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The world’s most comprehensive list of iPad apps for tweens (and their parents)

by Lisa Caplan

It used to be easy to pick out appropriate iPad fare for my son and I to enjoy together. What amuses a toddler or young child, however, doesn’t necessarily engage a tween.

I’m finding that the apps he wants to play today are dramatically different than those he tapped into as a little boy. Further, like many tweens he is spending more time on his iPad. If you as a parent find it difficult to apply the recommended two-hour per day limit for app and game consumption, take heart in the fact that your are not alone.

If you can’t ween your tween from his or her iDevice, the next best thing you can do is find apps worthy of their time (and yours).

Appealing to a new age group

We didn’t have tweens when I was growing up, but those were less media-saturated times. Childhood ends more quickly for many 9-to-12 year-olds today who become mini-teens rather than older children. Parents, educators and health professionals all know, though, that while kids in this age range are socially savvier than their age-mates of previous generations, they still lack the cognitive and emotional skills to handle full-on adult themes.

My professional use of iOS devices for gaming (as well as the inevitably of my passing those I collect and older devices on to my son!) gives me a pretty good idea of what tweens can play safely. Moreover, I chose apps that will make pre-teens and their parents want to spend quality time together over the 9.7” screen. There are fantastic educational apps for all levels of study and the best way to select the right ones for your tween to use alone is to look at what they are studying in school this term and focus on the areas in which they need the most help. There are apps that focus on everything from reading and math, to biology, earth sciences, and various topics in social studies.

But if you are looking for educational fare that’s also fun for you to interact with and won’t make your child feel like you are merely extending their homework, look to their interests. Then start by reading together.

Magazines, comics and interactive books for tweens

The best investment we’ve made for mutual enjoyment is a subscription to National Geographic Kids. And now that my son is becoming a man of the world, we also get the “adult” version of National Geographic. The issues are the same as the ones in print, which means world-class photojournalism on nature, science and history,.Beyond anything available on the printed page, they are also loaded with interactive features like videos and touch points that toggle action or close-up investigation.

Also hunt for special interest periodicals for shared hobbies. Whether your child likes science, baking, travel, dance, video games, music, or sports, odds are there is something you can enjoy together in Apple’s Newsstand or in Zinio, Kindle or Next Issue.

There are also comic book collection apps. My son is partial to Marvel heroes, but I’ve seen dozens of other classics in their own branded apps or in apps like Comics by ComiXology. Of course, it’s important to choose appropriate titles, so be sure you shop together.

There are also stand-alone interactive comics or graphic novels aimed squarely at this age group. The Middle School Confidential series has few frills but looks at the difficult social issues tweens face every day. The Gwaii is a favorite here and tells an eco-friendly tale with 3D-like comic panels. Or perfect-for-Halloween, try Dracula: The Official Stoker Family Edition. It’s rated 12+ but my reluctant reader was engrossed and has had no nightmares.

There are also book-app hybrids, like Ultimate Dinopedia, Barefoot World Atlas, and the entire Britannica Kids series (Ancient Egypt is my son’s favorite). For tweens having a tough time learning to read, check out Oceanhouse Media’s Dr Seuss Learning Library titles including There’s No Place Like Space!: All About Our Solar System.

Open world games and creative play

Minecraft Pocket Edition is a great sandbox game for fans of the full PC version. App Store newcomer Topia World Builder is a beautiful and somewhat more intuitive SIM game for iPads where parents and children can work together to build a world from scratch.

There are also puzzle games, like Amazing Alex HD, Caveman HD (Lemmings clone) Scibblenauts Remix and Max and the Magic Marker, which aren’t open-world exactly, but allow for out-of-the-box creative problem solving that parents and children can delight in together.

My son also expressly asked that I mention one of his all-time favorites – an app I am thrilled to endorse: Toontastic. This is a different kind of open world – one of movie making magic. The app takes kids through the entire process of creating a movie – story arc, character development and sound effects included. Toontastic comes with some basic play sets. Others can be purchased individually or there is a single IAP that unlocks all current and future offerings. I recommend the latter. The app has seldom gone more than a few months without additional content and the ability to mix and match characters from all the sets allows for tons of creativity and years of replay value. Other great creative apps to enjoy together include GarageBand and ArtRage.

Board games – pass and play

Board games are ideal for the whole family and there are iOS iterations of most of the classics. You’ll obviously want to pick the ones that appeal to your children. The most popular board games in my household include include classic titles such as UNO HD, Monopoly for iPad, LIFE, and RISK. More recently we added Small World, Ticket to Ride, Boggle and Reiner Knizia’s Ra to the list. My son loves Dinosaur Chess (where I get trounced!), and I’ve taught him backgammon, where I exact my revenge.

These are all digitized classics, but keep your eye out for great iOS-only games like Neuroshima Hex (best for older tweens and teens) and Outwitters. Most of these games involve players passing the device around to take turns. There are a few which allow head-to-head action on the same device, or allow multiple iOS devices to interact with each other.

Multiplayer Games

What to avoid – online multiplayer games

There are different kinds of online multiplayer games, some of which are safer for this age group than others. I avoid any of the MMORPGS (meaning “massively multiplayer online role-playing games) certainly, but even simple asynchronous multiplayer titles that tweens might enjoy like Draw Something and SongPop cause me concern. There is nothing inappropriate about the gameplay, but most have some degree of playing and even chatting with strangers. Facebook is usually a key social component and they restrict their site (officially anyway) to kids 13 and older. That should be the minimum threshold for playing these games unsupervised. If you and your child just can’t resist, explain the risks and restrict play to a device they have very limited access to. Make sure to disable chat and social networking if possible and sign out of all gaming networks like Game Center.

What to look for – head-to-head

Thankfully, there are games that are wonderful for two or more players beyond board games. Fruit Ninja HD lets you play a split-screen tête-a-tête competition and MultiPonk, Marble Mixer, Disc Drivin’, and Worms 2: Armageddon all offer vastly different, but equally enjoyable challenges. Some of these games have online action too, but it can usually be disabled, or just play offline. Also, look for Foosball HD and any number of air hockey, billiards, pinball and other traditional arcade multi-person games that are all over the App Store. They are enjoyable and novel for kids and nostalgic for adults.

Karting

Karting games are ridiculously fun for everyone and there are several good ones for iPad. The best all-around for tweens is Sonic & SEGA All-Star Racing, which offers multiplayer, but also look for Shrek Kart. If you want a straight-on Mario Kart clones try Krazy Kart Racing or Mole Kart 1 which is currently free to mark the release of Mole Kart 2 Evolution.

Endless games

While most people wouldn’t think of endless games, like Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride, as games to play with kids, they are actually ideal. The goals are simple, the skills transferable from one title to the next, and even with accomplished players turns seldom last longer than a minute or two. Both the aforementioned titles are perfectly kid safe, but for even more kid-friendly themes try Disney’s Temple Run: Brave based on the movie Brave or Whale Trail, Chillingo’s awesome Madcoaster, Tiny Wings HD, Chasing Yello, Fin Friends, Ski Safari – the list is almost as endless as the games.

But be careful – most of these titles are free and even in the paid titles, I can’t think of any that don’t have IAPs so protect yourself (see below). Keeping that in mind, these games are as much fun at 40 as they are at 10.

Freemium games

While free games that require lots of micro-transactions usually with real dollar via IAPs shouldn’t target kids, they do. Some crassly, relying on cuteness or franchise appeal like Smurfs' Village and The Simpsons Tapped Out, yet remain hugely popular across all ages, and there are others with more depth but which are still potentially costly. I am happy to let my son enjoy two of his current favorties that borrow from the Zynga/Farmville formula – Clash of Clans and Puzzle Craft – because they do involve strategic thinking and also because this sort of “time management” game teaches something few video games can: patience.

About in-app purchases

It’s very easy to disable in-app purchases in the Settings menu on iOS. Once disabled young kids can’t be duped into purchases unwittingly or chose to break your rules. That leaves them playing games that make them work on their time management skills not just in-game, but also in real life. If my son wants to reap rewards from these he has to level up the hard way. He needs to remember to care for his game in the same way virtual pets need caring for but with less emotional risk. And he simply has to accept there are some perks he’s not going to get. Period.

There is another option for parents who don’t mind if their kids make a few IAPs, but still want to teach their tweens about managing money thoughtfully. Apple allows you to set up an allowance under your child’s ID. This lets you to set a fixed amount for all media purchases and forces young people to operate within a budget.

Games with gear

We haven’t invested much in apps that require us to purchase accessories or toys, but there are quite a few of them, and that market is expanding. We do have ZombieBurbz and my son and I are smitten with the iPad game together with the added bonus that he plays with the extra characters on their own since they are, after all, zombies. Similarly, Disney launched Cars 2 AppMATEs, which requires parents to buy character vehicles to engage in various races and challenges. Both of these titles will send you back to the toy store if your kids like them, to unlock all the content.

Toy giant Mattel is in on the act too with their Apptivity line that includes Hot Wheels, Monster High™ Finders Creepers™ and Batman franchises.

Another favorite is Microsoft’s Kinectimals, which is fine to play alone, but is much more fun when paired with the Xbox Kinect full version.

Traditional games

Other great games for kids and parents don’t fit neatly into categories, but they make the list because they are fun for all ages and are enjoyable to watch, not just play. PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies and Plants vs. Zombies 2 are perennial favorites especially now that the iPad version has most of the PC/Mac game perks, and Bejeweled HD and Peggle are also winners. Bloons TD 4 is a must-have around here, with monkey-themed but adult-strength tower defence challenges. We also go up against each other in Super Monsters Ate My Condo!, Where’s My Perry?, and Angry Birds Space.

Sometimes, just picking a game everyone enjoys and then taking turns the old-fashioned way is both a lesson and fun enough.