I enjoy many things about fatherhood. Changing diapers is not one of them. Fortunately, my daughter has begun to show signs that the sun is about to set on the Pampers era. She's beginning to tell us when her diaper is... not so empty anymore. She's eyeing the plastic potty we bought her with greater intent. It won't be long now, or so I keep telling myself with each diaper change.
To help pave the way, then, I've turned to the App Store for potty-training help. I've spent the past few weeks looking at two kinds of potty-training apps--books that help kids learn what it's like to go diaper-free, and all-in-one apps that combine extras like progress charts and videos with stories about potty training. And I also discovered a few apps that stood out from their potty-training compatriots.
After thumbing through my share of potty training books, I found that worthwhile materials cover a lot of the same themes. A good potty-training book for your kid emphasizes that this is all part of becoming a big kid and that a reward--wearing underwear!--awaits them at the end. Good books also acknowledge that there are going to be accidents along the way and that's all right. And for heaven sakes, wash your hands afterward.
With one unfortunate exception we'll talk about at the end of this section, the iOS books I looked at for this review covered those bases. Where they stand out from one another is in the details.
Of the story-only iPhone and iPad apps I looked at,The New Potty, a mobile adaptation of Gina and Mercer Mayer's Little Critter book released by Oceanhouse Media, impressed me the most. The story is about a little girl learning how to use the potty, and there are some great messages for kids and parents alike--it's perfectly natural to be scared, accidents are going to happen along the way, and so forth. Because the story is told from the perspective of an older brother, it's also a great choice for families with more than one child, as it may inspire your other kids to help out with their potty-training sibling.
The New Potty offers Read to Me and Read It Myself options; an Auto Play feature runs through the story without any intervention from you, which may be a good choice for especially young kids. Tap on any of the words in the story, and the app will read them aloud. It'll also say the names of any objects you tap, with the words floating across the screen. Each page also features a grasshopper and a spider hidden among the illustrations; you're supposed to tap them, and the app will tally up your score at the end. It's not exactly germane to the potty-training mission of the app, but it's a clever little bit of interactivity that may keep your kids coming back for more.
Oceanhouse is also responsible for Once Upon a Potty, which comes in separate gender-specific versions that run on both the iPhone and iPad. In the story, Prudence--or Joshua, depending on which version you've downloaded--gets a new potty, discovers what it's used for, and learns a lesson about the importance of patience and persistence. As with The New Potty, Once Upon a Potty features narrator and read-it-myself modes as well as an auto-play feature. Touching objects or people on the screen will cause the app to announce them aloud and highlight the words if they appear in the text on the screen. There are some hidden sound effects you can activate with a tap as well.
Once Upon a Potty is probably a perfectly acceptable story for many users, but I found it to be a bit of a drag. The pacing of the narration is slow and deliberate and may not appeal to younger kids; my daughter certainly had a hard time sitting through the story. The app features an extra called The Potty Song, which you can sing along with, but the song has a not-very-kid-friendly slow jazz rhythm--think "Girl from Ipanema"--and not especially catchy lyrics. I don't think Once Upon a Potty measures up to The New Potty.
I Have to Go is another adaptation of a children's book for the iPad, this one by Sieneke de Rooij and Tineke Merirink. It's a short, easy-to-sit-through tale of a little girl who needs to go to the bathroom and undertakes a house-wide search for her potty. Some positive messages are emphasized along the way--chiefly, that going to the potty is what big kids do--and there's a bit of interactivity thrown in as well. Touch one of the drawings, and an object--a cat, a dog, a stuffed animal--will make a cute, little noise. Multilingual families will appreciate that the app from Tizio lets you choose six different languages for the narration; you can also turn off the narration for kids who want to read the story aloud.
I Have to Go's lone extra is a drawing feature, in which kids can color in one of three drawings using a palette of 12 colors. Drawing tools are limited to tapping the area you want colored in, and there's no erase feature, so more creatively inclined kids may find this extra a little frustrating.
I thought the navigation for I Have To Go left a little bit to be desired as well. There's a play button to repeat narration and arrows to advance or go back. But it's not immediately clear what these buttons do at first, so you might tap the play button thinking you're going to go to the next page; you won't. That's a minor issue. More significant is the home button that automatically takes you to the beginning of the story--a potential problem if it's tapped by an over-eager toddler who's just trying to interact with the story. There's no way to skip ahead to a specific page of I Have to Go, so if you inadvertently tap that home button, you're starting over.
I don't know if Potty Time from 1598741 Alberta began its life as a physical book before arriving in the App Store. I do know it was easily the most disappointing of the potty training apps I looked at. The illustrations are crudely drawn and unappealing. The options for having the story read back to you are limited to tapping the words on the screen. Each screen has an interactive element or two, but if you tap multiple things at once--as kids are wont to do--the resulting sound effects play over each other, resulting in a cacophonous din. Some kids may like the noise, but I can say from experience that parents will not. Don't give this iPhone and iPad app a second look.
Two of the iPhone/iPad apps I looked at not only contain a potty-training story, but other materials aimed at helping your child finally ditch those diapers. One offering is more complete than the other, however.
I had high hopes for Potty Training Time, because it's produced by Two Little Hands. That company is also responsible for the terrific "Signing Time" series, which teaches kids how to use American Sign Language and may be my daughter's favorite thing ever. It certainly outranks me.
Unfortunately, Potty Training Time didn't quite meet my expectations. The app is a free download and ships with a peppy introductory video, a story, a potty-training-themed match game, and a chart for tracking potty training progress. There's an especially cool feature that simulates a phone call from Signing Time and Potty Time host Rachel Coleman in which she exalts in a successful trip to the potty or offers words of encouragement when there's been an accident. That's the sort of thing that's really going to appeal to kids who adore the Signing Time series.
The problem is, the app feels a little incomplete at this point. The Books and Games sections have "More coming soon..." entries next to their single offerings, and the Community section of the app is little more than a link to the Potty Time Facebook page that takes you out of the app and into the Safari browser. Apart from the one video that ships with the app and another that you unlock by using the progress chart, the seven other videos in Potty Training Time are only available via in-app purchase for $1 each. The developer certainly has the right to explore revenue-generating opportunities, especially for a free app, but I would have liked an option that lets me pay once to unlock all the videos; that's not available in Potty Training Time.
Perhaps future updates will make Potty Training Time feel like a more worthwhile app. At this point, the app could use a little more polish.
You'll get a more complete package with Potty Time with Elmo, an iPhone and iPad offering from Sesame Street featuring the ubiquitous red muppet. Take note, however--while he may get top billing, Elmo only has a few lines of dialogue in the app. A narrator supplies the rest of the story and even the included songs are performed by a non-Elmo singer. It's not that big of a deal, but if you download the app hoping for wall-to-wall Elmo, you need to dial down your expectations.
What you will get with the app is a rather pleasing story, in which Elmo shows kids how to go to the potty, from knowing when it's time to go to washing your hands afterwards. You can opt between Read & Play, Listen & Play, and Just Watch modes. The Play part of those options is especially noteworthy: Each scene features an interactive element that makes a noise and vibrates when tapped. You'll also hear a squeal of delight from Elmo the first time you discover that tappable element, and it gets stored in an achievement roll.
Extras include a four-piece puzzle game that's just easy enough for toddlers to solve and bask in Elmo's appreciative cheers. A sticker reward chart lets parents track when their kids go to the potty, wipe, flush, and wash their hands. It all adds up to a pretty solid one-stop app for your potty-training needs.
I think the most valuable assessment, though, comes from my daughter. She tested all these apps with me, and Potty Time with Elmo is the only one she clamors for consistently. I think the sounds of a toddler shouting "Potty! Elmo!" is a better endorsement than anything I can offer, and the sight of her sitting on her potty at Elmo's urging is giving me hope that our diaper days may soon be drawing to a close.
Philip Michaels is the editor of Macworld.com.