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Not your mama's Highlights magazine

Highlights, that ubiquitous magazine in the waiting rooms of childhood, has gone interactive.

Highlights Every Day, a new app from the magazine publisher, goes beyond simply making the children’s magazine digital. It translates the immersive experience of delving into a Highlights magazine into the lexicon of today’s mobile natives – our kids.

The app offers new content every day with a subscription priced at $7.99 a month. While it’s rated for kids ages 4 and up, younger users might enjoy the app as well.

Content is broken down into four basic categories: stories, puzzles, videos and quizzes. The first time you launch the app that day, a present appears. You tap it to unwrap the day’s content, up to five things to read, watch or do.

My kids and I played around in the free offerings a bit before dinner, warming up with some Hidden Picture puzzles to sharpen our focus.

My 5-year-old, a new reader interested in space, tapped on a story about how stars explode and a video about Pluto. The story was contained to two pages and was meaty enough to be educational and short enough to keep him engaged and seeking more. The Pluto video was current with details about the images sent back last fall by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.

Stories in the app work like the mobile books kids have been growing up with, complete with vibrant photos or illustrations and the three modes of reading – narrated, autoplay and read by myself.

The narrated read-to-me function includes a mix of male and female readers of a variety of ages, including children. In terms of the story content we sampled, there was a mix of science, illustrated fiction, discussion prompts and the arts.

Text is highlighted in groups rather than as each word is being read, as many of the digital interactive readers out there do. I was told the app’s focus isn’t necessarily on pre- and early readers, but they may add the word-by-word reading functionality in a later iteration.  

The interactivity on the highly addictive Highlights staple Hidden Pictures is a welcome update to the flat page experience, with subtly embedded images highlighted when tapped and hints popping up long enough to help but not ruin the fun of discovery. The object search puzzles in particular are challenging enough to keep more advanced children engaged as well.

For my family, the puzzles really were the most engaging aspect of the app, with the stories and quizzes tied for a close second.

Some of the quizzes feel a bit like the popular mental molasses of Buzzfeed – with quizzes like what animal are you? – and others actually test knowledge.

The videos had a nice mix of real children discussing issues submitted by readers and performing jokes corny enough to elicit a knee slap from a kid and a groan with eye roll from an adult. There were also educational videos with text on screen to highlight points in the narration, always tying the experience back to the skill of reading.

In a news release about the app, Kent Johnson, CEO if Highlights for Children Inc., explained: “What’s truly unique about Highlights Every Day is that it’s neither a digital replica nor a replacement for our much-loved print publication, but an easy-to-consume, mobile platform inspired by Highlights magazine.”

While there’s much promise in the app for young readers, it was still a little buggy when we played with it. The forward page prompt was not responding in self-guided reading, for instance, and the narrated read is a bit rough in transition between pages – but these are easily fixed with a quick update.

An urgent request: Please include a way to shut off that incessantly upbeat background music. I’d be happy to hand the tablet to my kids and let them play with Highlights Every Day, but it has to not drive me insane while it’s being used.

Another request would be to possibly allow parents to track locally on the device how much time their kids are spending reading versus the other activities in the app. 

Overall, the Highlights Every Day app seems to make the most of the screen time that parents do allow their kids to have. That said, even as it offers daily content, what amounts to $96 a year is a bit steep for what the ecosystem has trained families to expect to pay. 

There’s a seven-day trial period, to let you get a sense of how your kids interact with the content. Just be aware that whatever card you have set up with your App Store will get charged after that period if you don’t opt out, according to the terms of service. Even if you don’t yet decide to use the free trial, you can play around with some of the content and get a feel for what’s there.

The app, developed in partnership with San Francisco-startup Fingerprint, is compatible with Apple devices using iOS 8 and up and some Android devices via Google Play.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
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