You may think of your iPhone as a communications device, a productivity tool, an iPod or even a babe magnet. But if that’s all an iPhone is to you, you’re missing its most extraordinary power: the ability to keep a preschooler silent and occupied for the length of time it takes a grown-up to eat a meal in a restaurant with actual tablecloths.

We discovered the awesome child-pacifying powers of our iPhones last summer, while on a leadership retreat at the Hollyhock Centre. Hollyhock is almost the last place on earth you want to be outed as an over-technologized parent, but we decided we’d rather be the freaks whose kids can’t be separated from the small screen, than the freaks whose kids are incredibly noisy and disrupt everybody’s dinner (though there were some nights when we got to be both).

At first, we treated the iPhones as very tiny TV screens, capable of amusing our kids with downloaded Diego and Dora episodes. But within a few weeks of his second birthday, our little guy had already mastered the art of unlocking a sleeping iPhone, navigating to the iPod player, and getting Diego up and running. From this we inferred that the kids might be up for something more interactive, and tried out a variety of educational — and not so educational — games over the following months.

The opportunity to download a new iPhone app is now the second-most-requested privilege in our house: ahead of junk food, but still behind the lure of a new arts & crafts project. (Phew!) Saturday is “you get to buy a new app from the iTunes store” day, and our elder kid now has her sights set on an iPhone (or iPod touch) of her own.

Here are some of the apps that have been consistent hits in our house. I’d love to hear about other iPhone apps that appeal to the 3-5 set.

  1. fairies flyFairies Fly: If you’re the kind of parent who refuses to take your kid to Disney movies on principle, this is not the application for you. If, on the other hand, you are a five-year-old girl, you will think that steering Tinkerbell and other Disney fairies through trees, clouds and insects is pretty much the best thing that has ever happened in the entire history of the world.
  2. Zippo Lighter: On the one hand, it seems like an extraordinarily poor idea to encourage a small kid to play with fire. On the other hand, it seems to have completed displaced the fascination with REAL matches and lighters that I associate with small children.
  3. the wheels on the busThe Wheels on the Bus: This interactive version of the kids’ song is genuinely awesome; your kid can sing along in English, French, Spanish or several other languages, or record his own voice and listen to himself sing. No downsides except for the remarkable ethnic homogeneity of the bus riders & townspeople, which I can excuse on the grounds that this version seems to be set in a small French village (why, I couldn’t tell you.)
  4. Cylon Detector: If you’re geeky enough to think that an iPhone is an appropriate kid toy, you probably share our eagerness to induct your children into sci-fi geekdom as early as possible. The Battlestar Galactica Cylon Detector lets you or your kid snap a photo, and then find out whether the subject is a Cylon. Our kids love the composited photos of themselves and their friends in BSG garb; we love them getting groovy with Captain Adama et al.
  5. Subway Shuffle Lite: Move the obstacles so the train can move from one station to the other. A very simple logic game that can be modestly challenging for adults, and is a good brain-builder for kids who fight it engaging.
  6. Tappy Tunes: Unless you’re ready to start nagging your kids about piano practice, Tappy Tunes is the easiest way to get them playing music that sounds like, well, music. The kids tap the screen, and it plays the notes of a song, in order; your kid basically controls the pace, but not the tune.
  7. Ocarina screenshotOcarina: An iPhone version of the wind instrument: blow into your iPhone’s mike while you tap the appropriate spots on the screen, and you can play your iPhone ocarina like a real instrument. The kids love the challenge of modulating their breath and coordinating with the taps on screen.
  8. Scoops: Tilt the iPhone to slide your ice cream cone back and forth across the screen, catching more ice scream scoops and avoiding the tomatoes and onions. Simple, quiet and enjoyable.
  9. Balloonimals: Blow into the mike to inflate a balloon, then shake the phone to make a balloon animal. The resulting 3-D animals each perform a few different motions depending on where you tap. It’s all in the execution, here; nice images and animations make for a great experience.
  10. Bugdom: Help your bug navigate through a garden, zapping bees and catching butterflies.
  11. Toddler Teasers: Basic toddler challenges, like shape and colour identification. The instructions are spoken out loud, instead of written, which is something more kid-oriented games should think of!
  12. Peekaboo Barn: Guess which animal you’re hearing through the barn doors before the barn opens. It’s the adorable illustrations that make this game so charming; our toddler was delighted each time a new animal was revealed.

    Last but most essential: the Clarifi case, useful for sharpening your iPhone’s camera so you can take great shots of your kids. And even more useful when those tiny, techie fingers let your $299 iPhone drop on the restaurant floor.

    Update & Saliva Warning: I took my iPhone in for a repair this week and was told my warranty was void because a small paper tab Apple implants in each iPhone showed the phone had been exposed to liquid. Since this phone has never gotten wet, we suspect that the moisture detector (which is just inside the dock port) was triggered by excess saliva from the kids playing Ocarina and Balloonimals, both of which involve blowing into the phone. If your kids are still at the drooly stage, you may want to avoid iPhone games that involve mouth-to-iPhone contact.

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