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What kid doesn’t want a puppy? And what kid doesn’t want to dress that puppy like an astronaut, or teach it to do flips and win a dog show? LeapFrog’s Pet Pals, marketed to pre-K through 1st grade kids, uses the popular virtual pet model as a framework for practicing reading and math skills, small-motor skills, and listening skills. Players earn “doggie dollars” and “puppy points” by completing a variety of activities on their way to becoming “Puppy Pros”. Players need a Leapster handheld game system to use this software.
Pet Pals features a wide range of age- and skill-level-appropriate games for its young players. Players choose activities and can repeat or exit them whenever they wish. They can often choose skill level as well: in the dog-walking/literacy activity, challenges range from distinguishing letters from numbers (level 1) to recognizing three-letter words (level 3). Other activities include a Frisbee-catching/math game and letter-writing practice. One tester’s favorite activity was shopping—as the player “buys” each item for her puppy, the dollar amount in her piggy bank decreases according to the price of the purchase, her stock of items goes up, and her puppy loves her more. For kids working on addition and subtraction, this seems like a good way to work on comparative value, and to sneak in an arithmetic fact or two (we’ll ignore the money=love message for now).
But wait, that’s not all! Pet Pals also offers a number of simple, pedagogically sound tutorials to reinforce understanding at each level, and even more activities online.
The one drawback: because the player has complete control over difficulty level, and because every level offers similar reward frequency (studies show that young children care more about frequency than magnitude of rewards), it’s tempting for more advanced kids to re-play the easiest games over and over—at which point it becomes just entertainment.
Kids at the upper end of the age range recommended for this game—especially boys who are used to more action-packed, shoot-em-up games—may not buy in. That said, everyone who tested this game liked it. No one minded that the academic bits were too easy or too hard; kids just enjoyed the short-duration, high-reward, highly interactive tasks. The frequency with which players can experience moderate success on the way to a larger goal encourages them to keep playing.
LeapFrog is clearly targeting both genders: the game features “boy” puppies like huskies as well as girly pink poodles. In addition to requiring typically girl-friendly activities like grooming, all the puppies burp and poop—a feature which delighted the first-grade boy who tested the game.
Just pop the cartridge into the top of the Leapster and press the “on” button. The screen and buttons are responsive, the Leapster is clearly marked and sized to fit little hands., and the narrator’s instructions are clear and concise.
Good entertainment value, and a fun way for kids to do a little brainwork. As a purely educational tool, it is probably best for the pre-school set. Because there are no penalties for mistakes, lots of reward opportunities, and a fair amount of variety, Pet Pals engages kids for a long time. Of course, the flip side is that without adult encouragement, older kids can play this game for a long time and never feel challenged. Most kids probably won’t take advantage of the tutorials on their own, either—at any rate, teaching these important skills is probably best left to an actual human being.
cartridge for use with the Leapster Learning System or Leapster TV Learning Systemreturn to top of page
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