Wednesday, January 25, 2012

App Review: Chinese New Year With a Dragon

Hearty "gung hei fat choi" to everyone out there, and happy Year of the Dragon. In honor of the turning of the Chinese calendar, to 4710 for those keeping track, we're taking a look at a brand new picture book app from Mobad Media called The Year of the Dragon.

The tale of the Chinese zodiac and that smarty-pants rat makes a fun story, whether for children or adults. And interpreting the characteristics of each of the twelve symbols can be a hoot for kids. My family is fascinated with the zodiac animals, and they often chalk up the behavior of others to the sign under which they were born. "What do you expect, Mom? He's a Tiger!"

And as with any reading of the zodiac, we are quick to lay claim to the positive attributes associated with our own symbols. I'm a sheep (observant! artistic! ingenious!), and I live with a couple of monkeys (self-assured, competitive innovators), one horse (cheerful, quick-witted talker), and a bunny rabbit (elegant and compassionate artist). And when we meet someone who shares our sign, there's immediate sympathy. It's like finding the kinship of another Bears or White Sox fan without all the messy logos.

The Year of the Dragon is a sweet, simple story of Baby Dominic, a newly hatched dragon whose parents remind him of what makes their kind so special. "Who blows the winds? Who commands the rain? Who advises the Emperor? We do!"

When Baby Dom and all his friends from the zodiac team up together to win a race, he uses his own special dragon traits to save the day.

With fun interactivity that doesn't let tapping fingers get too distracted and vivid illustrations, The Year of the Dragon feels like a traditional book. And Mobad keeps the focus on literacy, as kids can choose to hear a narrator tell the story and follow along as each word is illuminated, or read to themselves. And if a child stumbles across an unfamiliar word, Mobad has made learning new vocabulary easy: she can just tap on the text and hear it pronounced.

The age range for Year of the Dragon is broad, as the youngest app set will adore Dom and the interactive features, and emerging and confident readers will enjoy the storyline, the other Chinese zodiac characters, and the hidden surprises.

Priced at $4.99.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Quality Kids Apps: Beyond the $0.99 Download

I wanted to share an interesting post over at Wired's Geek Dad about the future of apps for children. The author, Daniel Donahoo, talks about a push toward app development for children that is purposeful rather than just profit-driven. And while it might sound like an idealized world he's seeking, it is one worth striving for: quality products geared for kids that can harness all that finger-tapping energy for good.

Donahoo imagines "medium-sized independent and corporate developers of children’s apps existing side by side, all pushing each other to produce better digital tools for kids' learning and development. But I believe it has something to do with the crowd and also educating and supporting parents to make the best consumer choices and to support a breadth of apps and digital tools – not just the same old franchised apps from movies and books that we see everyday."

A key point Donahoo notes, among many, is pricing. "If we are to sustain the vibrant and dynamic number of children’s app developers we need to move beyond the 0.99c app. Consumers are currently downloading content for children that is at bargain basement prices and the problem is that could drive some of the key innovators out of their own development studios and over to larger players, or away from children’s apps and into more profitable digital arenas."

I think of this as the Organic Milk Approach. I pay a little more for organic milk because I believe it's better for my kids' developing brains and bodies, I want to support organic farmers and keep them in business, and I want to ensure that higher-quality products like this stay in the mainstream market.

Same for quality children's apps.

Donahoo and Andy Russell, co-founder of Launchpad Toys and the much-lauded children's app Toontastic, have put forth The Children's App Manifesto and begun pushing educators, marketers, investors, app developers, and most importantly parents to think about ways to best support quality educational digital content.

After my first-grader asked me just a few days ago to wake him up at 5 a.m. so he could harvest his Smurf pumpkins -- and purchase a few Smurfberries too -- two Manifesto items hooked me right away:

  • Play should not be over-commercialized by consumable goods nor advertisement.
  • Apps should not disguise costs nor manipulate children’s emotions to entice spending.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Magic School Bus: The Future of E-Learning

My first-grader was excited to use a coupon at his school's paperback bookstore the other day, and I stopped him. He had in his hands a copy of The Magic School Bus: On the Ocean Floor, and I, as if moving in slow motion, pointed back toward the bright yellow bookshelf and told him to pick another book. I was experiencing a complete out-of-body moment, hearing my voice from some far away place tell him, "We can download this book. It will be way better on the iPad."

And it is.

Bypassing a paper book for a digital one is still a new thing to me. And I am squeamish about it sometimes, fearing that my favorite neighborhood haunt, 57th Street Books, will disappear because I opt for an app instead of a former tree. So moments like the one at my son's school make me itchy.

But let's face it, digital books can do things that paper cannot. And in some realms, such as the informative, nonfiction picture book world where Magic School Bus dominates, the digital version is unbeatable. One look at the Oceans app, and the future of e-learning becomes clear.

The first real interactivity comes when young readers tap the bubbling water near an illustration of a sea urchin. A screen rolls down, and quick-hit bulleted points about sea urchins appear beneath a short video clip of an actual sea urchin. Budding naturalists can watch a spiny purple creature scoot along the ocean floor -- not just an artist's rendering of it, but actual undersea footage.

Interactive games demonstrating how various sea life swims teach the difference between a whale's means of locomotion vs. a squid's vs. a jellyfish's. Detailed photographs of sea stars, limpets, periwinkles, and others offer real-life examples of sea animals kids might not otherwise get to know. More video clips of flounder drifting among rocks drive home the benefits of camouflage.

Aside from showing kids the habitats and behaviors of undersea life, as well as showing phenomena like hot water vents and ocean waves, the app offers a variety of entry points for literacy learning. The read-along narration illuminates each word in red as it is spoken. Little fingers can tap the dialogue bubbles and hear the kids and Ms. Frizzle ask questions or comment on the scene as they read the words in the speech bubble. Whether a pre-reader or a confident one, the app is accessible to many levels.

Priced at $7.99, $1 more than the paperback, this book is packed with opportunities for interactive, exciting learning. Consider it a kid-friendly Jacques Cousteau adventure, right at young readers' fingertips. Magic School Bus: Oceans presents the best digital media has to offer young learners. Worth checking out immediately.