Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Four households around the world reveal unique yet familiar domestic experiences in an immersive new app.
A classic theory of cognitive development says that as a kid grows up, her sense of membership in the world grows outward.
A kindergartener conceptualizes herself at the center of her environment, and sees her role in her family and classroom through personal experiences. As she ages through elementary school, she gradually expands that concept of herself in the world to include the lives of others: Other children in her school, adults in her city, other people in the world.
Released last week, a new app from Tinybop Inc encourages that growing worldview. Recommended for ages four and up, Homes invites open-ended exploration of how kids "live, sleep, eat, and play in unique households around the world": A Brooklyn brownstone, a Guatemalan adobe house, a Mongolian yurt, and a Yemeni tower house, each cozy and inviting in their own way.
Homes is actually the third in a series of educational play-apps by Tinybop (the first two focused on The Human Body and Plants). "The Explorer's Library ask big, timeless questions," says Kika Gilbert, Head of Community at Tinybop. "We were really inspired by classic science books that served as access points to learning about really broad concepts, like, 'What is Sound?'"
In Homes' interiors and exteriors, users can click, drag, and interact with domestic objects, some familiar to Western hands (checkers, books, and dolls are common appearances) and some less so: Firewood to load into a cookstove, as in the adobe; shears to clip sheep fur as at the yurt. There are novel uses of smart-phone technology embedded in these interiors, like a tiny mirror that reflects the user's face through the device's camera.
Activities, from washing dishes with an outdoor pump to cooking hot-dogs, are cute, if a little difficult to maneuver on an iPhone (a tablet would make most sense). At times I wished there were people animating these objects, though Gilbert explained to me that leaving the homes free of human figures was intended to encourage users to place themselves within these worlds, and "get curious about the situations there."
I wasn't sure that using my fingertips to sow virtual tomato seeds in a patch of Guatemalan earth really helped me to think about that aspect of life. The illustrations are lovely and simple, but they lack dimension and realistic gravity (when 'dropped', a woolen boot falls to the ground with the same sense of weight as an iron pot).
But the mesmerizing sonic landscapes of each world (think crackling Arabic-language radio, the rustling of woven blankets, gurgling soup on a propane-tank stove) did help each vignette feel alive. So did turning on the "label" function, which defines each object in more than 50 languages. You might think labels would detract from open-ended exploration, but here they added weight to the reality of each world, some backbone to a story you might tell about life inside each house.
Especially with the vocabulary option "on," Homes evoked some of the small-world wonder I remember from Richard Scarry's Busytown series, whose lively, labeled illustrations of city life—interior and exterior—rewarded repeated exploration: With each reading, there was always some fresh, tiny detail to spot and learn from, another micro-story to dream up and imagine yourself inside.
Homes would surely offer new discoveries on repeated use, too. And it takes Scarrytown global; it invites users young and old to imagine ourselves at home somewhere distant yet cozy, foreign yet not—an expanded sense of what it means to be a member of the world.
Homes by Tinybop, $3.99 at the app store.