Ballyland is a fictional location that most of the apps and programs created by Sonokids take place. There are five familiar characters that inhabit Ballyland. They are Ballicopter, Babballoony, Tinkleball, Squeaky, and Wheelie. Young children enjoy the fun and familiar characters and are generally motivated to participate in digital learning activities involving them.
The program can be downloaded from the Sonokids website (please see the resources section for a direct link). In addition to the full version, there is a free trial available that opens three times and includes only the first two games that exist in the full version. This review is based on the full version of the program.
Upon opening the program, the first thing you will see is a dialogue asking if your keyboard has a number pad. Once you select the option that applies to your current setup, you will be taken to the main screen where a song introducing the Ballylanders begins (you may skip the intro by pressing any key).
After the song has ended, the main menu appears. There are eight games to choose from, each of which focuses on a specific skill or key on the keyboard. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on only the first three games in the menu.
In this game, for any key pressed, the student is presented with a sound effect, a corresponding picture, and a voice saying what the picture and sound are. Each key has an “assigned” sound, which helps reinforce the concept that each key has its own purpose even though he or she may not be able to spell or recognize the letters.
There are many activities that a teacher or parent could create and use in conjunction with this game that help reinforce concepts and ideas. Examples include memory games or sound associations.
The second game we’re going to look at is the Spacebar Keygame. In this game, Ballicopter is hovering over a field of tall grass. When the player presses the spacebar (and only the spacebar) Ballicopter lands and a random sound plays. The player is instructed to “listen for the duck” and when Ballicopter lands on the duck, the Ballylanders all cheer “hooray!” Regardless of what sound Ballicopter lands on, the player may continue the game until an adult exits by using the appropriate key command or clicks the mouse on the “Quit” button on the bottom right of the screen.
This game obviously is meant to emphasize and teach the student to use the spacebar and locate it on a keyboard. The game is flexible enough, however, to allow a teacher or parent to work with a child on other skills while playing the game such as turn taking (when appropriate), sound identification, counting, or pretty much any other skill he or she feels will bundle in well with the game.
The third and final game we will look at in detail is the Escape Key Game. In this game, Babballoony is riding a train that stops at several stations. When the train stops, the player presses the escape key so that Babballoony can get off the train at a given station. When he disembarks, a short soundtrack that correspond with the name of the station plays for 20-30 seconds, then Baballoony gets back on the train and can get off again at another stop if the player so chooses.
It should be noted that if the player does not press the escape key (and only the escape key) Babballoony will not get off the train and it will go on to the next station.
As with the two other games discussed, a teacher or parent can pair the game with appropriate activities for the student which may include following directions or turn-taking.
There are five other games that focus on the three remaining keys. Tinkleball’s game focuses on the Enter key, Wheelie’s game focuses on the Right Arrow, and Squeaky’s game is focused on the left arrow. There is another game that puts the Right and Left Arrows together in the same game with both Squeaky and Wheelie.
There is also a final game that ties all the other games together. In The Sun Game, players are prompted to press the key associated with each Ballylander to help him or her get back into the basket for the end of the day. There is a nice song that plays as part of the game and when everyone is back in the basket, the screen dims and the song fades.
The settings part of the program is pretty self-explanatory, but it is important for teachers and parents to know it is there and what it does.
To get to the settings, you may either click the “settings” button in the bottom corner of the screen or press Shift + S at any time. Within that menu are all the keyboard shortcuts that can be used by an adult to facilitate the use of the game (these same keystrokes are also found on the product page of the Sonokids website). Additionally, there is a toggle switch at the top that turns the self-voicing of the program on or off.
This may seem like a very simple program, and it is BUT what’s really cool about it is that the teacher or parent working with the child can create all sorts of different games that reinforce not only the keyboarding skills they are working on, but other skills of the adult’s choice. For example, in the Spacebar Keygame, when Ballicopter lands on a sound other than the duck, the adult can ask the child to perform another action (for a cow, touch your nose, for a dog clap your hands, etc). These extra little games can be added to keep the child’s interest when waiting or the game can be played as-is.
Some of the games are more visually complex than others, but a student with low vision can quite likely enjoy the animations, at least to some degree. Students with CVI might have some difficulty with the more complex visuals, but that does not stop them benefitting from the fun opportunity to process what is happening before needing to react.
For some students, the visuals may be overstimulating and in that case, the monitor can be disengaged so that the child is only presented with the sounds (assuming the speakers are not built into the monitor). This may allow him or her to streamline their focus and allow them to concentrate on listening without visual distractions.
One thought for developers to implement in future versions involves the Any Key Goes game. It might be fun to associate sounds played when pressing the key with the letter the key represents. For example, assign a toothbrushing sound to the letter T or the airplane to the letter A. It’s just a simple thought, but the game works perfectly well as is and has plenty of uses on its own.
An idea that might be fun and interesting for consumers is to connect a switch to the PC and assign a keyboard key to that switch. That way, students who have additional needs can play the game and get the fun feedback that other students have. This author has not personally explored this idea, but it is certainly worth looking into.
Overall, this is an excellent program for use with children who have special needs or even children who do not have special needs. It’s a great way of promoting inclusion across environments and allowing kids to bond over a shared experience.
Dr. Robinson’s YouTube Video of Ballyland Keyboarding
Ballyland on Facebook