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Of all the things smartphones and tablets were designed to do, none is more miraculous than keeping kids busy.

Yes, I know there’s a chorus of people right now thinking that using a buzzing, flashing touchscreen to keep a kid quiet is just plain old lazy parenting.

Maybe it is cheating to bribe them with electronics instead of spending another 10 minutes lecturing them about manners and patience for the zillionth time.

But if it buys a few minutes of peace when you’re in the middle of a conversation or trying to navigate directions in the car, is that really so bad?

How much do you want to bet the people at the table next to you in the restaurant would rather your kid entertain himself with a few games of Angry Birds than whine about how long it’s taking for the food to arrive?

There’s no easier way to silence your kids in a jiffy than to hand them your phone or your tablet, preloaded with a few engaging apps.

The best part? Many of the best apps are free.

Here are 10 free apps you should never leave home without.

Sprout Games and Videos

If your preschooler likes the Sprout channel, he is going to love this app.

It plays clips from TV shows that air on the network and has games that feature characters from shows such as the Pajanimals and LazyTown.

It also links to other Sprout apps, such as Dress Chica, a paper- doll game where kids can dress the channel’s chicken mascot in different clothes and accessories.

Available on iPhone and Android.

Where’s My Water?

Divert water through different channels to deliver it to an alligator’s bathtub.

It’s an addictive game from Disney that lets kids practice problem-solving using creative thinking and strategy. Because the water behaves true to reality, they’ll get a stealth physics lesson to boot.

The free version cuts off after 10 levels, the 99-cent version comes with hundreds more.

Available on iPhone and Android.

Let’s Count Animals!

This app by Fisher-Price helps kids learn about numbers and animals.

Kids can tap the screen to hear numbers, can slide animals back and forth by tilting the screen and tickle the animals by shaking the device.

Available on iPhone. On Android, try Animal Sounds, which plays more than 30 different animal calls.

Shapes: Toddler Preschool

This app teaches kids about shapes by quizzing them. Kids are asked to touch different shapes, then are rewarded when they choose the right one, or corrected when they make a mistake.

Toddler Teasers has a whole line of free and cheap virtual flashcard apps that quiz kids on everything from letters to food to insects.

Available for iPhone and Android.

PBS KIDS Video

Keep more than 1,000 educational videos in your pocket at any given time.

This app lets your little one watch videos of popular kids’ shows such as SUPER WHY! and Sesame Street.

Available for iPhone and Android.

Checkers

Challenge your little one to the classic game of strategy or let her go head to head with another family member.

Versions are available for iPhone and Android.

Memory Matches

Just like the Memory card game you have at home, except you don’t have to worry about losing any of the pieces.

Kids tap a card to reveal the picture underneath, then try to find its match from among the other cards.

Available for iPhone. For Android, try Kids Memory Game Lite.

My Coloring Book

There’s a reason restaurants give you crayons and a coloring page when you arrive with kids. This app keeps you armed with both at all times.

Kids can choose colors from a palette and pictures from a huge assortment (animals, aliens, still life), then color them in with the swish of a finger.

Available for iPhone. For Android, try Toddler Coloring Book.

There are a ton of free coloring apps out there for kids, but this one doesn’t have in-app ads that let your kids make other purchases, whether intentionally or not.

MiniPiano

This playable 14-key keyboard is perfect for your little-bitty, budding Beethoven. Kids can hit the keys, which play and sound like a real piano.

It’s a fun and imaginative way to play, but can also function as a real tool for kids who are learning scales and chords to practice in a pinch.

Available for iPhone. For Android, there’s a free app called Perfect Piano, which has the added bonus of teaching kids how to play the piano with specially lighted and labeled keys.

Kid Paint Express

A breeze for even the youngest kids to use, this app lets kids draw and paint with a fingertip. In addition to its palette of colors is a stable of “stickers” kids can choose and “stick” anywhere on the picture.

Available for iPhone. For Android, try Kids Doodle–Color & Draw, which lets kids draw on a black canvas with glowing neon colors.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com