The iPad’s value as an educational tool continues to increase every day, as new applications arrive for preschoolers, grade schoolers and college students alike. It really says something that the four ABC alphabet-teaching applications we’re looking at in today’s edition of iPad Gems are capable of being featured in such a narrowly-focused roundup; just for fun, we’ve also included a number-teaching application from one of the same developers, as well. Some of the apps here are solely for the iPad, while others are universal and thus work on the iPhone and iPod touch, as well.
All of the titles in this roundup merited at least a B+ strong general recommendation. We were especially fond of Interactive Alphabet for iPad – ABC Flash Cards and Little Explorers: ABC Wildlife, but each title is certainly worthy of its low asking price. Read on for all the details.
ABC Song ($1, version 1.1) by Curious Puppy/HarperCollins Publishers is a universal application that looks like a cartoony child’s storybook with a train, conductor, and monkey theme. It offers a “sing-along” mode with an animated singing of the classic alphabet song, split into 13 screens with two letters a piece, in the form of a train with multiple cart-shaped segments. In this mode, kids watch and listen to the complete song as the application auto-scrolls through each set of two letters after their animations have played, while a separate “play” mode lets you tap each letter to trigger the animation underneath, then an arrow to move on to the next set of letters. The application is properly optimized to be nearly identical regardless of the size of the screen you’re watching it on.
To be clear, we love the song, found the art and fun animations to be charming, and know from testing with kids that this will be an extremely popular title for repeated plays—at the $1 asking price, it’s all but impossible to complain about any shortcomings it might have. That said, the two-letter-per-page and fast-paced song design has led to some word choices for letters that are sometimes a little less than intuitive: B is for “big” rather than “balloon” so it can rhyme with “dig” on the next set of pages, with E for “elephant” and then F for “flat” so the elephant can jump into a cart and flatten its tires. Will kids know or understand “flat?” Maybe, but it’s more likely that a parent may have to explain it to them, along with a few others that move by at a very brisk pace. Ideally, this app’s small rough edges could be tweaked, but otherwise, this is a wonderfully amusing app for kids, and we’d recommend it with special enthusiasm because of the low price. iLounge Rating: A-.
As the sole iPhone-focused app in this bunch, 123 Ants Go Marching ($1, version 1.0, aka 1-2-3 The Ants Go Marching) is also the only numbers-focused teaching tool, and the least interactive—a boon for younger kids. It performs a cartoony and sonically enthusiastic rendition of the classic Ants Go Marching song, showing an army of ants growing by one each time they finish traversing a different background.
While the song is fun and the animations are cute, complete with the player’s ability to tap a couple of objects per scene to make them move, there are times when the vocals are drowned out by the music, the sound effects are less than totally audible, and the numbered hats left by each army are a little too small—the emphasis on the counting could use additional reinforcement after each verse of the song. Small tweaks could make this great, but it’s a very good pick for younger kids right now. iLounge Rating: B+.
Though it doesn’t have a structured auto-play mode that would make it ideal for younger kids, we absolutely loved Pi’ikea St.‘s Interactive Alphabet for iPad – ABC Flash Cards ($5/$3, version 1.02) in every other way. It devotes one full screen to each letter, combining great word choices with interactive content that kids will love. You’re initially presented with a magnetic board-like list of letters on a plain white background with one of three cheery songs, and need to tap on any one to see the screen devoted to its letter. The letter is spoken once aloud, then a phrase is said, such as “N is for Noodles,” as an animation starts and the same phrase appears on screen. A swipe or tap gesture typically makes the specified word move in some way; swiping upwards makes the noodles fling into the air from chopsticks to become a smiley face.
What’s great about Interactive Alphabet is the quality of some of the individual screens. Quill, for instance, brings up a feather that can actually be used for drawing, Kite lets you tap on a kite to replace it with others, and Train has a fully animated train with whistle and faux clicking-on-tracks sound effects. Other screens have more mild interactivity that is purely tap-based, and only occasionally are the letter interactions underintuitive—Olives, for instance—though the developer has already gone back and made improvements to letters that were previously underwhelming, resulting in better experiences for kids. Though it’s tempting to ask for more words per letter due to the excellence of the ones included here, the one and only thing we’d really like to see added here is a guided mode that can take kids unfamiliar with the letters through the entire alphabet in sequence. Otherwise, this is a truly great learning app; the $3 initial asking price will apparently rise to $5, which we think is justified by the quality of the content here. iLounge Rating: A-.
We have been hesitant to spend much time covering applications that essentially aggregate free content from the Internet into paid software, but Little Explorers: ABC Wildlife ($3, version 2.2) from Peapod Labs is an option that defies conventions. The developers’ pitch is that there’s a ton of excellent educational content on services such as YouTube and Flickr, but it’s hard to sort it out from the junk and bad content a parent wouldn’t want their kids to see. So the iPad-only version of ABC Wildlife displays a sharp-looking grid with large letters of the alphabet and animal names, letting kids tap anywhere to see pictures and videos of animals that have been sorted and screened. Peapod continues to add additional content, signaling the most recent updates on the title’s first screen.
From a photographic standpoint, the results are awesome. Peapod Labs mightn’t have shot the pictures itself, but it has chosen so many excellent shots—each credited to the original photographer and available under a free use license—that you’ll feel like you’ve just purchased the nicest animal picture book on the planet. Each “page” is interactive, with letters at the top that speak “B, bull,” and letters at the bottom spelling out the animal’s name. You can tap any of these letters to skip to a random photo starting with another letter, and hit an ABC button to return to the grid of choices. Pleasant explorer-themed music loops in the background as you optionally hit an ! icon to bring up one fact about the animal on screen. It’s a really fun interface.
By comparison, the YouTube videos that are offered with play icons overlapping the animals—not an ideal spot, incidentally—are very frequently grainy and heavily artifacted, below par by iPad screen standards but unlikely to generate complaints from kids. They could stand to be much better. As with Interactive Alphabet, this application could also benefit from a secondary, guided tour mode that takes really young kids through each letter of the alphabet, with the choice to see more animals under the same letter or move on to the next letter.
Still, ABC Wildlife is one of the sharpest-looking educational applications we’ve yet seen on the iPad—a great complement to other alphabet apps rather than a replacement for them, especially well-suited to kids who love animals and parents who appreciate great photography. Though we’re not entirely thrilled that there are two versions of this application, one specific to the iPhone and iPod touch that we haven’t reviewed, and this one for the iPad—a universal app is appropriate here unless the developers want to guarantee iPad-quality HD content for all of the videos—we’d strongly encourage Peapod Labs to produce additional titles in the series with other interesting themes (food, perhaps?); 3-year-old and older kids will love to play with and explore this collection. iLounge Rating: A-.
Last but not least is Little Sky Writers ($2, version 1.0) from Dano2, which takes something we’ve now seen in many other applications—teaching letter drawing through shape-tracing—and makes it much more fun. You can choose from three planes as drawing tools, and you’re then given a very clear path to follow with the plane to complete each letter, with cloud puffs appearing behind it as it moves. Upper and lower case letters can be switched between at any time, though the game otherwise operates in fully automatic mode, moving from one letter of one case to the next letter of the same case, unless you call up an alphabet grid and skip around.
Apart from the simple but effective graphics, which due to the persistent followable lines teach letter tracing in a more effective, little-kid-friendly way than any of the apps we’ve previously covered, the star feature of Little Sky Writers is comedic voiceover work provided by Stephen Kramer Glickman. Each letter that loads provides not just the typically brief “A is for apple,” but rather a full statement: “A says ‘ah,’ as in apple or alligator. Alligators do not fly on planes. They prefer to take the bus.” Some parents might find the extra words to be confusing additions for young kids, while others—the ones who intend to actually sit with their kids and teach the tracing gestures—will enjoy the commentary, at least once; it can be switched off if you prefer. We liked it, but a less verbose alternative should really be included, too. We would otherwise recommend this application enthusiastically as a great pick for teaching younger kids how to write. iLounge Rating: B+.