Wow, has it been a month already since my last Core Dump column? I guess so. Time flies when you’re playing Draw Something. Seriously. At the time I wrote my “Draw the Line” column I was still playing the freebie version, but then I went ahead and bought the $.99 version to get more words, and I now have a dozen games going at once because it’s so addictive.
Anyway, today’s column is all about educational apps for iOS. There are so many apps that claim to be educational, but as Dan Donahoo has pointed out, not all educational apps are created equal. The hardest part is sorting through everything to figure out what works for your kid — sometimes the ones with the best educational content (or the best design/graphics/interface) aren’t the ones that your kids even want to play. Here are just a handful of apps that I’ve checked out lately; some fall farther along the “edutainment” scale than others.
Bugsy Kindergarten Reading – $2.99 (universal)
Bugsy is a silly little hamster that teaches your kid to read. He asks the questions out loud, cheers for you when you get the right answer, and shakes his head and encourages you to try again when you get an answer wrong. Our five-year-old has just never been as interested in reading as her older sister, despite our frequent cajoling/encouragement/urging. Yet somehow this little animated hamster got her interested in learning her letters — so I guess Bugsy has more pull than her parents.
The original version of Bugsy Kindergarten Reading took place in a classroom, but more recent updates have Bugsy in space, so it’s clear that Peapod Labs is continuing to update the app to keep it fresh. Getting four stars (correct answers) earns you a little reward: little animals or crystals or things that you can put in the background of the home page, kind of like earning stickers for a sticker book. (This is a bit different from the original, in which you collected coins and then spent them on the stickers.)
The app is pretty straightforward, with a few simple types of problems or “find this word” questions. If you create an account for your children, you can even log in and track their progress when they play. Peapod Labs can even send you emails, showing you which letters your child is struggling with or how they’re doing on spelling. I’m not a huge fan of the graphics or the chipper hamster voice, but clearly it’s offering something my daughter likes.
For younger kids, there’s also a Bugsy Pre-K app which teaches colors, numbers, shapes, and phonics.
Freddi Fish and the Stolen Shell – $2.99 (universal app)
Freddi Fish and the Stolen Shell is another port of a game from Humongous Entertainment, like Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo which was released last fall. Originally from 1998, this game lets you control Freddi Fish (and his friend Luther) as you track down the stolen conch shell. Luther’s Uncle Blenny, the keeper of the conch, has been wrongly accused of the crime, and it’s your job to track down the real thief.
Like Putt-Putt, Freddi Fish is a point-and-click sort of game, with a whole lot of things to click on every screen — little animations will pop up all over the place, and there are also some mini-games scattered throughout (including a sort of pipe organ that lets you play music). The puzzles aren’t too difficult, but require a lot of traveling back and forth to get the necessary items to satisfy various characters or situations.
While this one isn’t, strictly speaking, an educational game — there’s no reading required and it’s primarily entertainment — it does require some creative thinking and problem-solving skills. My kids have been playing it over and over again, and discovered something that I hadn’t realized on my play-through: the criminal changes from game to game. Although you have the same suspect list each time, the locations of the missing pipes and the various puzzles you will need to solve change, so that it’s not the same game each time. At the conclusion of the game, you get a Dragnet-inspired epilogue (which your kids may not get, but you might).
If your kids liked Putt-Putt, then Freddi Fish is a great follow-up to that. I hope that Nimbus Games continues to port these Humongous Entertainment games, because they’re still a lot of fun.
Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App! – $6.99 (universal app)
If your kids have been into picture books anytime in the last, oh, decade or so, chances are you’ve seen the Pigeon books by Mo Willems. Starting with Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, the series follows a pigeon (in Willems’ goofy, simple style) who has no impulse control. He really wants to drive the bus; he wants to stay up late; he finds a hot dog. Here’s an app that takes the framework of the original book and turns it into an interactive app, with brilliant results: Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App!
Willems had a hand in the app, because he didn’t want it to be just a digital version of his book. Instead, when you read the story you get three options: Egg, Chick, or Big Pigeon. For Egg, you just get a randomized story: you shake the pigeon and you’ll get a story where the pigeon tries to convince you to let him do something: it might be “rule the world” or”wear purple underwear.” If you choose Chick, then the bus driver gives you various sets of three choices each, sort of a multiple-choice Mad Libs game, and then those things get filled into the story.
The last, though, is the one my kids like the most. Instead of getting to choose from various pre-selected options, you get to record your own answer as the bus driver asks you to pick a number, name something smelly, or say the name of your favorite game. Then, when the pigeon comes out, your own voice gets played back to fill in the blanks, kind of like the SparkleFish app. (The pigeon’s excuse is that he has something in his throat that makes his voice jump around and sound funny.)
The exact lines that will get incorporated into the story vary slightly each time, but overall it’s the same idea: the pigeon tries to convince you, and you say “No” and he gets upset, or whiny, or sad. My kids love hearing their own voices played back to them (doesn’t everyone?) and so this app has gotten a lot of mileage. You can save your favorite stories to play back later.
There’s also a “Draw the Pigeon” feature in which Mo walks you through the steps to draw the pigeon. His narration is really funny, and the pigeon is actually quite simple to draw once you’ve seen the breakdown of the various parts. My eight-year-old has been drawing the pigeon a lot now, and the five-year-old isn’t so far behind. At $6.99, it’s not a cheap app, but if you and your kids love the pigeon you’ll get a kick out of this one.
Intro to Geography – North America – $1.99 (iPad only)
Montessorium is an app developer that uses the Montessori approach to learning. They have two great apps for ABCs and 123s that I reviewed a while back, but they also have a new app that teaches something I haven’t seen much in the educational realm yet: geography. Intro to Geography – North America focuses on the North American continent (which includes Central America) and teaches your kids — and you — the names, shapes, and locations of various countries.
There are several types of activities that build on each other. The simplest is placing the country shapes onto the map, which is really just a matching exercise since the proper locations are shaded on the map. As each country is placed correctly, its name is announced. Another exercise shows you a few countries in a row with their names, and then asks you to identify them by name. Then they’re placed on the map, and you’re asked to identify them by name again. As you progress, the game goes from three countries at a time to several.
After playing through the whole map once, I realized that I had gone from “Uh, is that one Nicaragua?” to being able to identify all the Central American countries. (I was already pretty good at the US, Canada, and Mexico.) But it takes reinforcement — going a few weeks without reviewing (or looking at any other maps), I realized that I had forgotten a lot of them when I pulled the app up again. Still, it’s a pretty cool and intuitive way to learn geography, and I hope they release more for other continents as well. (Another developer, Rantek, also has an app called Montessori Approach to Geography which focuses on the US.)
As with Montessorium’s other offerings, this app is also nice to look at. It has a weathered, textured look which at first seems a little odd on your iPad, but it’s a refreshing change from all the slick, shiny graphics that many apps use, and feels a little more analog even while you play a very digital game. My one complaint about the app is in the “tap on the country” mode, in the way it announces countries when you get things right. It starts off by saying, for instance, “Tap on Mexico.” If you tap the wrong country, it repeats: “Tap on Mexico.” But if you get it right, the text displays “Tap on Canada” but the voice only says “Canada.” So the effect is that you tapped on Mexico, and the app says “Canada.” Then when you tap on Canada, it says “United States.”
My A-Z – $1.99 (iPhone)
Flashcards are fun, but there are other things that start with A besides “apple.” So Night & Day Studios decided to take a new approach to ABC flashcards by letting you customize them yourself. My A-Z is a set of flashcards, mostly already filled out with words and images. There are a few that have the words but no images: Dad, Mom, and Toy are all awaiting images. But you can also add as many flash cards as you want to any given letter: the app lets you use the iPhone’s camera or select an image from your photo album. You can also record a sound to go with each flashcard: say the word, or the sound of the letter, or just make a goofy sound effect.
The interface is pretty easy, though you shouldn’t (like me) delete the blank “A” flashcard that has the instructions on it. Once you’re done editing, you can hit the lock icon to hide the editing menu. Swiping left and right changes letters, and swiping up and down changes between flash cards of the same letter. Tapping anywhere on the image itself plays back the recorded sound (if there is one), and a little speaker icon appears in the upper right of the picture if there is a sound recorded. Personally I think it would be nice if it played the sound when you tapped the header area as well.
There are a bunch of ABC apps (and board books) so maybe you’ve got enough already, but I like being able to customize the flashcards to match my kids’ world.
Easy Chinese Writing (Traditional) – I Write Chinese – $1.99 (iPad only)
If you’re learning Chinese, it’s not enough just to be able to recognize the Chinese characters — you need to be able to write them as well. And when you’re presented with a complicated pictogram like 媽 (mom), where do you start? There’s an order to all of those little strokes and dashes, one that becomes almost second nature, like knowing what order to write letters in to spell a word, but it’s not immediately obvious if you’re just getting started. There are several apps available that show you stroke order and some that let you practice. Uniproducts has several apps available, including this one with the very long name: Easy Chinese Writing (Traditional) – I Write Chinese.
The app presents a dozen categories of words: number, family, food, weather, and so on, each with a number of relevant words. The character is displayed with its pinyin pronunciation. You also get the translation in English, French, and Spanish — and you can tap the speaker icon to hear it pronounced in those languages. (Another version of the app has Japanese and Korean translations.) You can also tap the speaker icon below to hear the word spoken in Mandarin. There is a small section that shows the order of the strokes from start to finish, and then the large section below lets you practice.
The character is displayed with numbers and arrows showing the order and direction of each stroke, allowing you to trace the character. The reason the direction matters has more to do with the traditional Chinese brushes and the shapes of the characters — while it doesn’t make as much of a visual difference when you’re using a pencil or pen, there’s still a “correct” way to write them, similar to proper cursive writing.
The one thing about this particular app is that you get a little smiley face when you’ve put the correct number of strokes on the page, regardless of whether you’ve actually reproduced the character. The app doesn’t care if you did them in the right order, or even if you just put scribbles all over the place; as long as you have the right number of strokes, you get a smiley.
This is the only one I’ve tried out myself so far, but Chinagram also looks like an interesting app — it has more of a focus on the origins of the written language, showing some of the older pictograms that eventually gave way to the more stylized characters.
Learn Chinese: Toy Story 3 – $4.99 (iPad only)
We’ll close out with one more app about learning Chinese: this one from Disney, of all places.
Learn Chinese: Toy Story 3 is an interesting approach that I hadn’t seen before. First, it’s a picture book app, with most of the usual features you’d expect from an interactive book: have it read out loud or read it yourself; tap on a word to hear it pronounced; swipe to turn pages. However, this isn’t just a picture book about the plot of Toy Story 3 — it’s also a Chinese learning app.
There’s a row of buttons (bottle caps, really) across the middle of the screen, numbered one to five. One is all English: the entire story is in English, and you can “flick” a word or phrase down into the translation section to see it written in pinyin and pronounced in Chinese (Mandarin). Switch to level two, and some of the English words and phrases have been replaced by their Chinese counterparts. The voice reading the story will automatically switch between English and Chinese depending on which words are displayed, and you can always flick things down into the translation box to hear them translated. By the time you get to level five, the entire story is in Chinese.
This actually makes a lot of sense: at first the book switches out some of the most common nouns: “toys,” for example. It’s pretty easy to hear the story with just those few words changed, and you can easily grasp the meaning of the story. Then, as you increase the number of phrases that are in Chinese, you already know that “wan-ju” is “toys” so you can focus on learning the next set of words. The pronunciations of both the Mandarin and English are excellent, and the translations work well, so you know you’re not getting poorly translated gibberish. I really like the idea.
Of course, there’s a difference between an idea that’s really great and educational and an app that my kids will use to its full potential. When presented with this app, my kids expressed some initial interest — but if given a choice, they’re much more likely to play with Freddi Fish or the Pigeon app. It could be that learning Chinese from an app doesn’t strike them as interesting, since they feel like they know it already (though, really, they could learn a thing or two from even this simple story). If your kids are interested in Chinese and motivated to listen to a story several times with several iterations, you may give this one a shot. I don’t know if Disney has plans to make other similar books, but I might have an easier time having my kids sit down to listen to a Tinkerbell story, or maybe The Incredibles.
Disclosure: GeekDad received review codes for the apps listed in this column.