.

To exit: Press the Home button three times and enter in your passcode.

By the way, there are also more permanent parental controls you can set up, for example, disabling the ability to purchase apps, open email, etc. I haven’t used this because every time I would want to do these things, I would have to go into the parental control settings to disable it. But in case you are interested, here’s where to find these options: Open the Settings app, and go to General, Restrictions. Enable Restrictions. From there you can scroll down a long list of items and choose what you want to restrict access to.

Now that this is all out of the way, here is my list of favorite free apps for 12-18 month olds (and probably older but I can’t confirm since my daughter isn’t there yet.)

  1. FirstWords Sampler

Be amazed as your child clicks and drags letters into the correct places to spell words. “Cat” is the first word. There is a picture of a cat, which, when clicked, says the word, and a grayed out area with the word “cat.” The child has to move each letter from various places on the screen to the grayed out area. When you click each letter, it says the letter name. To help the child, they can click the letter in the grayed out area, and it causes the movable letter to shake. There is a similar (not free) app that everyone raves about called “Endless Alphabet.” I have that one also, but my daughter has not been successful with it. She prefers this free one. I love that each word we have come across so far happens to be one of her favorite things: Cats, keys, trains, planes, the color blue. The makers of this game really know kids!

  1. Shapes

I use the Toy Box part of this most. It starts with five balloons that have to be popped by touching them. A shape is hiding below each balloon. When it pops, a voice says the name of the shape. Another screen lets the kids put the same five shapes on a train that then moves as the voice again says the shape names. The final screen turns the five shapes into blocks that the child can stack or move around, with the voice again saying the shape name.  Other parts of the app have flashcards and other ways to teach shapes. I like that this app has various screens to it, and has things my daughter loves like trains and blocks. One complaint I have is the complexity of some of the shapes, like hexagon and crescent. I would rather it stick to simple shapes like triangle and square, and maybe have a more advanced setting with the more complicated words. But overall, a fun, educational app.

  1. Phone4Kids

I don’t find this to be quite as educational as the others, but it keeps my daughter busy and offers a lot for free. The main screen has a mini-keyboard that says “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti” when clicked. You can click “SMS” to send a fake text message, the phone icon to make a fake phone call (this does have the option of a voice saying each number to add educational value), the ABC button to open a QWERTY keyboard that will say each letter when pressed. There is also a compass, a weather page, a painting page (that says the name of each color), and a train that “toots” when clicked. Like I said, a lot to do here.

  1. Tiny Piano

This opens up a keyboard that takes up the length of the screen. What I like about this is that you can do free play, which means the keyboard will make sounds as the child touches each key, or you can select from a huge list of songs. When you click on a song, no matter what key the child touches, it plays notes from a song. The free play is probably more educational, but it’s fun to freak people out when your child “plays” a Lady Gaga song!

  1. Sound Touch Lite

This app has a page with illustrated animals. What I like is that when the illustration is clicked it brings you to a real photo of the animal.   And the photo changes each time you click…up to about 5 different images. It has all the basic animals I would want: Sheep, duck, horse, frog, dog, cat, pig, cow, etc. And when clicked, you hear the sound the animal makes. It would be nice if it said the animal name too, but this is where the parent sitting next to the child comes in. It would also be nice to not have a big tempting button at the bottom of the screen saying “full version without ads.” But I get that the creators want to make money.  This is no problem with “guided access” enabled, anyway.  In addition to animals, the free version has a screen with modes of transportation, including planes, helicopters, trains, cars, etc.

  1. Peekaboo you

This is one of my newer apps, but so far so good. It brings you to different areas on a farm. Each screen has an animal hiding behind an item, for example, a shaking hay stack that moos until the child clicks on it. Once clicked, the animal is revealed, a child’s voice says the animal name, and the name appears in writing on the screen. There is a feature to add your child’s photo. I haven’t tried this yet, so when the “farmer” appears, it has a random baby’s face.

  1. Toddler Animal Sounds

This has 10 common animals you can scroll through. Each one is a photo of the animal with the name of the animal in text below. When you click the animal, it makes the sound, and when you click the text, it says the animal name. Pretty simple, but my daughter loves scrolling through the images over and over again. After just one use, she “moos” when I say “What sound does the cow make.”

  1. Endless Numbers

This is not my favorite app, but I did want to mention it because it teaches not only numbers, but simple math. Similar to the first app on this list, you move the number over a grayed out version of the same number. This app has animation to go with each number, for example, a monster riding a unicycle for the number 1. After the number one, the next screen is the number one and two together. The third screen has 1 + 1. When you match the three items on this screen, it then says “one plus one equals two,” and so on.

  1. Photo Booth

Not exactly an app, this is a built-in feature of the iPad. What baby doesn’t like looking at pictures of themselves! We’ve taken some fun selfies. Some even come out pretty artistic looking.

  1. To end this post, I want to mention one other way I use the iPad. There is a free app simply called “cats” by Playrific. It has different screens with videos, books, and photos of cats (my daughter’s favorite animal). This app gave me the idea of simply using the internet to search for images of different things I want to teach her about. I have searched for images of different animals that I wanted to focus on. This idea can go beyond animals, to locations (beach), and just about anything you can think of.

One app type I am still looking for is a good read-aloud for young children. The ones I have found for free are too advanced for my daughter with too difficult text and read too quickly (Toy Story, for example), or poor quality that doesn’t hold her interest. I will update if I find one, but I am fine with sticking to reading aloud to her myself while she sits on my lap. 🙂

Do you have a favorite app not listed here? Share!


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