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Screenshot of Kids Preschool Puzzle

For years, parents struggled with the seemingly impossible task of keeping their children entertained while waiting. Whether it was waiting to be seated at a restaurant or waiting for someone to be discharged from the hospital, kids get bored and they get bored quickly. So when tablets and smartphones came into prominence, with all their easy-to-play games, many parents rejoiced.

However, the time for celebrations has not quite come. Even though an iPad does a much better job of keeping children busy than a baggie of Cheerios, there is no real intrinsic value in Angry Birds. For parents desirous of apps and games that are not only entertaining but educational, I have thrown together a list of today’s best tools to keep your kids from tearing up Red Lobster out of boredom.

Redshift, Apple App Store, $11.99

As an unrepentant astronomy fanatic, I cannot recommend Redshift highly enough. Getting kids interested in astronomy is about as hard as getting them to watch fireworks. Redshift is designed for both the iPhone and iPad and features a complete 3D model of the closer part of our galaxy. Beyond allowing exploration of over 100,000 stars and their associated celestial bodies, the app also allows you to enter orbit around these bodies to study them further.

Another feature made famous by an iPhone commercial allows you to point your phone at the sky and watch as it labels the stars and galaxies you’re looking at in real time. Forget Angry Birds in Space, Redshift is the best “space” for your kids to play in.

Phone for Kids, Apple App Store, $1.99

For parents looking for more of a bang for their buck, it doesn’t get much better than Phone for Kids for the iPhone and iPad. Built with young children (babies and toddlers) in mind, the app features 24 educational activities that help kids learn anything from numbers to their ABCs. Feel free to try out the free version of the app — which features six of the 24 games — before deciding if it’s right for you.

Kids Preschool Puzzle, Android Marketplace, $2.99

Studies have shown that one of the best ways to cultivate young minds is with constant challenges like puzzles and brain teasers. Kids Preschool Puzzle is an excellent example of that. Teaching children basic shapes, animal names and letters, the game allows children to drag puzzle pieces into their appropriate place. The game is simple and easy to pick up. Developed by acclaimed preschool game developer Itellijoy, the game is accompanied by a number of other preschool apps worth checking out, including Kids Numbers and Math and Kids Learn to Read.

Callaway Digital Arts books, Apple App Store, $1.99

Receiving praise from Wired, Publishers Weekly and Gizmodo, Callaway is one of the best children’s app developers on the market today. Making reading a more interactive experience, Callaway’s titles such as Sesame Street: The Monster at the End of This Book and Angelina Ballerina’s Bubble Pop make for an easier introduction to reading. Using narration and touch navigation, the books teach children how to recognize words and associate their meaning. As interactive storybooks go, they don’t get much better than Callaway’s books. One of their most popular, Miss Spider’s Tea Party, is currently free for a limited time for anyone looking to check them out.

Word Wagon, Apple App Store, $1.99

Teaching kids basic phonics and spelling with what is essentially a matching game, Word Wagon is a great game for any children who are learning to or struggling with reading. The game varies in difficulty, allowing children to attempt spelling words without any hints. Visual and audio cues are used well to help kids along. The game features fun animations and voices that will make sure your child is having fun while learning the basics of language.

Toddler Tapping Zoo, Android Marketplace, $.99

A simpler title, definitely designed for babies and toddlers, Toddler Tapping Zoo helps children learn animals and the sounds they make. Not the best app for a crowded area as the sounds quickly get annoying, but it can still provide some solid entertainment for young children, requiring nothing more than a tap on the screen. Using realistic HD pictures instead of illustrations, the app helps children learn what a variety of common animals actually look like.

While I believe all of these apps are great learning tools, they are in no way a substitute for real-world learning. Indeed, children should learn about the world around them first-hand, not at the end of yet another glowing rectangle. They’ll have enough time for those later. Childhood is about turning over rocks and playing with bugs, not squishing them on a computer screen. But if you’re caught between a rock and a hard place (that is, a 45-minute wait for a table while calming a crying toddler), these apps are the perfect solution.

Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and, of course, anything with buttons. Check out his Twitter feed, @Deesing.