Hello, Baby Animals! - Shortstack Apps

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TitleHello, Baby Animals!

Developer:  Shortstack Apps

Compatibility: iPad // iOS 4.3

Size: 58.3 MB

Description:  Although most of my reviews of iOS apps have some music-related function, I'm willing to make an exception for well-designed, smart-looking apps for other kid-related purposes.  Hello, Baby Animals!, the latest app from the indie app developer Shortstack (led by founder Carolyn Merriman), fit that bill for me.

My chief initial interest in exploring the app was the fact that Austin-based illustrator and author Divya Srinivasan animated the app.  From a kindie perspective, you'll probably recognize Srinivasan's style as she's animated several videos for They Might Be Giants' kids music albums.

The app itself lends itself well to Srinivasan's eager-eyed, brightly-colored style.  It features 10 different baby animals, each on its own screen and given a simple interactive role.  In the case of the piglet above, the user can swap wigs for the pig; other screens include matching mittens for a kitten and having a baby fox (a "kit," as the app points out) his socks.  The user can choose to have an adult voice or child voice narrative the rhymes on each page, or turn it off.

This is a simple app, but it's well-designed, smart-looking (see above), and is perfectly targeted to, and constructed for, the preschool/kindergarten set.  I really liked it, and think it's worth the $2.99 (it would be worth more than that if it had simply been turned into a book), but if you're not sure, there's a free version with four of the full version's ten screens.  Lots of fun, and worth checking out.

Age Range: 2 through 5

Price: $2.99 / free (lite version)

Link: iTunes (full version) iTunes (free, lite version)

Note: I was offered a copy of the app for possible review.

Facets Kids - Facets

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TitleFacets Kids

Developer:  Facets

Compatibility: iPad // iOS N/A

Size: N/A

Description:   There are many apps that offer the ability to watch kids music videos and/or TV episodes.  But if you're looking for a more curated experience, at least as it relates to brief videos, your selection has been, well, lacking.

The folks at Facets, the art-house film distribution group and film education non-profit, also run the Chicago International Children's Film Festival, and they bring a curated list of independent short films from around the world through this new app, which is not run through the iTunes Store.  Instead, it appears to be a web-app that only works on iPads (though more platforms are under development

The interface is fairly simple, as it needs to be for this target audience.  It allows the user to choose individual movies from specific categories (e.g., "Brand New," "Animation Antics") or moods (e.g., "Happy," "Think").  The selections are mix of live-action and animation, from a range of countries, silent and dialogue-d.  The movies I've watched have all been interesting, the movie equivalent of kindie.  Tapping the screen while it's playing will allow the user to fast-forward, go back 30 seconds, and even change subtitle preferences.  Users can rate each movie.  The downside is that the user needs to have internet access in order to use the app, though it seems like offline viewing would be expensive, both technically and rights-wise.

This is a well-thought-out app that fills an unserved niche.  Families looking for the movie equivalent of kindie may just have their new favorite app.

Age Range: 3 through 12

Price: Free (though donations are appreciated)

Link: FacetsKids

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Wonder Wheel - Mibblio / Dan Zanes

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TitleWonder Wheel

Developer:  Mibblio / Dan Zanes

Compatibility: iPad // iOS 5.1

Size: 88 MB

Description:   Another month, another Mibblio app.  This one features Dan Zanes' popular song "Wonder Wheel" from his 2001 album Family Dance.  The basic structure of the app is the same as with the other Mibblio apps -- the song plays while the user can add or remove different tracks (e.g., guitar, percussion, keyboards) from the recorded song while simultaneously being able to play melody and stringed/guitar instruments in harmonically compatible keys, not to mention percussion.  It basically lets kids (and adults) play along in ways that allow some creativity but also help make whatever comes out sonically sound decently.  (You can also pinch out to expand it to full screen if you just want to read and sing along.)  I'll admit that it feels a bit odd to use "fake" iPad instruments to play along with a DZ song...

In addition, the songs are accompanied by illustrations that feature lyrics to those songs.  The result is a musical picture book over which the user has some small control.  In the case of this app, the illustrator is Aldo Saaf AKA Donald Saaf, who's illustrated a number of Zanes' albums and books.  Maybe it's just because I've so long associated Saaf's illustrations with Zanes' music, but I can't picture anyone else doing the illustrations for this.  If you're familiar at all with Zanes' music, the illustrations will feel very familiar.

The price for the app, $0.99, is pretty cheap, though you're probably paying for just the app because you already have the song.  (I couldn't find the song available through the main Mibblio app.)  Another song converted well into an app by Mibblio -- families with younger DZ fans may find it worth the $0.99 to try it out...

Age Range: 3 through 7

Price: $0.99

LinkiTunes

Note: I was provided a copy of this app for possible review.

The Phoenix Weekly Story Comic - David Fickling Comics

TitleThe Phoenix Weekly Story Comic

Developer:  David Fickling Comics (aka The Phoenix) / Panel Nine Software

Compatibility: iPad // iOS 5.0.1

Size: 176 MB

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Description:  Let's get this out of the way from the very start - I am not a comics reader.  Not opposed to them, mind you -- I take my kids to the comics shop down the street every spring for  Free Comic Book Day and do try to share the occasional graphic novel with my kids -- just have long since decided that in terms of my own cultural passions, it's just too far down my list for me to become an expert or anything like a fan.

The Phoenix is a weekly comic app that works through iOS' Newsstand; it's the electronic equivalent of hard-copy version sold in England.  I'd heard about it before as being a good all-ages comic, and when I saw that they were offering all of their back issues for $0.99 apiece through the end of January, I thought it was a good time to check it out.

Again, given my sparse comics background, it wouldn't be fair for me to really "review" the comics as I might with kids music, but I'll offer the following observations:

-- there's an excellent mix of comics here: funny and action-adventure, kindergarteners and the early middle-school years, elegant art to "funny pages."  There is even a book excerpt or story and games, jokes, and non-fiction.

-- for those serial comics, the "Something Cool!" button at the bottom of the app allows the reader to briefly catch up on the prior action

-- it's firmly independent - no TV-characters-in-training

-- the interface is simple, and simple to use

I really like The Phoenix, and while I doubt I'd be willing to pay the subscription price given our family's general mild interest in comics, if your family is more into comics and graphic novels, you will definitely want to explore this.  It's for those families who like magazines like Spider and Cricket but who want more visual pizzazz (and perhaps a little irreverence, too.

Age Range: 5 through 10

Price: Free for base app (includes one issue), individual issues $2.99 (through 1/31/14 just $0.99), subscriptions $8.99/one month, $46.99/six months, $89.99/twelve months

Link: iTunes

House Band - Jumping Pages

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TitleHouse Band

Developer:  Jumping Pages

Compatibility: iPad // iOS 4.3

Size: 42.9 MB

Description:  I have a lot of "crazy animated figures make music" apps on my iOS devices -- it's the occupational hazard of reviewing music-related iOS apps.  One of the funkiest in both sound and design is Jumping Pages' "House Band," a spinoff from their The House That Went on Strike app.  Much like Toca Band, you get the option of selecting various non-traditional "instruments" set to play loops that all fit with one another.  Unlike Toca Band, these loops were designed by Vernon Reid (whom parents of a certain age may remember from his band Living Colour).  They're funky, eclectic, and not necessarily related to the "instrument" selected (the bespectacled iron is a simple bass line).  These are loops that parents would enjoy every bit as much as the kids.

While the music is pretty cool, the user interface, while lovely (and every bit as funky and handmade as Reid's loops), is not totally intuitive (or at least, not as intuitive as Toca Boca's).  You can record the songs and e-mail them, but I'm still not entirely sure I've done it correctly.  (I wish the help screen had more written directions to go along with the pictures.)

In summary, I liked the sounds that Jumping Pages produced, probably more than any similar app -- I just wish it was easier to share those sounds with others.

Age Range: 3 through 9

Price: $1.99

Link: iTunes

Note: I was given a copy of the app for possible review.

Musical Paint - Building Blocks Media

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TitleMusical Paint

Developer:  Building Blocks Media

Compatibility: iPad / iPhone / iPod touch // iOS 6.0

Size: 77.8 MB

Description:  Less a musical app with some painting components than a painting app with some musical components, this app allows your kids to "finger paint" and produce both a visual piece of art -- the "canvas" -- while generating sound that changes with where the finger goes on the canvas.  Different colors produce different sounds.  And you get to sign your name at the end.

The downside of the app is that it doesn't have a lot of painting or musical features.  Painting-wise, you can only pick one color at a time, then change its intensity.  Musically, you can't change the instruments -- you're stuck with the same 5 color/sound combinations and many of the vibrant instrument sounds the animated characters at the museum splash page play aren't found in the painting area.  But there are probably a number of families for whom the specific multi-sensory experience (visual plus music) this provides is the key feature, and providing too many features otherwise is over-complicating matters.  (Teachers may also find the included lesson plans useful.)

The interface is reasonably easy to use, with saving the picture to the app's "gallery" easy enough.  (So is e-mailing pictures, so you may need to supervise your kiddos unless you turn that feature off.)  While the app is available on all 3 types of iOS devices, I only used it on the iPad; it seems the iPhone screen might be a bit small, or at least difficult to do much more than the blockiest of drawings.

Families seeking a pure fingerpainting experience or a more musical experience probably won't find much here worth retaining.  But if the idea of audio-visual art intrigues you, you might want to try this (or even its older sibling, not specifically designed for kids, but cheaper).

Age Range: 3 through 8

Price: $4.99

LinkiTunes

Note: I was given a copy of the app for possible review.

Jazzy World Tour (Musical Journey for Kids) - The Melody Book

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TitleJazzy World Tour

Developer:  The Melody Book

Compatibility: iPad / iPhone / iPod touch // iOS 5.1

Size: 115 MB

Description:  Part of The Melody Book's "Jazzy" series, which includes separate apps on the alphabet, numbers, and more general music education, this latest app uses music as the hook into learning about basic music, instruments, and culture of various countries around the world.  As of this writing, your child can (via the 2 kitten explorers) "visit" Brazil, Ireland, Spain, Egypt, Kenya, India, Japan, Australia, and the United States in the full-featured version.  Each country's portion of the app lets the user tap on various objects and learn more about them via written text, "play" country-specific music (only the U.S. gets jazz) or make country-specific animals make noise, or create animated photos and videos which can be shared via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, or added to Photos in a manner similar to many video/photo sharing apps for kids.

The interactivity in the "learn" and "play" could be better -- there isn't much room for creativity in the play section.  I wish there was an option to have the "learn" text read aloud, and your kids will probably have more fun just banging around on the drums or guitars in Garageband.  But there's a nice selection of countries to explore and the app itself is laid out in a well-organized manner that should be intuitive even to preschoolers.

The move to in-app purchases on the App Store does mean that you can download the free version, purchase a $0.99 country and see if the full version is for you.  The app isn't broad enough to be an atlas, or full-powered enough to be a creative engine, but if you're looking to start exposing your kids to other countries' sounds and culture, Jazzy World Tour may work for you.

Age Range: 4 through 8

Price: $4.99 / free w/ $0.99 per-country in-app purchase

LinkiTunes (full) / iTunes (free w/ in-app purchases)

Draw on the Table - Spark Studios / Frances England

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Title: Santa's Merry Band

DeveloperSpark Studios / Frances England

Compatibility: iPad / iPhone / iPod touch // iOS 5.1

Size: 30.9 MB

DescriptionNote: This app may no longer be available for new downloads.  My apologies for any inconvenience.

There are many other drawing apps available, but the number that feature a song from San Francisco's Frances England numbers exactly one.  It's a pretty simple one -- the user chooses a food (blueberries, broccoli, coffee, strawberries, etc.) from the top of the screen, and then drags it across the "table" at the center.  In the case of liquids (coffee, orange juice) and some solids, the user "drops" them and then tilts the screen to direct where they roll.  (So it's a physics puzzler, too!)  You may not realize that there are more foods available than what's shown at top -- that menu scrolls left and right.  As with most art apps, you can share with the world via various methods.

This won't change the world, but as a fun (and free) experiment (with, I repeat, a song from Frances England), it may be worth the 31 MB on your iDevice to amuse your littlest ones.

Age Range: 3 through 7

Price: Free

LinkiTunes