Bottom Line: Twelve different cute and fun preschool learning games at a reasonable price. Definitely download at least the lite (free) version and take a look.
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iPad/iPhone ($3.99) iPad/iPhone lite (FREE)
** Please note: In the U.S. iTunes store, the default language for the app is German. This can be changed to English in settings, but the developer needs to ensure that English is the default language in the Canadian, UK and Australian iTunes stores. **
Playground HD is an iPad app (Playground Mini is the iPhone version) developed by Jan Essig, for preschoolers. There are currently 12 games to play covering many different cognitive and fine motor concepts. This comprehensive app is easy for toddlers and preschoolers to navigate, the games are creative, and the colors and pictures are engaging. Even better, it’s only $3.99 with no in-app purchases, and there is a lite version.
Some games have setting choices, such as the level of difficulty or whether additional hints are provided. There is no music and, consequently, no need for a mute button. There is no back button—but tapping the upper left corner of the screen, where it looks like a page is turned back, will always take you to the home screen.
Search is a spot-the-difference game. The child moves to the next set of cards when five differences are found. Sometimes the differences can be hard to locate so a hint setting would be useful here. I used this game to target answering simple questions and using negative sentences.
Pairs is the standard (re: very common in the app store) card-matching game, and children have to make from two to 15 pairs.
There are also 25 different animal puzzles, each 8 pieces. Each piece pops into place when in the right spot but if the child can’t locate this, the piece just stays wherever it is dropped. A hint option would support their spatial skill development. Both of these games were useful for animal vocabulary and I also used the memory game for turn-taking.
In Draw, there are nine animal picture scenes to color and a plain white page for free-form art. The standard options are available in terms of brush size, colors, eraser, paint bucket and there is an option to take a picture of the finished product.
For younger children Erase is an “un-coloring” alternative where rubbing a finger on the screen reveals a hidden scene, like scratch-off lottery cards except with a guaranteed payoff! The animals’ eyes and a few details of the scene, are visible even before erasing, allowing for good practice with making predictions. In one scene, a cow sits on a lily pad along with the frogs. This added absurdity is wonderful for language development. Unfortunately, there are only five Erase scenes in this game; I hope additional scenes will be added.
Slide is based on the classic puzzle game where the child slides the pieces around to manipulate them into the correct place. These were always hard for me as a kid and getting older has done nothing to improve my skills in this regard. Even with extended effort and number hints on each piece (added by tapping the “123” button), I could not solve even one of these puzzles. Are there preschoolers more skilled than I? Possibly. For those who are able to solve them, there are five different puzzles. Each scene has eight pieces and pressing the “i” button at the top of the screen will show the completed puzzle, for those who just need a visual hint.
Catch is reminiscent of Whack-a-Mole but with a twist— different animals are added as the levels progress which the child needs to avoid whacking. At first, only the animal-to-be-whacked pops out, so the child just needs to be fast enough to catch it. Soon, other animals also start to pop up, developing both speed and inhibition—the ability to tap only the desired animal and refrain from tapping others.
Remember is a “Simon” style game, with animals. This game is slow enough for preschoolers, and good for developing memory skills. The animals make their sound and light up.
Piano is a simple eight-key colored piano, with the fun twist of making either note tones or one of four different animal sounds. The scene changes with each animal selected: the cats are on a roof, the cows in a field and so on.
In Collect the child moves the mother fish along a path to get to her babies, collecting stars along the route. There are up, down and diagonal lines to trace, in many different combinations. The game doesn’t seem to follow a particular sequence for writing development, and it does not require a high level of accuracy. Still, it’s a cute game that likely can provide positive benefits with respect to visual perceptual skills.
Roll provides a slide puzzle alternative for younger children—or for me! There are nine pieces, and tapping each piece reveals a different puzzle face. The goal is to get all the pieces lined up to show the target image.
My favorite game was the recently-added Colors, a bubble shooting game with colorful fish. Anyone who has ever wasted hours at a time playing Snood or Bust-A-Move on their computer should love this game. The goal is to get three of the same colored fish touching, which will cause them to then disappear. There are five stars at the top of the screen and each time a fish is added to the board without making a match, a star is taken away. When all of the stars are gone, all of the fish move toward the shooter. When the fish reach the line of the shooter, the game is over. There’s even a high score board where the child can enter their name or choose a picture of an animal to represent their score. The concept of this game may be hard for younger children but even attempting to match the colors provides a good challenge.
In terms of suggestions for future upgrades, more animals and better-developed scenes would make the app stronger. For example, the cow is shown in a grass field. Scenes with the cow in a barn, or getting milked, would expand preschoolers understanding of animals. A categorization game would also be fun—sorting animals between water, farm, and zoo, for instance.
The main reason this app isn’t rated as a top pick, despite all the games it includes in one app, is because it lacks a ‘wow’ factor and doesn't exude much energy (music, sound, etc.). We've seen all the games, their formats, and content before. Playground HD doesn't stack up to an app like Bugs and Buttons, which is cheaper, offers more games and has a much more innovative feel.
Having said that, while not especially novel, this suite of games is still fun, solid and good value. Opportunities abound for preschool development in this app—language, fine motor, reasoning and problem solving, prewriting, and concepts, just to name a few areas. If you’re unsure whether the app would be right for your child, try the Lite version first.
Heather Hetler is a graduate speech-language pathology student and clinician and mother to three children. She challenges anyone to top her high score of 17,660 on Colors. smartappsforkids.com was paid a priority-review fee to complete this review in an expedited manner.