More milestones and some thoughts on the Zoo Train app

As part of our bedtime routine I typically give the boys a bath. Water can energize Owen so sometimes I change the timing of his, but Oliver usually finds a bath pretty relaxing so before bed works well for him. A couple of days ago I told Oliver it was time for his bath and he ran to the bathroom and started getting undressed. He then said “B-A-T-H, bath”. I had never heard him spell out a word before so I told him how impressed I was. He got in and started playing with his bath toys. He has a lot of ocean animals that he likes to put into a boat. He grabbed his boat and said “B-O-A-T, boat” then when he found his Orca he said “W-H-A-L-E, whale”. Oliver is echolalic and yet here he was using spontaneous, context-appropriate speech. I was both astounded and so very proud of him. I also knew exactly where he got the ability to do this – from playing the Zoo Train app on his iPad!

I’ve mentioned Zoo Train before in a post about Oliver getting a haircut. You can read that post here: If you’re not familiar with the app then you can see Gary James’ video review of it here: It’s a universal app so you can play it on the iPhone and iPod Touch as well as the iPad.

Oliver’s awesome feats of spelling prompted me to share some thoughts about why I think Zoo Train is a perfect app for our younger ASD kids.

The Music Game

Touching a whistle plays a note. If you touch the sheep, boat, star or mouse then the whistles play a song

I personally think this is the weakest game in the app. You can either passively listen to a song of your choice or you have to memorize the order the whistles are blown in so you can play a song by yourself. I would have liked to see some prompts enabling songs to be played without having to memorize all the notes.

Having said that, this game was an excellent way to get Owen interested in his iPad. Owen has fine motor challenges and when he perceives something as too challenging for him, he will typically grab an adult’s hand in order to request that they do things for him. With this game all he had to do was touch the screen and he could play with his iPad independently. He very quickly learned he could play both notes and songs without any assistance.

 The Train Building Game

In this game, you build your zoo train by dragging and dropping an engine and the animals of your choice. Your animated train then puffs through the scene you select.

This was the next step up for Owen. The drag and drop feature in this game is extremely forgiving which was perfect for him as he started to develop this skill. Once the train is completed, seeing it puff through a cute scene  accompanied by fun music is both immediate and very positive reinforcement for my boys. This game really encouraged Owen to work on his dragging skills and they have evolved from the very short finger flicks that he started with to a fully-fledged and deliberate “touch, press, drag, drop” move.

This section of the app has been great for Oliver as well in terms of encouraging his context-appropriate commenting and labelling. He will talk about the colours of the engines, the names of the different animals and the things he sees in the different scenes that his train chugs through. He will also put together sentences like “Passenger train, coming through!” and “Here comes the Zoo Train!” When Oliver watches television shows on DVD they tend to reinforce his delayed echolalia. In contrast, playing with an app like this encourages him to use spontaneous language that is also appropriate to the scene.

The Picture Puzzles

The pieces are dragged and dropped to form a picture. Once the picture is complete a little train moves a short way across the bottom of the screen. Once the train reaches the station then you get a sticker!

Unlike Oliver, Owen has never been hugely motivated by puzzles. He quite likes the Melissa and Doug Sound Puzzles but other than that he’s not terribly interested which, given his fine motor challenges, you can hardly blame him for! This game introduced him to the concept of doing puzzles on his iPad which is something he now loves to do. The dragging and dropping in the train building game above was very simple (all in one direction) and extremely forgiving. With the picture puzzles he has to be a little more exact with placement and he needs to drag the pieces in different directions. When the picture is complete, it is labelled both visually and verbally (see “Butterfly” above) which is perfect for our ASD kids: they see a picture and then both see and hear the word labelling that picture. The other element of this game that I like is the delayed gratification – a few picture puzzles have to be completed in order to earn a sticker. I love anything that teaches our kids to stick with something in order to get their reward!

The Track Puzzles


Drag and drop pieces into one big track. When complete a little train choo choos around the circuit that you've put together.

This game is another step up from the picture puzzles in terms of developing drag and drop skills. The boys need to be more exact in terms of placement and this game also requires that they put more thought into where to put the pieces. The pieces of track look exactly alike in every respect except shape, so this really focuses their attention on that aspect of matching. The game required a lot of hand over hand work with Owen for a while but now he can play it independently.
Word Game

In this game, letters are matched in order to form a word. Once the word is complete you hear the word spelled out and said in full and then see a picture of the word. The train then puffs off screen and another train with a different word takes it place.

This game is wonderful for learning letter recognition and matching. Again, the set up is great for our ASD children – a picture is matched with its visual and verbal label. The graphics are fun and the music, the cheering and the stickers are all reinforcing. Both boys love playing this game. The results are obvious in Oliver’s case as he’s generalizing the words he’s learning into other context-appropriate situations, but Owen is also learning his letters too, even if we don’t yet have verbal proof 🙂

All in all, I love this app and so do my boys. They’re learning skills and having fun. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments – on Zoo Train of course but also any other apps you have tried that you think seem to have been almost designed with ASD children in mind.

If you don’t yet have Zoo Train and want to buy it (the cost is $1.99) then please do so using the A4cwsn widget: Whenever you buy an app using the widget, 5% of the sale proceeds go to support A4cwsn’s campaigns to get tech into the hands of special needs children.

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5 Comments on “More milestones and some thoughts on the Zoo Train app”

  1. Gingerheaddad August 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    First off, yay to Oliver for using situation-appropriate words and spelling them. Yay to Owen for improving his fine motor skills. And yay to you for the amazing fundraising you did to get both boys iPads.

    This review is really useful because you tell us how the boys use the app and what progress they are making.

    Thank you so much for this and for mentioning the A4CWSN widget. I had no idea that could be done.

    • OMum22 August 2, 2011 at 9:32 pm #

      Thanks Jim. There’s lots of great reviews out there of this app. I didn’t really want to reiterate the same points but wanted to outline exactly how it has helped the boys so I’m glad that came across to you. The widget is great – you can buy absolutely any app through it!

  2. teriann Morgan August 16, 2011 at 3:51 am #

    Going to A4cwsn as soon as I get home to buy this one!

  3. Mary Irvin June 27, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    How did you get that app? I am having trouble finding it. I did see Gary’s review of it.

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