Smart phones and tablets are seemingly indispensible items in the modern parents’ toolkit, the ultimate path to peaceful car trips, bus rides, long waits, and meals out. But a new wave of apps are hoping not to distract your child, but to actively engage them in their surroundings.
To the extent that apps “facilitate children’s interactions with the world around them—and the people around them—they might be really interesting,” says Sarah R. Lytle, director of outreach and education at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under age 2 avoid screens entirely, and that older kids tune in to no more than 2 hours of digital content each day.
This batch of apps isn’t designed for conking out, zombie-style, but for piquing kids’ interest in city sightseeing, and helping parents zero in on child-friendly spots.
Scavenger hunts for the family
Stray Boots ($5-$20; iPhone and Android; ages 12+)
More than 70 tours available in 17 U.S. cities, plus London. Each starts out at a major landmark, then guides participants along a 1-2 mile path as they solve riddles, answer local trivia questions, and take photos along the way.
Hidden in Plain Sight ($0.99; iPhone and iPad; ages 4+)
This scavenger hunt focuses on discovering public art around Grand Central Station and Rockefeller Center in New York City. The app shows a fragment of an image, and users must follow clues to find the real, complete work. When they do, they’ll get more fun facts.
Travel guides for kids
GoTrexx (free; iPhone and iPad; ages 4+)
This app has versions for five U.S. cities—including L.A., Orlando, and Washington, D.C.—with more on the way. There’s lots of quirky trivia, challenges, maps, e-postcards, and a “stump the folks” portion that arms kids with quiz questions to ask their parents.
Discover Paris (free; iPhone, iPad; ages 6-8)
A cartoon owl takes users on a tour through the 12 most-visited sites in the city, from the Eiffel Tower to Les Champs Elyseés. There’s an audio component, plus quizzes, games, and puzzles, all available in English, Spanish, or French.
Marquee Publishing ($4.99 each; iPhone, iPad, Android, Kindle, Nook; ages 8+)
This series covers Toronto, New York, Paris, and London. These are very much like digital books, with activities like I Spy added in. These are good picks for kids who don’t need a game to be engaged, but will be drawn in by the colorful photos and fun factoids.
Sanity-savers for parents
There are tons of city-specific apps that make travel easier for grown-ups with kids in tow. Start by looking up municipal apps for wherever you are visiting, since local governments or business bureaus often have mobile guides that are chock full of information, from maps to event listings. These apps cover more ground:
Mom Maps (free or $2.99 for premium; iPhone and Android)
This app points out kid-friendly parks, museums, restaurants, and more in 28 metro areas, including Paris, Vancouver, and New York.
Red Rover (free; iPhone and iPad)
This app, which features listings in New York, Atlanta, and San Francisco, gives parents a heads-up about special events like concerts and story times.
Sit or Squat Bathroom Finder (free; iPhone and Android)
This app helps solve one of the minor crises of being out and about in a city—finding the closest bathroom in a pinch. It even has reviews and, sometimes, photos.
Sure, we didn’t have apps to help plan family trips when we were kids, and we all survived. But why not take advantage of the technology that’s available to make our urban travel easier—and more fun.