As a parent of a kinder, I'm always looking for ways to encourage reading, math and the joy of discovering new things. Sometimes it's a battle against "screen time." (It's rough competing with Bubble Guppies. What's math when pitted against tiny mermaids?) But with the following apps (vetted by some of the top names in children's education), everyone wins. They've got fun, educational value, and best of all, most of them are free! (Or cheaper than a Happy Meal.)

1. FREE: Leo's Pad: Preschool Kids Learning Series

Leo's Pad was created by a board of early childhood development experts at Stanford University. It gets five stars from the iMums ("reviews by mothers of little gadget lovers") and features beautifully illustrated, engaging stories for preschoolers and kindergartners. Each of the stories contain interactive elements that will have your tiny ones giggling with glee—and learning about word sounds, letters and the love of reading. Leo's Pad also features several interactive one- or two-player games that relate to each of the stories in the app. Compare to Disney-themed reading games available for the LeapPad tablet, at $10-$14.

2. FREE: Feel Electric

Feel Electric (find the Android version here) was the result of a partnership between PBS (specifically the cast of the TV show The Electric Company) and an organization called Military Families Near and Far (which supports children of parents in the military). The app's focus is on helping kids find creative, healthy ways to express and identify their emotions. The videos, images and games within the app are incredibly creative, fun and a fabulous way to help kids learn the skill of expressing their emotions using words. Compare to the Faces and Feelings game, which retails for $15.99.

3. FREE: Toontastic

Most preschoolers and kinders love cartoons. This app takes that love to the next level and puts kids in the drivers' seat as they create their own cartoons! Kids pick characters, setting and props to use in each animated short, then move the pieces around in sequence to create a story, all while narrating what's happening (while the tablet records). Just add final touches of music and sound effects and the result is a unique animated film! And as if that's not enough fun, kids can enter their film in contests within the Toontastic community. I love the sense of accomplishment this app gives kids in allowing them to create something so impressive-looking, not to mention the storytelling skills it fosters! Compare to the Lulu Jr. Create Your Own Comic Book game at $29.99.

4. MarcoPolo Ocean, $1.99

This imaginative app comes highly recommended by Common Sense Media, a site that helps parents make informed choices about their kids' media consumption. The app encourages preschoolers to learn about and explore the ocean. In this narrated app, kids can put together puzzles, learn fun and interesting facts about coral reefs and tide pools, and even assemble their own marine animals (that then become animated and swim through the ocean!). MarcoPolo Ocean also lets kids build ships and submarines. (My kindergartner was especially taken with this aspect of the game!) Compare to the Fisher-Price Octonauts Octopod Playset at $34.99.

5. FREE: LEGO Friends Story Maker

The experts in entertaining children, LEGO, have created an app that brings the building blocks to the screen—the building blocks of storytelling, that is! LEGO Friends Story Maker (find the Android version here) allows kids to tell and illustrate their own stories. First, kids pick out images and backgrounds for each page of their story. Then, they record the audio for each page. The end result is a book that can be replayed and reread time after time, and even published to iBooks so that kids can share their creations with friends. Kids learn great lessons about story flow, plot, connecting words with images and working hard to create something they're proud of. Compare to the V-Tech Create-A-Story Mickey Mouse Clubhouse software at $19.99.

6. Freckleface Strawberry Dreamtime Playtime, $0.99

The mom gurus at tipped me off to this fabulous little app that helps preschoolers and kinders learn to love math. The app sprang from Julianne Moore's New York Times best-selling book Freckleface Strawberry Dreamtime, and follows the story of an adorable little girl with a fantastic imagination. The app begins with an introduction to Freckleface Strawberry, who tells kids about the stories she imagines at bedtime. Each of the stories Freckleface tells involves counting, matching, and identifying coins (to pay the loveable monster she imagines meeting at the store, for instance). The concepts in the game are simple, but the dialogue and images are spot-on, and my kinder loves engaging with this app. Compare to LeapFrog Explorer math games, at $24.99.

We'd love to hear which educational apps you're head over heels for! Which gems for preschoolers or kindergartners have you discovered?


This is a guest post by Noelle from Boise, ID.

6 Amazing (Cheap or Free) Educational Apps for Preschoolers and Kindergartners