Exclusive Look into Why a Kids App Gets Reviewed

By Jinny Gudmundsen, Editor of Tech With Kids Digital Magazine

I am frequently asked how I select my topics for coverage on this site and in my USA Today Kid-Tech Column. My goal is to find the best kid tech being created, whether that is in apps, video and online games, websites, or tech toys. I share my findings to help parents and others working with kids to find these top products. I am also looking for innovation — for products that are pushing the envelope, resetting the bar, or doing something no one has ever thought of before.

My process varies greatly from week to week, but I will use a recent USA Today column and a Tech With Kids rec list as an example of how new content evolved.

On March 29, 2015, my kid-tech column entitled Three Visual Stunners in Kid Apps went live on USA Today. One of the Bonus Tips offered inside that column was a link to a Tech With Kids rec list called Apps with Standout Visuals.

Here is how that coverage came about: As a professional kid-tech reviewer, I look at hundreds of apps every month. Every once in a while, I am bowled over by the creativity of an app made for children. That happened when I opened Metamorphabet, one of the most visually stunning and enthralling children’s apps I have ever seen. Playing  Metamorphabet was the catalyst for my USA Today column and for creating the rec list Apps with Standout Visuals.

Why Metamorphabet Wowed Me

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On the surface, Metamorphabet is an alphabet app. But at its core, it is an ode to the magic of digital creation. It is a journey filled with wonder, where every touch of the iPad screen produces delight for both children and adults. Metamorphabet puts on a masterclass of how to make an app to inspire creativity in children. After playing it, encourage your kids to pretend they were the app developer. Ask them how they would morph a letter into something new.

Each letter of the alphabet appears on the screen alone, with no embellishment. The first touch produces a percussive sound, followed by the narrator’s pronouncing of the letter’s name while the letter turns slightly, as if to preen. And then the magic begins.

The next touch results in the letter’s morphing into an object or action that starts with the featured letter. With the letter “C,” kids watch the letter transform into a “Cone,” which they roll around the screen. More touching causes the cone to multiply into a spinning siren of four cones, which produces a familiar warning sound. As the siren slides into the background of the scene, you see that it is sitting atop of a “Car.” Tapping the car makes its horn blare, wheels spin, and lights flash. Next, a jaunty “Caterpillar,” sporting a billowing neck scarf, pops his head out of the car window. It’s silly, imaginative fun!

When you have explored all that is possible with a letter, a star appears in the upper right corner of the screen, signaling that another letter awaits your investigation. Each letter bubbles over with zany, delightful animations. To read my full review of Metamorphabet, click here.

Metamorphabet Led Me to Petting Zoo – Animal Animations

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My response to Metamorphabet reminded me of the awe I felt when I first discovered Petting Zoo – Animal Animations, an app that showcases the creative talents of Christoph Neimann of New York Times fame.

In Petting Zoo, pencil lines morph into wriggling animals eager for your touch. Each petting interaction with these 21 animals is wacky, surprising, and delightful. With the rabbit, if you touch its face, it bounces back from the screen and then appears to smack the backside of the screen. Tap the lion, and you turn on a fan to blow the big cat’s mane. Each of the animals has a unique musical riff, which starts when the drawn lines fluidly reconfigure into a new beast. To read the full review of Petting Zoo, click here.

From Petting Zoo to Kalley’s Machine Plus Cats

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Another kids’ app that wows the visual senses is Kalley’s Machine Plus Cats. While this app doesn’t have the polished visuals of Metamorphabet nor the mesmerizing drawings that flow from one animal to another as in Petting Zoo, Kalley’s Machine has irresistible, pulsing creativity.

Kalley’s Machine Plus Cats is a book app featuring a highly inventive, playable Rube Goldberg-like machine. Four-year-old Kalley is upset when her work-from-home Dad decides to take a job downtown. Hoping to solve the family’s problem of having Dad work to put food on the table, Kalley designs a remarkable machine that uses bashers, blowers, gears, and gizmos to make the family’s food.

Most of the pages are filled with playable portions of Kalley’s fantastic invention; and that play represents some of the most sophisticated interactions yet found in a children’s app. The icing on this ingenious app’s cake is that the developers are the family of the real-life Kalley! You might want to check out the family video about making this app, because it is both precious and inspirational. To read the full review of Kalley’s Machine Plus Cats, click here.

Back to Shaping My USA Today Column

I had one problem with the thinking I have shared above: I had already covered Kalley’s Machine Plus Cats and Petting Zoo – Animal Animations in my previous USA Today columns. While I occasionally cover an app more than once, in this case, new releases lined up perfectly to help me fill out the Metamorphabet-anchored column.

Shortly after reviewing Metamorphabet, David Wiesner’s new book app Spot was released. My sons enjoyed Wiesner’s Caldecott Medal-winning Tuesday, so I was interested to see what this gifted visual storyteller would do in the app format. Spot is unlike any app I had seen before. It offers a unique navigation system, where kids use the pull-and-pinch action of zooming to arrive in five alternative-reality worlds. Because of its exciting and intriguing visual presentation, I added it to my list for my column. Click here to read a full review of David Wiesner’s Spot.

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I found the last app for the column by going through my daily emails from app developers sharing with me their new apps. I got an email from an Irish developer introducing me to her new app Scribbaloo Train. When I opened up this app for toddlers and preschoolers, I discovered an adorable train ride filled with rich visuals completely constructed from craft materials. The train-riding world of Scribbaloo Train is so delightful that I added it to my column on USA Today. Click here for the full review of Scribbaloo Train.

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Because of word-count limitations in my USA Today column, Metamorphabet, David Wiesner’s Spot, and Scribbaloo Train were the only three apps I could fit into my column. But, I knew of many more visually exciting apps for kids that parents would love if they are trying to create a rich tapestry of artful experiences for their kids. Thus, I created the rec list: Apps with Standout Visuals here on Tech With Kids and linked it to the USA Today column.

A Word about Best Pick Rec Lists Here on Tech With Kids

In both my USA Today column and here on Tech With Kids, my goal is to help parents and other caregivers to discover the gems in kid-tech. Since the world of children’s apps is so massive, most parents feel overwhelmed and most app developers feel under-appreciated. I focus on helping with the discovery process. That is why at the end of every review on Tech With Kids, we offer you other hand-picked choices that we think you might like. Likewise, we create rec lists of apps by interests, subjects, and age to make the discovery of the best apps easier for you.

An Open invitation to Share Apps with Standout Visuals

In the days since the publishing of my USA Today column and the Apps with Standout Visuals rec list here on Tech With Kids, several people have reached out to me to share projects in development or to suggest other apps with exciting visuals. Do you have a favorite? One you think we should look at and perhaps add to our rec list? If so, leave your suggestions below in the comments.


3 Responses
  • eyal

    Always love the way you write and the topics you choose. it’s not easy to get the best apps from the rest of the noise.

  • Bookish

    I’m currently liking the adaptation of Istvan Banyai’s The Other Side by Mental Canvas – it’s a visually stunning app that hasn’t gotten much attention I don’t think, and is really doing something completely different from most of the children’s book apps. It was just written up on School Library Journal: http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2015/09/15/app-review-the-other-side-by/#_

  • Jinny Gudmundsen

    Thank you Bookish for bringing The Other Side by Mental Canvas to our attention. We will take a look!

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