# Critter Mates

You know the feeling when you get that “aha” moment and want to run through the streets shouting “Eureka!”. What is it about solving puzzles that is so satisfying?

There is some evidence that early people had an interest in problem solving. Major breakthroughs like the invention of the wheel and learning to control fire happened rarely, but finding solutions to small problems probably occurred on a regular basis.

Recently researchers have investigated the urge to solve puzzles and have attempted to explain the brain mechanisms involved. Different types of puzzles require different skills.  Crossword puzzle solvers obviously need to have a good vocabulary, memory and pattern recognizing ability.  While much more research is need, there does seem to be some evidence to suggest that a high level of experience with some times of puzzles, crosswords, for example, in older subjects helps to attenuate the negative effects of age on memory and some perceptual speed tasks.  Other types of puzzles require spatial reasoning skills.  For example, Rubik’s Cubes, pentominoes, tangrams, soma cubes and other similar puzzles are involve spatial reasoning as well as logical sequencing skills.  Critter Mates is a little bit like a crossword puzzle in that the puzzle format is a grid.  Logical sequential skills are also involved.

In children with brain damage research has shown positive effects from puzzle solving activities.  In particular children who had a weak visual symbol memory that impaired their ability to spell and read words benefitted from unscrambling puzzles where mixed-up letters were paired with pictures.  But knowing just how these mechanism work has yet to be explained.

One thing that many educators know is that problem solving skills can be taught.  Some of the methodologies that are part of a comprehensive problem solving curriculum can be taught in relation to puzzles like Critter Mates.  Many educators employ a five-stage model to teaching problem solving:

1. Understand the problem.
2. Describe any barriers.
3. Identify various solutions.
1. Create visual images.
2. Guesstimate.
3. Create a table.
4. Use manipulatives.
5. Work backward.
6. Look for a pattern.
7. Create a systematic list.
4. Try out a solution.
1. Keep accurate records.
2. Persist with a strategy until is proven to not work.
3. Monitor the steps.
4. Step away from the problem for a while.
5. Evaluate the results.

Some people like to solve puzzles and others like to design them. Which one are you? Math ability and music seem to be related to problem solving ability. So if you have talent in these areas you might also be a great puzzle solver or creator.  In many cases puzzle solving ability requires synthesizing several different pieces of information and the ability to see patterns which are also skills that are fundamental to mathematics and music.  Activities like solving the Critter Mates puzzles may help to develop or strengthen these skills.

When I designed the Critter Mates I wanted to create a problem solving challenge where kids would be motivated to solve visual puzzles using ‘critters’ as a virtual manipulative.  Understanding the puzzle is fairly simple.  The goal is to move all the critters so that they are next to each other.  One way to approach the problem might be to work backward.  Visualize the solution and then try to figure out the steps needed to get to the solution.  The Critter Mates puzzle definitely has barriers.  The critters need to navigate the walls and will often get logically stuck. Keeping notes as an accurate record of what has been tried might help to avoid pitfalls in future attempts.  I hope that you will find that Critter Mates is intrinsically motivating and useful in teaching kids to be better problem solvers.

# The Menagerie

The dictionary defines a menagerie as ‘a collection of wild animals kept in captivity for exhibition’, so it seemed to be an appropriate name for this logic game where the object is to get all the critters on a 6 x 6 grid into locked cages.

When you tap a critter all the available moves are shown with green lights.  Critters can only be moved once and the number of spaces that each can be moved is indicated.  The critters in each puzzle are randomly picked so each puzzle provides a unique experience.  Enjoy hours of fun solving these challenging puzzles.

The critters range from bears to butterflies and will hopefully be appealing to children.  There are 11 puzzles.  Critters can be moved 1, 2, 3 or 4 spaces but only once.  It’s a challenge to find a way to get all the critters safely locked in the menagerie.

Thinking logically is such an important skill for kids to develop.  Puzzles and games offer an opportunity to develop logical thinking skills.  I think it would be good for kids to work in small groups to try to solve The Menagerie puzzles which is why I developed it for both iPad and Apple TV.

The Apple TV version of The Menagerie works with both the Siri Remote and compatible bluetooth game controllers.  Hopefully teachers and parents will encourage the players to discuss possible moves and explain the logic that they used to decide on a move.

Each puzzle has about 20 to 30 critters.  With more critters the puzzle gets a little more challenging.  If you like word or number games that are played on a grid, you will also like The Menagerie.

It has always been interesting to me that grids just seem to be a natural way to organize information.  Are our brains predisposed to information arranged in rows and columns? Spreadsheets, for example, use a grid where rows and columns are labelled with letters and numbers to identify cells. When the streets of a town are numbered in one direction and labelled alphabetically in the perpendicular direction , it always seems easier for me to find my way around.  Recently, brain researchers  studied a group of human participants.  The experiment used a virtual reality environment with the subjects lying in a fMRI brain scanner.  The research showed that specialized grid cells in the brain have a spatially-organized firing pattern.  These grid cells function to create a spatial map in the brain.  The research suggests that internal grids or maps are created in our brains to help organize and understand new environments.

Scientists at the University College of London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience have shown that specialized neurons play a role in spatial memory.  Specialized neurons that are being called ‘grid cells’ have been identified through rat and mice studies and seem to represent a mechanism for how animals locate themselves in their environment.  It is almost like having a brain cell based GPS mechanism.  In animals, and now possibly humans, neuron firing patterns show up as geometrically regular grids.

So it seems obvious that the critters in The Menageries should be arranged in a 6 x 6 grid and it just seems to be an appropriate way to layout a logic puzzle.  I guess after millions of years of evolution our brains just like it that way!

# Kid’s Xylophone Deluxe

An eight note xylophone is a great way to introduce children to note reading and basic music concepts.  Just using eight notes limits the complexity of the learning activity and makes it more inviting for young children.   When I designed the Kid’s Xylophone Deluxe app I wanted to make it colorful and fun for kids to use.  I also wanted to have a part of the app that would let kids be creative.  With the app kids can compose, record and playback their own songs.  When the app first opens on an iPad a blank treble staff is shown and the title for the composition is My Song.  In this mode children make up melodies and discover combinations and patterns of notes that are pleasing.  The songs can be recorded by hitting the record icon (red dot) and played back by hitting the playback icon (green triangle).

After getting some time to explore, play and make up songs, it’s time to practice playing familiar songs.  By tapping songbook icon at the top left section of the screen, a song appears on the treble staff.  Below, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star is shown.  A variety of songs can be selected by continuing to tap the songbook icon.

I hope this app will inspire kids to continue to learn about music.  Music can bring so much joy into a person’s life.  Just about everybody enjoys listening to music, but being able to play and create it is truly a wonderfully rewarding gift.

Kid’s Xylophone Deluxe is available at iTunes for only \$1.99.

Leave comment to let me know what you think.

# Kid’s Piano Deluxe

One of the great gifts that parents and teachers can give to children is the love and appreciation of music.  Enjoying and learning music can begin at any age, and even some would  say in utero.  Kid’s Piano Deluxe is designed to introduce music concepts for kids about age 5 and up.  Anyone who is new to music, the piano and music notation can learn the basics with Kid’s Piano Deluxe.

When I was designing this app I had quite a few challenges.  First, I needed to make it work on an iPad screen which is quite a bit smaller than a full-size 88 key piano keyboard.  I decided that the best solution was to limit the number of keys to about 2 octaves.  Since the purpose of the app is to introduce music concepts it didn’t seem necessary to have a full keyboard.  Second, displaying notes is tricky.  Different notes are needed, quarter notes, half notes and whole notes, for example.  Depending on where a note is to be displayed on the staff, the stem needs to go up or down.  Rest are needed to show that there is a pause in the music.  So as you can see, lots of logic needed to be employed in the programming methods in order to display the music correctly, but fortunately I love a challenge.

I wanted to have some interesting graphics in the app and I remembered a neat film that I used to show my students.  In the film birds would assemble themselves on five telephone wires representing the treble staff while a character danced on a crosswalk representing the piano keys.  It was a British film and so the crosswalk was striped like they are in England.  (Remember the Abbey Road album cover.)  In the film the birds would rearrange themselves on the staff (telephone wires) to tell the character which ‘keys’ to play on the crosswalk.  Great imagery! And it inspired me to use birds in the app.

In the Kid’s Piano Deluxe app there are ten lessons and each lesson is graphically illustrated.  After the lesson is read, the student is given some practice exercises.  After all, the way to Carnegie Hall is practice, practice, practice…

For the practice activity, students are presented with a short piece of music and challenged to play it accurately.  Proper fingering is explained with a graphic and the keys on the piano labeled.

There are ten lessons.  Accuracy is recorded and displayed in a scoreboard.  Particular lessons can be selected by sliding the selector to a specific lesson.

I hope ‘kids’ of all ages will have fun learning music with this app.  It’s available at iTunes and is only \$1.99.