Despite having both a young child and a decent phone obsession, I’m pretty good at segregating the two but when my son wants to watch the same episode of Mickey Mouse that we watched the last two days in a row, well excuse me while I get caught checking Twitter and playing a few games while sitting next to him. I’ve also been saved by streaming Netflix for him when we’ve gone out to restaurants. But I had tried to keep him away from it generally out of fear that I don’t want him playing games at such a young age and want to keep him hooked on books and traditional toys…mostly because that’s how I was raised and that’s what I know. But recently I’ve started to let him play a few educational games on my phone and I have to admit, it’s been great for him. The educational games really are that. Kids get hooked counting and doing letters and all the things you want them to do and now you have a really fun way to do it. And consider the cost of books and all of the other costs that come with kids and $1 apps aren’t even on the cost radar. So I want to share a few games that he’s now playing and I’ll give you a few closing thoughts at the end.
One brief note on my son and this is just so you know his skill level. At 2 1/2 he can count to 20 and count up to 5 by sight, knows his alphabet, can sight read 300 words and can do 24 piece puzzles alone but if I throw a ball at him unless his arms are cradled I’m more then likely going to bean him. So when considering these games you can compare how your toddler would handle them.
Let me start with the game he has been requesting the most even though parts of it are beyond his skill level. It’s call Mr. Hat and the Magic Cube (and it’s also available on iOS) from Bravo Game Studio. In a rarity for Windows Phone, this game has a full storyline with ridiculous animations throughout the game and between the levels that are a lot of fun. Ultimately, you are trying to help get back the 5 magic cubes and to do this you need to solve various puzzle. The puzzle are set in 5 worlds: spelling, counting, memory, coordination and puzzles. And the game levels start easier and progressively get harder which is great since children can learn the various skills and as they get better the games get harder to push them. Back to the games, the spelling game starts with short words of 3 letters and one letter is missing so you need to tell them which letter is right (so ‘hat’ will be h_t and you have to choose a, e or i for example). At my son’s age, if I write the word he can then go backwards and figure out the right answer but the higher levels have multiple letters missing. It’s beyond him now, but for an older child I think it’s probably a huge hit. The counting game starts by simple counting and as it goes there are various objects and they want you to only count one set of the various objects that appear. The memory game is a matching game and in the earlier levels there are less ‘cards’ to match. The coordination games are a tilting table where you need to get a ball which is one of 4 colors into the same colored hole and you tilt the phone to do this. As you progress there are more barriers to get around. This is also beyond a 2/5 year old but probably spot on for a 4-5 year old. And finally there’s a puzzle world where you have various parts of a picture that are separated and you need to put them together in the right order to complete the puzzle. Overall the game is beautiful and there’s a ton of positive reinforcement when you complete the puzzles. Here’s their trailer for the game:
There’s a free trial and it’s $2 to own. It does lock occasionally up on the selection screen (and I cannot tap the screen to continue) but leaving the game and going back into it let’s you keep playing. It’s also my way of telling my son it’s broken and he’s played enough. The lone Marketplace review gives it 5 stars for a 5 year old.
OK I spent a lot of time on that one but it’s really got a lot going on. Let’s move on to two more games that consist of multiple mini-games and both revolve around barnyards. They’re Barnyard Bonanza and Barnyard Adventures, and I’ve bought both of them. Barnyard Adventure (from GlowPuff) is a fun farm game where Farmer Susie leads the way through a bunch of mini-games and as the child completes a few games they get a coin to try to collect all of them. The games are aimed at pre-K levels and consist of four piece puzzles, an 8 card matching game, find the objects that are a certain color, simple counting, find the word that begins with the letter ‘x’ and match the fruit to the right shape. Everything is hand drawn and it’s very well done. I can hand it to my son and he’ll play right through it without needing my help. A ton of positive reinforcement and a lot of verbal direction to assist toddlers through it.
Barnyard Bonanza (from Kingsley Digital Arts) follows the same hand drawn look and minigames. In this one you get to match the baby animal with the parent, find the letter (so it says ‘point to the letter “p”), find the right fruit and an 8 card matching game. This game has one brilliant element – an option to play the game with the phone upside down so that you hold the phone from the top…away from those pesky capacitive buttons that are hell to toddlers. You don’t get this with the other games and that often means starting the whole game over, so that’s a great little feature. Both Barnyard Adventure and Barnyard Bonanza are $.99, but only Barnyard Bonanza has a trial mode.
Let’s shift gears a little bit and go to music. Kids Song Machine contains 6 children’s song and I thought that for $2 it was cheaper and less of a headache than downloading them separately but it turns out it’s more than just the songs. Well, first the songs are: Old McDonald, if you’re happy and you know it, row your boat, I’m a little tea pot, hickory dickory dock and the wheels on the bus. When the songs play the lyrics appear as well (you can toggle this) so it’s an opportunity to read. It also has absolutely beautiful 3D graphics that are interactive so kids learn to explore the world and see what they can do. For example, during Old McDonald there’s a hot air balloon carrying a few children. As other balloons come with the animals on them you can pop those. Ducks fly across the screen and tapping them makes them quack. And tapping on the kids in the hot air balloon makes them scream. Everything on the screen is moving and it’s really great to look at, all the meanwhile my son is dancing and singing along with it so for the $2 I spent on it, I’m more than satisfied.
Getting back to traditional educational games, I downloaded My First Puzzles for $2 to let him try a few puzzles if we’re not home (they’re really a pain to carry the real thing around). It contains 14 puzzles and I think they range from 5-8 pieces. For my son these are very easy but he still loves doing it and solving the puzzles and has completed each puzzle at least 3 times already and still asks to play it. The puzzle pieces are set up so it’s very easy for toddlers to get them (I think it’s a little generous with the touches in a good way) and everything slides and glides beautifully and fall into the right spots easily. It’s on the easy side but that’s probably perfect for a lot of toddlers. And if I had to buy 14 puzzles it would cost me a lot more than $2 so no complaints from me.
Now matching games are a bit tricky between both age levels and what’s in the Marketplace. I think the matching game to beat is still Matchingo from Smart Pant’s Gaming (which now comes in a free version with ads or a $1 version without ads). If your child is good at matching games this is probably the way to go. Multiple levels of difficulty and a very responsive game play. My 5 year old nephew got into it quickly and kept playing. For toddlers who are learning how matching games work I’m going to suggest you try Noah’s Ark from JOJO Mobile. It’s geared towards toddlers and the cards are all animals. Also, the game has graduated levels built into it so it starts with 4 cards and slowly progresses up, all while keeping the child’s progress. Another nice feature is that when the game starts you can see all of the cards facing up so there’s a little less pecking around and they can start with a few matches to build their confidence. It works well for toddlers. It’s $2 and has a trial mode and while that’s expensive for matching games in the current Marketplace, I think it’s got enough features to justify it and again, if I wanted to buy physical cards I’d be well above this.
A surprise hit (for me at least) is Spin Paint from Charles Petzold which all of the kids seem to love. You have a revolving wheel and as you touch the screen four lines are drawn in each of the four areas of the board so it mirrors the touch. And the color varies as the screen is pressed. It makes really nice looking pictures and for some reason kids are hooked on it. And it’s a freebie.
There are lots of coloring games for kids and I haven’t tried most of them to declare any winners. I do see two apps called Coloring Book and My Coloring book that give you templates and tapping a color fills that entire section of the picture. But for a free version that also lets you free draw, Color Sprouts seems to be winning the race for both ease of use and features. This comes in a free and paid ($2) version with the paid version having more features. But again, this has a pretty high convenience factor over coloring books and crayons.
Getting to books, there’s an app called Okenko Books that are subscription based picture books. The app is free and includes one book but you can get a subscription to get a picture book every 2 weeks or so ($15/six months, $27/year and you can use it on up to 5 devices including iPads and iPhones). I tried the demo and it’s nice but it’s a book called Lindy Lee Loves Pink and that wasn’t a huge hit with my son. I may still give it a try though and see what the other books are like.
Marketplace is also filled with lots of flashcard apps geared towards toddlers. I’ve tried Elementary Words and Toddler Words. Elementary Words is nice in that it has options for various ages as your child gets better at reading. But there’s no sound to go along with the words. Toddler Words does speak the word along with a picture of the word (which is also why there are more nouns) but every time you start it’s in alphabetical order starting from avocado. There’s also a mode that gives you a word with three picture choices though. I think they both perform as advertised. I haven’t had as much success with my son with flashcards on my phone. He is really into physical flashcards though so I’m sure at some point I’ll find the right notes. Looking at Marketplace there’s one called Toddler Flashcards Plus that looks very clean and well put together and I’m going to give it a go next.
This is the tip of the Marketplace iceberg and there are a lot of other kid friendly games in there. Building Blocks snuck by me somehow but a physics based building block set seems cool for kids and their imaginations. I’ve also seen a few other music apps including kid friendly xylophones for example and plenty of sound boards. It’s all very age dependent as you can tell. For example Giggle Pad, from Sleepy Daddy Software contains a play phone mode and another mode where tapping on the screen gives letters, shapes, numbers and sounds and holding sings a song. I have a one year old that’s very into it since that’s perfect for his age group.
So far, I love what I see. My son sits here counting away and doing puzzles and it’s all a game to him but you can see how quickly he can learn and advance through this. The entire matching card genre was entirely new to him and he’s quickly mastered 8 card games and is doing well at 12 card games and this isn’t with that much time put into it. I think it’s great for his memory and like it or not, this is the world he’ll grow up in so may as well let him go with it. As for the cost, comparing the cost of apps to the real games is a joke. I mean, if I want to get a pack of flashcards or matching cards or puzzles you’re comparing $1-$2 apps to $4-$6 in a brick and mortar store. That’s not to say that physical toys should be abandoned. In fact, tangible objects still have a lot and often more, to offer. But something like a memory matching game is simply too time consuming and difficult to play with a toddler (since you constantly need to manually arrange the cards) but on the phone you just press a button. Also, it’s hard to make letters and numbers as fun as these games are. I think if kept to a reasonable amount, mixing in phone games is a really good learning tool and I ‘m going to keep an eye on what else is new and how my son develops with them.
Of course, there are a lot more apps out there than I noted or even tested and there are a lot of age groups I didn’t even touch. So, if you have a favorite app to recommend please, share with the audience.