How to Find the Best Free Apps for Kids

By Jinny Gudmundsen

Downloading free apps can be a dicey matter when kids are involved. Free apps entice us with the promise of mobile fun at no cost. But it doesn't usually work that way. Most “free” apps have a way of making money. And that way is not always good for kids.

THE FOUR CATEGORIES OF FREE

Free apps fall into four categories:

  • Apps with Ads: These apps sport ads inside of the app.
  • Freemium: These apps monetize by using micro-transactions in the form of in-app purchases. This model is also called free-to-play. Most offer their in-app purchases directly to kids and the gameplay is frequently set up to entice kids to spend money.
  • Free-to-Try: These apps offer some, but not all, of their content for free. After you try the free content, you have an option of buying the rest.
  • Free: These are genuinely free with no sneaky ways to make money.

WHEN FREE ISN'T FREE

The first two categories above -- Apps with Ads and Freemium -- are frequently bad for kids. Here are two examples to show why:

Apps with Ads

Flow Free Free (Big Duck Games LLC, for iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, and Windows phone) is a nifty logic puzzler about connecting colored dots by adding pipes to a grid. Sounds perfect for kids. The problem is that this free app makes money by hosting ads at the bottom of your screen. Thus the price of "free" is direct, in-your-face marketing. But it gets even worse, after winning a few levels, the app "rewards" you with a free download of another app – a casino-themed one. It goes so far as to lock your screen unless you download. I had to quit the app to get away from the promotion. You can pay $.99 for one of the many packs to get rid of these ads; but, as you can see, this free app is then no longer free.

Freemium

Plants vs. Zombies 2 from PopCap is an alluring puzzler about growing warrior plants to stop hordes of hilarious zombies. This freemium game (for iOS and Android) sucks you in by providing nicely balanced levels in the first of three worlds. But, by the time you reach the middle of the second world, the puzzles get hard, thus enticing players to spend real money for power-ups. This free-to-play game becomes a pay-to-win game. And parents have to deal with frantic requests to spend money on in-app purchases while their kids are in the middle of an undead battle.

WHEN FREE MEANS FREE

The better route to go when kids are involved is free apps that are genuinely free or free-to-try apps where the additional content is offered as an in-app purchase presented only to parents (meaning the offer-to-buy is behind a parental gate where parents need to answer a question that allows them into a "Parents-only" area of the app.) That way kids can enjoy a free app without suffering through hidden or aggressive in-app marketing.

To find the truly free and good apps for kids, we have created a Best Picks List just for that purpose entitled: FREE and Fabulous: Top Apps for Kids

On that list you will see examples of truly FREE such as:

  • Alien Assignment, created by the non-profit Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College.
  • PBS Parents Play & Learn, an app that is an excellent resource for new parents.
  • Awesome Eats, created by the Whole Food Foundation, a non-profit with the mission of helping kids make good food choices.

The list also has Free-to-Try examples such as: