When I was growing up, there were a whole gamut of shows dedicated to making me a more educated child. Between Sesame Street, The Electric Company and Reading Rainbow, I had it all.
Today, as the father of a toddler, I want my son to have similar experiences. As it turns out, now there’s a Reading Rainbow iPad app, full of all sorts of games and activities designed to stimulate the mind of a young reader. But does it stand up to the TV show’s legacy? Let’s find out.
The Nuts and Bolts
Let’s come out with the stuff you probably don’t want to hear right off the bat: this is a subscription app. To start, you can pick out a book, read it and move on your way, but other than a few highlights and sneak previews, this is all you get. Otherwise, you have to subscribe to get recurring content.
That said, it seems like a very good situation for a parent of a young reader. For $9.99 a month, you get unlimited books to read whenever you want. But for $29.99, you get a six-month subscription, which saves more money overall and gives you the same benefits. Again, you have to be a parent to want to do this, and obviously trust your youngster with your iPad.
When you first open up the app, you can customize the experience for your child. You pick out the sex, age and a few other things, then you can even include a picture of your offspring right there in the app.
From that point forward, content seems to be tailored to the child. In my experience flipping through the sections, I saw lots of books labelled, “Just for You,” implying that they were picked out of a larger bunch specifically because of my selections.
The app is divided up into sections, with little islands floating in the sky among various hot air balloons. These sections all designate various types of books that you may want to read. For example, there’s an Animal Kingdom section, which has books about animals. It’s all pretty self explanatory.
You get one free book to read in the app (assuming you don’t get a subscription), and once you make a selection you can have the app read it to you, or read it by yourself. If you pick the former, the app reads aloud while highlighting the text in boxes so the child can follow along. The book doesn’t dictate the speed either, it allows the child to tap forward or back at their own pace.
Hit the Road
In the bottom right corner of the main screen is a colorful backpack. This is where your child keeps whatever books they’ve “rented” from the virtual library. There are spaces for five books in there, and you even have to return the books when they’re completed. It’s very much like it would be in real life.
Another nice thing about the app is the addition of Video Field Trips. These are short clips that feature LeVar Burton talking about a particular feature native to the app. One sample has LeVar talking about a trip to the zoo, and teasing future content — available only to subscribers, of course.
The production value in these videos is just as high as in the traditional TV show, and nothing looks amateurish at all. You can tell that the team put a lot of effort into this app, and it’s probably why the subscription fee is so steep.
The Other Stuff
There are other things to do other than read books, although that’s obviously the main attraction. For example, children earn stickers for every book they read, and those can be put onto a Sticker Island that they build on their own. There’s also a reading history, including time — an interesting statistic to measure, as you can check in and see how fast or slow your child is reading.
The overall look and feel of the app seems a bit … odd. I’m sure it’s designed to appeal to children, but even then it seems a bit more cheesy than cool. Does it matter? I’m not sure if it does, but the most important thing is that your child uses it to read more.
My son is too young to benefit from this particular app at the moment, and that’s mostly because I’d be concerned that he would chuck the iPad across the room. But I will say that there’s a lot of stuff here, that I’m sure my son could benefit from once he gets a touch older.
Yes, it costs money to use, and sure, the UI is a bit unimpressive. But does that matter if it gets your kid to pick up a book? For my money, no. And once my son gets a bit older, I’ll put my money where my mouth is.