“A fun and interactive ‘edu-tainment’ app that, if it follows up with the learning tools promised, will make an already excellent addition to your preschooler’s education essential.”Free
Welcome to Leo’s Pad, where a young cartoon Leonardo da Vinci plays with other child versions of famous science characters, such as Gally (Galileo Galilei) who has an ambition to visit the stars he loves, and Marie (Curie) who’s very good at mixing chemicals. The significance of the names isn’t dwelled on, nor the anachronistic nature of them going on adventures together, but it’s a nod towards the educational discovery nature of the app.
Leo’s Pad is less like an iPad app and more like an interactive cartoon where your child gets to take part in the action. They are treated as a friend, invited to help with the challenges facing the characters and get to make a difference to the character’s lives. This is interactive gameplay at its best, and a lot of thought has gone into how the app can help your child learn basic cognitive skills such as shape, colour, letter and number identification, drawing and puzzle-solving.
The team behind the app certainly inspires confidence. The ‘Chief Learning Officer’ is Dylan Arena, who has three Stanford degrees in cognitive science, philosophy and statistics and the creative director is Dan Danko, who has written for a lot of children’s TV shows including Rugrats. They are presided over by CEO and founder P.J. Gunsagar, who created Leo’s Pad to try to combine animation and learning. It works.
Interaction is the new learning tool of choice, because it’s been proven to work – it engages children’s attention and having an attentive child is half the battle in education. That’s why you get children’s TV characters addressing their audience through the screen. However, this breaking of the fourth wall rarely works for long – children are too clever to respond to the cartoon character staring blankly from the screen at them once they work out the trick. In the past, we’ve encouraged children to do what the cartoon magician was asking them to do on screen in order to make his magic work, only for them to explain with a withering scorn “You don’t need to; the magic works if you do it or not.”
Bu this is where apps like Leo’s Pad come in. The games and activities that form part of the narrative of the cartoon enforce that interaction – build a telescope, find the hidden dragon, draw a birthday card, design a rocket, find letters in the stars – so the child doesn’t progress until that educational activity is completed (or at least attempted). And it’s enjoyable, with Leo encouraging, cajoling and congratulating your child as they progress. What’s more, this game analyses your child’s progress in the various tasks and tailors them to their abilities the next time they play the game.
There’s a variety of games too, with each task well-thought out, gorgeously styled and fully featured. In fact, the easel on which you can make a birthday card for Gally with different paintbrushes, paints and birthday stickers could stand alone as an app by itself. The delay between scenes is minimal too, unlike other story-book apps that tend to have a much more noticeable lag when they switch between scenarios.
A lot of thought has clearly gone into the storyboarding of the action too, so the games never feel forced or repetitive. And at least once an appisode, the characters break into a catchy song. The underlying message running throughout Leo’s Pad is that you can do anything if you set your mind to it, and there are even parts where the main characters (and your child along with them) fail at a task and then have to start again, to help the understanding that not everything works out right first time. There are also some challenges that have been designed with the help of parents in mind – such as the flying sections – so you can play along together.
As if this wasn’t enough to persuade you to try out Leo’s Pad, there’s some rather impressive extra Parent Dashboard functionality due to be added in March, where parents can get insights into how their offspring are progressing in over 70 dimensions of learning – thus highlighting their weak spots, where they excel, and building a complete picture of how your child is progressing. These updates will include a log-in stage so you can follow the progress of your different children by identifying them at the start of the play session.
So what’s the downside? Well there’s the price… the first appisode is free, and the second is £1.49. After this, there will be at least 25 appisodes costing £2.99 each (so we’re talking £75 in total) and trust us, you’re going to be nagged to buy them; at the end of each appisode the characters cruelly dwell on how much fun they are going to have next time. However, the apps come with no ads and no IAP to distract your child and lighten your wallet even further – this series really is at the top-end of what you can get to help your pre-schooler start out in education.
There’s also the disappointing fact that because the app learns from your children’s actions, you can’t let two children take turns during one play session because it will confuse the app. This could well lead to you having to deal with one glum child watching on until another completes the appisode.
These are small niggles, however; there’s no disguising the quality and attention to detail that’s gone into this app; especially with the first installment being free. The most powerful explanation of how successfully disguised and enjoyable the educational content is should come from Leo’s Pad’s target audience – the wee nippers who helped us with our testing – who, after completing the two appisodes currently available, turned to us and asked, ‘Can we play it again?’