In the hands of a child, a smartphone with a few choice apps is a powerful tool for exploration, understanding and discovery.

Our 6-year old uses the following five apps dedicated to real-world exploration. Older kids should like them too. I have them installed on my iPhone; they’re also installed on an old iPhone we let our kid use around the house.

Beyond helping kids explore the world, apps like these can teach kids how to use technology appropriately for learning.

Star Walk Kids – The easiest way for anyone (child or adult) to learn the stars, planets and constellations. It’s fun to stand in the backyard in the early evening, exploring the night sky as a family.

The app matches the map on the iPhone’s screen with the actual stars in the sky in your location. It features an easy-to-understand interface and friendly narration. This app is a total winner.

Leaf Snap – Last summer we used a couple of field guides to identify trees in our region by  their leaves. We supplemented our field guides with this promising app that literally makes identifying leaves a snap. All you do is take a photo of the leaf and the app shows you what kind of tree it came from, along with information about the species. It’s not always accurate, but it generally works and it’s fun to use.

CuriousRuler – A fun app that uses the iPhone camera to teach kids how to measure objects around them while learning about sizes, units of measure, and proportions.

Merlin Bird ID  – One of the simplest yet most effective bird identification apps. It asks a few simple questions that include graphical guidance.  It then reveals a list of birds that best match the description.  Once you or your kid has found your bird, learn more with additional photos, sounds, and ID tips. It’s a little advanced for very young users, but older kids will quickly get the hang of it.

Kidcam – Taking photos is a key part of exploration. And all kids love snapping photos. In fact, they often get carried away with it, taking hundreds of photos that fill up their library (or your library) KidCam solves this by optionally putting a one to five second delay on the camera shutter, sorting your kids photos in their own library, and even setting a limit the number of photos and videos your kids can take. (When the limit is reached, the oldest photo or video gets deleted.) It also has kid-friendly controls and silly monster overlays.

Runner up: NatureTap. Swipe, flip and tap your way through hundreds of birds, bugs, frogs, flowers and now mammals. And challenge yourself with fun and exciting games.

There are also a couple of great apps for reporting your nature observations in the name of citizen science,  including Project Noah and iNaturalist. However, these require logging a location along with an observation. That’s something you likely want to do with your child.

If you’re looking for more recommendations for movies, books, apps and more, check out Commonsensemedia.org