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Guilt-free kid iPad apps give parents a holiday break

I love playing with my kids, but you know that week when everybody's stuck in the house, when the weather's at its worst? Or when you're en route to Grandma's, but stuck on the tarmac with a 4-hour delay? Well, let's say the iPad comes in handy quite a lot. Trouble is, you don't want your kids just sitting there dulling their minds, and hunting for good stuff in Apple's App Store is a pain. Here are apps we've tested, that have already met with the approval of me — and my youngins.

Disney Deluxe Storybooks - $6.99 - I gotta say, these started out pretty well and have come a long way. When you turn the pages, the faux painted scenes move and zoom, almost like they're coming to life. Every so often there are diversions — coloring pages, puzzles and story-specific games. In "Brave," there's an archery challenge; in the brand new "Monsters, Inc." book, there's a scarer training module. Some of the Disney books are on sale for $2.99 now: "Tangled,""Brave,""Cars 2" and "Finding Nemo." iTunes link

Super Why ABC Adventures: Alphabet for iPad - $2.99 - The PBS Kids sensation has a few iOS titles out. This latest focuses on letters and basic spelling. What's good about it is that, with five activities tied to the five main characters, a kid can keep playing without risk of getting bored or stuck in a track he or she doesn't like. iTunes link

Scholastic First Discovery - The Forest for iPad - $1.99 - Scholastic's simple but aesthetically pleasing walk through the woods is a good example of tricking kids into learning by getting their hands moving. Budding flowers, blowing leaves, precocious bunnies and falling snow — these interactive elements combine to teach kids about seasons, plant and animal varieties and environmental concerns. iTunes link

Little Fox Music Box - Kids songs - $2.99 - Aimed at a toddler audience, this sing-a-long app from Germany is totally zany. It features much of the herky-jerky papercraft animation featured in the beloved "Nighty Night" (now in a "Winter Special" edition), and creates three very distinct worlds to accompany "London Bridge," "Old MacDonald" and "Evening Song." There's also a free play mode — "Fox Studio" — for making chaotically joyful noises of your own. iTunes link

Toca Band - $0.99 - Underneath its interface, Toca Band is a primitive audio sequencer, with loops and beats that let you create unique jams. But on its surface, it's a goofy cartoon stage that kids can immerse themselves in before they realize they're making music. My only wish was that there was a record mode to preserve the best tracks. But hey, it's 99 cents — actually, FREE right now, possibly as a limited-time offer — so I am not really complaining. iTunes link

The Great Cookie Thief - A Sesame Street App - $2.99 - This classic Cookie Monster story comes to life with animated backgrounds and opportunities for drawing and other interaction. Made by Callaway Digital Arts, which also does the "Thomas the Tank Engine" and "Miss Spider" apps, it's a great marriage of a classic franchise with a creative developer. iTunes link

Where Do Balloons Go? An Uplifting Mystery - $1.99 - A fun animated storybook by everyone's favorite kids' app developer ... Jamie Lee Curtis? What? No, it's really great. The drawings have the anarchical scribbling style you see in New Yorker cartoons, and there are lots of unique activities. While my daughter and I still need to master the balloon animal maker, the Balloon Theatre movie recorder is enough to keep us coming back again and again. iTunes link

Kindergarten Reading HD - $1.99 - Phonics, reading and spelling are the fundamentals that kids focus on in this fun interactive workbook from one of my all-time favorite kid-app makers, Duck Duck Moose. Kindergarten Reading stars a new character, Milo the Meerkat, and rewards kids with virtual stickers so that they can create fun scenes while taking a break from learning. (Other slightly less educational titles I'd also recommend are Superhero Comic Book Maker HD, or its girly counterpart, Princess Fairy Tale Maker.) iTunes link

Rounds: Parker Penguin - $4.99 - The latest pre-school learning app from Nosy Crow, this adventure follows Parker Penguin as he slides across the snow, dives into the water, finds a mate, guards an egg and raises a chick. When you get to the end, the circle of life continues with Parker's next of kin. (Don't worry, Parker doesn't die or anything.) Parker Penguin follows a previous Rounds title featuring a frog named Franklin. iTunes link

Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.