By Jinny Gudmundsen, Special for USA TODAY
Many apps provide kids with playful ways to approach learning. Some are so stealthy about their educational agenda that kids don't initially realize they're learning. Here are four apps that your kids will want to play because they're fun, but which also deliver some solid learning.
From WeWantToKnow AS, best for ages 7-up, $2.99, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android
Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)
Kids play this app thinking that they are solving a series of puzzles involving an intriguing magical dragon box. What they are really doing is learning how to do simple algebra.
The app displays each puzzle on a play space that is broken into two sides. Within the play space are cute cards and a sparkling dragon box that glows and makes munching sounds. Kids quickly learn that the goal of each puzzle is to isolate the dragon box on one side of the play space. In math terms, this is learning how to isolate "x" but kids aren't told that; they are just playing.
Through a series of carefully structured puzzles, kids learn the rules of how to make the game cards disappear, which correlates to learning the rules of algebra. But what is interesting (and brilliant) about this app is that kids don't even know that they are doing math until they get further into the puzzles, when numbers and symbols start to appear.
The developers were careful to gently ramp up the difficulty and provide helpful tutorials. Kids younger than age 7 can think through these puzzles; but since the tutorials must be read, they'll need an older sibling or a parent to work with them.
If you think that your kids will like this app, you might want to start with the "DragonBox+" ($5.99) instead of this one, since it contains all of these puzzles plus 100 more.
Noodle Words HD - Action Set 1
From NoodleWorks, best for ages 4-7, $2.99, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad
Rating: 4 stars
With this app, kids play with two adorable bugs, Stretch and Squish, as the insects explore a box of interactive, expressive words. The words become characters and animate as they show their meaning through hilarious antics.
For example, if you pull up the word "Dance," the word starts to shimmy as the bugs join in dancing. Shake your device and the music changes. The word "grow" sends out leafy sprouts and eventually turns into a flowering vine. The bugs "grow" in height when touched.
"Noodle Words" helps kids to increase their vocabularies; and by connecting silly animations and actions to the words, kids will remember them and what they mean. This is a masterful example of how an app can make learning fun.
Rounds: Franklin Frog
From Nosy Crow, best for ages 3-6, $4.99, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad
Rating: 4 stars
The first non-fiction book app from Nosy Crow, an award-winning app developer, "Rounds: Franklin Frog" invites kids ages 3 to 6 to hop inside the world of a frog. By interacting with the screen, kids help Franklin go through life. Swiping sends Franklin hopping. Tapping helps Franklin to nab flies right out of the air. When Franklin and his mate Felicity produce eggs, kids drive away egg-eating fish by touching them.
As kids explore Franklin's life near a pond, the frog reveals facts about how he breathes, what he eats, and how he hibernates through the winter. Kids help Franklin to find a mate by tapping on him to make him croak.
All of this learning is tied up into a participatory story and shown through bright bold graphics that are all devised from circles. In keeping with this "round" life cycle theme, when Franklin's baby tadpole named Fraser grows up, kids repeat the book with Fraser as the main character. This repeating cycle continues with new tadpoles, until eventually another Franklin is born and the circle is then complete.
This is the first in a series of apps letting little kids learn about life-cycles of animals, and it is fabulous. We can't wait for the next one.
From Masala Games, best for ages 8-up, $.99, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad
Rating: 4 stars
Offering three word games in one, this app hooks kids by giving them a pile of words to play with. Displayed all helter-skelter on the screen - in other words as a "mess" - kids go looking for words that fit a specific rule. In one game, they find words that rhyme with the target word. In another, they hunt for words that relate to a subject, such as "Landmarks," where you win points for finding words like "Grand Canyon" and "Eiffel Tower." In the third game, you must find duplicates of the target word. This isn't as easy as it sounds, since the words are in different colors of ink and displayed in different directions.
Kids can play each game individually or they can choose to play the games in random order in a challenge mode. The challenge mode keeps going until you can't find all of the targeted words in the time given.
Unlike crossword puzzles or word games like Scrabble, this game is so easy to play that kids won't feel intimidated. A parent and young child could even play this app cooperatively. By getting messy, kids learn words!