I recently spent more time, in a busy holiday season, than I care to admit playing with an app called Toca Nature. Toca Nature is one of 29 apps designed by TocaBoca, one of my favorite app makers. I think I grabbed it when it was free for 24 hours earlier this month and the cute fox icon was calling my name on Sunday morning when I should have been doing almost anything else. After just a few minutes, I was hooked.
Open the app and you find an almost blank canvas. There is a square landscape and some trees to get you started. Like all of TocaBoca‘s apps, the graphics are great. They have just the right mix of realism and fantasy, if that makes any sense. With some simple controls, you can add trees of 5 varieties or add mountains or water. Or, if you’re that kind of person, use the hatchet to chop things down. With the trees come some animals. The animals need to eat, so you collect food too. Use a magnifier to zoom in and see the animals up close. If it sounds lovely, it is. If it sounds lame, just try it. I think you’ll get hooked.
I like a lot of things about this app. First, it gives kids – even very small kids – an inkling about ecosystems. If you chop down all the trees, the animals disappear. If there are no fish for the foxes to eat, they start to look pretty sad. It isn’t grim; there isn’t death and destruction. But as my son chopped down trees and the animals vanished, we all understood what was happening. Second, it offers a chance for discovery learning in a way that can’t really be replicated by children in the world. While TocaBoca makes the point that this app isn’t a substitute for actual nature, it is also really cool that you can make these big changes – create a forest, grow mountain range – and see what happens. Also, there are five animals that come with the 5 types of trees, but others are also possible and you have to figure out how to bring them around. Part of what had me hooked was trying to figure out how to “make” a wolf. Third, the animals adapt. Put a fox or a bear in the snowy mountains and see what happens. It’s awesome. Finally, the simplicity of the controls and the groovy graphics really draw the player in and make it an engaging experience.
I like a lot of things about TocaBoca too. I like that they make the point that their apps are designed for open-ended fun that isn’t competitive or designed for a specific gender or includes in-app purchases. I like that they post information about the importance of learning through play, that they take the position that digital toys and physical toys can be played in concert with one another, that balance is important. And I like that they are designing interesting apps that respect kids and offer them, in many cases, an experience that would be difficult to have in everyday life. Until Nature, my favorite TocaBoca app was TocaBuilders, a very cool maker-style app that I have called Minecraft without zombies, but the next one I want to try is TocaBlocks. It looks awesome too.
If you just bought an iPad for your family or your child, check out the suite of apps by TocaBoca and put Toca Nature on the top of your list.