May 30th, 2012

iPad App Reviews: Toca Boca, Shimon Young's My PlayHome, Blinq's Miny Moe Car, DDG's Trucks

I don't shop for apps consistently. Every once in a while, as the kids lose interest in their current crop of apps, I go buy another batch. Sometimes an external prompt will cause me to go buy stuff. A while back, I bought Robot Labs by Toca Boca, and more recently I started it up and stuck it in front of my daughter, who is almost 4, and who may have been spending more than half her life at this point using iPads. She learned how to index her finger on an iPad. It's been that kind of life.

Anyway. Robot Labs has you create a robot (think, dress up, only with robot parts), then drag the Robot through a maze like environment with some arrows to help you out, possibly picking out up to three stars before finally hooking the robot up to a magnet at the end. Pretty visuals, calm music, weirdly appealing. The environment is way more interesting than my description of it conveys, while remaining non-threatening and not-overwhelming (unless your kid hasn't figured out about arrows yet, in which case it's a bit of a learning curve, but there you are).

I mentioned Robot Labs during my daughter's IEP meeting, along with My Playhome as apps that were of current interest. My PlayHome was actually the one I was mostly describing, because my daughter produces an incredible number of full, descriptive sentences as she narrates what she is making happen in the app. My PlayHome is a digital dollhouse (mom, dad, son, daughter, baby, living room, kitchen, kids bedroom, bathroom, backyard -- significant updates add additional rooms over time) and is ridiculously entertaining as well as the perfect iPad application: a bunch of largely unrelated animations make _sense_ in this context.

Someone at the meeting asked if there were apps for things like grocery shopping. As soon as this was mentioned of course I felt ridiculous for not having looked -- but I didn't think to look for a digital doll house, either. I found it when reading lists of good apps for kids especially kids with special needs. Off I went to find a grocery shopping app that was a game and lo and behold, Toca Boca has one of those. It is a fantastic turn taking app between a store operator and a customer.

Toca Boca also has a "house" app: you deliver mail to the house, sweep floors, clean dishes, mow the lawn, etc. It's another digital dollhouse, but stylistically and functionally different (less about play and more about the work of a house).

But the one my daughter is completely hooked on (the first I tried of the new batch and I haven't been able to convince her to switch to anything else other than the new Mickey Mouse Clubhouse interactive Road Rally app) is Toca Doctor. It's awesome: kill bugs in the patient's hair, mend a broken bone, place organs, help the patient move along items inappropriately swallowed, burp out some bubbles, place gears in the brain, clean up a scratch, administer a shot -- and on and on.

Toca Boca's apps are not like Angry Birds or Where's My Water. They aren't about puzzles or physics or new levels (well, maybe they are about updates). They're sort of like Fisher Price toys, or PlayMobil: enacting things that are more or less from real life but in a play context, under the control of the kid but hopefully with the participation of an adult. I have no idea whether this has universal appeal, or this is specifically a spectrum-y thing, but I _love_ all of them (there's a tea party, that's probably my least favorite, and a hair salon and cooking apps, which I have not yet tried).

Finally, Blinq's Miny Moe Car has several related components. There's a car repair game (bits of the car break down and need to be fixed: dirty, tire puncture, gas fill, broken window). There's a go-around-a-track thing which is a very simple game where you start the car up with a gesture like a traction toy: pull back to make it go. It runs into things and you have to start it again. Finally, the most amazing part is the driving simulator, which is a very little-kid like car, but with a radio, reverse gear, gas and brake pedals, turn signals, washers, etc.

Duck Duck Goose's Trucks also probably belongs in this category. Again, I bought it a while ago and put in front of my daughter recently to her great delight (she's a huge car wash fan at the moment). You can get vehicles dirty and then run them through a car wash. You can red-yellow-green light traffic (and set off sirens and have a monkey buy ice cream from an ice cream truck, cause fender benders, etc.). And you can have some earth movers move piles of stuff around at a construction site. It's probably the simplest and least satisfying of all of these apps -- and it is utterly charming.

I haven't put any of these in front of my son (he is almost 7, and he's a huge Angry Birds and Where's My Water guy, altho he's currently expending some energy making me play Grooh and watching); I'll update this post if he displays any interest.