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How iPhone apps saved our family vacation

It's hard to be a 2-year-old on a road trip. It's also hard to be the parent of a 2-year-old on a road trip. But clever inventors have created fun and educational kiddie iPhone apps that can avert toddler meltdowns and save your sanity.
Image: Oz Costleigh with phone
iPhone to the rescue. During a recent road trip, the toddler-friendly applications on my iPhone provided my 2-year-old son with a much-needed distraction ... and his parents with a much-needed break.Winda Benedetti

It’s hard to be a 2-year-old on a road trip.

Not only are you strapped down, convict-style, in a car seat, you’re trapped in said car with people speaking a language you can only understand about a fourth of. Meanwhile, you don’t really care about the scenery speeding by outside unless it happens to contain bulldozers, cranes or backhoes … which it hardly ever does.

All you really want to do is get down, get dooown mommy, doooooown mommy, dooooooowwwwnnnnn mommmeeeeeeeeeee! Waaaaaahhhh!

Did I mention it’s also difficult to be a parent on a road trip with a 2-year-old?

In these desperate moments, however, there is something you can turn to: your iPhone.

Yes, clever inventors have created iPhone applications that can do just about anything. But who knew they'd actually created apps that could save your sanity?

I recently took my very own 2-year-old on a vacation that involved lengthy amounts of travel time — i.e. lots of time for major kiddie meltdowns. And after suffering through a variety of vacation-induced fits during the first half of the trip, I finally got over my fear of turning my wee one into a and downloaded several child-friendly apps to my iPhone. And, voila, I discovered a quick, fun and sometimes educational way to both make my son happy and save my sanity.

Sure, Apple has taken a lot of heat for the "Baby Shaker" app, but here's a look at some of the applications and games that are actually good for our youngest humans … or at least good for parents desperate to de-escalate a dire situation.

You’ll find toddler-friendly applications in the App Store’s education section, in the book section and in the games section under kid’s games. And the best thing is, these precious moments of gleeful distraction won’t cost you much — usually no more than $1.99 and sometimes as little as free. But a quick warning — you should probably also invest in a good, sturdy phone case and screen protector.

Wheels on the Bus, 99 cents
This app — found in the store’s education section — is hands-down my favorite (and my son Oz’s favorite) iPhone program. During our vacation there were numerous times when the poor lad was bored out of his skull and desperate to get out of the car. But (and I am not making this up) he literally did not want to get out of the car after I let him have a go at this adorable, interactive, story-book-style program. “Wheels on the Bus” sings children through the various verses of the famed kiddie song, each cute page offering them illustrations they can interact with. For example, during the verse “the wipers on the bus go swish, swish, swish,” your child can swish the wipers himself by touching the screen. It is with immeasurable gratitude that I thank the folks at Duck Duck Moose for creating this app. It was the best 99 cents I’ve ever spent.

Balloonimals, 99 cents
This adorable and simple little app lets your kid make balloon animals by blowing into your phone’s microphone and then shaking your phone. Yes, shaking your very expensive iPhone. If you want to make sure your phone doesn’t fall down and go boom, you’ll probably want to help your kid with this one. Once you and your tot have made a balloon animal, your kid will be thrilled to see that, touch the screen, and the dinosaur stomps his foot, the crab snaps his claws and the kangaroo jumps into the air.

“I like this one!” Oz told me in his adorable miniature voice. There’s a free “lite” version of this app so you can see if you like it too.

Voice Toddler Cards, 99 cents
I never thought I’d be one of those make-my-child-a-genius flashcard parents, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Plus, it turns out, going through these flash cards with your kid is really, really fun. In this app you’ll find cards with pictures of foods, shapes, numbers, etc. Show the pictures to your child and let them tell you what the pictures are … then let them tap the screen to find out if they were right. And that’s why I like “Voice Toddler Cards” — because it speaks the words out loud and, if you prefer, allows you to record your own voice for each card.

True Learning Letters A to Z, 99 cents
This straightforward app is a fun way to teach the alphabet to your child. Each page shows a letter and a corresponding picture. Not only does a voice speak the letter and word out loud, but kids can touch the pictures and watch them react. For example, on the letter J page, kids can touch the screen and watch a jet blast away.

If you’re looking for a quick distraction for a kid during a moment of crisis, then “TappyTunes” is your go-to app. It’s simple — pick a song and then let your kid tap the screen. Each tap plays out the notes of a song as pictures of stars, fireworks and musical notes bloom under their fingertips. Try “TappyTunes Lite” for free.

Preschool Adventure, 99 cents
I can’t recommend 3DAL’s cacophonous “Preschool Music” app, but the company’s “Preschool Adventure” app, which comes with six different activities is well worth the buck. Matching, counting, color identification — there’s a lot of fun stuff to do here.

For older youngsters
My son is a bit young for “Shape Builder — the Preschool Learning Puzzle Game,” but this highly-rated 99 cent app that lets kids put together different shapes like a puzzle looks to be a great one for slightly older children (age 3 to 6 years old is recommended).

Meanwhile,“FirstWords: Animals”and “First Words: Vehicles” (both $1.99) are fun apps to play with a preschooler just learning to spell. And “Colorama — Kids Coloring Book” (99 cents) is a lovely, easy-to-use coloring book with lots of illustrations that children can  fill in with a variety of colored pencils.