Joan Tanenhaus reviews some of the latest on-screen manipulatives that can be used with the iPad and some other tablets to inspire interactive learning and play.

iPads and other tablets continue to be an increasingly important focus of our everyday lives. This article takes another look at new products that help children of all ages interact with their iPads, individually and/or in groups, by using and manipulating related physical objects, such as letters, numbers, coding tools, Play-Doh and more. My original article, which appeared in Special World in January 2016, can be viewed here (

Great for language learning, motor skills, visual spatial abilities, literacy, STEM, critical thinking and problem-solving, these iPad manipulatives also set a context for turn-taking, cooperative and competitive play, and for the enhancement of social skills, conversation and communication.


Smart Letters. Credit: Marie Mérouze/Marbotic.

Smart Letters, contains 26 high-quality, wooden, upper-case letters that work together with three, free apps on iPad2 and later, and with some Samsung tablets (see website for a complete list of tablets that work). The front of each letter has a metal handle that makes it easy for children to grasp and press the letters. The back of each has three small rubber-like ‘feet’, all in varied spots that identify them as particular letters when they are placed on the screen. Children grasp the handle and stamp the letter on the touchscreen. The Smart Letter apps can all be played in eight different languages. The currently available apps are:

Vocabubble, the first Smart Letters app, can be played in two modes — when playing with the sound of the letters (phonics), you will only see words that begin with the exact sound of the letter. For example, for the letter C (which makes the ‘k’ sound), the words crab, card and canoe will appear, but not words such as cheese or chimpanzee. The letter mode will show words that begin with the letter c, even if the sound is not ‘k’ such as cheese or chimpanzee. There are two alphabet games. In the first, an alphabet screen appears and children press any letter. That letter then appears on screen and when the user puts the correct wooden letter on screen and taps several times, pictures beginning with the sound appear. Words are spoken, along with some sound-effects related to the picture.

This is a great activity to use in pre-school to first grade classrooms. Children can select another letter by pressing the on-screen arrow or the home button. The second game is played with two letters. Children choose the letters and then pictures beginning with the two letters appear on screen. Children press the letters on the pictures, identifying the initial letter. Incorrect choices are ignored. This game can be played by one user, but can also be used as an interactive game with two users playing together, making it a powerful, interactive game to reinforce social skills and turn-taking as well as letter and early phonics learning.

Alphamonster, the second Smart Letters app, has many different alphabet activities. Some are errorless — place a letter to see the letter and hear the sound it makes, place it in another area and see a picture of an object that starts with the letter, and place it in a third location to see a lower-case and script letter (any of these can be turned off in the options controls). In another activity, a letter is presented on-screen and the user stamps with the same letter. In another, a picture is presented and users need to select the correct beginning letter. After three incorrect responses, the correct letter is presented as a hint.

In other activities, a lower-case letter is presented and users match with upper case; a script letter is presented and users match with correct print letter. There is an additional activity that displays the alphabet and a picture for each letter. Children press the letter or picture and hear it spoken. Turn on the letter slide, and all the above activities can be played without the Smart Letters, letting the users drag the print letters from the on-screen alphabet display.

Bla Bla Box, the third Smart Letters app, lets users combine different letters to make words. The program spells them and reads them aloud. This app helps reinforce the sound-symbol relationship and can be used to reinforce sight words and word families. Creative teachers can find many ways to structure interactive activities with this app.

For all these three apps, try making an alphabet display (with letters in alphabetical order) with all manipulatives — this helps the children find the letters, develop a left-right visual scanning pattern, and improves organisational skills. If you do this each time, before you know it, they will be attempting to do it themselves!

Marbotic is currently working on the release of a new reading/writing app for Smart Letters which will be released later this year. It will focus on the early stages of reading and writing.


Smart Numbers. Credit: Marie Mérouze/Marbotic.

Similar to Smart Letters, Smart Numbers has 10 wooden numbers (0-9) that work with three interactive apps on iPad2 and later, and with some Samsung and Nexus tablets (see website for a complete list of tablets that work). The Smart Number apps can be played in 16 different languages. The currently available apps are:

10 Fingers has three number-math activities. In the first level, players can place any number on the screen and have it identified, and see that number of small illustrations. They can also chose to touch the screen with any number of fingers to get the same result. The alternate mode of this activity presents the illustrations and children have to put the correct number or correct number of fingers on screen. Pictures are then counted out, showing one-to-one correspondence. Wrong answers are ignored. If children need help, they can touch each picture and the app will count out for them. The second activity is similar, except that it presents the numerals instead of pictures. The third activity is an open ended addition add. Showing the formula ____ + ___= _____ ; users can place numbers in places 1 and 2 and see the answer in place 3.

Up to 100 has two activities. in the first, users place one number in each of the two boxes and the app names and writes out the number (i.e 2—2…twenty-two). In the next level, the app shows a number line with a number missing (31…33) and the players selects the two numerals needed to fill in the blank. In the final level, the number is written (fifty-seven) and players have to select the correct digits. The second activity works on tens and ones concepts. A number in the first box shows how many tens and the number in the second box shows how many ones. There are also three levels in this app. The app has options to show the numbers in letters, to see the numerical bar, to see beads in colour, to choose print or script, to turn on number display and to choose the range of numbers.

More or Less: Add & Subtract lets users select addition or subtraction. First level is errorless — pick the two numbers and see the sum or the remainder. Level 2 present the equation with colour-coded beads under each number so the total can be counted. Level 3 shows the first number and what the equation equals. Players fill in the missing second number. Colour-coded beads can be moved to help solve the equation. This is a  well-designed and very visual presentation that can be very helpful in understanding basic addition and subtraction. Option allows users to see the number line, hide or show the beads, play with doubles in addition and show the interval of the result in addition and the interval of operands in subtraction.

Both Smart Letters and Smart Numbers are excellent choices if your children love the iPad at home and in school and you want to expand its learning potential and also use the technology interactively.

Square Panda:

Square Panda: A Phonics Playset for iPad.

Square Panda, for ages three to eight, is designed to help young children develop early literacy, including learning the alphabet, exploring letter sounds, building vocabulary and developing rhyming skills, using a multi-sensory approach (visual, auditory and tactile). It consists of a base unit with place for the iPad, a letter tray area with eight slots, a set of 45 upper-case letters, and a storage area for the letters. The letter set includes one complete alphabet set plus duplicates of vowels and commonly used consonants. The vowels are yellow and the consonants are purple.

The back of the letters are silver and are smooth with all electronics inside. The letters are durable and can be cleaned with a damp cloth. The unit connects to the iPad via Bluetooth 4.0, and except for downloading apps and updates, it does not require a wireless connection during use. It works with iPad 3 and newer models, iPad Mini 2 and newer and some Android tablets (see website for a complete listing) and can be used with an iPad, which can be in the case. iOS 8.x or higher is required.

There are currently 10 iOS apps with customised play and 14 levels of phonics (letter & phonemes, rhymes, CVC, sight words, compound words, digraphs, blends, double vowel, silent e, etc.) A cloud-based tracking system measures each child’s individual progress, challenges, preferences for game types, and patterns of play and customises curriculum. You can connect one playset to multiple iPads, or if connected to one iPad, up to three children can have log-ins that track their play. Currently, one app can be customised with your own pictures and words, and can also block specific words in the game. Gameplay is with both letter placement and touch control. For example, you place a letter in the tray to match one on the screen and then pop bubbles with fingers. Basic iPad movements such as point & touch and swipe are supported.

The apps are full of animated characters, playful fun, music and sound, and delightful graphics that reward and encourage all play. Levels of difficulty adjust to the child’s responses. Many of the apps have errorless activities which provide feedback with letter names and sounds and guided learning. Others require users to match the letter on screen by putting that letter on one of the slots on the tray. Rewards are frequent and very motivating, with much auditory feedback of letter names and letter sounds. Letter activities are mixed with other motor responses — i.e. roll (swipe) the bowling ball to reveal a letter and then match with one of the letters. Other activities include rhyming, letter tracing, upper- and lower-case letters, left-right directionality, and more. Visit to see detailed descriptions and pictures from each of the apps.

Square Panda is being developed as an early literacy and phonics learning system with cloud-based tracking. It has a well-designed playset, a multi-sensory approach to learning, and excellent graphics, sound and animation, which all combine to make a powerful learning tool for young children. Excellent for play alone or in small groups, it can be used at home or at school, for both literacy learning, for the development of language skills and for social interaction between peers and siblings.


Hasbro Play-Doh Touch Shape to Life Studio.

Kids love their iPads and they love Play-Doh, too. Put them together and they have endless hours of creative fun with Hasbro’s new Play-Doh Touch Shape to Life Studio, for ages three and up. The Studio comes with seven Play-Doh canisters, each in a different colour, five digital stamper characters, five actions stampers, a full set of cutters and tools, the Studio scanning station and a free app from the Apple App Store. Children start their adventure by making a character, either using the digital stamper characters or creating one of their own, which they can make using the tools or by hand. There is no end to the kinds of fun characters they can make. Then they place their creation in the middle of the Studio scanning table, hold their iPad horizontally above and the iPad app scans it automatically once it is focuses on it. Then the magic begins — their characters are imported into the app and are brought to life.

They interact with the program’s many exciting worlds, and using their iPads, children can interact with them. Each character has its own unique voice and personality. The action molds can also be scanned and they give the characters powers to dance, spin, float, fly and multiply (hint: if you try the stampers in different colours, you get different effects). This Hasbro Studio is about creativity and exploration — and can be played by children alone or working together in small groups. It opens up all kinds of opportunities to use language, to problem solve — i.e., how can we get a character to get to the top of the mountain? — to be socially interactive, to be creative and to have fun. It’s an extraordinary example of how children and adults can use technology creatively to interact with their environment. Well done, Hasbro… and happy 60th birthday Play-Doh.

Sago Mini:

Sago Mini Apps and the Sago Mini Playset: Jinja’s House.

Some of our most favourite apps for preschoolers are the Sago Mini apps for both iPad and Android, featuring friends, like Jinja, Robin, Harvey, Jack and others. In Sago Mini’s well-designed and open-ended, creative apps, preschool children explore their environment and in an errorless setting, build snow forts and drive trucks and diggers, use tools, learn numbers and shapes, go on musical journeys, dress up the babies and so much more, all with their Sago Mini friends. There are 22 MiniSago apps, many of them free and the rest very low cost. They have no in-app purchases or advertising and once downloaded, do not need the internet to play.

Now, in addition to playing with their friends on the iPad, children can pick one of their Sago friends and play with them with their real friends off screen. Sago Mini Playset: Jinja’s House, just one of three Playsets, features Jinja and her friend Rosie (playsets are designed for ages three and up and contain some small parts). Jinja’s little play house unfolds to reveal a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room, entrance way and outside area. There’s even some pizza and a back door with a mail slot! Jinja’s furnishings include a bed, two chairs, cups, bowls, a slide, letters from the mailman and a ladder, in addition to the two characters. The house folds up tight and stores all the little friends and their possessions, and when folded up even has a handle that makes it easy to carry around and bring everywhere. This is a wonderful new way to play with our friends from the iPad — and extend symbolic play into other situations. Great also for enhancing social skills and cooperative play, both at home or at school. Other playsets are Harvey’s SpaceShip and Jack’s Diner. Such a great idea and so well done!

Manipulatives Update

The following products were previously reviewed in full in Using Manipulatives with the iPad, Special World January 2016. They have all added new apps and/or games which are reviewed below.


Osmo Coding Awbie.

Osmo is an award-winning game system that has created new ways children can play, learn and interact with the iPad. Reviews of the Osmo Game System and Tangram, Words, Masterpiece, Newton, and Numbers games appeared in Using Manipulatives with the iPad, Special World January 2016.

Osmo works with the iPad version 2 or higher, iPad Mini and iPad Pro and is designed for ages five and up (currently, the iPad must be out of its case to work with Osmo). The Osmo system comes with a reflective mirror for the iPad camera, a white iPad stand and sets of game pieces. The reflective mirror is a red attachable piece that lets the iPad see the environment below and in front of it and translates movements to the iPad.

Osmo iPhone Base: In October, 2017, Osmo will be releasing its new base for the iPhone. You will be able to just place your iPhone 6, 6s, 6 Plus, 7 and 7 Plus on the base and clip on the reflector. The base will accommodate most slim cases. The iPhone base will come with two Osmo games (Masterpiece and Newton), and all other games (purchased individually) will work with it too.

Pizza Co.

An outstanding new Osmo game. The object is to run your own pizza shop — take orders from customers, make pizzas as ordered, collect money and give change to the customers. Users can also invest their profits, and upgrade the shop. Designed for ages five to 12, the game has many options to customise for individual user’s needs. After purchasing the game, users download the iPad app and then use the included Pizza board, tray with 48 topping tiles (mushroom, sausage, anchovy, pepper, olives and pineapple), and another tray with 40 money tiles ($1, $2, $5, $10 bills, and coins for 1, 5, 10, and 25 cents). In Junior Mode, you can fill pizza orders only (without any payment involved) or you can fill orders and then just use bills only to give change (no coins — making the maths task simple one- or two-digit subtraction).

To fill a pizza order, players look at the pictures on screen, and place matching tiles on the pizza board. To make the game more difficult, use bills and all coins, add fractions, and a timer. You can also select Word Problems, which uses words and reading instead of symbols for orders (i.e., I only want meat on my pizza). Another exciting feature shows players how to make sure the pizza is perfect by paying attention to the customer’s reaction and the happy/sad face emojis. A fun way to have two users playing together (even with diverse skills) is to have one make the pizza and the other take the payment. If multiple players use Osmo, you can create accounts for each user. Their individual progress is then saved, and progress can be shared across multiple devices, and you can track progress with the parent dashboard. A very well done game that is motivating for children, playing alone or together, at home or at school.

Coding Awbie

Another excellent new Osmo game. Code (or computer programs) are sets of precise instructions given to a computer to complete a task. Coding (or programming) is writing those step-by-step instructions in an exacting way so that the computer can follow them. These instructions must be broken down into small chunks so they are easy to follow and impossible to get wrong. Coding Awbie uses physical blocks to give instructions to a playful character named Awbie who loves strawberries and loves to explore his world, play games, jump on the trampoline, search for critters, explore islands and so much more.  The coding blocks have clear visual directions such as walk, jump, grab; an arrow key that rotates to give spatial direction to go and numbers to indicate how many times.

Another block can be used to repeat a whole string of instructions. This is an easy and clear way to visually introduce coding to children. Awbie’s adventures contain many locations, critters, collectable items, missions, different levels and lots of fun and laughs. By trial and error, cognitive planning, problem solving and reasoning and thinking, users begin to see that their single instructions repeated over and over can be combined into more complex strings and sequences, with loops, conditionals, etc. Awbie’s adventures are motivating and appealing to young children.   Excellent for both independent and interactive play with others, once again reinforcing the power of the iPad as a learning and social tool.

Watch for future reviews of the new Coding Jam app, which combines coding and music and for a more detailed review of the iPhone Base.



Tiggly has created three learning games — Tiggly Shapes, Tiggly Math and Tiggly Words — that have manipulatives that work along with a series of apps on the iPad 2, 3, 4, Air, iPad Mini and iPad Pro (see Using Manipulatives with the iPad, Special World January 2016 for more detailed review). The interactive pieces that go with the sets are 3D objects that the iPad recognises. The shapes (circle, square, triangle and star), counting pieces ( five number strips: a red with one square, yellow with two, green with three, blue with four and purple with five squares) and letters (a, e, i, o & u) have silicone touch points so the tablet recognises and reacts to them when they touch the screen. The free Tiggly apps can also be played in eight different languages (and without the manipulatives, if desired).

Tiggly Chef Subtraction: 1st Grade Math is the newest Tiggly app. A good companion to the original Tiggly Chef: Preschool Math, this app lets children explore subtraction by taking away the extra ingredients to get to the exact number needed for experiments.  Children are encouraged to think flexibly about numbers and to arrive at the answers in many different ways. Mathematics symbols are explained and the game can be played either with or without the Tiggly number lines. In addition to challenges at increasingly higher levels of math difficulty, the app features three kitchen labs, with unique flavour bits and surprising dishes with funny names that will amuse the children, as well as 12 ‘experiment-gone-wrong reactions’ and the ability to create your own concoctions.

Coming Soon —Tiggly Digits & Symbols: Designed especially for pre-K to 2nd grade classes, this new Tiggly math system will include five sets of Tiggly Digits (each set has 11 manipulative 0-10), five sets of Tiggly Symbols (+ – = > ) and unlimited licenses to download the related apps. This system is available in English and Spanish, and is aligned with all Kindergarten and 1st grade math common core, and other standards. Watch for review in the future.

If you aren’t familiar with Tiggly Shapes, Tiggly Math and Tiggly Words, visit the website ( for more information and to see some videos of Tiggly in action. You can also download the free apps to try them out. You can also read Using Manipulatives with the iPad, Special World, January 2016.

Author’s Note: It is important to protect online privacy for both children and adults. Many toys and apps now have wireless and Bluetooth connections that can send and receive information. It is important that parents and professionals in the USA learn about COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) and read and understand all Privacy Policies on all apps before they accept them and enter any identifying information.

Users in other countries should familiarise themselves with similar local legislation covering online privacy. Find out which information you can opt out of — and consider entering no optional information. Try to remember to turn off location services on children’s tablets and phones so that photos are not tagged with their geographical locations. Turn off toys when they aren’t being used. For further information for users in the USA see and


About Contributors

Joan Tanenhaus, MA, CCC, speech-language pathologist/assistive technology specialist, is Founder and Executive Director of Technology for Language and Learning, Inc., a non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing the use of computers and technology with children and adults with special needs. (e-mail:

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