Update (11/23/2012): Apparently this app has been taken off the iTunes store due to copyright issues.
What It Is: An interactive app version of the story of the same name by Watty Piper. This review is specifically of the app sold by XIMAD (there are several other version available on iTunes). Also, for Windows phone users, there apparently is a Windows version.
Price: Free for the lite version; $.99 for the full version (which I would strongly recommend over the lite version–see the “cons” section for details)
How It Works: The app takes the reader through the familiar ten-page story of the little engine who could not pull his train over a big hill by himself, so he asks for help of other engines. Several bigger engines refuse for various reasons (“I’m too tired”), but another small engine agrees and together they are able to pull all the cars over the big hill while reciting the famous mantra “I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can.” The app has background music and several interactive features on each page. For example, the user can make the trains “choo-choo,” tilt the iPad to make the birds move, and help push the train up the hill or pull it out from under a tunnel.
Therapy Applications: If you’ve read some of my other interactive story reviews, you know that I think almost any objective can be addressed using books. (You’ll also know that I’m pretty critical of many “interactive” story apps, so take what I say with a grain of sugar.) There are obvious ways to focus on articulation/phonology, wh-questions, vocabulary, literacy, etc. But one of my favorite objectives to address with this app, which isn’t always possible with other stories, is the pragmatic language skills of reading facial expressions and body language. The app developers did a decent job of illustrating a wide variety of exaggerated facial expressions on the little engine, so it is easy to discuss what each face signals (frustration, sadness, worry, hope, disappointment, happiness, determination, etc.). Other favorite objectives for this app are inferencing and prediction. It is easy to ponder why each of the engines said no, how that could make the little engine feel, or what could happen if the train cannot get over the hill.
Pros: 1. Price! The lite version is free and is a good way for the therapist to decide if the full app (which is still only $.99) is worth the purchase. (See the “cons” section for why I would suggest downloading the full version if you are going to use it in therapy.)
2. The theme of the story supports valuable lessons with nothing questionable within the story itself (unlike, say, The Princess and the Pea!).
3. The animations are fun, colorful, and expressive (which is especially great for the pragmatic objectives mentioned above).
4. The menu button allows for easy jumping between pages or to the beginning/end of the story.
5. The interactive features are fun, especially since you get to help the story along with some of them (such as pulling the train over the hill). It’s no Ben the Tractor, but it’s satisfactory in this area.
6. There is a bell on the top right corner of each page so the loud sound effects and music can be muted during discussion as necessary but can then be turned on again without having to enter a settings menu.
Cons: 1. In my experience with the lite version, the ads were placed in a frustrating spot where the child almost always accidentally hit them. According to a couple complaints on the app store, some users have had their children hit on inappropriate adult advertisements while playing with this app, which is TOTALLY unacceptable for a children’s app. This is why I STRONGLY suggest buying the full $.99 version if you are going to use the app in therapy. (I do not even want to think about the scenarios that could occur otherwise.) The full version’s illustrations and interactive options are also better, which is to be expected.
2. The arrows for changing the pages are a bit confusing. First, unlike almost all other story apps, it isn’t possible to swipe the page to turn the story. Second, children associate green with go, but the green arrow is the one that directs you to the previous page and the red arrow is the one that moves you forward. It’s just mildly obnoxious.
3. There is no option to have the story read to you. While I don’t use this feature in therapy anyway, it seems odd to me that a children’s story book with a main feature of “keeping your child entertained whenever you are busy” would not have this option.
4. There aren’t any settings options at all other than the ability to mute the sound on each page. For example, it is not possible to turn off the music but keep the sound effects.
5. The music is confusing. It is sad and slow during the happy, exciting part at the end.
6. There is something confusing going on with the sellers and the app on iTunes. The same exact app is shown in some places as a $4.99 app sold by Semyon Milbert (but still with a copyright by XIMAD) while other places show it is sold by XIMAD for $.99. When I click on either of these, it shows I have downloaded them; however, I only purchased a $.99 app. Not sure what the deal is with this.
The Take-Away: In short, download the lite version for yourself and see if you can get past a couple of the little quirks like the lack of settings. Then make sure to purchase the $.99 version before actually using it in therapy. I’ve been able to get around any minor frustrations I have with it while using the full version, and my preschool clients love it.
My Questions for You: If you use the app, are you able to enjoy it despite its flaws? What objectives do you address using it? If you don’t use it, would you download it after this review or not bother?