Bottom Line: Entertaining and highly-educational trip back to the time of dinosaurs for kids 4-9 that has five-star content, but some technical flaws keep it from Top Pick status.
Ansel and Clair: Cretaceous Dinosaurs is the follow-up to the multiple-award winning, lavishly-praised app Ansel and Clair’s Adventures in Africa. Developer Cognitive Kid follows much the same format as its successful earlier app except instead of Virtoosian photographer Ansel and Virtoid robot Clair visiting three separate locales as they did in Africa, they settle for one, but in a time period 100 million years ago.
Cretaceous Dinosaurs is the first of a planned trilogy of apps that will explore dinosaurs in the Jurassic and Triassic eras as well.
Dinosaurs are a good choice for the alien adventurers’ next mission. Even toddlers can distinguish a T-Rex from a Triceratops and they are equally beloved by girls and boys. Ansel and Clair remind me of Annie and Jack from Mary Pope Osborne’s popular Magic Tree House series, which itself started with Dinosaurs Before Dark.
The considerable thought that went into designing this app is apparent from the very beginning. Before the journey back in time begins, users are introduced to Ansel, Clair and a space scooter named Marley Petersen. Up to four kids may create a profile, and work their way through the app at their own pace.
The first task is to locate a dig site in North America. After an encounter with famed paleontologist Lindy Bones, kids get to try their hand at fossil fieldwork. Finding a suitable set of bones involves tapping to break up rocks, swiping to clear away smaller rocks and finally using two fingers to reveal the dinosaur skeleton under the dust. This activity is just a taste of the many wonderful ways in which the app gets kids invested in the journey.
Throughout the app, Cognitive Kids does a great job balancing exposure to difficult new concepts with the need not to overwhelm inquisitive young minds. New vocabulary words like fossil and paleontologist are explained in a straightforward age appropriate manner. Clair never talks down to Ansel when she answers his endless questions about how fossils are formed and what they tell scientists. Her patience and the ease with which she explains things is a big part of what makes this app so good. A dinosaur’s size is equated to a school bus and its running speed is compared to an elephant’s. These details provide kids a useful frame of reference for something they’ll never see themselves.
Getting through the preliminaries at the dig site and time traveling to the Cretaceous era takes about 15 minutes, so youngsters may be a bit antsy to see some dinosaurs. On later visits, the intro can be skipped and the dig site bypassed, but the child still has to go through several introductory steps again and/or press skip a few times; the app does not automatically return you to where you left off. This inability to save one’s place within the app is really annoying to me and would be frustrating to kids eager to get to the good stuff. (The app also doesn't save settings such as "music off" when the player returns.)
The dinosaur-laden Cretaceous landscape is where this app really shines. Each dinosaur has a tracker indicating it has narration and interactive features. Everything a child would think to ask, such as “why do T-Rex have those puny arms” is answered. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek reference to misconceptions about the Velociraptors portrayed in the Jurassic Park movie. Some of the innovative activities kids get to experience are wiping away dino snot, clearing a sand storm, causing a meteor shower, protecting eggs, and saving some dinosaurs crossing a river. The app is so jam-packed with these novelties, it almost takes away from the educational merit as dinosaurs are really interesting to kids on their own without all the tapping, swiping and flicking.
Some dinosaurs have extra content attached called Clair’s deep dives. These interludes are optional but do earn dedicated listeners a sticker. The dives are more appropriate for 7-9 year olds as the detail given is quite in depth. Topics covered include the debate on what caused extinction and how iridium played a role in scientists’ theories. That’s fairly advanced stuff for elementary school aged kids.
As the time travelers complete their introduction to the various dinosaurs, volcano and meteors, they are prompted to take a photo for their travel log. The travel log is a bit of a disappointment as it just has pre-set pictures with no text. Arranging photos and stickers may be fine for the youngest explorers, but students able to read and write should have the chance to show off their newfound knowledge by typing in an interesting fact about each dino. I would also prefer that the text of the deep dives be included in the travel log or as an appendix for direct reference. Children retain and understand much more if they are able to read something as opposed to following along orally.
There are few science apps for kids and even fewer with this degree of quality. That is perhaps why the technical faults in the app are so disappointing. There is a helpful outline of all the interactions on each page, but they also include links to Facebook and Twitter.
The trackers add a check mark for each completed task to help kids keep straight what they haven’t yet explored. Once all dinos are introduced and photographed, however, the app doesn’t have much replay value. Giving students an option to add notes to the travel log would greatly enhance the long term playability of the app. This addition would be especially useful before moving on to Jurassic and Triassic dinosaurs. The travel log includes pages for those eras even though Ansel and Clair don’t go there in this app. I for one would vote for a single app for all three eras but the power hungry, memory intense graphics may make this impossible. My iPad 1 struggled to run the app, including sound being slightly off from the graphics onscreen.
Ansel and Clair: Cretaceous Dinosaurs makes up for most of its shortcomings with topnotch graphics, comprehensive educational merit, and numerous, novel interactive features. Recommended.
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Jill Goodman looks forward to joining Ansel and Clair in the Jurassic with her son Kyle, his favorite dinosaur the Allosaurus, and the fearsome Deanadon.