Thursday, October 28, 2010

Surfing the net, with a net

There are a lot of parenting issues that I call my own mom to get advice on.  But I'm starting to realize that I'm raising a generation of kids with issues that previous generations never had to deal with.
Right?  Most of our parents never even conceived of these issues.  We had a computer in our house by the time I was in high school, but it was for word-processing and accounting, not surfing.  The internet wasn't even a glimmer in Al Gore's eye (wink, wink) until I was already in college.

I think that keeping our kids safe online is something most parents want, but few know how to best achieve this goal.  There are plenty of options out there, and sorting through them can be overwhelming and intimidating.  To be honest, my main plan has always been (and continues to be) that the computer ONLY gets used in public areas of the house.  And even then, the child doesn't get to sit in a corner, surfing to his heart's content.  The computer screen faces the room, where anyone can see what's on it at any time, and the computer isn't on unless there is an adult in the room.

But what happens when I run out to the store?  Or have a doctor's appointment?  Or one of a dozen other scenarios where I leave home and my children are left alone (okay, quick disclaimer: my 13-year-old, who is a certified Safe Sitter, babysits when I go, and our next-door neighbor, who works at home, is available to help out, should help be needed).  I know that as much as I lay down rules and expect to be obeyed, there will be times when my children will break the rules.  Maybe someone will sneak the computer to their room after everyone is in bed.  Or sneak a little online time when mom is taking the little kids to the dentist.  So, for those times when I can't be looking over their shoulder, I'm so happy to have access to PG Key.

Looks too simple, doesn't it?  Just a USB plug-in?  That's going to protect your kids online?  Well...yeah.
It is simple.  Plug in, spend about 10 minutes setting up your controls, and walk away.  Well, don't walk away, but know that if you need to, PG Key will be monitoring what your kids are doing, and blocking questionable material.  When you set your account up, you have the option of blocking particular sites, or only allowing certain sites.  If there are only a few places you want your kids to go, the latter is a great option.  I can't imagine being able to figure out EVERY site you would want to block, because hopefully you don't know all the quesitonable sites out there.  You also have the option of setting each user a specific amount of computer time, which PG Key keeps track of, then the computer will be disabled when their time is up, requiring a password to continue.  Alternatively, you can remove the PG Key, which will disable the computer until the PG Key is reinserted.

The best part, in my opinion, is that PG Key actually SHOWS you exactly what your kids have been doing, by taking a quick screenshot every 5 seconds, with up to 60 hours of recording time on the key.  You play a short video to see what your kids have been doing, and get an immediate, accurate picture of what their activities have been.  

All this for a ONE-TIME fee of $49.99 plus shipping (also available through Amazon for a little less).  No upgrades, no yearly fee.  

The computer in our house will still be in the main living area, with the screen facing the middle of the room.  But the PG Key will be in place, for that little bit of peace of mind and extra protection.  Because I can't be there every second, and I can't guarantee that my kids will always follow the rules.  In a way, PG Key is like the safety net you hope you'll never need.  

Want to get some other opinions on the PG Key?  Check out the reviews from the rest of the homeschool crew, here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary PG Key in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Yuck, seriously

If someone handed you a package of powder, told you to mix it with water, and let you know ahead of time that the result would resemble something you blow out of your nose into a tissue, would that really be the encouragement you needed to follow the instructions?  After all, isn't one of the goals of any mom to train your children to eventually be able to take care of their own snot, so we don't have to touch it anymore?

Welcome to the world of Yuck.  From where I sit, this has to have been invented by a kid, or someone who refuses to grow up.  Kids love it.  Moms...well, I guess it depends.  For this mom, it was definitely a "I'll let you do this because I love you, not because I want to" project.  Of course, for this mom, things like Play-Doh and PlayFoam, and even painting, fall into that category.  Any fun project that means lots of clean-up for mom is on that list.  But even I have to admit, Yuck might actually be worth the effort.
We received four types of Yuck from Buckets-O-Fun to sample.

Chunky Yuck  This starts looking like rock salt (tiny cubes) and when hydrated, it's about the size of ice machine cubes.  This is the only Yuck you have to prepare ahead of time, as it takes about 24 hours to fully hydrate.  

Saucy Yuck  This begins as a powder; add water and it becomes the consistency of applesauce, but slimier.  

Snowy Yuck  This starts as a very fine powder; when you add water it becomes just like snow, but it isn't cold.  It's not quite firm enough to mold into snowballs, but it would make a great material for a Christmas party decoration.  I have to admit, Snowy Yuck is pretty awesome!  

Sticky Yuck  Yup, boogers.  Snot.  Mucus.  Human slime.  It's gross.  It's REALLY sticky.  And the kids will LOVE it.

Each sample pack made a nice bowlful of Yuck, plenty to play with.  The samples came with instructions, and several suggestions for games to play or activities that you could use the Yuck with.  Mostly, though, we just played.  Or rather, the kids played and I watched.

The different Yuck costs, depending on the variety, between $16-20 per pound (and a pound makes, again, depending on the Yuck, between 5 and 60 gallons of Yuck once it's been hydrated).  You can also order a sample of Yuck for free.  

Two suggestions I have for ANYONE who wants to use Yuck:
  1. Check out the videos before you start, just so you have a better idea what you're getting into.
  2. Two words: DISPOSABLE CONTAINER!  That's right.  Yuck cannot be put down drains, so I highly recommend that you mix up your Yucks in some type of disposable container, to make clean-up MUCH easier.  
Yuck probably won't make another appearance at our house unless we get another free sample, simply because I don't generally choose to pay money for messes I have to clean up.  I might pass along the recommendation for some Yucky fun to the nice people at our church, or our homeschool group, so the kids can continue to have Yucky experiences (without having to directly deal with the mess myself; is that mean of me?).  But if you're a kid at heart, you probably will LOVE Yuck.  

Want some other opinions on Yuck?  Check out what the rest of the Homeschool Crew has to say.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary sample of all four varieties of Yuck in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Read, Write and Type - TOS Review

Talking Fingers' Read, Write and Type learning system is computer software for children ages 6-9 that teaches reading (phonics), writing (spelling) and typing (keyboarding skills) in one combined program.  The program is research-based and classroom tested, showing "significant reading improvement" in the 10 years of testing in elementary school classrooms.

The program introduces children to keyboarding skills using two animated hands, Rightway and Lefty.  The animated villian, Vexor, steals the letters, also known as the "storytellers" to keep them from writing down their stories.  The child's goal is to foil Vexor as they play the different games, eventually going through the programs 40 different levels.  Read, Write and Type claims that the child will not move onto new levels until they've demonstrated mastery of each one, yet it does not ever tell the child "you've failed" - the child simply keeps on playing until they finish the level.

The program also provides feedback for parents, showing progress charts to help identify the child's strengths and weaknesses.

Read, Write and Type is available for $35 for one student, or additional licenses can be purchased for more students, in a variety of configurations.  You can choose to use the program online (which is what we did), or purchase a CD home edition, which comes with additional products, like a laminated keyboard, stickers and an activity book.

What we thought:  I made the mistake of being the first one to try out the program when all my children were in the room.  My first thought was that this program, even though it's technically geared for 6-9 year olds, would be a good fit for my 10 year old son, who loves computer learning, and could desperately use some computer skills.  Well, as I started up the program, as soon as the sound came on, all the kids gathered around to see what I was doing.  Oldest child said "That's kind of dumb." (Okay, I'll be blunt here - I thought so too!)  As soon as the words were out, I knew there was no way my 10 year old would go near it.

I instead set up the program for my 7 year old (barely a beginning reader at this point) daughter, Kaitlyn.  After all, the point is to learn to READ, write and type, and right now I'm much more concerned with the reading aspect of her education than the writing or typing.  She tried out the program once, but balked every time after that when I asked her to do a lesson.  "It's booooriiiing." She'd say.  I was really surprised.  Most of my kids will watch a 40 minute video showing water going from ice-cold to simmering, just to be able to have computer time - they don't even need sound!  For her to forgo computer time, DURING THE SCHOOL WEEK, is unheard of.  I sat down with her and tried it out, and she reluctantly went through the program, but not without quite a bit of pouting.  At first, I thought that maybe my oldest child's remark about the program being dumb had also turned her against it.  But after only a few minutes, I quickly realized that she had somehow, in her first time playing, gotten herself to a level that was above her skills.

There were a few problems.  First, once the child goes through the initial start-up, there is very little direction.  She wasn't quite sure where she was supposed to go, or what she was supposed to do.  I had to help her start randomly clicking areas of the screen to even find an activity to work on.  No wonder she was bored!   Second, I was startled, and disappointed, to see that unless the child types the WRONG letter for some of the games, the "Helping Hands" do NOT show the correct hand position at all.  Unless I sat right there next to her showing her where and how to place her hands, and which fingers to use for which keys, she would only hunt and peck with her index fingers.  Third, I don't agree with the fingering they DO use, when they use it.  Mavis Beacon taught me, and the fingering for keyboarding that she teaches is fairly standard.  RWT was having the child use, for instance, the INDEX finger to type a "C", even though correct hand position has the middle finger very naturally "fallling" down to hit the "C" key.  Finally, despite the RWT materials saying that the child cannot progress beyond what he/she has mastered, Kaitlyn did manage to get way beyond what she knew, in both reading and typing.

This could be a good program for younger kids, especially those who enjoy a lot of silly in their learning.  It was not a good fit for us.  Partially because I like the computer only when it can teach something that I am unable to do myself; it seems pointless to put a child on the computer only to have to sit next to them and supervise the whole time to make sure they're learning what the program is supposed to teach.  And partially because even at 7, Kaitlyn found the entire storyline of RWT to be silly and boring (and not just because she was already ahead of what she could easily do well).

Want to hear what other TOS Crew Members had to say about Read, Write and Type?  Check out more reviews here.


Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary subscription to Talking Fingers' Read, Write and Type online program in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Friday, October 8, 2010

TOS Review: Digital Frog Field Trip Series

Over the past nine years of homeschooling, I've attempted several dozen different "field trips" with the kids, and they all have one recurring theme:  "COME ON, HURRY UP, WE HAVE TO MOVE ON!!!"  Family trips tend to go the same way.  There just is not enough time to linger where we want, to learn and explore as much as we'd like to.  Sometimes we have to move on because the tour group is moving on.  Sometimes we have to move on because there's something else that has to get done, or because the place we're at is closing.  I can't tell you how many times we've been the last people out of the Children's Museum at the end of the day, and still the children are saying "but I didn't get to..."

Digital Frog's Digital Field Trip Series is a truly unique take on learning, a way to visit new and exciting places, and spend as much or as little time as you want looking, learning and exploring before you move on.
The Digital Field Trip Series incorporates three separate field trips onto one disc.  
The Digital Field Trip to The Wetlands
Explore wetland ecology with a virtual field trip to a wetland in southern Ontario. Includes wetland types, bog formation, plus detailed sections on photosynthesis, food chains and webs and nutrient cycles.  
The Digital Field Trip to The Rainforest
Experience the tropical rainforest of Belize with 28 virtual reality posts from deep in the forest and even up in the canopy. Other topics covered include rainforest types and mechanisms, an interactive dependency web game and a botany primer.  
The Digital Field Trip to The Desert
Five deserts of the southwestern U.S.—from the saguaro cacti of the Sonoran to the sand dunes of Death Valley—are brought to life in our biggest field trip ever. Try your hand at building your own desert, learn about landscape formation and in-depth sections on adaptations and homeostasis. 
System Requirements:
- Windows 2000, XP, Windows 7 or Vista (32 bit - some features may not work in the 64 bit version of Vista) [For the record, we used this on my computer, running the 64 bit version of Vista and did not encounter any problems in 10+ hours of use]
- 32 MB of RAM (64 or more recommended)
- 75 MB of hard drive space for QuickTime
- Mac OSX 10.3.9 or later
- 30 MB of available RAM

The Digital Field Trip Series (3 Field Trips on one DVD or a set of CDs) can be purchased for $125 for home use, perfect for homeschoolers.  Digital Frog also offers the Series with a Single Educational License for $199, perfect for use in a homeschool co-op.  Digital Frog also offers a free demo version, so you can "Try before you buy."

Each field trip is LOADED with things to do, places to explore, new animals to learn about and so much more.  Really, in the six weeks or so that we've had the disc, we've barely had time to scratch the surface of what this program really has to offer.  We've so far spent most of our time using it on the Digital Field Trip to The Rainforest, so most of this review is specific to that particular one.  However, I did spend about an hour looking through the other two Field Trips and I found that they offered as much, if not more, quality and quantity of content, so you can assume that what I have to say about The Rainforest is also applicable to the other two field trips.
I actually expected to put the DVD in and watch a movie similar to a program you'd see on the National Geographic or Discovery Channel.  The Field Trips are more like interactive, high-quality tours.  The Field Trip itself is a tour through "posts", or stops throughout the terrain being explored.  Each post guides the student through the area, including information on the natural features, the wildlife, and the plant and animal life relationships that are mutually beneficial.  The student can view a 360-degree panorama of each area, click on words they don't understand to get definitions, watch short videos that explain the different features of the "post", and follow any of the numerous "rabbit trail" links that lead to in-depth learning on a plethora of subjects.  There are even games to help solidify the concepts that are being learned.
The Field Trip is just the beginning of the experience.  There are several other options for each subject.  For instance, The Rainforest offers, in addition to the Field Trip, a Rainforest Study and lessons on Rainforest Types, Mechanisms of a Rainforest and Our Endangered Rainforests.  Each Field Trip also includes a map, which shows all the different activities available on the disc.  This can be VERY helpful, because there is so much to do and see, so many links to follow and different concepts to explore, it's easy to feel like you've gotten a little lost, or that you might have missed something.  
When you first load the disc, you have the option to Autoplay the Field Trip, or See All Files.  If you choose to see the files, you'll find a whole new set of resources, including a student workbook/study guide (appropriate for junior high or senior high school students), a teacher workbook/teaching guide - both the student workbook and teacher workbook are available in a variety of formats, including Word document, Rich Text Files, PDF and Text Files.  There is also a complete CD text (also a good guide to make sure you haven't missed anything) and a file full of graphics.

The Digital Field Trip Series is a fantastic resource.  While our younger kids got bored pretty quickly, the older kids (ages 10 and 13) really enjoyed exploring the Field Trip and asked many times if they could "do more" exploring.  They began talking about what they learned to their siblings, and I even overheard one of them telling a friend about one of the animals they learned about.  One of the best gauges of a successful learning product, in my opinion, is how much a child retains and shares with others, and this product definitely fostered quite a bit of that.

I only found a couple of drawbacks with the product.  The largest, or most concerning, was that this product is most definitely not produced from a Creationist point of view.  Thankfully, my oldest son discovered this early on, and instead of this being a reason to stop using the product, we used it as a learning experience in itself, with a little detour each time the evolution viewpoint came up, to reinforce our beliefs.  

The other issue, really a very minor detail was just with the screen size/resolution options.  The Field Trip initially popped up as approximately a 6"x6" screen.  The screen options menu offers that size, called Window (with whatever else is open or your desktop showing behind it), a Letterbox option, which puts a black border around the same-size screen, or Full Screen, which does take up the entire screen, but the resolution of the Field Trip is not any better (in fact, being larger, it actually looks worse).  I wasn't completely happy with any of these options - we wanted to see the videos and the 360-degree panoramas with a high-definition picture, but there was no way to do so.  It was either small, and okay resolution, or large and somewhat worse resolution.  Several times while doing the Field Trip with all the kids, I thought how much fun it would be to go through some of the Field Trip on a larger screen (on a digital whiteboard, for instance), but I'm not sure that would work very well with the provided resolution.

Overall, I was very pleased with the Digital Field Trip Series.  Each Field Trip could easily fill a quarter, or even a semester if you used the suggested additional resources.  The material is covered very thoroughly, and Digital Frog provides information on how their materials correlate with curriculum standards.  The program can be used with many different age levels (the teacher's guide even has suggestions on how to use the program with younger students), and could be used to do research for a report, as a supplement to a current science and/or geography program, or even as a stand-alone module for science and geography.  

Digital Field Trips offer so much to explore, so much to discover, and the best thing is, you have all the time in the world to do it.  There is not closing time, and if you have something else to do, you can simply come back later to pick up where you left off, or go off in an entirely new direction, if you want to.  It's the best kind of field trip!

Want to read more reviews of Digital Frog's Digital Field Trips?  Check out what other people thought.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary copy of Digital Frog's Digital Field Trip Series (3 Field Trips on one disc) in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.