Friday, September 7, 2012

5 Great iPad Apps for Toddlers

When we moved house, I found myself in a 25 minute commute to drop Bethany off at daycare each morning and afternoon. Initially this meant I had a very cranky baby. After about a month of her not learning to entertain herself, or respond to singing etc from me, I resorted to giving her the iPhone. She quickly decided YouTube was awesome and like to watch 'ABCD', which was what she called anyone singing the alphabet song. However, 10 x 25 minutes of streaming YouTube videos a week was eating quickly through my data package, plus she also started to call random people from my phone.

So I decided to set up the iPad properly with activities to keep her entertained on the road. And hence began a quest for good toddler apps. After several months of searching for and road-testing apps (by me and my 25mo), here are some of my top picks.

All of these games have a lot of replay value. They encourage interaction and creative exploration. They are good value for money. They don't have any advertising, in-app purchases, or tie-in merchandising. They are stable and seem free of bugs, and my toddler loves them. These are all general apps that I think would be liked by most toddlers of both genders.  

(Note: These are independent reviews.  I have not been approached to review these products and am not receiving anything in return for these reviews.)

Price: $1.99

You know those wooden board puzzles for toddlers where there might be 6 or so objects and each one is a puzzle piece? Well, Tozzle is the iPad version. The puzzles are all simple, engaging pictures in bright colours that are aimed at this age group. There are 42 puzzles including farm animals, fruit and vegetables, numbers, letters, car parts, fairytale scenes etc. The animals make appropriate noises, the letters are accompanied by the name of the letters spoken aloud etc.

User interface: The app is really easy for Bethany to move from one puzzle to another. After the first couple of times, she never got stuck and was able to exit a puzzle she was sick of and choose one she liked. She never accidentally ended up in a screen of text and there are no advertising links. If she has a go at placing a puzzle piece a couple of times unsuccessfully, then a little circle and arrow appears to 'hint' where it should go. I found this gave her just the right degree of help to understand how the game worked.

Exploratory value: This is an app where there is an objective – to complete a puzzle. A little song plays and balloons come down when you are successful, so in that sense it is a reward-oriented app with 'correct' answers. However, what is really nice about this app is that after you create the puzzle you can play around with the sounds all the items make. Bethany keeps coming back to the puzzle where she builds a xylophone so that she can play the xylophone.

Educational value: This app is primarily about learning to compare and match together similar shapes, just like its real world counterparts. It also reinforces basic vocabulary.

Toddler appeal: Very high. Bethany loves it and I know plenty of other mums who say their toddlers love it too.

How irritating? Not too bad. The little congratulations tune is mildly annoying, but this is short and over quickly, and not so irritating when I glance in the rear vision mirror and see Bethany doing a little dance to it.

Price: $2.99

Don't be fooled by the boring, serious name. This is a great interactive app that is all about exploration, not flashcards at all. Essentially, the app's main menus is all the letters of the alphabet in cheerful colours. Tapping each letter takes the child to a screen with an interactive object to play with that relates to that letter. For example, Z is a zip that can be zipped up and down by sliding it with the finger, and it randomly reveals different objects when it is unzipped. E is an egg that can be cracked open by repeatedly tapping it until the white and yolk falls out. B is a beach where the sun can be pulled down to the horizon and the colours change to sunset and cicadas start chirping, or pulled back up to show a balmy day.

User interface: Superb. So simple, so elegant, and so easy for even really young toddlers to navigate successfully.

Exploratory value: Excellent. There is no winning or losing in this app, there is just experimentation and interaction.

Educational value: Deceptively high. Because particular letters lead to particular toys, recognising the letter shapes is important for getting to the toy you are after, which reinforces those letter shapes with strong positive, relevant associations. Nearly all the interactive activities within those letters also teach something about the real world. The zip works like a zip, the xylophone like a xylophone. On P, you water a tree, which grows pears, which you pick and which then turn into a pie.

Toddler appeal: Really good, although I'd say she definitely prefers some letters than others. She keeps coming back to it and getting more out of it.

How irritating? Mostly not irritating. The background music is pleasantly low key. The only glitch is the xylophone for X, which cues every note she hits, so if she taps a lot with all her fingers, it keeps playing for a good minute or two after she's stopped.

This is another interactive alphabet app with a similar concept but a different visual style. Whereas Interactive Alphabet has a simple, cartoony style designed to maximise focus on the letters and the functions of the objects, Goodnight ABC has 26 screens of gorgeous animal art with a more complex range of interactions. Each screen is set on a stage like a diorama. 

Some of the ideas in it are even a bit edgy - like turning off the light switch on X scene shows the x-ray skeletons of all the stuffed toys in that scene. I think this is pretty cool and Bethany is fairly indifferent, but I wonder whether some (particularly older) toddlers might find these kind of interactions fascinating or creepy.

User interface: Pretty good once they learn where to tap on the menu screen to get started.

Exploratory value: Very good. Encourages looking closely at the scene and exploring minute details within the scene.

Educational value: I can't imagine any child would learn the alphabet from this app, because the letters don't stand out from the scene very noticeably. What I think this app does well is what a beautifully illustrated picture story book does well – it engages the child's visual imagination.

Toddler appeal: Very good. It took her a while to warm to it, but once she started to realise how much she could interact with it, she got right into it. She was particularly taken with the alligator snoring when it went to sleep. She sends it to sleep then giggles and announces he's 'noring!'

How irritating? I haven't found it irritating at all.

Price: $1.99

This is a beautifully designed app, which is essentially an adult game that has been turned into a toddler toy. In the game you choose to visit islands. Each island is a scene where you can interact with various elements – most in which you have to find a way of feeding (loveable) monsters, or putting fires out using a moveable water hose.

User interface: Gorgeous. The main menu is an interactive visual scene with moveable islands which serve as pictographs for the various games. Bethany can navigate it easily

Exploratory value: Quite good. While there are ways to successfully complete each game, there is a lot to explore and interact with along the way.

Educational value: The app creates scenes in which objects fall down with gravity, and water in particular moves about the scene in realistic ways. The game has a kind of real-world logic in the way fire has to be put out with water, and objects moved by the water to get at other objects. It also has imaginative flair with the quirky concept and the great visual design.

Toddler appeal: It took a bit of coaching for her to understand how the game worked, but once she did, she really enjoyed it. She likes to pretend to touch the fire and tell me it's hot, and likes to feed the monsters.

How irritating? Pretty inoffensive. The music is soft and mellow and the sound effects are quite muted.

Price: Free

Squiggles! is an app with an interesting concept. It contains a range of scenes, and objects are triggered to move by squiggling on them. So, a screen of cars are presented and the if you draw smoke for the cars then they zoom along the road when you press the 'go' button. Squiggles can be drawn anywhere, colours can be chosen, and there are also options to put stickers on the scene as well.

User interface: Not too bad. Bethany learned to use it after a few false starts. She used to end up in the setting menu or a text screen fairly frequently at the start, but that doesn't seem to happen anymore. It took her a while to work out how to change scenes within the game.

Exploratory value: Better in theory than in practice. My daughter quickly learned that a quick scribble on each object makes it move, and all she does is that minimal scribble then hits the button to make the objects move. She doesn't explore by drawing on the scenes. The game would be improved by a greater range of interactive aspects to the scene, and for encouragement to experiment with modifying the scenes in a variety of ways.

Educational value: The hand-eye coordination of drawing is what this game primarily offers.

Toddler appeal: Bethany enjoys it. Although she tends not to play it for very long before switching to something else, she frequently chooses this app and gives it a go.

How irritating?  This one can get a bit annoying after a while. The narrator's voice is overly cutesy and the sound effects are quite loud.  I was startled to hear the narrator prompting Bethany to 'give this little girl a beer' at one point, and then say 'now this old lady wants a beer!'  Turns out it was 'beard' not 'beer'... which of course makes much more sense.