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Category: Middle School »

WitchOfEast Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on August 6th, 2012

WitchOfEast is a wonderful storybook app for iPad - perfect for children who enjoy a scary story.

WitchOfEast is a skillfully written story - very classic in nature about a Witch of the East who is intent on getting her hands on fairies, tricking them in a way most terrible for them, but creating a great read for children and adults. I don’t want to give much away in this review as I thoroughly enjoyed the plot twists the first time I read this story, enjoying how original this tale is, yet with nuances of many favorite Grimms and other dark fairy tales that I grew up loving as a child.

Without interactions or animated elements, this is an app to sit back with and enjoy without any distractions. The illustrations included are simply stellar, with a terrific ability to be beautiful, yet have moments of great gruesomeness as well - for a great effect.

The story itself is crafted in rhyme - a style often used in storybooks, yet it is uncommon for a rhyming tale to be this effective, as here the superb narrators are Braveheart actor Jimmy Chisholm and Royal Shakespeare Company actress Siobhan Redmond, who both bring much comprehension to this storytelling.

Although the words are not highlighted when read, the pages are broken into verses which make the following along easier. I also appreciate the interesting-to-look-at yet easy-to-read font choice used within the text - a small detail not to be overlooked within a wordy story such as this, making the readability that much greater for children to follow along.

Music of a very high quality is also included, adding another element which creates a rich experience for readers.

I also appreciate the section of this is app where one can meet the characters found throughout, very thoughtfully written and including a pertaining sound effect as well as illustration. It is impressive the amount of back story and extra information included for each character within this section, details I really enjoyed learning more about. This section is a fun read as it is not narrated, but I would welcome the chance to listen to this information as well, possibly in a future update.

A very nice page of biographies are included where readers can read up on the narrators, author and illustrator, a nice inclusion that I find unfortunately lacking from most other applications.

All of the visual and sound elements, the illustrations, narration and music are perfectly realized. Readers will miss nothing from this app not being interactive - an aspect I actually appreciate as a change from the highly interactive apps we also enjoy.

The only note I have is that the narration heard which asks readers to turn the page, although witty and clever, can be distracting as I oftentimes paused between pages to absorb the illustrations or re-read the text. Because of this, it would be nice to have the choice of turning these prompts off.

I cannot conceive of a typical reader doing a better job of reading this story out loud than the accomplished professionals this app includes, but I think some parents may want to read this app to their children, or older kids might want to read this story to themselves. For this reason, it would be nice to be able to turn off the narration as well.

I really enjoy this ghostly story involving witches and ghouls very much as an adult, and would have great fun with this title as a child as well, but I was a rare breed of kid who enjoyed scary movies and stories from a very young age. For the average child, this tale may be best for grade school or beyond, but I am sure older preschool-age children who enjoy being scared by stories can enjoy this app as well.

Let's Color! Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on July 27th, 2012
iPad App - Designed for iPad

Let's Color! is a wonderful animated coloring book for iPad that children and adults will love to explore.

I absolutely enjoy this cute and quirky art application. This app allows children to be highly creative yet work off prompts both seen as uncompleted drawings as well as text, both spoken and written, that trigger children's imagination instead of trying to be inspired by a blank page.

The illustration that children are adding to is also quite child-like, making non-drawers comfortable with their level of drawing skills - an issue my son has as he is aware of this lack of representational drawing ability.

As this app opens up, children are first asked, “What is coming out of the hose?” allowing children to then answer this question with any doodle they see fit with the use of many colors to choose from as well as different sized drawing points and even sticker choices.

Once children add whatever they imagine coming out of the hose, a tap will animate their drawing. Also included are fun sounds which really bring their work to life, here flushing different elements of their drawing out of the hose with great whimsy.

Other topics touched upon are “Can you make it snow?” which duplicates the snow drawn by readers, creating a confetti-like experience that then drops down to the bottom of the page; “Who is riding in these train cars?”, which is a great opportunity to use the included stickers, or even more open-ended questions such asking children what is being drunk out of large twisty straws, or an off-beat request such as “What could be coming out of this trumpet?”

Personally, I enjoy the toilet humor in this app as well, asking children to “Let’s draw poops” in a large yellow toilet center page, allowing the adding images to be flushed away, yet I can imagine some families being turned off by this section.

Although the saving of the original image created is possible, I would also like to return to these pages to re-watch the animated moment created for each section. Unfortunately, the drawing is not saved to re-watch once the page is turned - something I would love to see included in a future update.

I greatly admire how the children’s illustrations are de-constructed in creative ways to fit into this simple page story, and I find this app wonderful to encourage children like my son, who has shown vast creativity in storytelling, yet hesitate when it comes to drawing anything representational for fear of failing his personal standards.

It is worth noting that the first 18 pages of this app are free, with the ability to add another 16 sections for $1.99 as an in-app purchase. I don't typically recommend an app with this format, but “Let’s Color” is a truly special experience with a tremendous value even without the in-app purchase - an option that can be hidden from children’s view, a nice touch.

From my perspective, Let’s Color is a must-download for any iPad owners with children. I admire the storytelling aspect of this app, triggering the imagination of children, complete with highlighted text with cute children’s narration which asks children to complete these drawings.

This is certainly an app that is hard to explain or describe with words alone, and I wonder if I have given justice to the experiences created. Luckily for readers, one can download it as a free app, and readers can see for themselves what all my fuss is about. Please note that another related app from these same developers is also available, Squiggles! If interested, please look for it in iTunes.

Monkeys in My Head Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on July 19th, 2012
iPad App - Designed for iPad

Monkeys in My Head is a very interesting interactive storybook app for iPad with a wonderfully quirky sense of style that will be a huge hit for families with an acquired taste for the offbeat.

Personally, I really enjoy this tale about the monkeys in the head of a girl who is the main character as they represent negative feelings such as self doubt or low self esteem. To deal with these monkey bullies, the girl devises a plan to rid herself of these creatures, and I admire how this story is up for interpretation as these monkeys could also be thought of as bullies in the flesh that children may encounter in school.

The look of this app is impressive, with a bleak gray and tan color scheme with few pops of color that I appreciate as something a little different that works quite well within this story, and the monkeys themselves have a level of grotesqueness that I find quite appealing without being over the top for a children’s story. A menu of pages is also included to help readers find specific moment of this story, always a nice touch.

This is not a story that all families will welcome, however, with the term “shut up” appearing on the first page, the use of “monkey pesticide” to subdue these creatures and the basic nastiness of these monkeys. Because of this, I wonder if the target age of this app is really older children who may be more prepared to enjoy this app than preschoolers or those younger, as the included animated moments bring to life the behaviors of these terrible monkeys in ways that may scare younger children.

It also gives me pause that one monkey is said to have “fat fingers” which to some, may lack sensitivity to those who may have weight issues, as this app is supposed to boost children’s confidence among the negative whispers one may hear in their heads. Therefore, using “fat” to describe these horrible beasts, as homely as they are cruel may send an unintended mixed message to the very group of impressionable children that this app is trying to reach.

Even with these issues that some may have with this app, the ending is quite moving and upbeat, redeeming itself from the dark place this app opens with.

The wonderfully styled drawings, narration and included music create a decidedly interesting and unique indie feel, making this app stand out among other storybooks found within iTunes which includes a powerful message about inner confidence that will be enjoyed very much by the right family, but this app is not for everyone.

Tick Bait’s Universe Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on July 11th, 2012
iPad App - Designed for iPad

Tick Bait’s Universe is a wonderful children’s science app for iPad that truly puts the universe into perspective in a way that children can understand, appreciate and enjoy.

Starting out, this app introduces readers a chance to view an ordinary dog, Tick Bait one meter, roughly three feet overhead, as he lays on his back in a backyard typical of many homes. From here, one has a chance to explore the unseen in either direction, zooming in or out closer or further to Tick Bait by the power of ten.

In choosing to investigate Tick Bait closer, the view becomes 1/10 of a meter (about four inches) close to Tick Bait and from here one has a view of the ticks this dog is carrying. Getting still closer makes children aware of the even smaller dog mites that are commonplace - a version of this mite also living on human hosts as well.

Zooming in further reveals the dog mites' cells, and later bacteria and the even smaller viruses as well as even DNA. The app discusses such topics as DNA sequencing and zooms down small enough to atoms, their protons, neutrons, electrons and even the smaller ````quarks which ends this section, as matter can’t be broken down into smaller pieces.

Viewing Tick Bait from higher and higher vantage points is equally impressive, detailing such principles as different levels found within the atmosphere as well as an interesting view of Tick Bait’s house, neighborhood and state in which he lives, pulling out to see the Earth as a whole, later in orbit with the other planets until Earth is seen as simply part of the Milky Way and beyond. It ultimately shows a representation of the entire observable universe, ending this section of this highly engaging and educational app.

Do note that one may want to be view this app in landscape mode to make the most of this application as here, both the images as well as text are available, whereas the image is only seen within portrait mode.

There is so much information to be read about within this thoughtfully conceived application. I admire the structure of this app because of the way that it delivers all the included information. It is as easy to follow as it is engaging - with an abundance of interesting facts as well as fun true or false questions that add related information about topics at hand.

I also admire how one can move back and forth between tenfold distances with the pinch or spreading of fingers, the tap of a button or the scrolling between sections, and I appreciate all the additional information found within this app along the way as well including much about scientific notations and the concept of the power of ten. Because of this, metric measurements are used here but are roughly translated to imperial measurements as well.

Although this app does not contain narration, wonderful sound effects really bring these different vantage points to life, with each sound element well chosen and effective in making this app really come alive, even when simply moving from one tenfold to another, as well as when readers know they have zoomed in and out as far as possible.

This is a perfect science application for older grade school children and beyond, and is an app that adults will genuinely enjoy as well.

Without narration, readers rely on themselves or an adult to read the included text, making this an app possibly not fully suitable for younger children, but with the aid of an adult, I think that bright, curious children as young as late preschool could enjoy this app if it is read to them by an encouraging adult.

I have greatly enjoyed Tick Bait’s Universe, This app is one of a kind and is a wonderful app for home as well as school settings. I am eager to see what other apps the developers at You University Apps may come up with next as this application is top-notch in every way.

Monster Physics Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on July 3rd, 2012
+ Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad

Monster Physics is a wonderfully creative and educational universal app which teaches about physics and building concepts to young engineers ages ten and up. This app, part of a library of applications from developer Dan Russell-Pinson, is a terrific choice for parents and teachers alike as this app requires focus and concentration as well as being a lot of fun.

There are many components to this app that children must understand in order to be successful with their builds, so I encourage adults to familiarize themselves with this application before showing it to their children. It is great how multiple players can save their game, making this app ideal for classroom settings as well as for families, and it is also cute and fun to have the ability to personalize the monster associated with a player’s individual account.

I would like to encourage users to start off by visiting the Learn section, which covers basic principles of physics such as gravity, friction, speed and velocity with the use of a simple, well-written explanation and animated scenes demonstrating what is being taught using the different pieces that one can later use in their creations.

After players study this section, there are two basic areas one can build machines in. A Build section allows children to create their own devices in an open-ended fashion, and it is wonderful that one can save and modify these machines for later, Yet I think players may have a hard time starting off in this section without a lot of building experience. Instead, I recommend the Missions area that will take players through sections of mini-games where they must build a contraption with various parts to unite monsters with the fruit they are trying to eat. The use of physics, as the title may imply, is top notch, making this a must-have application for young engineers, with the upper difficulty levels such as Challenge and Advanced great mental workouts for adults.

I admire all the work that must have gone into the developing of Monster Physics as the amount of content, assuming that one has the aptitude to complete this application, is impressive. I would like, however, to be able to see more tips given such as those found within the Training section throughout, possibly including even more specific hints as well for those who need it, with the use of helpful text and even a template that one can complete to give players a basic framework to follow while still needing to trouble-shoot the exact details. Even without adding more hints, I do find it a flaw within this app that the answer is not included for those who can’t continue within a missions from a section and need help. I don’t think one should underestimate the educational value of having challenges such as these explained - much more so than being stuck and walking away after hitting an impasse. Luckily, all the included mini-games are unlocked, and one can skip over a problem if need be. Do take as long or try as many times as needed to get things correct. There are no timers or points of any sorts, making this a great app for those who like to take their time and focus on the task at hand.

Even with this note, there is a lot to really appreciate about this application. I enjoy the look of these monsters, and I am impressed with different parts, connectors and special pieces one can use to create working machines both simple and complex making this a stellar application for teaching problem solving skills and critical thinking.

This is also a relatively quiet game that uses ambient nature sounds to a nice effect as all of these building exercises take place within an outdoor landscape. The other sound effects used to bring the different elements alive also bring a lot to this experience, but be aware that one can turn off these effects as well as the music used individually - always a nice touch.

It is easy to recommend the apps developed by Dan Russell-Pinson. They are go-to apps for anyone looking for an engaging education for older children and are-must have applications for teachers who use apps within their classrooms.

Box Monsters Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on May 1st, 2012
iPhone App - Designed for iPhone, compatible with iPad

Box Monsters is a very nice physics-based game with a heavy use of gravity and intuitive game play.

Different shapes are stacked precariously on a platform on or alongside a box monster who wishes to be able to fly away home. To help this box monster, tap to remove these shapes which are separating the monster from the platform below that will help project this box monster home when contact is made.

Sometimes the box monster is resting on the platform, but the shapes need to be removed that hinder the box monster from flying away, as well as other interesting details that I enjoy. Do note that these towers of shapes can get pretty wobbly, and if the tower falls over, players need to try again.

I really like this game, the graphics are pleasing to look with a use of bright colors and it is very intuitive to understand in terms of how to play.

Five levels are included which increase in difficulty, and 20 levels are included within each section. I like how although the game follows the same basic premise, specific pieces are added that change how players respond to these puzzles such as triangles that can not be removed or spiky round pieces that will kill the box monsters on contact.

Although the upper levels get difficult, the ease of game play has made re-doing levels in order to have a good outcome not as frustrating as a game like this can sometimes become. One aspect that I don’t like, however, is that some of these shape towers are so tippy that even as a level opens, the towers tumble before contact with the player, and the game must be started over again - moments that I do find frustrating indeed.

I also have had issues of having to re-start levels as one does not always get a chance to automatically re-try levels in the way typical for most of the game - an issue that I hope can be looked into for a future update.

I think that this game, especially the first section, would be a great first physics app for grade school children which can teach a lot about problem solving as well as a very nice casual game for adults.

It would be nice if the information of more than one player could be stored at once so families can share this app amongst themselves with the games of various family members saved separately, but even without this function, I have enjoyed this game and the amount of puzzles offered. I look forward to more levels being added to Box Monsters in the future.

The Artifacts Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on April 27th, 2012
+ Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad

The Artifacts is a superb universal interactive storybook app that will appeal to many ages of children, especially older children in late grade school, middle school and even high school as well as beyond.

Meet Asaf, a collector of just about everything, from art to antiques, caterpillars to flora as well as anything and everything else that interests him, much to the dismay of his parents who do not share his passion for collecting.

One day, much to Asaf’s dismay, he arrives home to see his room bare and his collections removed. It is only now that he finds out that he is moving with his parents to a new house, and that collections are not permitted in his new home. Although his parents may be able to control what is allowed inside their house, they cannot control Asaf’s mind, and it is here that he creates vast new collections of fantasy, daydreams and facts all his own.

Asaf is a character after my own heart as I too am a collector of things far and wide, luckily having never been asked to get rid of my collections as my parents share this same trait to some degree, and I confess that we have gotten rid of very few of my son’s toys throughout the years, ever increasing the storage areas of our home to accommodate such belongings and effects.

The story itself is striking, with the emotions of isolation and alienation expressed as simple text and rich imagery that stick in my mind in places typically reserved for favorite passages of literature, film or other forms of art.

The treatment of Asaf and the behavior of his parents are extreme, yet surreal and dreamlike, allowing myself to be drawn into this story without judgment, yet creating an emotional experience which children need to be ready for, making it perfect for kids in upper grade school and up if not older, through adulthood.

My mind races to nuances depicting bleak moments from Roald Dahl stories - lonely, austere moments from the animated film “Coraline,” or surreal moments from the live action feature “Where the Wild Things Are” if for nothing more that the tones and emotions found within moments of storytelling that are bouncing around in my mind after finishing this app.

I have seen few such well-realized interactive app with older kids in mind. The majority of interactions are wonderful, imaginative and poetic as are the wonderfully stylized artwork found among these pages. The style of writing is quite minimalist, creating a wonderful dichotomy with the illustrations which can be lush with detail or minimal themselves for a great effect.

Although a large part of me wants to go into great detail about my favorite scenes or elements of this app, it is my gift to readers not to ruin these moments for themselves as words will not fully express or explain the emotion felt when experiencing this app for the first time.

As strongly as I feel about this app, I have decided not to share this story with my son, as I think the idea that parents - who presumably understand their children and want the best for them - would take away everything that they hold dear quite heartbreaking - especially for a kid like mine who really enjoys a lot of stuff around him.

There are also moments of heavy language with use of such words as “The Offense,” The Betrayal,” “The Dearth,” or “The Crime” in reference to moving away from home with all one’s worldly possessions gone, which adds a lot of melancholy to this app quite effectively in ways that may burden younger children such as my son.

There is little that I would change about this storybook.The one note I would like to make is that there is a witty moment when Asaf collects his thoughts while in the bathroom, with the tubes, creams and other items commonly found there and that have labels such as “concepts,” “Inferences,” or “Notion Potion,” yet the hand-written text is very small and hard to read, even on the larger screen of the iPad. This is unfortunate, especially for iPhone users who will be looking at these words on an even smaller screen - a real missed opportunity for readers but in no way a reason to bypass this otherwise wonderful app.

I do hope I have done this app justice as I would typically write in more detail my favorite moments within, but I don’t think these details would be doing readers any favors.

It is also worth noting that this app includes an interracial family, which has no real bearing on the story at hand, but it is just nice to see as I am hard-pressed to think of many other apps which include other interracial family units - refreshing to see, to be sure.

I hope this review has encouraged readers, both parents as well as teachers, to download this app for their children as well as for themselves. I am happy to see an app of such quality with a very reasonable price tag, especially for being a universal app - something I hope other developers will take notice of as the price for iPad and universal apps keeps creeping up.

Smash Your Food HD Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on April 20th, 2012
iPad App - Designed for iPad

Smash Your Food HD is a highly entertaining app for iPad dedicated to the better understanding of the amounts of sugar, salt and oil found within foods that are commonly eaten.

With five levels included, players are asked to determine the amounts of these substances by reviewing the nutritional facts of each food in question and then watching as these foods get pulverized - much to the delight of children.

I really like that although a nutrition app, this app shows children how math can have a very practical application in their lives as the grams of sugar and oil, along with the milligrams of salt, must be converted to the units of measure found within the app, specifically sugar cubes (4 grams per cube) 1/8 teaspoon pours of salt equaling 288 mg each as well as teaspoons of oil (4 grams per spoonful) After these calculations are made and the answers are entered, one gets to smash the food, and boy does the food get smashed!

Do keep a calculator handy to make these calculations easier, especially the 288 that one must divide into the sodium mg of foods to come up with the number of 1/8 teaspoons of salt that one is looking for in an answer. It is also good to know that 1/2 measurements are not possible so players must round up or down to a whole number - another math element taught with a real world application.

Impressive HG videos are shown of each food being pulverized by a vice that closes down, smushing and smashing these foods in the messiest ways possible, complete with fun, squishy sound effects. My son at four does not fully get the heath aspect of this app but loves to smash the foods within this app. Few apps have brought the smiles and squeals that this app delivers, creating a truly addicting experience for both him and for me.

Complete meals are included by the 5th level, as are “crazy” levels that include a “super-sized” load of food - just for fun really - as the splat here is, as one can imagine, all the more epic.

I enjoy the visual of not only the food being flattened but the look of the food elements being filled into beakers below the smashing machine, as sugar cubes, salt shakes and teaspoons can be seen doing measurements, sometimes overfilling these beakers with sugar cubes being heard dropping off screen as the beaker has been filled and the sugar presumably backs up into the machine, as well as the oil that may spill out over the beaker when too much continues to be poured.

It would be nice to be able to enter in one’s best guesses on sugar, salt and oil after seeing the food mashed, as the level of oil that get squeezed out of some foods is quite telling, allowing people to use their understanding of these ingredient amounts based on info previously learned from this app instead of doing the math, especially since one can gain stars for answers not only spot-on, but for showing an understanding that a food stuff is higher or lower than the amount allowed per meal players are allowed. Be aware that stars are not given for previously correct answers, confusing for us in the beginning of playing this game.

It is a nice touch that the info of six players can be stored within this app, and that each player has a different limit of sugar, salt, and oil that is the maximum allowed per meal. I do find it unfortunate, however, that this app features only the most junky and the most obviously bad-to-consume foods, with no choices that are fully actually allowed under the guidelines that one learns about in the beginning of this app based on the player's age and level of activity, even making certain junk foods look like a lesser-evil food because healthy food options are not offered.

I also find that the nutrition elements are overly simplified as here, all fats are bad fats, which in the real world is not the case - yet among these foods, it is very much so. Topics such as fiber, protein and glycemic index are also not covered, being beyond the scope of this delightfully disgusting app.

In a future update, I would love to smash a bowl of guacamole, yogurt, watermelon or a pomegranate, as well as choices such as rotisserie chicken, sushi, grilled salmon or a simple plate of beans and rice to show food choices that one can eat without regret. I would also love to see foods that are worse for people than one may imagine, such as muffins, which are notorious for high levels of sugar and oil as well as more Chinese food choices, a cuisine that if cooked without concern can be full of crazy amounts of oil - something that even many adults don’t realize or choose to ignore, or a salad loaded with creamy dressing - another common downfall.

Even with the notes given, this is a highly entertaining, addictive application that will certainly entertain children. I a happy to announce that Smash Your Food HD has won the Michelle Obama's Apps For Healthy Kids contest, and it is nice that emails including tips and advice are available to be received each time one completes a level.

I hope that more levels and foods can be added in the future, ideally with healthy food substitutions to encourage good nutritional choices, helping players choose foods other than those included within this application.

Cool to be Clever: Edson Hendricks Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on April 17th, 2012
iPad App - Designed for iPad

Cool to be Clever: Edson Hendricks is a wonderful biography for iPad that tells the life story of Edson C. Hendricks, the brilliant mind behind the design of the Internet.

This is a very nicely written application, narrated effortlessly by Hendricks himself, who has a wonderful speaking voice which reminding me of a less flamboyant Spaulding Gray making him a great talent in re-telling his own story.

Although written by another author, Leanne Jones, the words presented on the page and spoken in the first person ring utterly true as they guide readers through Hendricks’s early life as a child, being bullied for his intellect as well as for his red hair color, through his groundbreaking work with computers at MIT and beyond as he worked to design a method of connecting the world's computers, sometimes misunderstood by those in authority at this workplace.

I do really enjoy this story of how the technology for the Internet was born, as I do Hendricks's personal story, growing up and feeling an outcast until he found his place in college - a relatable experience for many.

Hendricks's method of delivery is modest and humble, always remaining very much of an everyman including his lovely delivery of his life story to his interviews, which are also included within this application.

I find it interesting that Hendricks is widely regarded as a genius yet never uses this word himself, and I wonder if children will fully understand how unique an experience it is to be a self-taught reader or how difficult admissions to MIT is - topics that parents or teachers may feel the need to touch upon.

I also appreciate how this application also includes moments of drama and suspense during a chapter that goes into detail about Hendricks and a friend sailing through a hurricane on their way to Bermuda, Hendricks being depressed at the time over an invention that was not well-received and how having to fight for their life helped put things into perspective.

Another interesting section of this app includes an anecdote about a peculiar cat that I also was impressed by regarding how this story is tied to the rest of the app in a most thoughtful way.

Please do not expect many interactions as this app is primarily a recorded book and a terrific learning tool that not only teaches about the history of the Internet but may also whet the appetite of children for other biographies or interesting people.

I really enjoy how this app combines the written story narrated by Hendricks as well as other sections that include much other information about the Hendrickses' family life, the Internet and other scientific topics, also including moments of Hendricks giving wonderful advice to programmers as well as to children who feel different.

This app also includes a lengthy section about bullying in schools and what can be done about this very serious topic. The music used throughout this app is also touched upon in a separate section - a nice touch.

It is easy recommend this application for children who have the attention span to listen to this lengthy, interesting audio-book of an iPad app keeping in mind that Hendricks notes a particularly dark time for him that may be not appropriate for some younger children.

Illustrations are included which are equally well done, but at times when Hendricks is describing the computer room in college where he worked, it seems like a missed opportunity that the illustrations do not represent what is being described as this could have helped children visualize these most outdated computers and other hardware being discussed. Also, an image of Woodstock is incorporated into the text - an event that Hendricks experienced firsthand, yet it is only 1965 in the timeline of this story, with a jog into the future while discussing other scientific achievements to come. This may be a little confusing for readers, especially those who think of 1969 when thinking about Woodstock - possibly less of an issue for children not familiar with these dates.

The production value of the audio recording of Hendricks’s story is a little rough - something that I found mildly distracting yet not something most children will pick up on, I am sure.

This app is not only great for children, teens and interested adults, but for teachers as well, as this app has a very nice section about dealing with bullies in school and how this could have helped Hendricks possibly fit in better in school.

This application is thoughtfully written and includes a lot of information children can feel inspired by, from the design that led to the Internet to Hendricks's personal story of overcoming bullies as well as touching on the difficult yet very real topic of depression that Hendricks also includes as part of his life story.

Equally interesting are the interviews with the author of this app, Leanne Jones, who discusses her experiences as a teacher, how she discovered Hendricks’s story, and what she learned from writing this biography - all interesting notes that add to this app’s overall experience.

Cool to be Clever: Edson Hendricks reminds of me the It Gets Better Project for Gay and LGTB Youth, yet here this app articulates that life can get better for those bullied during their childhood years, making this a story worth telling in homes and schools, especially within gifted classrooms.

Sir Benfro’s Brilliant Balloon Review

Posted by Sarah Reidy on April 10th, 2012
+ Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad

Sir Benfro’s Brilliant Balloon, designed by Tim Fishlock and developed by Explore and Create Limited, is an extremely unique and visually impressive universal app that will most likely capture the attention of children ages 7 and older. Click on “Meet Sir Benfro,” and you will learn that, “Sir Benfro has made some of the most scientific discoveries of his generation…Naturalist, Scientist, and Explorer, Sir Benfro is more than happy to invent creatures to support his theories.” This strange background information is just an example of how quirky and original this app actually is, although younger children will surely find this narrative confusing (as did I, actually). Complete with a Spotter’s Guide to new creatures, and an option to send a postcard via Facebook or Twitter, what can I say other than you have to play it to believe it.

The game play is quite simple in that players must tap Sir Benfro (who I’m guessing got his name due to his large Afro hairstyle) to make him float, while releasing him to make him sink. Sir Benfro is powered by fireflies and it is possible to collect them as you go by steering over them, thereby adding them to your balloon. Bump into objects and you will lose fireflies. Once all of your fireflies are gone, the journey is over. The goal of the game, therefore, is to collect fireflies, avoid obstacles and make your way through a beautifully illustrated landscape until you have made it through the level. Sounds easy, right? Well, not exactly.

Although there are only four different levels (adventures), it is quite challenging to make it through each one. Each time you fail, Sir Benfro will show you what percentage of the total distance you were able to complete. It took myself, my 10-year old and 7-year-old multiple attempts to clear the first level, “Yellow Leaves.” To date, we have not been able to clear level two, “Forest.” Both levels are beautiful to look at and have a dream-like quality. True to his word, players will encounter unusual, imaginary animals as they travel through the landscapes. We are all very curious to see what level three, “Islands,” and level four, “Underground,” look like and the animals we will meet.

While I would hesitate to call Sir Benfro educational, I praise the developers for creating something truly different and interesting for both children and adults. The pace is relaxing and the artwork is really quite beautiful. The music is upbeat and folksy, and apparently, an official soundtrack is also available on iTunes! This app would not be a good fit for younger kids who enjoy a faster, action-style type of game, as they would probably be bored. However, kids who can appreciate a more artistic and creative style of game will in all likelihood become very engaged with this whimsical app.

MathLands Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on April 4th, 2012
iPad App - Designed for iPad

MathLands is an interesting app for iPad consisting of interactive math-related games that are focused on problem-solving and logic.

Six sections exist, including versions of well-known puzzles where players must use their critical reasoning skills to solve a problem, be it the famous Tower of Hanoi or others, such as The Frog Puzzle, Magic Shapes, The Water Jug Puzzle and the Ravine Crossing. A section of math comics is also included that aids children in understanding word problems, allowing them the chance to interact with objects to help visualize these problems.

Possibly the most well know puzzle of this app - the Tower of Hanoi - includes three pegs and a pyramid of rings. Players must re-stack this pyramid without larger rings being placed on the smaller rings in the process. This puzzle starts out with three rings to move under six moves and has five levels, ultimately including seven rings to stack in 48 moves.

The Frog Puzzle starts out simply enough as one must make the orange and green swap sides, keeping in mind that they can only leap over one frog at a time and can’t move backwards. This puzzle becomes more difficult as the number of frogs is increased in upper levels.

Magic Shapes asks players to add numbers to empty spaces found within the included shapes. Each side of these shapes contains three numbers that when added, the sums of each of these sides found within the shape should match. The first level of this section begins with a triangle, adding more areas to be filled with numbers as the game progresses and ending with a complicated square with no given numbers as all the areas of this square need to be filled in.

The Water Jug is a classic game where one must ultimately fill a jug with a set amount of water by using two differently sized water jugs to measure against as one may fill, empty or pour water between the two jugs to answer these problems.

Crossing the Ravine consists of children who need to be carried over a ravine by balloon. The number over each child’s head is the number of seconds it will take for them to cross. Get each child over in a given time, understanding that a child will have to travel back with two balloons to pick up the others. The difficulty of this game increases as does the number of kids in each round, keeping in mind that one must complete this task within the parameters of the time giver for each level.

My personal favorite section of this app is the word problem cartoons because being able to see these cartoons really helps visualize the problems at hand. There is some humor as well among these problems that are fun to read, lighting the mood for children who may not be huge fans of this style of math.

The questions themselves vary nicely and each includes movable objects that one can use to help think about the problem - a very nice way to help children truly understand these kinds of problems, very much like the kind of doodles I would create on my own when working on math such as this. Of course with the interactive feature, being able to move these pieces around is very helpful in terms of counting and organizing one’s thoughts.

Each of these puzzles is nice to look at and includes subtle, quiet sound effects and a nice level of interaction that one would expect to find within these activities. The rings from the Tower of Hanoi or the frogs from The Frog Puzzle move with a drag most intuitively, but it can be tricky to pour from one jug to another - something to look into for a possible update in the future.

I like how for the most part, these exercises start out simply enough, but I think it is unrealistic that the average seven year old could solve these problems. A bright ten year old may enjoy this app as well as older children and adults.

It greatly disappoints me, however, that no answers are given except for the Magic Shapes section, adding to the probable frustration one may feel when getting stuck on an upper level. At a minimum, the answers should be provided, but better yet, I would like to see an animated clip showing children how these puzzles have been solved.

For many of these sections, one can Google to learn more about the puzzle at hand as they are often variations on classic mathematical logic games, allowing parents or teachers to look up more information if children are interested. I believe, however, that it is the responsibility of the developer of apps such as this to provide the conclusion to the math activities that they have created that children and adults have invested their time in.

It is possible that families or classrooms that gravitate toward this app may have adults who can help solve these puzzles, but I still find the including of proper explanations for those who need them to be extremely worthwhile, especially as this would allow children to enjoy this app by themselves without needing any adult help to work with this application. A hint button would also be a great inclusion for those who just need a little help without having these puzzles solved for them.

The exception to this concern that I have in general is the Magic Puzzles section as the solution is included with the tap of a button - well-done as the correct numbers can be seen only as long as the button is pressed, making a quick peek for a hint a possibility. I hope the other sections of this app can at some point include answers and hints such as this as well.

Although the lack of answer and help among these games bothers me greatly, I do recommend this app for situations where there is an adult who can help children succeed at these math puzzles. I appreciate that one can either power through all 32 levels of these included games or choose the area of interest and level of ability freely in free-play mode. This app contains a lot of game play and will be greatly enjoyed by the right children who already have a good handle on reasoning and logic games, like feeling challenged and are not easily frustrated. For others, this app includes games that will become exercises in futility more than anything else, so do look into this app if it is a good match for the children in your life, or for logic game-loving adults as well.

Explore Vincent Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on March 30th, 2012
iPad App - Designed for iPad

Explore Vincent is a wonderful app for iPad exploring the life and times of Vincent van Gogh, the brilliant yet troubled artist from childhood through adulthood, ending with his death in 1890.

This app is a true multi media delight as many mediums are explored within this app for iPad.

A video section is included that does a wonderful job of introducing Van Gogh as a child to viewers, expressing the emotions Van Gogh presumably felt from boyhood through adulthood. These videos are not straight narratives but a montage of styles including the use of split-screens and a graphic use of color, lines of text music and other elements working together as much as a graphic designer’s work of art and that of the video director.

I appreciate the casting of Van Gogh himself, a red haired young man in his twenties, wonderful as the casual Van Gogh fan may have only a recollection of him as an older man found among self-portraits of his own work.

These wonderful videos really tell a tale of this man’s life and interpersonal relationships with his family as well as ill-fated attempts at relationships with women.

These scenes are not without drama, which I find intriguing and enjoy, yet at times come across as heavy-handed. For example, at the beginning of the first clip, Van Gogh tries to defend birds' eggs from bullies, expressing his great love of nature and animals. It has a tone, however, that makes these clips seem like prequels to Norman Bates or Dexter Morgan’s life as a child, as the musical tone and voice-over elements make me fear for the animals Van Gogh is actually trying to protect or love - possibly foreshadowing his unstableness nicely, even if at times consisting of a misplaced intensity.

Historical details are found throughout these videos as well, with a favorite moment of mine being the time period of Van Gogh away at school during a cholera outbreak because here, the flair for the dramatic works to great effect.

Other areas of this app are equally abundant, as “Van Gogh’s TIME” gives more historical details of the time periods as one explores the included time line, especially about events in art history - both in general for this time period as well as pertaining directly to Van Gogh and his family.

A nice use of tabs that one can tap to open is incorporated in order to read the included text which, combined with photographs or places or objects as well as small representations of artwork found throughout, gives readers a real sense of visiting a Van Gogh museum themselves.

Along this time line as Van Gogh begins to produce his first pieces of art, a new section is available to explore, Van Gogh’s WORK, focusing on the art created during different time periods of Van Gogh’s Life. I especially appreciate how this app leads readers through important time periods for Van Gogh, especially the great change in use of color from a darker, more muted palette to the bright, bold colors Van Gogh may be best known for when exploring French Impressionism. This section nicely incorporates a map showing where art in question was produced as well as a chance to scroll though Van Gogh’s original letters, drawings and paintings.

The navigation of Exploring Vincent can be tricky when first experiencing this app. It is helpful that readers are brought to the video first within each time period explored, then have a chance to move to Van Gogh’s TIME by scrolling up or scrolling down to ponder Van Gogh’s WORK. One can also be brought to these sections with a tap of the finger found on a menu page after the video clip has been viewed. After spending time with this app, the navigating becomes easier, and I like the inclusion of a guide explaining how to play this app as well as the menu of all included application pages, which simplifies this app.

Games are also included, but maintaining the style of this app, these games are actually quite cerebral as one may fill in Van Gogh’s family tree, included text for hints on placement and choosing correct photographic images of city life found in 1866, with pitfalls including objects such as cars which came later than the time period in question. One can also match paintings with the scenery as seen today or the sketches found within Van Gogh’s letters to the letter itself, using the letter’s context as clues or an exercise in art history as one sorts images into the different styles of painting of the Brabant and French Period as well as sources of inspiration - my favorite game included.

These games, nicely interactive and also reminding me of an installation at a more hands-on museum can be found throughout this app but also contained together at the end of this app - a very nice touch.

I do wish, however, that it were easier to re-watch these videos - something I would love to see in a future update. I was also mildly disappointed that ill health, anxiety and mental illness of Van Gogh were not touched upon this app more, as I would have liked to see some of the possible causes of his darkness explored here as well - from possible lead poisoning, epilepsy or bipolar disorder which may have been aggravated by his fondness for absinthe, which was mentioned within this application.

Even with these notes, Exploring Vincent is a marvelous application that should be part of any library of applications for middle school and high schoolers.

I am very happy to announce that Friday, March 30th, Exploring Vincent Van Gogh Hd will be free for the day to celebrate Van Gogh’s birthday and will be half price that Saturday and Sunday as well - a wonderful gift to the public as this app is of the highest production value possible and is simply terrific!

Safari Party

Posted by Sarah Reidy on March 15th, 2012
+ Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad

Safari Party, developed by PIXOWL, Inc., is a universal puzzle/arcade app featuring cartoon animals and people drawn by a well-known French cartoonist and blogger, Laurel. To clear each level, players must move the animal icons around the screen to make groups of four. Once groups of four are formed, players may tap the groups to make them break up and disappear (think Bejewled Blitz). A certain number of animal groups must be cleared in the time allotted to pass each level, getting more difficult as players progress. There are several modes of gameplay: Arcade, Speed, Expert, Zen, and Multiplayer (recently added).

Despite the cute, cartoonish animals and their colorful habitats, the gameplay of Safari Party is actually quite challenging. My son (age seven) had no problem clearing the first five or so levels, but it took multiple attempts for him to go any higher. Because each level is timed, this app is fast-paced and exciting but may be a little stressful for some, too. Players can keep track of how many animal groups they have collected by looking at the tally at the top right of the screen and can also watch the timer scroll as it is visible along the bottom of the screen. Animals start to shake when the time is close to running out, however, as long as new groups of four are still being formed, extra time will be added to the clock. It is also possible to earn special achievements and “cheats,” which will help players to clear each level. Players can also shake their devices to scramble the order of the animals on the screen, so that more matches can be located in time.

Safari Party is one of the few apps that not only attracted the attention of my two kids and myself, but also caught the interest of my husband, who finds the app to be quite addictive. As both of us are former fans of Bejewled Blitz on Facebook, it is no surprise that we also like Safari Party. My husband and I take turns playing, competing with one another to progress to a higher level. I also play the app in a cooperative way with my son, as we help each other identify and group the animals. He particularly likes the look of the animals and their habitats.

The only criticism that I have of Safari Party is that when each level is cleared, a cartoon of a woman shows up on the screen to congratulate players, and I find them to be somewhat stereotypical in appearance. These women are wearing outfits meant to go along with each animal habitat, ie: Jungle-wear, Mermaid-wear, etc, and while each of them is pretty and appealing, one is drawn with cleavage showing, which I feel could have been avoided, as this is a children’s game. All in all, Safari Party is a charming and challenging app for ages 6 and up.

Cut the Buttons HD Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on February 27th, 2012
iPad App - Designed for iPad

Cut the Buttons is a nice arcade-style game with a great look and fun sense of style. For readers somewhat familiar with apps, the title may seem reminiscent of the hit application, Cut the Rope - yet similarities end here. A better comparison would be to the app Fruit Ninja, as here, players must cut buttons from pieces of cloth as they drop across the screen. Do try to empty each swatch of buttons as a life is lost in Classic mode for buttons left behind, and also note the buttons attached by bolts as one can’t cut through these and will lose points for trying. Versions for both iPad as well as iPhone are available.

Arcade mode is also an option that tests players' cutting skills, removing as many buttons as possible at 1, 3 and 5 minute intervals. Single players can play as well as two players, and Normal as well as Crazy speed levels are included.

I enjoy how simple to learn yet difficult to master this game is. The look of this app is charming and will make parents who have taken their children to any sort of art class smile, as the buttons sewn onto scrap fabric, brightly colored and oddly shaped, is a universal one. The buttons themselves are colorful too and consist of a uniform style, but I do think it would be visually interesting to include different shape, style and pattern buttons as well. From looking at the iTunes screen shots, a variety of buttons may be available in upper levels that I never reached, but it would be nice for a mix of button styles to be included from the beginning.

The music included is enjoyable, and I appreciate the distressed wood-tone background used during game play, bringing a certain vintage quality to this game that I enjoy.

Although I really find the look of this app inviting, it would be a lie to say that I was any good at this game. For me, the material moving across the screen simply moved too quickly. I would love to see a “Novice” or “Relax” mode included in the future as well.

When I first heard about this app, I was really excited for my preschool-aged son to practice his cutting skills without the risk of injury to limb or property. His tapping and swiping abilities have been top-notch before turning two from working with many different applications, but he is still working on his ability to hold a pencil or cut with scissors with the intent to go beyond creating fringe on the edge of a paper. I am sure grade school-aged kids and up will enjoy this app, but I would also love to see a "Beginner" arcade section where players need to cut as many buttons as they can in a given time, but where the fabrics are not moving targets, as for my son's age and abilities this game is simply too fast.

The biggest thing I would love to see changed is to allow players to choose left or right-handled scissors. Lefty/righty teams of two can actually be accommodated as the player left of the screen cuts with scissors laid out for a lefty - same idea for the right side of the screen, as this configuration works best on the iPad or iPhone, but for solo left-handed players, the working of this very realistic scissors may prove to be difficult. I hope players can choose left or right-handed scissors in the future for single-player games as well.

The scissors themselves work the way one would expect, and I appreciate the subtle yet effective cutting sound included as well. Personally, I don’t know how long I can play this game in one sitting as my hand does get tired easily, but this is definitely a fun game to play that kids will enjoy.

I don’t pretend to be an occupational therapist, but this game may be of interest to those who work with older children and adults who may need help in strengthening fine motor skills. I do wonder, however, if the basic speed for more specialized groups would be a problem.

For this reason, I would love to see a simplified, non-moving version of this game included in the future. This is a very cute, likable game that many age groups will enjoy passing time with, but with the addition of left/tight hand choices and the ability to slow down or stop the action, this game could be an important teaching tool as well.

Not Just Another Puzzle Review

Posted by Amy Solomon on February 22nd, 2012
iPad App - Designed for iPad

Not Just Another Puzzle is an interesting and highly challenging puzzle app with multiple elements that create an experience unlike other puzzle apps seen in iTunes.

This app consists of 50 puzzles broken up into varied degrees of difficulty, but make no mistake about it, even the “toddler” puzzles may be difficult for some adults.

The backgrounds used here for the most part are wonderful photographs of mundane objects used to create fascinating puzzle surfaces, such as double chocolate-nut cookies, a carton of eggs, or colored pencils for a great effect. Other times graphic art is used to create an interesting backdrop.

Areas of these puzzles can be seen where these images are grayed out so that pieces can be added to the correct places within. Sometimes half the photograph may be empty; other times just a few spaces will be open.

The game-play itself consist of many puzzle elements that fans may be familiar with, yet not traditionally seen together in one application. Part slider game where pieces may need to be moved to gain access to or to fit other pieces into their correct slots, maze elements are often found as well, many times with moving details one must contend with, including hidden passageways that players must seek out, moving pieces accordingly.

A player also must rotate these pieces, yet by far the most challenging aspect of this app is the physics engine and gravity used - much more sensitive than the gravity found on earth, making it very difficult to simply pick up a single piece without it spinning around in circles, making placement difficult.

The pieces found here are block form, either as single squares or larger rectangles of two or three pieces that are picked up with the drag of a finger and placed in their correct location. I do wish a “click” sound effect could be heard when correct pieces have been placed - a satisfying detail found in other puzzle apps.

Even when simply sliding a piece into an area straight down between red markings that create the maze-like areas one is working on, the weightlessness of these pieces combined with the out-of-control gravity and rotation make lining up these pieces within the puzzle holes in question very difficult, as players may find for themselves

The level of difficulty is quite high and may not be the taste of casual puzzle users, but die-hard puzzle enthusiasts will be quite pleased with this application.

The music included within is uniformly relaxing, but I would like a chance to choose my own background piece as I work on these puzzles as some are more to my liking than other selections, especially one favorite piece reminiscent of Brian Eno’s ambient music.

I do take issue with the labeling of the first level of puzzles as “toddler” as the combined elements of rotation, gravity and other details make for puzzles that are at the comfort level of many adults. The idea of these puzzles being for toddlers shows a gross lack of awareness of the abilities of this age group, and adults looking at screen shots in iTunes for this app and seeing the section marked “toddler” may be disappointed that this app is in no way meant for their child. Older middle school-aged kids and teens who may really enjoy this app could also be put off by working on puzzles designed for toddlers. I would rather see this mode be marked as “beginner” instead.

In the future, I would love to see some options included such as the turning off of the rotation or gravity, making these puzzles more accessible to younger players. I have enjoyed the level of difficulty in the first few sections, but it would be nice not to feel shut out of enjoying this app completely due to my lack of ability and patience to work on these more difficult sections.

An option for a slight sense of “grab” found in other puzzle apps when the correct space draws the corresponding puzzle piece, as if by magnetism, would also be a nice inclusion, making these puzzles friendlier for young children.

It is also a disappointment to me that when a puzzle is completed, this app does not acknowledge the player's hard work in any way, disconcerting as one is left looking for any mistakes that may have made, even if no mistakes are present.

I hope in the future this app will include some sort of conclusion when a puzzle has been completed, and I wish it were easer to get back to the main menu to choose another puzzle to work on or new level of difficulty.

Even without changes made to this application, those who are puzzle enthusiasts - be they older children or adults - will really enjoy this app, and it is nice that this app gets updated regularly with more puzzles.

All-in-all, a very challenging experience that includes quality images and use of music.