Archive for the ‘ Must Read ’ Category

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

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

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

Add a Comment

Tags: , | Categories: Must Read, Science

8 Ways to Incorporate Geography into At-Home Learning

Friday, November 15th, 2013

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

Add a Comment

11 Family Movies to Inspire a Conversation About Bullying

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Since October is National Bullying Prevention Month, there’s no better time to empower your kids against bullying but bullying is a serious topic that is often hard to begin talking about if you haven’t already started the conversation. We know we want to teach kids that it’s ok to fight back, the importance of being a good friend and standing up for each other, and it’s ok to come to you, a sibling, another family member or a trusted adult but where do we start?

Sometimes we can find a helping hand thanks to a movie. Sitting down for a family movie night provides together time and can inspire an important conversation in an age appropriate way.

Even though it may be National Bullying Prevention Month, bullying is a topic that can be discussed throughout the year. So seize your time together by popping some popcorn, snuggling up a blanket, and watch as these real and relevant stories teach older ages how to fight back and younger kids learn to stand up and be heroes by streaming one of these movies on Netflix this weekend and the others throughout the year.

5 movies with themes perfect for older kids:

  • Bully — Exploring the subject of school bullying from a personal angle, this eye-opening documentary tracks the stories of five different families whose children are struggling to defend themselves on a near-daily basis.
  • The War — Vietnam War vet Stephen Simmons deals with an entirely different set of conflicts back home in Mississippi, where he copes with post-traumatic stress disorder and unemployment, and helps his son, Stuart, stand up to a group of bullies.
  • Billy Elliott— When 11-year-old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) trades boxing school for ballet lessons, his father (Gary Lewis) — a hardworking miner from Northern England who despises the idea of his son running around in toe shoes — is less than pleased. But when the boy wins an audition for the Royal Ballet School, he experiences a change of heart. Stephen Daldry directs this Oscar-nominated drama that spawned a Tony-winning Broadway musical of the same name.
  • The Fat Boy Chronicles— Overweight teenager Jimmy Winterpock transfers to a new school, where he’s mercilessly bullied by classmates. After he starts keeping a journal that puts him in touch with his feelings, he resolves to lose weight and win the girl of his dreams.
  • Cyber Bully— Teenager Taylor Hillridge finds herself a target of bullying by fellow students through a popular social website in this topical drama with a message. After the abuse makes Taylor afraid to face her classmates, her mother gets involved.


6 age appropriate titles for younger ages:

  • Hercules— In Disney’s animated take on Greek mythology, the heavenly Hercules is stripped of his immortality and raised on Earth instead of Olympus, where he’s forced to take on Hades and assorted monsters.
  • Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius— When gooey green aliens kidnap all the adults in Retroville, it’s up to Jimmy Neutron to come up with a plan to rescue them. The 11-year-old genius and his pals blast off in homemade rocket ships on an intergalactic mission.
  • Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes— The Avengers, Earth’s mightiest heroes, work to bust up nefarious plots set forth by villains such as Loki, HYDRA and the Red Skull. Thor, Hulk, Ant-Man, Iron Man and the Wasp are ready to save the day.
  • Spy Kids: All the Time in the World— Former Spy Kids Carmen and Juni Cortez return as teenagers to help 10-year-old twin siblings Rebecca and Cecil Wilson save the world with their stepmother, a retired secret agent who’s been called back into service to stop a conniving smuggler.
  • Justice League Unlimited— As humanity faces threats from all kinds of new and vile villains, Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and a dozens of other animated superheroes create a league from which they form small, specialized teams to combat each new menace.
  • Ben 10: Alien Force— Cartoon Network’s sequel series finds the now-teenage Ben Tennyson hoping to locate his missing grandfather by using his Omnitrix device, which has been updated to give him access to a whole new variety of alien life forms.


Please note that the above descriptions were provided by Netflix but I always like visiting Common Sense Media to double check that the movie is right for our family.

Happy young family watching flat TV courtesy of Shutterstock

Add a Comment

5 Things Angry Birds Can Teach Kids About Physics

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

Angry Birds is the number one downloaded app worldwide and while we may think our kids are wasting away precious hours slingshotting birds into caged pigs, there are many scientific concepts that can be learned from the addictive game. National Geographic’s Angry Birds Furious Forces describes the complicated physics at play in the world’s most popular game. With chapters titled mechanics, sound and light, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, and particle physics and beyond, parents who had previously felt guilty about allowing their Angry Birds obsessed kids can rest easier knowing that there’s some serious science behind the game that’s presented in easy to understand language in a format that’s fun for kids and adults alike.

What five basic scientific concepts do kids really learn through their endless hours of playing any version of Angry Birds?

Physics- The book begins with an introduction by Peter Vesterbacka, Chief Marketing Officer of Rovio Entertainment, who writes, “Angry Birds fans come face-to-face with basic principles of physics every time they take aim with the slingshot.”

Motion and trajectory- The act of flinging a bird into the air represents motion while the trajectory is the path that it takes to reach the pigs. The first chapter builds on motion by introducing projectile motion too. Roller coaster enthusiasts will identify with the motion of the cars on favorite rides.

Force- Force is required to pull back and Angry Bird and also bust open the pigs’ crates but there are also other forces that can cause objects to speed up or slow down. Angry Birds Furious Forces also provides additional concrete examples such as baseball and skateboarding to describe forces at work.

Kinetic energy- Kinetic energy is a tricky concept to understand but explaining stored energy in relation to familiar objects such as the rubber band that launches the bird, provides a concrete example that kids can relate to. The book describes kinetic energy at work by describing the behavior of the birds as they reach their targets. “The faster the bird moves, the more energy it has…As the bird gets higher, it slows down, so its kinetic energy decreases.”

Gravity and weight- Real world examples interspersed with those from the game enrich this book even more as it explains gravity as the pull of the Earth but as it relates to weightlessness that astronauts feel in space.

Angry Birds Furious Forces serves as a great introduction to basic physics concepts for young ages because they’re presented in a way that kids can relate to as they play their favorite game. Older students who grapple with the abstract nature of physics will appreciate the way the book uses real world examples to provide concrete examples of more complex topics like relativity, gravitational potential energy, vectors, matter, along with protons, neutrons, and molecules. This book also makes Angry Birds loving parents a little envious that the game didn’t exist when we were kids because we all could have benefitted from this book to help make high school and college physics a little more fun and easy to relate to.

Little boys playing on smartphone via Shutterstock

Add a Comment

How Challenged Captain Underpants Series Encourages Reluctant Young Readers to Love Reading

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

The American Library Association (ALA) published their list of top ten most challenged books in 2012 as part of Banned Book Week and appearing at top of the list and the first image in a CNN slideshow is Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series. What does it mean to be a challenged book? According to the ALA, “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.” Who challenges the book? The ALA says that the 464 formal complaints they received came from “librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens.”

“Wow,” declared Sue Wagner, a Washington, D.C. parent and blogger of Laundry for Six. “I’m speechless. Really?”

Objections to Captain Underpants could land it with these 15 classic children’s books that have been banned in America but are there lessons to be learned from the underpants wearing toilet plunger yielding Captain Underpants character? Is there value in letting your child pick up a challenged book? Absolutely.

The Captain Underpants series is told from the perspective of George and Harold, two fictional elementary aged kids whose comics start each of the books and are interspersed throughout the chapters. Their top secret “infomashional” comics are filled with words that are spelled exactly as they sound. While younger readers may not catch the misspellings, older children do, making for perfect learning experiences where they delight in knowing that they’re better spellers than George and Harold.

“While Captain Underpants would never make my preferred reading list (the toilet humor is lost on me), my third-grader son absolutely adores this series and I am okay with that,” admitted Sarah Caron, a Connecticut parent and blogger (Sarah By the Sea and Sarah’s Cucina Bella). “These books were challenging as a second grader and that spurred him to dig into even more challenging books beyond the series (for instance, he’s been reading Tom Sawyer in his spare time). Whatever makes him a devoted and passionate reader who regularly challenges himself with harder books is a good thing to me.”

But what about the complaints to the ALA that the Captain Underpants series contains “offensive language,” “sexually explicit” material, and are generally “unsuited” to the intended age group?

“Just because a person disagrees with a topic or theme, does not give them the right to impose their beliefs upon others,” said Washington, D.C. area parent, Drew Cohen. “First Amendment- let them read, enjoy and question.”

Even though Captain Underpants may not be classic literature and the little clothing he dons with his cape would get any child sent home from school, the graphic novel’s laugh out loud potty humor appeals to kids and inspires them to read other books in the series for more of George and Harold’s misadventures. It’s ironic that the complaints about Captain Underpants and other challenged books on the list were filed by librarians, teachers, and fellow parents-  individuals who we trust will inspire our kids to read. After all, getting reluctant kids to read is an important first step to developing a lifelong love of reading for pleasure.

But not all librarians agree with pulling challenged books from the school shelves. Naomi Gelfand, a school library media specialist in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland said, “Whatever gets your children to read is great.”

Parents tend to agree. “I have a reluctant reader,” Ilina Ewen from Dirt and Noise shared. “I let him choose anything that he fancied just to see him experience reading for joy rather than a chore.”

Even if it’s a book from the Captain Underpants series.

Image courtesy of the author


Add a Comment