Unlike many parents, I have no problem with my 2-year-old daughter, Ana, playing games. Obviously, we keep close tabs on how much time she spends in front of a screen and balance that with play that doesn’t involve screens. And when it comes to the time she does spend in front of screens, I’d much rather she did something more interactive than watching a TV show. Since my husband and I both love games, it’s only natural that we share our passion with our daughter.
I’ve already written about how she and I play Zoo Tycoon together, but the iPad has become a better gaming platform for her to use on her own as she’s still mastering her fine motor skills. Any parent who has looked at the Apple App Store knows there are tons, and I mean TONS, of apps for kids. Wading through all of those options is a daunting task, especially if you’re a busy parent. It’s easy to just pick the apps that are educational, but if your son or daughter doesn’t like playing them, then what good are they actually doing? That’s where this column comes in. A couple of times a month, I’ll write about one or two apps I’ve found that my daughter really enjoys. I always try to steer her in the direction of apps that have some educational value, but I may write about some that are just simply fun. This time I’ll be talking about Endless Alphabet and Endless Reader made by Originator.
I first heard about Endless Alphabet the way most moms hear about anything—word of mouth. A couple of years ago, some members of my mom’s group had toddlers who enjoyed playing it. At that time Ana was a bit too young to play on the iPad, but I made a mental note and it ended up being the first app I downloaded for her.
Rex Ishibashi, the CEO of Originator, says the idea for Endless Alphabet came from “a desire to make a delightful, fun app that provides real educational value, focusing on stretch words that kids wouldn’t learn in school at their age but would add to their vocabulary, and which could engage them for 2 minutes or 20 minutes as desired or needed by a parent.”
The gameplay in Endless Alphabet is pretty simple. A word is displayed on the screen, and a narrator pronounces it. Then a bunch of little monsters run by the word, scattering the letters all over the screen. Kids must drag and drop the letters into the appropriate place in the word, which is still visible in a light-gray color. When a child begins to tap and drag a letter, that letter transforms into a little monster, with eyes, a mouth, or in some cases a tongue and teeth. The game also makes the sound the letter actually makes. Once all of the letters have been moved into the correct place, the entire word is spoken again and all of the letters dance. Then a short movie plays that illustrates the meaning of the word. For example, the word “musician” shows of bunch of monsters playing in a band. After the movie, the narrator speaks the meaning of the word as well.
The thing I like about this app is that all the animations and even the sounds the letter “monsters” make are really pretty cute, and in some cases they’re funny in ways only an adult would notice. I found it hilarious that the movie for the word “journey” has some piano music that’s obviously a riff off the beginning of “Don’t Stop Believing.” But I’m not the only one entertained. Ana laughs or smiles at most of the movies and even talks about them later on when she’s not playing the game. Just recently when I said her hands were sticky after eating oranges, she said “Like Little Blue was stuck to the letters.” During the animation for “Sticky” one of the monsters is stuck on top of the letters. I’ve also noticed her comprehension of some of these bigger words is much better than before she started. Endless Alphabet also avoids the pitfall of irritating repetition that can result from a child tapping the same thing over and over. That helps keep me sane while Ana is playing.
Since Ana and I both enjoyed Endless Alphabet so much, I immediately downloaded Endless Reader when I saw it. Reader builds upon the same foundation as Alphabet, but this time the focus is on sight words—smaller words children are encouraged to learn as a whole rather than using phonics to sound them out. Rather than offering one big set of words, Reader breaks down its words into three levels. Level 1 is designed for Pre-K and Kindergarten; Level 2 is for Kindergarten through 2nd grade; and Level 3 is for 2nd and 3rd grades. The gameplay remains the same as in Alphabet. You still drag and drop letters to make words, but the letters are now lowercase (they’re all uppercase in Alphabet) and the completed word changes in some way to reflect the meaning. “Water” turns blue with wave patterns on the letters, and the word ripples in its animation, for example. After the word is complete, one of the monsters grabs it and the screen expands to show a sentence containing the word. Once again the monsters run by, but this time they scatter the other sight words in the sentence, rather than individual letters. As in Alphabet, you drag and drop the words into the correct place in the sentence. As you’re dragging and dropping, the words are pronounced in the same amusing way that the letters are. Once the sentence is complete the words do their animations, then a short movie plays that animates the sentence. Once that is done, the narrator reads the sentence.
Endless Reader is a great app, but I do have a couple of small issues with it. Unlike in Alphabet, all of the monsters in Endless Reader have names and distinct personalities. I think this is a way to start training kids to recognize the brand and instill loyalty at an early age. Granted it’s no different than what TV shows do, but it was a change from Alphabet that took me by surprise. My other issue is that I wish the words in the sentence would highlight in some way while the narrator speaks them to reinforce getting kids to pair up the sound of the word with what it looks like on the screen.
Honestly, these are small quibbles in what I otherwise consider to be a great app. And just as with Alphabet, there are little touches thrown in to keep adults amused as well as kids. The word “can” is sung to the tune of “The Infernal Galop” by Jacques Offenbach, which is the music most associated with the cancan dance. Since I laughed out loud at this the first time I heard it, Ana now looks at me and expects a smile whenever she drags the word.
Endless Alphabet costs up to $6.99 (depending on platform) and includes just over 70 words. It’s a straight-up purchase and there’s nothing else you need to buy. Endless Reader, on the other hand, can be downloaded for free with a few Level 1 words, but you’ll need to buy additional “Reader Packs” to get more words. Packs cost up to $4.99 for about 30 additional words, or $11.99 (again depending on platform) to complete the level of words, which is about 120 words. As noted before, there are three levels, so you’re looking at a total cost over $35 to get all of the words. That may sound like a lot, but when you compare it with electronic toys that might teach the same things, it’s really not that bad.
More Endless Apps
Alphabet and Reader have become just the first in a series of apps all using the same themes and characters. Endless Numbers and Endless Wordplay are also available, though we haven’t gotten the chance to try those yet. And Ishibashi promises more Endless apps are on the way, with the next scheduled for release this summer. Overall, I really like these apps and, more importantly, Ana likes them too.