When I first got an iPhone, I didn’t realize just how many features it had. Sure, I knew I could surf the Internet with it, check my e-mail, make unstable phone calls, and such. But I didn’t know that the iPhone could also be a great kid distractor. The App Store is rife with apps geared toward the toddler-and-up crowd, which can work wonders when it takes too long for the entrées to get served. I took a look at three such kid-geared apps from developer Duck Duck Moose, with a little help from Anya (who is almost 4-years-old), and Sierra (who is 20-months-old).
Itsy Bitsy Spider ($1 on the iPhone and iPod touch, with a $2 Itsy Bitsy Spider HD version for the iPad that adds a few trivial niceties) has probably provided the most overall enjoyment for my kids. While Anya (the older one) now spends less time with the app than she did before, she derived many accumulated hours of enjoyment from it. And Sierra is still a big, big fan.
The app plays the familiar children’s song as it presents a colorful outdoor scene. You can tap on pretty much anything to make something happen—and oftentimes, tapping on the same object multiple times makes something different happen. Tap on the window of the house, for example, and it will slide up and something will jump out. Tap it again, and something else jumps out. My kids love tapping all over, discovering the different actions and sound effects that they can trigger.
When you tap the titular spider himself, the next lines of the song are sung (“Down came the rain…”), and the entire screen pans over to a new section of the scene. It’s cute, extremely well-executed, and offers plenty of exploratory fun.
Baa Baa Black Sheep, a $2 iPhone app, plays similarly to Itsy Bitsy Spider, with some added puzzle elements. The app actually couples its title song with Row Row Row Your Boat, which is frankly an odd pairing—though my daughters never seem to mind. As you explore the game, loading sheep into boats (because, hey, why not?), it’s obvious that Baa Baa is less coherent to navigate than Itsy Bitsy. The path your rowboat takes is far more ambiguous than the spider’s journey, and the added puzzle element—finding scattered objects across the game’s numerous screens to fit into outlines across the bottom of the screen—feels tacked on. And Sierra tends to get frustrated quickly with Baa Baa Black Sheep, since it’s far more difficult to get to a specific screen in the game than it is in Itsy Bitsy Spider.
Had my kids and I never seen Itsy Bitsy Spider, we’d surely appreciate Baa Baa Black Sheep more. But the latter game tries too hard to improve upon the simple greatness of the former, and it doesn’t quite gel the same way.
The last Duck Duck Moose app my kids and I tested was Fish School, which is available in separate $2 editions for the iPhone and iPad (where it goes by the Fish School HD moniker. It’s a different beast from the first two games, with eight unique modes. The colorful cartoony fish can form letters, numbers, or shapes; they can perform the alphabet song; they can play a color-choosing game, a matching game, or a spot-the-different fish game; and finally, they can offer a generic playtime where you can guide fish around, and make them grow or shrink by tapping.
Fish School packs a lot of different kinds of fun, and Anya really gets a kick out of it. The “spot the differences” game—where you need to find the one fish of another color, or swimming in the wrong direction—and the matching game both provide a bit more mental stimulation for her. Sierra likes the game too, but gets far less out of it; she mostly likes to look at the colorful fish and swipe through the different options.
The only annoyance with Fish School is its ever-present mode-swapping button (which toggles through each gameplay option in sequence). When the girls crowd around my iPad together, it’s far too easy for someone’s errant fingertip to change modes accidentally, which inevitably leads to hurt feeling—or worse: Tears on your precious iOS device.
All of Duck Duck Moose’s apps are kid-pleasers, including ones outside the scope of this review (like Wheels on the Bus and Old McDonald). The developers clearly know how to appeal to kids, and how to make games fairly kid-proof. (For example, the apps don’t rotate when you turn your device, which normally I dislike, but with kids who aren’t well-versed in the intricacies of the accelerometer, it’s a welcome design choice.) If you can only buy one of the Duck Duck Moose apps, I think Itsy Bitsy Spider is the way to go. But the good news is, you can’t go wrong with any of them. As an added bonus, my family finds that the iPhone versions of the apps all look great in “x2” mode on the iPad.
[Lex Friedman is a frequent contributor to Macworld.]