Plants by Tinybop – a review / by James Kelleher


With their impressive first app The Human Body, Brooklyn app studio Tinybop proved, free of the dead weight of a print textbook legacy, that they could take on the might of the fusty old education publishers and comprehensively destroy them in the App Store. According to Tinybop themselves, it’s notched up a dizzying 4.9m downloads to date. As an ethical company that concentrates on quality and refuses to talk down to kids, this is the sort of success that parents, educators and developers should be celebrating. Earlier this week they released Plants, the second in their Explorer’s Library series, and happily it’s up to the same high standard. 

The app presents you with an interactive diorama with two biomes, forest and desert, to explore (two more, tundra and temperate grasslands, will be added in a future free of charge update). It’s great fun to muck around in – dragging animals around, making it rain, planting acorns and, to my eternal conflicted shame/pleasure, causing wildfires. Although I did learn that fires are much less destructive in a grasslands context, so do make sure to concentrate the bulk of your virtual arson there. As frequently happens with well designed educational apps, any learning that happens sneaks up on you when you’re busy having fun. You can pull a scrubber across the scene to reveal an underground cross-section of roots, soil, rocks and animal warrens, and activate a time controller to fast-forward through the day/night cycle and move through the seasons. Naming labels can be toggled on and off, or scattered if you’d like an identification challenge. Here and there you can select specific plants to see details of their life cycle, which is great but these are few and far between and, for now at least, that side of things seems a little undercooked.

The illustrations by Marie Caudry are crisp, appealing and beautifully coloured – as you’d expect they’re at their best viewed on a larger iPad screen. The sound design is admirably restrained. Most of what you’ll hear is like a good field recording: birdsong, crickets, the rustle of animals in the undergrowth and a little bit of wind and rain, all of which adds up to a pretty soothing experience. Tinybop also deserve credit for their muted typographic sensibility, a rarity in the generally hideous eyejumble of fonts that litter children’s apps.

Plants’ parental dashboard is best in class, allowing kids to record questions (or, should they so decide, fart noises) which parents can access and answer later on. 

As I did with The Human Body, I find myself wondering if Tinybop’s ultra-minimal UI is sometimes a little too clever and unobtrusive for its own good. Even if you’re used to prodding and poking away to find out how things work, there are quite a few actions that you’re unlikely to discover unless you dive into the well-produced companion handbook, available here. A few simple prompts for first-time users would go a long way towards ensuring people know what they can do with the app.

Quibbles like this are somewhat beside the point, though. Once you get a handle on what you’re doing, this is a gorgeous little sandbox app, packed with detail and surprises. Plants looks like nothing else in the App Store, and it’s a brilliant way for kids to explore the foundations of ecosystems, biomes and season change. Download it on the App Store here.