When it comes to clutter, my wife and I run a pretty tight ship. Before kids, we rolled with the whole “sparse” décor design scheme. After our firstborn, we committed to tossing out one toy for every new plaything that entered our home. But with the arrival of child number two, well, that’s when the flotsam of having kids started clogging up the waterways of our house. Not to mention the living room, and the bedroom, and the … yes, things started to get out of control. Which is why we decided to call a doctor — Dr. Panda, that is.
Dr. Panda Plus Home Designer is an augmented reality app that lets kids essentially design, build, and furnish their own virtual dollhouses. The keyword being, of course, virtual ⏤ so there’s no need to actually bring a dollhouse, or its million pieces, into your house. If you’ve never heard of the good doctor, it’s probably because you’re not a 5-year-old kid. But since 2011, this cuddly little Funko doll-shaped panda (and his pals) have been rocking the kid’s app market with titles like Dr. Panda School, Dr. Panda Restaurant, and even Dr. Panda Supermarket. (Hey, a panda’s got to eat, right?) With awards from several parenting groups, the titles have been lauded for being easy to use, not at all violent or scary, and very educational. This is the company’s first attempt at merging a real-world product with a touchscreen game.
Using little more than a box of flash cards and a bunch of markers, Dr. Panda has turned the tired old “just another app” concept into something refreshing and fun. They charge $39 for the privilege — which seems steep for little more than pens and paper — but never mind the value proposition. What you’re really paying for is an infinite collection of dollhouses, minus all the crap that comes with them. And if you consider how Dr. Panda Plus Home Designer won’t turn your living room into a pint-sized flea market every time your kid plays with it, that price is a bargain.
Essentially the app works like this: Kids can make their own dollhouses for Dr. Panda and all his pals. By scanning the flashcards (the box comes with 51 of them) with the smartphone or tablet’s camera, kids can add new items to the house — everything from bunk beds, to buddies, to bathtubs. When the object is imported, kids are prompted to spell out the new object by dragging letters scattered about the screen onto the corresponding letter shape. And once the word is formed — poof! — the object appears.
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Alternatively, on the back side of the card, there’s a black-and-white version of the object, which kids can color using the dry erase markers that come with the set. If the camera scans that side of the card instead, the object is imported, scribbles and all, with impressive accuracy. I must say, in my son’s version of Dr. Panda, everyone seems to have a passion for Zubaz pants.
In addition to never losing a four-inch sofa under my full-sized couch, one thing I love about the game is that it doesn’t push any commerce or in-app sales on my kid. It’s one of the few smartphone apps where I don’t have to block out pixels on the iPad’s screen using Guided Access. Dr. Panda Plus Home Designer is a perfect sandbox, a place where kids can play without having parents constantly looking over their shoulder.
And that, in turn, has made my 3-year-old son a more agile touchscreen user — a tool that, like it or not, will serve him well in his digital life. Since he’s started using the game, I’ve seen my boy swiping, pinching, and dragging with much more confidence than before.
But most importantly, and delightfully, it’s fun to watch and listen to him play with this little virtual dollhouse. Like The Sims, but for kids, Dr. Panda Plus Home Designer lets his imagination run wild and free. He tells the characters to be kind and to share with each other, messages that we as his parents are constantly repeating. And then, usually when he’s getting tired of the game, he inevitably asks his little digital pals to clean up their mess. He’s definitely our son, because as the head of Dr. Panda’s household, he runs a pretty tight ship.