Now we get to a group of Toca Boca apps that don’t give specific tasks to perform but allow you to make creations that you can document and share.
The most elementary of these is Paint My Wings, basically a coloring app. You get to color a butterfly’s wings. You have a choice of different colors and paintbrushes, and the kaleidoscopic mirroring effect of painting on the wings makes the experience a little more novel than other coloring apps. Once you’re done, you can save a picture of your finished butterfly to your camera roll or social media.
As you might be able to guess, Toca Hair Salon has you cutting and styling different characters’ hair. I would say the app, and the other variations of it in the Toca Boca universe, is fun but a little frustrating. The growth and pruning of hair is more amusing than realistic, so a child trying to reproduce a certain “look” with a character might enjoy the app less than a child just messing around and trying to do crazy things with hair.
Hair Salon 2 adds more functionality to its predecessor, most notably the ability to curl and straighten hair. Does that mean you need never bother with Hair Salon 1? It could, but a younger child might do better with an app that has less choices.
Incidentally, Toca Boca has a Christmas-themed version of the hair salon app that’s even more limited but often is available for free at and around that time of year.
Hair Salon Me takes the conceit a step further, and allows you to take a picture of a face with the camera (or use an existing one from the camera roll) and use it as the basis of a new hair salon character. It’s quite impressive, actually; if you take care with getting a good shot and lining up the customization guides, the resulting figure is quite effectively animated, blinking and such. Nevertheless, my previous comments still apply: this is not the app for realistically projecting actual hair styles, more for amusing parodies of hair styles.
Toca Tailor is a similar affair but, to me, seems just slightly more sophisticated — again because of an expanded palette of capabilities. Here you design an outfit for either a boy, girl, or animal characters. You determine the length and style of the top, bottom, and sleeves and can overlay patterns and textures, including ones from your camera roll. There are also a number of accessories and decorations. Refreshingly, the options for sartorial choices remain the same, no matter which character you pick.
Toca Fairy Tale is a variation on Toca Tailor that focuses on costumes typical from folklore and literature. The only feature that I feel is missing from both of these apps is the ability to save outfits or costumes. (You can take and share pictures of your work, though).
Toca Mini might be a bit of a strange conceit for kids who don’t have parents or near relatives who aren’t hip or nerdy enough to own miniatures, collectible figurines which could be considered large dolls or action figures or small statues. Nevertheless, it’s a fun and robust way for kids to experiment with creating virtual characters. There’s a lot of options and possibilities to customize and elaborate minis, which may make this app a tad bit overwhelming for younger or inexperienced children, and again, there isn’t much to do with these avatars other than decorate them and take a picture of them.
We’ll now move on to a few apps where the aim is not to style or design but to explore.
Toca Town is a pretty rudimentary or straightforward application of this: you pretty much just touch and see what happens. Kids are presented with a bustling town peopled with Toca Boca characters from other apps. There is no tutorial or clear parameters of interaction, and that’s part of the fun, especially for younger kids. They will delight in figuring out what different things might happen if they tap or swipe on different objects. I’ve been impressed with the variety and depth of interactions possible. The app doesn’t just enact simple animations; you can make characters pick things up, dress up, eat, and in various ways change their environment. In a way, Toca Town is kind of like a virtual dollhouse that affords opportunities for kids to use their imagination around this “Toca Universe.”
[NOTE: Toca City is a follow-up to Toca Town that I don’t yet have. From the looks of it, Toca City is more of the same in a different setting — with the addition of a few improvements like some parent-friendly settings options.]
Toca Cars gives you the option of one of two cars to drive around a small racetrack around a whimsically made cardboard town. There’s a sandbox element that’s so popular in gaming right now; your car is free to roam on, off, and around the track, crash into things, jump off ramps, and leave the town altogether. There is also the ability for you to start with an empty track and add objects like signs, houses, ramps, and obstacles. The driving of the car is a little tricky, which may make this app frustrating for younger, less-coordinated kids. Conversely, the freedom of movement possible may appeal to a slightly older kid, say around 6-8 years old.
Last, but not least, are a batch of apps that focus on making and provide simple but sophisticated tools for creation.
Both my son (7) and my daughter (2) love Toca Band, a kind of music sequencing or looping app. You are presented with a host of quirky musical characters, which each has a specific sound. The range of playability of these sounds is limited–this is not the app to create your own completely original masterpiece–but you do have the option of playing the character in different loops at different levels of foreground or background in the overall sound. This makes it dead easy to create and experiment with a harmonious and fun music track. Again, kids love that they can very quickly and naturally make something that sounds good but still gives them lots of options to try out.
There’s a big leap from that to Toca Nature, which centers on world-making. You are given a patch of land onto which you can add flora that attracts different fauna, bodies of water, and geographic features like mountains, valleys, or ridges. You can zoom right into your created landscape or zoom out of it and see it through seasons of growth. This is a powerful app that is, at the same time, gentle and forgiving, and kids will be enraptured when they see new animals arrive that they now have to nurture and protect with the environment. Even younger kids will be able to make random swipes and get results, but deliberate use of the app is definitely for an older kid, maybe 3rd or 4th grade and beyond.
The same is also true for Toca Builders, a kind of Minecraft-like app that lets you make and revise block constructions using different builder robots. One kind of robot specializes in laying down blocks, another paints them, one places blocks on top of others, and so on. The software demands and develops spatial acuity, logical reasoning, and executive planning, and you will be impressed with what can be accomplished with this app. I must note, however, that it will not appease your little boy who has already picked up an obsession with Minecraft from god-knows-where. It’s also not quite the same as making something with physical Legos–not better or worse, but a shift in mindset or thinking–something to keep in mind when monitoring and managing expectations.
Whew! This was more of an undertaking than I anticipated, but I hope someone will find this overview helpful.
If it helps, the Toca Boca apps I make readily available to my 2-year-old daughter (during limited and monitored iPad sessions, of course) are Toca Doctor, Paint My Wings, Toca Kitchen, Toca Town, and Toca Band. There’s too many to have all at once for my 7-year-old son, what with all his other apps, but every now and then I’ll rotate in one of them just to mix it up.