‘Made For Ages 9–11’ states the App Store information about Earth Primer. Don’t believe a word of it. Although this science book is a touch light on content and clearly child-friendly, it’s heavy on interaction, and makes for a beautiful digital book that showcases how the iPad is changing how we think about education and learning.
That might all sound a bit dry, so here’s another way to pique your interest: this game lets you create volcanos! With your fingers! Such interactive play is peppered throughout the book, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise when you discover it was authored and designed by Chaim Gingold, most famous for his work on Spore’s Creature Creator. It begins by exploring our planet’s interior. Each section (‘Core’, ‘Mantle’, ‘Volcano’, and so on) is brief — essentially a series of slides.
Many are interactive, begging exploration from fingertips belonging to children of all ages (such as your reviewer, in his late 30s). Even those that are purely informative dazzle, through the use of stunning photographic images that shine on the iPad’s Retina display.
Earth Primer also fuses a kind of gamification to its own core. You can’t flip through the entirety of this digital book without paying any attention whatsoever — instead, you must work your way through each ‘page’ to unlock subsequent sections: Surface, Water, and Biomes. An exception is the Sandbox, which is unlocked from the get-go, and therein lies a slice of genius. In this part of the app, you get a little hunk of land, and the means to manipulate it in free-form fashion with your fingers. Choose a brush size and a tool, and away you go. Build mountains! Add wind! Bake or freeze the ground! Raise sea levels! But — and here’s the twist — only if you’ve read through the relevant chapters and unlocked the tools first. So: learn before play. For kids — young and old — this is a cunning tactic to ensure everyone doesn’t just skip to the end and spend hours fiddling with what feels like a tactile and super-minimal version of the interesting bit from Populous.
But really, once you work your way through this book, eagerly devouring it, and often zooming on to see what’s next, it won’t only be the Sandbox you’ll return to. It’s a delight to manipulate the Earth’s crust with a finger, explore glacier formation, and mess about demolishing a mountain to see how it affects ecosystems that rise and fall in fast-forward.
Only in the Biomes section does the app lose its sense of playfulness, the animated but non-interactive cards somehow feeling oddly traditional. But on taking a step back, you realise even these are a big step up not only from a typical book but also much education fare on the App Store. Taken as a whole, then, Earth Primer is an inspirational, compelling and most of all fun way to soak in information about the planet we live on.