Best Apps For Connecting With Distant Relatives

9:04 AM, Jan 20, 2014   |    comments
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By Jinny Gudmundsen , Special to USA TODAY

After spending time with relatives over the holidays, are your kids now going through "grandma withdrawal"? Perhaps they're missing curling up in grandpa's lap to read a book or doing an art project with their favorite aunt?

Several iOS app developers have come up with offer clever solutions to connect kids to distant relatives. Two apps set up video chats to read books together; another provides a connected drawing space to share ideas. Another offers coloring pages and games on a shared screen so distant relatives can draw with kids while talking. Here are the details.

USTYME

ustyme, best for ages 2-8, Free, iPad

Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)

Developed by a pair of grandparents who were frustrated with not being able to keep their grandchildren's attention over Skype, this platform lets family members share books and games while being on a real-time video call. Kids see their relative in the video chat box in the upper-left corner, while the screen fills with either a book or a game to explore together.

You get two books and one game (Rock, Paper, Scissors) for free. But the platform has over 50 books that range in price from $.99 to $1.99. Families can also purchase five other games: Checkers, Chess, 4 in a Row, Go Fish and Memory.

This app shines because it is simple to set up (both parties simply download the free app), and it works by using either Wi-Fi or a cellular connection. This iPad to iPad connection lets either party share content - both parties need not own it. While adults may miss the second video screen that lets them see themselves, its absence is purposeful. The founders didn't want kids to be distracted watching their own antics; rather, they wanted them to focus on looking at their relative and reading. The concept of turning books and games from "me" time into "us" time is brilliantly executed in this app.

KINDOMA STORYTIME

Kindoma, best for ages 2-7, Free, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad

Rating: 4 stars

I first reviewed this book-reading service back in May, and since that time it has greatly expanded. The app now provides a library of more than 200 books to read aloud with a family member who is physically distant. And the service, which works using Wi-Fi or cellular, has expanded beyond the iPad to now include the iPhone and iPod Touch.

After both parties have downloaded this free app, your child meets up with the relative inside the app to read a book together while video chatting. With an iPad, kids see their loved one appear in the upper left, while they see themselves in the upper right. On an iPhone or iPod Touch, you just see your relative. Most of the screen is filled up with the book to read.

The app magically shows you where the other person's hand is pointing on the page as you share a story together. This allows for fun interchanges involving questions and answers.

This excellent service comes with access to over 10 free books, and you can buy additional books that cost $2.99 to $12.99, or you can gain unlimited access to all of the books for a membership of $6.99 per month. The books can be filtered by age, making it easy to find an age-appropriate book.

DRAWING TOGETHER!

Tipitap Inc., best for ages 3-7, $1.99, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad

Rating: 3.5 stars

This app lets kids share drawing activities with a family member during a live call set up from inside the app. Both parties need to own the app, and then they share a unique code to connect. Once inside, the clean interface offers blank sheets on which to draw, as well as 28 coloring pages featuring kid-friendly themes. There are also six paper games, such as Tic-Tac-Toe and Dots and Boxes.

Either party can select what to jointly color while talking. Easy-to-use crayons, colored pencils and stickers appear on the left. Additional coloring packs are available as a $.99 in-app purchase.

"Drawing Together!" worked well once I got it to connect to others, but sometimes it took several tries to connect. It can work using Wi-Fi or cellular, but it needs a strong connection. Also, the app is a little buggy about recalling artwork or games already started so that you could continue. Even with these issues, this app is worth exploring. "Drawing Together!" is a great way to connect with loved ones over shared art.

SCOODLE JAM

Scoot & Doodle, Inc, best for ages 13-up, Free, iPad

Rating: 4 stars

"Scoodle Jam" creates a cooperative drawing space on your iPad for teens to use with their Facebook friends over Wi-Fi. Both parties must download the free app and they connect via the app accessing their Facebook account. As such, this is an app for kids ages 13 and older.

Once you and a friend or relative land inside of the app, it encourages collaboration with open space and onscreen art tools and stamps. You and your friend appear via video displayed as the faces of two cute cartoony beany bodies at the bottom of the screen. The app allows simultaneously drawing so you see what your friend is drawing, and you can add to it.

This app is an exciting place in which teens can share things with their grandparents or other relatives. To help get the collaborative juices flowing, the app provides 18 scene starters, including a blank comic strip with the prompt "Tell Your Story." Or you can create your own scene by selecting a photo from your camera roll. This way the app could be used for homework help, planning a trip or having a grandparent join in a design project.


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