Category Archives: Games at Home

Nina’s Rush Hour Victory!

This video made my day!  A father teaching in Japan recently shared this fantastic video of his 5 year old daughter Nina working diligently through tough Rush Hour challenges.  Her flushed cheeks and “tired brain” at the end are signs of a real mind workout!

I sent Nina’s dad a message congratulating Nina on her impressive problem solving and was thrilled to hear back right away…

“Wow! What an honor to get a message from you! I discovered Rush Hour 10 years ago, in the U.S. I enjoyed it so much, I bought one to take back to Japan. My Japanese wife loves it, too. After doing all the cards, we put it away and forgot about it until Nina came along. I thought five might be too young, but Nina surprised us!”

Bravo Nina!

It is such a thrill making connections with thinkers all over the world… do you have great photos or video of your favorite game(s) in action?  Please share!

Looking for a GNU Way to Play an Old Favorite?!

In a recent post on her family’s love of games, a mom of twins and former teacher shares the powerful ways games have integrated into her family’s lives.  From brain games that give mom and dad a mental workout when the kids go to bed to the apps that allow them to take their favorites with them on the go, this is a family who knows the value of play – and play they do!

Whats 7760 HiResSpill 300x300 Looking for a GNU Way to Play an Old Favorite?!As a former teacher, I most appreciated the ideas she shared with ways to modify the ThinkFun game What’s GNU? to make game play a truly intensive lesson in early word-building.  These little tweaks she added were all done organically to preserve the fun of play, and her daughter loved every minute!  As a parent and educator, she delighted in the fact that, due to the game setting and fun of play, her daughter “has no clue that she is practicing reading/spelling skills!”

Here is an excerpt from her post with some fantastic ideas to try at home:

Then I played their online version of What’s Gnu, which teaches reading/spelling skills and added that to the shopping list.  We don’t play it right now as they list in the rules.  Here’s how we use it:

  • Find the 14 word-ending cards.  If you’ve ever taught phonics, these are the word family cards (ig, an, at, ow, etc).
  • Sit across from one another and spread out your 7 cards in front of you.
  • Click the machine to spit out two letters.  The one closest to you is “your” letter.
  • Use it to form a word… if you can.  For the first round or two, you can usually use any letter.  But it gets harder once you have fewer cards.  For instance, let’s say that you’re down to “an” and “at” and the letter you get is “J” — that can’t be used to form a common word.  So you lose that turn.
  • Whoever fills all 7 cards first wins.
  • I have lost consistently every single time we’ve played.

Looking for more ideas for ways to use What’s GNU? to build your child’s skills?  Check out this fantastic post on ways a creative homeschooling mom uses What’s GNU as a fun learning tool!

Have you taken a game and changed the rules to build more fun and/or learning into your play?  Please share your ideas!

Gamifying the World!

A recent post by IDEO explores how gamification, (applying elements of game play into routine tasks), can incentivize even the most mundane chores, making trash collection exciting and saving the planet a thrill!  Read through the inspiring examples below… how could you turn an everyday chore into a game!?

Gamifying the World: Bringing elements of play to routine tasks can make the activities more tolerable — even fun.

By David Fetherstonhaugh

If you think e-mail is too time consuming, how about online games? A 2010 Nielsen survey of US consumers shows that Americans now spend more Internet hours playing games like Farmville than they do corresponding with other people.

Games attract human beings because we are wired for play. Designers can harness our desire to entertain ourselves by embedding game mechanics into all sorts of products and services. Play can transform arduous or mundane tasks, such as exercising and conserving energy, into less taxing, more enjoyable activities. In fact, the power of play is often most potent when gaming elements meld so completely into an experience that people do not interpret their activities as a game.

THE EVIDENCE: Stories from around the globe

text to haiti 245px Gamifying the World!

Charitable giving: A million drops fill a bucket

Albert Einstein is often credited with saying, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.” It must have been the physicist’s interest in big numbers that led him to observe our tendency to underestimate how quickly lots of little gains add up. People save less, vote less, and donate less as a result of this bias. Even folks who care deeply about worthy causes often forgo charitable giving because they believe their donation will be too small to matter. “Why bother?” they ask. “A measly twenty bucks is only a drop in the bucket!”

Savvy donation-based organizations are now trading routine pleas for donations for simple game dynamics to elicit micro-payments. The best-known example is the American Red Cross, which immediately after devastating earthquakes struck Haiti in early 2010 launched a relief campaign using mobile-phone texting — and raised $32 million in one month. The Red Cross eliminated the uncertainty and self-consciousness associated with small donations by issuing the clear and simple instruction: “Text ‘HAITI’ to 90999 to donate $10.” (The $10 was tacked onto donors’ wireless bills.) The nonprofit has since begun using the strategy to solicit larger donations to support other causes.

seedbombs 245px Gamifying the World!

Loose change buys environmental change

How many quarters does it take to transform urban blight? Fewer than you might think. CommonStudio, a design practice with an “urban social ecology” bent, is populating local bars, businesses, schools, and parks across the US with Greenaid vending machines. The machines dispense seedbombs, or gumball-sized orbs made of nutrient clay, compost, and seeds. For a couple of quarters, consumers can transform side yards, median strips, and vacant lots in their community from forgotten gray spaces into places to admire. Within days (weather permitting), green shoots color the landscape.

Greenaid is the brainchild of Daniel Phillips and Kim Karlsrud, who started the business after inheriting a collection of old gumball machines from Kim’s father. They originally filled them with candy, but no one was interested. After they started dispensing seedbombs, their vending business boomed.

garbage into green 245px Gamifying the World!

Students turn garbage into greenbacks

During lunchtime at the Foundation Academy in Winter Garden, Florida, many schoolkids are more excited about gathering trash than they are about eating. The students are in particularly hot pursuit of empty Capri Sun juice pouches. “They’ve collected 10,020 so far. The winning class gets an ice cream party,” an organizer of the three-month-long competition says.

The Foundation Academy is one of more than 36,000 grade schools in the US with an active “trash brigade.” The brigades are coordinated by TerraCycle, a manufacturer of eco-friendly products that connects the student garbage collectors with its partners, who buy and “upcycle” trash that’s otherwise un-recyclable. The schools get to keep the money, and the materials purchased get turned into new products, from backpacks to fencing gear, which are sold by Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and other major retailers.

To date, TerraCycle’s supply chain has channeled nearly 2 billion units of trash to 186 distinct product lines. By turning an onerous chore into a game, the company is helping to harness a new generation of eco-friendly citizens while driving its revenue above $50 million in 2010.

rx bottles 245px Gamifying the World!

Points make medicine, chores more attractive

Ask everyone in a given household what percentage of the chores they do, and the sum of their estimates will invariably add up to more than 100 percent.

ChoreWars.com corrects everyone’s math — and prompts people to pick up after themselves — by awarding each member of the household points for doing chores. Players adopt an avatar and compete for “treasure” by participating in “adventures.”

One happy mom who used the website says, “I sat down with the kids, showed them their characters and the adventures, and they literally jumped up and ran off to complete their chosen tasks. I’ve never seen my 8-year-old son make his bed [before]!”

Similarly, Health Honors uses the science of motivation to encourage healthy behaviors in medical patients. One of its medication-adherence programs taps into people’s desires to earn rewards and give back: Participants with diabetes receive points for taking their medication or learning more about their disease.

Health Honors pools the points earned by all patients in the program and donates matching funds — a dollar per point — from pharmaceutical companies to charities like the American Diabetes Association or the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Resource: Practicing routine healthy behaviors, especially as a patient, can be difficult, but Guide to Healthcare Schools can help future medical students find the best programs for encouraging and promoting healthy patient lifestyles.

The Case for Play

Came across a fantastic article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I just had to share.  This piece details the challenges that educators, researchers, and parents face today as free play is squeezed out of kids’ academic lives, marginalized by test-driven curricula, and pushed aside in favor of over-scheduled “downtime” by well-meaning adults seeking to give their kids a leg up.  The power of play cannot be overstated, and I particularly appreciated one of the comments in response:

BStevens: “This is kind of like discovering that people who eat live longer than people who don’t eat. I have a PhD, but I would say that 90% of the most useful things I know I learned either from my parents at home, my siblings, or from “free play” both as a child and as a grown-up.”

February 20, 2011

The Case for Play: How a handful of researchers are trying to save childhood.

By Tom Bartlett

Lucas Sherman and Aniyah McKenzie are building a house in Central Park. It is small, even by Manhattan standards, and the amenities leave something to be desired. But Lucas, who is 6, and Aniyah, who is 7, seem pleased with their handiwork. The house has a skylight (a hole torn in cardboard) and a flat-screen television (a black square of fabric). Lucas is too busy to answer a stranger’s annoying questions, but Aniyah, who is holding a feather duster, explains that she must clean the walls because they are very dirty.

Lucas’s father, Dan, observes the project from a nearby bench. “It’s amazing what you can do with boxes and junk,” he says.

photo 10230 portrait wide The Case for Play

Pretend play—being a chef "cooking" with Play-Doh, for example—may be essential to children's development, say some researchers.

Lucas Sherman and Aniyah McKenzie are building a house in Central Park. It is small, even by Manhattan standards, and the amenities leave something to be desired. But Lucas, who is 6, and Aniyah, who is 7, seem pleased with their handiwork. The house has a skylight (a hole torn in cardboard) and a flat-screen television (a black square of fabric). Lucas is too busy to answer a stranger’s annoying questions, but Aniyah, who is holding a feather duster, explains that she must clean the walls because they are very dirty.

Lucas’s father, Dan, observes the project from a nearby bench. “It’s amazing what you can do with boxes and junk,” he says.

That could almost be the slogan of the New York Coalition for Play, which provided the boxes and junk. The nonprofit association ran one of the two dozen booths at the Ultimate Block Party, an event last fall that brought together companies like Disney, Crayola, and Lego, along with researchers from Columbia and MIT, and attracted thousands of parents and children. The goal was to “celebrate the science of play” and to push back against the notion that education happens only when students are seated at their desks, staring at chalkboards, and scribbling furiously in their notebooks.

The rally of sorts was the brainchild of two top play researchers, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, the authors of Einstein Never Used Flashcards (Rodale, 2003) and editors, along with Dorothy Singer, of Play=Learning (Oxford University Press, 2006). They want to take what they’ve learned in the lab and proclaim it in the park, or wherever else people will listen. The message is this: The emphasis on standardized testing, on attempting to constantly monitor, measure, and quantify what students learn, has forced teachers to spend more of the school day engaged in so-called direct instruction and has substantially reduced or eliminated opportunities that children have for exploring, interacting, and learning on their own. Recess has, in many districts, vanished from the schedule entirely. After school, parents shuttle their kids from activity to activity, depriving them of unstructured time alone or with friends.

That matters, according to researchers, not just because play reduces stress and makes children more socially competent—which evidence suggests that it does. It matters also because play supposedly improves working memory and self-regulation; in other words, it makes kids sharper and better-behaved. So, ironically, by shortchanging them on play in favor of academics, we may actually be inhibiting their development. Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, considers the move away from play to be a crisis, even comparing it to global warming, in the sense that it may take years for the consequences to be felt. When it comes to the value of play, she declares: “The science is clear.”

But how clear is it? Even researchers who’ve devoted much of their careers to studying play question the more inflated claims of its importance. Within the world of those who take play seriously, there are multiple camps, each with its own dearly held tenets. There are the Free Players, who argue that play is a human right and that adults should more or less leave kids alone. There are the Play Skeptics, who see play as useful for blowing off steam but are dubious about its cognitive upside. And there are Play Moderates, who advocate a mix of free play, adult-guided play, and traditional classroom instruction. No matter whom you’re talking with, though, it seems every discussion about play eventually comes around to a prolific Russian psychologist who died more than 75 years ago.

Before tuberculosis claimed him, at just 37, Lev Vygotsky managed to produce a stack of volumes on topics as diverse as the psychology of art, the relationship between thought and language, the problem of consciousness, the behavior of primitive man, scientific language, and child development. While the amount of work he cranked out is notable in itself, what’s more impressive is how influential that work has become, even though much of it remained unpublished and untranslated for decades following his death.

For play researchers, no one looms larger than Vygotsky, whose name, along with that of his longer-lived and better-known contemporary, Jean Piaget, pops up on seemingly every other page of the literature. Vygotsky viewed play, particularly pretend play, as a critical part of childhood, allowing a child, as he said in one oft-repeated quote, to stand “a head taller than himself.” His biggest theoretical contribution may have been the Zone of Proximal Development: the idea that children are capable of a range of achievement during each stage of their lives. In the right environment, and with the right guidance (which was later dubbed “scaffolding”), children can perform at the top of that range.

For instance, Vygotsky explained, when a child can pretend that a broomstick is a horse, he or she is able to separate the object from the symbol. A broom is not a horse, but it’s possible to call a broom a horse, and even to pretend to ride it. That ability to think abstractly is a huge mental leap forward, and play can make it happen.

Among the many who have been influenced by Vygotsky is Deborah J. Leong, the author, along with Elena Bodrova, of Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education, an attempt to turn his theories into practical classroom techniques. Leong, a professor emerita of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, points out that when young children are pretending, they often use bigger words than they normally would and fully inhabit their roles, like mini Method actors. If they’re playing doctor, for instance, they might say “injection” or “thermometer.” Recently she watched a group of preschoolers pretending to work at a well-known chain hardware store. “Welcome to Home Depot,” a 4-year-old said. “You can do it, we can help.” Meanwhile another group of children, who were pretending to be airport screeners, informed a would-be passenger that a bottle she was carrying was larger than the permitted three ounces.

Pretend play isn’t just about vocabulary. A 2007 study published in Science looked at how 4- and 5-year-olds who were enrolled in a school that used the play-based, Vygotsky-inspired Tools of the Mind curriculum measured up to children in a more typical preschool. The students in the play-based school scored better on cognitive flexibility, self-control, and working memory—attributes of “executive function,” which has been consistently linked to academic achievement. The results were so convincing that the experiment was halted earlier than planned so that children in the typical preschool could be switched to the Tools of the Mind curriculum. The authors conclude: “Although play is often thought frivolous, it may be essential.”

With evidence like that, you might think that the kind of guided pretend play that Vygotsky favored would be universally embraced. In fact, according to Leong, it’s fast disappearing, as the idea of learning becomes synonymous with memorization and standardized tests. Play is steadily losing out to what play proponents refer to as the “drill and kill” method. “We drill more because they can’t pay attention, but they can’t pay attention because they don’t have these underlying play skills, so we drill more,” Leong says. “It’s pathetic.”

Not to mention misguided, according to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. Whether children play enough isn’t an obscure debate among developmental psychologists. If it’s true that children who spend too little time playing struggle with executive function, then we may be raising a generation of kids with less self-control, shorter attention spans, and poorer memory skills. If that really is the case, Hirsh-Pasek’s talk about a crisis isn’t so far-fetched.

She sees the Ultimate Block Party as the first step in a national effort to get people to stop dismissing play and start questioning the way we assume children learn. She wants to speak directly to parents, most of whom aren’t poring over every issue of Child Development for the latest research on play. The goal, in a sound bite, is to take that research “into the streets, subways, and supermarkets.”

It’s not every day that an academic stages a spectacle in Central Park to bring attention to what is, honestly, a fairly small field of research. To pull it off, Hirsh-Pasek hired a public-relations agency and drummed up big-name corporate sponsors. There was a Sesame Street sing-a-long, what was billed as “New York’s Largest Simon Says,” and a Radio Disney Dance Party. A small company called Ridemakerz hawked its build-your-own remote-control cars. Not to mention the guy selling a nifty iPhone app that lets you play a technologically enhanced game of hide-and-seek using the smartphone’s GPS capability.

There were also decidedly less-profit-driven booths, like the one run by the New York Coalition for Play. Rather than whiz-bang gadgets, they offered cardboard boxes and tubes, lots of fabric, ribbon, empty wine crates, and assorted items that would otherwise be found in a recycling bin. One of those overseeing the booth was Edward Miller, a senior researcher at the nonprofit group Alliance for Childhood, part of whose mission is to promote creative play. When asked what he thought of the Ridemakerz booth just a few yards away, he couldn’t help rolling his eyes. “We’re also concerned about the overcommercialization of play,” he said. “The right answer is less programming and more opportunities for kids to make up things on their own.”

Hirsh-Pasek is well aware that play purists look askance at including corporations in the pro-play campaign. Those who take a hard line on free play—that is, giving children basic materials like boxes and fabric and then leaving them alone—have zero use for Nickelodeon kid bands and pricey remote-control cars, which they see as just more ways for adults to get in the way. What she has in mind is a big tent, one that doesn’t exclude fancy toys or snappy musical productions. Nor does she have much patience for advocates who claim that the only valuable play is the kind that doesn’t involve anyone over 18. She wants kids to play on their own, sure, but she also wants them to engage in more guided play, where an adult or older child can take part.

There’s research to back her up. A study she recently submitted for publication gave blocks to children divided into three groups. In one group, the blocks had already been assembled into a heliport. A second group was given blocks, and adults helped the children follow directions to build a heliport. A third group was given blocks and told to do whatever it wanted. The researchers then listened to the language children were using as they played. Those who were building a heliport with an adult used the most imaginative and spatial language (like “below,” “on top,” “next to”); the kids who were playing with the preassembled heliport used the least.

While she’s no purist, Hirsh-Pasek is suspicious of some of the toys that purport to be educational. The title of Einstein Never Used Flashcards (subtitled How Our Children Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less) is an apparent slap at the Disney-owned Baby Einstein company. She also cites research that shows that electronic books for kids, the kind that talk and make noises, actually distract young readers: Kids who read them remember less of the narrative than kids who read the story on old-fashioned paper. What’s more, Hirsh-Pasek says, she turned down millions of dollars from a corporate sponsor (which she declines to identify) that requested the right to name the Ultimate Block Party.

In many ways, she is placing herself in the middle. She’s not trying to run toy companies out of business, but she is willing to criticize products that do more harm than good. She’s not attempting to tear down traditional classroom education, but she is pushing hard for more play in schools obsessed with testing. To that end, she’s working to make the research on play palatable for teachers and parents.

How good that research is, though, is a matter of debate. Peter K. Smith began studying play in the mid-1970s. At the time, he was a believer in the “play ethos,” which he defines in his recent book, Children and Play, as the “very strong and unquestioned view of the importance of play.” In that book, he quotes numerous researchers waxing enthusiastic about play’s importance, asserting that it is “vital” and “the work of childhood” and “the supreme psychological need.”

Later, Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of London, became a skeptic. “I looked at the textbooks of play” from Piaget forward, he says. “They said play is essential for development, that it enhanced this and this, and that and that, but they don’t cite any evidence.” So he decided to take a closer look. In the late 1980s, he picked a couple of studies that claimed to demonstrate the benefits of play. In one study, researchers had found that playing with small objects helped young children learn how to solve problems. Another showed that play made kids more creative. Smith replicated both using a double-blind procedure to eliminate any potential research bias.

His findings showed no difference in creativity or problem-solving ability between the kids who played and those who didn’t. It was a setback for play advocates and made researchers wonder whether the field was based on science or sentimental hype.

More than two decades after Smith’s debunking, researchers like Angeline Lillard, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, are still raising some of the same questions. “I think if you look hard at all the studies people cite as showing that play helps development, they are either correlation studies”—in other words, they don’t prove that play actually causes cognitive gains—”or they have problems,” she says.

Not that Lillard, or Smith, for that matter, is antiplay. Lillard is the author of the best-selling book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius and has written about the possible links between pretend play and social cognition. She does, however, believe that the field is in need of newer and better research. “My own view is that I would like for us to have firmer footing to stand on,” she says.

But while scientific support for play can be overstated, sometimes the criticism of play can be unfounded. Last September, Time magazine published an article with the headline “Free Play Won’t Make Your Child Smarter.” The article was prompted by a study that looked at how 2,751 preschoolers fared in programs with a variety of approaches, including free play and traditional group instruction. That study concluded that “more quality instructional time” and “less free play time” would better prepare kids for school.

But the study’s case against play in school isn’t entirely persuasive. It’s true that the kids who spent the largest chunk of their school day (41 percent) engaged in free play were behind their counterparts on skills like naming letters, naming numbers, and writing their names. But those who spent 29 percent of their time in teacher-guided play actually performed at the same level as the kids who played much less (only 13 to 15 percent of the time) when it came to naming numbers, highest number counted, language and literacy, word and letter identification, and writing their names legibly. In short, they played twice as much but learned the same amount. One of the authors of the report, Nina Chien, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at San Diego, acknowledges in an e-mail that this was proof “that kids can play a lot but still make good gains.”

More interesting is what the researchers didn’t test. Did the children who played more demonstrate higher levels of self-control and better working memory, as other research suggests they would? If so, did they outperform the kids—preschoolers, remember—who spent 15 percent or less of their time playing? Is being smart a race to see who can memorize the most, or is it about developing capacities to deal with a complex world?

While much of the research on play focuses on young children, the implications go well beyond third grade. In junior high, play is more likely to be called “discovery learning.” When professors try to get college students to look up from their iPhones, it’s probably referred to as “active engagement.” But the principles are the same. Stuart Brown, one of the authors of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, has reviewed thousands of life histories and concluded that play is essential for children and adults. He’s intent on spreading that gospel through his organization, the National Institute for Play, whose mission is to make human play a “credentialed discipline in the scientific community.”

And it’s not just people. That nonhuman primates engage in sophisticated play has been thoroughly established, and anyone who has dangled a string in front of a cat has conducted animal research. In his book The Genesis of Animal Play, Gordon Burghardt, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee, reports playful behavior in lizards, turtles, and birds. Even fish have been known to amuse themselves.

For Hirsh-Pasek, the universality of play is part of the evidence of its value. Why would we do it if it didn’t confer an evolutionary advantage? She concedes that some of the play research is more suggestive than slam-dunk, and that cleaner, stronger studies would be welcome. But she also argues that we already know enough to conclude that play matters, and that failing to preserve it in the lives of children could be a disaster.

She’s doing her part to stave that off. Hirsh-Pasek says 40 cities have expressed interest in holding their own Ultimate Block Parties. She and her colleagues will soon unveil a Web site to promote play research, and more books are on the way. Their goal, she says, is to restore play to its rightful, respected place in the lives of children. “Even if we don’t understand it perfectly, it’s silly to take play away from society,” she says. “It’s like taking love away. It’s crazy.”

 

Resource: Here is a great link for parents and professionals interested in studying the psychological effects of children learning in unconventional environments.

Is Your Child an iPad Addict?!

Yesterday, New York Times technology columnist David Pogue shared this very funny, and very insightful post on the captivating hold his iPad has over his 6 year old son:

pogue main 299x74 Is Your Child an iPad Addict?!

A Parent’s Struggle With a Child’s iPad Addiction

I think my 6-year-old is addicted to the iPad.

He asks for it constantly. He wants to use it in the car. He wants to use it at every unscheduled moment at home. He brings it to the dinner table.

When I tell him it’s time to shut off the iPad and head up to bed, or put his shoes on, or head out to the bus, he doesn’t hear me the first three times I ask. Sometimes, he gets bizarrely upset when I say I have to take it away now — out-of-character upset. That’s what makes me think he’s addicted.

And trust me — having read The New York Times series on the physiological effects of electronics on young minds, I’m plenty worried.

Now, before you begin sending the volleys of “bad parent” e-mails, let me reassure you: I’ve described what my son wants, not what he gets. We do have policies. The rule for my three kids is: no electronics on school days except what you actually need for schoolwork. No gadgets at mealtime or bedtime. Gadgets are O.K. when you’re home sick or in the car for long trips.

My older two kids manage to stick with those rules (mostly). My youngest, though, asks for that darned iPad constantly.

And I’ll be straight with you: I generally enforce the rule, but sometimes it’s tough. Because, let’s face it: When he’s on the iPad, he’s happy. He’s quiet. He’s engaged. And in this family, the two older siblings form a tween bloc (my oldest are 13 and almost 12), and then there’s a big age gap. So it can be hard to find activities, games or conversations that involve all three simultaneously.

The iPad is a magic electronic babysitter that creates instant peace in the household. If you told me you’d never, even occasionally, be tempted to hand it over, I’d say I doubt you.

What makes my feelings on this subject even more complicated is that, in general, my 6-year-old isn’t playing mindless video games. He’s not allowed to play shoot-‘em-ups or violent games at all. Instead, he’s encouraged to play creative apps — and most of the time, he does.

He spends hours, for example, playing with Puppet Pals, an amazing free app that lets you create animated cartoons. You choose a backdrop — say, the Wild West, or a pirate ship. Then you drag cutout characters around with your fingers; you can move them left, right, up, down, or forward and backward (they get smaller when you move them farther away). You provide the dialogue yourself. The app records everything you do, both audio and character motions. Later, you can play back the whole thing for your proud papa. Yes, my 6-year-old is creating his own animated shorts.

He also loves EasyBeats, a music app where you lay down one instrument track at a time, as the four-measure pattern loops over and over. He builds complex rhythms, one layer at a time.

Come on, how can apps like that be bad for a kid? Is it really that much different from playing with paper cutouts? Or blocks? Or a toy drum set?

When he does play games, he favors thinking games like Cut the Rope (a clever physics-based puzzle game) or Rush Hour (strategy puzzles). Heck, even Angry Birds involves some thinking. You have to plan ahead and calculate and use resources wisely.

iPadScreenShot 300x225 Is Your Child an iPad Addict?!

Rush Hour iPad app

In the old days, we used to tut-tut about how much TV kids watched — but parents usually made an exception for educational shows like “Sesame Street” and “Between the Lions.” How is this any different? Shouldn’t we make exceptions for creative and problem-solving apps?

In other words, I’m doing a lot of thinking lately. Is a gadget automatically bad for our children just because it’s electronic? What if it’s fostering a love of music, an affinity for theater and expertise in strategy and problem-solving? Is it a bad thing for a kid to be so much in love with mental exercises? Am I really being a good parent by yanking THAT away?

For now, I’m trying to live by the mantra, “Moderation in all things.” As long as iPad use is part of a balanced diet of more physical play and non-electronic activities, I think my little guy will probably be O.K.

Weigh in!  Do you give your child access to your smart phone/iPad?  Are there particular apps that you’ve found to be particularly engaging/effective as learning tools?

5 Ways to Make Family Game Night More Fun!

Happy Friday!  What better way to kick off the weekend than with Family Game Night!? The following article is from the fabulous moms at Chocolate Cake Moments blog… Check out these 5 great ideas to make Family Game Night more fun!

Is your Family Game Night feeling a little stale? The kids aren’t that excited about it anymore? Or, do you have a hard time convincing the family to even have a Game Night? Here are 5 ideas to inject a little more fun and creativity into your family’s special evening.

Ducks in a Row mom and child1 5 Ways to Make Family Game Night More Fun!

1. Put on a Costume.
Why just play a game when you can play the game in a silly way? For example, if you are playing a pirate game, have everyone wear pirate hats or eye patches. If playing the Snorta animal game, wear an animal mask. Make them out of paper plates before the game begins.

Or, I think everything is more fun when you are wearing a hat, so grab some of those plastic poker dealer hats and enjoy the silliness.

2. Get a Bigger Family!
Family Game Night isn’t limited to just your immediate family. While it’s definitely fun to spend time with the kids talking and bonding over games, shake it up a little and invite another family to double the fun. Have them bring their favorite family games over so you can try new ones.

3. Round Robin
If you have a larger crowd for Game Night or a mixed group of kids and adults, split up and have several games going at once. Set up a game in the kitchen, one in the family room, and one in another room. Each person then moves round robin to the next game as they finish playing. That way you’ll end up playing a few different games and not end up stuck playing the same thing all night (especially since not everyone likes the same games).

4. Create a mood.
Sometimes just changing the location of game night can be exciting. Instead of playing on the kitchen table, play on the floor of the family room. Put your jammies on and play in Mom & Dad’s bed. Set up a table in the backyard and play. Or pitch a tent to host game night. Here’s an idea that I received from another Mom – play by candlelight. She told me that her kids just love it when they have “No Electricity” night and set up their games near the fireplace or by candles to play.

5. Prizes? I Love prizes!
If you’re going to play games, you need prizes. Large chocolate bars or movie-theater size boxes of candy are great prizes to give to the game winners. If you are playing with younger kids you may need to make sure that everyone is a winner and receives prizes, but for older kids and adults let the competition begin.

You can also play for chores or activities as prizes. If Mom wins, she gets to give a chore coupon to someone in the house so they have to empty the dishwasher. Now who’s ready to play, Mom? Mom or Dad can make up the coupons letting the kids stay up an hour later, get out of chores, or earn an extra dollar of allowance one week. Or, before the game have each player write down 2 – 3 coupon ideas. If they win, they get to hand in their coupon to another player. The other player then has to do what it says on the coupon. (You might need to set some limits but feel free to be creative.)

Need new material?  Click here for great new family games to add to your collection!

I hope these ideas have inspired you to shake up your family game night or start the tradition. What are you waiting for? Go get your game on!

What do you do to spice up your Family Game Night?!

Quick Tips: Successful Game Play for Children with Special Needs

The following post is by Ellen Metrick of the National Lekotek Center, the country’s central source on toys and play for children with special needs.

bluebanner Quick Tips: Successful Game Play for Children with Special Needs

Games have a way to bring families together. There are games that cater to big groups, small gatherings, different ages and yes, different abilities. Children who have disabilities may face many obstacles, but with a little help, games can encourage interaction, development and fun for all involved. And, individual games are helpful for children who may become over-stimulated and need a quiet time activity. Here are a couple tips when choosing the right game for your child/family.

1.      Levels of difficulty Choose games that have different levels of difficulty. This helps children who learn at different rates and can speak to different skills levels. Qwirkle is a domino-like game that can be played simply by matching colors or shapes, but can also incorporate strategic thinking for more advanced players.

SMatc 7911 lores Quick Tips: Successful Game Play for Children with Special Needs2.      Large pieces Choose games that have large components or play pieces like the spinner of S’Match. They are easier to grasp with a whole hand and eliminate the frustration of required refined manipulation.

3.      Play duration Look for games where duration can be altered. Children who have attention difficulties often face the frustration of not being able to complete a game. By altering the game, children can enjoy the game but for the time they are able to commit. Zingo to Go accomplishes this with snap-together pieces. Snap together enough to challenge without overwhelming.Choco 1530 lores Quick Tips: Successful Game Play for Children with Special Needs

4.      Segmented compartments Games that have individual compartments for the play pieces work well for children who may have involuntary movements. The compartments keep the game pieces in the desired spaces. Chocolate Fix is an example of this.

5.      Attached pieces Pick games that have attached pieces, like Amaze. Children who have physical limitations can easily retrieve the attached stylus if it is inadvertently dropped.

Language Games Build Speech Skills and Family Bonds!

The following post is by Laura Dodson, a mom to five wonderful boys.  Last year, Laura, her husband, and their 2 sons adopted three boys from Uganda, and she shares their remarkable journey in her blog! Here Laura describes how language games have been tremendous tools in helping her boys in speech therapy!

fam in trees 300x171 Language Games Build Speech Skills and Family Bonds!

The Dodson Family

In the fall of 2008, our family embarked on a new journey: adoption.  We were matched with 2 little boys ages 3 and 4.  We were informed the youngest, Daniel, was hearing impaired and the oldest, Jeremiah, had some speech issues.  After much prayer, we decided these boys were to be our new sons–4 sons in all!

After several months of filling out paperwork [5 inches thick. yes, i measured.] and obtaining clearance from the US government, a little surprise package was added to the mix. A 5 year old package! We were flabbergasted to say the least, but overjoyed at the addition of a third boy, Alan.  (Yes, we thought we were a little crazy but a little crazy is good. right? right!)

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Daniel Dodson

The summer of 2009 was a whir lwind. We made two trips to Uganda totaling 7 weeks in country.  On the last trip, our homegrown sons Joshua and Caleb, were able to come with us. We were blessed beyond measure they could see where their new brothers were born and the caring home where they spent the first years of their lives.  We landed on US soil September 24, 2009.

During our first year home, it was discovered that Daniel’s hearing impairment was due 4 years worth of thick, gluey fluid in his ears. A gracious doctor in our hometown donated her services and performed the surgery free of charge. [due to our sagging economy, Jeff had lost his job duri ng our first trip to Uganda]. We were ecstatic to learn that his hearing was fully restored.

Over the last several months, Daniel and Jeremiah have begun speech therapy. We have a wonderful therapist who comes to our home twice a week helping the boys learn various sounds, conversational language, and master other goals like categorizing, and responding to questions appropriately.  I have learned volumes from her.  Therapy is game based and that is where I learned about Zingo! and S’Match.

jeremiah pumpkin 2010 225x300 Language Games Build Speech Skills and Family Bonds!

Jeremiah Dodson

Our homegrown boys, Joshua and Caleb, are teens. We had very little in the preschooler game department J Our therapist gave us materials to practice with Daniel and Jeremiah on the days she wasn’t here.  You know what that means!  Shopping!

alan pumpkin 2010 225x300 Language Games Build Speech Skills and Family Bonds!

Alan Dodson

We purchased Zingo! and What’s Gnu?  As we play Zingo!, the boys must answer questions in complete sentences such as, “Do you have the house?”  “No. I do not have the house.”  or “Who has the tree?”  Daniel answers, “Jeremiah has the tree.”

If they draw a tile they have on their card they say, “I have the heart.”  I must confess, that I’ve never really liked playing games.  However, Zingo! has become a favorite of mine and the boys like it, too.

In S’Match, the therapist is teaching the boys about categories and same or different. She asks questions like, “Are these the same?” Depending on what they’ve spun, and subsequently drawn, their answer takes some brain power.  They are developing good thinking skills as they observe their cards.  The colors may match, but if the spinner says ‘category’ they need to look past the matching colors and focus on the pictures. It’s a challenge. We plan on acquiring this game so we can reinforce what they’re learning from her.

We are more than pleased with the pr ogress our two youngest sons are making with their speech, thinking and language skills.  Playing games like Zingo! makes learning tough skills enjoyable for all!  Just last weekend, I caught our teens playing Zingo! with their little brothers.  My heart spilled over with joy.  This first year has been a toughie in so many ways, but we’re on the upswing.  And if a game like Zingo! can not only help with language, but build familial bonds as well, then I say money well spent!

5 boys joshua caleb alan jeremiah daniel 300x200 Language Games Build Speech Skills and Family Bonds!

Toys R Us Differently-Abled Kids Guide Features Several ThinkFun Favorites!

differently abled guide front cvr 3001 225x300 Toys R Us Differently Abled Kids Guide Features Several ThinkFun Favorites!

2010 Toy guide for Differently Abled Kids

Toys “R” Us, Inc. has released the 2010 edition of the Toys “R” Us Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids, featuring actress Holly Robinson Peete, mother of a son with autism, and 6-year-old Tommy Austing on the cover. Released annually, the guide helps parents of children with special needs select toys that will help their child develop skills. This year’s guide is the largest edition ever in the publication’s nearly 20-year history, spanning 60 pages.

The toys featured in the guide are assessed by the National Lekotek Center. The association assesses the value of hundreds of toys and at least two skill-building traits are assigned to each toy that appears in the guide. The skills include auditory, creativity, fine motor, gross motor, language, self-esteem, social skills, tactile, thinking, and visual. Additionally, the guide includes “Top Ten Tips for Buying Toys” from the National Lekotek Center and “Safe Play Tips for Children with Special Needs.”

This year’s Guide recognizes four outstanding ThinkFun products: Zingo!, S’Match, What’s GNU?, and Rush Hour.  Download the full guide here and check out pages 47-50!