I try to avoid giving my son the iPad or iPhone, but sometimes it's really a necessity. A long dinner at a restaurant or an endless airplane ride are two perfect examples.
Toddlers just "get" these devices. The touch-and-swipe interface is so intuitive that once a toddler sees you use it, no further explanation is needed.
Given that pediatricians recommend absolutely no screen-time for children under 2 years of age (difficult to do in reality), and a bare minimum for kids 2-4, my husband and I feel most comfortable letting Ben play with apps that enrich him in some way. Some mentioned below do that, and some are simply fun diversions that can absorb your child's attention in emergencies.
My husband has spent a lot of time finding the best iPhone and iPad apps for toddlers. Following are his favorites with his comments.
TO START (~12 MONTHS)
A great first app. The sound of an animal emanates from a red barn, your kid taps the screen, and the animal comes out of the barn. In the end, night falls and all the animals go to sleep -- which is genius, since it makes it much easier to pry the iPhone away afterwards. Peekaboo Wild is a sister game, though kids seem to prefer the Barn version.
Another game where all the kid has to do is tap the screen once to advance through each "round," which are simple scenes where we're asked to find Gumbo the missing dog. This simple plot pulls your kid along and keeps them engaged.
Another big favorite. The classic song accompanies interactive scenes starring the eponymous spider, with many other fun details. There's no winning, losing, or strategy here, it's just an exploration where touching things produces various results. Note that all apps by Duck Duck Moose (the makers of this game) are great -- the company is top-notch when it comes to toddler apps.
NOT MUCH LATER:
Highly recommended. A small variety of alternating, simple games ("Touch the red fruit!" "Count the oranges!" etc). Your kid solves them to the delight of a backflipping monkey. This is a must-have -- it took Ben over a year to outgrow this one.
"Touch the Square." "Now touch the Triangle." That's the game. It's basic, but great when your kid is learning this type of thing. The game expands to include colors, animals, and other stuff.
Basic puzzles. Once your child can "touch and drag" an object, this will keep them busy for hours -- some puzzles are very basic, but the more complex ones are full scenes that animate when completed. Ben loves it.
Highly recommended. This game teaches basic arithmetic skills via fun scenes. "If two ducks climb up, how many ducks will be at the top of the slide?" "If three apples fall, how many remain?" "Feed the hippo three hot dogs." The graphics are good and the interface is smart -- there are no pitfalls for you kid to get lost in (like a wrong tap leading to an adult-level settings menu), which is a key aspect that many game designers overlook.
Tilting the phone around to explore an underwater scene, you are looking for Fins, a little green fish. It's slightly tricky for a younger toddler since their motor skills may not be perfect enough to navigate the game, but that's the pointâ€¦ they'll learn to do it. Ben was a big fan of this game from about 2 to 2 1/2.
Pointless, but hilarious and fun. A little hamster repeats back whatever you say, in a squeaky hamster voice. The first time your kids play with this, you'll all be in stitches. (Note that there are other similar "repeat what you say in a funny way" apps, but this was the first of its kind I found and it's never failed us).
There must be over a hundred kids' matching apps available. Ben started with the little matching game in Monkey Preschool Lunchbox, and when I saw how much he loved it I sought out dedicated matching apps. His favorite has been this one, since it's literally got more bells and whistles than others.
Made by Duck Duck Moose, the makers of Itsy Bitsy Spider, you explore little scenes as the song progresses. Not as in-depth as Itsy Bitsy but still engaging.
Well-designed with a choice of a number of games all on a train theme: there are different types of puzzles, train-track assemblies, and a simple spelling game. Get this, especially if you've got a boy who loves trains.
Very highly recommended, and top quality all the way through. This is probably the most impressive kids' app for the iPad. You can choose a variety of modes which tell the story of Miss Spider's Tea Party, all with excellent graphics and interaction. There are accompanying matching games, puzzles, and a painting feature that all tie in to the story.
Another great app by Duck Duck Moose. In an underwater setting, schools of fish form shapes of letters, numbers, and shapes as your child taps along. It also teaches colors, the ABC song, and some cute just-for-fun features.
QUICKIES FOR ANY AGE:
You touch the screen to create bubbles and pop them.
Both of these are basic touch-the-screen-and-watch-what-happens apps, but the resulting designs you create are really cool.