Toca Boca: Digital playground for kids (review)

Thanksgiving is always an overwhelming holiday. The day starts off by making the trek from San Diego to Los Angeles where my parents live. Your patience is really tested when your supposed two-hour car ride turns into five. After being mentally abused by LA traffic and careless drivers, I faced another daunting task; how to deal with all the little kids running around in my house.

At the age of 24, I am in this gray area where I categorize myself as a semi-functional adult. My extended family consists of two age groups: toddlers and parents. You can imagine my joy when I have to choose between an interrogation from the parents or chaos from the toddlers every single year. This Thanksgiving, I did not have the mental fortitude to answer the barrage of questions about my future from my extended family. This decision left me with the responsibility of handling the mass chaos that is toddlers. Luckily for me, I have a secret weapon in my arsenal, Toca Boca.

Overview

Toca Boca is a digital playground that is geared for kids around the ages of three to eight years old. Toca Boca has a series of apps, 38 in total, that create a wide array of ways to play in this digital environment. The common focus of every app is centered on playing rather than trying to complete some objective. The apps are available on both iOS and Google Play store and range from being free to $2.99. There are bundles geared towards a certain theme such as the Toca Engineering Box, which costs $11.99.

Below are three of the games that I bought to highlight what you can expect from Toca Boca.

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Gameplay

Toca Lab

Price: $2.99 on iOS and Google Play store

As a scientist at a biotech company, the first game that drew my attention was Toca Lab.

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The game allows you to play with all the elements from the periodic table. Toca Lab starts you off with phosphorus (P) but with various lab techniques you can discover new elements. The lab techniques range from heating your element on a bunsen burner to spinning your element in a centrifuge. Each element has a distinct shape and color. For example, Radon (Rn) takes the shape of a gas ball which is indicative of the element in real life. The game will give you hints on what technique to perform to unlock new elements.

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Toca Lab is a fun way for younger kids to get exposed to basic science. You would never let a child play with a bunsen burner in real life. The younger kids at my house loved to mix the chemicals in the Erlenmeyer flask to make new elements.  I really enjoyed how every element has their own unique personality. Bismuth was my favorite element because it looked like a mini Shrek and the kids would laugh maniacally when I would bounce it up and down.

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Toca Life: City

Price: $2.99 on iOS and Google Play store

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Toca Life City takes place in a bustling city that gives you the option of playing in six different locations: tailor, theater, food park, hair salon, shopping mall, and loft apartment. There are 35 characters to choose from with many ways to customize their appearance.

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The hair salon was a favorite among the toddlers that played this on my iPad. They would shriek in joy at the ridiculous hairstyles they would concoct for the characters. The hamburger character with a mullet caused a laughing fit that lasted for 20 minutes.

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The possibilities are endless with what you can do in this game. You can interact with the characters by placing them wherever you want in each location and placing objects wherever you please. I like to think of this game as Sims for the younger audience.

Toca Kitchen 2

Price: $2.99 on iOS and free Google Play store

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Toca Kitchen 2 is a kitchen simulator that lets the gamer be the chef in the kitchen. There are three guests to choose from which will dictate what kind of reactions they have towards your meal. There are six kitchen tools to choose from: skillet, knife, juicer, fryer, pot, and oven. A plethora of ingredients allows the gamer to create traditional dishes you would eat at home or whatever wacky creation you can come up with. Reactions from the guest will let you know if they like the food or not.

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Cooking is a fun activity to do as a family but can be too dangerous for the younger family member. Tools such as knives and blenders can prevent the young audience from experiencing the joys of cooking. Toca Kitchen 2 takes the danger out of cooking and gives the gamer the freedom of cooking whatever they want in the kitchen.

Impressions

These games saved my mental well-being this Thanksgiving. I initially downloaded these games because I have a younger nephew who always says “Uncle Luke, can I play Toca Boca on your iPad?”. I was curious to see what the fuss was all about because I always see toddlers so immersed by these games. To be honest, I didn’t understand how to play at first. I’m competitive by nature so the idea of playing something without the ability to win is a foreign concept to me.

This is the common theme you see in all Toca Boca games. You don’t play to win. You just play. There have been studies emphasizing the benefits of playing. A particular study from Marian Diamond saw that rats in cages with toys had increased growth in cerebral cortex compared to their counterparts who did not have toys (Diamond et. al, 1964). The cerebral cortex is responsible for higher level functions such as thought. There are plenty more examples, but I’ll keep from boring you.

The concept of Toca Boca can be compared to recess rather than P.E. P.E. classes are structured and usually involve activities that have an objective such as scoring a basket. Recess is unstructured and allows the kids to roam like a maniac and do whatever they please during their free time.

The lack of in-app purchases and advertisements should be a welcome relief to parents. Parents can be comforted knowing their precious children won’t be exposed to unwanted material. Although the games normally cost $2.99, can you really put a price on your mental well-being?

The visuals of the games are cartoon-like; something you would see on PBS like Arthur. The animations are very fluid and responsive on a touch-screen interface. There are few directions that come with the apps but each game is intuitive enough that you can pick up and play.

I would recommend downloading these apps on a tablet rather than a smartphone. Some of the objects are really small and my fingers had a hard time tapping on them. This could be a minor issue especially since most gamers will have smaller hands, but I believe playing on a bigger tablet will be optimal.

Conclusion

The focus on a majority of apps these days are geared towards the older consumer. It’s common to see households have an iPad or tablet. These days, I see more kids playing on their tablets than on a PS4 or Xbox. It’s only fitting that deTeched shows some love to the younger audience.

Although I am not a parent, I can understand the caution that most parents will have towards entertainment on the app store. You don’t want to expose your child to unwanted material, something that many other apps do not take into consideration. Toca Boca’s games are all ad-free and do not contain in-app purchases. The apps are simple, pick up and play type games. There is no focus on winning or losing. It’s also a good way of exposing children to new activities without the normal dangers associated with them.

As a semi-functioning adult, I do not completely understand the entertainment that Toca Boca provides but that’s okay. This digital playground is not designed for me. It’s good enough to see the excitement and squeals of joy that I see from my nephews and nieces when they play these games.

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