App-roved: The Best Media Picks for Toddlers
Who has time to watch a movie or explore an app's features before showing it to your toddler? Parents and Common Sense Media swiped, paused, clicked, and rewound through the electronic jungle so you wouldn't have to.
Best Smart Apps
Whether it's recognizing letters or a friend's feelings, these choices help little ones learn in a fun way. Many grow with your child's abilities. Plus, they all have solid parental controls and are free of in-app purchases (so your 2-year-old can't drain your iTunes card).
Sago Mini Friends
Toddlers choose one of five adorable animal characters to take on a walk down the block, visiting neighbors. Each house offers different experiences that teach cause and effect, like watering a plant to see it grow or pressing on balloons to watch them inflate and fly away. "My 2-year-old son liked ringing the doorbells because every so often, one honks," says a mom tester. 2+, $3, Apple only
Dr. Panda & Toto's Treehouse
Within the four rooms of the treehouse, kids help the baby turtle find what he needs. "I loved hearing my preschooler laughing as he gave the turtle a sudsy bath and a healthy veggie sandwich," says one mom tester. 3+, $3, Apple and Android
Potty Time With Elmo
Through songs, books, puzzles, and a reward chart, much-beloved Elmo encourages kids to use the potty. "My daughter wanted to sit on the toilet the first time we used the app," says a mom of a 24-month-old. 2+, $3, Apple and Android
Kids select a word from a giant monster's mouth, see and hear it, sound it out, and watch an animation that demonstrates its meaning. New words are added regularly, and there's no "C is for cat" here; C is for cooperate. Says a mom tester: "My 3-year-old loves when the monsters run over the letters in a word and she has to put them back where they belong." 3+, $7, Apple and Android
Toddlers begin by sliding a circle into an obvious hole. But this app, based on Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development -- that the youngest children learn about their world by exploring and manipulating it -- quickly ramps up by blocking paths and hiding objects. "My son was able to navigate some of the tougher levels once I guided him a bit," says a mom of a 2-year-old. "I find myself playing this when I'm waiting to pick him up at gym class." 2+, $2, Apple only
In this virtual dollhouse, kids can pick characters of different races to make a pretend family that goes about household activities, like cooking eggs and running water for a bath. "There's a lot to do, so set a time limit up front since the app doesn't have a natural ending point," suggests one dad tester. 3+, $4, Apple and Android
The eight games in this sweet sea-themed app focus on numbers, letters, shapes, and colors. "It was intuitive for my 3-year-old to use," says one mom tester. "For instance, when he swipes the alphabet from right to left, the letters go backwards." 3+, $2, Apple only
It taps early math skills by taking advantage of a natural childhood inclination -- counting on fingers. When kids press the screen, they see a numbered character appear that fingers they're using. Then they hear the number aloud -- you can even record your voice saying the numbers. "After a few minutes, my preschooler did simple addition for the first time," says one tester. "When the problem was '3+1=', he would put three fingers from one hand and one finger from the other hand to make 4 on the screen." 3+, $2, Apple only
Daniel Tiger's Grr-ific Feelings
Games, a photo booth, songs, and art in this app help kids identify their emotions -- whether it's frustration or happiness, love or jealousy -- so they can better express what they're feeling inside. 3+, $3, tablet only
Best Short Movies & TV Specials
Most toddlers and preschoolers don't have the patience for a two-hour film. Test the waters with these quick flicks.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
This classic is a compilation of four simple animated stories, based on A. A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner, so there are natural breaking points in case your child gets antsy. Through the goofy shenanigans, kids will learn about courage, fortitude, and acceptance. 3+, 74 minutes
The Snowman (1982)
It's the perfect way to spend a snow day! This famous picture book comes to life through flickering hand-drawn animation and lovely music. 3+, 26 minutes
Lost and Found (2008)
Calling the penguin-obsessed: This narrative film focuses on a boy who tries to get a penguin to the South Pole. Kids will relate to themes of friendship, determination, and even loneliness. 3+, 24 minutes
This animated adaptation of the classic picture book follows a baby bat who gets separated from her family. It's one of the rare children's films that blends science tidbits with the plot. 3+, 41 minutes
Sofia the First: The Floating Palace (2013)
This enchanting tale has more going on than a shorter TV episode: high-stakes adventure, family drama, friendship, comedy, musical numbers -- plus a cameo from Princess Ariel! 3+, 50 minutes
The Gruffalo (2009)
An enchanting animated film based on the best-selling book, The Gruffalo teaches the importance of using your imagination. 3+, 27 minutes
Sesame Street: Abby in Wonderland (2010)
Abby learns that looking forward to the day when she's bigger keeps her from noticing the little things in life. The film also teaches counting and manners. 3+, 42 minutes
Save the Wonder Pets! (2007)
Just like the TV show, this special is recorded with a live orchestra and much of the dialogue is sung. The characters' trademark good cheer and a belief that teamwork can overcome anything particularly shine here. 3+, 25 minutes
Best Tot-Friendly TV
Toddlers and preschoolers get easily upset when watching shows that involve physical or emotional peril, because they have a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Tune in to these gentle and educational picks.
Peg + Cat
A girl leads the charge in this series where characters count, sort, and group their way to solutions to everyday problems. Kids will quickly pick up the basics of grouping by tens or visualizing proportions. 3+, PBS Kids
Celebrating its 45th anniversary, this show capitalizes on kids' natural love of learning. It helps champion diversity by exploring different cultures and incorporating both Muppet and flesh-and-blood characters of all ages, colors, races, and physical abilities. 2+, PBS
Sheriff Callie's Wild West
Preschoolers learn to be good friends and citizens through the adventures of a colorful cast of animal characters in the Old West. Catchy songs give this show real flair, and the fact that it casts a pink-boots-wearing girl as the town sheriff goes a long way to bridge the gender gap. 3+, Disney Junior
Yo Gabba Gabba!
This music-focused, live-action series invites preschoolers to groove while learning important life lessons about taking care of themselves, making good decisions, and being a good friend. 2+, Nickelodeon
A lovable, curious talking dog and his animal friends, voiced by British actors and using common British phrases, learn life lessons about friendship and kindness, go exploring, and gently work through their conflicts. 3+, Sprout
Ni Hao, Kai-lan
Through the easily relatable stories of 5-year-old Kai-lan and her friends, children will learn constructive ways of handling fear, sharing, and jealousy, as well as the basics of the Mandarin language and Chinese culture. 3+, Nickelodeon
The seven main characters in the series cleverly read and spell their way through minor mishaps. Whether they interact with a barn, a train, a bridge, or a duck, one glance at everything shows kids the letters in the word. 3+, PBS Kids
Want to get the scoop on more kids' movies, apps, and TV shows? Commonsensemedia.org offers in-depth reviews from teachers, experts, and parents. You'll also find age recommendations and ratings on factors from consumerism to educational value.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Parents magazine.