It’s a fine line – electronic gadgets can keep kids peacefully occupied during the inevitable downtime you’ll face while traveling. But if you’re hoping your kids will learn from gazing out the car/plane/train window and absorb their surroundings, its seems counter-intuitive to hand them an iPad the first time they holler “Are we there yet?”.
Strike a balance with this handful of apps that can keep the kids learning about the places they’re visiting whilst keeping them entertained. But be warned – like any apps, some of these (particularly those with maps/GPS functionality) may require a data connection to work. So if you’re heading overseas and don’t have a local SIM/data plan, check the requirements of each before downloading, or simply keep your child’s device on aeroplane mode whenever you’re away from WiFi so they can’t accidentally blow out your next bill to GFC proportions via obscene global roaming charges. Likewise, keep a lid on in-app purchases by double-checking your settings before you hand your kids any devices too. Happy travels!
Who needs a translator when this app can train your kid to be your own personal interpreter for free in just five minutes a day? Just jokin’, but there’s a reason why this is the world’s most popular language platform – it makes getting the gist of a foreign language a blast for kids and adults alike. If you’re travelling overseas to a non-English speaking country, this app may just offer your child (and yourself) a window into understanding more of what’s happening around them (the app currently offers Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Irish, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Ukrainian, Esperanto, Polish and Turkish, with more languages added regularly).
Just like a computer game, the app guides you through a series of exercises that build on each other. Each lesson includes a variety of speaking, listening, translation, and multiple choice challenges that you need to complete before advancing, and you gain experience points along the way.
You set the lesson frequency – from 5 minutes to 20 minutes a day – and it’ll send you reminders to take lessons if you miss them.
Its beautifully simple and intuitive design makes the app seem like it’d suit smaller kids, but a few runs through it with our cluey ten year old made me think many kids under eight would struggle. Even set to beginner mode, the written instructions and level of lesson difficulty would be beyond most younger children if they’re just starting out. But for bigger kids and those with a little working knowledge of a language? It’s a game changer.
Speakeasy (Offline Phasebook)
Who needs to lug around a phrase book in French, Spanish (European or Latin American), German or Japanese when there’s an app to do the heavy lifting for you.
Want to ask where the train station is? Look up the phrase (either in a handy travel category or via the search facility) and it’ll be written out with pronunciation tips. Or simply click on the phrase and it’ll playback audio, asking the question for you.
The audio playback feature allows you to hear pronunciations and pick and choose the words you want to learn (unlike the set lesson format of Duolingo). There’s flashcard too. It’s less game-ified than Duolingo (which makes it less likely to spur kids’ interest on a regular basis) and less comprehensive and all-round amazing as Google Translate (see below), but it’s still a practical and handy tool for families on the go.
Cost: Free for lite version (otherwise $5.99 for the full version per language)
Unlike Duolingo’s lesson-based format, Google Translate is more like having the ultimate phrase book at your fingertips to use on the fly.
Not technically designed for kids but definitely kid-friendly, this translator app is hands down one of the handiest apps international travelers of any age could have in their arsenal. Translate between a mind-boggling 103 languages – there’s even offline translation (although not all languages are supported offline).
If you have an internet connection it can also give you two-way instant speech translation in 32 languages. Finally worked out how to ask where the train station is in Spanish, but can’t understand the reply? The app can decrypt the answer for you; just hold your device up as someone is talking and it will translate. This allows you have a free-flowing back-and-forth conversation in which two or more people can speak naturally and the app does all the work. It’s almost like having a real live translator standing right there next to you. Ammmmazing stuff!
Plus for kids in a foreign country it’s better than eye spy – this handy app can help them adjust to being immersed in a strange new language via deciphering the everyday things around them. For example, you can hold your camera up to any text – say a shop sign, a subway map, or a menu – and Google will translate it instantly. That makes it a super handy app for any traveller, but for curious kids? It’s fantastico!
SPREADING THEIR WINGS
Got a nervous first-time flyer on your hands? This selection of apps built for smaller children may just fit the bill for soothing any first time travel jitters. How, you ask? It’s all down to the magic of role play, albeit electronically.
When our youngest had trouble potty training, we bought him a Sesame Street book to help him work out the peeing protocol. After reading about Elmo and friends’ potty usage a few times, our little guy was eager to step up to the porcelain plate. Similarly when he became scared of the dark overnight, we bought him a handful of books to help him overcome his fears by reading about fictional characters overcoming theirs. They worked a treat.
So if your young one is having trouble getting their head around jumping into a giant tin can and hurtling through the air to reach a foreign land, by all means seek out books that might help them overcome their hesitations. But don’t forget that these days there’s apps galore that can also help them role play their fears away. Although not all of these are specifically designed for kids with holiday jitters, these apps are fun and entertaining regardless (and may just be what the travel doctor ordered!).
Toca Life: Vacation
In Toca Life: Vacation kids can navigate their way around four locations: an airport, a hotel, at the beach, and sightseeing.
The app claims “Feel the excitement of running through the airport to catch a flight, jumping into a hotel bed, or digging for treasure on the beach any time they want.” Kids can choose a character/avatar they identify with before taking off on their imaginary travel adventures – from x-raying their luggage at the airport to raiding the hotel bar fridge for snacks.
The app is designed by the team at Toca Boca (the clever crew behind Toca Kitchen Monsters and a range of other beautifully-designed kids apps) and although it’s not free, on the upside there’s no third-party ads or in-app purchases.
Cost: $2.99 USD
Smart Fish: Frequent Flyer
This app aims to “familiarize your child with the experience of taking a flight and make them an active participant in the travel adventure. Build anticipation, reduce your child’s anxiety, or let them share your trip even if they stay home.”
The app starts by asking kids to choose their destination (there’s 13 cities to choose from, including London, Sydney, Paris, Moscow etc). From packing their suitcase and going through security to boarding the plane, kids then get a chance to play their way through the experience. Even claiming their luggage becomes a matching game.
There’s also effort put into familiarizing kids with other travel elements, such as learning key destinations on the world map or preparing for different weather conditions once they reach their travel destination.
There’s also no in app purchases or ads. It’s less flashy than Toca Life’s Vacation app, but if you’ve got a child with flight anxiety this includes way more educational scenarios. All in all, this is the most comprehensive built-for-purpose flight role play app for children that we’ve found to date.
Cost: $2.99 USD
Dr Panda’s Airport
This cute app is designed for pre-schoolers and gets them familiar with airports from a different perspective – running the show! There’s 10 airport-themed activities that will have kids taking part in every part of the process, from stamping passports at customs, to making sure luggage makes it to the right plane and even controlling planes to land safely. Each passenger represents cultural dress for a different region – albeit fairly stereotyped.
There’s no text and minimal UI, making it easy for young children to pick and play without instruction. There’s also no in-app purchases or third party ads.
Cost: $4.49 USD
Tiny Airport – Toddler’s Activity App
If you have a doll house lover on your hands, this app will be a hands-down winner. Tiny Airport is a highly-detailed animated app organized into three scenes: Check In, Boarding, and Aboard the Airplane.
Featuring around 90 hidden animations, developers say this app is suited to kids aged between 3 and 6 but we’re sure kids (and parents) much older than this will be fascinated by the sheer intricacy of the cute characters.
In the first scene, kids meet the main character, Lisa, when she arrives at the airport. As she checks in her baggage and waits in line for the security check, the airport comes to life with fun little scenes to explore. Some scenes are silly and fanciful – like a knight trying to get through the airport’s metal detector – but while it’s very light-hearted in approach, Tiny Airport still helps kids ages 3+ to understand a little more about airports and traveling by plane, making it suitable for first-time flyers. With neither text nor narration, it’s intuitive to navigate for small pre-school children upwards.
Simplified travel game aimed more at pre-schoolers, this app doesn’t require any reading and runs kids through a packing sequence matching items by shape before they head to the airport and jet off on a beach holiday.
But the actual flight preparation part of the game is over quickly, and the free lite version of this game then pretty much only encompasses making sandcastles on the beach. The paid version offers little more, with additional activities like mixing juices and treasure hunting taking up the bulk of play.
It’s not overly educational, but for free it’s a fun and simple little Summer vacation game for very small children.
Cost: Free for lite version, $1.99 USD for full version.
TRAVEL GUIDES & MAPPING /DOCUMENTING
If you’re heading to Seattle, New York, London or Alaska, this super cute series of ebook apps feature a stuffed dog called Cooper and his equally cute stuffed friends to guide children through each location’s attractions.
Each app includes the print-based story along with over 100 “buried bones” that children can hunt for – once found each bone reveals a story, fact or feature of the place visited.
There’s lots of reading, so it’s best suited for children around 6-11 y.o. who will be within that magic window of being old enough to get the most out of the guide information while still being young enough to get a kick out of the app’s novelty factor.
Cost: $1.99 USD
National Parks by National Geographic ( USA)
Doing a USA roadtrip? If you’re hoping to get your kids excited to see as much natural beauty as you can along the way, this app will do the trick. National Geographic’s award-winning interactive guide to 25 of America’s most visited national parks isn’t specifically designed for kids, but it does offer a fun way for them to research and explore through photos and (for older children and teens) through the app’s detailed written information.
Included in the free edition are spectacular photo galleries plus visitor information and maps. The full guides for each park are available for purchase, and offer ways to personalize itineraries, locate points of interest by GPS, and even tips on how to re-create the best photos from Nat Geo photographers.
Cost: Free for lite version, $1.99 USD for full version of each park.
This app isn’t specifically designed for kids (and indeed wouldn’t be suitable for many youngsters thanks to potential privacy and security issues), but it’s still a pretty neat tool that older children and teens could use to create a digital journal of their travels matched to an interactive map.
The app tracks you as you go, marking a red line along a map on the exact route you take – even monitoring your speed and altitude. Add pictures, video, audio and text along the way, creating a multimedia travel diary you can either keep to yourself or share with others. Aside from a few limitations – like each “trip” can’t be longer than 48 hours – you can just imagine the fun that older, tech-savvy kids could have with this.
The app can also double as a research tool. If you hit discover, you can see public trips that have been recorded and submitted by other Livetrekker users. ( This sharing isn’t compulsory though, and you can set each trip to private or share post trip if you prefer).
The app syncs your data in real time, but if you’d prefer not to access to the Internet you can simply record things to upload later to share with family and friends – or keep them for your own enjoyment and don’t share at all.
Acting like a travel guide app for kids, this free app features reviews and points of interest across the globe, with videos and a cute ‘postcard’ function. As it’s reasonably new-ish, the info is fairly sparse at the moment and there’s lots of areas that aren’t covered (or are only barely covered), but it’s a clever concept. The app presents kids reviews of locations, activities and landmarks, but as it’s paid content ( ie: advertisers pay to get their hotels/attractions featured) the content seems a little biased and forced at times – but only as much as regular TV content or advertising. If you’re hoping to get your kids excited about visiting a destination they happen to cover, it’s a fun little tool.
GEOGRAPHY & CULTURE
Planet Geo by Planet Factory Interactive
Developed with teachers to include school curriculum elements, Planet Geo has a range of activities for kids to learn about the world around them. With continent-themed puzzles to solve, cities to find, national flags and anthems to uncover, it also features games with facts, information and images of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites from around the world.
Cost: Free for lite version, in app purchases
Kids Planet Discovery
Similar to Planet Geo (above) in layout and feel as it’s brought to you by the same clever Barcelona-based team at Planet Factory Interactive, this app also features activities for kids to explore different cultures, continents, animals, music and more. Selected by Apple for inclusion in both their ‘World Cultures Collection’ and ‘Best Apps for Elementary School’ categories.
Available as a stand-alone purchase or as part of an app bundle, while you’re checking it out be sure to take a peek at Planet Factory Interactive’s range of other children’s educational geography and cultural apps, including Kids World Atlas, Kids World Cultures, Kids Like Me, History Atlas For Kids, Kids U.S Atlas, USA For Kids and more.
Cost: Free for lite version, in app purchases
Fingerprint: Whole Wide World 2 Fun Learning Games for Kids 5-8
There’s no passport necessary to play through the world one game at a time. Whole Wide World 2 takes kids on a journey of sight, sound and play. There’s content from fictional animated ‘kids’ from all corners of the globe to explain customs and cultures, and players scrapbook postcards from around the world as they learn facts about cultural and geographical wonders. There’s three destinations to start with, then choose other destinations as you go with in app purchases.
Cost: Free for lite version, additional countries $1.49 by in app purchase
This app was designed to help educators teach and assess students’ geography mapping skills, and does so through getting them to ‘build’ the world on an animated 3D globe. It’s aimed at older children or those with a fairly robust existing knowledge of geography. It’s been around for a while so graphics look a tad dated, but on the upside the game was designed by a not-for-profit group for educators, so it’s not trying to wring money out of you every five minutes like some of the flashier apps with over-the-top in-app purchases.
The game focuses on cognitive concepts, such as spatial relationships (where the continents are in relation to each other and to the oceans), nesting (how a city is a unit within a country, a country is a unit within a continent), and how countries, continents and oceans have vastly different sizes (scale.)
Players can track and record their completion times using the automated game timer as well as print customized maps that reflect their progress at each level.
Cost: Free for lite version, 99c USD for full version
Nat GeoBee Challenge
Are you smarter than a 4th grader? National Geographic Bee is meant for kids in grades 4-8, but I’m sure there’s plenty of adults who’d be stumped by this app. However if your child is already a whiz at geography and loves a challenge, this app will be a winner. There’s three types of game play, and all are fairly advanced – and keep in mind it’s more a testing tool than a teaching tool. Kids don’t have a way to glean information other than by getting questions wrong and learning from their mistakes.
In the multiple-choice round, answers come from a library of more than 1,000 National Geographic Bee questions. In the map challenge round, players zoom, pinch and tap their way to find spots on an interactive map from a catalog of 1,000+ locations.
Cost: $2.99 USD
Barefoot World Atlas
Selected by Apple as one of the 10 best apps ever for the 5th anniversary of the App Store, Barefoot World Atlas literally puts the world at your children’s fingertips. By spinning, pinching, and zooming, kids can find something that interests them and learn through descriptions and photos. It’s aimed at older children ( 9+) but smaller kids will enjoy playing with it, even if they don’t understand the information being presented to them. This beautifully illustrated interactive 3D globe has marked points which when clicked allow kids to read and listen to interesting world facts with geographer and BBC presenter Nick Crane. There’s also hundreds of mini videos.
It’s expensive as far as kids apps go (and it seems like there’s always some extra to buy) but it’s a time-tested app that offers a clever way to help kids discover the rich wonders of our planet.
Cost: $7.99 USD plus additional purchases
Found another educational app that will open up the world of travel for children? Be sure to share below!