Holiday Home Run Gifts: iPad Minis, Apps, and More

If you and your kids are dreaming of a tech-filled holiday season, you probably have questions about tablets, iDevices, and the like. Should you get the brand-new iPad Mini? What makes it a better choice than the larger iPad or the smaller iPod Touch? Do you need accessories, like cases and styluses? Which ones? And what are the best apps for kids of all abilities?

iPad Mini iPod

The iPad Mini is this season's It Girl. According to my 13-year-old technophile daughter (whom I now consult instead of Gizmodo or Engadget), people prefer the size of the Mini for portability/stashability, and because it's friendlier for holding and reading. It's also less expensive than an iPad: the entry level 16 GB wifi-only version is $329 -- $70 less than the most basic iPad 2, and $170 less than Retina diplay iPads. Plus the Mini has Siri, which lets your kids taunt proto-AI and lay foundation for the pissed-off Skynets of the future. But I digress.

My 12-year-old autistic son is already a huge iPad fan, in part because of the iPad's large screen -- his fine motor challenges means it's difficult for him to use his fingers to manipulate objects on the teeny iPod Touch screen. So I took him on an iPad Mini test drive at the local Apple store, to see what he thought. He was unfazed by the Mini's scale reduction -- he launched right into several of his favorite apps without even a brow wrinkle, and I could see no difference in the way he used the Mini compared to his larger traditional iPad. From Leo's perspective, the Mini appears to be a solid option -- even though I'm sure our boy has no intention of trading in his beloved iPad 2.

Regardless of the tablet option you choose -- even if you choose a non-iDevice (we are also a Xoom Android tablet family, shhh) -- you're going to want a good case. Trust me on this, because my denial was expensive. Leo has always been thoughtful and careful with his iPad, but even so has cracked three tablet screens: one irreparably, two cosmetically, all three unintentionally. Do you research, consider your child's outlook on and history with expensive gadgets, and choose wisely. Of all the companies that make protective cases for tablets, readers, and smart phones, I think the Trident series does the best job in balancing affordability and protection. And they already have a Mini version available. Leo uses the Kraken, the sturdiest Trident of them all, as seen in the red iPad case pictured above.

As adept as Leo is at using his iPad, he still finds writing or drawing on it with a stylus less than motivating. Or he did, when the only options available to him were skinny, pen- or pencil-width, and made of cold hard metal. But Emma Apple helped Leo discover the soft, wide, grippable Chubby StylusChubby stylus from Lunatik ($19.95), and it transformed his tablet writing and drawing experience. The Chubby is easy to hold, and holding it feels good. What more could a 12-year-old boy ask for?

Once you've found your kid a tablet, you'll likely want to start filling it with apps. You can even take the tablet out of its box, register it, put apps and other content on it, and wrap it back up in its original trappings and box so it's ready to go upon being unwrapped by its giftee. As there are approximately five bajillion apps available on the iTunes store,, and Google Play store, I help maintain a recommended apps spreadsheet with an autistic friend, Corina Becker, and an SLP friend, Jordan Sadler, to help make the selection process easier for folks like you -- especially if you're looking for apps for kids with autism or other special needs. Here are a few recent and/or seasonal favorites, all prices accurate as of this writing:

  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer ($1.99)
    A lively interactive book based on the classic Christmastime movie. Would have been nice to have back when Rudolph was only broadcast once per year, and before VCRs (#getoffofmylawn). My kids, who watch their Rudolph DVD whenever they like, are delighted to have this expanded experience available -- especially Leo, who gets a kick out of touching Rudolph's nose and making it squeak.

  • The Grinch Who Stole Christmas ($2.99)
    It's the original Dr. Seuss book that comes to life, rather than the equally wonderful Chuck Jones/Boris Karloff/Thurl Ravenscroft movie. Never fails to delight our crew. And, as with all the Oceanhouse Media OMBooks, I love that it lets our kids click on each word individually, and "read" the book themselves.

  • Geography Drive USA ($4.99)
    A cute, fun, educational trivia sprint through the 50 states of the USA, and an app to warm this geographile's heart. My kids and I playing this game equally, and Leo especially enjoys getting to trick out the custom car in which the sprinting occurs. I hope European or Counties of the World versions aren't far behind!
  • Toca Band ($1.99)
    Pretty much Leo's App of the Year. Free-form musical play, aw yeah. I love demoing this app when I give iPad workshops, and showing how easy it is for Leo to use, plus how much he loves it. The crowd always goes wild, I'm guessing your child will, too.
  • Go Go Games ($1.99)
    A suite of games developed specifically to help autistic kids practice noticing and differentiating between objects in their environment. Unlike many other apps aimed at kids with special needs, this one is actually fun -- Leo plays it nearly every day.

  • Trains by Byron Barton ($1.99)
    Another interactive story book, part of a series that includes Boats and Planes. It may be a stereotype that autistic kids love trains, but in Leo's case it's absolutely true. One of the highlights of my son's November was getting to play with his Trains app ... on a train.
  • Wreck it Ralph StoryBook Deluxe ($6.99) - or any movie tie-in storybook app.
    Leo has a hard time sitting through movies in a theater, especially if they're unfamiliar. But now studios like Disney are starting to release storybook apps before releasing new movies, which means Leo can get to "know" the movies before he sees them. And that helps make his movie-going experience so much more enjoyable. One caveat: these storybooks can be take up a lot of space -- nearing 1 GB in some cases. Not great for devices with limited storage, e.g., the entry-level 16 GB iPads, Minis, and iPods.
  • Coloriffic ($2.99)
    For kids who like to color and create -- the first decent app I've found for young artists who want a rounded drawing and painting experience, and also like coloring books. Feels like a junior Paper. Another Emma Apple recommendation.

Like our own universe, the iDevice, app, and general tabletty-gadget milieu is constantly expanding, and it certainly can't be entirely contained for holiday shopping purposes -- so I'm hoping you have your own advice about which devices, accessories, and apps frantic folks should consider for their favorite kids. Let's talk -- what are your favorites?


Shannon Des Roches Rosa usually works something about iPads or apps into each and every 2010 and beyond post at,, and

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