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November 30, 2007

Spark Talking Microscope

Spark_Microscope.jpgChristmas can be a real challenge when you're raising quirky kids. When your kids get more out of Dirty Jobs than High School Musical, traditional toy stores can leave you in the lurch. Seriously, you want to see my kids go nuts? Hand them the Discovery Store catalog.

When the Parent Bloggers Network offered the chance for me to review one of Discovery Kids' hot toys for Christmas, I knew it was going to be a hit at our house. When I ripped open the carton and saw the Spark Talking Microscope in the box, I did a little end-zone dance.

I'll admit, one of the major problems I have with "science toys" is the mess. Chemistry sets and electronic kits are a little advanced for my kids, and frankly, I can't even keep track of the legos - the thought of dealing with traditional microscopes with their glass slides and sensitive lenses gives me hives. I want my kids to love science, and I love to encourage their exploration, but I don't want to have to constantly admonish and correct. The Spark Talking Microscope is a perfect option for families of younger kids who are hungry for a magnified view, with parents who don't want to micromanage the learning experience.

First of all, it is designed in one solid piece, lightweight enough for kids to handle confidently. The controls are easily manipulated by small hands, and intuitive. Each "slide" features a detailed image of an creepy crawly, and by entering a simple three digit code, kids can access trivia or a quiz about each slide. The slides snap easily in and out of the stage clip, and allow kids to move at their own pace.

I really liked the parent's guide - this handy "lab assistant guide" provides a great framework to help you help your child explore. This is a child-led activity, and I've got to say, all three of my kids were enthralled by the process of viewing the slides, learning the facts and then taking the quizzes. I've been regaled with factoids about bugs for the last two weeks, people. All in all, at least I have a fighting chance in an insect-trivia contest, unlike the Pokemon pop quizzes my kids love to throw at me.

Want one? Go get it!

Want to hear what other bloggers had to say? Check out the roundup over at the Parent Bloggers Network.

November 23, 2007

JumpStart World - 2nd Grade

jumpstartworld.jpgFrom my children's youngest days, they have been active users of our family computer. We've tried many different software packages for children, and I've got to say - we're all big fans of the JumpStart series.

When The Parent Bloggers Network offered us the chance to review the new JumpStart World - 2nd Grade program, I was thrilled. My son is a newly minted second-grader, and I was eager to see how the learning activities matched up with his school studies so far.

My review for this was due on Wednesday - and honestly, it is late because I couldn't get my kid to stop playing this game long enough for me to review it! He absolutely loves it, and as always, I'm impressed with the savvy approach that JumpStart uses to keep kids engaged.

Like earlier JumpStart titles, JumpStart World is easy for kids to navigate, and help is always available during any activity. The animation and music is not jarring, and the character voices don't have that cartoonish quality that grates on me.

The game begins with basic skills and builds on at your child's pace, seamlessly adding variations on skills and using clever games to introduce new concepts. I particularly appreciate the positive reinforcement at all levels of the game. Mastery is rewarded, and mistakes are greeted with a verbal reminder about the concept that is being explored.

Both my son and I really liked the variety of games, and the multiple ways information is presented. Numeric equations, bar graphs and written words are all part of my son's math curriculum at school, and they are all featured here as well, in a fun and pressure-free environment.

JumpStart World
is great for kids who are information snackers - rather than forcing kids to stay on a particular subject, jumping around to different activities is fun and easy.

As with the other JumpStart products we've tried, the parent reports are a great way to track your child's progress, and to see what concepts they've already mastered. I was impressed with the comprehensive information, and look forward to seeing how he progresses.

One of the other really novel ideas about JumpStart World is how it can grow with your child. The game comes with two Adventure Packs, and you can subscribe to the JumpStartWorld site, and you'll receive a new Adventure Pack with more games and skills each month - for a total of 12 Adventure Packs per grade. Unlike typical educational software that is quickly mastered and outgrown, this allows the product to stay current with your child's development.

You can read more from the other reviewers at Parent Bloggers Network - and you can visit the JumpStartWorld Website to learn more about the game.

November 19, 2007

Mother Talk Blog Tour: The Daring Book for Girls

I'm so thrilled to be participating in the Mother Talk blog tour for The Daring Book for Girls. Mother Talk founders Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz hit one out of the park with this fantastic tome.

We, like so many other families, fell in love with Conn and Hal Iggulden's The Dangerous Book for Boys last spring. The entire family poured over that darn book, and we've had ourselves a good old time with it. So when I learned that Andi and Miriam were writing The Daring Book for Girls, I was like "Oooh oooh oooh me me me me me!"

Let's pretend I was more sophisticated, and said something like "I would welcome the opportunity to review this book."

When the book arrived, I swear to God that I had barely lifted it from the packaging when my eight-year-old daughter swooped in and snagged it and ran off. I figured she'd paw through it and hand it back. Nope. It took me a week to even lay eyes on it, because she was hiding it from me, so that she could master how to be a spy and I wouldn't be hip to her new-found skills. She printed out a set of badges from the awesome website, and took both the book and the badges to school to show her third-grade class.

From the jump rope rhymes to the karate moves, from cootie catchers to sage advice on b-o-y-s, Andi and Miriam have encapsulated the best parts of my girlhood, and added a few new chapters for me to explore with my own kids. The Daring Book for Girls is skinned knees and passed notes, sleepovers and secret clubs, mixed with a healthy dose of assertiveness and inventiveness. The activities and information are at once timeless and pleasingly current. It is a recipe for adventure, and I can't think of a more perfect book for any girl in your life.

Run out and buy one for every girl on your holiday shopping list, and one for yourself, too. You may just find yourself turning cartwheels in the yard, or conducting searches on the internet for Queen Boudica.

For more stellar reviews from Mother Talk reviewers, visit the roundup in progress.

To get your own copy, click here.

November 13, 2007

Printakid - Personalized Stories for Children

school_book_large.jpgThe Parent Bloggers Network recently offered me the chance to have a personalized book made from Printakid. Since my kids, like most children, love anything that has their name on it, I was delighted to participate in this tour.

My youngest has an unusual name that you don't find on mini-license plates or pencils. This has made her wild with desire for personalized things. I'll admit, this is an unanticipated side effect of non-top-100 names, but there it is. You give my kid anything with her name written on it with a Sharpie, and she's in rapture.

Imagine her thrill when we received her brand new copy of "Laughing All the Way to School" - one of the many personalized stories for children that Printakid offers. We selected it because, in addition to her own name, she's all about school these days.

Printakid's website allows you to preview the books, and to my surprise, not only is your child's name included (plus the names of friends and siblings, in this title) but the artwork is customized to resemble your child as well. The customization options are quick and easy, and the resulting book is a professionally bound hard-bound book with full color illustrations and crisp text.

My one critique of this story is that, well, it's kind-of a weird story. People turning into animals and the school overrun, until the star of the story figures out that laughter will save the day. It reads like a storyline from Cirque Du Soleil. Not the best children's story I've ever read - but with an illustration that looks like my kid, and her name throughout, she didn't find anything amiss. And hey, if she's happy, I'm happy.

If you are looking for a wonderfully easy and thoughtful gift for your little one, Printakid has a bunch of different options. You can check them out at the Printakid website.

For more reviews from Parent Bloggers Network bloggers - check out the roundup of the tour in progress.

November 11, 2007

ESRB Ratings - Yes, I actually use them - and you should, too.

A while back, I participated on a podcast over at Electronic Gaming Monthly, and one of the podcasters was surprised to hear that ESRB ratings actually play a big part in determining what software and console games I will purchase for my children.

ESRB ratings are a fantastic tool to help determine what kind of content games include, and whether it is appropriate for your children. Unlike the motion picture rating system, the ESRB rating takes into account wide-ranging factors that may occur over the course of game-play, and provide reliable information to consider when purchasing games.

With the holidays coming up, many families will have a video game system under the tree and plenty of games on wish lists. But how comfortable are you with those purchases, if you aren't sure what your kids are being exposed to? What if you and your spouse, or your older teens favor intense, first-person shooter games, and you have little ones in the home who use the same gaming consoles? How do you keep the content separated?

It's simple, actually. Over at the ESRB's website, they have a new feature that walks you through the process of setting up parental controls on your game system. They also have a great library of ratings and information on all the games your family will be asking for. They even have great information about how to keep an eye on your children's Internet downloads and how to spot illegal hacks that are allowing your resourceful little buggers to make an end-run around parental controls.

From educational titles for the youngest users, to super-intense, totally immersing gaming experiences that will thrill even the most jaded gamer, ESRB takes an impartial look, and arms you with the knowledge you need to help make a good decision about software for your family.