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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




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


3 Cool Kid-Friendly Treats to Make and Eat

3 Cool Kid-Friendly Treats to Make and EatIt’s summer, the kids are home, and they are BORED STIFF. A month ago you had all these amazing resolutions of all the things you’d do together, the quality time you’d have, the bonding, the learning. And now?

It’s hot. They’re cranky. And you’ve had just about enough of summer.


Summer is completely impervious to the fact that you’re so totally done with “vacation.”

Summer doesn’t care that it’s too hot to move.

Summer is a completely cold heartless WITCH. (Except for the fact that summer is not cold. It is hot.)

Activities? You know how it is, you find a great activity on the web, you buy all the stuff, it keeps them busy for a grand total of one hour if you’re lucky, and then there’s this huge mess to clean up.

Little Girl Chops Vegetables

Also, these crafts never look like they do online. So. Unsatisfying.

Okay, so I’m going to tell you a secret, as a mother of 12, and a veteran of 32 straight, un-air-conditioned summers with children: you are not going to lick this problem nor nip it in the bud.

It will always be there. Every summer.

The only thing you can do is to forget your expectations. Or, not exactly forget them, but see them as something to work towards, but not as something you must attain against all odds.

3 Cool Kid-Friendly Treats to Make and Eat

Because Baby, the odds are stacked against you.

Instead, look over the end of each (inexorably long hot summer’s) day and note what went well and give yourself a mental pat on the back for that. Feel encouraged about that. Be glad about that, and then begin the next day anew.

Small victories is the way to go here.

And now, lecture over.

So Why Kid-Friendly Treats?

Moving right along, I thought I’d pass you a tip on three cool kid-friendly treats to make and eat. Why? Because a little cooking class with the kids goes further than most crafts because after they finish cooking they can then EAT their handiwork, which takes up more of those long empty minutes and hours of summer stretching endlessly forward. *sigh*

That said, I find that kids today like the IDEA of cooking more than they enjoy the cooking process. They watch a guy on the food channel making a sauce béchamel and think, “I could totally do that,” but then you stick them in front of a hunk of bread dough to knead and it’s just too much work and they go, “Nah. I don’t want to do this.”

Besides, have I mentioned it’s HOT. You don’t want to do anything that makes you (and the kids) get all hot and sweaty.

Which is precisely why these three kid-friendly treats are so great. They involve zero stove time, don’t heat up the kitchen, and aren’t particularly labor intensive, which means no one works up a sweat. It’s just good, kid-friendly fun.

You may even find yourself smiling for REAL, watching your kids actually having a good time.

Now stop looking at your watch.

Frozen GrapesFrozen Grapes

Because everything frozen tastes better and seems like actual cooking.

  1. Get out a colander, place it in the sink, put the grapes in the colander, and run water over the grapes, to wash them well.
  2. Place a clean dry towel on the countertop and transfer the grapes to the towel. Pat dry.
  3. Line a cookie sheet with waxed paper and place the washed, dried grapes in a single layer on the waxed paper.
  4. Freeze for 4-5 hours. (Tip: leave out some grapes for the kids to nosh, because they won’t want to wait 4-5 hours to sample their “creation.” Trust me on this.)
  5. Eat and enjoy! You can transfer any leftover grapes to Ziploc bags or freezer-safe air-tight storage containers.

Watermelon and Bulgarian Cheese with MintWatermelon and Bulgarian Cheese Salad or Skewers

This blend of sweet and salty cools and satisfies and looks so pretty, too.

  1. Wash some sprigs of fresh mint in a colander, place on a towel and pat dry. Strip the leaves from the stems, discarding the stems.
  2. Cut a ripe seedless watermelon into cubes.
  3. Cut a hunk of brined white cheese, Bulgarian or Feta cheese, into cubes.
  4. Combine all ingredients in a bowl
  5. Optional: grind on some fresh black pepper for a gourmet touch if your kids don’t think it’s “icky.”

Variation: Place a cube of watermelon and a cube of Bulgarian cheese on a skewer or frilly toothpick. Repeat until all the watermelon and cheese cubes are used up. Put the skewers on a plate and sprinkle with the mint leaves (and optional pepper).

Chocolate Covered Frozen Banana BitesChocolate Covered Banana Bites

Because chocolate. ‘Nuff said.

  1. Slice a ripe, but not too ripe banana into 1-2 inch chunks.
  2. Skewer each chunk of banana with a wooden party fork or pick.
  3. Place on waxed paper lined cookie sheet and freeze for at least one hour.
  4. Put 1/2 cup of chocolate chips in a microwave-safe drinking glass. Microwave at half power for about one minute (or until melted), stopping to stir the chocolate chips every ten seconds.
  5. Dip and swirl each frozen, skewered banana chunk into the melted chocolate, placing each chocolate-coated banana chunk back onto the waxed paper to catch any drips.
  6. Eat immediately, or refreeze.


Camp Memories: What Do You Remember?


What reminds you of camp? What camp memories are most poignant? Was it your bunk, your counselors, or friends? What foods do you still remember and relish decades later? Was it the camp songs? Was it the bug juice, camping trips, or the mess hall banquets? Do you want your children to enjoy the same experiences? If you were to send your children to camp, what would you want for them?

For me, my metal mess kit, uncooked barbecue chicken, maple syrup, and pine sol remind me of camp. When I was a camper in 1968, I went with my camp on a camp out. I was six years old, the youngest camper in the entire camp, and away from home for five weeks. My mother, a single working mom at the time, had gotten a scholarship for me to attend a Jewish camp in the Poconos, two hours from Philadelphia. I loved it. I went from being a latch-key child to having lots adults around to watch after and interact with me.

On the camp-out, the counselors set up circus-sized tents. I remember picking the coziest spot I could find to roll out my sleeping bag, setting up my stuffed animals, and hunkering down with the other campers.

The counselors built roaring campfires, and began to grill chicken. We unpacked our canteens and mess kits, played games, and waited with anticipation for dinner. Then a storm rolled in. Not just any storm. The sky seemed to open up and sheets of rain pounded our tests. Pools of rainwater collecting on the tent roof swelled and sprang drippy leaks inside the tent. Huddling together in the tents, we ate under-cooked chicken while lightening bolts lit up the sky.

The chicken was rubbery, pink, cold, and truly tasteless. After a couple hours of waiting out the rain, the counselors aborted the camping trip, loaded us into vans, and returned to camp.

Forty-five years later, I still think of camp whenever I grill chicken. It’s a sweet, sentimental flashback, a reminder of an innocent, intensely personal, familial setting where I felt safe, cared for, and busy.

Bunk challenges and camp banquets forge fond camp memories.
Bunk challenges and camp banquets forge fond camp memories.

I have other great camp memories. I looked forward to bunk challenges in the mess tent. A fork and knife breakfast meant that we could come to breakfast dressed in mismatched shoes, socks, and clothing. Movie nights meant we could camp out in the auditorium/gym in our pajamas and sleeping bags, each with a personal stash of candy and popcorn. Camp is where I learned about daddy long legs, frogs, crickets, fish, deer, and a whole host of wildlife I never saw in our apartment complex in Philadelphia.

Flash forward, I was lucky enough to send most of my children to sleep away camps. Some hated being away from home and recall their fondest memories were coming home. Others made life-long friends and fifteen years later still maintain these friendships. Camp is where I felt my first sense of freedom within the constraints of a safety net, where I was pushed out of my comfort when I learned how to swim, when I canoed on a lake, and when I endured a camping trip in a fierce thunderstorm.

While putting this post together, I surveyed a hundred of my social media friends and asked them–what are your favorite camp foods and camp memories? The answers were fun and most revealing. Many of the most important experiences, sentimental memories we have are away from our parents. And that’s important to note. It is this sense of independence, confidence that comes from being away from home and mastering homesickness, and collecting new competencies, close-knit friendships, and life-long memories that makes overnight camp a powerful developmental tool.

These are some of my favorite responses from former campers.

Under favorite foods–

Toasted marshmallows and s’mores. No need to explain. At least I hope not.

Toasted marshmallows never grow old.
Toasted marshmallows never grow old.

  Rocky Mountain Toast (we call it eggs in baskets in my house). It’s a slice of bread with a whole in the middle. The egg is fried with the slice of bread in a frying pan. Eat with or without maple syrup. Use the bread to wipe up the egg.

  Bug Juice (for a couple years, I thought it really was bug guts). Now I know the truth. Kool Aid!

I loved bug juice at camp because we couldn't have it at home.
I loved bug juice at camp because we couldn’t have it at home.

Beenie Weenie with Chili. Need I say more except keep the Bean-O close by.

Cream of Wheat with butter and sugar. My husband’s favorite although the kids and I eat it with grits.

Foil packets. These rock and any meal can be exciting when you throw a concoction in a foil packet and throw it on the grill. Hamburgers, potato chunks, onions, and tomato sauce, tuna melts, even applies and peaches with oatmeal and brown sugar to make a fruit crisp.

Under Favorite Memories–

Canoeing at the Delaware Water Gap. This is a breathtaking section of the Delaware River, if you’re unfamiliar.

Camp is where I met my husband (not me but one of my respondents).

Midnight hikes along the lake.

Camp outs

Camp banquets

Bunk challenges

The camp canteen

Going to the infirmary (lol)

Swimming in the lake

Have any others that I haven’t mentioned? Post them in the comments section and I may use them in my next camp post.









Educational Television: Is SpongeBob Square Pants The Best We Can Do?



When I was little, I spent weekend mornings watching Bugs Bunny, Wylie Coyote and the Roadrunner, and the Pink Panther episodes. It was a ritual I relished; and at the time, wasn’t considered educational or hazardous. It just was something kids did on Saturday and Sunday mornings. They watched cartoons just like they played outdoors or played “Cowboys and Indians” with cap guns. No one talked about the impact of watching too much television, or the impact of television on cognitive development.

Captain Kangaroo circa 1960

And the only real educational programs at the time were Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo. Those of us raised in the 50s, 60s, and 70s watched Captain Kangaroo and fondly thought of the characters as television friends who helped us as we grew up.

With the advent of public television in the 60s and the subsequent technological revolution, and studies that focused on links between television viewing and violence acts committed by children, the subject of watching television, how much television, and the quality of television programming were highlighted. Educational television was good. Saturday morning cartoons were not so good. And parents who plopped their children in front of the television for a couple minute of parenting reprieve or as a convenient babysitter were chastised as relinquishing parental responsibility.

As an educational tool, television is considered a passive medium, one that limits the viewer’s engagement, has an addictive quality, and diminishes creativity. But there are exceptions.

With the flood of digital media, online videos, gaming, social media, and Cartoon Network, it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not. It’s hard to sift through the abundance of literature, reviews, and parenting guidelines. And it’s hard to know precisely how much or how little time is too much television time. Can educational television be beneficial to our children? To what extent? And if so, what are some of the best educational programs? Is SpongeBob Square Pants the best we can do?

Television Guidelines

The following are some guidelines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Children younger than 2 should not be exposed to television viewing. While television can be entertaining and mesmerizing for infants, long-term studies show that television has a negative effect on infants younger than 2.

Studies found that language skills in children exposed to television during the 0-2 year window had less interaction with parents. Less interaction means less language and conversation that impacts vocabulary and language development. Television viewing also interferes with play. Play in infants is shown to be crucial in cognitive development and emotional health. Also, television viewing at night is complicit with sleep disruptions. Poor sleep patterns in infants has been linked to mood, behavior, and learning.

For preschoolers, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of television viewing, even educational television. In this age group, television viewing can enhance social skills such as sharing, manners, diversity, and cultural awareness. But pediatricians recommend that parents monitor shows for educational value, information content, and violence. Parents should also watch television with children. Watching with your child encourages parent/child interaction. It can also be a launching point for conversations, a way for a parent to mitigate concepts that might be confusing or scary for young children. And for increased language benefit, parents should read to preschoolers, not only as a way to reinforce vocabulary used in the television shows. They should read books about themes discussed in the television shows to help young children understand the world around them.

For older children and adolescents, pediatricians caution parents to be vigilant. Television viewing should be educational, of a higher quality and screened to limit gratuitous violence, suggestive material, drug orientation, and programs that skew healthy body image. If you plan to discuss a provocative subject with your child, television programming can be a good launching point, a segue to a more serious conversation with your child.

Educational Television and Its Benefits

Educational television, unlike the mass programming available around the clock, can be a powerful educational resource. In one study, “The Recontact Study,” Daniel R. Anderson found that preschoolers who watched Sesame Street had larger vocabularies in high school compared to children who watched other programming or no television at all. The results were especially apparent in children from lower income neighborhoods. Anderson also found that these same children were better prepared for school than their peers, had higher grades in science and English, had higher total GPA, read more books, placed more value on achievement, and were rated as more creative, compared with their peers.

As preschoolers develop language skills, television can reinforce storytelling skills such as plot, sequence, character development, and theme.

What are educational television programs to consider?

Sesame Street: This program exposes kids to cultural and ethnic diversity and real-life concepts. Its focus on language skills, reading, context, conversation, and social skills has been shown, with decades of research, to improve educational outcomes for kids, especially kids from lower socioeconomic communities. And it’s adult spin on timeless favorites engages older kids and adults into the television-watching experience.

Mr. Rogers: Filmed in Pittsburgh, PA, Mr. Rogers has special meaning for many of us raised in his neighborhood. Mr. Rogers, a minister and social worker, felt it important to teach children about peaceful interactions, about acknowledging feelings and learning how to communicate them to others, about working with others, learning, and other common themes that young children might encounter. What’s special and lasting about this show is the narrative, the soothing nature of Mr. Rodgers himself, processes he feels important for young children to understand, and the importance of community and relationships. For those of us who interacted with him in Pittsburgh, he treated each of us the way he treated his television characters–with respect, kindness, and validation.

Super Why: Super Why reinforces reading, syntax, contextual clues in reading, analysis. This show also teachers basic literacy skills like alphabets and phonetics, and engages the viewers in the storyline.

WordWorld: This show takes letters and words and superimposes it on real life so that children begin to associate words with their meanings. Children learn site words through recognition and context.

Sid the Science Kid: This is science explored on a playground, early childhood level. Sid, the main character asks questions and explores subjects the way a child might.  It goes over scientific method, shows its application, and reinforces critical learning and analytical reasoning.

Reading Rainbow: Reading Rainbow brings books alive and spark an interest in reading. Narrated by Lavar Burton, it also draws in curiosity from those of us who knew Lavar Burton as Geordie in Star Trek: The Next Generation and want to see him again. The show engages young readers but explores story themes more in-depth. For example, some books discussed discuss slavery and its relationship to U.S. history, the intersection of people of different cultures living and interacting in an urban setting, moving away and the feelings young children go through, anger and methods to cope, and so on.

New Electric Company (Kindergarten age): Based on the 1970s version of PBS’ The Electric Company, this show continues to teach phonics, grammar, and spelling. It creates skits with lively narratives and engages kids with humor and silliness.

Between the Lions: A play on words (Between the lines), this show covers early literacy skills, reading, but teaches analytical skills. How to figure out words in context? How to glean the meaning of a reading passage? What is the plot?

Magic School Bus A narrative-based show, this show explains processes and the workings of the world kids are most tuned into. It also takes kids into the fray, allows them to imagine what it might be like to be intricately involved in a process and that engages the imagination and creativity of a child.

Cyberchase Cyberchase blends adventure and learning, with the characters finding out things about real-life skills (like map reading) as they work to protect the land of “Cyberspace.” Because it deals with computers and digital media, it has particular relevance in today’s world.

Nova: For older school-aged children and adolescents, Nova covers topics that span science, culture, history, music, and many subjects kids might be interested in but on a more complex level. Most topics covered by Nova are set up with a narrative and chronology that helps viewers see a process in its entirety.

Airline Travel and Kids: A Helpful Parenting Guide

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Traveling with kids builds family cohesion and lifetime memories. Travel enhances education, teaches children how to cope with change and transition, and makes for a more worldly and culturally aware child. It can be joyful and fun. It can also be extremely stressful especially if airline travel is part of the itinerary.

Airline travel is not as easy as it once was. Increased security measures, an airline industry struggling to maintain a profit margin, and an increasingly customer-hostile airline industry has made airline travel a survival of the fittest experience at times. Even for the seasoned traveler, airline travel can still be stressful. But if you’re traveling with children, airline travel can be a downright nightmare for you and your fellow passengers.

If you plan to use airline travel during your trip, the best defense against unpleasant experiences is research and preparation. Do your homework. Predict what could go wrong and prepare for the what-if’s. Know airline rules, the potential security headaches, prepare for a long flight and wait times, and rehearse potential experiences with your children.

Potential Price Hikes

According to Chris Elliot, travel and consumer advocate, airlines may be raising ticket prices for children and infants. Fueled by ways to increase revenue, an increase in security measures, and an increasingly unhappy-to-serve-you mentality among airline agents, airlines may begin charging full fare for young children. Currently in the United States, lap kids younger than two travel for free on domestic flights. However, travel to many international destinations such as Latin America, U.S. carriers charge 10 percent of an adult fee plus international taxes even for lap babies, and may require you to ticket your lap baby. But airlines like Brazilian Airlines are considering a “baby tax” on top of the 10 percent charge. Only time will tell if that happens and what other airlines follow suit.

If you try to reserve a seat for your children next to you, be aware that airlines are not required to confirm childrens’ seats next to their parents. If it’s important to you that your child sit next to you, consider buying a ticket for your child. Just in case, prepare your child that he might have to sit by himself a few rows away.

Special Needs

If you’re traveling with a special needs child or one with disabilities, plan well in advance. Airlines do make reasonable accommodations but may require you to check in at the gate more than an hour before flight time. If you have a child with special needs, air travel, especially waiting, flight delays, transitions, and take-off and landing can be difficult. Let the airline know well in advance, talk with your pediatrician or specialist about measures you can take to make the airline travel less stressful on your child. If your child needs oxygen, a stretcher, or electrical power for any medical devices, the airline may charge additional fees.

One service,  SpecialGlobe is designed to assist families and caretakers of special-needs passengers in researching, planning and booking travel. Parents can book trips, hotels, find recommendations, and share experiences with other special needs parents. The site also includes services a special needs family might need such as a nearby hospitals,  pharmacies, restaurants with accommodations, and activities that everyone in the family can be a part of.


If you’re traveling domestically, you don’t need a passport. But you will need some identifying papers proving that your child is yours. A birth certificate isn’t always convenient but a passport card is. Available for purchase with a passport, the U.S. Department of State issues these wallet-size cards that have the same information as a standard passport and are accepted as valid I.D. by  the TSA and airlines.

Also, if you’re traveling without your spouse, if you’re divorced, or separated, TSA and airline agents may ask for a notarized letter showing that you have permission to travel with your child. This is enforced more regularly on international flights.

Carry-on Bags

Since 9/11, there are strict regulations governing carry-on bags. According to USA Travel Tips, the airlines have strict rules on the size, weight, and number of carry one bags one can take on a plane. Each passenger is allowed one carry-on and one personal bag. The international size limit for a carry-on is 45 linear inches (length plus the width plus the height of the bag). A personal item must be less than 36 linear inches. A carry-on must not exceed 40 pounds.

Within those carry-ons, which are scanned by the TSA, you are limited to liquids (shampoos, mouthwash, cough syrup, etc.) that fit in 3.4 ounce plastic containers and fit cumulatively in a single quart-size zip-lock bag. Any sharp, flammable, explosive, or hazardous items aren’t permitted in your carry-on. That includes sporting equipment, tools, tweezers, or any item that could conceivably be used as a weapon on the flight.

If you travel with young children, the regulations do loosen slightly. Breast milk, pre-measured baby formula, and some medicines are permitted in amounts that exceed 3.4 ounces. Also, coats, hats, diaper bags, child safety seats, and medical equipment are excluded from the carry-on restriction. If you need room temperature water for formula, you can buy it once you’re through security. The airplane does not have potable water except through the drink cart and the flight attendants may not be able to warm your bottles. Just be prepared.

Preorder Meals

Airline fare leaves much to be desired. If you’ve small children, pack plenty of snacks. Domestic airlines are notoriously skimpy on food quality and quantity; meals and other concessions aren’t made available for lap-kids.

However, there are some stellar airlines that deliberately cater to children and families. If you’re flying with kids and have a choice, check out the airlines listed below. If not and you’re relying on meal service, preorder meals for the kids well before the flight date.

These airlines do a great job with kids and families:

Virgin Atlantic
Alaska Airlines
British Airways
Cathay Pacific
Air New Zealand
and, Jet Blue


Pack nourishing snacks for your kids and focus on hydration. Dehydrating can breed unhappy, uncomfortable, ornery children. Prepackage the snacks in small, zip-lock bags. Dried cereal, dried fruit, grapes, apple wedges, granola bars, pretzels, and chunks of cheese or turkey are good, finger-size choices. Bring a couple plastic spoons, straws, extra sippy cups, and gum. Gum, or suckers, are beneficial for the take-off and landing when changing air pressure can hurt your kids ears.

Toys, Activities, and Comfort Items

Do bring blankies, pacifiers, and favorite portable stuffed animals. Flight time isn’t the time to regulate blankie. If it keeps your children calm and quiet, use it (drugging your children isn’t included). Bring special activities, manipulative books, or games your child hasn’t seen or used in a long time.
Do include blankies or favorite stuffed animals when traveling on a flight with young kids.
Portable DVD players with head sets, electronic games with headsets, and electronic readers are great for older kids once the flight takes off and the flight attendants give the “all clear” on electronic devices. Mad Libs, comic books, puzzles, and word search magazines are also terrific activities.


Passing through security can be one of the most stressful aspects of the airline travel. While some domestic airports don’t require children 12 and under to remove their shoves, TSA will require parents to remove infants from carriers and strollers. Read regulations on the TSA website and do practice run-throughs with your children. Tell them what to expect. Prepared children are more adaptive and compliant (generally speaking). Also do practice run-throughs for flight travel. Let the kids know what to do expect, what the rules of the plane are, and what they are and aren’t permitted to do on the flight.

Train your older children to seek out family/children-friendly lines in security areas. Those special lines for families are geared toward parents with children and can prevent melt-downs in tired, travel-weary children.

Most importantly, make it clear that seat belts are required on the flight, screaming and running are not.

Airline travel can be an exciting experience for children. It stimulates storytelling, memories, and family lore. By preparing yourself, doing homework, and preparing your children, airline travel for kids can be reasonably pleasurable instead of a nightmare.