By Fiona Passantino
Good educational apps for our expat kids
Working your way through the web and the many apps for children sometimes can feel like a jungle. It can be overwhelming, given the choices, and the speed at which the technology changes.
As with any new tool, knowledge is power; your personal information should be given out sparingly, and let kids play with your tablets without supervision at your own risk (a good idea is to switch off the WIFI). Apple's App Store has advantages for parents since each app in its environment has been reviewed by the Apple staff to make sure there is no spyware, no nasty code and no offensive material when the apps are rated. The Android environments are another matter.
Through this series, Fiona Passantino extols the virtues of apps for children in the learning potential that they offer and will review four kids' apps for under fives per quarter. She runs her own app development company and is based in The Hague with her husband and in-house app testers and debuggers, her children aged four and nine.
This app allows kids to make their own stop frame animations; like all great apps, it's the wonderful simplicity and straight-up functionality that makes it so appealing. So easy: you set up your device where it can't move (I find an iPad works well propped on a table), gather the items you want to animate and you're off. Click the shutter, move everything just a little bit, click the shutter... Wash, rinse, repeat... A decent short film takes about an hour.
The reason this age range is so large is that the little ones can be very competent helpers as long as mama guides the action. Older kids can do this all by themselves. It's good, clean, family fun for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Of course, the Lego people want you to use their own products to make movies (it is a free app after all), but I have made films with my kids with just about everything: play-doh, stuffed animals, even fruit (who can forget our viral 'dancing bananas' number that swept our immediate circle of family and friends?). The films can be enhanced with music, special effects, title pages and are easy to share to facebook, twitter, mail etc.
A toggle button activates your device's LED if you need to throw more light on the scene, while another one adds a 3x3 grid to help with framing. Best of all, the app has an onionskin toggle that overlays a transparent image of the previous frame, a huge help in positioning.
You definitely learn to appreciate the unimaginable number of hours required to make a Wallace and Gromit movie! A full five-strawberry salute for this app.
This is the best preschool literacy learning app I have seen out there. My daughter actually chooses this over colouring unicorns, which is impressive in itself. My kids laugh at the funny animals, they learn, thus mama is happy and can have a nice quiet coffee knowing that her kids are engaged in something constructive. Reading Raven introduces kids to every letter of the alphabet and coaches kids from letter recognition and phonics to tracing letters and writing words and forming simple sentences. It also allows kids to record and play back the words they learn, which is fun once they get the hang of it (a little tricky at first). Parents can read some background material as well as set options based on their child's reading level. Also, exercises can be skipped or repeated by swiping forward or backward on the Raven character. With voice-overs and a smart, kid-friendly interface, this is an app kids can use independently at their own pace.
For the little ones, this app is probably better if used with parent supervision and in short bursts to compensate for short attention spans. However, once they earn their first sticker and get to stick it on Raven's wall in his tree house, the passion is back. The highly repetitive nature of the exercises helps make it intuitive. The different environments and characters keep it fresh. In short, this app offers solid reading instruction in a fun game format; it's cute, it's colourful and it moves. Five strawberries awarded.
A bit pricey and the download time for each film can be a bit of a drag, but once you’re over those humps, DinosaurDays is a lovely resource for kids who enjoy dinosaurs. This is an animated learning app for kids and can be used at home or at school. Each short animated film about these creatures goes into detail about how they lived, what they ate, how they developed and how they were discovered. I like the girl character who lays it all out.
The films are great – colourful, funny and informative – and the lineup is pretty extensive. There are three periods covered: Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. Also, background sections on fossils: what they are, how they are formed and how they are dug up again, all about evolution, and the study of paleontology, which is the study of fossils and the history of life on earth. Each dinosaur has a factsheet, which can be downloaded, and a “fossil finder” feature which shows where each creature was discovered in a real-time map. Teachers have access to worksheets, quizzes, glossary and the bibliography as well as an extensive teacher’s guide to using the material in the classroom, or for homeschoolers, the home.
DinosaurDays also has a free version, which is nice to go through and have a look before committing to the whole enchilada. It was designed with girls in mind, but I find my son also really likes poking through the material. Four strawberries for this one.
This is a fun drawing app with a little extra: not only can you doodle with many colours, drag-able clips and brush sizes, Doodlecast is a unique drawing app that records the child’s drawing process and voice as they go. Then they’re done, they play back the short film and export it to share (mom needs to help with that part). The videos can be up to three minutes long.
The interface is simple, friendly, clean and easy to use. It has a nice, cartoon feeling to it that makes it very tactile and inviting. You can start off with a template such as an empty plate, the wheels of a car or just blank. I do find the tools a bit limited; the brush sizes are generally too big, it’s hard to go back, erase or reset, the colour choice is too narrow. But, all in all, this is an app that makes my kids laugh and keeps them coming back. I give it four strawberries.
Fiona Passantino is the founder of The App Train, a small, app development company with a dual focus: building commercial apps, iPad magazines, folios and mobile websites for small to medium-sized companies and building own apps for commercial release. The in-house titles are largely children’s educational material with a special needs slant for the English market. Fiona lives in The Hague with her husband and two small but highly competent app testers-and-debuggers aged four and nine.