Common Sense Graphite: Quality Educational Resources

Image: Common Sense Graphite

As a parent who is constantly looking for engaging and out-of-the-box ways to teach my kids and deliver content, I often look online for ideas. One of my go-to places for information about games, apps, and websites is Common Sense Graphite.

Common Sense Graphite is connected to the likely better known Common Sense Media, a site which helps parents make smart media choices with and for their kids. Common Sense Media also makes a fantastic Digital Citizenship curriculum, tailored for all grade levels.

The Graphite side, however, focuses on education specifically. It is aimed at teachers, but as parents, we are our kids’ first and longest teachers. You don’t need to be homeschooling to use this site. If you’d rather your kids spent time playing games which have at least some educational benefit, Graphite is the place to look.

What does Graphite offer? Fantastic search capabilities, ratings in a variety of areas, standards match-ups, screenshots, and tips to use in an educational capacity. You can search for just the free resources, by platform, by grade, by subject, and more. You can also read teachers’ ratings on the site as well, for even more real-life feedback.

Now, Graphite doesn’t host or create these games. They merely evaluate and review the games, apps, and websites available on the internet and in the off-line world. This makes them an independent resource not beholden to any company.

If you aren’t sure where to start, begin with the Top Picks section, which divides up some sure bets into subject areas and grade levels. Then, as you find resources you like, check out their related titles. This will lead you down a fun and eye-opening rabbit hole that will leave you with a long list of resources you want to check out with your kids.

Graphite doesn’t just review games and websites that deal with major subject studies. They also cover things like video and animation websites and apps, gaining global perspective, geography, art, music, and even resources and organizational tools for teachers themselves.

Here is a list of a few of the many interesting stand-outs:

  • Papers, Please – A bleak immigration game that forces players to make difficult choices. Great for teens.
  • The Republia Times – An editorial simulation that teaches about the introduction of bias. Also great for teens.
  • Quandary – A game about ethics and argumentation. Great for late elementary and middle school.
  • Crazy Gears – A fun physics game, for early elementary.
  • Smithsonian Quests – Researching already-curated topics teaches students to build skills. Great for late elementary through early high school.
  • Stellarium Mobile Sky Map – Makes it easy for students to identify night sky objects. Great for middle school through adult.
  • BioDigital Human – Allows students of any age to investigate the inside of the human body, systematically. Best for middle school and up.
  • Algodoo – An open-ended physics sandbox game allows kids to just play, unfettered.

Visit Common Sense Graphite today to find some games, websites, and apps to help boost your kids’ education, or just to help them learn more about their interests!

Disclaimer: I write educational reviews for Common Sense Graphite, but I would use them as a resource even if I didn’t. I stumble across curriculum-changing games and websites weekly.

Late to the Game: ‘Elder Sign’

Elder Sign © Fantasy Flight Games (Fair Use)
Elder Sign © Fantasy Flight Games

Elder Sign is a cooperative dice-rolling game based on the Cthulhu Mythos in which you and your fellow players work together as a team of researchers investigating a museum, attempting to prevent the rise of an Ancient One. Players must collect a number of Elder Signs before the Ancient One fills its Doom Track, kills the players, or drives them all mad. Sound good? Then find out more in our in-depth look at both the physical game and its digital alter-ego, Elder Sign: Omens.

Elder Sign set up for a new game © Sophie Brown
Elder Sign set up for a new game © Sophie Brown

How Do You Play?
The museum that forms the playable region of Elder Sign is composed of a number of large cards, each representing a room, while in the digital version you are faced with a map of the museum with a number of locations highlighted on it.

Players choose a room to enter (embarking upon an Adventure) and attempt to roll dice and match the symbols on the card—sometimes in a specific order. If the player successfully completes their Adventure by matching all the symbols, they can gain spells and weapons to help them win more Adventures; they can also gain the all-important Elder Signs needed to defeat the Ancient One. Failing the Adventure can result in a loss of the player’s health and sanity, the arrival of a monster who will increase the difficulty of future Adventures, or Doom being added to the Ancient One’s Doom Track. After each player’s turn, a clock is advanced and at midnight, the Ancient One reveals a card that can benefit them, so players are encouraged to win as fast as possible. Some rooms also have their own, usually negative, Midnight Effects.

Elder Sign: Omens © Fantasy Flight Games (Fair Use)
Elder Sign: Omens © Fantasy Flight Games

How Do You Win and Lose?
To win at Elder Sign, players must collect a set number of Elder Sign tokens. The number is determined by the Ancient One they are fighting.

The tougher the Ancient One, the more Elder Signs will need to be collected to defeat it. Completing some Adventures will win you multiple Elder Signs, but the better the rewards, the harder the Adventure will be to complete. The team of players lose if they all are killed or driven insane by the Ancient One, or if the Ancient One fills its Doom Track.

Are There Any Expansions Available?
Yes. For the physical game two expansions, Unseen Forces and Gates of Arkham, are available. If you are playing digitally, there are currently three expansions: The Call of Cthulhu, The Trail of Ithaqua, and The Dark Pharaoh. All three unlock additional player characters and Ancient Ones to battle.

A successfully completed adventure, with three dice to spare © Sophie Brown
A successfully completed adventure, with three dice to spare © Sophie Brown

What Formats Is the Digital Game Available On?
Elder Sign: Omens is available on iOS (for both iPad and iPhone), Android, Kindle, and Steam.

How Do the Costs Compare?
The base game currently retails for around $30 with the expansions costing $15 to $20 each, making this one of the cheaper games currently on the market. The digital base game retails for $6.99 (iPad), $3.99 (iPhone), $14.99 (Steam), or around $4.50 on Android. Expansions are $2.99 each.

What Age Is It Suitable For?
The game is recommended for age 12+, and having played it many times, that feels like the correct choice from the developer. While the game play is simple enough that a younger child could understand what’s going on, the artwork is obviously very intense (this is a game set in the realm of the Ancient Ones, after all) and some of the mechanics would likely go over their heads.

The digital version also contains occasional cut scenes that could scare young children. If your child is already acquainted with classic horror, they may enjoy the game, but for the majority, the recommended age will be accurate.

Has It Been Featured on TableTop?
Yes! Elder Sign was featured on series one of TableTop and was played by Felicia Day, Mike Morhaime, and Bill Prady.

Attempting to complete the Mystery Tome Adventure © Fantasy Flight Games (Fair Use)
Attempting to complete the Mystery Tome Adventure © Fantasy Flight Games

Is It Actually Any Good?
Whether or not you will enjoy Elder Sign, either digitally or physically, is more than likely going to boil down to how much you enjoy randomness as a factor in your gaming. Completing Adventures is entirely based on dice-rolling (occasional cards and characters can change die rolls, but these are frustratingly few and far between), which means that even the best-equipped Investigator can fail spectacularly over and over again if the dice just aren’t in the mood to behave.

This can be incredibly aggravating, and I would know. Despite countless attempts and intentionally hoarding as many helpful cards as possible, I am still yet to beat the final card of The Call of Cthulhu expansion, by nothing more than sheer bad luck.

The randomness effect does, however, level the playing field, meaning that any group of players can work well together from experienced Investigators to total newbies.

The cooperative element really shines during physical play, as players debate which rooms/Adventures they should attempt and which to avoid. We played as a group late on New Year’s Eve and, despite losing spectacularly, had a great time playing—and isn’t that the whole point?

Digital Vs. Physical
Green = Pro, Red = Con, Black = Neutral


  • Game set up is as good as instantaneous.
  • The game keeps track of which cards can be used at any time, instantly deals out the correct rewards (or penalties) at the conclusion of an Adventure, and advances the clock as required.
  • The player has to play as multiple characters, remembering each individual’s special abilities and current inventory once their turn rolls around.
  • Designed for single player, so you don’t need to get a group together.
  • The single-player format means the game loses out on the cooperative nature of the physical version, arguably one of its best parts.
  • Both the base game and the expansions are cheap. The complete game with all expansions can be bought for as little as $13.
  • The base game is somewhat limited and quickly becomes repetitive, so the temptation to buy expansions is high.
  • Rooms with a Midnight Effect (a usually negative outcome every time the clock strikes midnight) are easily spotted on the map, as are those with Terror Effects.
  • Only one room can be seen at a time, so the player must either remember the requirements for each one or spend time looking at each one every time they choose a new room/Adventure.


  • Lots and lots of parts means the game takes a very long time to set up.
  • The game can be played by up to eight people, making it a great party game and a good choice at a games night with lots of guests, where other games might leave people out.
  • Midnight and Terror effects are written in small print on the cards, making them easy to overlook.
  • Although more expensive than the digital game, the physical edition is one of the cheaper games on the market (keep an eye out for frequent price reductions too).
  • Despite being cheaper than many games, the build quality is fantastic and the pieces are all well made and lovely to handle.
  • There are only two expansions. However, for those of us trying to limit our rapidly growing game collections, this may be a good thing!
  • The cards representing the rooms are laid out on the table and the requirements for each one can be seen all at once, making choosing your next room/Adventure easier.
  • Best played with a group, so not ideal if you don’t have a gaming group or local gamer friends nearby.

GeekMom received the base game of Elder Signs: Omens for review purposes.

Practical Fun: Spelling Apps For New Spellers

Spelling Apps © Artgig Apps/KeyStageFun (Fair Use)
Spelling apps © Artgig Apps/KeyStageFun.

In the last few months, my 5-year-old son is now being taught spelling at school. As a result, I have been on the lookout for anything that will help him. One of the solutions I settled on quickly was using iPad apps.

Since we began using the iPad for spelling practice, his spelling has improved greatly, but much more importantly, his eagerness and enthusiasm about practicing spelling has improved too. Rather than battling to get a single practice in each night, not to mention the constant battle to find a scrap of paper and a single working pen despite the fact I had 50 of the darned things overflowing from a drawer last week, now I find him practicing spelling without even being asked—or choosing to go back over a few previous tests after completing his current one.

I wanted to share two great spelling apps with other parents who are in the same boat.

Continue reading Practical Fun: Spelling Apps For New Spellers

Giveaway: Win a ‘My Dolphin Show’ Prize Pack With an iPod Touch!

The My Dolphin Show prize pack is courtesy of Spil Games.

A little while back, GeekMom Kristen reviewed a sparkly, fun-filled game called My Dolphin Show. Designed for iOS devices, the app allows gamers to train and compete as either the dolphin or the trainer. It also includes options to bash beach balls, choose costumes, jump through hoops, or splash the audience; Kristen said in her review that it’s literally hours of fun.

Since that initial review, however, My Dolphin Show has added a new water park, more costumes, and tons of new tricks. Don’t have an iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad to check out the latest version? You’re going to flip over our latest giveaway.

We’re giving away a My Dolphin Show prize pack, which includes a 16GB iPod touch, one wooden dolphin puzzle, one dolphin Lego set, a Barbie Dolphin Trainer figure, and one download code for My Dolphin Show. That’s over $300 worth of goodies for one winner! Five runners-up will also get download codes for the My Dolphin Show game.

To win, just log into the Rafflecopter widget below with your Facebook account or email address (use a valid email, so we can let you know if you win). Then, go to the comments section below and answer the question: What would you name your dolphin? (This counts as one entry.)

You can then like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for up to two additional entries. If you already like/follow us, it will still enter you in the giveaway. The winners will be chosen at random at the end of the contest (Friday, April 3, 2015, at 11:59 p.m.) and their names will be posted right in the Rafflecopter widget, so you can check back to see who won. Good luck!

My Dolphin Show is currently available in the iTunes App Store, priced at $1.99. For more information, check out the My Dolphin Show website.

Giveaway is open to U.S. addresses only and prizes are courtesy of Spil Games.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

YouTube Kids: No More Worries About Inappropriate Content

Tablet screenshot: Cathe Post

I have been searching through various feeds on YouTube for channels that are appropriate for young children. Planning on making a list for the growing geek-parent audience, I would find a promising channel that would have just one too many non-appropriate comments, videos, or whatever.

In the lower right hand corner, parents have their options. Screenshot: Cathe Post

Now there is a YouTube Kids app! Available for iOS and Android, this service provides videos, radio, learning, and exploring categories for your young geek. There’s a timer and a really easy to use parental control area, too! Plus, it’s free. All that is needed is the good ‘ol wi-fi connection.

Some of the channels you would expect: Sesame Street, Lego, and Jim Henson. Others, especially in the radio section, were pleasant surprises.

So, there ‘ya go. Thank you, YouTube, for getting me off the hook on that one. <phew>

(via The Verve)

New Year’s Resolutions: Declutter With Next Issue

Next Issue 2
Photos courtesy of Next Issue, used with permission.

One of my many New Year’s resolutions for 2015 was to declutter my house, and magazines are a consistent clutter culprit for me. This is especially true around the holidays, when I buy extra piles of magazines for their gift guides.

So I’ve been checking out Next Issue, a magazine app that offers unlimited access to more than 140 magazines for a monthly fee. Plans are available for $9.99 or $14.99 a month, and the only difference between them is that the $14.99 plan includes all the weekly magazines in Next Issue’s catalog (not just the monthlies).

I’m kind of loving this service. I can link five devices to one account and share access with my family. The catalog is pretty extensive, with more than 140 big name titles like Time, Vogue, and Food + Wine. I don’t read a lot of weeklies, and I probably spend $10 a month for magazines on average. That would get me all of the titles Next Issue offers that interest me, plus all of those back issues. The back issues are marvelous to have, and they go back to fall of 2013.

The favorites option puts your most-read periodicals in one place, and you can set push notifications that will tell you as soon as the newest issue is available. I do not have to stalk newsstands anymore, which can be embarrassing for the occasional guilty pleasure read. Another bonus: No one visiting my house has to see all the piles of Martha Stewart Living and Food Network Magazine that I accumulate.

Next Issue 3
Photos courtesy of Next Issue, used with permission.

Next Issue can link to your Evernote account and whatever other share options you have switched on for your device. Evernote has been a very cool way for me to bookmark pages I want to save, and the combo is helping me fulfill even more of my resolutions.

I’ve got files for recipes and crafts I want to try this year, makeup and clothes I want to check out, articles I want to read, even travel reviews to help with vacation planning for the year. My Evernote is becoming like Pinterest for my magazine bookmarks. This is so much better than the magazines I hold on to for years or the pages I tear out and inevitably lose (in college, I actually put those pages in clear sleeves and kept them in binders by category—I was a librarian before I even knew it, apparently).

There are, of course, a few downsides to Next Issue. The biggest one is that you really need to read a lot of magazines to make this worthwhile, especially if you already subscribe to some and have access to those digital versions. And the smaller, niche titles (like School Library Journal and all the quilting magazines I read) aren’t available with the app, and that’s where I spend the bulk of my magazine budget.

Sharing with my family’s devices is great, but I couldn’t make separate user profiles under one account. So, we all see the same list of favorites and get the same push notifications when new issues are available.

And the download time can be a bit sluggish. You have to download each issue to view it, and those are big files. So, if you’re planning to read on the plane you’d have to remember to download what you want the night before.

Next Issue 4
Photos courtesy of Next Issue, used with permission.

But to me those were all small downsides for what I think is a really worthwhile service for heavy magazine readers. I am cutting back on so much magazine clutter these days, and that alone is totally worth the price.

GeekMom received free unlimited access for review purposes.

Next Issue is Having a Black Friday Sale

Photo courtesy of Flashpoint PR. Used with permission.

If you’re a magazine junkie like me, all those issues pile up around the house and haunt you with thoughts of tree sacrifice. Maybe it’s time to stop hoarding and get a Next Issue subscription for you or the magazine lover on your holiday list.

Next Issue is a subscription app that gives you access to more than 140 popular magazines, including Rolling Stone, TIME, and Entertainment Weekly. No more hauling all of those mags on your next plane ride; just subscribe to the app and bring them all with you on your tablet. It’s like Netflix and ebooks for your magazines.

And, they’re having a Black Friday sale. Usually the subscription is $14.99 a month, but from Black Friday through Cyber Monday, you can get a three-month subscription for the price of one. That’s $14.99 for three months of magazines versus the regular price of $44.97 for three months.

If you want to give this as a gift to someone, go here. If you want to give it to yourself, go here. Happy reading!

Tiny Hands Apps Puts the Joy of Learning in Toddlers’ Hands

Image: Tiny HandsAs the mother of two kids in a very tech-connected geek household, apps are often on our minds. Which is why I’m so excited to share Tiny Hands Apps, our sponsor, with you.

Our daughter, the youngest, is only two. And while she’s fascinated with the iPad and certainly wants to use it like her brother does, there’s not much out there that caters to her. Generally speaking, it’s too complicated for her—and to be honest, I don’t just want to throw her the iPad to keep her busy when it’s not something that’s helpful for her.

That’s where Tiny Hands Apps comes in. Tiny Hands Apps are designed with toddlers in mind, from top to bottom. They’re educational and fun, and go beyond being just apps—really, they’re developmental apps. Everything is designed with a great deal of thought, not just a bunch of bright colors and sounds. In fact, Tiny Hands Apps are put together with certified child psychologists and produced in such a way to be exciting and interesting but never compromising on the content.

Even better? There’s no ads. No pop ups. No network access. Your littlest curious kiddos are free from the advertising crush that we so often see in games. It’s a gateway to learning without interruption.

Image: Tiny HandsA great example is Tiny Hands Raccoon Tree House. Your toddler sees a friendly raccoon character, and a story to go along. But you’ll know that it’s far beyond that. Tiny Hands Raccoon Tree House includes sorting, classifying, hand-eye coordination, concentration, vocabulary… and so on.Image: Tiny Hands

But that’s just the beginning. The world of Tiny Hands Apps is full of bright and colorful fun, learning about the world and all that’s in it.

We all know that it’s almost impossible to avoid technology—and we certainly never would want to. But we always want to make sure that we’re delivering the best quality to our children, both appropriate and exceptional. If you have a toddler who’s ready, we can’t think of a better place to start than Tiny Hands Apps

You can see the full lineup of Tiny Hands apps at the iTunes store, and follow them on Facebook, too.

This post is sponsored by Tiny Hands Apps.

Tracking Pixel

iTunes Gift Card Giveaway for Dragons Interactive Story App

Last week DreamWorks released a new app for the How to Train Your Dragons franchise, and they’re sponsoring a giveaway for GeekMom readers. The DreamWorks Press: Dragons app is the first self-published story app from the new publishing arm at Dreamworks. It focuses on storytelling at three different reading levels, and it has brand-new material in the Dragons universe for your fangirls and fanboys to read.

Still © DreamWorks Press, used with permission.

I like the idea of getting each story with three different difficulty levels (although the reading levels are tied to age ranges instead of abilities, I wish they would reconsider that). The vocabulary gets more advanced, but it allows everyone in the family to read the same thing. You can have multiple profiles within the app, so each kid (or parent—Mommy got her own profile here) can get the experience at his or her own level. The graphics are clean, and the stories are narrated, fully scored, and full of sound effects. When Toothless shoots a flame, the phone vibrates. At first I missed hearing the voices of the actors from the film, but now I really like the Scottish narrator. There are several chapters of the story available when purchasing the app (at $4.99), and more chapters will be unlocked in the future (for $.99 each). That’s honestly more than I would normally invest in a kids’ app, but the new content is such a nice fix for your Dragons-obsessed brood. And it gets them reading. Future installments will have the option to name your character, name your dragon, and go on missions from Hiccup. And there’s a lot in the original purchase. Brand-new dragons are featured, and as you progress with the storytelling, you get access to other new goodies to play with.

Still © DreamWorks Press, used with permission.

To help celebrate (and purchase) this app, DreamWorks Press is offering one GeekMom reader a prize package including (1) $50 iTunes gift card and (1) pair of Kid Safe headphones. To enter, click the Rafflecopter link below. The contest will run until midnight ET on Monday, August 18th. Then a winner will be randomly selected. a Rafflecopter giveaway GeekMom was given this app for review purposes.

Help Preschoolers Learn Math Skills in the Number Neighborhood

Drive About: Number Neighbourhood © Artgig Apps
Drive About: Number Neighborhood © Artgig Apps

A few years ago my son and I fell in love with the brilliantly designed Alien Buddies from Artgig Apps. Now the team has done it again with the beautiful and varied app Drive About: Number Neighborhood.

Number Neighborhood is a collection of mini games that teach different mathematical skills from simple number recognition and shape matching to counting and equal sums. The games are all linked together by their surrounding neighborhood. On loading the app your child selects the game they would like to begin with. Once they have finished with it, they exit into the neighborhood where they can use a variety of different vehicles to travel between the games. A car travels along the road, a boat on the water, a rocket up into space, etc. As they travel children can interact with the area: popping balloons, blowing away leaves by the roadside, and making flowers grow. The vehicle noises are made by people rather than sound effects so as the boat chugs along in the water we hear someone quietly chanting “blub blub blub” making the atmosphere distinctly cute and fun.

There are nine games located around the neighborhood:

  • Feed a whale a given number of green kelp by using a slingshot to fire pieces into his mouth
  • Decorate cookies by matching different shaped toppings to the spaces, then feed them to hungry animals
  • Help a yak snowboard down a hill and hit each number post in sequence
  • Paint by numbers
  • Balance numbered animals on a seesaw to make equal sums (for example two small mice on one side to a single large squirrel on the other)
  • Stack numbered blocks in order to build an apartment complex
  • Tap sea pickles labelled with a given number before they vanish back into their burrows
  • Trace numbers in the sky
  • Vacuum up trash in space, making sure to find the correct number of items

Each game is well thought out and easy to play. There are no ads, links out, or in-app purchases available making the game a safe environment for even the youngest players.

Place the numbered animals on the seesaw to make it balance © Artgig
Place the numbered animals on the seesaw to make it balance © Artgig

There are naturally a few issues, the biggest one for me being that the game has no difficulty setting. I would love to see a parent screen where I can individually tailor each game to my child’s abilities. The stacking game for example begins at number one and asks children to build from there in groups of five and only counts as high as 20, not much of a challenge to my 4-year-old. Being able to set that game to begin from a different number (say 20) would really increase its flexibility and help slightly older kids practice bigger numbers in preparation for starting school.

Another area that could be improved is language support. The game can currently run in English, Spanish, French, Russian, and Portuguese; however the language cannot be switched within the game. The game’s language is determined by the device’s language master setting alone. Being able to switch on different languages within the game would again increase its flexibility, allowing it to also be used to help children in the process of learning a new language. Even adults could use it to practice.

Right now this is a beautiful, elegantly designed game and one that my son has really been enjoying playing. He’s even been choosing it over watching Power Rangers: Samurai on Netflix, and that says a lot about just how fun these mini games are. With a few small tweaks and additions this could become an even more expansive and useful learning tool for children right up to Kindergarten, but for now if you have preschoolers Drive About: Number Neighborhood is a game that should absolutely join your home learning line-up.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes. 

12 Surprising Facts About Finding Nemo (Sort of)


Disney is hoping to get you to your summer destination—in peace! The House of Mouse is promoting its recently launched Disney Movies Anywhere app as a source of road trip entertainment.

Available for iOS devices (sorry Android users), the app allows you to browse, view, and purchase a wide variety of Disney titles while on the go. Of course, that lineup also includes plenty of goodies to satisfy your Marvel and Pixar fixes. As GeekMom Cindy mentioned a while back, one of the other great things about the app is that it even offers up tasty nuggets about some of the featured films. Just look under the Discovery section.

As part of the summer push, the studio just put out a little infographic (see below) about how many Pixar movies it would take to get to key destinations. Sure, it’s limited (and do you really have 2,000 movies to watch between Australia and Los Angeles?), but as a GeekMom who’s planning two major road trips this year, I like the travel ideas. Of course, I do expect my son to do other things and even look out of the window on occasion. Some of those highways can be long and boring, though!

Something that isn’t very boring is Pixar Summer Movies to Go, a current in-app section that has all sorts of interesting exclusives about Pixar’s fan favorites. Each week, users can get tidbits about different films, as well as exclusive bonus content, including filmmaker introductions, trivia, and even the “Countdown to Pixar’s Ultimate Movie-Making Secrets.”

This week, the app is hosting “12 Surprising Facts about Finding Nemo.” Sadly, we don’t have all 12 for you, but we do have a little teaser above. To get the full list, you’ll need to download the Disney Movies Anywhere app. And you should do that—it’s free!


Courtesy of Disney/Pixar.

Late to the Game: Carcassonne

Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys
Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys

One of four games described by Tabletop host Wil Wheaton as the “pillars of classic European-style board games,” Carcassonne is a modern classic released back in 2000. The aim of the game is to collect points while building towns, monasteries, roads, and farms in the French countryside. It is a simple game to introduce with a wide and varied range of available expansions, the first of which (“The River”) is generally packaged with the base game. Carcassonne is now also available as an app for iOS and Android, so I took a look at both to compare their pros and cons.

Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys
Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys

The App Game

1. For those new to the game, a tutorial mode teaches you how to play. Newbies might also benefit from the ability to switch off fields/farming (Carcassonne‘s most complex scoring mechanic) at least for their first few games.

2. The app keeps track of the remaining tiles. This not only means that you get a handy countdown in the corner that lets you know just how many tiles are left in the virtual stack, but it also introduces another useful feature. Because the game knows exactly which tiles are remaining in the stack, when you place your current tile on the table, it automatically looks at the layout. If you have created a space in which no remaining tile can possibly be played, an X is scratched into the table surface. This happens before you commit to laying down your tile, so you can see if, for example, placing that tile will mean a city can never be completed and choose to place it elsewhere. If you’d rather play without this feature, it can be switched off.

3. The app also shows you all of your options for placing a tile by shading each available location. This makes it much faster to check your possibilities on a large map, rather than spending time figuring out where you can play on this turn.

4. When placing tiles, the app shows you the different options you have for placing meeples. This stops farmers accidentally being placed in occupied fields where boundaries are difficult to follow.

5. One of the biggest headaches of Carcassonne comes at the very end of the game, when farmers are being counted. Working out the boundaries of each farm can be very time-consuming, depending on the layout of the final “board.” The app automatically calculates the value of each farm, including splitting points when multiple farmers share fields.

6. The app has several modes to play. You can choose to play against computer opponents who vary in difficulty and tactics, or you can go online and play against friends or complete strangers. There’s always someone to play against, even if it’s only a bot.

7. The app also introduces a brand-new game-play mode: Solitaire. Unlike traditional Carcassonne, the Solitaire variant asks you to build a settlement on a budget of 1,000 victory points. The settlement must have cities and roads in every size, from two to six tiles, built in consecutive order. Placing tiles costs points based on their location.

8. One of the biggest bonuses to the app is its price. The basic game costs $9.99/£6.99, with expansions ranging from $0.99/69p to  $1.99/£1.49. Meanwhile, the physical base game stands at $25/£20, with expansions costing around $15/£13 each.

1. By the end of the game, Carcassonne can become a sprawling mass of tiles. Because of the limited screen size (and shape), this means it’s difficult to see the whole “board” at once, which can lead to either a lot of scrolling or reducing the tiles down to microscopic size. This is especially true when playing on an iPhone or iTouch.

2. There are significantly fewer expansions available than for the board game. However, the numbers are rapidly increasing (a new expansion—“The Phantom”—was launched just a few days ago), meaning this could soon become a moot point.

Carcassonne Board Game © Z-Man Games
Carcassonne board game © Z-Man Games

The Tabletop/Board Game

1. The board game generally comes with “The River” expansion as part of the standard base game (it is a paid expansion on the app), meaning instant variety is included for your first purchase.

2. The range of expansions is much wider: bridges, princesses and dragons, inns, abbeys, traders, and more are all available to turn your Carcassonne from a small settlement to a mighty civilization.

3. Playing on a tabletop makes it much easier to see entire board at once.

4. The big draw of a physical game is the ability to play with a group of friends; it’s kind of what the whole resurgence of tabletop gaming is about, after all. Taking the game along to play with friends and family or to public gaming days allows you to connect with people in a way an app never could.

1. The biggest issue with the tabletop game is simply its cost. At more than double the cost of the app for the base game and with some expansions costing over seven times more in physical form than as in-app purchases, it is difficult to justify the additional cost—especially for those of us on a budget. There is also the issue of storage, a pain known well to those of us with large board game collections and small houses.

2. As much as the nature of a tabletop game lends itself to community and playing with others, for those of us who live apart from friends and family, this can be a drawback, meaning we can only play on rare occasions.


As usual, there is no “best” option because different options will suit different people best. With a much cheaper price tag, a flexible range of options to change your game-play depending on how you want to play, and simplified game-play, the app is a robust addition to your app library.  Indeed Carcassonne is a rare case where the benefits of the app vastly outnumber those of the physical game. However, there will be many cases where the physical game is a better option, especially for those who play regularly in groups. Hopefully, this will help you decide which option is best for you.

GeekMom received these items for review purposes. 

LeVar Burton’s New Kickstarter Brings the Magic of Reading Rainbow to Classrooms

Image by: RRKidz

For the current generation of young parents, Reading Rainbow was a seminal part of our childhood and education. And it was free.

Two years ago, LeVar Burton’s educational technology company RRKidz launched a Reading Rainbow tablet app to try and bring all of that rich material to today’s kids. The app has hundreds of books and brand new educational video field trips, and it is wildly successful with more than 12 million books read and videos viewed to date. But unless you have a tablet you can’t have the experience.

It’s hard to believe that not all of today’s young kids know every word to the theme song or recognize that bright Reading Rainbow sticker on a library book. LeVar Burton wants to change that, and he wants to make the impact even bigger.

Starting today, he is launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million dollars to expand the modern digital Reading Rainbow program to the web. While the program will be available to kids at home or even their public library, it will be specifically tailoried to classroom teachers and homeschoolers. The new program will have a teacher dashboard, educator-created supplemental materials designed to Common Core standards, and many more books.

The most impressive goal of the program, however, is to create a non-profit program to help subsidize the cost. RRKidz wants every child to have access to these materials, making it completely free to the most disadvantaged schools.

When I was sixteen, I saw Mr. Burton on television at a Congressional hearing to discuss budget cuts to public television programming. He spoke with such passion and knowledge about childhood development and the important role these programs played that I wrote a letter to my local PBS station to share how public programming helped shape my education. The letter was published in PBS magazine; I still have my framed copy, and I still recognize the value of what those entertainers, educators, and media makers gave to this generation of parents.

So I’m donating to this Kickstarter to help bring that experience to all of today’s kids. If you’d like to donate as well, watch the video above and then visit the Kickstarter page here.

Snag the Starlight App for Free Over Memorial Day Weekend

Screenshot courtesy of Gyrocade/iTunes.

If you are thinking about pulling out your field guides this weekend to do a little stargazing, you might enjoy checking out Starlight HD from Gyrocade, a mobile planetarium for your iPhone or iPad. Just set your location and point the device to the sky. The app will show you which stars you are looking at, in simple images, or with lines drawn in for easy recognition of the constellations. You can even point your device to the ground and see what’s going on far on the other side of the planet. The app is well developed for quick navigation and contains over 100,000 stars from the Hipparcos database, all painted accurately according to their spectral type. The app also contains a plethora of trivia, connecting stars to some of your favorite science fiction. It also contains the folklore behind constellations. You can even map out all the planets from your backyard, including Pluto for sentiments sake.

The Starlight HD app is available for free this Memorial Day weekend. We have been playing with it all morning, with no stars in the sky, just imagining what is beyond our daylight viewing.

A Galaxy Far, Far Away Comes to Your iPad in Star Wars Journeys

Star Wars Journeys
© Disney / Lucasfilm

With the recent casting news for Episode VII unleashed upon the world, and a new trailer for the upcoming animated series Star Wars Rebels, we are back in the heady days of Star Wars hype. A new app from Disney Publishing takes us back to the last time we were excited for a new Star Wars film with Star Wars Journeys: The Phantom Menace, an interactive storybook for the iPhone/iPad. But is $6.99 worth it for an app that retells the film most consider to be the worst of the trilogies?

If this is your child’s first exposure to the galaxy of Star Wars, it’s a good place to start. My five-year-old has yet to make it through a Star Wars film all the way to the end, but when I showed her the app, she was excited to explore the storybook together at her own pace.

The story walks through the plot of the first prequel, with the original cast’s voices and music. There are a lot of words on each page of the app, and no word-by-word highlighting to the narration, so my daughter’s interest would sometimes fade on some of the longer pages. Geek parents who think they know everything about Star Wars might even learn a thing or two from the thorough text, like the kind of fish that attacks Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan (Opee Sea Killer, duh) and Chancellor Valorum’s first name (Finis).

The interactive artwork is well done and highly detailed, down to blinking Gungans and falling confetti, and hidden in each page are secret objects. Tapping these objects gives you “SP,” points for podracing, that can be spent on new podracers and customization. This gives kids an incentive to play through the story more than once to hunt those items down.

Star Wars Journeys
© Disney / Lucasfilm

With the amount of podracing content in the app, you are getting two games in one with Star Wars Journeys: The Phantom Menace. There are a variety of podracers, tracks, and racers themselves to choose from, although my daughter was dismayed at the lack of female characters. “Don’t they know girls want to play?” she asked. Good question.

After completing the storybook, my daughter stood up and yelled triumphantly, “I’ve finally seen Star Wars!” Seeing my five-year-old excited about Star Wars absolutely made the high price worth it.

Star Wars Journeys: The Phantom Menace is a pricey app, but with the amount of content you get, it’s not a bad investment. If you strongly dislike The Phantom Menace, it might be worth skipping this one—Disney Publishing has already announced plans upcoming storybooks to cover all six Star Wars films. If this first Star Wars Journeys app is any indication, those apps will be detailed, enjoyable, and a great way to introduce kids to a galaxy far, far away.

Toca Band: Free App for World Autism Awareness Day

Toca Band
Image: Toca Boca

We’re big fans of Toca Boca apps here at GeekMom. Really big fans. Really, really big fans. So we are delighted to share with our readers that today (April 2), in honor of World Autism Awareness Day, you can download Toca Band for free at the app store.

“Over the years many parents, teachers and specialists have reached out to Toca Boca to share how impactful the company’s apps have been in helping autistic children engage, socialize and above all … have fun. In turn, Toca Boca wanted to give something back.” — Toca Boca

In Toca Band, you have the chance to explore music with your child, using 16 colorful characters and 48 sounds loops to orchestra your own symphony. There are no time limits, rules, or restrictions—just play. Though personally, there’s only so much of my son’s taste in musical blends that I can take! Toca Band is great for kids between 2 and 9 years old.

Sylvan Learning Launches New Mobile Games Network For Kids

Critter Cruise Home Screen
Image: Sylvan Learning

This post is sponsored by Sylvan Learning.

Kids love to play mobile games, but as parents, we all worry about what they’re playing. We understand that mobile apps are the future–and hey, we love them, too–but there’s only so much we can take. We want the bright side, not the brain numb side. Thankfully, Sylvan Learning aims to help make the decision about what mobile games kids should play a little easier with their newly launched mobile games network designed for kids called SylvanPlay.

This isn’t just a bunch of games, but an educational mobile games network targeting kids in 1st through 4th grade. SylvanPlay gives them grade-appropriate lessons in the form of games that will keep them entertained while they learn.

Image: Sylvan Learning

The network isn’t just one app either, but a group of eight apps that have been packaged together to help kids build their skills in reading, math, science, geography, strategic thinking and more. It’s a whole package designed to make learning accessible and fun. The games include:

  • Critter Cruise: (Ages 6-9) Builds math and language skills on a trip across North America in a game exclusive to SylvanPlay. It features grade specific content and aligns with the Common Core Curriculum.
  • Equator: (Ages 6-9) Builds math skills including addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and order of operations by bringing balance to the equator in each of the four seasons. This is an exclusive SylvanPlay launch. (Tablet Only)
  • Angle Asteroids: (Ages 6-9) Builds an understanding of angles as they blast asteroids out of the sky. This is an exclusive SylvanPlay launch.
  • Pizza Party: (Ages 6-9) Helps kids learn about fractions by dividing up food. This is an exclusive SylvanPlay launch.
  • Sushi Scramble: (Ages 6-9) Focuses on building language skills through word games. (Tablet Only)
  • Get Rocky: (Ages 6-9) Fosters a love of science through a trip to the center of the Earth.
  • Not Lost in The Universe: (Ages 6-9) Teaches how wind, sun, water, and heat create energy. (Tablet Only)
  • Wonder Bunny Math Race: (Ages 3-8) Helps younger kids learn about math in a race to collect carrots.

These apps are just beginning of the SylvanPlay network which will be expanding to include games for kids all the way up to 6th grade. The introduction of new apps will give kids something new and different to play so they’ll keep on learning–always a good idea in our book! With a wealth of apps out there to choose from, it’s great to see a company like Sylvan–already a well known name in education–moving to the forefront.

SylvanPlay is available for iOS and Android with both free and paid content ranging in price from $.99 to $4.99.

It’s easy to find the apps by simply searching for “SylvanPlay” or the titles of the individual apps in the Apple App Store or Android’s GooglePlay store. And if you’re a current Sylvan Learning customer, you have access to all the SylvanPlay apps for free.

This post sponsored by Sylvan Learning.

Tracking Pixel

Are You Ready for Some Football? There’s An App for That

The home page of the Let’s Play Football app. Image: Joseph Krzemienski.

I have a confession to make: I don’t really know anything about football. I can probably match a few teams to a few cities and may even know a few star players—if they’ve been on Saturday Night Live and/or the cover of People.

Once the coin is tossed, I’m completely lost.

The book. Cover art: Joseph Krzemienski.

You need to know that I’m originally from Eagles country. I don’t recall my father or my brother watching a lot of sports when I was a kid, but I do remember Ron Jaworski and Dick Vermeil being football gods at the time. As I got older, the only thing I really knew about the Eagles was that their one-time home, Veterans Stadium, was the first in the country to install an in-house jail. (We’re number one!)

Still, it’s sort of a weird thing, since I’ve been to countless tailgates, football-themed parties, and even actual games. My husband and my son enjoy watching games and after seeing how many of my fellow GeekMoms are such rabid football fans, I was determined to learn the rules before this weekend’s Super Bowl.

So I went about learning football the best way I knew how: from a children’s book. Let’s Play Football is a cute little book for young kids, ages 2 to 6. It’s also perfect for a beginner like me, since it’s now available in app form.

Created by dad-coaches Andy Blackman Hurwitz and Jon Richter, Let’s Play Football is the first of an upcoming series of Let’s Play Sports apps and other products. The app is an interactive version of the book, and a great way learn about some of the fundamentals. The plot involves a papa bear teaching the sport to his two young cubs as they watch the “Lions” play the “Bears”—and yes, these are cute, animated critters conveying the whole story.

The app also includes narration by Jaworski himself, as well as points where you can stop in the story and touch on specific words to learn more. There are terms such as “Special Teams,” “Safeties,” “Wide Receivers,” “3rd and 2,” and more.

Once you’re finished with the story, the app also has a full glossary with additional terms, with the same characters and user-friendly manner. There’s also “Training Camp,” which will quiz users on some of the lingo.

We had a lot of fun with this app. I actually felt like I learned a little bit, with my husband and son filling in some of the gaps. It was cute to see how much my son knew, what he wanted to explain to me, and how much more he wanted to learn. He was repeatedly looking to better his score in “Training Camp,” but also was asking for the story on a regular basis.

Let’s Play Football is cute and most importantly, it’s free—at least the app is. Available now at the iTunes App Store, it’s a perfect pre-Super Bowl activity if you have a little one at home (or just need an easy tutorial). If you like what you see, the book is also available for you or another future all-star.

A peek at one of the glossary terms in the Let’s Play Football app. Image: Joseph Krzemienski.

Let’s Make It With the Mister Maker App

I used the Doodle Drawer contents to make this design, showcasing some of the different brushes and tools available. Note the liberal use of gloopy glue!
Screenshot: © Helen Barker.

I have many happy memories of watching artist Tony Hart on television as a child. His programs Take Hart and Hartbeat were both required viewing for me, and I still remember the thrill of sending off one of my artworks, hopeful that it would be displayed in the “Gallery” section of the show. I was always trying out new techniques and media, inspired by the variety of artworks which he produced. This gave me a love of art, which has persisted my entire life, so I have him to thank for the fact that I always have at least one creative project on the go!

Mister Maker is the modern equivalent of Tony Hart. The Mister Maker program always includes a variety of different projects, including the fast-paced “Minute Makes” and the artistic “Frame It” section, presented by the entertaining (and rather wacky) Mister Maker. It works really well as a television program, but would it translate into an app? My daughter, already a big Mister Maker fan, test drove the Mister Maker: Let’s Make It! app and showed me how it worked.

The app includes all of the best bits from the TV show. Mister Maker himself pops up every now and then to lend a hand, explain instructions, or just offer encouragement. The most exciting and interesting section of the app is the Doodle Drawers. Just like in the show, this area is packed with all manner of artistic media, from paint to glitter via pasta, gloopy glue, and stickers. It’s really easy to use the different tools to create all types of pictures. These pictures are automatically put into the Picture Album, which means that they can be saved for later improvements, printed out, or emailed. You can also create a frame for the picture in the Frame It area, which uses the same tools as the Doodle Drawers to decorate a cardboard-style frame. The Doodle Drawer contents are used again in the Minute Makes section, where the clock is ticking as you try to decorate a picture. The last section includes the quartet of shapes and involves spotting the overlapping outline of your chosen shape.

Mister Maker himself pops up to help you with the menu choices. Screenshot: © Helen Barker.

The app is incredibly easy for children to use, aided by Mister Maker’s vocal instructions. My four-year-old was able to use the app completely independently, and enjoyed the fact that she could use lots of different stickers, glitter, and glue without making a mess in the Doodle Drawers area. In fact, the gloopy glue was my favorite tool, as you can sprinkle all sorts of interesting things onto it before it dries, including sequins and beads. My daughter also liked being able to take photographs and use those in her artworks too, as well as decorate the frames. She found the shapes game fairly simple, though. The difficulty does ramp up a little as you have to spot more shapes, but she was able to do this quite easily, so it didn’t keep her interest for very long. Unfortunately, this is one of the ways to unlock the items in the Doodle Drawers, along with completing the Minute Makes. This means that quite a few of the options in the Doodle Drawers remain locked, as my daughter prefers open-ended play rather than the game or challenges. It would be lovely if these locked items could be unlocked in the settings perhaps, for younger children or those not interested in playing the games.

The app is really good fun though, and has really captured the feel of a Mister Maker episode. Although it’s still important for children to use real art materials, this is a great substitute for when I really can’t cope with more glitter, stickers, felt pen, or paint decorating the furniture and my daughter as much as the paper in front of her.

Some of the roller options in the Doodle Drawers are still locked. I like the baked beans pattern though! Screenshot: © Helen Barker.

The app doesn’t include any adverts or in-app purchases and doesn’t collect user information either, meaning that I’m happy to let my daughter use it independently. This app is a firm favorite with both my daughter and myself and has given us hours of fun, so it’s well worth the $4.99/£2.99 price tag. Mister Maker: Let’s Make It! by P2 Games is available now in the Apple iTunes app store.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Return to The Room

The Room Two © Fireproof Games
The Room Two © Fireproof Games

Last summer my mum asked me to help her get past a puzzle she was stuck on in one of her many iPad games. I did as asked and she immediately got stuck on the next one. Soon I’d been playing the game on her behalf for over an hour—by this point she had decided it was definitely not her style—and by the end of the night I had a copy of it on my iPad as well. The very next evening I played the game from beginning to end in one sitting. The game was The Room, and ever since then (excluding the day the epilogue was released) I’ve been awaiting the next installment of the series.

The game is afoot © Fireproof Games
The game is afoot © Fireproof Games

The Room 2 follows on from the story that was set up by its predecessor as you continue to solve your way through different puzzle boxes, unlocking letters from your friend that slowly reveal more about the mysterious element “Null.” The game-play is basically identical to that of the first game however that is by no means a negative; in fact it is quite the opposite. Almost from the outset you will once again be furnished with an eyepiece that helps you see the hidden clues that you need to solve the puzzles and work your way through the game.

One thing that does differ somewhat between the two games is the amount of storytelling. The Room only hinted at just what was going on around you, leaving you increasingly confused as you solved each puzzle and hoped that this one might offer you another piece of plot once you did. The Room 2 concludes the story (in a manner of speaking) and so you are given much more detail with each solution. The overall feel of the game is much more creepy too; you see flashes of otherworldly creatures and places, and occasionally witness some rather troubling events. There is almost a Lovecraftian feel to the whole thing.

If you didn’t enjoy The Room then its sequel probably won’t sell you on the franchise either, as it’s simply more of the same thing; but for fans it’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for. My one and only complaint about the game is that there simply isn’t enough of it; I played through the entirety in one sitting of around three hours. I hope Fireproof Games continue with the series because now we have some idea of what’s going on, I want to know what happens next.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Transport Tycoon Pulls Into Your Mobile Device

Transport Tycoon © Chris Sawyer
Transport Tycoon © Chris Sawyer

I grew up playing the classic Sim games from Maxis. We had Sim Life on our Amiga 1200 and I later grew so obsessed with my Sim Ant game on our first PC that I did an elementary school science project using the game manual as a resource (hey, the back of the book was basically a biology textbook about real ants; it was legitimate research).

Since those days, sim games have grown far more sophisticated just as I have grown away from them, but when I was offered the chance to play with the latest edition of Transport Tycoon I was interested to see how the game would compare to my memories.

Transport Tycoon is a classic in its own right and was originally released in 1994 (I can clearly remember seeing that box on the shelves of my local games store when I was a kid). The game allows players to build up a transport empire of road, rail, sea, and air transportation, beginning in the 1900s and progressing through time to the modern day. The iPad app features a number of different scenarios to be played through at different levels of difficulty. Easy scenarios can be as “simple” as carrying 1000 passengers within ten years, expert challenges include attaining monthly profits of £1 million, and finishing the game as the top company against up to 14 rivals.

I actually found the game quite hard to get into. Setting up bus routes in existing towns was simple enough but the process of laying out railway track between towns felt tedious and overly complicated compared with games I’ve played in the past. The grainy “retro” feel to the graphics combined with the slightly clumsy touch screen interaction made the game more difficult than it should have been simply because of the visuals. At one point I struggled to understand why a bus route wasn’t working. It took some considerable effort to spot that a section of road was pointing the wrong way so the bus couldn’t travel along it. Rather than giving me a warning error to explain that the route was impossible, the bus just trundled around in an endless loop visiting the same single stop over and over.

My Transport Tycoon game (yes I named my company after Twin Peaks) © Sophie Brown
My Transport Tycoon game (yes I named my company after Twin Peaks) © Sophie Brown

That being said, I still found myself playing for longer than I intended, getting sucked into watching the little profit counter steadily increasing as I expanded my bus empire into more and more cities (I’d given up on trains at this point—the track seemed too expensive to invest in). My four-year-old son would happily sit beside me wanting to watch the little vehicles zooming about on their errands. He found it fascinating and I even found him attempting to play the game on more than one occasion, despite it being far too complex for his age.

I wouldn’t be rushing out to purchase Transport Tycoon if this had just been a demo. For me these games have become too complex. I enjoyed the basic gameplay of the early sim games (my last copy of Sim City was nothing more than a grid) rather than the constant micro-management required of modern variants. Interestingly, my husband feels the same way about current football manager games.

But there’s no doubt that Transport Tycoon is a well-built game with a lot packed into its meager $7 (£5) price tag. If you’re prepared to invest the time then you will definitely reap what you sow.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Toca Boca: Mayhem and Makeovers

Not too long ago, I organized all of the icons on my iPhone and realized that I have a menu page that consists entirely of Toca Boca apps. This prolific developer makes so many apps that captivate both my 3-year-old and my 8-year-old (not an easy age span to bridge). Two recent additions to their app catalog are no different, Toca Cars and Toca Hair Salon Me.

Toca Cars lets you cause all kinds of motor mayhem in an adorable cardboard town. First, you choose whether you want to be a boy driver or a girl driver, but they’re both pretty punk rock so they’re both fun to play. Then, you choose whether you want to drive on an existing course or create your own. The preexisting course and the course that you can create are made up of roads (naturally), ramps, buildings, streetlights and signs, and puddles of paint.

Screenshot of the awesome paint puddle action.

This is not the app for you if your kid likes everything neat and orderly. Your car follows your finger, and unless you’re taking it super slow, you’re going to cause some damage to your adorable town, crashing through signs and driving through puddles. Actually, the puddles are the favorite part for both me and my daughter because you can leave colorful track marks in your wake. It’s also fun to jump the ramps and crash into things when you land. It’s a little tricky to line up your car right, but super satisfying when you do. Toca Cars might have a narrower appeal than some of their other apps, but for kids who like their car play with just the right amount of destruction, this is perfect.

I believe my kids play the various iterations of Toca Hair Salon more than anything else given the sheer volume of colorful character makeover head-shots that appear in my photo album. My daughter in particular loves styling the hair of the different characters, trying out all sorts of crazy colors and looks. Now, with Toca Hair Salon Me, she can try it on herself. It would be cool with a static picture, but the app goes the extra mile. After you take or upload a photo, the app asks you to mark the location of the eyes and mouth. Why? So it can animate you. My daughter giggled as she saw her own face react to the different hairstyles she was trying out.

My daughter’s avatar smiles at her two-toned hair.

Like the other Hair Salon apps, you can grow the hair longer and cut it shorter in a variety of ways. You can wash it, blow it dry, straighten it, and curl it. There’s also a rainbow array of hair dye colors. I happen to have pink hair at the moment, so my daughter enjoys trying out different colors for me to try. It’s like Cher in Clueless taking Polaroids of her different looks. I may well take one of the headshots from this app to my hairdresser on my next visit.

Toca Hair Salon Me is worth picking up even if you have one of the other Hair Salon apps. It’s so delightful for kids to immerse themselves in the experience. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go try out Toca Labs with the kids based on GeekMom Kelly’s review.

GeekMom received a review copy of Toca Cars

Experiment With Fun in Toca Lab

Art by Jonas Löfgren © Toca Boca

Toca Boca is back with another excellent, entertaining app for the iPhone and iPad, Toca Lab. Toca Lab encourages little scientists to run different experiments on “elements” to discover something new.

© Toca Boca

Like all Toca Boca apps, there’s no text to wade through, so your little one can begin learning about experiments and science before they can even read. The game features 118 elements, each busting with personality. Once an element is selected, testing different lab tools on the element can result in the creation of something new.

The game promotes open exploration without time limits or penalties. Kids simply try the lab tools on every element to their heart’s content. It’s important to note that the game isn’t scientifically accurate—freezing or electrifying an element won’t turn it into something else, for example. It might be better suited to younger kids who don’t know much about science, serving instead to encourage experimentation and highlight the joy of discovery rather than teach chemistry concepts.

There’s also a bit of a learning curve with navigating the app. If the experiment doesn’t result in something new, kids have to press the arrow at the top of the screen to return to the lab. The same arrow selects an element in the periodic table. It took my daughter a few tries before realizing she had to navigate using the arrow, but the frustration has since disappeared.

With 118 elements to discover and a number of experiments to run on each, Toca Lab offers replay value and fun at a low price for an app. The game is available for $2.99 on the App Store for the iPhone and iPad.

Review: Shape the Village

Shape the Village1
Photo: WiseKids

Shape the Village is a fun new app designed for toddlers. Released by WiseKids, it is a bright and engaging way of introducing and reinforcing shapes for very young children. It’s amazing what variety can be created by combining squares, circles, and triangles of different sizes and colors.

The app (available for both iPhone and iPad) has a number of different activities to play around with in the “village.” There are two screens worth, one on land and one more water-based. You can make different kinds of fish, cover a cookie with chocolate icing, or clean the window of a spaceship to see the astronaut inside. It has lots of potential for repeat play, and a pleasant soundtrack. A lot of the games will use different shapes when you open them multiple times, so the spaceship has a round window (and a round astronaut) one time, and a triangular window (and a triangle astronaut) the next. My son (a 26 month old) already knows the basic shapes, but found the app engaging and returns to it often.

photo (2)
Geekling and GeekDad with Shape the Village on iPad. Photo: Karen Burnham

One nice thing is that the game makes it easy to succeed. In different tracing games, the child doesn’t have to match the lines exactly—whenever their erratic lines cross the pattern, color shows up. There’s also a nice variety, between tracing games, matching shapes, making patterns, and filling in shapes. Several games involve animals, such as a cute little caterpillar made of squares that will eat different shapes out of a leaf. Whenever the child completes a game successfully, they get some “ta-da!” music, applause, and a voice says the name of the shape on the screen.

I do have a few minor complaints:

At first, it took quite a bit of random tapping around before we figured out where the games were, what parts were interactive, and which were just background. This is mitigated by having the background elements respond a little to being poked (like the train that will make a “choo-choo” sound when tapped, but otherwise doesn’t open any game). Of course, for small children, randomly exploring a new app is no hardship, and after the first day my son had figured out his favorite activities. Similarly, some of the individual activities required some random poking before either of us could figure out how to play them. But random tapping around always worked eventually; we were never stranded.

Shape the Village3
Photo: WiseKids

That said, my son definitely enjoys Shape the Village on both the iPhone and iPad. We’ve had it for a week, and he returns to it often. It’s gone into the current set of favorites. I like the fact that it’s so interactive and that the games cycle through the shapes instead of being exactly the same each time. And after a week, there’s still more for him to explore; he hasn’t come close to finding every game (there are 16 total). He hasn’t explored the water screen as much yet, so there’s a lot more there. Although my son already knows his shapes, it’s good reinforcement and he’s not at all bored by the games. I think that $2.99 is a reasonable price for an app that engages a toddler so well.

This is one of four apps that WiseKids is launching this week. The others are interactive story-telling apps that are aimed at somewhat older children. They are:

Sleeping Beauty
Jack and the Beanstalk

GeekMom received a free copy of this app for review purposes.

Review: Wee Rockets on the iPad and iPod Touch

Photo: Karen Burnham

Our son is 26 months old and a complete native when it comes to touch screen use. We finally broke down and got him his own iPod Touch over the summer so that we could liberate our phones from his cheerfully grasping hands. This has the bonus effect that everything on it (and on an old original iPad) is locked down, in-app purchases disabled, and every app on it is age appropriate. So now the challenge is keeping it up to date with apps that are interesting to him as he masters old ones. Two perennial favorites are Endless Alphabet and BeBop Blox by Originator.

But the latest mega-hit in our household is Wee Rockets by Wee Taps.

Photo: Wee Taps

This is a super simple game with no text or dialog. In the first screen you see an astronaut (human or alien), dreaming of a spaceship. Then you get the spaceship design screen seen in the screenshot to the right. There are five elements in each spaceship (rocket nozzle, fuselage, port hole, nose cone, and astronaut), and four options for each that the child can choose. This can lead to some awesome looking rockets! Then there’s a liftoff screen where the child pushes the button followed by a visual countdown and rocket launch.

There’s a simple space game where the rocket flies through an asteroid field. The object is to avoid the rocks and pick up little alien critters and planets, but there’s no penalty for hitting the rocks and my son loves the “boom” sounds the asteroids make when the rocket hits them, so at the moment he steers for the rocks enthusiastically. When the spaceship crosses the finish line, you get some “Tada!” music and a screen of the passenger alien celebrating all the alien critters and planets that were collected. Then it starts all over.

It’s so simple that I figured my son would get bored with it easily, but it’s been his favorite for over a week. Each screen has different music, and the design screen has guitar music that sounds a bit like the Seinfeld opening. I’ve been hearing it so much that I feel like I’ll never forget it—luckily, I don’t find it annoying. He enjoys it on both the iPad big screen and on the Touch’s small screen.

It is super easy to play, needing almost no parental intervention to get started. And a full round of play is short enough that it’s easy to wait for him to finish before I need him to do something like eat dinner or get dressed. I’m hoping that this will be a good introduction to some of the more sophisticated build-and-design apps that I’m eying for when he gets older. I can’t wait to play watch him play them!

There is also a Wee Subs app from the same developer, and I’m saving that one for when he gets bored with this one. It looks like that might be awhile! All in all I feel like Wee Rockets was $1.99 well spent.

ComiXology: The Changing Face of Comic Book Readers

Screenshot of the ComiXology app. Take note of the “New to Comics?” section.

comixology-300x277Yesterday I peeked behind the digital curtain at ComiXology, the cloud-based multiplatform digital comics reader, as co-founder and CEO David Steinberger talked through what’s new for ComiXology, what’s been working well according to a recent survey of over 16,000 readers.

ComiXology just passed the milestone of 200,000,000 downloaded comics. A good handful of those have been downloads in our household. As someone relatively new to comics, ComiXology is my favorite way to read them. I like the shopping experience of having comic book discovery at my fingertips, and the guided view technology used make comics so beautifully cinematic. I’ve been pleased as well with their nice selection of independent and kids’ comics.

It turns out, I’m part of the changing face of comic book readership. In their survey of readers, they found that the core customer of ComiXology is who you might expect:

  • Male
  • Age 27-36
  • Has been reading print comics for a long time

But a new customer is emerging:

  • Female
  • Age 17-26
  • Newer to comics, with many reading comics for the first time digitally

Of buyers new to ComiXology in the last three months, 20% are women. That’s up from less than 5% when they started the app, and it’s a number that Steinberger says is changing rapidly. Comic book publishers, take note. The survey also found that of the readers who were reading their first comic digitally, many went on to buy comics in print. Again, comic book publishers, take note.

I suspect that the ComiXology Submit program is helping, and will continue to help, cultivate new comics readers. In fact, since its launch, Submit has become a top 20 publisher by revenue. Content creators can deliver their independent comics to ComiXology, and if it’s professionally-created, it will likely get approved. (Unless you use Comic Sans. Be prepared to face certain rejection.) Browsing through the independent comics, you’ll see a huge range of voices and styles represented, including many underrepresented voices in mainstream comics. It’s great for creators. Steinberger said he sees much more risk-taking here than in mainstream comics. And these creators can go from having their comics in a few shops to having an international marketplace to find their readers.

Selections from the Guided View Native content, and new offerings from DC.

Here’s a handful of things I learned about ComiXology:

*  The average ComiXology customer spends about $100/year. A quarter of readers spend over $400/year. A single reader has spent $63,000 and counting. Is it you?

*  There’s a line of comics that are Guided View Native (GVN). These comics take deeper advantage of the deeper platform with cool effects on lighting, focus, etc. Motorcycle Samurai is a good example worth checking out.

*  Your local comic book shop can have a digital storefront that allows you to still give your business to the small guy while buying digitally. Stores can even run deals and keep pull lists for their customers.

Infographic from ComiXology’s reader survey

Naturally, ComiXology also has some launches and deals to align with New York Comic Con, too:

*  There’s a new Android Holo release with a refreshed design. HD content will now be offered for the first time on Android.
*  Apps have a new Fit to Width function that helps the reading of portrait pages in landscape view.
*  DC graphic novels and collections are now available.
*  If you’ve ever thought about reading The Walking Dead, now’s the time. Issues #1-114 are on sale for $99.99, or $0.99 each.
*  Ape Entertainment is coming to ComiXology, with titles like Sesame Street, Kung Fu Panda, and game-based comics like Cut the Rope. Hurrah for more kids’ comics!

If you’re at New York Comic Con this weekend, definitely check out all that’s new with ComiXology. And have a look around and all of the different types of comic book readers you see.

Evernote and Post-it Brand: Making Digital Tangible

Image: Post-it Brand

Now, there are a great many apps out there. From games to GPS, from geocaching to recipe collection, it goes without saying that we live in a culture saturated with apps. But how many of them can really change the way you live and work?

That was the question first and foremost on my mind when I attended the Evernote conference in San Francisco this past week. Our family has been using Evernote for years, now, and it’s helped us streamline our existence considerably. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a naturally organized person. I know I’m a mess when it comes to managing calendars and reminders, and I’ve tried a few methods throughout my life with varying success. Okay, not varying. Usually a resounding failure. And while, as I mentioned, we do use Evernote, it’s always been more as a way to digitize the piles of paper that have grown up around us, especially with the addition of our two kids.

I went to Evernote as part of a group of bloggers brought on by Post-it Brand. We weren’t 100% sure what the connection was, but it was excited to be part of an unveiling.

Really, I don’t think I need to sell the idea of Post-it Notes to this audience. They’re pretty ubiquitous in geek circles, from practical to artistic uses, from research notation to fun with kids. But if you think about it, the Post-it Note is a near perfect invention. It’s something that works simply with the way humans think, that helps us remember what we need, anywhere we need.

Well, almost anywhere.

And that’s where Evernote comes in handy. The Post-it Brand and Evernote collaboration is twofold: it enhances something physical (the Post-it Notes) and simultaneously adds a tangible element to something digital (Evernote). With a special Post-it Note feature now in Evernote, you can scan your Post-it Note and it gets instantly digitized and integrated with your Evernote flow. The tech behind this is pretty cool, too. It’s not just a picture. The scan actually renders everything to black and white, and then re-colors it–your handwriting shows up on a perfectly digitized version of your note. And, of course, it’s color-coded (one of the best parts about Post-it Notes, in my humble opinion).

I’ll be talking more about the Post-it Note connection in a future post, but I also wanted to point out one of the features that’s excited me the most that I found out at Evernote this year. My iPad is one of my closest gadget friends, and since going back to work full-time, I’ve really started integrating it into my workflow. But I noticed in the last few months that I’ve gotten lax about my note-taking.

Image: Post-it Brand

Why? I just don’t work well with the iPad keyboard. In fact, it slows me down. And not to mention, physically writing something down really helps me retain the information. So you can imagine how I excited I was when I learned about the new stylus Evernote is releasing in collaboration with Adonit. Apparently, it’s a total ground-up redesign, and it writes like a real pen. Not a crappy stylus. Not your clumsy finger. I’ll be getting one shortly, so as soon as I do, you can expect a full report.

Learn more about Post-it Brand and Evernote by visiting your local office supply store or by visiting , Post-it Brand on Twitter (@postitproducts ) or Facebook (

I was sent to Evernote 2013 for the purpose of covering Post-it Brand.

Toon Academy: Minecraft

Toontastic, a creative animation tool for kids, has partnered with MinecraftEDU in a contest called Toon Academy: Minecraft. Using Toontastic, kids create animated “How Toons” explaining to other kids how to play Minecraft, focusing on their favorite things to do in the game and why other kids might enjoy them, too. The contest excites me not just because it brings together two tools that can really spark kids’ creative abilities, but because it’s about kids teaching other kids, a marvelous way to learn. We are not yet a Minecraft household, but my daughter has shown an interest in it. When I showed her the videos kids have uploaded so far, she sat and watched a dozen of them. I think she might be ready.


The contest runs through October 17th, and winners will receive a prize package from Launchpad Toys and MinecraftEDU. Teachers can also get a lesson plan to do this in the classroom. Check out details on the Launchpad Toys blog.

Hip-Hip-Hooray for Peppa Pig’s Sports Day

We’re big fans of Peppa Pig in this house. My son has been into the Nick Jr. cartoon for years and now at the ripe old age of 7, that love is stronger than ever. The only thing he loves more than that snorty little pink pig is sports—any sports. Imagine the frothing that ensued when I let him know there’s a Peppa Pig’s Sports Day app!

Designed for iOS and Android devices, Peppa Pig’s Sports Day packs all of the cute little characters from the show into one app. Even better, that app includes seven different activities.

To start, you’re going to need to create a player profile. This basically involves entering a name and choosing an avatar. There are several avatar options in Peppa Pig‘s world. My son currently uses the dinosaur (which is a favorite of Peppa’s brother, George). I’m a frog.

Once you choose a player, you can pick from six different games. Peppa and her pals are very unique, so the “sports” are pretty unique as well. There’s an “Obstacle Race,” “Tug of War,” the “Long Jump,” a “Bicycle Race,” an “Ice-Cream Maker,” and “Rosette Making.” Each of the games does require a little hand-to-eye coordination, which is nice. It’s also worth noting that as you play, you get “stickers.” Aha! Yes, there’s the seventh activity, which involves placing your stickers on different backgrounds.

According to app developer P2 Games, Peppa Pig’s Sports Day is designed for kids aged 2 to 6. That didn’t seem to deter my 7-year-old from having a blast. And yes, I played plenty of sports as well. Using the iPhone 4, I was really impressed at how nice the graphics are in this app. It looks pretty identical to the cartoon.

This is the type of app that’s perfect for little hands. As previously mentioned, we’re Peppa Pig fans and we’re also sports fans. However, you don’t really need to know either one to get your money’s worth with this download. My little app athlete just loved all of the different games, as well as the interaction with the characters. He said that his favorite by far is the “Long Jump” activity, “because it has muddy puddles.” Fair enough. After all, if you’re at all familiar with Peppa Pig, you know how important this is. If not, this app should still provide plenty of fun.

Peppa Pig’s Sports Day is currently available via iTunes and Amazon for $4.99.

Designed for iOS and Android devices, “Peppa Pig’s Sports Day” has seven different activities. Image: P2 Games.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Building With Toca Boca

Images: Toca Boca

I will always try out any product developed by Toca Boca. Founded in 2010, they make digital toys for children that engage the imagination and allow parents to play along, too. No rules, no time limits, no in-app purchases, coupled with excellent graphics and an easy listening soundtrack. This is a parent and kid-friendly company. Since my four-year-old son enjoys watching his dad play Minecraft, I had a feeling we found a winner when Toca Boca came out with Toca Builders this summer.

With a crew of six building robots, players wander across a tiled floor, destroying at will. You are architect, contractor, builder, and demolition expert all at once.


Connie enables you to lift and move blocks precisely where you want them.

Blox has a backpack that automatically lays out blocks. He can also crush these blocks simply by walking into them.

Cooper paints by rolling over the ground. You can change colors as often as you like and turn the paint function off to pass by without painting.

Stretch makes himself as tall as necessary to place blocks in mid-air; great for roofing!

Jum-Jum changes the color of any block by spraying paint at it. Spraying for longer periods of time changes more blocks.

Vex, last but not least, is my son’s favorite builder. Vex can jump, Vex can put down blocks while jumping. With Vex you can build stacks, walls, and staircases.

Once you open the app, you have the choice of creating a new world or working on one of your existing creations–thank you autosave! There are two ways to move your robot: Slide your finger on a ball at the bottom of the screen or swipe an arrow to travel in straight lines or turn at 90-degree angles. Bear in mind, the maximum height to build upwards is six blocks and every fifth world you create will populate with “extras.” My son seems to prefer having a blank slate each time, and rarely goes back to a previously created world.

Toca poolWe allow our son five minutes of gaming at a time. With most games he kicks up a bit of a fuss. With Toca Builders, when we say his time is up he takes a snapshot to store in his camera roll and then happily moves on, like a junior architect saving his work for later. I can only attribute this to the calm pace of the game which is completely at his control. He is never frustrated by what he can’t do; he simply enjoys what he can.

To see how older kids would respond, I had a fourteen-year-old friend sit down with it for awhile one afternoon. She enjoyed it, and noted its similarity to Minecraft calling it “Minecraft Junior,” but it isn’t something I think she would pick up of her own volition. She enjoyed the colors, the tools of each robot, and the ways they interacted, but it was definitely more of a hit with my preschooler. The game is aimed at kids five and older; my son, at four, isn’t getting as much out of it as he will this time next year. More advanced users can find building plans on Toca Boca’s YouTube page. This is a game that will grow with your child; grow until he or she is ready for something like Minecraft, in fact!

Call it a modern sandbox, a digital Lego set, or a mini Minecraft, this is a great game.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.