Apps for #EarthDay | Touch and Go

A selection of apps highlighting plants, animals, and ecosystems to share with your students as Earth Day approaches.
Below you'll find a selection of apps highlighting plants, animals, and ecosystems to share with your students as Earth Day approaches. Enjoy. The beautiful Bloom (Megalearn, iOS, $4.99, PreS-Gr 4) wordlessly explains the life cycle of three distinct plants. With no preamble, users are presented with three options: a woodsy setting for a raspberry plant, a tropical island for a coconut tree, and a humble dandelion in a verdant field. Each scene is gently depicted in soft colors and textured brush strokes and accompanied by soothing music and nature sounds. With no instructions or rules, the app encourages a meditative exploration and leisurely conversation about the unique roles of the elements and environment in each plant’s growth. There is also a gamification element for those who are motivated to test their new knowledge: once users have taken each plant through its life cycle, they are presented with a brief multiple-choice quiz that they can complete based on what they’ve observed. Though this app presents an inviting and informative experience, consumers are likely to feel it’s a bit light on content for the price point. Once the users have explored each of the three plant cycles, they are effectively done with the app, with little incentive for repeat visits. VERDICT Though limited in content, this is a lovely STEM app for young learners that encourages discussion and exploration, and is a solid choice for a lesson on plant biology.—Allison Tran, Mission Viejo Library, CA There’s nothing quite like the experience of being beneath the surface of the ocean, looking up to see the rays of the sun penetrating down from above, feeling the undulations of the underwater swells, quietly observing the sea life, and listening in awe to the muted sounds around you. Coral Reef (iOS, $2.99, Tinybop, Inc.; K-Gr 4) does a great job of capturing this essence. The app’s strength is in the way it introduces children to the biodiversity and interconnectedness of an underwater ecosystem by allowing them to make choices, to set things in motion, and to watch, wait, and see what happens as the cycle of life unfolds. The main menu is a colorfully illustrated underwater scene with the sun visible just above the rippling surface of the water, its rays illuminating seven underwater plant and animal species arranged around a cluster of large, coral-covered rocks. Choosing any one of the seven species reveals a different scene to explore. When, for example, the blacktip reef shark is selected, a new scene appears showing a shark swimming over the sandy ocean floor. Icons of a sea anemone, a rock, a clownfish, and a big blue octopus, representing the interactive options, can be tapped any number of times to be added to the scene. By selecting icons and waiting and watching, many activities will be detected. When a clownfish or an octopus is added, viewers observe the predatory nature of sharks. To protect themselves, the clownfish tend to nest in the sea anemones, which have tentacles that are poisonous to sharks. The octopuses can camouflage themselves against the rocks to make themselves invisible. When many octopuses are added more sharks will appear, a feeding frenzy will ensue, and red blood will cloud the water. The realities of the food chain beneath the ocean surface can be darkly dramatic! Other interactive scenes introduce children to concepts implied but not explicitly stated, such as photosynthesis (crank up the sun to allow sea grass to grow), symbiosis (help yellow tang fish eat the algae off the shell of a green sea turtle), and decomposition (feed zooplankton to a box jellyfish, then watch as it poops, bacteria arrive and the poop decomposes). Audio effects, which are used selectively to portray sounds like the burbling of water, the bubbling of air, the scraping of parrotfish, and the clicking of a peacock mantis shrimp, add greatly to the overall experience of Coral Reef, as do the gentle animations and whimsical illustrations. The sound effects can be switched on or off and users have the option of displaying labels in 28(!) languages for any of the objects or creatures depicted. An added benefit is a free, extensive guide for parents in English, which is downloadable either from within the app or from the Tinybop website. A trailer is available. VERDICT A fun and playful way to introduce children to the wonders of life beneath the sea.—Kathleen S. Wilson, New York University, NY,

Screen from iBiome-Wetlands (Springbay Studio)

A smiling Professor Bio guides students through iBiome-Wetland (Springbay Studio, Ltd. iOS $3.99; Gr 4-7), an app designed to teach biodiversity through a series of gamelike activities featuring a fresh water marsh, a salt water marsh, and a mangrove swamp. In his introduction, the professor notes that wetlands are “a very important part of the ecosystem,” and “act as a natural barrier to hurricanes.” Draining them to build towns and dams can be devastating to the environment when a hurricane does occur. While that damage can't be “undone,” the professor asks viewers to help “restore the wetland to its natural state” and challenges viewers to build four biodomes (there are two mangrove swamps) to experiment and “discover how so many amazing species live together.” When a biodome is opened, players see a card with a photograph accompanied by text explaining how the plant or animal depicted affects the food chain or biodiversity within the habitat. For example, in the salt water marsh, sea oats, crayfish, green herons, and muskrats are among the 10 plants and animals introduced. Viewers learn “muskrats are a typical omnivore, consuming both plants and animals,” “green herons love to feed on fish and invertebrates,” and so on. To understand the role the plant or creature plays in that habitat the viewer must conduct some “research” (triggered by shaking the iPad). The various plants, animals, and environmental factors (mud, sun, etc.) appear as floating icons that must be matched to their corresponding categories: environment, prey, producer, predator, or decomposer. Missteps are responded to with reminders about what eats what. When a task is completed and the sound is switched on (recommended), a brief interlude of cheery music is heard. Watery and animal sounds enhance both the atmosphere and the adventure. At the beginner level, players must match four items with an equal number of categories in the globe-like environments where blues and greens predominate, but as they advance through each biodome more living things than categories appear on the screen and choices must be made about which plants and animals best suit the available slots. Despite the challenge this presents, the play can get repetitive. Once prey, predator, and producers are matched correctly, arrows appear that show how these forms of life relate in that particular web. When players complete a biodome, it springs to life with plants, fish, birds, trees, and insects; a final screen offers a photograph and additional information (in very small print) about the environment. A “Parent’s Corner” asks them to rate or share the app. Given the number of levels in each biome, the app will keep students involved for some time; badges earned and a timer may offer incentive to complete all the tasks. (A journal allows them to show how far they have advanced.) The app is available in 16 languages. VERDICT While the app is activity-based, there is a fair amount of text and teachers may prefer to use the app with young students on an interactive white board. A supplemental purchase.—Elizabeth Kahn, Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Academy, Avondale, LA Exploring plants becomes an integrated sensory experience with NAMOO–Wonders of Plant Life (Crayon Box, Inc., iOS, $3.99, Android, $3.99; Gr 4-6). Viewers will learn about tree trunks and stems, plant cells, roots, root tips, leaf anatomy, photosynthesis, and flowers and fruits in the app’s interactive environment. Each thorough description of the plant life cycle is introduced with relevant quotes from writers and poets including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Henry David Thoreau, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The interactive approach allows users to grow tree trunk rings, pollinate a flower, or water a tree root, among other options. Environmental conditions can also be manipulated to see what happens to a plant during ideal and less-than-ideal conditions. Close-up, animated diagrams in bright colors highlight plant parts and functions—visible and invisible to the human eye, while tapping on an icon adds clear, pop-up labels to the image on the screen.  A recent update allows the incorporation of virtual headsets when looking at the interior of the plant cell. Returning to the homepage is the only way to navigate to other screens; some users may find this clunky when exploring the leaf chapters.  No options exist for switching off the music other than turning down the device volume, but most users will find the music both soothing and atmospheric. A trailer is available as are free, lite versions. VERDICT This app will enhance viewers’ understanding of the complexities of plant life.—Erin Silva, Youth & Teen Services Librarian, North Liberty Community Library, IA From its opening screen, Ocean Forests (Bright Worlds eBooks, iOS, Free; Android, Free; K-Gr 3) encourages kids to “dive” into its 3-D kelp forest where an aquatic adventure awaits. The app’s dashboard offers access to three modes: “Reading,” “Exploring,” and “Gaming.” “Storybook” in “Reading” delivers information about the environment (the kelp forest, holdfasts, fronds, and the ocean’s canopy) and its denizens. In the narrated version, words are highlighted as they are read, and word pronunciation and an audiovisual dictionary are available. Each life-form described by the narrator is seen in an inset with 3-D interactive rotations—a great option for visual and ELL learners. Users who prefer to read at their own pace can opt for the “Read By Myself" mode, where arrows allow them to advance, or to return to a previous screen. Tapping a word generates a voicing, enforcing the app’s rich vocabulary experience. The “Record My Voice” mode will aid students who want to enhance their fluency and read-aloud skills. When they venture into “Exploring,” viewers will find themselves in a 3D animated watery forest, where creatures, such as leopard sharks, harbor seals, green sea turtles, and bat rays swim among the fronds. A tap to any animal triggers narrated information about it. The animation is amazing: viewers will feel as if they swimming underwater in a luscious, green forest. The zoom feature allows for close-up and/or panoramic views, while the sound effects evoke the mysterious nature of this ocean world. A helpful flashlight icon button highlights the clickable sound options. “Gaming” includes two activities that reinforce the information users have gleaned. One, “Retrieve Our Subs!” presents 10 multiple-choice questions, text instructions included (that may have to be read to the youngest users). In “Mind Match” a memory game, viewers pair words with images. Both activities become more challenging as children advance to the next level. Bright World eBooks provides free classroom materials to accompany the app on the Teachers Pay Teachers website, including a teacher’s guide, story starters, award certificates, and a Bingo game. Ocean Forests is a great supplementary resource for primary classrooms studying marine biology. Consider sharing it before a trip to the beach, a marine wildlife park, or an aquarium. It should be noted that Bright World eBooks markets its other products in the app—behind locks.—Krista Welz, North Bergen High School Media Center, NJ What makes Tinybop’s informational apps so fascinating? It’s not the technology—though the developer’s “algorithmic animations [that] yield new surprises in every play” keep things interesting. Rather, it’s a combination of sophisticated design, detailed images, and discoveries waiting to be made (along with a willingness to let viewers make them at their own pace) that make their apps special. Plants (iOS, $2.99; K-Gr 5) explores three biomes: deciduous forest, temperate grassland, and arid desert (tundra to be added soon and others in the works). For each, a landscape, illustrated by Marie Caudry is presented. There is no text per se, just labels (available in 50-plus languages) that can be switched on or off. Once a viewer enters a particular biome, time begins to pass; day turns to night, night to day, and so on, until slowly the seasons change. All the while, animals enter and move about the scene and eventually exit. Clouds drift by—a tap to one may create rain and depending on the biome and time of the year, colliding clouds can produce lightning and, possibly, spark a fire. There are also seeds to plant and an opportunity to watch them grow as the seasons change. While this is app that rewards patience, viewers can speed up nature’s clock by adjusting an icon in one corner of the screen. A sliding bar superimposes a view of what’s happening underground, exposing tree roots, layers of soil and rock, and animal burrows and their denizens. Flora and fauna can appear quite small on the screen, but zoom capabilities allow for a closer look. Hotspots and a visual index offer access to large labeled drawings of select plants. These, too, are animated. (A buzzing bee hovers by a bloodroot plant, an aloe bush’s leaves snap at a touch.) Throughout, realistic animal and weather sound effects can be heard: a cardinal calls, a brook burbles, and grasses whisper in the wind. A recording tool is available to add narration, commentary, or questions. On opening the app, two viewers have an opportunity to sign in and create a quick profile (name and age, adults have access to more information). Online there’s a detailed downloadable handbook available in eight languages for teachers and parents, filled with “interaction hints and insider intelligence,” including an overview and additional facts on the biomes, suggestions of things to look for in the images, and questions to consider. VERDICT In its exploration of the interconnections of plants, animals, and landscape over time, Plants will be a great adjunct to classroom studies and a delight to the curious.—Daryl Grabarek, School Library Journal

Interior screen Toca Nature (Toca Boca A B) © Löfgren & Svenningsson

Toca Nature (Toca Boca A B, iOS $2.99; K-Gr 2) delivers a hip, pretty opportunity to create and enjoy a curated natural environment. Landforms can be created and trees planted on a blank canvas with the swift swipe of a finger. Changing the perspective only requires a tap to an icon. Berries and other treats can be collected and then given to the animals that appear as viewers zoom in close and travel through the ecosystem. A camera icon allows users to take pictures of the wildlife at close range. The focus here is on exploratory play; and there is plenty of it. There are no explicit instructions—and most wonderfully—no in-app purchases, ads, or distractions. While beautifully designed, this digital version of nature is a far cry from representing the real thing. In this perfectly pixelated world, predators only eat fish and berries and rabbits bounce merrily by viewers’ sides. Wildlife is friendly, slow, and will only multiply if viewers plant more trees. The limited geographic options may cause some young explorers to lose interest quickly. Habitats cannot be saved and may disappear when the app is not in use. Eco-conscious folks will cringe at the ax icon, which allows users to destroy their creation with one flick of the wrist. As the trees disappear, the animals flee until there are none left. A note for parents explains settings, the various tools used to sculpt this world, and offers a few discussion points. Toca Nature is stunning to look at, but its limited ecological diversity and informational value are problematic. A beautiful, sad reminder of how nature is taken for granted. A trailer is available.—Caroline Molnar, Worthington City Schools, OH

For additional app reviews, visit School Library Journal's dedicated app webpage.

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