19/03/2015 12:24 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 06:12 BST

Best Apps For Pre-School Children

Baby boy (2 years) on bed using digital tablet.

People who don't have small children might fume about the idea of apps for pre-schoolers. And yes, of course, iPads aren't and never will be valid substitute parents.

But anyone with a small child today knows that even one-year-olds can swipe, and when children see parents on their phones and tablets, they want to do the same. And at times when a bit of diversion is desperately needed – on plane/train/car journeys; in waiting rooms; or to keep a toddler occupied while you put a baby to sleep – apps make pretty darn good babysitters, it has to be said.

That said, it's a huge market. Finding an app that stimulates and entertains a small child while also being at least a little bit educational, and which isn't too complicated for little minds and hands, is surprisingly hard. We road-tested dozens and asked parents for their top tips – here are the favourites.

CBeebies Playtime

This is packed with games featuring favourites from CBeebies like Mr Tumble, the Octonauts and Alphablocks. With the CBeebies Storytime sister app, children can listen to stories from Grandpa in my Pocket, Charlie and Lola and many more.

'The Cbeebies Playtime app is very good – it updates constantly, so games are always changing. My daughter loves the dinosaur game where you can record your own roar. I like the Alphablocks spelling game for obvious educational reasons.' Siobhan

Lego Duplo Food

The Duplo apps are all free and perfect for small children. In Food, they can build and operate a café; in Circus, they run a big top; in Trains, a toy train set. In Zoo they can have adventures with animals and in Ice Cream they can play games to earn an ice cream cone.

'Ah, Lego. It always comes up trumps – I can't believe all these apps are free.' Duncan

£3.99 per month

A very useful app – subscribe and you get more than 1000 episodes of advert-free, carefully selected pre-children's cartoons including Angelina Ballerina, Thomas and Friends, Paddington, Babar, Bob the Builder and nursery rhymes, plus games. It's easy to navigate for small children.

'Not only does my son love the shows, he especially loves the games. The best part is that they're educational and he's learned so much from them. We love Hopster.' Leila

Sago Road Trip

The sister company of the well known children's app developers Toca Boca, Sago's sweet, beautifully designed apps are all aimed at pre-schoolers. Road Trip is a driving game where cats and bunnies cruise along in ice cream vans and roller-skate cars, eating cakes and popping balloons. Fairy Tales and Pet Café are adorable, too.

'Sago Sago apps are cute and my little girl loves to play with them.' Laura

In the Night Garden – All Aboard the Ninky Nonk

The official In The Night Garden app is just right for young children. Featuring all the music and sound effects you'd expect, there are simple guessing and colouring games, but best of all, plenty of short clips from the show.

'I find this super-calming for my toddler.' Judy

Snow White

Nosy Crow, the children's publisher, has developed some fun interactive fairy tale apps. In the latest, Snow White, children find themselves playing games in different scenes of the story. Also recommended are Fun and Games with Pip and Posy and Nosy Crow Jigsaws.

'Nosy Crow apps make my four-year-old feel like she is a part of the story.' Sarah

Mister Maker

The ultimate app for pre-schoolers who love arts and crafts. They can choose tools (from scissors to paint rollers to glue) and any kind of paper and colour and pattern to create pictures which then get stored in an online album, and can be framed and easily sent to adoring grannies with a message.

'My daughter is really crafty and although there are lots of apps which have colouring games, we find this one has the biggest range of patterns and colours to play with.' Katie

Fireman Sam: Junior Cadet

Play at putting out fires, drive a fire engine and search Fireman Sam's store room to earn a Junior Cadet certificate. A must for fans of the TV show.

'Hosing down fires keeps my little firefighter-in-training entertained.' Luke

Free with in-app purchases

A lot of children simply want to play with mummy or daddy's phone and this app simulates a real iPhone screen, with lots of activities. They can type, make (pretend) phone calls and texts, and also included are great simple painting and music games, a train-catching game and an interactive show about the seasons. Super-useful and easy for little ones to get the hang of.

'This has got us through so many long journeys and waiting rooms – it has so much packed into one app and my son never seems to get bored of it.' Jane

Train Sim Lite

This isn't aimed at children, but train-obsessed pre-schoolers love it. It's a very simple and realistic looking virtual train set which can be customised to go underground or through deserts and mountains, going faster and slower, night and day, seen from inside or outside. Best of all it's free and has no annoying in-app purchases.

'I've got a train-obsessed three-year-old and he cannot get enough of this app. He loves turning the train's windscreen wipers on and off and driving it through the London underground!' Barbara

Miffy at School

A sweet Miffy story with well-designed, simple interactive games – tracing lines and a maze. You can read along with the story and record your own voice. Plus there are memory, colouring and building block games.

'This is beautifully made, as you'd expect with Miffy.' Clara

Peppa Pig's Holiday

Peppa Pig is on holiday – take her swimming, watch her singing her flying high song in her plane, or make a postcard. Every time you complete a game you get a sticker. You can find the full range of Peppa apps here.

'Peppa Pig is always a favourite with my two children, and the apps are all really sweet.' Cheryl

Free with in-app purchases

Explore the train-tastic world of Chuggington – draw a path on the track to move trains. Add wagons and create new chuggers while watching plenty of video. It's quite complex, but pre-schoolers will simply enjoy the sights and sounds.

'My son loves Chuggington so this has come in very handy when he's on the verge of a tantrum!' Maria

Little Baby Bum
£1.99 (Free 'lite' version also available)

Little Baby Bum is a YouTube favourite for many families – it does the best nursery rhymes videos for children. Its app includes a variety of animated songs, from Baa Baa Black Sheep to the Alphabet Song. There is also a balloon popping game, plus karaoke and a story or two.

'We always come back to the nursery rhymes Little Baby Bum makes – they seem to have something magical about them that children get addicted to.' Nura

Gruffalo Games

Cleverly recreating the illustrations from the bestselling book The Gruffalo, this simple app has calm music and games from snap to a jigsaw. There's a sister app, too - Room on the Broom.

'My little boy loves this game so much that he kisses the iPad goodnight and says 'Night night, Gruffalo!' Luke

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