14 DIY Projects to Get Your Kids Outside

A generation ago, it was common for American kids to play outside for hours at a time, coming in only when the streetlights came on or when it was time for dinner. Unfortunately, playing outside is no longer the norm. Today, children between the ages of 8 and 18 instead consume an average of 7 hours of indoor screen media daily. It can be a real struggle for parents to get them to put down their devices and go outside, but it’s not impossible. We’ve found some creative DIY projects that will have your youngsters running out the backdoor – and you running with them – to go have fun and play.

6 Benefits of Playing Outside

Being out of doors offers many benefits for children, both physical and emotional. Spending time playing outside:

  1. Improves physical health: Though it may seem to parents like their children never stop moving, kids today are much more sedentary than in past generations. Excessive screen time has been linked to obesity, anxiety, and depression. Playing outside in the fresh air and sun increases vitamin D levels in children, strengthening their bones and helping to prevent heart disease.
  2. Improves vision: Increasing the amount of time kids spend out of doors has been shown to reduce the risk for nearsightedness. Convincing children to be out and about is an easy way to keep them from needing glasses.
  3. Fosters independence: By and large, playing outside  typically comes with fewer rules than indoor play. Parents aren’t always within earshot, so kids sometimes have to settle disputes among themselves. They also have more freedom to run, climb, throw, explore, and be active in ways that might have landed them in trouble indoors. Free play encourages creativity and offers children a chance to make up their own minds about what they want to be doing.Boy runs with kite outside
  4. Lengthens attention span: Studies suggest that “green time” spent in natural environments may reduce Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms in children. Sunlight, trees, plants, and the sounds of birds and insects can have a grounding and calming effect on children.
  5. Improves social skills: Taking part in unstructured play with other children teaches your child a lot about social skills and how to relate to others. For example, not everyone can have a turn on the swing at the same time. Outdoor play teaches kids how important it is to share in order to have fun with others.
  6. Reduces stress levels: Most people can agree that spending time out of doors, away from constructed environments, is relaxing. People often take vacations to national parks, beaches, wilderness resorts, and other natural environments to relax and relieve stress. Some people even take “forest baths,” which were found to lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Kids Playing Soccer Outside in the backyard

14 DIY Backyard Projects

Kids who enjoy video games or electronic toys might be surprised to find that there are do-it-yourself outdoor projects that offer high-level challenges and rewards. Some of the activities below are competitive and require strategy. Others will appeal to kids who like adventure games or making music. Also: how cool is it that instead of growing virtual plants in a game, kids can do it in real life in their own backyard. Here are 14 fun DIY backyard games and projects that kids of all ages can enjoy with family and friends:

  1. Make a music wall: Hang musical instruments (think pots and pans, spoons, and old pieces of metal) for your kids to play with on one of the walls of your house or on a fence bordering your backyard. The children can choose what they want to play and – depending on how close the neighbors are – volume might not be as much of an issue out of doors. If the neighbors are close, consider inviting them over to join the symphony orchestra!
  2. Build a fire pit – Gathering around a campfire is a great way to encourage conversation and family bonding. To build a fire pit, just pick a spot a safe distance from the house, dig a hole, and line it with rocks or bricks. Working together will help make it a special place for telling stories and roasting marshmallows, but be sure to supervise children at all times.
  3. Plant a garden: Planting a vegetable garden is a great way to get messy with your kids outside, as well as teaching children patience. Digging into the dirt represents sensory play which is so important for brain development. Kids get to watch the fruits of their own labor grow, and after the harvest, they get to enjoy eating what they’ve grown. Kids are also more likely to try vegetables they’ve grown themselves.
  4. Create a Ninja Warrior-inspired obstacle course: A backyard ninja obstacle course is a great way to get your kids outside and keep them active. No longer will they have to sit and watch people on television dominating obstacle courses – they get to compete themselves! There are dozens of different obstacles you can create and include, from ramps and rock-climbing walls to teeter-totters, cargo nets, balance beams, and monkey bars. To help you get started, here are DIY backyard obstacle course instructions.Children playing with all sorts of things in the backyard
  5. Make an old-fashioned tire swing: All kids love a good tire swing. If you have any old tires lying around, or access to one, a tire swing is a DIY project that will engage kids for a long time.
  6. Make a reading nook: Providing a fun place for your kids to read outside not only gets them out into the fresh air, but also encourages them to open the pages of a book rather than stare at a screen. The possibilities for your reading nook are endless. Each one can be designed to fit your child’s personality and interests. Here’s a cute one with toadstools.
  7. Create a sand and water table: Using some simple materials, you can create a sand and water table that will occupy kids for hours and can be used to teach impromptu science lessons. With PVC piping, funnels, and water, you and your children can create an intricate pipe design that is fun to play with. When you’re not using the table for water play, fill it with sand for a raised sandbox – perfect for making sand castles, digging, and other fun activities.
  8. DIY passing practice wall: Do your kids love sports? Are you looking for ways to strengthen your kids’ gross and fine motor skills? If so, build your own passing practice wall with targets of various shapes and sizes for kids to practice their aim.  Here is an easy model to follow.
  9. Giant Connect Four: A friendly game of Connect Four becomes even more fun when you play it outside on a massive board with giant pieces. It is the perfect way to load up on some Vitamin D and learn strategy, too. Check out these instructions for making your own.
  10. DIY cornhole: Both little kids and big kids enjoy the game of cornhole – an outdoor version of bean bag toss made with large wooden boards. If your kids are older, this is a fun DIY project as they can design and paint the cornhole boards to match their interests. Here are instructions from the DIY Network.
  11. Outdoor movie theater – You can give an old sheet or painter’s tarp new life and recreate the magic of drive-in movie theaters with this awesome outdoor movie screen project. Just add popcorn and comfortable seating, and don’t forget to invite the neighbors!
  12. Pallet daybed – You can make your backyard even cozier with a DIY pallet daybed. Kids and adults alike will love to read, lounge, nap, and hang out in your new favorite spot. Add wheels to make the daybed mobile, or you can turn it into a swing.
  13. Outdoor chess: For chess-loving families, consider turning part of your backyard into a DIY chessboard. For example, by laying pavers strategically, you can turn a section of your yard into a game board. See DIY Network’s chessboard patio instructions.
  14. DIY outdoor Yahtzee: The game of Yahtzee involves only dice, a score pad, and a pencil. Using large wooden blocks and a permanent marker, you can easily make your own set of dice for backyard Yahtzee. Here are simple DIY instructions.

Unstructured Play

It’s hard to overstate how important it is for children to spend time playing outside. When they look back on their childhood later in life, your kids probably won’t remember passing a particular level of a video game. But they will reflect fondly on adventures, discoveries, and unstructured time spent playing in the backyard.

Little Girl does handstand in backyard

Depending on how adventurous and physically active your children are, they might get some bumps and bruises while climbing trees, swinging, or navigating obstacle courses. It’s always a good idea to establish safety rules and to have a basic first aid kit on hand for minor emergencies. But actually, the benefits of playing out of doors can’t help but make kids more physically fit, more independent, and provide an outlet for stress. Whether you use the ideas here or brainstorm your own, backyard projects are sure to provide you and your children with hours of creativity, togetherness, and fun.

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Getting Silly With Kids has Proven Benefits

A recent study suggests that parents just getting silly with their kids can prevent problem behaviors like ADHD and aggression. Children, as it turns out, love it when their parents get silly with them. That could mean anything from using funny voices for characters in a storybook, or tapping the child’s nose when reading the word “nose.” And it seems that the benefits of getting silly with kids aren’t exclusive to story time. Any time you are playful with your children, you’re helping to shape their social and emotional development and behavior in a most positive way.

The study, Reading Aloud, Play and Social-Emotional Development (Pediatrics, February 2018), offered a special invention called the Video Interaction Project (VIP) to 225 families with children aged newborn to five years. In the VIP intervention, a program dating back to 1998, a parenting coach spends time with parents discussing their developmental goals for their children during a regular visit to the pediatrician. Parents are given age-appropriate educational toys and books to take home for their children. Then parents are directed to read to and play with their children and the session is captured on videotape. The parenting coach then has the parents watch the videotape, pointing out how children respond to the different thing parents do as they spend time with their children.

“They get to see themselves on videotape and it can be very eye-opening how their child reacts to them when they do different things,” said Adriana Weisleder, a co-author of the study, speaking to the New York Times. “We try to highlight the positive things in that interaction—maybe they feel a little silly, and then we show them on the tape how much their kid loves it when they do these things, how fun it is—it can be very motivating,” concludes Weisleider, who serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University.

Mother reads to two laughing girls
Getting silly during story time is a good thing.

As it turns out, the Video Interaction Project had already proven its worth before this most study took place. An earlier study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that 3-year-olds who had received the intervention had better behavior than those in the control group. They were far less likely to be hyperactive or aggressive than the children who received no intervention at all.

What the new study did was look at those same children a year and a half later, as the children neared the age of school entry. Were those early improvements in behavior still there? Did it really make that much of a difference in a child’s behavior when the playfulness of a parent/child interaction was pointed out to parents? The answer turns out to be yes, absolutely. The children whose families took part in those early interventions had better behavior. They didn’t have attention difficulties, weren’t hyperactive, showed less aggression. And these are the behaviors that can get in the way of a schoolchild’s learning.

The new study also had older children (3-5 years) receive a second intervention. The positive benefits of intervention were all the stronger for the extra “dose” the children received. After all, the intervention pushes positive parenting and the more of that, the better. Fact.

Little Girl touches smiling mothers nose as mom reads storybook
Getting silly during story time is as easy as letting your child “honk” the horn during story time. Your nose, of course, is the horn.

This is important because the children who take part in the VIP intervention are from low-income families. These children are at greater risk for ADHD and other behavior problems. Children who come to school with behavior issues are less likely to do well in school and get ahead.

What parents should learn from all this is that even if you have no money to spend on clothes for your children or fancy private schools, you can read to, play with, and get silly with your child and it will have a huge positive impact on your child’s emotional and social development, and his or her academic success, too. Dr. Weisleder explains that when parents read to and play with their children, they confront challenges that are outside their everyday experiences. Adults can help children think about how they can deal with these situations.

It could be simpler than that, of course. Getting silly with your kids means bonding with them, having a good time together. “Maybe engaging in more reading and play both directly reduces kids’ behavior problems because they’re happier and also makes parents enjoy their child more and view that relationship more positively,” says Weisleder.

Mother Reads to Daughter in tent with both holding flashlights and smiling
Getting silly can be all about location, location, location. Plus flashlights.

10 Suggestions for Getting Silly

We absolutely agree. And maybe we don’t need to analyze this so closely, but make sure instead to spend lots of time both reading to our children and getting silly with them. To that end, we offer 10 suggestions for getting silly with your kids (feel free to add to our list!):

  1. Hand-washing Fun. Sing “Happy Birthday” twice every time your child washes her hands (you too!). This is the amount of time needed to rinse off those germs with hot sudsy water. But a song makes washing fun and there’s just something ridiculous about singing happy birthday out of context.
  2. Dance Out Your Emotions. Put on some music and dance it out together with your child! Or call out emotions like “Happy” or “Sad” to your child and have her dance the different feelings as you name them.
  3. Tell A Silly Story Together. Take turns telling a story, breaking off at random with one of you taking up the narrative where the other leaves off (and so forth).
  4. Have a water balloon fight! Fill a bucket with tiny water balloons (water bombs). Then go to the nearest sports field and have at it. See who can throw the farthest. Getting wet is all part of the fun.
  5. Turn Getting Dressed Into a Game. For a toddler who hates getting dressed, turn it into a game. “Here comes the Zipper Monster” you can say as you pull up that zipper and make your child squeal with happy surprise. Or tease, “Where’s your head? Where are your arms?? Oh my, I can’t find them at all!” as you pull your child’s sweater over her head and arms.
  6. Use Funny Voices During Story Time. Use different voices for the characters (including animal characters!) in your child’s bedtime story to make the story come alive for her.
  7. Make a Silly Shadow Show. After you turn out the overhead lights leaving only the night light, make an awesome animal shadow show with your child on her bedroom wall. Make those shadows talk to each other, bump into each other, and fake yell at each other.
  1. Compose a Silly Family Symphony. At the dinner table, nod at each member of the family to add a phrase of made-up music or percussion. As each person joins in, you’ll have a crazy music round that sounds like a broken symphony! Keep it going until you all crack up laughing, then begin again, with new sounds and melodies.
  2. Speak Pig Latin. Teach your child Pig Latin and then have an entire conversation in that language!
  3. Make Silly Orange Wedge Smiles. Cut an orange into wedges. Eat the fruit, leaving the rind intact. Put the peels in your mouths over your closed teeth. Orange you glad you smiled? For a variation on this theme, top fingers with raspberry “caps” for instant “manicures.”Man getting silly with orange wedge smile

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Homemade Playdough Recipe (Old-School, Anti-Tech!)

Homemade playdough may be just the ticket to get your kids away from their screens. It’s easy to make and gives kids hours of fun. You probably already have the ingredients on hand in your pantry.

When freshly made, the playdough is warm and feel so good on the hands. This particular recipe, while not tasty, is edible, and is certainly non-toxic. It’s just as good as the store-bought brand, but you can tailor-make your color palette. With this in mind, make several batches so kids have lots of different colors to work with. They will love you for the extra effort!

Get kids’ imaginations going by putting out various kitchen utensils for them to use with the homemade playdough. Give them dull butter knives, rolling pins, a garlic press, a melon baller, or anything else you can think of that isn’t sharp and can be used to make amazing shapes and textures in the dough. When children’s attention flags, you can assign them themes or contests to awaken their interest.

child rolls out homemade playdough with miniature plastic rolling pin

Homemade Playdough Activities

Making tiny replicas of birds’ nests containing tiny eggs is so much fun! So is layering rolled-out pieces of dough, rolling them into cylinders, and pulling out the “petals” to make roses. If you play along with your children, or there are other children or siblings around, create a homemade playdough contest using these examples to get you started:

  • Most creative homemade playdough item
  • Prettiest rose
  • Scariest homemade playdough monster
  • Longest “snake”

Don’t be surprised if “older” children can’t help themselves and must get in on the sensory fun. Even adults like to play with this colorful stuff, though it may embarrass them to admit this fact (hint: think of adult coloring books and give yourself permission to play).

A penguin and a fantasy creature
(artwork by Asher Epstein, photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Homemade Playdough: Vacation Solution

Homemade playdough is a good solution for the long summer vacation or for snow days. It’s an any-weather solution. And it’s the complete opposite of tech. The sight of homemade playdough will have your kids running away from their computer screens to stick their hands in the colorful dough: there’s just something about the stuff.

Best of all, you can give yourself a pat on the back when you make homemade playdough. It’s not rocket-science. It’s so easy to whip up a batch. And it makes you the greatest parent in the world to your child at the moment you show them what you’ve made for them.

Not to mention, did we say it takes kids away from their screens? Old-school homemade playdough. It’s the anti-tech!

Viking ship
(artwork by Asher Epstein, photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Colorful Homemade Playdough

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • ¼ cup salt
  • 2 tablespoons cream of tartar
  • 2 teaspoons food coloring
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 cup water

Method:

  1. Combine flour, salt, and cream of tartar in medium saucepan
  2. Add water, food coloring, and oil
  3. Stir over medium heat with wooden spoon for 3-5 minutes until dough leaves the sides of the pan and forms a ball
  4. Remove from heat, allow dough to cool in pan
  5. Turn dough out onto counter and knead until smooth
  6. Store in refrigerator in airtight container or Ziploc freezer bag

Note: This modeling clay lasts 6 months thanks to the addition of cream of tartar.

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Top 10 Educational and Enriching Things to Do With Kids This Summer

School is out, or it will be within a few short weeks. Your children might be anticipating long, lazy days of watching Netflix and playing video games. You might be checking your calendar, not knowing what to do to get the kids off of their electronics and out doing something productive and fun. It can be hard to keep kids entertained all summer, which is why we’ve put together a list of the top 10 educational and enriching activities to inspire you and your children!

little girl enjoys summer library fun with books on head

#1 Go to the Library

Children often lose some of their reading skills over the summer, which sets them back when school starts up again in August or September. Visiting the library on a weekly or biweekly basis gives kids the chance to keep up their skills by reading books of their choosing. Encourage them to choose books that roughly correlate with their reading level, but don’t worry if they enjoy books that are easier to read. Any reading will help them stay on track.

daughter rides father's shoulders as they tour their toqn

#2 Explore Your Town

There are likely fun, educational places in your own city or town that you have never taken your children to. If you were going to host family members with children the same ages as your kids, where would you think about taking them? Play tourist in your own town and explore the nearby attractions.

mother daughter cooking lesson

#3 Teach Them to Cook

During the school year, it can be hectic to get meals made and on the table in time to get the kids off to soccer practice and leave time to get homework done. During the summer, however, you might have more time. Teach your children how to make your family favorites and explore some new recipes together, too.

#4 Learn How to Take Photographs

Do you ever see a beautiful bird, a stunning sunset, or even an interesting insect? All of these are worth pointing out to your kids. If you have a camera (or even a smartphone!), you can also teach them how to take good photographs. Take a photography class together if you’re interested in making it into a hobby; check in with your local community centers to see if this type of class is available.

children on parents' shoulders at concert

#5 Attend Music Events

Does your city or town sponsor free music gatherings on summer evenings? Many areas do; it might be held on a town green, near the city hall, or at a park. These types of events can consist of hired bands or simply members of the community getting together to play instruments, sing, and dance. These are great opportunities to introduce your children to music and to help them become part of the community. Pack a picnic dinner and encourage them to dance and enjoy the music.

animation of welcoming exchange student

 

#6 Host an Exchange Student

There are organizations that bring teenagers from other countries to the United States for a few weeks or a month during the summer to learn a bit about American culture and to practice their English. This is a great way to learn more about another culture while extending hospitality to another young person. If you enjoy the experience, you might even consider hosting a student who is here for the academic year!

mother daughter art lesson

#7 Make Time for Art

Letting kids do art projects can be messy and inconvenient, but it’s so important to let them express their creativity. Stock up on art supplies like paper, crayons, paint, colored pencils, glue, kid-size scissors, googly eyes, feathers, beads, and anything else you can think of. Use a plastic cover on your table or set the kids up in the backyard on a nice day, and let them experiment.

popcorn and family movie time

#8 Introduce Them to Old Movies

While you might be trying to minimize time spent in front of the television, watching old movies with a parent or grandparent can be a great way to spend time together indoors on a rainy day. Choose flicks you enjoyed as a child. One caveat: If it’s been decades since you have last seen a childhood favorite, check out the rating on a site like Common Sense Media. More than a few parents have been surprised by some of the content in movies they enjoyed as children.

family camping trip

#9 Go Summer Camping

“There is perhaps nothing that says childhood summer quite like camping,” says Angela Stringfellow, senior editor at Family Living Today. You can make it a week-long trip in an RV, find a camp that has air-conditioned cabins, or just pitch a tent in your backyard. Whatever type of camping appeals to you, be sure to roast marshmallows, catch fireflies, and sing around a campfire for memories that will last your child well into adulthood.

mother and two daughters volunteer at soup kitchen

#10 Volunteer Together

Making a difference in your community is a wonderful way to round out the summer and add some enrichment to your child’s life. Volunteering can include playing with kitties or puppies at the animal shelter, handing out groceries to food pantry patrons, or helping an elderly shut-in with chores around the house. Working together to serve the less fortunate will be a habit that your child can practice for a lifetime.

What are your best ideas for keeping kids busy, engaged, and learning this summer?

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Recipes Kids Can Make and Eat

Recipes easy enough for kids to prepare are a wonderful thing find for any parent looking for a stress-free way for children to have productive fun. The following recipes are not only easy and delicious for children and adults alike, but provide quality time for parents and children in the hours after school. You’ll not only have fun together preparing these sweet treats, but enjoy eating them together.

Recipes and Clean-Up

After preparing any of these three recipes, use clean-up time to teach children not only how to clean, but that clean-up comes with every project, be it preparing recipes, doing arts and crafts, or simply playing with toys. Clean-up should be fun, of course! Sing silly songs as you work. Put a drop of soap and warm water in the blender after making the berry smoothie and watch it foam up at the flip of a switch!

Tutti Frutti Fruit Skewers with Vanilla-Honey Yogurt Dip

Makes 20 skewers

Ingredients:

  • 10 wooden skewers
  • Assorted fruit, peeled, stemmed, cored, as necessary
  • 2 cups plain yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Styrofoam block (or Styrofoam ball sliced across the bottom to sit flat on table)

Method:

  1. To make the dip, stir together yogurt, vanilla extract, honey, and cinnamon, in a medium-sized bowl
  2. Thread fruit onto skewers, alternating types of fruit
  3. Stick skewers into Styrofoam to stand
  4. Serve skewers with yogurt dip

Chocolate-Dipped Apricots

Makes 24 apricots

Ingredients:

  • 24 dried apricots
  • 11-ounce bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 tsp coconut oil
  • Parchment paper

Method:

  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Place chocolate and coconut oil in microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for one minute. Let sit for one minute, then stir.
  3. Microwave chocolate for 15 seconds, stir, then repeat, microwaving chocolate in 15-second intervals, until chocolate is almost completely melted. Stir chocolate until melted and smooth.
  4. Dip each apricot into the chocolate to half-way coat the fruit, setting each dipped apricot on the paper-lined baking sheet. Place the tray in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to help set the chocolate coating.
  5. Store dipped apricots in the refrigerator, or at room temperature, according to preference.

Berry Good Smoothie

Makes 4 8-ounce smoothies

Ingredients:

  • 2 handfuls, ready-to-eat baby spinach leaves
  • 2 cups frozen berries (use whatever type you have on hand, or an assortment)
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon honey

Method:

  1. Place all ingredients in a blender.
  2. Blend until smooth.
  3. If you like your smoothie thinner, add more coconut milk, a little bit at a time, until it’s just the way you like it.
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Cube-tastic: Perfect Gift for Your Digital Native Child

Cube-tastic just may be the answer to your prayers. That is if you’ve been stumped about what to buy that computer geek child of yours as a holiday gift. Similar to the ever-popular Rubik’s Cube, Cube-tastic is a puzzle cube that combines augmented reality with a step-by-step solution guide.

Made by Pai Technology, Cube-tastic and the other toys in this line are marketed as “technology that doesn’t tear your family apart, but instead brings you closer together” and also as “technology that doesn’t interfere with your child’s education and development, but encourages it.” This writer was curious to see if Pai products lived up to this very tall promise so I agreed to take a look at Cube-tastic.

My first impression of Cube-tastic was that the cube felt good in my hand. You could see and feel that the toy was well made. I looked at the instructions and saw that I needed to download software on my phone in order to play. I didn’t have enough room on my Android phone, so I dumped a bunch of stuff and tried again. This time, I succeeded in installing the software (about 65 megabytes) but the program kept shutting down. I was about to pack it in. Note that my phone is a pretty abysmal specimen.Cube-tastic: Perfect Gift for Your Digital Native Child

Luckily for me, number 7 son Yitzchak came home, saw the Cube-tastic sitting forlornly on my bureau and asked, “What’s that?”

I explained.

He said, “Let me try it on my phone. I have a better phone than yours.”

This was true.

Yitzchak was able to install the program on his phone lickety-split and the app opened just fine on his computer. Now for the moment of truth. I told him to scramble the cube and scan it with his phone.

And wooooooooo, he was OFF. Needed no help figuring out what to do. He just did it, as digital natives tend to do. As he played he was saying, “Whoa. This is so cool.”

Basically, the app uses your phone camera to zoom in on the middle cube and once it gets a good look, the focus area turns a different color. That’s the user’s signal to turn the cube to the side with that color cube in the center. Then you scan that one and it tells you what color cube to find next. After you do this a number of times, Cube-tastic stops to compute the solution. Then you get a guide on how to position the cube as you work through the solution.

Finally, you follow the steps to solve the puzzle. If you make a mistake, you can use the back arrow to go back to the previous step to correct your mistake. You’ll see that you can solve the puzzle in almost no time at all. Which says something about the genius of the programming involved in developing Cube-tastic.

At this point, hearing all the excited hubbub, Number 8 son Asher came over and wanted to see what the fuss was all about. He scrambled the cube much more than Yitzchak had done, so Cube-tastic took slightly longer to compute the solution, but not by much. We all agreed it was amazing that Cube-tastic could spit out a solution so quickly.

What exactly does Cube-tastic teach? Certainly not how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. It’s more like a magic trick, because it solves it for you. But it does show you something about the infinite capability of computers and that the right algorithm can go a long way to dumbing things down. We agreed there’s sheer genius behind Cube-tastic. It’s just really cool computer science.

I asked Pai about their mission in developing these fun products. Amy Braun, Marketing Director for Pai, said, “Our singular goal is to help children grow, develop and play, using our line of tech toys. Our mission is to bring families closer together, and promote creativity using technology.”

As far as Cube-tastic goes, explains Braun, the countless puzzle combinations are great exercise for teaching dexterity and cause and effect to little hands and brains. I can attest that Cube-tastic felt good in my hands. The minute I saw it come out of its neat little package, I wanted to play with it, hold it.

If you buy a Cube-tastic for your child, you’ll certainly be giving your kid an edge. While Pai Technology has been a player in international markets for some years, the company has only just had its U.S. launch this year (2016). Pai really is the new kid on the block when it comes to technology fun.

In addition to Cube-tastic, Pai also markets two other flagship products for the U.S. market: Ocean Pets; which allows children to create their own pets and see them come to life, and Pai Band; a kids activity band that encourages fun and active play. If your child has access to a decent smartphone, these technology toys are to be recommended as well made toys that excite the mind. Happy shopping and um, happy holidays!

Sensory Play: It’s Summer!

Sensory play is about playing games that stimulate the senses. Children use their senses to understand the world they live in. Sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste offer different ways for children to experience their surroundings.

Sensory play is also important for developing the senses themselves. As children use their senses, they learn how to make sense of the various stimuli that come at them from different directions. A child who plays sensory games that involve sense of smell, for instance, will develop his sense of smell. The child will learn that some smells are pleasing (flowers, fruit) while other smells may signal danger (cooking gas). The child will also sharpen his senses so that eventually, he can tell the difference between grape and lemon scents.

That’s just sense of smell, but the same is true of all the senses. If you think of a baby who puts everything in her mouth, you understand this immediately. The child must be given things that are safe to put in the mouth, because at that stage, everything is going to end up in her mouth. You wouldn’t, for instance, put a baby of that age in the sandbox, because she’s going to put sand in her mouth. This is how, at this age, she learns about her environment. She learns, for instance, that some things don’t taste very good!

Using the senses, develops the senses. This is true for all children. Some children, however, have issues with sensory integration. These children may have autism or sensory integration dysfunction disorder. The disorders may make it difficult for children to understand and organize the stimuli that come at them by way of the five senses. Think of how some people can’t stand the sensation of a wool sweater against their skin. Children with sensory integration difficulties may need labels cut out of their clothing, and may only be able to tolerate certain fabrics.

Sensory Play Offers Extra Practice

That’s just a single example of a sensory issue relating to sense of touch. A child may find certain sounds too stimulating and may need to wear earphones to block out the background noise in his environment. For these children, too, sensory play offers extra practice in sorting out the senses.

During the summer, children can lose ground in their learning. This is a good time to offer them sensory play time. Sensory play doesn’t feel like learning. It feels like fun. It is fun.

Meantime, sensory play can help build your child’s vocabulary by adding words like sour, salty, bitter, and sweet. Water can be cold, hot, wet, frozen, blue, still, or move in waves. A tree’s bark may be smooth or rough.

Sensory play can also help your child develop fine motor skills. Playing with sand, clay, or a bowl of noodles can help develop these senses as kids pinch clay, pour sand, or pick up a noodle, for instance. This sort of play readies a child for tasks like writing, tying shoes, zipping zippers, and buttoning buttons.

Sensory Play Helps Calm

Sensory play also has a calming effect on children. This is the reason your child is calmer after a bath, or after hard outdoor play, or jumping on his bed. Working the senses is known to help children cope with the discomfort of fatigue, restlessness or boredom, for instance.

Create An Edible Sensory Experience

Here is a recipe for Edible Sensory Playballs, from Emma and Trish over at the Mud Kitchen. These playballs are awesome because they stimulate all five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. Most of all, kids have a blast learning while they play.

Prepare the playballs a day before you plan to use them, as they need time to set.

You’ll need:

  • Jello in assorted flavors
  • Ice ball molds in two different sizes
  • A large tray or tub
  • Bowls (for half spheres)

Mix jello in separate batches to keep colors and flavors separated, and using slightly less water than called for for a firmer consistency. Pour the jello mixture into ice ball molds and/or bowls.

When jello is set, empty the molds and bowls onto a large tray and let the kids at ’em. They are irresistible. In fact, you’ll want to get in on the fun along with them, and so will all the other adults in your home!

There will be all these awesome fruity smells and colors and textures. Kids will dive right in to smash the balls flat or squish them between their fingers. They’ll want to do a taste-test, too, which is all part of the fun.

Note that jello also makes funny, delightful sounds as you mess with it on the tray.

Teachers As Comedians?

Teachers As Comedians?

Think back to your school days. Picture your favorite teacher. Now, picture your best friend’s favorite teacher. Chances are that they had something in common. They were funny.

Indeed, some of our funniest teachers may just have been the “best” for more reasons than one. Studies now show that laughter and happiness increase learning and memory. Dopamine is released when we are happy and oxygenation increases when we laugh, both of which stimulate the learning process. This makes humor a powerful tool for teachers.

The Science Behind It All

The newly emerging field of Mind, Brain, and Education science (MBE) represents a cross-section of neuroscience, education, and psychology. Laughter is just one subject, among many, that has been put under the microscope as MBE science is developing. Understanding the chemical effects of laughter on the brain can help educators recognize the significant impact this may have on learning.

MBE science aims to develop the best teaching practices, utilizing research from neuroscience and psychology. MBE topics cover the gamut from mind-body connection to reading interventions, from time management to classroom management, among many other subjects. This new approach to education can lead to exciting discoveries in each area: the study of the brain, psychology, and education.

The Brain on Laughter

Laughter, as seen from the MBE approach, has an impact on both the brain and body.  For instance, the medical profession has identified healing properties in laughter. The appearance of laughter therapy and even laughter yoga has become more commonplace in our times. Laughter therapy is a way to provide relief from emotional and physical pain and stress. This new therapy is even being used in conjunction with cancer treatments.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America cite studies that indicate that laughter provides physical benefits, such as boosting the immune system, enhancing oxygenation to the heart and lungs, relaxing muscles, releasing endorphins that subdue pain, improving blood pressure, stimulating cognitive functions, and soothing stomach irritation. Laughter yoga, much like laughter therapy, is touted as an antidote to chronic conditions such as depression, high blood pressure, and even asthma. However, laughter is not just a cure for those who are ill. Research is proving the physical and psychological benefits that laughter provides, and it also has positive implications for education.

MedicineIn her book, Mind, Brain, and Education Science, professor and educational researcher Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa suggests that laughter enhances our learning experiences:

Laughter triggers the release of endorphins and enhances oxygenation in the brain, both of which aid in learning.

She cites recent studies which suggest that laughter triggers memory, helping us to better remember those experiences and ideas connected to moments in which we find ourselves chuckling. Imagine that! The more you laugh, the more likely it is that you will remember whatever is linked to that moment.

Furthermore, there are changes in hormones that occur during times of laughter. Just as we know that happiness induces the flow of dopamine, it also augments our learning. Happiness and laughter, intricately tied together, serve to enhance memory and concentration.

In Flourishing in the First Five Years, Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers stress the importance that optimism plays in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged to promote positive feelings. Laughter is clearly a positive feeling, which allows teachers to provide an invigorating learning environment. Not only do children look forward to classrooms where humor is a part of the daily routine, but they actually learn better from the positivity that laughter creates.

Teacher
Laughter is now being thought of as similar to exercise and movement within the classroom. What was once frowned upon is now recognized to be highly valuable to the learning environment. In fact, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa names laughter as a tenet of MBE science, along with exercise and movement. Maybe there is a reason that some kids just can’t sit still in class? Perhaps their brains and bodies know just what they need to absorb more information. What about that class clown, was he on to something?

Now, the discovery of the positive effects of laughter and movement in the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean that all children who can’t sit still or all class clowns are on the right track. Every case is obviously different. However, it does give us better insight into the “whys” of what occurs when students laugh and fidget in the classroom. It also enables educators to work to create the best learning environment possible for their students.

Practical Implications

What are the practical ramifications of such studies on laughter? How can educators, and parents alike, make the most of this research? We learn that every tiny detail and experience inside (and outside) of the classroom and home makes a difference. As neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer says:

The brain is always learning–as it cannot function any other way.

A person’s brain functions best based on ideal timing and conditions, which help us to make the most of our learning. Understanding how the brain works allows us to create environments that are stimulating for our children. Researchers are not suggesting that teachers drop lesson plans in favor of comedy skits. However, creating a relaxed environment, sprinkled with laughter, can actually cause students to not only enjoy coming to class, but to retain what teachers work so hard to instill.

Brain

Perhaps teaching methods should incorporate humor. Perhaps teachers should welcome humorous comments (albeit appropriate and relevant to the discussion) from students. Perhaps a relaxing educational environment will allow humor to flourish. Not only that, but maybe, teachers should consider making time for laughter in their teaching schedules. For example, it might be pertinent to start classes off with a funny anecdote. Or, maybe, giving students a “laughing” transition between one topic and the next can be a perfect place for that pithy anecdote. Teachers can block out three minutes of time where they share a funny article, illustration, etc. As research suggests, those three minutes of “laughter time” can actually increase what students retain from lessons. Educators should also be cognizant of highly stressful times for students, such as before an exam, and use humor to reduce the anxiety of the situation. This will allow students to retain more of what is going in the lesson and participate in the here and now.

Tips for Integrating Humor in the Classroom

The National Education Association (NEA) advocates using humor in classrooms. They suggest using “games, parody, or comical voices (or wigs or hats)” to bring meaning and freshness to content. Some teachers use humor as part of their lesson plans, bringing in funny examples of their subject matter. English teacher Tracee O. made a Pinterest board of real-life examples of funny grammatical errors to teach her lessons. Other teachers relate how they intersperse comical facial expressions, voices, or stories into their teaching day.

Rutgers Professor of Psychology, Maurice Elias, author of “Using Humor in the Classroom” also gives examples of how to apply the humorous approach. He suggests creating bulletin boards for funny quotes and illustrations shared by teacher and students, placing humorous items on exams and assignments, encouraging students to bring in jokes for transition periods, and asking students to discuss some of their favorite comedic books.

Kids

Nevertheless, the American Psychological Association (APA) cautions against overdoing laughter to the point that students are distracted from the purpose of the lesson. Instead, when humor is applied correctly and in the appropriate times and amounts, it can stimulate interest in subject matter outside of the classroom. Students may actually seek out “homework” for themselves, because teachers have generated interest in a particular topic. Dr. Ron Berk, author and educator, uses musical skits to teach his biostatistics course. The result is that more students leave exhilarated with the (all too often boring) subject-matter and prepared to apply it in real life.

Teachers should also to remember to be careful in how humor is applied in the classroom. Chad Donohue calls our attention to making sure humor is always used in a respectful manner. He makes the point of telling fellow educators never to use laughter to single out or belittle a student. While this should go without saying, it is important that the sensitivities of all students are understood and that humor is used appropriately. Donahue chooses to create a relaxed atmosphere in his classroom, where students feel at ease, and he uses humor to do this:

In more than 20 years of teaching students ranging from as young as 12 to as old as 70, I have found one thing to be verifiably true: Humor positively impacts the learning environment.

Returning to your school days and that favorite teacher of yours…The APA proposes that it was, indeed, most likely the funny one: “Research suggests that students rate professors who make learning fun significantly higher than others.”

Humorous teachers have mastered the art of making learning fun. More importantly, when humor is applied correctly, humorous teachers can come to master the art of making learning memorable and significant.

Small Grant for TADA! Because Every Child Deserves a Stage

Small Grant for TADA! Because Every Child Deserves a Stage
TADA!’s Resident Youth Ensemble Program has won the nation’s highest distinction, the Coming Up Taller award from the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities. TADA! co-founder and Executive and Artistic Director Janine (Nina) Trevens holding the award. (courtesy)

A very special children’s theater school called TADA! just became the recipient of a small grant from Kars4Kids. We wanted to help TADA! because Kars4Kids is a willing partner to anything that helps children grow and blossom as they should. And we already knew that musical theater could do just that.

After all, we’ve twice covered on the blog the benefits of drama and performance for young people.

Yeah. We wanted to be part of that mission. So now we are.

Kars4Kids spoke to Co-Founder, Executive and Artistic Director of TADA! Janine (Nina) Trevens, to find out how she ended up creating this amazing theater for children and to learn about the theater itself. Our hope in sharing this interview is that others will be inspired to start theater companies for children in their own areas. Because doesn’t every child deserve a stage?

Kars4Kids: When did you first have the idea to open a children’s theater school and how long did it take until you were able to open? Tell us a bit about that process.  

TADA! Ensemble Cast Member Riya Nagpal

Riya Nagpal is a member of the TADA! Ensemble. She’s 13 years old and has been in TADA! for the past four years. Riya agreed to talk with Kars4Kids about what it’s like to be part of TADA!

Riya Nagpal
Riya Nagpal, TADA! Ensemble cast member (courtesy)

 

Kars4Kids: How old were you when you auditioned for TADA and how did that come about?

Riya Nagpal: I was ten years old when I auditioned for TADA!. I wasn’t really a social butterfly at that point. I always sat in the back of my classes and I didn’t really talk that much to other kids. I didn’t have that many friends and I was too scared to make any. The only way I would break out of my shell was to listen to music and dance and sing and read. So, to break me out of my shell, my mom was looking online to find places to help me talk more when she came across an ad about the TADA! auditions. My mom signed me up, and the story just goes on from there.

Kars4Kids: What does it feel like to be part of TADA? Are the classes difficult? How do you feel about your teachers and classmates at TADA?

Riya Nagpal: It’s like being part of a really close knit family. We have a lot of differences, and we do disagree on things, but in the end, we’re still always there for each other no matter what. All of my teachers and classmates are great. The teachers are always supportive and will offer to go over a routine, a scene, or a song, or whatever you’re struggling with. All of my classmates and friends here are always happy to run through something with you. They will stand behind you no matter what.

Kars4Kids: How many hours a week do you spend on your work with TADA? How do you manage your school work on top of your TADA work? Is that a struggle?

Riya Nagpal: I spend about an average 20 hours a week at TADA!, between rehearsals, events, and volunteering. I’ll be honest; it can be a bit of a struggle to manage homework and TADA!. But I work hard and I try to stay on top of it. I do a lot of my homework at TADA! with help from staff if needed so that when I get home, I only have a little bit left so that I can relax. It’s definitely preparing me for the future.

Kars4Kids: What would your life have been like without TADA? How is your life different as a result of being in TADA?

Riya Nagpal: Now that’s a crazy thing to think about! I mean, TADA!’s done a lot for me, from breaking me out of my shell to giving me a second family, among other things. I mean, I guess I would be even quieter than I was before, barely speaking to anyone. But thanks to them, I have friends, a new family, dozens of new experiences, and thousands of more to come! I’m so grateful to be with them.

Kars4Kids: What do you want to do when you’re finished with school?

Riya Nagpal: I have no idea. I always change my mind. There are lots of options in today’s day and age and there are lots of jobs that I consider important and that I’d like to take up as a career. I always consider the arts as an option, but I think there are a lot of other things that I would like to have as a job.

Kars4Kids:What is the best part of being in musical theater? What does it feel like to be on the stage in front of a gazillion people? How do you feel after a performance?

Riya Nagpal: There are so many great things about being here. One of the best parts of being at TADA! is just having that feeling of being a different person as soon as you step onto that stage. When you take on a character, it’s like you transform into an entirely different person altogether! I mean, it can definitely be nerve-wracking when you’re up on that stage. The first time I did a show, I was terrified! But after you finish, you miss it a lot. When the show’s over, there’s this overall feeling of pride, kind of like when you ride a bike for the first time, or when you ace a test. It’s just so exhilarating, and once it’s over you miss it.

Nina Trevens: I worked as a stage manager in theater for a number of years but I wanted to work with children which was my passion. I saw how that was possible when I ended up working as the production stage manager at The First All Children’s Theater for a number of years but I wanted to direct and that wasn’t a possibility there.

I went back to stage managing adult theater and got a job as a stage manager on a show which was part of a festival. The producer wanted to do all different kinds of theater. My Mom, Francine Trevens, was directing a different show in that festival and she told the producer that I had a children’s theater company which I didn’t at the time. The producer asked me for a proposal—what would my children’s theater be able to do in this festival?

I asked a choreographer friend, Linda Reiff, to partner with me to write the proposal. We went away for the weekend and came up with a dance piece and a new musical that we would be able to do as part of the festival. The producer accepted the proposal and so TADA! began in the summer of 1983.TADA! Camp

We were given the space, equipment, and marketing. Linda and I found contributors and staff and cast the show.  Once that production ended, Linda and I decided we wanted to continue with TADA! so then we went through the process to become a not-for-profit theater company – that took a year – and we continued to produce original musicals and dance pieces performed by kids for family audiences.

Kars4Kids: What was the first musical you performed? How many children were enrolled that first year? Catching Bubbles at TADA!

Nina Trevens: The first musical was The Little House of Cookies and it was done in conjunction with a dance piece entitled, The Odd Ball. The cast was comprised of 15 kids ages 8-17.

Kars4Kids: How many kids are currently enrolled in the regular 8-18 TADA! program?

Nina Trevens: The ensemble is currently comprised of 86 members.

Kars4Kids: Tada! holds musical theater classes for ages 1-2. Now that’s intriguing. The babies must love this! WhatPuppet fun at TADA! exactly do you do with the babies? What is the aim of this class? 

Nina Trevens: Our class for age 1-2 is called Creative Musical Play. It is a chance for moms, dads and caretakers to have a play date with their little ones and their friends. The adults get in on the action while watching their child learn rhythmic coordination, language and storytelling skills through song.

Kars4Kids: You have some pretty big names on your artistic advisory board. Chita Rivera and Leslie Uggams, are for instance, recognizable names. How did you manage to enlist their help? It must take some courage to approach the big names. 

Nina Trevens: Many of the people on the Artistic Advisory Board I had worked with in the past so I just asked them if they would lend their names in support of TADA! and they said yes. I guess it took courage—I’ve been told that I’m a brave person but I just knew what I wanted and I knew how much TADA! meant to me so I asked people to be a part of TADA!.

Kars4Kids: The range of programs you have is quite impressive. It’s hard to know how TADA! manages it all. Have you done a count of all the programs you do? How many full time staffers do you employ? 

Nina Trevens: Thank you. I haven’t actually done a count of all the different specific classes/camps/residencies/shows/ensemble events and ensemble classes we do yearly. I think of TADA! as two main programs—the two main arms of TADA! are The Theater/Ensemble Department and The Education Department. TADA! has 8 full-time staff members, 6 year-round part-time, over 40 Teaching Artists and another 15 -25 people hired on a per production basis.

Kars4Kids: Does the TADA! program, being free, target children from lower income homes? Can you tell us about some of your graduates: what they came from and where they are now? We’d would love to hear about your most successful students. We noted Ricky Lake, for instance.  

Nina Trevens: Not at all. The ensemble Program does not actually target children from any specific income bracket. In fact, the goal of the Ensemble Program is to work with youth and teens from different racial, economic and neighborhood backgrounds. Kerry Washington was in a TADA! show when she was a kid and so was Josh Peck (Grandfathered), Jordan Peele (Key & Peele, Life in Pieces), Mizuo Peck (all Night at the Museum movies), Azealia Banks (International Rap Artist), Sasha Allen (national tour of Pippin, The Voice), Christina Vidal (Code Black), Amar Ramasar (New York City Ballet) as well as many other working actors, lawyers, doctors, teachers, moms, dads, and etc.

Kars4Kids: TADA! requires a huge time commitment. Does this tend to cut into school work? We understand that the idea is to build the child so the child performs better in all arenas, including school, but it would seem difficult for a kid to keep up with both. If a child’s grades dip, how is this handled, if at all? Is there ever contact between a child’s school and the TADA! staff?

Nina Trevens: For ensemble members, TADA! can be a huge time commitment at certain times of the year and then not much at other times—it really depends on the member. When any member is actually rehearsing a show—they can be at TADA! 17 hours a week if they are called into every rehearsal but not everyone is called into every rehearsal. Once the show opens then the actors are just there for performances which is generally on the weekends while school is not in session.

When actors arrive at the theater either before rehearsals or performances or classes begin, then they can spend time doing their homework. Most of our Ensemble Members learn time-management skills and find a way to get their homework done as well as rehearse.

Rehearsals are generally only 5-7 weeks and 4-5 days a week after school or on weekends. Most ensemble members do one or two shows a year so it’s not like they have to be here 17 hours every week. TADA!’s ensemble manager and I meet with each ensemble member and a parent at the beginning of each year to devise a plan for them. Each ensemble member’s plan is different based on what else is going on in their life and what they want to do at TADA!.

If a child’s grades in school dip, TADA!’s Ensemble Manager will work with the member and their parents to come up with things that could help such as helping them find homework help, refining their schedule, and finding them a tutor. We do not work with schools directly, we work with the ensemble member and their family.

TADA! Does the Kars4Kids Jingle!

It’s only good manners to teach kids to write thank-you notes. But there are thank-you notes and then there are thank-you notes. The students at TADA! said thank you to Kars4Kids for their small grant in a very big way: they recorded their own version of the Kars4Kids jingle!

Now, how’s that for gratitude?
(We think these kids are just the best!)

Kars4Kids:  We were surprised to note that the suggested age of children taking part in the Banned Broadway Project is from age 13. The subject matter seemed “mature.” We’d be interested in your thoughts on this subject.  

Nina Trevens: Banned Broadway was not a production. There is nothing saying every child or even every member (as I said above we meet with each member to devise a plan that is right for them) has to be involved in every production.

Banned Broadway is a TEEN initiative, for high school students, that started last year in conjunction with the National Coalition Against Censorship. We recommended aged 13 and up for our audiences due to the nature of the material which dealt with sex and religion. The material is chosen with input from the teen ensemble members with the staff knowing what they can handle.

I do believe that teens can handle the material we chose to perform. I think people underestimate children and teenagers. Theater allows people to discuss things and maybe think differently than they would have prior to seeing or being in the work. Theater is also subjective—some people might like a work and others won’t—that’s fine.

It’s not about pleasing everyone. TADA!’s mainstage productions are original musicals performed by 8—18 year old ensemble members for family audiences (3 years old and up). The musicals are commissioned specifically for the ensemble from professional theater composers, lyricists and playwrights.

Kars4Kids: The idea of kids getting free tickets to Broadway shows and healthy snacks and so forth, on top of all they learn at TADA! had some of us feeling jealous! What a wonderful thing you do for children. Are you very selective about which kids you accept? Tell us about the selection process. Does a strong family support system factor in? How often do you have to kick kids out of the program?  

Nina Trevens: Thank you again. Ensemble members are chosen through an open audition process based on talent. At the initial audition, auditionees learn a song, and some choreography and then perform in small groups. If they are asked to come to a callback, they learn more songs and choreography and also read scenes.

This past year we saw over 300 people and accepted 30 into the ensemble. It is important that TADA! ensemble members come from different boroughs and backgrounds so we also look at who is already in the ensemble and how to round out the group as a whole. We also look at the productions we are doing in the coming season and see what is needed to cast the shows. Putting all that together is how we chose who we accepted into the ensemble.

It takes a lot for us to kick a kid out of the program. We may have to ask someone to leave a show based on unapproved conflicts and/or too many conflicts or for missing a performance. However, that person would not be kicked out of the program. We have policies and procedures that all ensemble members must follow—we also have procedures if a member isn’t following the policies. Someone would be asked to leave the program due to violence, theft or engaging in unprofessional behavior on or off stage.

Kars4Kids: Unfortunately, TADA! only operates in the New York metropolitan area. Do you have any advice for people outside this area who might want to start a similar community theater program? 

Nina Trevens: I can be hired to consult and share TADA!’s best practices.

Blue Orange Games: Taking the Bored Out of Board Games

Blue Orange Games: Taking the Bored Out of Board Games
Friends having a game of Wink (photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games)

Board games, card games, games in general? I love them. My family loves them.

Don’t get me wrong. We adore online computer games every bit as much. Technology is awesome. But there’s just something about sitting around the table and playing a game together as a family, or even with friends. There’s an intimacy to playing real games that you can’t achieve with virtual, screen-based games.

On the other hand, there aren’t that many truly great games. If you think about it, you can probably name all your favorite board games without running out of fingers. Scrabble, Monopoly, chess, checkers, backgammon, Stratego, Sorry, The Game of Life, Go, um. Yeah.

Kids playing KeeKee the Rocking Monkey. (photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games), board games
Kids playing KeeKee the Rocking Monkey (photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games)

That’s why chances are, if you yell into your crowded living room at holiday time, “Who wants to play Trivial Pursuit?” you’re going to hear the echo of your own voice and meet a lot of blank stares.

We’re bored with board games.

Meantime, the internet offers us infinite variety to feed our gaming habit and our need for the new. Which is why, even though it’s the holidays, and it’s family time, you probably have at least 6 people sitting in your living room looking at their individual screens.This is not a good thing. It does not bode well for the concept of family togetherness, if you grasp my meaning.

That’s why I was thrilled to come across the Blue Orange Games website. Not only do the people at Blue Orange Games have new board games I’ve never seen before, they actually look like games normal people would like to play. I can totally see my family getting addicted to Blue Orange Games’ flagship game creation, Gobblet.

Gobblet reminds one of a fast-moving corner street game (or is it a magician?) where the hapless patsy invariably chooses the wrong cup (nope, no coin under there) and loses his money. But it’s also a lot like tic tac toe, with a twist. The game is deceptively simple. It’s the kind of game where you’re sure you’re winning when all of the sudden your kid trounces you and you’re left with your mouth hanging open saying, “I lost again?? No way. Play me another round. C’mon. Just one more time?”

Yup. That’s the kind of game it is.

Gobblet gets its name from the way large, cup-like pieces gobble up smaller ones. This game is beautiful to look at and the sleek wooden pieces a pleasure to handle. The manufacturers say that Gobblet is superb for improving visual perception, problem solving, memory, plus focus and attention skills. I like the fact that Gobblet is suitable for ages 7 to adult. It is so rare to find board games that can be played by all ages, which is what we’re all looking for in a family game, especially at holiday time.

Browsing the Blue Orange Games website I found a ton of intriguing board games and other types of games I would like to have or purchase for family members. The website in and of itself is a pleasure to surf. Each game carries a description detailing the appropriate age range for players and the specific skills that will be improved upon play.Moreover, Blue Orange has games that are compact which can keep kids occupied during a long drive or plane trip, for instance. The Blue Orange line called Spot It! consists of flash cards (in a number of disciplines such as languages, shapes, and numbers), memory games, and matching games. There’s even a Spot It! edition that is waterproof, Spot It! Splash, especially made for jaunts to the beach.

Board Game Benefits

We all know that there are benefits to gaming. Playing games can help lower blood pressure, prevent Alzheimer’s disease, and strengthen the immune system, for instance. These are benefits you can get from playing any game, be it a board game or a virtual online computer game.

There are, however, at least four benefits one can only get from playing board games (and other games with physical components such as cards, for instance), that you just can’t get from computer games:

      • Build Family Bonds: Playing games together as a family improves family closeness. It’s a way to get to know each others’ similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses. Building the family means building the individuals of the family to help them stand tall.
      • Improve Social Skills: When friends play games together, it teaches them how to be effective when communicating in words. It also teaches people the kindness of sharing and the patience involved in taking turns. Playing games can reveal important talents and characteristics, showing a side of an acquaintance you may not have noticed before. You’ll know a friend better, after you’ve played a game with that friend.
      • Boost Number Skills: At least one study has shown that children from low-income homes gain a better understanding of numbers and math skills from playing certain board games, such as Chutes and Ladders. These children don’t have board games at home and aren’t getting good counting practice. When children have to count to play these games, it improves their numbers skills. Why Chutes and Ladders? It works best when kids have to count to a specific number, starting from a numbered space within the game, for instance, counting four spaces from the 14th space takes the child to 18. Chutes and Ladders has consecutively numbered, linearly–aligned spaces.
      • Sharpen Fine Motor Skills: Gripping and moving game pieces can help improve a preschooler’s manual dexterity, coordination, and flexibility. Regular game play can help ready a child to grip and use a pencil. Playing games with physical components can also serve as occupational therapy. Board games can help restore muscle and nerve function after an accident or stroke, or improve the condition of those with mental or physical disabilities.

Spot It! games each come in their own small round tins. You can easily pop a few of them into a handbag to keep children occupied while waiting to see the doctor, or pull one out for a child to play with while sick in bed and going out of her mind with boredom. I wouldn’t mind having a whole bunch of them.

(photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games)
(photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games)

Happily, for me, Blue Orange Games products come in a range of prices. Otherwise, my wallet might be in trouble. Because, cautionary note: I wouldn’t call Blue Orange games inexpensive, but they are well-made and sturdy, and prices are in keeping with the quality of the games.

I found, for instance, Crazy Cheese Puzzle, at Amazon, on sale for $6.99 (down from the list price of $10.99). The game is small and very portable, has nine wooden pieces, a travel pouch, illustrated rules, and a solution key. You can find cheaper games for sure. But I don’t think you’ll find anything of this quality for a better price.

Every single game just has something about it; something charming, something nostalgic, that just beckons to you and says, “Come play with me.”

I can’t imagine, for instance, the small child who won’t be immediately enchanted by Zimbbos! with its carved wooden elephant and circus pieces. The game pieces would feel good in the hand—a joy for a young fist to hold and manipulate.

You might be wondering (as I did), what would drive someone to manufacture board games in this age of computer technology. No doubt you’d have to be a game-lover. And maybe, you’d also have to have some nostalgia for the hours spent playing board games with family and friends.

Turns out, you (and I) are not far off. Blue Orange Games was founded by Julien Mayot and Thierry Denoual in 2000, because, they say, they’re, “Driven to spread the timeless pleasure of connecting face to face with family and friends around a great game.”

Face to face. I think they may be on to something.

Mother of All Road Trips

The two “natives of France” decided they’d build games that aren’t too difficult to learn, that build skills, are well-made, and fun for a variety of ages. In coming up with the concept for Gobblet, for instance, Denoual consulted mathematicians and chess makers, and finally hired a wood worker to create a prototype. Denoual brought Mayot in as his partner and the two went on the mother of all road trips, schlepping 1,000 games across 22,000 miles over 3 months’ time, during which, you should know, they sold 10,000 copies of the game.

Whoa.

As for coming up with the name of their company (because that’s what you do after you sell 10,000 copies of your first game), Denoual and Mayot waxed poetic, naming their business after a surrealist poem by Paul Eluard entitled, The Earth is Blue Like an Orange. They wanted the name of their business to reflect their environmentally-friendly ethos.

So how’s business? Blue Orange is doing okay, thank you very much, having sold more than a million copies of Gobblet (just for instance). They’ve actually got a catalogue of more than 40 games by now and these are sold in more than a dozen countries across the world. You’ll find Blue Orange in more than 3,000 game stores in the United States, and that’s not counting the big chains like Toys”R”Us, Barnes and Noble, and Target.

Making a Zimbbos pyramid (photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games), board games
Making a Zimbbos pyramid (photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games)

But Denoual and Mayot don’t want to lose touch with their original mission of people getting face to face around a game or even just in general. To that end, they repeat their original road trip all over again each year. But they’ve expanded.

Board Games Games Gurus

Today, the game makers have a team of assistants they call “Game Gurus” and they visit every single retailer carrying Blue Orange Games throughout the United States. In 2013, that came to 2,000 visits in 47 states, while covering 136,000 miles. Why do they do it?

Blue Orange believe in creating strong relationships with its retail partners and customers. It is these face to face talks that lead to product improvement and inspiration for the creation of new games. Blue Orange likes to say it’s bringing “Hot Games to a Cool Planet.”

Thinking about what you can possibly buy your kids this season that they don’t already have? Looking for something durable that will keep them happy and learning and off those screens—perhaps something you can do as a family? You should totally check out the selection at Blue Orange Games and get in some quality family face time. Because connecting face to face?

It’s what the holidays are all about.

What family board games are your favorites? Do you have a Blue Orange board game your family loves to play?

I Hate School Lunches (She Said)

thanks michelle obama Large“I hate school lunches,” she said, as she came through the front door. “I HATE school lunches,” she said a bit louder this time, making sure her mother knew she’d come home from school. Slamming her school books and other random stuff on the dining room table, she headed into the kitchen.

There you were, fixing dinner. “I hate school lunches,” she said and opening the fridge, she began pulling objects off the shelf. Leftover pasta, a slab of cheesecake, anything. “Oh my God,” she said, cramming the food into her mouth as fast as could, while you despaired, knowing she’d fill up now and not eat the dinner you’re cooking right now. “I’m starving. And by the way, I HATE SCHOOL LUNCHES.”

Sound familiar? If so, you’re part of a nationwide movement of kids refusing to eat school lunches. Now hatred of school lunches has always been the stuff of legends. After all, school lunches are institutional food. It’s never going to be the sort of fare you’d find at a 5-star restaurant.

Fuel On The Fire?

Something has, however, changed of late with school lunches, so that the “I hate school lunches movement” has had some fuel thrown on its fire. Some say that it’s just the same old hatred repackaged and now directed unfairly toward Michelle Obama. It is true that Mrs. Obama is responsible for creating the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which has changed the way children are eating in schools across America.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was created to tackle two serious problems: childhood obesity and hunger. Childhood obesity is causing all sorts of health problems. Hungry kids can’t do their schoolwork, and won’t get ahead in life. In part, the idea of the act was to at least make sure that hungry children from low-income homes get at least one meal a day. Also, the act would add nutritional value to meals and help train children to prefer more nutritious foods.

Some say that changes made to the National School Lunch Program have made school lunches unappealing and created waste, while putting food services in the red. Others would quote studies that say just the opposite and want to give the program a chance.

“I Hate School Lunches” Isn’t New

Meantime, the cry “I hate school lunches” is heard from California to the New York Island and in all the places in between. But hasn’t that always been the way? It would be the strange child indeed who yearns to eat institutional food.

Let’s examine both sides of the issue.

The number of obese children has risen more than 2 percentage points since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed. But that doesn’t mean that the program is a failure. Children don’t only eat at school, and sometimes things get worse before they get better. It may take more time to discover whether or not the act will lower the rate of childhood obesity.

One small study suggested that school lunch waste, or food thrown away uneaten, has risen by a whopping 56% since 2012, when the act went into effect. This study was based on before and after photographs of lunch trays in two elementary schools. The act requires kids to choose fruits and vegetables. This study said that children are putting these items on their trays, but pitching them into the garbage uneaten.

Fruit? Feh

A larger study performed by Harvard University found the opposite to be true: kids are eating more fruits and vegetables since the new lunch standards were adopted. And that means less waste, not more. Before the USDA school meal standards were changed, kids threw out 75% of their vegetables. After the changes, kids are discarding 60% of their school lunch vegetables. As for fruit, kids threw out 40% of the fruit before the changes went into effect and they’re still throwing away 40% of their fruit, now.

In other words, kids are eating more vegetables, but not more fruit, and there’s room for improvement. But it’s a start. And it tells us that food choices and food preparation must improve.

Another study by the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital found no increase in waste after the new guidelines were put in place. Here, kids had to choose a fruit or vegetable in order for the meal to count as a reimbursable meal. The researchers found that even so, kids were eating the same amount of food as before the changes took effect. In other words, these kids weren’t throwing out their fruit. They were eating it.

Beans, Beans, Go Away

That study did find that there was one particular food that kids were throwing away uneaten, and that was legumes, for instance beans, peas, and lentils. The children in this study were from eight elementary schools in southeast Texas, and were students in kindergarten through the 5th grade.

So there are two sides to this story. On the one hand, some kids are throwing away their school lunches and buying junk instead. But some kids have always done that.

Since, however, they can no longer get that junk food in school vending machines (under the rules of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act), they go off school grounds and buy it elsewhere. Or starve, come home famished and declare, “I hate school lunches.”

And maybe that’s one downside of these school lunch changes.

Rich Kids Buy Junk

On the one hand, starving kids aren’t going to do well in their classes. So the act means that more children from lower income homes will be fed at least one healthy meal a day: their school lunch. On the other hand, kids from the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum, have money to buy junk food off-campus and are also being fed at home. And that is why some schools serving more privileged students have opted out of the National School Lunch Program.

Now that’s not a small decision. Opting out of the National School Lunch Program means opting out of the federal money that comes with that program. In Bozeman, Montana, for instance, that means giving up  $117,000 in food subsidies.

Bob Burrows, director of food services in Bozeman reported to the school board that since opting out of the program, school lunch “traffic is way up.” That’s good, because last year, the food service budget ended the school year $16,000 in the red. Sales are back up, because the service is now preparing food kids actually like, instead of offering them the prepackaged government meals.

It’s not only Bozeman, mind you. It’s happened in Denver, too. Denver’s Douglas County School District dropped out of the program a year ago. In fact, 70% of all school programs have taken a huge financial hit since the new rules went into effect and this has made a bunch of school districts drop out of the program altogether.

A Better World

That’s a shame. Because in a better world, offering children meals that are lower in sodium and fat and higher in good things like fiber and vitamins, would be a welcome gift.

But you know. School lunches. Institutional food.

It’s going to suck. Big time.

And kids are kids. So they’re going to blame someone, right? Even though the school lunch is historically disgusting.

#ThanksMichelleObama

So, to make a long story short, all this is why kids are tweeting pix and videos with the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama. It’s like a competition to see who can photograph the worst looking food. And with these photos, they all pretty much win.

Some of this food is truly dreadful looking and these pix represent the worst of the worst. Seeing them will make you glad you are a grown up and no longer need to eat that stuff. But we leave it to you to decide whether the food depicted in these tweets is really so much worse than what you were forced to eat before Michelle Obama did her bit for our children’s health and welfare.

Tell us what you think in the comments section, below.

Um yeah. I can kind of see why a kid would look at that and say, “I hate school lunches.”

 

“I hate school lunches.” Uh huh. Has a ring to it.

 

I’m beginning to get the point. They hate school lunches.

 

It appears kids really don’t like this stuff. Who’d a thunk it?

It’s what’s for lunch.

 

“I hate school lunches.” Okay, okay. We hear you. No need to scream.

“But I HATE SCHOOL LUNCHES.” Um yeah. We’re getting that.

 

 

So, lemme get this straight? You don’t like the food at your school?

 

 

Ouch. I need eye bleach.

*Urp*

 

 

This is like a bad dream. When do we get to wake up?