June 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Starter Collection of Apps for the PreSchool Set | Touch and Go

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As a follow up to Lauren Barack’s article in the July issue of School Library Journal, “The Early Bird: How Sesame Workshop Is Adapting Its Revolutionary Educational Content for Devices,” we’ve created a list of our favorite apps for ages two to six. You may recognize some of the titles from our “Top Ten Apps” of 2011 and 2012, but you’ll also discover a few new and enchanting productions as well. These selections, primarily story apps, exhibit a range of animation and interactivity, and will serve as a starter collection for parents looking for quality, sure-to-please titles for their youngsters. Links lead to full reviews, purchase information, and occasionally, a trailer. For additional reviews, be sure to visit SLJ’s Touch and Go: A Guide To the Best Apps and Enhanced Books for Children and Teens.


What sets Pat the Bunny (Random/Smashing Ideas Inc.) apart from the avalanche of apps for young children? Its engaging, age-appropriate interactivity. The app’s inspired, nonlinear take on Dorothy Kunhardt’s beloved classic features verbal prompts and praises, jaunty music, and a variety of activities that complement rather than compete with the original print edition. There are also nifty novelties, such as a mirror that viewers can see themselves in.


For those who think apps are all about interactivity, Emma Loves Pink (by Piret Raud/WingedChariot) is a reminder that for many fans of digital it’s all about the story. Most children have met someone like Emma—someone who wishes “everything could be pink.” On her birthday, the likeable hare receives a gift from her friend Ferdinand. What could be in that round package, wrapped in pink tissue, and tied with a pink bow? This utterly irresistible production is available in three languages.


Screen from Spot the Dot’ (Carter)

David A. Carter’s ingeniously simple game Spot the Dot (Ruckus Mobile Media/Unicorn Labs) embodies the medium’s potential to create entertaining educational materials for all children, including those with special needs. Players are guided as they search for colorful dots, each attempt a bit more difficult than the last. Prompts, encouragements (“Good job!”), and new challenges each time the game is played ensure many repeat visits.


Offering lots of game play and interactivity, Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive This App  (Hyperion/Small Planet Digital) will have viewers participating in the narrative through a feature that allows them to record their voices as they fill in story blanks; to draw a pigeon, assisted by step-by-step instructions by the master himself; and to store said stories and “priceless” works of art. Look for more high-octane fun in Pigeon Presents: Mo…on the Go!.


If you aren’t yet convinced that Moonbot Studios’ creative team, producers of the Academy Award-winning, animated film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (later an app) is pure genius, take a look at The Numberlys, an app inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. In The Numberlysgrey futuristic world, letters don’t exist—until five roly-poly factory workers sporting puffball hairdos hammer, bend, and forge their way through the alphabet with the help of viewers. As the narrator says, at first the laborers’ efforts were “awful. Then at last… artful.” Indeed.


Scene from”Sunday in Kyoto’ (Vigneault) The Secret Mountain

Based on a folk song by Gilles Vigneault, Sunday in Kyoto (Les Productions Folle Avoine/The Secret Mountain) tells the story of an ensemble of musicians (who play koto, guitar, piano, shamisen, bouzouki, banjo, and harp) that was organized by one Cajun Joe. Amusing details, subtle animations, a toe-tapping tune, and a few Zen-like moments (including a bronze Buddha that claps and a discreet mouse that emerges for a bow at a concert’s finale) make this performance absolutely irresistible.


Sesame Street’s The Monster at the End of This Book…Starring Grover! topped the app store charts right out of the gate, and continues to be a favorite among kids and their parents. Featuring the same irresistible brand of humor and engagement, The Great Cookie Thief…A Sesame Street App Starring Cookie Monster (Sesame Workshop/Callaway Digital Arts) asks children to use their observational skills to help solve a mystery in the Wild West. Alternate endings, animations, art opportunities, and laughs abound.

Thomas Wharton’s Hildegard Sings (One Hundred Robots) is an ideal book-to-app. Hildegard, a flamboyant hippo, works as a singing waitress, but dreams of becoming an opera star. When she croons off-key, listeners experience it firsthand. Add to that flashes of melodramatic lightning, orchestra music, amusing interactive features, and a few games, and you have a flat-out funny, immensely entertaining theatrical production that hits all the right notes. Hippo hippo hooray!


Ed Emberly’s Go Away, Big Green Monster!  (Night & Day Studios) has long been a favorite of children looking for a thrill without the fright. In the print version (Little, Brown, 1992), Big Green Monster’s features appear one by one (“two big yellow eyes,” “a long bluish-greenish nose”) as the glossy black die-cut pages are turned. In the app, it’s the same face and vivid colors against a black screen, advanced by a swipe. Animation is minimal but delightful: eyes that dart, a mouth that moves, and a face that reacts to viewers’ touches. Don’t miss the “Sing Along” version by Adrian Carney—it’s a  show-stopper. Go Away? No way. This is a gem.


Both educational and entertaining, Barry Tranter and Emma Tranter’s Franklin Frog and Parker Penguin (both Nosy Crow, “Rounds” series) takes readers and listeners on interactive, animated introductions to the habits and life cycle of familiar creatures. Hibernation is on the mind of Franklin, as the seasons begin to change (and viewers help him find a spot to spend the winter). In Parker, children follow the bird through various stages of his development. In both apps, verbal and visual prompts encourage children to advance the story and life cycle full circle as the offspring of these animals become the focus. Crisp  illustrations, amusing interactivity, and background music and sound effects add to the enjoyment.


With a number of hardcovers and board books tracking her adventures, it’s clear that David Soman and Jacky Davis’s Ladybug Girl (Trilogy Touch) has a fan base. In this story, based on the book of the same title (Dial, 2008), Lulu and her dog, Bingo, venture outdoors to “figure out” their own fun time. The pace, and narration capture the feel lazy summer day as the two meander through a meadow to the sounds of Bingo’s snuffling, birds singing, and a neighborhood ball game in progress, while interactive opportunities are waiting to be discovered.


Beatrix Potter’s stories never grow old; each generation discovers and cherishes them anew. The story of the mischievous rabbit chased by Mr. McGregor is a classic, and its digital version, Pop Out! The Tale of Peter Rabbit (Loud Crow Interactive), is guaranteed to charm children as well. Like many well-designed apps, it will send kids looking for a print edition of the story to hold and to pore over the pictures. Peter Rabbit is just one in a series of Pop Out! Potter stories; The Tale of Benjamin Bunny  and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin are also available; all feature some nifty spring-loaded enhancements, pull tabs, and animation.


Ready for something silly and satisfying? Nosy Crow’s Cinderella: A 3-D Fairy Tale  puts a fresh, modern spin on the classic slipper story. The app features animated scenes and reader-controlled text speed. And if it’s interactivity you’re looking for, this one can’t be beat. The story’s hilarious finale, featuring the ping-pong-playing newlyweds, is bound to make viewers press the “Start Over” button for one more round.  The same developer has recently released the equally enchanting Little Red Riding Hood.


For all those kids fascinated with vessels, vehicles, and aircraft there’s Byron Barton’s Boats, Planes, Trucks,  and Trains (Oceanhouse Media). Navigation and interactivity are simple in each app, but satisfying; youngsters can move a forklift as it loads a ship, advance a parade of heavy machinery, or send an airplane across the sky. Emergent readers will appreciate the ability to to tap an image and read its label as it appears. Sound effects—the rumble of a truck, vroom of a plane, the moo of a cow, and background conversations—enhance the productions. Barton’s bright, bold graphics are faithfully reproduced here.


Sandra Boynton’ s The Going to Bed Book was first published in 1982 and since then its soothing rhyme has lulled many youngsters to sleep. In the story, a ark of cheerful animals proceed through their evening ritual; in the app (Boynton Moo Media/Loud Crow Interactive, Inc.), viewers help them along by hanging up towels, opening drawers, and turning on the hot water to wash up. Tilting the iPad rocks the boat, and tapping screens causes fish to jump, characters to climb stairs, a porthole to close, and text words to be repeated. One listening of Billy J. Kramer’s sonorous, evenly paced narration, may not be enough.


Accessible and playful, Orel Protopopescu’s A Word’s a Bird: Spring Flies by in Rhymes (Syntonie), introduces children to some seasonal delights of the natural world through lyrical language and watercolors by Jeanne B. de Sainte Marie. Viewers will catch a glimpse of ducks swimming on pond, bees a-buzzing, an inchworm creeping along a branch, and a cardinal hopping from screen to screen as the verse for each spring month is listened to or read. Surprises await those who explore these delightful, verdant scenes.


Like many educational apps, How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills (Random House Digital), based on the book by the same title (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2010), includes activities for pre- and emergent readers. The difference? These activities and message in this delightful story are one and the same. There are game-like lessons on the “wondrous, mighty, gorgeous” alphabet (that vary each time the app is viewed) and a few three-letter sight words to learn as Rocket, our reluctant canine reader, comes to realize that stories can be “as delicious as the earthy smells of fall.”


Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.



  1. I clicked on a couple of these that looked interesting, but they all appear to be iOS apps. I’d love to see android app recommendations, available either through Google Play or the Nook Store, for this same age group. We’ve been enjoying Pigeon Presents: Mo on the Go and some of the games from iLearnWith studios, but I’d love to hear what others are enjoying!

    • Anita Montoya says:

      Just for anyone who wants to know: a few of these are in the Nook Store: Pat the Bunny, Pop Out! Peter Rabbit, Go Away, Big Green Monster, and the Going to Bed Book. I did not check the Google Play Store, but I’d imagine at least a few are available there as well. The embedded links in the article are for iOS, however.