Farewell to Tech Savvy Parents

For the past two years it’s been my pleasure to write for Parents.com, sharing technology tips, the latest gadgets, and educational tools for families through Tech Savvy Parents. Even though I will no longer be updating this column, previous posts will always be accessible for your reading pleasure.

Thank you so much for reading and commenting on the 185 posts I’ve written over the past two years. I hope you will continue to follow me on my personal blog, Tech Savvy Mama, where I will continue to assist parents in navigating the ever-changing world of technology and through other social media channels such as Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Customer service telephone assistance concept via Shutterstock

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5 Tips for Capturing Great Photos of Kids

The holiday offers for photo cards are flooding our mailbox and inbox, making me feel the pressure to capture the perfect shot to describe our kids and year in a single image. We’ve hired professional photographers from time to time to capture family shots but this year we’ll be taking our own pictures. The ritual of dressing up, going to an unfamiliar place, and trying to relax for someone you don’t know so well can be especially trying on kids and parents who know that the clock is ticking and need that perfect shot. This year take the pressure off you and your kids by taking your own photos with tips from the pros.

Well known for gorgeous images in each issue, National Geographic is always eye candy for the soul and the very talented Dan Westergren, Director of Photography for National Geographic Travel, and National Geographic Kids Photo Editor, Kelley Miller, are here to provide the following tips to help you capture the most stunning images.

Take photos of kids in an environment that they’re comfortable in. Miller often shoots photos of animals and feels that the landscape shows a sense of space that provides scale and dimension. The same can be said for growing kids. With your couch or favorite playthings around them, it’s easy to see how big they’ve grown but how little they were when you look back at your photos from year to year.

Take pictures in a place where there’s something to capture kids’ interest. Westergren says that a common mistake is to document children in front of recognizable landmarks that can be the “recipe for boring pictures.” It makes it easier to get children together if they find something of interest that keeps them actively engaged.

Prevent awkward smiles and posed photos. Westergren often asks his subjects to “to relax their mouths, then close their eyes and open them when I count to three.” Or he suggests a fake out by framing the scene and just waiting. While you may not get the most perfect smiles, “the photos that emerge will be a more meaningful expression of their personality.” Miller likes to “pursue the personality” of the subject she’s shotting.

Go for motion. Some of my personal favorite photos of our kids involve them jumping or running. It’s so fun to look back at pictures where they’re giving it their all with their feet off the ground. It’s playful and fun and captures their personality but taking action shots can be tricky. Miller suggests “get as close as you can to action. Timing is everything” and a slower shutter speed can also help.

Be creative with your shot. Different angles, zooming in for that closeup, changing the color to black and white, and making the individual stand out by using a simple background or a shallow depth of field are ways that Miller says will help your kids leap out of the printed photo.

For more tips on taking great family photos, visit Dan Westergren’s How to Photograph Kids piece on National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel.

Couple and children taking family picture via Shutterstock

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11 Gifts to Encourage STEM Learning in Fun Ways for Kids of All Ages

Kids are naturally curious and drawn to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) when they’re young but so many times they lose interest as they get older. In order to keep interest high in these subjects that are so vital to the future of our country and our children’s future, gift gifts that help foster interest in STEM subjects in a fun way. From family gifts to those that are age appropriate for preschoolers and up, here are eleven of my favorite gifts to encourage a love of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Roominate—  The inventors of Roominate believe that “every girl is an artist, architect, engineer, and visionary” and their wired dollhouse building kids are a blend of creativity, engineering, and fun as they encourage girls to problem solve their way into creating a dollhouse with moving parts. With the Basic Set starting at $29.99 and add-ons available from $9.99 and up, the possibilities are truly endless for girls to use their imagination and building skills as they practice engineering at the same time.

Robot Turtles— Who said preschoolers are too young to learn programming? Robot Turtles is a board game designed to teach programming fundamentals to kids ages three and up using four turtles, Beep, Dot, Pangle, and Pi who make their way across the board as young programmers put instruction cards down which guide turtles through the maze as a parent acts as the computer, executing the commands indicated on the cards. This game was fully funded by KickStarter donations earlier this fall and isn’t yet available on store shelves but you can put your name on the waiting list to get a future copy of the game.

GoldieBlox— Billed as “toys for future inventors,” GoldieBlox features a story and construction set that aids girls in developing spatial abilities through building toys that are designed for females in mind. GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine ($29.99) explores wheels and axles, force, friction and tension to build a belt drive machine while GoldieBlox and the Parade Float ($19.99) delves into wheels and axles, gear action and vehicle design. The company has future plans to explore pulleys, gears, levers, circuits, and coding in future GoldieBlox sets.

Snap Circuits— Budding engineers and those curious about the inner workings of a circuit board will enjoy Snap Circuits. Kids can learn about how currents work through hands-on play as they create over 305 electronic projects using items like snap wires, slide switch, resistor, microphone, and capacitors. Thanks to additional sets such as the flying saucer ($14.99) and musical recorder($24.95, Alternative Energy Kit ($74.95), and the RC Rover ($74.99), endless possibilities abound for the things that children can build and create when they combine multiple sets.

Energy Ball— Affordably priced at under $10 from Amazon, Energy Ball teaches children about currents and electricity in a safe way. Touch the ball’s metal strips and it will light up and create sound to demonstrate conductivity, connectivity and electrical currents. Connect multiple Energy Balls together to create an electric current.

Educational Insights Geosafari Talking Microscope— It’s fun to see things through a magnifying glass but even better to examine things under a microscope. The Geosafari Talking Microscope is a great first microscope to introduce scientific observation since it magnifies 5x and features a light for good viewing. Kids will enjoy listening to the toy’s fun facts about what’s being seen on the twelve prepared slides before having the fun of testing their knowledge through an electronic quiz where they can answer questions using buttons on the microscope.

MindWare Q-Ba-MazeNothing teaches the scientific process better than a toy that requires trial and error and with the endless configurations of interlocking cubes, MindWare Q-Ba-Maze ($39.99) teaches kids probability, physics, and art to get the steel balls to travel exactly the way they want.

MindWare KEVA Contraptions— Use a simple stacking plank system to create ramps, funnels, chutes, and contraptions to get a ball to roll along as kids learn balance, proportion, building, and design. $43.99 from Amazon.

City Square Off— Spatial relations, logic, and strategic thinking are challenged through this game where 2 teams or 2 players draw a shape card and fit the tile into city grids to create their city.  Being able to envision the space and plan is key since there always needs to be room for the next piece since the city always needs to fit within its limits. Game play takes about 15 minutes and costs $19.99.

Minecraft for Dummies Book—Minecraft is a game that requires using cubes to create or survive in an imaginary world in an online virtual environment where game play occurs individually or collaboratively. If your child has convinced you to purchase Minecraft for them and you’ve watched them play but are feeling a little lost, Minecraft for Dummies ($8.95) written by 16 year old Jacob Cordeiro, can help. The book is a primer on everything you need to know about the virtual world. It’s an easy to read book for kids who want to know more about the game and strategy and also for parents who want to feel more educated about what their kids are doing when they’re playing Minecraft.

Family science museum membership— A great family gift that gives throughout the year is a family science museum membership that provides free admission for curious kids who want to explore their favorite science topics in hands on ways. To find science museums nearby, visit the Association of Science-Technology Centers and enter in your state to find a list of ones in your area.

Curious little boy and girl draw diagram near black microscope via

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8 Ways to Incorporate Geography into At-Home Learning

Geography Awareness Week is a celebration in honor of the 125th anniversary of National Geographic and an opportunity to promote geo-literacy in kids so they get to know what’s around them and can build on their knowledge to have a better understanding of world geography. The world is a big place and can be quite overwhelming for small children but there are many ways we can incorporate learning about the world around us to teach our kids about the places where we live and the larger world.

Since Geography Awareness Week is November 17-23, it’s a great time to make an effort to incorporate more geography into your family’s learning because there’s so much that can be done easily. If you don’t know where to start, here are eight things to do with your kids to make them more geographically aware.

Start small. For young kids, the world is a big place and it’s best to start with things they know. Start by getting to know your immediate neighborhood and recognizable landmarks such as your street, best friend’s house, their school, and other places you frequent like the grocery store, favorite restaurants, and neighborhood shops. This helps build knowledge about a place they’re familiar with and when they’re ready, expand their horizons and incorporate adjacent towns and then to your state as they get older. Since visuals are always helpful, work together to draw a simple map of your neighborhood or use this free printable neighborhood map from Crayola.

Take a road trip. It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling five minutes or five hours but before you hop in the car, talk about where you’re going and how you’ll get there. Show your children where you live on a map and where your destination is in relation to where you live. This helps develop spatial sense and can serve as a way of introducing direction like north, south, east, and west. Keep an atlas in the car such as National Geographic Kids United States Atlas or Ultimate Road Trip Atlas. Both are laid out nicely that makes it fun to browse and having them readily available in the back seat pocket of the car means they’re more likely to pick them up and learn at their own pace.

Explore a new place with a virtual field trip. While it’s great to be able to travel, a virtual field trip can be a wonderful way to learn about places in our country and around the world. Spark your child’s interest by sitting down and browsing through the vivid photos from the Windows Travel App that will spark conversation and drive a desire to learn more. In addition to gorgeous photos, the Travel App also features an overview of the location pictured, maps, weather conditions, and tons of great information to facilitate learning about a new place.

Learn while you’re in the car. Listen carefully to your vehicle’s navigation system. So many times we’re focused on getting to where we need to go that we forget how much learning can be done by listing to the voice. Younger kids can pick up on street names and direction while older kids get a sense how your travels connect to the area beyond where you live. If you don’t have an in-car navigation system, printed maps from Google Maps work just fine and are a wonderful way to provide an overview of where you’re going and how to get there. I often prefer having a printed map than relying on my car’s navigation system because it provides me with an overview of the area where I’m headed.

Think about geography in terms of food. Have a favorite restaurant that serves a different kind of food? Visit that restaurant and bring an atlas to look at while you wait. Talk about where the country is in the world, what the capital is, geographic features like mountains and rivers, and maybe even ask your server about how the geography of the country impacts the flavor of your favorite dishes. You might be surprised to find out how the climate impacts what is grown in the country!

Involve your kids in vacation planning to build background knowledge. Once you’ve chosen a destination for a family vacation, involve your kids in the trip by building background knowledge. Talk about the place you’re going and where it’s located, how you’ll get there, and take a trip to the library or do some online research to brainstorm things to do once you’re there. Pre-screen some YouTube videos for them to watch to get a better sense of where you’re going and what to expect when you get there.

Have resources available at home. Having a United States and world atlas are must-haves for any home library. It’s also great to have a globe on hand because it provides a better understanding of world geography, especially for young kids who need a more concrete way to know where places in the world are in relation to each other. I find that a globe is most helpful in teaching about relationships between continents and oceans because it provides the big picture understanding while providing a tactile way to learn about topography. We have the Illuminated Orion Relief Globe with a Non-Tip Base from HearthSong.

Learn on the go. One of my family’s favorite apps to browse is Barefoot World Atlas. This gorgeous interactive app is chock full of so much information that it’s hard to ever get tired of the content on your iPhone that’s fun for adults and kids alike.

Small boy looking at a Globe in his bedroom via Shutterstock

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KidZui Provides Safe Browsing Tips Upon Release of New Mobile App

As parents, it’s our job to make sure that our kids learn how to be safe at all times whether they’re crossing the street, playing with friends, or online. KidZui, the company that has one of the most popular kid-safe downloadable internet browsers announced the launch of a new mobile app that is designed to keep children safe when accessing content on the go. This new app will be available for iOS download on Apple’s App Store on Thursday, November 14 and will available for Android soon too.

“After months of preparation, planning and research, we are thrilled with the results of the updated version of KidZui and are overjoyed with launch of the first-ever KidZui mobile app,” said Ryan Bettencourt, Vice President of Online for Saban Brands and one of the Founders of Zui.com and KidZui. “It’s important that we continue to keep the Internet safe for children while also making it fun and easy to use. The mobile app extends KidZui’s parameters, providing parents with the same assurances both at home and on the go.”

With safety being at the forefront of parents’ minds when it comes to content and our kids, I talked to Bettancourt about mobile devices, ways to teach our kids about safe searching habits as they grow beyond KidZui, and the things that parents need to be mindful about with safe searching as their kids increase the use of mobile devices to access content.

Tech Savvy Parents (TSP): With mobile devices being much more prevalent in our kids’ lives, this is an exciting announcement. What are some key things that kids need to know about searching in any browser via desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices?

Ryan Bettancourt (RB): We believe that the big things kids need in searching in a browser is an experience that is built specifically for kids.  Kids generally don’t have the same intent that adults do in searching.  Adults go into a web browser and search engine with specific goals in mind.  Kids don’t do so to the same degree.  Therefore, the browsing and search experience needs to address that.  KidZui was built from the ground up for readers and non-readers alike and with a focus on how kids search and discover things online in a different way.  Frankly, opening a Google prompt that returns a million text results in a nanosecond isn’t important to a kid.  What is important to a kid is that they can discover things they didn’t even know they were interested in and do so in an intuitive and graphical way.

In searching in any browser, kids need to know:

  • How to distinguish ads from non-paid content
  • A general idea of what they are looking for
  • How to conduct a search and use it to also find related content

TSP: KidZui becomes a trusted way to search in households for kids as they get started being online. At some point, families need to transition away from it. How can parents help their children learn to be better searchers since it’s an important skill in today’s digital age?

RB: We have often said that KidZui is web browsing on training wheels.  Just like you use training wheels on a bike to learn balance and how to turn and navigate, you need the same online.  Technology is only going to become more important in the world in the future and empowering kids with skills to use technology for learning, discovering passions and communicating is critical.

Parents can help their kids by sitting with them as they get used to searching and teaching them to understand how to create proper searches.  They can also help kids understand websites and typical website navigational elements so that kids can easily navigate for the information they are seeking.

One important thing parents can do is sit with their kids as they use the internet (on KidZui or elsewhere) to do research on a specific topic.  For example, if a kid has a report due on insects, a parent can work with a child to conduct that research, extrapolate the right information, store information for later, copy and paste, and so on.

Finally, parents can help kids to learn how to store/favorite/bookmark content so that they can get back to their favorite things easily.

TSP: As a technology company that always keeps kids’ safety in mind, what do you see as things that parents need to be mindful of beyond safe search?

RB: At KidZui, our passion has always been to allow kids to safely discover the best things online.  We believe that enabling great “discovery” shouldn’t be sacrificed in an effort to be safe.  They have to be in equal parts.

I think the real thing parents have to understand is that search and communication have radically changed.  Google and Bing aren’t the only way kids are searching these days.  They use YouTube, Facebook (older kids), Instagram (older kids) and others to search.  Those are effectively search engines in themselves.  And, those environments can also quickly lead a child to inappropriate and irrelevant content.  It’s important that parents be active in helping their children learn how to navigate all platforms in an appropriate way.

And of course, within a smartphone or tablet app environment, parents also need to be mindful of how kids are using those apps.

TSP: What’s next for KidZui in this ever-changing world of technology?

RB: We have explored many different opportunities and are currently figuring out where we want to put our energy next.  We certainly need to create an Android tablet version of our KidZui app and figure out what a mobile phone version is like.

Kids using mobile devices via Shutterstock

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Tags: | Categories: Apps, Devices, Online Safety