Trying Out Digital Storybooks With a 4-Year-Old, Part 1: Jack and the Beanstalk

Geek Culture

Like most kids his age, my 4 year old son loves it when his mother or I read books to him, and not just at bedtime. I’m sincerely pleased when he pulls up beside me or crawls onto my lap for a good story. Last week the Kellys took a vacation to the beach and, not wanting to take a lot of oversized hardback storybooks, I had been planning to try out some of the new digital storybooks on the iPad. Decker still managed to pack away 2 or 3 of his favorite storybooks, but I had high hopes for a small collection of apps that a few developers provided for testing.

Now, I’m a book lover. I probably split my reading 50/50 with half of my stuff residing in ePub or PDF form and the other half being good ol’ fashioned hardcovers and softcovers. I believe there is value to a printed book, even more so with childrens books. It’s not just the bright colors and large print. I’ve seen Decker sit and pretend to read a book, making up the story or trying his best to retell it from memory (and often hitting some passages dead on). He likes to turn the pages, and with new books I can see how antsy he gets to see the next page… and the next. Mommy and Daddy have their smaller, thicker books, and I know that Decker appreciates his growing collection that sits on his small bookshelf. So I really wasn’t sure how he was going to take to stories being presented on the iPad’s screen. But, given his love for Angry Birds and a few favorite learning apps, I should have known there would be no real issue.

Today I want to share with you how Jack and the Beanstalk from Mindshapes fared. Keeping in mind the 4 year age, I’ve tried to get his feedback without asking leading questions. And I’ve done my best to simply observe his reactions and try to gleam what I can.

First, the details.

Jack and the Beanstalk is a fairly common story, so I wasn’t surprised that Decker already knew the premise of the tale. But Mindshapes has updated the tale with some features that made it new again… for both of us!

The $2.99 app has two options — Read to Me and Read by Myself. Decker is only able to handle short sight words (hat, rat, cat) so when offered the choice, he immediately chose the narrated version of the story.

The opening screen has a small number of buttons and the pulsing GO button begs to be pressed. But Decker pressed it before I had a chance to tap the Read to Me button. Unfortunately, the Read by Myself option must have been pressed by me (or was the default) because that was the option that opened. No big deal — I just restarted the app and showed Decker how to touch the Read to Me button first. There’s also a Table of Contents button that allows you (or your child, really) to jump to a favorite page. Decker has figured that out and now likes to jump to two specific pages that he has found repeatedly enjoyable.

Once the narration started, Decker was read the first page of the story. Young Jack is sitting on the ground, playing a video game, while his mother cleans house behind him. I told Decker he needed to tap areas of the screen to see what happened. When clicking on the Mom, for example, she tells him to Please put away your dishes. Decker figured it out right away — he tapped on the two stacks of dirty dishes and away they flew into the sink. Immediately bubbles began to float around the room from the sink and a single tap would pop them. He loved it. Another click on Mom and she tells him to put away his dirty clothes. He tapped on the dirty clothes and in they went to the washing machine that shakes and rumbles. Tapping on the running water in the sink turns it off and on. A few more interactive elements remained on the page and Decker had fun finding them.

Next, I showed him how to turn the page — a small arrow in the lower right corner. Decker’s fingers are small, so I thought he’d have no issues with it, but my 4 year old doesn’t always have the best accuracy (if you know what I mean) so a few times during the app’s story he didn’t hit the page turn icon right away. There’s also a page turn icon in the lower left that takes you to a previous page, and Decker figured that out on his own.

At this point, I should add that I had to crank up the volume on the iPad to the max… and even then the narration wasn’t always easy to hear. Not sure if the developer can fix this, but it’s never quiet in the Kelly house and I ended up re-reading the text (at top of each page) because often clues to a page’s interactive elements were contained there. Not a big deal, and probably easy to fix… but my 1.0 iPad at max volume would not be able to compete with anyone talking in the room.

A few times we missed an interactive element but caught it on a later read. (He likes this app, so we had plenty of chances to do it again… and again…) For example, on one page if you don’t drag the cloud over a certain spot, the rain won’t grow the beanstalk. Decker didn’t even notice because when he tapped the cloud rain started to fall. He (and I) never thought to drag the cloud left or right, but once we found it, the growing beanstalk animation made him laugh out loud.

One of Decker’s favorite parts of the story was dressing Jack to climb the beanstalk. It’s an interactive game that let him drag various clothing, helmets, and other items onto the figure of Jack. Only the right combination of climbing gear will change him into Super Jack, and Decker had fun dragging and dropping items to find the right combo. And he did find it all on his own, which I loved.

The next screen was great — you tilt the iPad left or right to steer Jack as he flies up the Beanstalk, Superman-style. You really can’t do anything wrong, but it’s a nice bit of animation and Decker loved the control of the on-screen character.

Remaining pages tell the story of Jack running into the Giant, the Giant’s Wife, and the various other elements of the story — Goose laying golden eggs, magic harp, and a money bag. Plenty more interactive elements remain that I won’t spoil here, but rest assured that when the Giant showed up, Decker was holding the iPad on his own and interacting with the story without my help. (There is another flying part to the story that he just loved… with the Giant’s hand chasing Jack as he flies down the beanstalk… Decker said that was his favorite part and he replayed that page at least 3 or 4 times per read.)

I did have to help him out with the interaction needed to cut down the beanstalk, but once he saw how it was done he wouldn’t let me help him anymore. A few more funny things happen that made him laugh out loud again.

All in all, the entire story (with narration turned on) takes about 10 minutes or so to complete; about the same time as 1 or 2 bedtime stories… your mileage may vary. I also want to add, however, that the app did crash on me twice, each on a different day and I couldn’t force it to crash by repeating whatever it was that Decker or I did… so not sure what happened there, but we simply started the app again and it worked fine.

Given that most of the oversized storybooks these days run between $5.00 and $20.00, I have to honestly say that $2.99 for this little repeatable app is totally worth it. Decker’s already run through it enough times to reduce its cost to about $0.25 per read.

Decker loved the app… and he didn’t seem to mind the few dings that I encountered:

1. Increase the volume of the narration

2. Flag the Read to Me or Read to Myself buttons so it’s known which option is selected

3. A few interactive elements may be hard to find for young children (cloud raining on beanstalk, for example)

4. Page turning buttons (forward and back) could be enlarged just a bit for less dexterous fingers

I like Mindshapes’ take on the story and their updating it with some nice graphics. The choices for interactivity are perfect for children and are not overly complicated to launch. I’ll definitely be watching for any new stories they tackle… and I certainly hope they do offer more down the road.

Tomorrow… The Berenstain Bears’ Bedtime Battle from Oceanhouse Media, Inc.

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