At Cool Mom Tech, my partner Kristen Chase and I have spent the past six years getting to know the ins and outs of apps for kids—what works, what doesn’t, what’s worth spending a few bucks for, and, honestly, which apps are educational enough that we can justify our kids’ screen time a little more easily. (No judgments from us—just help when you need it!) And we’re here to tell you that these are exciting times: There truly have never been so many incredible digital resources for kids, especially when it comes to downloads that help with their creative pursuits.
Even better, there are many apps that can help children explore mediums they might not ordinarily find on their own. Most families don’t have access to private art tutors, expensive cameras, or spendy animation camps, but the vast majority of us do have a smartphone or tablet (or both!).
That’s why we’ve put together a list of our top creativity-building apps, each of which offers fantastic experiences for a few bucks or less. Whatever gets your kids excited, engaged, and actively pursuing their passions is great by us. And that’s just what you’ll find here.
1. Music Mixes: Incredibox
Plenty of music schools incorporate this super-hip game, which helps mix masters create their own rhythms. That’s because it’s a wonderful way to get kids excited about music composition—especially when classical instruction methods might not be as appealing as the chance to DJ. The goal is to manage a band of hipster beatboxers. Drag and drop icons onto the different characters (though we do wish at least one of them was female, ahem) to create songs from musical elements like melodies, voices, chorus, effects, and beats. When you discover certain combos, you can unlock bonus features—a trick that always gets kids exploring more.
Parents should know there is a social aspect to the app, giving kids the ability to share mixes with friends (and strangers) to earn votes. But if you’ve got younger children, it’s just as easy to save your recording and skip the sharing. $4, iOS; ages 4+, but ideal for ages 8+. Music Maker JAM on Google Play is a nice Android option; free, with in-app purchases.
2. Video Making: Video Star
My kids are obsessed with this super-goofy video-making app that turns ’em into the next Pharrell or Taylor Swift. It works best if you connect it with your own song library—their licenses are fairly limited—and then it’s wildly easy for kids to shoot themselves or their friends, complete with fun filters and ’80s-style MTV effects. Even our kindergartners have been able to use it and then watch the results over and over. And over. And over. You’ll love seeing the creativity your kids will want to put into lip-synching, choreography, performing, and editing, but a nice benefit is that Video Star also keeps kids physically active and moving.
Just be sure to limit use of the social-sharing aspect of the app. Simply save videos to the device’s camera roll instead. Free, iOS; rated 12+ for some song lyrics and social sharing, but kids 6+ can operate it with a little guidance.
3. Musical Competition: Scape
Yes, it’s pricey, but wow, this is one the whole family can get into. Created in part by Brian Eno (yes, that Brian Eno), it lets you make incredible ambient music by creating a gorgeous visual scene. Choose a background, and then assemble various shapes, textures, and colors in the foreground, with each one assigned a different musical “behavior.”
Each element changes depending on what else is around it, so every single combination will result in a different landscape (or “scape”) of sound. We love that there’s no “right” answer or result. It’s about the process. Plus, kids can use it in conjunction with the other apps here to make their own background music for audio stories or short films! $12, iOS; ages 4+, but even toddlers may enjoy using it with your supervision.
4. Storytelling: Scribble Press Creative Book Maker
This is a longtime favorite creative app of ours that offers 35 Mad Libs–style story starters for people to fill in. Once the story is complete, they can select various backgrounds to overlay with their own drawings, or ready-made stickers and stamps, for a mini book all their own, ready for showing off.
A nice touch: Kids can also upload their own photos if they want to be the star of their story. Or they can record narration and turn it into an audiobook. But what we really love best is the blank-book option, allowing our tweens to create their own short story entirely from scratch. $3, iOS and Android (find it under the name Scribble: Kids Book Maker); ages 4+, but best for kids 6 to 10.
5. Photography Basics: Hipstamatic
Now that smartphones have made photography so accessible to kids, even our toddlers are eagerly grabbing our phones to take snaps—and we love it. But for kids who are a bit older, nothing beats Hipstamatic when it comes to the fun of exploring the details of photography. This is the original retro camera app that lets users shoot through digital versions of all kinds of camera lenses. It allows kids to learn about the impact that the various film and lens combinations can have on their final shots. Shoot in ClassicMode to really mimic the feeling of an analog camera. Or now you can toggle to ProMode, which offers more control and gives you the ability to edit and change film and lens combos after the photo is shot. You’ll be amazed at what even young children can perceive once they’ve trained their eyes to really look. $3, with in-app purchases for lenses, film, and filter packs, iOS; rated ages 4+, but it’s ideal for kids 7+ provided you trust them with your device!
6. Digital Illustration: Procreate
Our sixth- and seventh-grade daughters are obsessive digital artists, and this painting app is a big win. It gives them remarkable power and flexibility, all with an extremely userfriendly interface. Whether your kids are into watercolor, pen-and-ink sketching, manga, or something of their own making, the control and detail that Procreate offers is mind-blowing. All for less than the cost of one good paintbrush! And it’s helped one of my daughters learn more about shading, color, and texture, which she can then bring to her offline work. $6, iPad; ages 4+ with a parent’s help, kids 8+ can access more features on their own. For an Android alternative, try ArtRage; $5 on Google Play.
Tip: Don’t forget a stylus! This is a must for kids who want to try digital illustration. Look for something manageable for small hands, with a fine tip for precision. There are plenty of affordable options, but I’m a fan of the Adonit Pro stylus. $30; adonit.net
7. Journaling: Me By Tinybop
From one of our favorite small developers, this storytelling app offers a modern, dynamic way for kids to preserve memories. They start by creating their own avatar, using an impressively diverse range of skin colors, hairstyles, and accessories. From there, they can choose from hundreds of questions that all invite self-reflection. Autobiographical prompts such as “this is my family” or “this is my favorite thing to do inside” get them started, and the app adds other prompts that may draw out more emotional responses. Children can answer in the form of original drawings, clip art, and text, yielding some fantastic pages. They can even record audio or create a video journal.
We love not just the creativity the app inspires but also the memorable family discussions that can result. Very cool. $3, iOS; ages 4+, but kids 6 to 10 will do better if using it on their own.
8. Animation: Stop Motion Studio
Don’t be fooled by the 4+ age rating on the Stop Motion Studio app; this is an incredibly powerful tool, whether your kids want to create the next Lego movie or Wallace and Gromit. It’s so easy and intuitive that we recommend it for budding animators of all ages. The step-by-step instructions make it simple for kids to learn how to shoot one still frame at a time of a character, moving it a tiny bit with each new shot. (I recommend starting with something simple such as a mini figure.) They can preview and edit as they go along, even removing frames they don’t like.
The result is a stop-motion short film, made all the more professional when they use advanced features such as sound editing, paint tools, and movieeffect overlays. There’s even green screen, so kids can upload existing photos into backgrounds—who wants to see Grandma fly over Manhattan? This app is perfect for school projects, YouTube sharing, or just impressing friends and family. For a finishing touch, kids can add movie titles and credits. Don’t be surprised if you overhear practice Oscar-acceptance speeches from the other room. Free download, iOS or Android, with $5 in-app purchase for feature pack; ages 4+, but it’s ideal for kids 8+.
As you can see, there are plenty of high quality apps that can get your child's creative juices flowing. Want to learn some more? Don't worry. Experts Warren Buckleitner, Ph.D., editor of Children's Technology Review, and Michael H. Levine, Ph.D., founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Street Workshop, are here to help. They have smart tips for selecting the best apps to foster your child's creative side. Using their advice, we've rounded up 10 apps to captivate your child's imagination—and maybe even yours, too!
9. Drawing: Sago Mini Doodlecast
"You can't teach your child to be creative, but you can provide good tools so creativity can happen," says Dr. Buckleitner. He suggests downloading a bunch of drawing apps and together with your child experimenting to see which ones are best. The popular Sago Mini Doodlecast app has more than 30 storytelling prompts ("What moves on wheels?" "What is your favorite food?") and simultaneously records your child's voice as he or she draws. You and your child will get a kick out of playing back these drawing "movies" and seeing how the creative process unfolds. Ages 2-6; $2.99.
10. Creative Play: Elmo's Monster Maker
According to Dr. Buckleitner, one of the easiest ways to empower your child's creativity is to first, show them how to use the app, and second (and maybe even more important), show them how to undo their work. "When a child realizes they are free to play and can get out of something they might not like, a light goes off," he said. "It increases the chance he or she will feel good about something they create." Elmo's Monster Maker app lets your child build his or her own monster by choosing the body and giving it an eyes, nose, hat, and more. The best part? The monster can be changed as many times as your child wants. Ages 2-5; $2.99.
11. Creative Play: Toca Hair Salon 3
Toca Boca is one of the leading developers of creative play apps for younger children, and though its Blocks, Kitchen and Tea Party experiences are highly regarded, its Hair Salon series may be the most popular. In Toca Hair Salon 3, your child chooses a character and styles his or her (very realistic looking) hair with a variety of fun tools. Cut off too much hair by mistake or unhappy with the rainbow dye job? It's simple to reverse and regrow! Ages 3 and up; $2.99.
12. Storytelling: Goldilocks and the Little Bear
"Apps can help kids understand that there are many different solutions to a problem or diverse points of view—and that's so important for the creativity process," said Dr. Levine. Nosy Crow develops gorgeous interactive apps that allow children to help remake or extend traditional fairy tales. Goldilocks and the Little Bear tells the classic story from two points of view: Your child can hear the story from Goldilock's perspective and then simply flip the device to hear from Little Bear. Ages 3-10; $4.99.
13. Storytelling: Toontastic 3D
Some storytelling apps are designed so that your child actually takes on the role of a storyteller who can manipulate different elements to create his or her own meaning. Using Toontastic 3D, your child is essentially the director of a digital puppet theater, choosing a story arc, picking characters and a background, and creating 3D animations while recording his or her voice as audio. Ages 6-8; free.
14. Storytelling: iStopMotion
For older children, iStopMotion for iPad is a time lapse app that takes storytelling to a whole new level, making it easy to take hundreds of still photos in sequence and turn them into a movie. Once your child completes a project—maybe a high speed chase with toy cars or a secret attack with robot action figures?—he or she can share it with the world via YouTube, Facebook, Dropbox and more. After all, as Dr. Buckleitener said, "It's more fun to create something when you can show it off." Ages 7 and up; $11.99.
15. STEM: Thinkrolls Kings & Queens
These days a number of apps are making science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fun and accessible for kids. Just be sure to look for ones that help your child problem-solve and extend his or her knowledge outside the screen, said Dr. Levine. The Thinkrolls Kings & Queens app is an excellent choice, challenging kids to use logic, memory and problem-solving skills to think their way through hundreds of puzzles against a fantastical backdrop of kings, queens, dragons, castles, flying potions, and more. Ages 5 and up; $3.99.
16. Music: Loopimal by Yatatoy
Loopimal is a creative double whammy—allowing your child to compose music and program animation sequences for different animals. Simply drag and drop movement and melody icons onto one of eight spots on the sound stage, and watch the animal come to life. It's a great way for your child to learn music, rhythm and computer sequencing. Ages 3 and up; $3.99.
17. Acting: TeleStory
Help your child express his or her creative side on camera with TeleStory. Kids can create, produce and record themselves starring in television shows using a variety of sound effects, theme music and on-screen costumes. The app encourages children to plan shows carefully, write the script, and even rehearse before recording—all essential components of the creative process. And with great theme music and exciting animations, this app is tons of fun. Ages 5 and up; free.
18. Museums: Explorer (The American Museum of Natural History)
"If you're going to an art exhibit, a museum or some other outing, be on the lookout for an app to extend the visit either before or after," said Dr. Buckleitner. "This will stimulate your child's knowledge and creativity." Most museums have a corresponding app like this one from The American Museum of Natural History in New York providing fun facts, videos, and interactive experiences for many of the exhibits on display. It's a whole new way to experience the museum—whether it's your child's first visit or the hundredth. Ages 2 and up; free.