In Don’t Break the Bank on Books for Babies, my first article in this blog about finding good deals on books for babies and toddlers in Manila, I briefly mentioned how the internet offers a rich variety of free-to-try e-books and apps for tiny future readers. There is no denying that reading is probably one of the best parent-baby bonding activities out there. My one-year-old likes to choose her own books for bedtime, and we go through about 3 or 4 before she calls it a night. In most nights, she’s content with her cardboard books – lately she’s taken to “reading” out loud herself, which pretty much involves “talking” over me (or more accurately, baby-babbling) as I read to her – but in some nights when she’s not yet ready to go to sleep, we take out her iPad and sift through our little e-books collection.
Like most moms in the 21st century, I have heard about the supposed evils of letting little babies and toddlers go anywhere near mobile phones and tablets before they are two years old. There is extensive literature (ironically, online) about the rise of speech delays and attention-deficit disorders that could be linked to extended screen-time, be it in front of the TV, a cellphone, or an iPad. Developing minds are supposedly unable to properly parse and process the exaggerated and fast-paced content in these apps and videos. Some experts even claim that allowing a child to use these types of gadgets is a form of child neglect and abuse, because doing so exposes children to the possibility of cognitive developmental delays in the future.
With such strongly-worded precautions, it is a miracle that many parents still keep their tablets and phones around children. The reality is that babies and toddlers love electronics, and exhausted parents and caregivers alike embrace, albeit with a little bit of guilt, the 10 minutes or so of baby-free time that these gadgets allow them.
Thankfully, new research has surfaced at the University of London to assuage the fears of parents all over the world. Their study has shown that allowing little babies (infants, even) no more than 1 hour of screen time a day is not harmful at all, as long as they still get plenty of stimuli from the real world at other times. In fact London experts actually recommend introducing gadgets at birth. Apparently, this way, babies are able to distinguish between the electronic world and reality early in life. What’s harmful is not what babies see in the videos and apps per se, but the fact that time spent immersed in gadgets is time lost learning about the environment and the people around them. It’s bad enough that teenagers and grownups lose so much social interaction while glued to their mobile devices – with babies and their developing brains, the effects are magnified.
While reading together is an active activity that requires interaction, and not just a passive activity like watching a video, I will still start this list with my own word of caution – as is the case with most things in life, moderation is key. I feel that physical paper books are the best media for reading to the little ones, but the world of selections available on the internet should not be overlooked, especially by parents who neither want to clutter up the house with too many board books, nor spend too much buying them when there are free online sources. I will concentrate on five of our favorite free and free-to-try stuff that I have found on iTunes over the past few months.
My First Books by BabyFirst ™
This iTunes app is free to download, but users have an option to purchase additional content. The pack comes with two free books that are wonderfully illustrated and carefully integrated with a few animations and music, as follows:
- People Who Help – VocabuLarry, the talkative parrot, stars in this 5-minute interactive e-book about friendly neighborhood workers and what they do every day. I have been reading this book to my daughter since she was five months old, and until now, she still finds the animations funny. Frankly, VocabuLarry’s voice is a bit to shrill for my taste, but I’m not a toddler. I seriously think my baby will say “Builder! Builder!” before she says Mama. That’s how much she adores this book.
- Pied Piper – We all know the story of the man with the flute and what he did to those little children to punish the town for their selfishness. This story is not that scary. Here, Piper is a little boy who is just trying to rid his little town of a bird problem – through music. It’s a good introduction to musical instruments, what they sound like, and what they’re called. It is less interactive than People Who Help, with more words, and thus, actual reading.
There is also an option to launch the narration, and even record your voice as you read, which I is a lot of fun, and very useful for lazy days. More books are available for download at $2.99 each, with an option to buy 6 books for $9.99. That’s really good value compared to the prices I see for e-books on Amazon. And for the quality I’ve seen so far, I’d say these ten dollars will go a long way.
If only because all the content is free forever, I give this app five stars. As the title implies, this pack contains interactive flash cards to encourage those first words. I like how the navigation buttons are big enough for chubby, clumsy fingers to easily navigate. In fact, this is the first app that my daughter learned to launch and use on her own.
There are no less than 12 flash cards packs with topics ranging from ABCs to body parts to furniture around the house. There is an option to use the embedded narration, or mute it so you can sound off and practice saying words with your little one. There are hours upon hours of learning and interactive fun in this one pack alone. Click on the ads to support the developer, or upgrade to get an ads-free version for a small fee.
Dino-buddies by Rivercrest Inc
One of my best finds on iTunes so far, this stand-alone app contains one free story, and a Fun & Games section chock-full of activities that toddlers can enjoy for hours. The artwork is also incredibly appealing. The characters are colorful dinosaurs reminiscent of Barney and friends, except less, well, scary. In this story, the dino-buddies of Onid Valley meet the newest member of their group, a newly-hatched baby pterodactyl named Lisi. The dinos then set out to plan a welcome party for her. The surprise at the end comes when Baby Lisi finds out that she can actually fly, becoming the first dino-buddy to have that ability, which is useful for getting things in high places, such as toys stuck in trees.
Like the My First Books stories, the app also comes with an option to auto-play with narration, or to record your own. The 10 extra activities in the Fun & Games section include puzzles, flash cards, and minigames.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this free app is that it is 100% ad-free, so no accidental pop-ups. This one’s a gem of a find indeed.
Beebo has a Bad Dream
Among all the e-books I have on this list, this one is probably the most age-appropriate for the smallest babies. This is probably because the e-book was created by a fellow parent who wanted to write books for his own baby, and knew exactly what worked. For one, the pictures are mostly monochromatic, and the pages have no more than two short sentences each. The animations are also very subtle, like blinking eyes or a chewing mouth, adding an element of surprise to the reading experience. In one page, Beebo the giant panda is trapped inside a giant donut in his dream, which the reader can spin to their heart’s content.
This quiet and calming story is the one to save at the end of the night for when your little one is almost ready to doze off.
StoryBots “Starring You” Books
StoryBots is a multimedia learning platform available on the web and mobile app stores. I knew it was going to be a predominantly paid app when I saw the fancy ad on Youtube while playing a Baby Joyjoy video, but wanted to check it out anyway. The iTunes version has all the features of its website, including the very cool “Starring You” Books, where your baby can be the star of the stories and videos by uploading a photo.
The Biggest Pizza Ever is the only free book in the app. While the words and rhymes are catchy and the art is well-appointed, the accompanying music can disruptive, so it is best to keep the tablet muted. Other than the embedded animation, the app does not have a lot by way of interactivity. There is also no accompanying narration or option to record voice. Nevertheless, my daughter does enjoy seeing herself in the pages of a book. But with a hefty tag price of $9.99 per month to unlock full content, I’m ok with the lone freebie.
There is definitely no shortage of e-books for babies and toddlers available in the web and mobile apps market without having to shell out a single penny. But if you do fine one that you really like, try and support the developers in some (financial) way, so that they may make more good content. Writing about them and hyperlinking is actually my way of giving back, in a way.
Have you ever used or bought one of the apps I listed above? What did you think of them? Do you have good e-books for babies and toddlers you can recommend? Leave a comment below.