Tuesday, January 31, 2012

My Little Pony: Twilight Sparkle, Teacher for a Day

My Little Pony: Twilight Sparkle, Teacher for a Day is an e-book from Ruckus Media. It's based on the current animated tv series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Yes, this is also the same My Little Pony from the early 90's. I guess everything is getting rebooted these days. Not complaining though - I loved My Little Pony as a kid - I even owned a pair of My Little Pony roller-skates. Price: $3.99

Device Requirements: Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.Requires iOS 4.0 or later.

Developmental Appropriateness: The overall theme of My Little Pony and this e-book is the importance of friendship and helping each other. So the topic matter is great for little kids. The e-book can be read in three different modes - Read to me, Read the book, and Read and record, giving a nice option of how involved you want to be. In the Read to me mode it is read in a nice pace and the text highlights accurately as it is being read. There are a few hotspots here and there, not too many, but enough where a child would look for them. It took me awhile to figure this out, but if you tap on the screen with the slightest motion (I used an iPad), I guess it thinks that you're trying to flip the page and it starts the text reading over again. Kids are not precise tappers, so if I was accidentally restarting the text, I'm sure they will too and at a higher rate. Also, there are activities like mazes and "spot the difference" pics inserted every few pages. While these are fun and age appropriate activities, I think the developers overstate their educational value. "Move the adventure forward with narrative-driven activities that include mazes and “spot the difference” that teach word recognition, picture/word association and basic problem solving skills." I think the activities are superficially tied to the plot and maybe hit on spatial and observational skills. However, these activities allow you to collect words that can done be used in a mad-lib type activity at the end of the story - which is pretty cool and a creative "reward" feature. Rating: 3.5/5 (aim for around 5 years)

I also wanted to briefly touch on gender here as I just realized that this is my first review of an app that may have a gender bias. I think it's safe to say that My Little Pony targets girls more than boys. While I don't think we should be encouraging stereotypes of any kind, research has shown that girls start to show a preference towards pink whereas boys show an aversion to pink by 2.5 years. Another interesting study found that not only do girls prefer to play with dolls and boys with cars, but female and male monkeys do the same! Just something to think about...

Balance: Back to these hotspots and activities. I think that the developers showed some control by not adding too many hotspots, and some pages don't even have any. Their intent was probably for kids to tap on them after the text was finished as the hotspots start to sparkle only after the text has been read (read to me mode). But since there are some - kids will probably want to look for them on every page, some more diligently than others, which may become a distraction. I'd like to see an e-book where it is clear that you cannot do anything until the text is finished. As for the activities, I'm wary of inserting activities during the story unless they are clearly part of the story and really does move the plot forward. Although these activities claim to do that, I don't think they quite do. I'm thinking of activities more along the lines of Bartleby's Book of Buttons. Otherwise, it really disrupts the plot and may lead to less comprehension. And even when the activities are part of the story, it could still affect comprehension for some kids - so activities in general are risky if you're really looking to teach them something. Finally, there are some animated clips that actually do move the plot along. There are just a few which seems to be a good amount to make it kinda cool but yet not make the book into too much of a movie or like the tv show. Rating: 3.5/5

Sustainability: The plus of the activities is that you collect words when you finish them. The words can then be used to fill in a story at the end. You can mix and match the words and create silly stories like with mad-libs (yet another throwback - mad lib's came out in the 50's!). This can be a great activity for improving reading, vocabulary, and storytelling. Also, the e-book encourages you to buy into this whole My Little Pony world - there is a feature where you can learn more about each pony. So being tied to the show can be a plus to spark more interest but parents may end up having to buy My Little Pony items like mine did with my roller-skates. I'm also not sure how popular the new show is... Rating: 4.5/5

Parental Involvement: The recording feature is nice - as parents can record their own reading and kids can listen to it even when the parent is not there. Parents can also use the recording feature to encourage their child to read aloud. Within the plot though, I'm not sure how much there is for parents to elaborate on except for the main themes of friendship and helping each other. Rating: 4/5

Total 15.5 out of 20: 3 stars

Disclosure: I received this app for review for free from the developers.

Monday, January 30, 2012

What is an educational app?

How exactly do we define what an "educational app" is? I think we all have a general idea of what we consider "educational," but with the explosion of apps, we obviously need a clearer definition and standards. I am not the first to say this. I've heard cries from our leaders in this field for setting standards, but what I'm not hearing are the answers.

Since starting this blog, I've been sent many requests for reviewing apps and in previewing these apps, I've really had to ask myself what I consider to be an educational app. I have to admit - I probably have not always been consistent in my judgement. So I thought that maybe writing this post would force me to come up with some guidelines for this little o' blog of mine and maybe start a conversation for how we should set some standards for our field overall. Here are some seemingly basic questions I've asked myself when previewing an app that have led to only more questions and issues to resolve.

1) Does this app teach you something?
At first, I naively thought that asking this question was enough. It would set apart the apps that were "just for fun" versus those trying to teach something. But then came:
  • Apps that stretch the definition of "teaching." Terms like "spatial cognition" and "memory" seem to get thrown out there a lot. Are these skills important? Yes. Does it make the app "educational"? I'm thinking no. A car racing game may lead to better spatial skills, but to me, it doesn't make it "educational." 
  • e-books. I want to say that all books are educational. We want to promote literacy and we want kids to be engaged in books - any books. But do all books "teach" something? I'm not sure. And now, many e-books are starting to look like games and movies. Where do we draw the line? Should we draw a line?
2) Is the subject matter of this app covered in school?
So then I thought a good way this might be a good way to narrow things down. It's not that I think that educational apps should only be about core subjects like math and reading, but it helped me to ask, "Would this topic be covered in school?" But then what about...
  • Preschool apps. Given their young age, preschool curricula is sometimes more loosely defined (speaking of standards...)
    • "Subjects" are not as clearly defined. Often, preschoolers are learning precursor skills, the basics that lead up to learning the concepts of a given subject. For example, learning about the seasons and weather isn't exactly science, nor is telling time exactly math. I would consider these basic skills "educational."
    • Social development. Many preschool curricula (and now apps) cover social skills like learning how to keep a daily routine or having more patience. While I think social development is important and should be taught in preschool, this is a gray area for me. For my own reasons, I've been saying no to apps targeting social development only because my background is more in cognitive development and those are the apps I prefer to be reviewing. But it does seem like apps targeting cognitive versus social skills should be very clearly labelled in separate categories.
  • The Other Subjects. Remember art or music class or library time? Sadly, funding has been cut to many of these subjects. Even gym has been scaled back. I think most would agree that art and music are educational. Library time would support that all e-books should be considered educational. What about gym? I guess gym is really about physical activity (although I do remember having to take tests about the rules of the game...) so I would not consider a sports app as educational as it does not promote physical activity.
  • "Edutainment" apps. For the purpose of setting standards, I am really not liking the term "edutainment". It just opens the door for virtually any app to be considered "educational." I like the idea of "edutainment" in that it trying to make learning fun - and that is a good goal. But it really gives marketers a wide reach to try to capitalize on parents seeking fun yet educational apps. I'm gonna stay away from this label for now and see where it goes...

This is as far as I've gotten. There are probably some gaping holes in my thinking or perspectives I've failed to take into account (hey, I've really only been at this for about a month!)  - you tell me.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Doodlecast for Kids

Doodlecast for Kids was created by zinc Roe, recommended for children 3-5 and is a drawing app that families can do together. After my post about parental misconceptions, I wanted to find an app that really highlighted how apps can encourage family interactions. Doodlecast is a great example of this - putting the interaction itself front and center. Price: $1.99

Device Requirements: iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad; Requires iOS 4.3 or later

Developmental Appropriateness: Drawing is great for kids of any age. It's a pretty basic activity that kids like to do. Where this app takes it further and really maximizes on what technology can offer is by recording the drawing so that it captures both the process of the drawing and the conversation that takes place. These recordings can then be shared with other friends and family near and far. The recording feature also encourages kids to tell stories, which promotes literacy. The app also provides a bunch of prompts, or "starting points" to encourage conversations about topics like "clothing" or  adjectives like "stinky". These are great teaching opportunities and are the type of quality interactions that should be occurring.   Rating: 5/5 (I'll stick with the developers' recommendation of 3-5)

Balance: This app is very straightforward. It's very easy to use, with a simple looking design, nothing distracting. The only part where it took me a little bit to figure out was the the while color acts as the eraser. There's an "x" icon, but that clears the whole picture, and that's what I ended up doing when trying to redo something. So maybe a clearer indication of the eraser is needed. Rating 4.5/5

Sustainability: Kids love to draw, so I'm not concerned about this app's sustainability and this is a great way for them to do that anywhere, without having to find materials. I could see for the older kids, that maybe some add-on features like being able to change the background color or having sparkly markers would be enticing. I've definitely seen kids get really excited when you offer them color construction paper (why does orange always get left behind?) or cool new markers. Rating: 4.5/5

Parental Involvement: I think I've already said what I need to say here - this is the best I've seen so far for not only parental, but family involvement. Rating: 5/5

Total: 19 out of 20: five stars

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Stack the States

Stack the States was created by Dan Russell-Pinson. It's a game that tries to teach the state capitals, shapes, locations, abbreviations, and "fun facts". I personally have pretty poor geographical knowledge as I transferred grade schools and somehow missed when they taught geography at both schools (which says something about our geography standards/curriculum). Let's see how I did... Price: $0.99, Lite version: Free

Device requirements: iPhone, iPad; Requires iOS 3.0 or later

Developmental Appropriateness: I did better than I thought I would! So I think this would be fun for a 2nd or 3rd grader who is already starting to learn some of these facts at school or at home. The game is kinda like a trivia game - for every question you get right, you get a state to stack. The goal it to stack the states past the goal line. If you get it wrong, the correct state will identity itself (i.e. "I am Alaska, my abbreviation is AK." At the end of each round, it tells you your percent/total correct. It would be useful to present more of a review so that kids and parents can go over and remember the ones they got wrong (or right too) - just for more reinforcement.

Overall though, this game does a good job of reinforcing the facts. First, the stacking itself actually requires some skill, as it really does take into account the size and shape of the states to determine if the states will balance on top of each other. So you're really hoping for large states like Alaska or those nice rectangular ones in the midwest. Getting questions right about those tiny states like Rhode Island gets you nowhere. So even when just stacking the states, it's making you notice the shape. When you reach the goal line, you're awarded a state and the goal of course is to collect all of them. As you collect them, you also unlock a total of three games. These games assess the fluency of your knowledge, reinforcing the facts in a different way. They are timed games that require you to recognize the state, it's location, or know the capitals. These are nice "rewards" as they are both fun and still highly relevant to geography. The latter two games can get a bit difficult - it would be nice to see some prompting or hints - I ended up just guessing or trial and error sometimes, which is not what you want kids to be doing if they are to learn these facts. The combination of the main game with the little rewards games is a good way to get kids to really learn these facts. The main game is teaching them the facts and the little games are getting the facts to stick.

For kids who have not really started learning any of these facts, this game may not be for them or may take awhile for them to warm up to it. There is a mode where you can go through little fact cards about each state. I guess the idea is to "study" them so that you can play the game. This really does seem like homework, and not like a game. And at least on my iPhone, the font of these little fact cards (and also a bit throughout the game) can be small.

Also, the controls for stacking the states may be a little tricky at first as you can rotate and move each state.

Rating: 4/5 (aim for around 7 or 8 years of age).

Balance: There are a few nice "extra" features that don't seem to be distracting. First, there's a changing background picture of a real landmark. It would be nice if they labeled what the landmark was. For younger kids, the pictures may distract a tiny bit or maybe make it harder to read the questions, but since this is aimed for slightly older kids, it shouldn't really be a problem. Then the states have faces with moving eyes and they show basic emotion for when they are falling over or successfully being stacked. A nice touch of humor and kids tend to like faces. I was even entertained by the sound effects. Rating: 4.5/5

Sustainability: I spent a looooong time playing this in order to unlock all the games. But perhaps that was due to my poor geography and stacking skills. Nonetheless, based on how much time I spent on this, I'd say that yes, this is an app that could lead to many sessions of play. There are a few incentives - the collecting of states, unlocking the little games, and the little games keep track of your best time. I'd also like to see it keep track of the progress on the main game, to see if there's improvement or what's the highest stack. A minor point is that I did get frustrated when I got the answer right, but my adding the state made my stack fall over and I had to start building all over again. It made me want to stop playing, but that's kinda part of the game, I guess - maybe you or your child is more patient than I am. Rating: 4.5/5

Parental Involvement: I can picture a family traveling in a car, especially on a road trip, and playing this together. The questions can be read aloud for all to play. And it would be neat when questions came up about the states they were driving through. Although this particular scenario may not happen all the time, "traveling" and "in a car" are top reasons/places for when parents say that their kids play with apps. The little games are probably just one-player type games. Rating 4/5

Total: 17 out of 20 = 4 stars

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Wheels on the Bus

Wheels on the Bus is an app from Duck Duck Moose and has received "best app" awards and high marks from folks ranging from Parent's Choice Foundation to the New York Times. It's based on the "Wheels on the Bus" song that almost every kid learns at some point, and that is now stuck in my head. Price: iPhone - $0.99, iPad - $1.99, Android - $1.99

Device Requirements: iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad; Requires iOS 3.0 or later; Android 2.1 and up

Developmental Appropriateness: This well-known preschool song is definitely appropriate for little kids, especially those who ride a school bus. For each verse, there are interactive features that illustrate the new phrase (wheels go round and round; wipers go swish... etc.) It's pretty fun. OK, this app may not be the most "educational" in the sense that it's not trying to drill a specific skill and I almost did not write this review. However, I thought that this app is a great example of how to use animation in an effective manner. Research has shown that at least with adults and older kids, animation can be more effective for learning than static pictures. This is of course if the animation is directly related to the to-be-learned information. Picture trying to teach verbs and adverbs like "gallop", it would be easier to show a video of someone or an animal galloping than to try to describe it with or without pictures. However, we often see animation used in frivolous ways, and not directly linked to teaching anything. While it may be only a handful of words or phrases, this app could be a good tool for teaching those specific vocabulary. Rating: 5/5 (aim for around 3 years of age)

Balance: For the most part, the animation is directly related to the lyrics. There are a few instances where 
they are not. Rating: 4.5/5

Sustainability: Some cool features are that the song can be heard in five different languages and played in a variety of instruments ranging from the violin to kazoo - a nice way to expose your child to different languages and instruments. You can also record you and or your child singing along. So if you don't mind hearing this song over and over again and having it stuck in your head, I can see playing with this app for more than just a few times. Rating: 4/5

Parental Involvement: The extra features (recording, languages, and instruments) is a nice way to involve the parents. The recording feature encourages parents to sing along and then allows them to share the recording with other loved ones who may have missed it. It would be nice to see a "blank" verse so parents can add on other verses and also so they won't OD on the same ones over and over again. Rating: 4.5/5

Total: 18 out of 20 = 5 stars 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Poll Results: Android Wins!

Ok, so this is probably not the most representative data. The researcher in me is screaming, "Small sample size!" "No demographic info!" or "Biased sample!". But hey, the poll was for fun and is at least kinda representative of the people reading this blog. So drumroll please.... of the 82 people who voted (actually that's a pretty big sample when comparing to developmental studies), 37 of you use an Android, 19 use the iPhone, and 26 use the iPad.

I did a quick stat test (chi-square for those of you who care), and overall, there is a statistical significance. But when you break it down, it's really just a significance between Android and iPhone.

Nonetheless, I'm kinda surprised by the results! I get the lower iPhone percentage - small screen... but I thought the iPad would be more popular. Is it the cost? I've never used an Android... what are its pluses?

One thing's for sure - I should start reviewing some Android Apps for you folks. I've done a little research on finding apps that are available for both Mac and Droid, so those reviews should start coming out soon - at least that's a good starting point, right?

Friday, January 20, 2012

i Learn with Poko: Seasons and Weather!

i Learn with Poko: Seasons and Weather is a science game created by Tribal Nova for preschool and kindergarten. In general, I think we focus a lot on reading and math, so it's nice to see something for some basic science knowledge. Price: $1.99 for iPhone, $2.99 for iPad
Device Requirements: iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad; Requires iOS 4.2 or later

Developmental Appropriateness: Seasons and weather are very popular themes in preschool and kindergarten curricula. So that is one major check. There are 3 levels or games - which I think are pretty clever ways of teaching this material. 

In the first game, kids are given clues (i.e. find the two pictures where it is snowing) and they need to pick out the pictures that fit, eventually narrowing it down to one target picture. This game is definitely better on the iPad with the bigger screen then the iPhone to see all the details in the pictures. A few things I noticed that can be improved: 1) You can start tapping on the pictures before the clue is given, which then stops the clue from being heard. 2) On the same note, it would be helpful to have written clues instead of just oral clues. This can help kids start to learn and recognize key words such as snow and winter. 3) Although it registers the picture selections quite fast, I thought the pacing of this particular game was slow. 

In the second game, you are shown pictures and need to find the items that don't fit (i.e. wearing mittens in a summer scene). I like this game - I'm a total sucker for picture games. However, some of the items here are really subtle and hard to find! The snow boots are not that different from the rain boots or regular shoes, or not everyone likes to wear flip flops in the summer - it's ok to wear regular shoes. And who really wears matching jackets and snow pants in the winter (maybe if you're skiing)? 

For the third game, you have to match pictures of activities to the day of the week by weather. So if it tells you it's raining on Tuesday, you would find the indoor activity. This is a good way to get kids thinking about the weather and what's appropriate. I like that if you tap on the activity, it tells you what is happening, but I think there needs to be a better way to distinguish wanting it labelled and actually choosing it as your answer. (You can tap on all the pictures and the correct one will just fly into the target spot because you tapped on it.)

For all three games, there is a monkey character that is suppose to provide support. Honestly, the monkey is kinda useless. He just repeats the items, and does not really provide any new information. Finally, the games are suppose to be adaptive - adjusting the level according to when you get right and wrong answers. I'd like to see more about how it adjusts. Rating: 4/5 (aim for around 4 years of age)

Balance: There isn't really much outside of what I've described for the games, so I think kids will stay on task. As I already mentioned, it could use a few tweaks with some of the features (being able to interrupt the directions; making the monkey more useful). The pictures are pretty colorful and cute, but I think they could benefit from some animation. These are scenes - they are suppose to be active. So if you're flying a kite to show that it's a windy day, let's see it (honestly, some of the sunny scenes are pretty similar to the windy scenes minus a kite). Rating: 4/5

Sustainability: The adaptive nature of the game seems like a good feature, as it will move a child along when he/she has mastered a task - look like there may be three stages to each task (again, I'd like to see more information on how it is adaptive and what is needed with each stage). I was surprised not to find some sort of album feature where you can see all the pictures you've successfully completed or chosen.  These seem like games that could easily have a plot line or goals to achieve to keep kids coming back. Rating: 3.5/5

Parental Involvement: I think this app has much potential for parental involvement. Weather is such a common topic. It would be easy for parents to talk about activities they've done during various weather and seasons. Perhaps one way to make the monkey more useful to for it to ask questions like, "What do you like to do when it's raining?" and act as a prompt to both child and parent. As is though, there's no evident role for the parent. Rating 3.5/5

Total: 15 out of 20 = 4 stars

Disclosure: I received this app for review for free from the developers.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Parental Misconceptions

I want to take a moment and discuss in more detail why I've chosen to include "Parental Involvement" as its own category in my ratings. A few months ago, I wrote a short article for Early Childhood Matters where I talk about the "potential" and "hype" surrounding mobile technology in education. Below is an excerpt where I discuss what I believe are three parental misconceptions about using mobile technology with their child. Some parents may already have a hunch about these "misconceptions" (and I think that probably all of the parents reading my blog do since you have taken the time to read reviews about apps), but I wanted to use research to show that these aren't just hunches; to make it evident that parents need to take an active role. So maybe this post is more for the developers reading my blog... how do parents fit into your app?

From the article:

Addressing common parental misconceptions

With young children’s learning so easily affected by formats and features, there is a need for parental and adult guidance. However, there are a few parental misconceptions about young children’s usage of mobile technology that have led to less rather than more parental involvement.

Misconception 1: ‘Technology is not my thing, but my child is great at it, so I just let them use it on their own.’

In an exploratory study looking at intergenerational video game play, by the EA Game Innovation Lab at the University of South Carolina and the Cooney Center, many parents were not comfortable with the gaming system and thus lacked confidence during the game play. They tended to let their child take the lead, and did not offer the same mentoring about the rules and strategy as they did when playing a board game (Chiong, 2009). It is likely that these parents assumed that since their children were adept at navigating the game, they would just figure out any rules or strategies on their own.

But being able to use something does not mean that learning has occurred, especially for struggling students. In a study exploring the effectiveness of a digital literacy program, the findings revealed that there are differences based on learning levels (Chiong et al., under review). The study took place in an underperforming, predominantly minority and low-SES (socio-economic status) school district. When looking at the results by initial literacy levels, the students who started above the mean score on the pre-test benefited from independent use of the digital program. The students who started below the mean score did not benefit from independent use. These results suggest that although the seriously struggling students had no trouble navigating the program, they were not absorbing the content of the materials as much as their counterparts. This supports findings from Neuman and Celano (2006), that although low-SES children were adept at searching for information on the internet, they preferred sites with pictures and barely any print, whereas middle-SES children preferred print-heavy sites. Thus, parents cannot assume that any time their child spends with an educational application is quality time. Children often need an adult to make the materials more meaningful by reinforcing concepts or by linking the materials to relevant issues they are learning in school.

Misconception 2: ‘This program can teach my child better than I can.’

Some parents, especially immigrants and those with lower levels of education, may feel less confident about teaching their own child. They may then rely on programs that have been deemed ‘educational’ rather than try to teach their child on their own. But given the many factors that can affect a child’s learning, software programs should not be viewed as a replacement for a parent or teacher.

Instead, programs that provide scaffolding should be viewed as an opportunity for less confident parents to learn how to give appropriate feedback and support to their child. There have been studies confirming that low-SES parents may not provide the same rich interactions with their child as high-SES parents (Hammer, 2001). However, research in reading interactions has shown that parents can be easily trained to provide quality interactions (Arnold et al., 1994). With today’s technology parents can, without extra training, learn to use prompts provided by the program to serve as cues to provide that extra support and ensure that their child is paying attention to the relevant information.

Misconception 3: ‘It is important for my child to learn to use technology, especially computers, or they will fall behind.’

In a 2011 Cooney Center survey of 800 parents of children aged 3–10, nearly three-quarters of parents felt that technology and computers were important to their child’s success in school (Takeuchi, 2011). The same parents also felt that, of the different platforms, computers had the most educational potential and mobile devices or phones the least. While it is true that it is important for children to be proficient in using technology, parents may be placing too much emphasis on the platform itself rather than the content. The technology is only a delivery system for information. Software applications are becoming more and more platform-agnostic, downloadable onto virtually any device. Young children have proven to have natural instincts when it comes to using technology. Thus, the focus should be on exposing children to the right material, not the right technology.

These three misconceptions overlap in that they have led some parents to believe that they may not need to play an active role while their child interacts with technology. While independently playing with a quality app may be beneficial for young children at times, it should not be accepted as the norm or the optimal type of interaction. Specifically, low-income families and families with struggling students should view educational apps as an opportunity for family interactions. Granted, parents are busy, especially those who are working long hours to make ends meet. But the average session children spend with an app is 20 minutes or less (Chiong and Shuler, 2010), less time than watching a TV show. Given the anywhere/anytime nature of mobile technology, parents should seize the opportunity to make the 10 minutes waiting for the school bus meaningful. Mobile technology can not only change the way we educate our young children, but also change when and how families interact.

Access the journal and full article

Photo by Tim Wilson

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Follow me on Twitter

So up until this blog, I've been resisting this whole social media movement. But since I guess I can be called a "blogger" now, I may as well embrace this whole thing - I signed up for a twitter account. I just got started, so it's a bit bare for now...

Follow me.


Buzzle is a puzzle app created by Walnut Labs. It has been featured on iTunes and has been voted one of the top apps both in the US and internationally. What caught my attention about this app is that it is recommended for infants as young as 10 months of age (!) to preschool. I know that I say my target age range is 3-8, but I really had to see what an app for such young children would entail. Price: $0.99
Device Requirements: iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad; Requires iOS 3.0 or later; 16 MB

Developmental Appropriateness: Overall, this is a nice and simple puzzle activity for preschool-aged children. It features appropriate images like animals - which young children generally like, matches it with corresponding sounds - even better (who has not heard kids making animal sounds?!), and provides a little prompting by highlighting where the puzzle piece should go for those who are having trouble (click on the video to see the demo). Where I struggle with this app is the recommended age. Children under one year of age do not really understand what a picture is. Research has shown that 9-month-olds will try to grasp at or even hit the picture in an attempt to "pick up" the depicted object (imagine the smudges and possible abuse to your device!). In the next year or two, infants begin to understand the relationship between pictures and their real world referents, but their understanding can be easily affected by factors such as the type of picture (i.e. photograph, cartoon drawing, etc.) - the more realistic the picture, the easier it is for toddlers to understand. The pictures here are nice and colorful and fairly realistic, but are still cartoonish. While the idea of this app is similar to when one- or two-year-olds are playing with those crates where you have to fit the triangle or circle in the right cut-out or when a parent reading is a picture-book about animals with cartoon drawings - these activities just seem different than using a finger to match up objects on a screen (and I doubt that a 10-month-old can drag and drop well). It is well known that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting video screen time for children under 2. This app is not quite the same as video screen time - it requires more interaction and thought. Is there a "too young" for educational apps? 

Overall, I think this is a nice app for preschoolers, but I do not see this app being all that beneficial for children under the age of two - certainly not better than live interactions with a parent or an outing to the zoo. Rating: 3/5 (aim for around 3 years of age).  

Balance: Again, this is a pretty simple activity, and in general, I like simple. When considering this for a 3-year-old or older, I think it's a nice puzzle activity. The pictures are colorful and there are a variety of scenes, but the task is always clear - find where the puzzle pieces go. Rating: 5/5 

Sustainability: One suggestion I already see from reviewers is more puzzles. So far, there are only 10 puzzles. Although I know that kids who like puzzles will want to do them repeatedly, more variety would be nice. Kids can then choose their "favorite" or have new scenes to talk about. Also, at the completion of each puzzle, there is a nice congratulations screen. I can see other rewards or incentives provided as more puzzles are completed - which ay lead to kids requesting more puzzles to be downloaded. Rating: 3/5

Parental Involvement: If this app is really meant for infants and toddlers as young as 10-month-olds, then it really screams for parental involvement. However, the app does not really seem to provide a role for parents other than to help match up the pieces. If parents are really using this with their young ones, I'd suggest thinking of it as a picture-book where you would talk about the scenes, relate it to your personal experiences, and highlight the shapes and objects. Rating: 3/5

Total: 14 out of 20 = 3 stars

Disclosure: I received this app for review for free from the developers.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dora Hops into Phonics!

Dora Hops into Phonics is a preschool literacy game based off of the show, Dora the Explorer created by Nickelodeon. Who doesn't love taking adventures with the Spanish-speaking Dora? (Ok, so no, Brad Pitt did not dress up like a character from Dora for halloween like he did for Team Umizoomi**, but I almost did, does that count?) Price $1.99
Device Requirements: iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Requires iOS 4.0 or later

Developmental Appropriateness: This app focuses solely on one type of phonics task called word ladders. It is when you take a word (cat) and you have to change one letter to create a new word (hat). The app takes you through five levels of this same game, increasing the difficulty by using longer words, or focusing on different parts of the word (i.e. changing the middle or last letters). This is definitely a good task to help preschoolers learn phonics. Dora also helps you by saying the letter-sounds of possible choices and she annunciates the words very clearly so you can hear the different sounds that make up that word. Also, the target words are matched with pictures of those words to help vocabulary as well. 

To break up the task, there are three different frog "games" that are pretty easy to play. One of them requires gentle turning some lily pads to line them up for a frog to jump onto - this one probably requires the most skill and may take some practice for young ones to get just right. Rating: 5/5 (aim for around 4 years of age)

Balance: While I think that the skills Dora is teaching are just right, I can't help but be a bit disappointed when playing this game. It's well, a bit a boring! And I don't think it's just because I am an adult and I know my letters. First, the pacing is a bit slow. After completing a few items, Dora gets to jump on a few lily pads to help her get across a lake. Dora is a very slow jumper, and kids can be impatient. I found myself tapping on the lily pads repeatedly like you would when pushing the elevator button. There's also a bit of a pause from item to item. Second, there is only ONE task, so you are doing the same thing over and over again. Yes, there are different levels, but it actually takes completing a lot of items within one level to get to the next (which is basically the same thing). This must be a gigantic lake because it seems like Dora is hopping a lot and getting nowhere.

A plus is that there are no distractors while completing the tasks and the games are presented separately. The look of the illustrations is also very Dora and cute. Rating: 3/5

Sustainability: I was surprised to find no other goal or incentive than to get Dora across the lake. There are no stickers to collect, no high scores, or other modes. The games that are interspersed every two rounds, there are only three types of games. I know kids don't mind repetition, but given the amount of items they have to go through, these three games may start getting boring. Having some sort of score for the games may make kids more excited to see the game again to beat their previous score. This app seems to be relying on Dora's star power alone, and that may not be enough. Rating: 2/5

Parental Involvement: For the game itself, I think Dora provides enough guidance that a parent wouldn't really have a role after the initial "learning what to do" phase. However, a nice touch is that there is a "report card" where parents can read about why this task is useful and what makes each level different. They can also see their child's progress on each level. I'm not sure how helpful this completion rate is - as it seems to just be % completed. That only tells me that my child needs to play more to complete each level. What would be more helpful is if the parent knew what letters to work on more, or was given other activities to work on with their child. Rating: 3.5/5

Total: 13.5 out of 20 = 3 stars

** Correction - Brad Pitt dressed up as a Yo Gabba Gabba character, not Team Umizoomi

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Teach Me Kindergarten

Teach Me Kindergarten was created by 24x7digital LLC and was awarded 2nd place in education in the 2010 Best App Ever Awards. Mimi Mouse, the "teacher" aims to teach both basic reading and math skills. Price $0.99
Device Requirements: iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad; Requires iOS 3.0 or later

Developmental Appropriateness: Teach Me Kindergarten presents kids with items that target addition, subtraction, spelling, and sight words. Let's start with the math - overall, these items are probably aimed for older or more advanced kindergarteners. While most kindergarteners can add simple math problems, they usually do not start learning subtraction until the latter half of the school year. A good usage of Mimi Mouse is that she provides help when a child is struggling with a particular problem. You can add or take away the number of objects needed to solve the problem and then Mimi Mouse will help you count the remaining objects when you tap on them. I wish she was as useful when it comes to the reading items. Mimi Mouse does not provide much help when it comes to choosing the right letter to complete a word or choosing the right word other than to say that you are right or wrong. She could provide the letter-sounds instead of repeatedly asking for the name of the letter. She could also break up the word once it's completed to reinforce the letter-sounds and phonemes. For the sight words, the creators use words for the Dolch word list, which is a very popular word list used in many curricula.

In terms of motor skills, it's all pretty easy to use. I just wonder why the creators chose to make you drag the answers on some of the items instead of just tapping on it. Although I think that most kids will pick up how to use it pretty quickly, research has shown that young kids have more trouble with drag and drop than just tapping on something.

So overall, these are all appropriate skills for kindergarteners. Another plus is that you can set the difficulty, by advancing the levels to suit the player. However, from the title, I thought there would be more. These two skills for math and two skills for reading are only a part of the kindergarten curriculum. Rating: 4/5 (aim for 5 years of age)

Balance: This is the first app that really made me notice that some apps are created with the intention of a game first and then making it educational while other apps are created with the intention of teaching first, and then adding in game elements. This is clearly the latter. While I am an advocate for "less is more", I think I actually would like "more" in this app! Mimi Mouse's voice is pretty robotic and as I pointed out already, I think she could be more useful and provide more support. Also, when a problem is solved, it could use more animation to reinforce the item, like highlighting the syllables as they are read, or repeating that 5+2 is 7 and highlighting each part of the math problem. Rating: 3.5/5

Sustainability: This app has a good amount of incentives. As you get more items correct, you collect coins that then allow you to buy stickers. The app provides a few backgrounds that can then be filled with stickers to create a fun picture that can be printed out. Many reviews mentioned how much their child loved collecting the stickers and creating the pictures. I could see adding features such as records of getting xx correct in a row and entering a mode that's timed to test math fluency and then having high scores just to break up the tasks a bit, especially since not everyone may be a sticker enthusiast. Rating: 4/5

Parental Involvement: Parents have a lot of control with this app. They can set the types of questions they want their child to focus on, the level of difficulty, when their child can get a coin, etc. There is also a general measure of how well their child is doing on each of the four types of questions. While this is a definite plus, as it encourages parents to check in on their child's progress, it could be more informative. A parent could see that their child may not be doing as well on the subtraction problems and then set the game to present more subtraction problems (I assume this is what the app means for parents to do). This may not work with all kids - some might get too frustrated (even with Mimi Mouse's help), or bored. Parents should think of other ways and activities to help their child with what they are struggling with. Rating: 4/5

Total: 15.5 out of 20 = 4 stars

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Shape-O ABC's

Shape-O ABC's was created by Bellamon and has been positively featured on many app blogs. The app combines shapes, words, colors and sounds into one puzzle activity. It contains over 100 beautiful puzzles. Price - $1.99
Device Requirements: iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad; Requires iOS 3.0 or later

Developmental Appropriateness: The goal of these puzzles is for children to match shapes to form an image and to learn the name of those images. There are three settings for the words and letters, and then also for the puzzle. For the words and letters, the easy setting is where the word already appears at the bottom of the screen. For medium, you have to match the letters to form the word, and for hard, you have to arrange the letters to spell the word. This seems appropriate and can target a range of learners from those just learning the names of objects to those just learning their letters and to those who are learning to spell. For the puzzles, the easy setting limits the puzzle to 20 pieces, medium to 30, and hard to over 30. Some of these puzzles, though they are all beautiful, seem complicated for the younger children, even when limited to 20 or 30 pieces. Traditional puzzles for very young children only have several pieces. However, puzzles in this app may be easier in that the pieces come set at the angle/rotation it needs to be to fit the space and you also only need to drag the piece to the general area of the space. Still, younger children may need a little help with the puzzle, especially with the smaller pieces.
            A couple of suggestions that may help the younger children - Research has shown that young children have a hard time seeing one thing in two ways. In other words, they might have a hard time thinking about the puzzle as all the various pieces (triangles, arcs, lines, etc.) and then also as the whole (i.e. a cat). When the puzzle is completed, it does not connect the pieces to make the image obvious. Perhaps connecting the puzzles pieces together and then maybe even animating them (i.e. making the cat come together and walk across the screen) would make the image more obvious and probably more rewarding (i.e "Oh look! I made a cat!). Also, after the completion of the puzzle, there is a voiceover that says and spells the word. It would be helpful to highlight the letters as they are said and or to highlight the syllables as they are said. This would help a child learning to recognize letters and to read to track the letters and letter-sounds. Rating: 3/5 (depending on the setting, aim for 3-6 years of age)

Balance: This features in this app are pretty straightforward. However, at least on the iPhone, the puzzle pieces and letters are presented a few at a time as  you complete the puzzle. Having the letters presented mixed in with all the puzzle pieces (remember there are a lot), may take away from the spelling or letter-recognition task. It may be better to present all the puzzle pieces and then all the letter pieces. Rating: 4/5

Sustainability: There are over 100 puzzles. For one who really likes puzzles, these are some beautiful puzzles. You can also change the colors of the puzzles. Otherwise, there are no other incentive features. Rating: 3.5/5

Parental Involvement: Parents will enjoy the images and could help guide their child with the puzzle and reinforce the letters and letter-sounds of the labels. Rating 3/5

Total: 13.5 out of 20