Apps to teach small children letters and words have come a long way since my own kids were playing StickyBear ABC on an Apple ][+. Here are two examples: Lola's Alphabet Train (US$0.99) for the iPhone and iPod touch (it's also available for the iPad as Lola's Alphabet Train HD at $1.99) and KidzBlox ($0.99), which is a universal app. These are both simple (with Lola being harder since you need to know some words) and repetitious, which may bore the stuffing out of parents, but they seem totally appropriate for small children.
Lola's Alphabet Train
Lola's Alphabet Train (by BeiZ) features Lola the Panda, a bear who wants to buy presents for her friends. She must travel to the shops by train. The game features easy, medium or hard modes. To get the train moving, certain tasks need to be completed; some are harder than others. The simplest is a simple letter recognition task. Three letters are displayed as the name of one is spoken. The player must touch the correct letter, which is shown in a text block. Two successful trials move the train onto the next task.
A matching activity presents six letter tiles. Several tiles are displayed quickly (I would have left it on the screen for a longer time) before flipping over. There are three pairs of matching blocks on each screen, and the object is to touch the matching two, which will cause them to vanish. When you touch one, you hear the letter spoken, which is great for reinforcement. Once that task is complete, the train moves on to the spelling task.
An object is displayed and the letters need to spell its name are scattered about. The player must arrange them properly. As you touch a letter, its name is spoken, and when all the letters are in the right place, the name of the object is spoken, which moves the train to the store where you can buy one present. At the store the you'll find items like a robot, car, sheep doll, etc., all at different prices. You "pay" for items with coins collected by completing the aforementioned tasks.
There are six cars in the train, each holding one gift, so the cycle must be repeated six times in order to complete the game. Even in easy mode (the game features three levels of difficulty), the challenges get a bit harder each time through. For example, the floating letters are shown in upper case that you need to match up with the same letter in lower case. In the spelling task, the object is shown, but some letters are missing from the letter block. For example, I found the word ROBOT to be missing the O's. However, a player can be successful through the process of elimination, even when presented with an unfamiliar word. When completed, the word is spoken.
In later stages, no letters are in the text block, and you need to move the letters into the right position with no visual prompts. However, when you move a correct letter near the text block, the letter on the block is faintly highlighted to offer some help.
Another task shows you four objects and asks you to choose the word that starts with a certain letter. If you touch the wrong one, the wrong word is highlighted and spoken, but a graphic shows that the answer is wrong. Get it right, and the word is spoken before the train moves on to the next task, which is showing an object along with three letter blocks; only one block is spelled properly. Choosing the correct spelling keeps the train moving as the name of the object is spoken.
Once you've completed the task/purchase cycle six times, the train finally reaches Lola's animal friends and she hands out the presents. You are all too briefly shown the time it took to complete the game and the money you have left. Showing the time makes sense so that you can beat your previous score, but there doesn't seem to be a reason for showing the amount of money -- it may confuse kids or prompt them to buy the cheapest gifts. I couldn't figure out the point of this design choice.
A few great features of this game are constant prompts, the use of the same screen in different levels for reinforcement, and the simple introduction of objects before difficulty increases. A real boon to parents is that you can turn off the calliope music; the kids might like it, but after an hour of hearing it, some parents might want to tear out their hair. The graphics are colorful and inviting, and the gameplay is smooth and effortless. The interface is very simple, as it should be. Parents will find it repetitious, but the design is solid, and I think kids from two to five will enjoy it, despite the repetition.
KidzBlox ($0.99) from Jetmobile is a universal jigsaw puzzle game for small kids. It's simpler than Lola and priced that way. As play begins, you'll find jigsaw puzzles on a wood block background, with three- or four-set puzzle pieces sitting over shaped holes. To assemble a puzzle, drag the shapes into the proper slots. Animals, fish, food and assorted objects are used. When you drag the right piece to the right hole, the reward is that the word is spoken, along with an appropriate sound effect and animation, and the puzzle piece remains in place. When wrong, pleasant phrases such as "You're good. Try again" are spoken, and you can try as many times as you like. After the pieces are in the right place, tapping one causes the word to be spoken and the animation and sound effect to play.
The screen has tabs on all sides that bring you to more puzzles. There are a total of six puzzles, and the tabs are not really related to any particular puzzles. I was able to do five puzzles using horizontal tabs, and the vertical tab took me to the puzzle that was missing. I don't think that this is at all important; the design choice was one that let kids get to puzzles simply and in different ways. The graphics are simple and perfect. The wood puzzle board has a nice 3D look and the puzzles are done in similar groupings of animals, fish, fruits, vegetables and two that are assorted. It will look very familiar to kids who are used to the block wood puzzles with a handful of shapes to place with little handles -- it has the same look and feel.
There is a lot less play value in KidzBlox, but I think it's still worthwhile for the smallest of us as it teaches both words and spatial relationships. If you don't know what a word is, you can figure it out by looking at the shape that it fits into. It's pleasant, simple and worth the dollar charged. I don't think it will keep older kids (over three perhaps) busy for very long, but I do know that, once again, what might seem too simple and short for adults can be perfect for kids who will play it over and over until the cows come home. Being short reduces the potential frustration level, unlike Lola's Alphabet Train, which can take quite a long time to complete. Then again, Lola is a much more complex game, and it teaches quite a bit more than KidzBlox.
For the smallest of us, I'd recommend KidzBlox first and then, maybe a year later, progress to Lola's Alphabet Train.
Take a look at these two videos to get a feel for the games.