Charming New App Exposes the Inner Workings of Earth
To a five year old, dirt is dirt. It’s something to be played with (and, on occasion, eaten). It’s not, to their knowledge, part of a larger complex geological system that comprises our planet. If you tell them this, it might blow their young minds. If you show them this, it might make perfect sense.
This is the whole idea behind Tinybop, a Brooklyn startup that makes science-focused educational apps. The company just released its latest, called The Earth ($3 for iOS), and like its name suggests, this one is all about the inner workings of our planet—think tectonic shifts, erupting volcanoes, and glaciers. It’s part of the company’s Explorer’s Library series, which previously took kids inside the human body and the biomes of a desert and deciduous forest.
Teaching kids about geology can be challenging. That Tinybop managed to make compelling game about inanimate matter without relying on a charismatic cartoon animal to chaperone kids through the game is an accomplishment in itself. What game designers did instead was turn Earth itself into a character. Dirt had to somehow become engaging, glaciers needed to tell a story. “We had to turn mountains into toys, basically,” says Gutierrez.
The app is filled with stunning illustrations from artist Sarah Jacoby, many of which react dynamically to touch. Tinybop’s apps encourage interactivity by incorporating physics-based animations and sounds, which means instead of a sand dune simply replaying the same motion every time a kid touches it, its behavior will change depending on how they touch it. One of the more popular scenes in the app is a volcano that erupts when you push lava up its base. Depending on how quickly you push the lava, the volcano will erupt with various levels of intensity. “That’s like 100-times more interesting than playing a video,” says Gutierrez.
Gutierrez goes out of his way to build unexpected experiences into his apps. These are key to keeping kids engaged. Earth doesn’t so much guide players through Earth’s various components as it does present them with the opportunity to explore. Almost every scene lets kids tap on a little circle that allows them to teleport deeper into any one subject area. If it’s earthquakes that interest you, then a tap will take you into a scene where you can change the tectonic shift the earth experiences.
It might sound trite, but Tinybop really does abide by the show-don’t-tell philosophy of teaching. There are no pop-ups that explain what kids are looking at (parents, however, do get a manual that walks them through geological concepts). It’s about learning through exploration, not didacticism. “Our goal isn’t necessarily to teach the kids the answer,” says Gutierrez, ” but to prompt questions.”
Gutierrez himself recently experienced such a moment. Just back from a trip to Hawaii with his wife and two children, his 8-year-old was exploring the scene in Earth where magma bubbles up from an underwater volcano to create an island. Gutierrez was explaining to him that the very islands they were on were the result of this process. His kid was shocked. “It wasn’t until his finger actually made that volcano erupt that he connected all the dots,” Gutierrez says. “As a parent, that’s kind of what you live for with this stuff.”