Category Archives: Parenting

Knutson son

The Importance of Play in the Homeschool Curriculum

The following guest post is by Angie Knutson, whose My Four Monkeys blog reviews products through her unique lens as both mom and homeschool educator.  Angie believes in the power of learning through play and has integrated games into her teaching!  Check out her post on using What’s GNU to build language skills!  Here she shares her thoughts on the importance of incorporating free play into her kids’ lives.

If you’re a fan of ThinkFun, you know that they create their fantastic games with the belief that children learn best while at play.  As a mom and a homeschooler, I completely agree, and I have seen the proof with my own eyes. I’m a mom of four children, ranging in age from 2 to 9 years of age. We just started our sixth year of homeschooling, and like every other year, unstructured playtime plays an important role in our weekly school schedule.

One of Angie's "4 Monkeys" playing What's Gnu?

So many moms and dads try to have every minute scheduled, especially homeschooling parents. Many times even their free time is scheduled with what activity they are going to do and how long they’re going to do it. I think many parents suffer from the same fears that I have from time to time – the fear that if we don’t do things perfectly, our children will end up ignorant and uneducated. While there definitely needs to be a core curriculum, we often forget the values of recess or free time. Parents sometimes go overboard with scheduled activities, leaving very little free time for their children.

The Knutson kids enjoy a game of Zingo! to Go!

We take a full hour, sometimes more, every school day at lunch time for free time. We also only do school four days a week, and we spend our extra day playing games, jumping on the trampoline, or creating with arts and crafts supplies. Free time really means free time at our house! I don’t usually plan an activity or decide how long we will spend doing it, and I often let the kids figure this out on their own without any help from me. This is an important part of the learning!

Our kids learn by using their creativity to come up with their own activities, and we have plenty of games, arts and crafts supplies, books, etc. all very easily accessible to them. They don’t always enjoy cleaning up the mess after they’ve decided to spend an hour creating a construction paper jungle in their bedroom, but they had fun doing it and it was their creation. We have even been known to have a movie marathon complete with soda and popcorn on a rainy day! {gasp}.

Over time, I have realized that the more stressed I am about making sure we fit everything into the schedule, the more stressed the kids are. I try to stay calm and laid-back, while still doing my job as their teacher and mom. Plus, when they’re elementary aged and younger, they always learn best when playing. Whether its educational games like the ones created by ThinkFun, coloring, or just listening to music and dancing, they retain the information much longer when they learn it while they’re having fun.

It’s not all about education, though. Games are a great way of spending time together as a family, a perfect way to unwind and create memories. Family Game Night isn’t just a good idea – it’s a must for families. For us, it’s our way of reconnecting and bonding, an opportunity to teach or just plain laugh!

Learning by Losing… Why Winning is Overrated

No one ever sets out to lose a game, but experiencing defeat in a safe, supportive play setting can actually build critical life skills!  Here are 5 life lessons we can learn by losing, plus tips to help parents and teachers drive them home.  Who knew you could gain so much by losing?!

5 Life Lessons Learned by Losing (say that 10 times fast!)

This dog is taking a Zingo! loss pretty hard...

1. Look before you leap. Often a careless move can be a game-changer, so encourage players to analyze their options and calculate the risks before deciding on a move. Practice patience and planning by playing a few rounds with extra “think time” before a player can move, and talk through the possible consequences of all move options.

2. Never fear… Persevere! When players find themselves with the odds stacked against them, it’s tempting to throw in the towel.  Encourage stick-to-it-iveness in players teetering on the edge of quitting by teaming up and looking for new ways to turn the game around together. Even when down to your last fingernail in Hangman, there’s still a chance!

3. Think like your opponent. In a game of strategy, focusing solely on your own moves leaves you wide open to an opponent’s sneaky plans!  Learn how to be at least one step ahead of your challenger by paying close attention to her moves.  Before deciding on your next step, look at the board through your opponent’s eyes to see what she’s got cooking… your best move could be a defensive one.

4. Learn to empathize. No one likes to be on the losing end, and an obnoxious opponent can make a defeat all the more crushing.  Ask players to share how it feels when you lose, and brainstorm comments they would find most supportive.  In the classroom, posting a list of encouraging phrases generated by students in your game area (i.e. “You played really well!,” “Why don’t you pick the next game?” etc.) is a powerful reminder of the impact of our words and the importance of being respectful both in victory and defeat.

5. You win some, you lose some. Remember, this is game play we’re talking about, so above all else, relax and Have Fun!  Understandably, players may mope and feel disappointed after a loss.  Validate these feelings and help them move on.  Practice with quick-play games that last only a few minutes so players can easily jump into the next round to start fresh.  Being faced with the prospect of fun game time ending makes it much more appealing to get back on the horse and give a game another shot!

Struggling to help a sore loser?  Here are more dos and don’ts for turning losses into learning opportunities!

What has losing taught you, either as a child or grown-up?  Have tips for helping kids cope with defeat?  Please share!

Meet Max

One of the perks of working at ThinkFun is hearing about how our games affect the lives of the children that play them. Just had to share Max’s story, emailed to ThinkFun CEO Andrea Barthello by his mother Aileen… stories like this are what keep us going!

Meet Max, a ThinkFun fan through and through!

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I felt that it was important for you to hear from “just another Mom” about how terrific your products really are. My six-year old Max literally is addicted to the “Chocolate Fix” and the “Rush Hour Jr.” and my 3 year old Sophie loves Zingo which has become her special game that she plays with her Pop Pop (he’s 73 and loves the games just as much!). To watch the two of them fight over BUG or both grab for a FOOT as they scream the word is really a sight to see.

For kids like Max, finding independent games that are fun, challenging, mind-opening and clever are few and far between….. but you seem to really have a handle on this niche. Today when I took a turn at “Chocolate Fix” he made a comment like “Hurry Mommy, customers are waiting!”

If you do ever need game tester, he’d be the first to line up. He’s a true gamer….. and finds games with strategy the most interesting. He’s as competitive with himself as he is with others. And, he just loves the “purity” of your themes (the ice cream truck, chocolates in a box.) He actually finds joy in that. I have caught him making up a story about the truck and how it has to pass the sports car, fire truck, etc. to get to the kids waiting for the ice cream.

That is another element of your product that really appeals to me as a parent. The conceptual relation and problem solving strategies increase in difficulty and can become quite complex — yet you have not lost sight of the fact that the ones playing the games ARE kids. Think Fun certainly serves up unique, tickle your brain challenges but the context for the games seem to be simple, pure and fun.”

Thank you for sharing, Aileen!

The Serious Work of Play

The following is an excerpt from my guest post for Everything Mom!

The last precious weeks of summer are upon us… time for a final dip in the pool, a last popsicle in the park, and some eleventh hour speed reading of assigned summer books. The excitement of returning to old friends and new teachers has kids buzzing, but the implicit message in “Back to School” is that playtime is over. While the lazy days of summer rarely mean months of idle lounging, they do provide vital goof-off time… and this unstructured play is something to hold on to year round.


With high-stakes testing and budgets that cut arts, P.E., even recess, kids spend less and less of their school lives engaging in activities that allow for play and discovery… and their creative mental muscles pay the price. In today’s rapidly changing world, kids not only need multiplication facts and rules for comma usage, but they must also be equipped to solve problems yet to be imagined. With schools still hammering away at the 3 R’s of yore, there’s a 4th R our kids desperately need: Reasoning.

This fall, before you whip out the calendar and wedge an hour of intensive Reasoning training between gymnastics and violin, there’s good news! Reasoning and creative thinking develop naturally when kids have real, meaningful problems to solve… and you’d be amazed how many “problems” surface when kids have the freedom to simply muck about and play! Call it what you want… “Goof-Off Hour,” “Let Loose Time…” the important thing is that, as backwards as it sounds, you make time for your kids to do nothing!

Some tips to make free play a part of your life year-round: (Click to continue reading…)

All learners can shine through play

I am thrilled to share the following guest post by Pia Prenevost!  In her blog The Crack and the Light, Pia shares her journey raising her son Jonathan who struggles with a severe speech/language disorder.

Teaching J-man To Play

Adorable. That defines my son J-man, with big blue eyes and those lashes that cosmetic companies would kill to be able to produce. He has an easygoing personality and is remarkably bright, especially when you consider that J-man has a severe speech/language delay. He is 3 ½ years old, and his language tests at about 16-18 months old. We have had him in some type of early intervention/speech therapy since he was about 15 months old. His disabilities are unusual. He does not fit into a typical Autism Spectrum diagnosis, but his speech/language disorder is severe and has impacted his ability to both understand the world and to communicate with it.

Early on in our journey, I learned about Stanley Greenspan’s DIR/Floortime model. The Floortime model advocates meeting the child where they are at developmentally and entering their world to play. This style of play allows the building of relationships to occur, thus furthering communication and interaction. For children with significant language issues, this relationship building is incredibly important. It is also remarkably difficult for a parent. Often, these children have their own agenda. Some children on ‘the spectrum’ are withdrawn from the world, exhibiting real difficulty engaging and interacting with others. Other children with language disorders, like my son Jonathan, may have real interest in interacting and playing with others, but do not have the language skills to do so. Many times they become disengaged from others simply because of the communication barriers in place.

Our approach to play with Jonathan has therefore been very focused on meeting him where he is at developmentally. Note, not chronologically….developmentally. It can be a struggle (especially for others) to recognize that although he looks like a three year old… and at times acts like a three year old… his language is not there yet. And his play behavior follows suit.

J-man is also what I call an “extreme” visual-spatial learner and problem solver. He can do 40-50 piece interlocking puzzles. He amazed us last month with the recitation of his ABCs by identifying them on a piece of playground equipment without ever learning them from us (no doubt Sesame Street and Super Why helped). At 2 ½ years old and within one month, he went from having no words or signs to having over 40 signs, just from watching the newly acquired Signing Time videos. He constantly amazes us with his ability to learn an activity and tasks just from watching others do it, or purely through his own exploration.

Many of the toys and games we have provided J-man focus on capitalizing on these “hidden talents” while (hopefully) encouraging the acquisition of language. We have found that the most effective way to encourage learning and play is by letting him take the lead, and modeling in those moments little bits of language and communication. At times, this can be a struggle. J-man certainly prefers things to be his way. Indeed, we have often been mournfully aware that we are creating a little ‘prince’. He needs to feel successful and in control to be engaged and willing to learn, and I work hard to discover new toys and games to peek his interest. Hopefully, providing these new play opportunities will push J-man to use or try new language skills.

Some guidelines I try and live by:

1. Think outside “the box.” Recently I purchased the game Zingo! Zingo! is tagged ‘Bingo with a Zing’, and consists of a series of pieces with words/pictures and associated bingo cards. There is a plastic machine that allows you to distribute the tiles by sliding it back and forth.

Here is J-Man with Zingo! in action:

While this game is meant for older children, or children with significantly more sophisticated language skills than my boy, this game does have numerous features he loves. He loves the pieces, with the words and pictures on them. He loves matching them to the cards. He loved figuring out the machine and sliding it back and forth to get out the pieces. Each of these features capitalizes on his visual-spacial skills and his awesome problem solving abilities. However, I get to ‘backdoor’ in some language. He is exposed to words and picture associations. I label, label, label…each game tile, each action.

He engages with me, needing my help and assistance to get the game going. We practice turn-taking and following simple directions. And as he grows, this game will grow with him, as I find new and inventive ways to keep him engaged.  Thinking outside of the game or toy’s original intent, and using it in new and creative ways, is important. It is also important to allow the child to just explore the game and come up with their own “story.”

2. Respect where they are at and don’t expect more than that…Today. Many a time I have been sad or frustrated that J-man doesn’t play with toys the way he is ‘suppose’ to, or the his peers play with them. However, when I remember where he is at developmentally, I realize he really is doing exactly what he needs to be doing right now. If I expected J-man to have sophisticated imaginative play right now, I am not honoring his current language development. Indeed, his imaginative play is just now starting to emerge, and it is thrilling to see.

We have loaded the house with action figures (Buzz Lightyear and Woody, anyone?!?), trains, cars, dollhouses and dress up clothes, and he is embracing this play with gusto. But he needed to do it in his own time and in his own way. He loves puzzles, problem solving toys and games, and is very intent in figuring these things out by himself. If I interrupt his play with a new, interesting toy, I will invariably get the cold shoulder. I could worry… be concerned about his ability to engage in joint attention and reciprocal play. I am not. I know him, and I recognize his intense desire to work these problems out on his own. Once he has, there is room for me in his play. Sometimes I think that the intensity he needs to engage in that new, exciting, problem solving toy is at odds with the focus needed to include me and my language filled agenda in the action. So if I step back, allow him space and quiet, I can be part of the action without interrupting the flow.

3. The play is the thing! Shakespeare was right. In the end, it really isn’t about ‘teaching’ or ‘therapy’. While toys and games can be used therapeutically, that is not their purpose either. For us, it is about having fun. Without fun, no learning would ever really take place. Focus too much on the goal of learning, and not just enjoyment of life, and we lose him. However, get his spark through fun and play, and he learns in spite of us.

Raising a child with a disability is hard. It requires more energy and commitment than anybody can imagine. It is incredibly difficult to balance the intense desire to help your child, to give your child every opportunity, and the desire to just have a normal parenting life. I made the decision some time ago that I am J-man’s mommy first, everything else second. So I think about what will help him learn, what will further his ‘therapeutic goals’, but I don’t let it be the center of our universe. We are all happier as a result.

In addition to writing the blog The Crack and the Light, Pia Prenevost works as a NICU nurse, dabbles in writing, and is the completely smitten mother of the J-man.

The power of play to reveal and strengthen a child’s cognitive abilities is incredible… what have you learned about your child by watching him/her play?  What guidelines or tips have you discovered to help support his/her learning through play?  Please share!

Stop Summer Slide!

A steady 10 week summer diet of tv and cannonballs in the pool can do a lot more damage than we realize. Referred to as Summer Slide or Brain Drain, learning loss is inevitable when kids go long stretches without engaging in learning experiences. Most students lose an average of 2 months of math skills, and low income students are at far greater risk, falling behind an average 2-3 months in reading skills.

The good kind of "summer slide!"

“So what can we do?!” concerned parents ask at end-of-year conferences. While hiring tutors or enrolling in summer school programs are great choices for some, for many families any teaching that happens over the summer months falls to the parents, and putting on that Teacher Hat can be a daunting prospect!

As teachers, it’s easy enough to provide parents with worksheets, reading logs, and math drills, but this can easily backfire and set families up for a summer of battles. Parents often feel they need to structure learning as “sit down and finish 3 workbook pages,” prying kids from a fun activity and making learning time the equivalent of force-feeding brussel sprouts.

Leaping... Learning... how about a bit of both?!

The key to helping parents support their child’s continued growth over the summer is giving them the tools to make it fun and seamless, and there are great ideas out there! Need inspiration? Check out this family’s Garage Olympics – learning is EVERYWHERE here, but when bubbles and sprinklers are involved it hardly feels like a math class!

With some creativity, the possibilities for fun summer learning are endless, yet the transition from flashcards to hopscotch multiplication is often a stretch.

Teachers and Parents… Please share your ideas!

What can parents do to help their young learners stay on track over the summer… without sacrificing summer fun?  Sharing your tips by commenting below!

Summer Boredom Busters | Garage Olympics

Help! My kids are driving me C-R-A-Z-Y this summer!

As a mom of 3 kids: ages 6, 9 and 12 I totally GET how hard it is to keep kids busy, active and far away from the dreaded ‘B’ word! “I’m bored!” can be the hardest statement to hear… ALL SUMMER LONG…

This is my third year creating a Summer Boredom Buster series. Along the same creative lines of and SmartPlayBlog; I love finding ways to insert the ‘learning while playing’ kind of philosophy.

This year I’m featuring a Science Series! We started out with a Bug week and upcoming ideas include learning about small easy to make machines with levers and pulleys, a Gross Out week, and a How your Body Works week (learning about healthy foods in the bargain!).

Examples From Previous Summers:

Recently we held a Garage Olympics.

  • FIRST we worked up a super duper Lemonade Stand & Snow Cone station.

Complete with a giant poster and all the neighborhood kids we could locate! (We borrowed the snow cone maker – maybe your local school has one you can use?) Each Summer we run 3-4 lemonade stands and the kids choose a local organization to donate their proceeds. This summer we will donate to our town’s Foster Care Foundation.

  • SECOND we set up a Bubble Station.

You can divide up the kids at this point and move from station to station in cycles, but we found it was more fun in a big group! One person blows the bubbles and the kids attempt to pop all of them before any hit the ground. And then they tried to catch a bubble on their tongue! We talked about what bubbles are made of and they experimented with different ways to blow them and fun items around the house to make giant bubbles or tiny bubbles.

  • THIRD we played “write your name in water”.

We used dollar store water guns, but spray bottles would work too. They had to figure out the best way to hold the water guns, determine which way the wind was blowing, and we also talked about evaporation on a hot day. The best part was getting each other wet of course!

  • LAST we had a combined ball toss/sprinkler/water-bucket brigade.

This was mainly designed to get everyone soaking wet. But it also kept them active and taught them a few things. They learned how hard it is to toss a lightweight ball when the wind is blowing. And that a plastic bucket stands up better when it has a weight in it. Plus water cools you down on a hot summer day. We talked about the evaporative properties of water and how animals use water to cool off as well!

What ideas will you and your kids come up with for a summer time Garage Style Olympics!?

Carissa blogs at, and writes a parenting column for

Daddy Needs His iTouch back…

The following review is from a post by Damon Caporaso, dad of 3 and part owner of BSCkids and BSCreview, websites that provide a safe space filled with fun and engaging content for kids!

Rush Hour for the iPhone – iTouch – iPad – Review

I was just introduced to the fact that ThinkFun has a Rush Hour app for the iPhone/Touch/Pad family.  Now as you know we love Thinkfun games, well because they are fun and make you think, big surprise that a company name actually makes perfect marketing sense.  Well before I went to the Toy Fair this year I already knew a bit about ThinkFun as my one son got Rush Hour Jr. for Christmas.

He played for days and days then, and now he has already moved on to hoggin my iTouch from me to complete just another challenge in the Rush Hour app.  I really do not mind though as this really does help problem solving and it works great for a trip in the car.  I know if my wife has to run into the grocery store and I am staying in the car with the kids because she says it will be quick, this application is a life saver.  Quick is always such a relative term when it comes to shopping and this application can weather the storm of 15 minutes or more to get “a few things.”

What I really found nice was the fact that they included so many puzzles in the pay version of the application.  I believe it clocks in at 2500 challenges and just because you have gotten the red car out of the traffic jam does not mean that you have completed the game with with a “perfect score.”  That “perfect score” feature is very nice as it allows for even more replay ability and a greater sense of accomplishment.  You may not want your kids playing games that are mindless, but that is not what Thinkfun is about, you can feel very comfortable allowing your kids to have some play time with this application.  They will come away learning some good problem solving skills among other things.

Rush Hour iPad app in living color!

We have attached a screenshot for the iPad, and it looks stunning. Not to say that the iTouch/iPhone version is any slouch either as it looks great as well.  Download the app, you will not be disappointed.  My only complaint is that I get a lot less time on my own iTouch because of it, and that little kid fingers are not always the cleanest things in the house!

Celebrate Problem Solvers Everywhere!

As parents and teachers, we have endless opportunities to celebrate our kids’ achievements.  In school, bulletin boards become galleries to showcase budding artists and trophy cases boast athletic and academic victories.  As parents, we cheer our children on at spelling bees, science fairs, on the sidelines at soccer games, and in folding chairs at piano recitals – celebrating the product of much training and hard work.

As important as it is to recognize end results, we need to honor our children for their thinking processes along the way.  Parents and teachers today have a huge job to do – we must equip students to tackle 21st century challenges and prepare them for careers that have yet to be imagined… pretty daunting!  So how do we train our kids to be flexible, creative problem solvers and celebrate success when it comes to process thinking?

Showcase a Problem Solver of the Week!

A problem solver is anyone who sees something that needs to be fixed or improved and figures out a creative new way to do so.  Discuss with your child what it means to be a problem solver, and identify and celebrate creative thinking heroes together!

  • Overflowing stuffed animals in the toy chest?  Figure out a new way to use your space to find room for all your furry friends!
  • 1 pan of brownies and 15 hungry friends? A problem solver can help figure out how to divvy up the treats evenly!
  • Playing chess and realize you’re missing a Queen? A problem solver may invite a plastic dinosaur or spool of thread to take her place!

Encourage your child by celebrating his/her problem solving successes, and expand your hunt for Problem Solvers in your school community, in the news, history, science lessons, the possibilities are endless!

Need some inspiration?

Share the story of William Kamkwamba, a boy from Malawi who, using just a library book and scrap metal, built a windmill that brought electricity, and with it new hope, to his drought and famine-ravaged village!

Learning to Lose

No one likes to lose, but even fewer people like a sore loser!  While we all want our children to experience success, it is equally important to prepare them to handle defeat… and game play provides a safe and natural arena in which to practice this important life skill!

In a friendly game of Zingo!, for example, it can be tempting to simply let your child win every time.  This can actually do more harm than good, effectively teaching the inability to celebrate others’ success and making it more difficult down to road to cope with losing.  While I’m certainly not suggesting you play ruthlessly and crush your young opponent each time, gently competitive games provide a great opportunity to prepare your child for inevitable ups and downs in all arenas of life!

So how do we help kids deal with defeat?  In a recent article, Joy Berry, a child-development specialist and author of more than 250 children’s books, shares some dos and don’ts for turning losses into learning experiences:

  • Do let her feel disappointed. “Some parents are consumed with trying to avoid their child having any kind of disappointment, to the point of everyone on a team getting trophies or certificates so nobody feels bad,” Berry says. “It’s very noble, but disappointment prepares children for bigger disappointments later in life. You don’t want to raise a child who tears down the tents and goes home every time they’re disappointed.”
  • Don’t set your child up to fail. “Life is going to deal you enough blows,” Berry says. “We don’t need to set up failures for kids so they learn a lesson.” Choose age-appropriate activities for your child that he or she has a fair shot at winning. “Games that don’t take certain skills but are left to chance are a good way to level the playing field.”
  • Do have a post-game chat. “It’s important to say, ‘There is no way anyone wins all the time, and there are going to be some times when you lose. When you do, it’s important that you’re gracious. When you win, it’s important that you’re a gracious winner too.”
  • Don’t model sore loser-dom. “When your child beats you at a game, you can demonstrate how to be a good sport. ‘Congratulations for winning! Let’s play again!’ Tell them they did a great job and show them how to be a gracious loser.” Shake hands with, give a thumbs up to or high-five the loser
  • Do focus on the positive. “After a loss, say, ‘Great game. I really like the way you did this and this.’ Try to get them to focus on the things that did go right and emphasize the importance of doing that in every phase of life.”

Read the complete article Turn a sore loser into a good sport.

As the Education Specialist at ThinkFun, I write Parent’s Guides for our early learning games  (here’s the guide for S’Match!).  These guides help adults use games not only as fun and engaging activities, but also help them draw out learning opportunities and use games as teaching tools.  These guides share tips for supporting not only cognitive skills such as pattern recognition, word building, and number sense, but also for building critical social skills, like learning to win and lose graciously, through game play!

An excerpt from the What's GNU? Parent's Guide

How can parents and teachers turn a defeat into an opportunity for growth and learning? Please share YOUR tips and strategies for helping children cope with losing!