By now, you probably have downloaded and played with Toca Lab, the brand new app from Toca Boca. If you’re already familiar Toca Boca apps, you know that Toca Lab will have minimum amount of text and almost no instructions. Instead, kids are encouraged to explore what the app can do.
Based on my experience playing many Toca Boca apps, Toca Lab is probably the hardest one to crack. On the other hand, it offers a rewarding experience once you uncover its mysteries one at a time.
Understanding the Lab Equipments
The goal of Toca Lab is to introduce juniors to the periodic table of elements. Kids work their way through the periodic table one element at a time, using five types of lab equipments: oscilloscope, centrifuge, Bunsen burner, cooling agent, and test tubes.
The oscilloscope, located on the top left shelf, is used to measure the waves of electricity in an element. The centrifuge is used to spin an element, and the Bunsen burner to heat or sterilize.
The other two equipment are located on the right shelf of the lab. The cooling agent is used to freeze an element, and the test tubes are for experimenting with mysterious liquids which can affect the element.
Learn the Periodic Table
To perform an experiment on an element, simply choose a blob character from the periodic table. The app will hint at which experiments should be performed to unlock new elements (usually located adjacent to the selected element). Tap on the red arrow button to begin the experiment.
Often times you will find that the only hint that Toca Lab provides is a question mark. Remember that Toca Lab is all about exploration, hence you may need to try each lab equipment to find out which one will trigger the element transformation. However most of the equipment are very intuitive to use.
Both the oscilloscope and Bunsen burner are turned on/off easily using a slider. Kids can swipe left/right to spin the centrifuge, and hold to stop it from spinning. Kids can tap and hold to use the cooling agent, and drag the test tubes to pour the mysterious liquid into a bigger jar containing the element.
Each element has a default state of matter. For example, Oxygen’s default state is gas, Nickel’s is solid, and Aluminium’s is squishy. Understanding this information will help kids pick out which mysterious liquid mixture would affect each of the state of matter.
Solid elements react to a mixture of yellow and blue liquids, while gas reacts to yellow and purple liquids. Squishy elements only react to a blue and purple mix.
You will find that an element gets blown into six pieces when it reacts to changes. However chemical reactions can also transform the element into a new one, as kids will discover later on in the app.
Uncovering the Mysteries
Just like science, Toca Lab has a lot of mysteries waiting to be discovered. My observation of the state of matter only reveals the first of many mysteries. These mysteries won’t directly impact the ability to unlock all 118 elements, but uncovering them can be really rewarding.
The second mystery I have uncovered is some experiments will automatically be chained unless stopped. For example, putting Cadmium (48) into the oscilloscope will cause it to turn into Zinc (30) after a few seconds. If you don’t stop the reaction, Zinc will then transform into Copper (29), and then into Nickel (28).
Another example of automatic chaining happens when using the centrifuge. When you put Carbon (6) into the centrifuge, you will hear popping sound as the wheel spins. These sounds indicate that a transformation has happened. If you don’t stop the centrifuge from spinning, Carbon will continue to transform into Silicon (14), and then into Phosphorus (15).
As you learn the periodic table further, you will find infinite loops such as Gold’s transformation into Roentgenium (111) and back using the oscilloscope, or Flerovium’s transformation into Ununpentium (115) and back using the centrifuge.
Sometimes, the app will require kids to perform a mysterious transformation to jump to a non-adjacent element. These mysterious transformations typically involve blowing up the current element using a specific liquid mix.
Parents Need to Know
It’s important to keep in mind that Toca Lab is not meant to teach juniors about everything there is to learn about the periodic table of elements. While the positions of the elements in the table are accurate, the way elements transform is not. The app is merely a starting point for juniors to explore the topics further.
Paying attention to the elements in the table reveal that there are small red icons on some of them. The first red icon is a small red magnet which indicates that Chromium (24), Iron (26), Cobalt (27), and Nickel (28) are magnetic elements by nature.
However the other two icons are not that straightforward. One icon I assume indicates halogenic elements, as it is shared by elements in Group VIIA of the periodic table, from Fluorine (9) to Ununseptium (117).
I’m still trying to figure out what the other icon means -- all I know is that it’s given to elements with a double circle aura around them, such as Technotium (43) and Polonium (84). If you or your juniors happen to find out what the symbol means, do let me know. (Update: the symbol means the element is radioactive. Thank you to reader Contessa Lowery for pointing it out!)
Things I Like
I really like the exploration aspect of Toca Lab. My first phase of exploration was trying to figure out how the different lab equipments work. Then I went on to figure out how to unlock new elements using the hints provided in the periodic table. But it wasn’t until I read this quotation from the Play Designer that I realized I needed to treat Toca Lab more logically:
"We wanted to create an experience that is as mysterious as it is logical with cause and effect."
I then started to observe the three default states of matter for each element. I played around with the mysterious liquids to find out how the mixtures are related to the state of matter. Once I came up with a hypothesis, I tested it out and was very excited when I got confirmation here and there.
I stumbled upon the first chain reaction when I used the oscilloscope to transform Zinc (30) to unlock Copper (29). However the transformation ended in Nickel (28) because I didn’t stop the automatic chaining. Then I went on to test whether the other experiments also support automatic chaining.
I was a bit demotivated when I couldn’t figure out how to unlock some elements that didn’t have any adjacent transformations leading to it. Fortunately, I found out about the transformation that makes Flerovium (114) unlock Yilrium (39), which is located far away. I finally had hope unlocking Helium (2) and the elements in the D-Block.
I started moving more rapidly with an obsession to unlock all the elements. Apparently, there were still more surprises waiting for me: I was amazed when I found the Gold/Roentgenium and Flerovium/Ununpentium infinite loops.
Despite all the things that I have found, I know Toca Lab still offers a lot more to explore and learn. I know that each blob character has a different personality. They have different weight, texture, color, and even make different sound. I can’t wait to find out more about each of them, especially now that I have unlocked all 118 elements.
Toca Lab is an awesome exploratory app for juniors ages 7+ that introduces chemistry in a really fun way. The app highly values observation and analytic skills. The more patient you are and the more you explore, the more you will learn from this app. I can’t wait to what the "true lab" inside Toca Boca will bring next. I have faith that Toca Boca will continue to shape the way juniors learn in the future.
Get it on the App Store: iPad
App was provided for our honest review.