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Pros: Gorgeous graphics and captivating music make this a unique and engaging way to experience the natural world -- virtually.
Cons: Representation and interactions with nature are not completely realistic in this kid-friendly virtual version.
Bottom Line: Virtual world is wonderfully calm, inspiring, and strangely addictive, but the range of its exploration is limited.
Teachers can use Toca Nature to spark exploration into a range of topics including ecology, animal habitats and diet, conservation, and plant life. Have kids work individually or in small groups to create their own personalized forests. They can take notes on what they observe, then report on what foods the animals like, the five tree types, what happens when they add trees or take away mountains, and so on. A thoughtful letter from the developer in the parents' section provides helpful inspiration for discussion, such as "How is this virtual interaction different from a walk in a real forest?" Point out that it's not a good idea to feed real wild animals. Most of all, use Toca Nature to inspire kids to be curious about the natural world, to appreciate the wonders of nature, and to take a quiet moment to simply observe the world around them every once in a while.
Note that virtual worlds eventually disappear so kids cannot create a forest and come back to what they've created the next day. Explorations must start and finish in a single session.
Kids begin this creative exploration with a bird's-eye view of an expanse of land surrounded by sky, a globe they can turn to adjust their viewing position, and a set of tools to build, destroy, and zoom in. They can tap the mountain, then tap and drag the land to build mountain ranges; if they build them tall enough, they'll see snow on top -- and soon wolves appear. Build an oak forest and a pond and watch as beavers and fish move through the water, deer romp through the trees, and acorns fall to the ground. Zoom in with the magnifying glass to observe what the animals do, or take a walk among the trees and collect five forest foods to feed the animals. When they see something interesting, kids can tap the camera button to take a picture and store it in their camera rolls.
Just like a quiet walk in the woods, Toca Nature is calm, slow, and mesmerizing; even the background music contributes to the magical feeling. An app can never replace real walks through real forests (the developers admit that), but this does an effective job of bringing the wonder of nature to an interactive screen. With an "if you build it, they will come" approach, kids build, then wait and observe. The possibilities in this forest are limited, however. It's also unrealistically G-rated -- animals are strict herbivores as rambling bears and wily foxes live peacefully with cute little bunnies. Some internal inconsistencies are mildly bothersome: Kids can feed some animals, but not others; they can throw fish to a wolf in the mountains far from any water source. There's also the issue of feeding wild animals in the first place -- definitely not okay in a real forest. Finally, it would be useful to have a reset button so kids could control when to start over.