How can you help when your child is having trouble adjusting to preschool? Here are 6 tips to ease separation anxiety during the transition.Continue reading
Don’t let your little one’s preschool or kindergarten graduation pass by without fanfare. Remember the momentous milestone and their special day with these fun ways to celebrate.
1. What’s a party without a cake?
Whether your grad’s party is the real deal or just a classroom celebration, make it memorable with a celebratory graduation cake like this adorable one from Sugar Creation. It makes use of a dummy cake for the top layer, which makes it a little easier to create… assuming you have decorating skills on par with hers!
2. Get a special graduation shirt to mark the big day.
You’ll eliminate the “what to wear” battle on graduation day and likely many other days, too, with a special kindergarten graduation shirt. After the celebration, let them wear it to show they’ve been there and done that.
3. Bring kindergarten graduation gifts for the class.
Free printable graduation stickers are a simple way to turn a lollipop and a pencil into a party favor.
4. Stage a kindergarten graduation photoshoot.
With a little thinking ahead, you can take your own kindergarten graduation pictures to freeze the day in time. You’ll love pulling it out in 12 years or so to compare to their high school graduation photo.
5. Create a Memory Board.
This affordable, printable chalkboard template is a cute way to remember the year. You can record their favorites, the names of their best friends, and memorable moments and firsts. Mount it on foam board for a party or photo prop, or paste it in scrapbook or photo book that wraps up the year or their preschool career.
What are your ideas for celebrating the little ones’ graduation day? Let us know in the comments below!
Summer child care, solved!
Contributed by guest author Whitney Tang, Executive Editor of Nanny Magazine
It’s September, which means hordes of children have headed off to school, many for the first time. As you gear up for that first day of meeting the teachers and kissing your munchkin goodbye, a momentary thought might pass through your mind: What in the world will your nanny do for these three or so odd hours every day? Not paying her is out of the question. You need your nanny to be on call for all those sick days, snow days, and, heaven forbid, any emergencies. But should you really be paying her to sit around your house all morning with nothing to do? Here are some things you might want to consider to maximize your nanny’s time on the clock.
Keep Her Busy
Depending on where school is located, your nanny might not have the flexibility to go all the way back home during school hours. This is a great opportunity to ask her to pick up your child’s much-needed rain boots or craft supplies. Keep in mind that just because your child isn’t in the house doesn’t mean it’s your nanny’s downtime. School hours are the perfect time for your nanny to get caught up on your kids’ laundry and other child-related chores around the house, such as meal prep. Do you already have this covered? Let your nanny invest some time in her own professional development. Register her for an online course to enrich her childcare skills or hook her up with some great nanny-related reading to help her sharpen her skills and get new ideas to better take care of your children. The ways to make the time while your child is in class count toward your nanny’s paycheck are endless.
But Don’t Keep Her Too Busy
Keep in mind that your nanny’s top priority is your child. Even with some “free” time, you can rest assured that she is most likely planning the next great museum outing or tomorrow’s very messy (but educational!) science experiment. Good nannies rarely stop brainstorming new activities, planning new adventures, or educating themselves on caring for your child. Let your nanny use this open time to rest, think, and plot. Even the best minds need a few minutes away from the constant commotion to come up with truly great ideas.
Do you really need eggs for tonight’s dinner but don’t have time to pick them up after work? Don’t be afraid to ask your nanny for some help. But also don’t be upset if she has something else planned. She might be busy picking up craft supplies for the afternoon’s art project or returning the nearly late library book just in time. In order to prevent yourself from becoming annoyed and your nanny from feeling pressured, be sure to open up various communication outlets. As long as a conversation is always going, each party will have better expectations for the school days ahead.
Your nanny has more scheduling flexibility to take care of errands and chores when her charges are not in her direct care. Make the most of the time but don’t underestimate her. Just because your kids aren’t with her doesn’t mean she isn’t busy with their care. How do you keep your nanny busy when your kids are away at school?
If you’re looking for an after school nanny, review these tips for finding the right one for your family!
Whitney Tang, Executive Editor of Nanny Magazine is a freelance writer, a graphic design artist, and most importantly, a nanny! But the best part of her day involves a lot less typing and a lot more mess making, with glitter and flour being the usual suspects!
Find trusted nannies near you at UrbanSitter.com.
The practice of giving kids a break from school during the summer started in the early 1900s. Doctors thought kids needed a reprieve from sitting still for long hours in a classroom, which they believed made them physically weak. Summer was the perfect time to set them free because classrooms became stifling hot. And because then like now, when the heat soared, those who could afford it abandoned cities for the shore.
Long gone, though, are the days when kids had three months of total freedom from schoolwork. In recent years, some schools have begun assigning more and more summer homework in response to research that shows that kids spend the first part of a new school year relearning what they’ve forgotten during vacation. But “summer brain drain” remains a hotly debated topic among parents and educators alike. Opinion is sharply divided about whether we should we stock up on workbooks and shell out big bucks for academic-driven camps to help keep kids’ skills sharp—or give kids some well-deserved time off after working hard for nine months. Turns out, the answer might lie somewhere in the middle.
“Kids deserve a break,” says Katie Willse, chief program officer at the National Summer Learning Association. “But they can and should be learning, too—in different places, different spaces, and in different ways than they do during the school year.”
She says it’s important to understand the academic loss that occurs while kids are away from school. Although it disproportionately affects lower income students who have unequal access to educational opportunities during the summer months (American Sociological Review 72, 2007) all kids, regardless of economic status, lose about two months of grade level equivalency in math skills while they are between grades. A lot of the loss has to do with what kids are doing during their summer break. Just as fitness levels and nutrition suffer from changes in structure and routine, so do academic skills.
Addressing the loss can be pretty simple—with camp. “Summer gives kids a chance to explore new topics and a chance to practice skills they already have,” says Willse. She suggests seeking out camps that offer exciting learning opportunities—such as digital media technology or computer programming—while also sharpening math skills. Local libraries and museums also often offer project-based learning opportunities and field trips that meet these criteria.
Additionally, Willse says parents can sneak in educational opportunities through family projects: involving older kids in remodeling the house by having them research, create supply lists, keep a budget, and manage a schedule; planting an edible garden; planning a family vacation using maps to plot distances and routes, and creating an agenda that accommodates the budget; and starting a family book club. “The goal is to show kids that learning is a life-long, interesting pursuit,” says Willse.
These learning opportunities minimize the chances that kids will spend the brunt of their summer vacation on mindless pursuits, like watching television and playing video games. But Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way for Parents, says that summer learning need not be so organized and purposeful. “There’s too much pressure on children—in school, in the loads of homework, and in the structured lessons their parents schedule,” she says. “If we pressure them to accomplish and to be perfect, it takes away much of the glee of childhood and pushes them to be an adult too soon.”
Cameron sees summer as a wonderful opportunity to give kids a breather, and “a chance to learn and expand at their own rate.” She advises parents to simply let their kids be bored. “Boredom is a tool to let children just be and to reach into their own psyches to find what speaks to them.” Parents merely provide the necessary raw materials: blocks and building tools, art supplies, dress-up clothes, plenty of books, and access to the outdoors. When kids complain that they don’t know what to do, says Cameron, tell them confidently, “You’ll think of something!”
Numerous studies show the importance of unstructured play. It not only positively impacts language development and builds social and physical skills, it also predicts academic success and mental health. “Through play, children develop the ability to become self-achievers and learners,” says David Whitebread, a developmental cognitive psychologist at Cambridge University. Kids develop the ability to think for themselves, control their impulses and emotions, organize tasks, problem solve, and learn from their experiences and mistakes. “Children in play are often setting themselves challenges—climbing a taller tree, riding faster on their skateboard—and through this they are learning their limits and regulating themselves,” says Whitebread. “There’s a decline in this unstructured play and a lack of opportunity for it,” he says. Summer is the time to catch up.
Whether your child’s playtime this summer is organized or self-initiated, all our experts are agreed that what’s really important is just that they stay engaged and learning—with an emphasis on fun.
Here are few ideas for fun summertime activities from summerlearning.org that don’t necessarily feel like learning:
- Tackle a fun cooking project, such as baking a cake. Shopping for ingredients, using coupons to determine discounts, reading a recipe, and measuring all sharpen math skills.
- Volunteer at a local school, park, shelter, or soup kitchen to build life skills and compassion.
- Get creative juices flowing by making sock puppets or turning cardboard tubes into rockets.
- Record memories and practice writing skills by keeping a summer journal. Kids can write about books they’re reading, new friends they’ve made, and fun trips you’ve taken as a family.
- Plant a window box or herb garden to promote healthy eating.
Photographs by UrbanSitter
by Lela Nargi
What makes a career tech guy chomp at the bit to open his own elementary school? The “disheartening” experience of applying for preschool on behalf of his own daughter. “It’s insane,” says Max Ventilla, founder of AltSchool, a four-location network of independent micro-schools in San Francisco, the first of which he opened in September of 2013. “There’s this notion that the preschool you apply to is a feeder for the elementary school, which is a feeder for the high school, which is a feeder for college, and that if you don’t choose right from the beginning, your kid is going to be a drop-out and have no job prospects.”
Insanity notwithstanding, that mindset was strong enough to set Ventilla to thinking strongly about the future of his daughter, Sabine’s, education, and how he might alter its course. And that included diving headlong into the fractious and fraught arena that is American education in the 21st century—in which the efforts of like-minded predecessors to corral it (Bill Gates, for notable example) have been handily defeated.
Ventilla is himself the beneficiary of elite schooling. The son of Hungarian immigrants, he received a scholarship to attend Manhattan’s Buckley School—all boys, blazers and ties, lacrosse—then Phillips Academy boarding school (known simply as Andover for the town in Massachusetts where it’s situated), then Yale. In 2012, contemplating would-be elementary options for Sabine, Ventilla says that it was actually “disturbing” for him to find schools that resembled so strongly the ones he attended, “because the world has changed enormously since then. And the most selective schools have changed the least.” What he wanted for Sabine was an environment that would get her ready to function and thrive in the future—a future that’s being greatly impacted by globalization and the internet. Says Ventilla, “The fundamental purpose of school is to prepare children for the world they’ll experience”—in Sabine’s case, when she eventually goes off to college around 2030. For it to be out of date “is a fundamental flaw.”
You might suppose that for a man who helped launch Google+ and now-defunct, then-revolutionary search engine Aardvark, inserting technology into the school day might be Ventilla’s primary focus. But the truth is a little more nuanced. Ventilla says that AltSchool is based on the notion of a one-room schoolhouse. Unlike that arguably outmoded model, though, which clustered together all children of all ages and abilities, at AltSchool students are grouped in small classes largely according to their interests and personalities. Tech in their midst opens up possibilities, rather than functioning as the sole learning tool. “The thing about technology is that it lowers the marginal cost of anything,” Ventilla says—watching a movie, having a car made, and eating a meal, as much as facilitating the running of a school (AltSchool has no central administrator). “The idea is not for everything to become digital, but to have a digital layer that allows experiences to happen more satisfyingly and easily. That gives you more choice, more intimacy, more personalization; every classroom can be more nuanced but still exist as part of an overarching network.”
Ventilla and his team—comprised of professional educators as well as technologists—have been working to hone those nuances one school at a time (four more are set to open in 2015, in two other SF locations, plus Palo Alto and Brooklyn, NY). “It’s not intelligent to design schools that are totally perfect,” Ventilla says breezily, as if such a thing were actually plausible. “They must always evolve and change.” The latest outpost, opening just this past year in South of Market, is a combined-use space that also houses AltSchool’s offices. “It’s literally a tech company in the back of the school, and it’s amazing for us and the kids to be part of a shared space,” he says. “It’s an incredibly different experience from when I went to school, where we were so disembodied from the adult world, especially the entrepreneurial world. Here, kids have mentors who are employees of the company.”
They also have a generous amount of flexibility in terms of how their school day unfolds. Ventilla explains that there’s a 60-minute window when children arrive in the morning. By 9:00 a.m., most of them are settled in to a two-hour open “playlist” block that can include what Ventilla calls a “curated” experience of whole-class experiences, or individual or small group activities, tailored to meet the needs of each child. Lunch is followed by athletics, then another playlist time, then extended day activities that can include everything from foreign languages to tutoring in the art of DJing. “We don’t really get behind any one model of education,” says Ventilla of AltSchool’s curriculum. “We’re creating something that can change in many different ways, but have building tools that are stable.”
Early embracers of the AltSchool philosophy include Ventilla’s 8-year-old niece and 6-year-old nephew, who attend the Fort Mason location. “My sister actually moved back to San Francisco in large part because our school was the right fit for her family,” says Ventilla. They began as transfer students, which allowed Ventilla’s team to be thoughtful about which classroom experience would be most beneficial to them, “right down to who in the class might be a friend or a good influence,” says Ventilla. His own daughter—with wife, Jenny, who works at the Stanford Design School—will probably start kindergarten in 2016; son Leo, who’s not yet two, has a few years to wait before he can matriculate.
Which is not to say that all Ventilla’s goals for AltSchool are personal. “We want to impact as many kids as we can in a positive way, even indirectly, by adding things to the educational ecosystem that other people can draw from and react to,” he says. He sees AltSchool as acting as a platform to benefit a wide array of educators, not unlike Amazon Marketplace, which has a strict infrastructure set in place by Amazon, that nevertheless allows a diverse group of (non-Amazon) functionaries to use it. “That’s the model for us for 10 years down the line,” says Ventilla. “In the long term, many students will be impacted by being sent to a school that uses pieces of the technology and content we’re creating for a broader network.”
Photographs by Bonnie Rae Mills
By Lela Nargi
“Go climb a tree!”
Sound like something you’d say to get your kids out of the house and out of your hair as the summer lingers on and on? According to a new study by researchers at the University of North Florida, climbing a tree—as well as balancing on a beam, running barefoot, and navigating obstacles—is actually a great way to improve working memory. This is defined as the “active processing of information,” which we need in order to perform well on everything from grades to sports. The best part? The benefits can be seen in a short period of time: the researchers found that two hours of the above-mentioned physical activities increased working memory by 50 percent.
All this works, according to the study, because activities such as tree climbing and obstacle navigating, while physical, also have a cognitive component—namely, to accomplish them, we have to use our working memory to adapt to changing conditions and environments. Says one of the study’s lead researchers, Dr. Ross Alloway, a member of UNF’s Department of Psychology, “The research suggests that by doing things that make us think, we can exercise our brains as well as our bodies.”
So by all means, banish your children to the trees—and take yourself along with them! Your memories will thank you.
By Lela Nargi
Likely you remember a scenario like this: a young you, looking forward to dinner and TV after a long day at school, scrambling to finish your homework by dim winter’s light, only to hear your mother’s admonition, “Time to practice!”
Unless you were a true music aficionado, you probably wanted nothing more than to be let off the hook for that half-hour of tootling on your piano, or your flute, or your sousaphone. You counted off the days until the end of the year when, your parents had promised, you could quit the lessons. But years later, here you are with kids of your own and to your own shock, for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on, you find yourself determined that they, too, should be subjected music lessons.
Now, you’ve got science to explain that nagging sensation that all this must be good for you. According to a study published last year in the Journal of the Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine determined that music training helps kids develop their brains, their attention spans, and their emotional control.
Dr. James Hudziak and colleagues used MRIs to scan the brains of 232 children aged 6 to 18, three times at 2-year intervals. Analyzing the data, they discovered that playing music alters the motor areas of the brain, “because the activity requires control and coordination of movement,” according to an article in Science Daily.
Additionally, playing an instrument thickens various parts of the brain that are responsible for executive functioning, including “working memory, attention control and organizational skills,” according to Mic.com. “In short, music actually helped kids become more well-rounded.”
Is it too late for us parents to go back and revive their own music educations? The science is still out!
It’s a late evening in early December and I’m sitting with my tween daughter in a stiflingly heated, baldly lit, packed-to-the gills auditorium near Coney Island, waiting for Mark Twain middle school’s winter concert to begin. We’ve come out to see a friend of my daughter’s sing with her 7th grade choral class. It promises to be a long night, with three grades’ worth of choral performances, three of band, three of orchestra, and a few extras thrown in for good measure. But I’m used to these sorts of engagements. As the parent of a kid who’s been lucky enough to attend public schools that vigorously buck the current trend of defunding arts programs, I’ve been sitting in on biannual music, dance, drama, photography, and broader “talent” shows since my daughter was in Pre-K. I hardly give the enterprise any thought.
Arts education has been a big educational talking point for years, but possibly never more than since the advent of the test-driven Common Core curriculum. As across the country the arts have been cast aside in favor of reading comprehension and STEM subjects—as well as the high-stakes exams that supposedly determine a child’s competency in them—the findings of multiple studies have been invoked to champion the ability of painting, drumming, ballroom dancing, playwriting, to enhance creativity, fine motor skills, and language development in our kids—with even more significant and lasting boons for low-income children. Many parents with kids who are painting, drumming, dancing, and playwriting through school, both where I live in Brooklyn and elsewhere, accept these benefits as a given. But they’re not what are on my mind as the lights in the auditorium dim and the first orchestral group streams onto the Mark Twain stage.
The students are wearing the customary on-stage uniform of white shirts and black bottoms. They march purposefully out from the wings in a steady and orderly manner, delicately carrying their instruments. They quietly find their seats, set their music on their stands, and follow along with their section leaders in tuning their instruments. When Jamie Baumgardt, Mark Twain’s strings teacher, appears on stage they stand, then await her cue to sit again. As anyone who’s ever watched an orchestra knows, this is business as usual. But if you’ve ever spent any time with a large group of rabid tweens and teens, you know how exceptional this sort of behavior is.
And if you’re an educator, you know it even more acutely. I’ve listened to my sister-in-law, a 20-year veteran of elementary school classrooms, bemoan the mounting inability of her students to sit still and focus. She chalks it up to the use of smartphones and tablets, devices that encourage them to eschew human interaction and reward them for making fast, unconsidered decisions. For years, my husband taught literature to community college students and every night came home with frustrated stories of kids who didn’t know how to behave in his classroom: truly didn’t know they shouldn’t text and take phone calls, didn’t know they shouldn’t gobble sandwiches and bags of candy, didn’t know they shouldn’t listen to music through one headphone as he led them (or attempted to lead them) in discussions of Kafka and Chinua Achebe. Children are losing their understanding of basic courtesy and in the process, are becoming ever more removed from their peers and larger society. With this loss, life becomes less pleasant and more challenging for all of us. Because the loss is palpable everywhere we go. Think of the people texting through movies. Refusing to let you pass as you haul heavy grocery bags down the sidewalk. Shoving you aside to get onto the subway car first.
And this is what I’m thinking about as the strings students finish their performance, again await Ms. Baumgardt’s cue to rise, and quickly, silently take their bows and leave the stage. An orchestra has many governing rules. To survive and thrive in this setting, an orchestra member not only has to know them, she has to tacitly agree to follow them. As these rules govern how members of an orchestra treat their leaders, their equals, and the audience that has come out to see them—in addition to expectations for their own personal responsibility to practice—an orchestra, quite simply, offers a blueprint for how to behave in a society.
“My music students learn professionalism and that, regardless of the context of the setting, there are times and places to be professional,” Ms. Baumgardt tells me. “Running around in the park you can be kids and throw Frisbees. But in a professional setting there are expectations. What values should musicians have that translate to the rest of their lives?” Plenty. Do we want our children to be able to make eye contact with friends and strangers as they politely converse with them? Do we want them to be able to show empathy for others, both locally and globally? Do we want them to understand the positive influence of their hard work, not only on their own development, but on the achievements of an affiliated group? Thanks to the efforts of Ms. Baumgardt and other teachers of music, dance, drama, and plastic arts such as sculpture and drawing, they’re getting an excellent footing. “I show them that being committed leads to success, and that can make you feel great about yourself,” says Ms. Baumgardt. “But it’s also about the bigger picture. The efforts they contribute, in the long run, are going to make everyone successful.”
In some cases, that even includes their own parents. As my daughter’s friend takes the stage with her fellow singers, a dad sitting in front of me becomes animated. After snapping photos with his stage-obscuring iPad, he begins to wave his arms over his head, trying to get his kid’s attention. She ignores him. He tries again. And again. She finally acknowledges him with the meager-est of nods. By behaving professionally, as she’s been taught, she’s given her own father a subtle clue about how to behave with professionalism and courtesy. Hopefully, that tiny trend will radiate.
The very fact that my daughter and I are here tonight is proof that the lesson transcends beyond the classroom and the stage for kids, too. My daughter has come out to show support for a friend, just as this friend came out to support her a week earlier, when my daughter danced in a performance of The Nutcracker. The older they get, and the more serious about their various artistic pursuits, the more supportive they become for each other. Empathy (in the plastic arts, critiques would be miserable without empathy) is built right into the framework.
And empathy—along with discipline, listening skills, manners, the ability to articulate and to work as a team—will serve these kids whether or not they eventually choose careers in any arts-driven field. Sarah, a violinist in Ms. Baumgardt’s 8th grade ensemble, wants to be a doctor—and feels the emotional connection she’s developed to music will help her have an emotional connection to her future patients. Tricia, an 8th grade violist, thinks teamwork and intuition are the two lessons she’s learned from music that will be most valuable to her possible future career as a children’s dentist. Ultimately, the goal of arts education is not to churn out professional artists. As Mark Twain’s principal, Karen Ditolla, puts it so succinctly, “By helping children learn these crafts, we’re helping them grow as people.” There isn’t any goal finer.
Photograph from the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, #LC-B2-3849-6
By Lela Nargi
For the past several years, kids have been STEMed up the wazoo as the national conversation about education—and more particularly, what’s wrong with it—has centered on a perceived lacking in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Also lacking in the face of much high-minded assessment? A sense of fun, and of the integral, integrated way that science flows through our lives and the lives of our children, (yes, even city children), if we just know how to pay attention.
Enter Julie G. and her uncluttered outpost hunkered on a bright corner of Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace, Tiny Scientist. Here, for the last two years, the former metal singer turned elementary science teacher shows area kids what’s fun and oh-so-relevant about science in the city. She’s uniquely suited to the task: “I was never interested in science in school,” she confesses. “We had a third grade teacher, ‘Mean’ MacLean, who was actually mean and didn’t teach us anything.” As a result, she initially shirked college until, enrolled in her 20s in an adult learners program at City College, she found herself taking a basic science course. “The teacher showed us slides of cells multiplying and I was immediately hooked,” says Julie, who went on to get masters in biology, math, and science elementary education at Hunter College.
After 10 years teaching science to public school kids, and having just become a first-time mom herself, to daughter, Quinn (Julie’s husband, Andrew Schneider, is a sound engineer for Blue Man Group), she took the plunge and opened her own little science oasis. We caught up with her to get her take on what’s so fun, and what’s so relevant for city kids, about all kinds of science.
Rocks: In the Tiny Scientist class “Rock Cycle Riot,” geared towards kids aged 5 to 10, children put on their paleontology hats to study the Jurassic period and recreate an excavation. Says Julie, “We use lots of visual references and discuss how all rocks started as one type of rock, and changed into other types of rocks over millions of years with pressure. In a class like this, there’s also measuring, sequential thinking, history, sensory development and literacy, because we read books about it.”
But what do prehistoric times have to do with the science we see in the world around us today? “One of the big things we learn is that things change over time,” says Julie. “That’s a big skill for kids, to be able to observe things that happen in some sort of sequence. One of the ways that kind of thinking is applicable to any environment, but particularly the city, where people think we don’t see any nature, is with leaves changing with the seasons. But there are so many ways it works for kids. Kids living in the ‘concrete jungle’ see buildings being built up from big holes in the ground. And they can experience how forceful and important nature is by taking a closer look at the ground right beneath their feet. Very few living things can break rocks, but trees can! And especially here in Brooklyn, we see the sidewalks breaking from the tree roots growing out of them.”
Candy: Working with treats isn’t just about satisfying your sweet tooth. In fact, for kids as young as 4 who are enrolled in Tiny Scientist’s “Candy Chemistry” class, there’s almost no sugar-eating at all. Even though Julie does show kids how to add agar agar to sugar syrup to make gummy candy, “Actually,” she says, “it’s just a fun anchor for studying real science concepts, like pressure, which we use to smash things like marshmallows.”
Air pressure, she points out, is literally everywhere, even though we can’t see it. Standing on a subway platform, almost every kid in New York has felt air pushing through the tunnel as the train has neared the station. But even a task as mundane as blowing bubbles on the sidewalk is loaded with useful information for kids who are learning to observe closely. “Bubbles can tell you about the wind, how fast it’s moving, the direction it’s coming from, how air moves around corners,” says Julie. “Learning about this is training kids to think about what doesn’t seem to be there but is actually all around you.”
Making: Julie’s class “Maker Magic” is a kind of free-for-all of engineering and tech concepts, where kids in grades 2 through 5 make things like lava lamps and put together working circuits. These are building blocks for all manner of things that shelter us, and keep us comfortable as we live and work and move from place to place. “We just looked at propellers and talked about sustainable energy versus fossil fuels. Then we built solar panel circuits attached to small motors,” says Julie.
How does all this pertain to city living? “There’s a block right here in Windsor Terrace that’s becoming a heavy topic of conversation, because there are locally based organizations trying to get homeowners to put solar panels on the roofs of their houses. A lot of schools are experimenting with using them to power machines, and the panels are becoming more and more a part of city life. Even the Brooklyn Botanic Garden uses them, and some of the bridges have solar lights.” And possibly the best part of all for parents hoping to help their kids become keen observers, even after their class at Tiny Scientist has draw to a close: “Trips to see these things cost nothing!” says Julie.
Photographs by Roy Beeson.
Screentime for kids doesn’t get a whole lot of love in the parenting media. But there’s no denying that we live in an increasingly digital world in which we grownups use technology to our benefit, for everything from navigating local kid-friendly restaurants to figuring out where to gas up the car when the “empty” light flashes on. Can’t children enjoy similar benefits?
“The basic misconception about screen time stems from the notion that the screen itself is more important than the action being performed,” says Björn Jeffery, co-founder of the kids game development studio Toca Boca. “But tablets can be used for language learning, playing games, watching educational videos, or video chatting with family. We like to think of a tablet as a tool with endless possibilities to tap into different emotions, skills, and parts of the brain.”
With this in mind, we’ve rounded up 14 truly terrific educational, gender-neutral apps for kids of all ages, to be used alone or with their parents. Because, as Jeffrey maintains, “All kids should have the opportunity to learn about subjects they are interested in and play with toys they find fun.”
Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Even on a day when you can’t make it to a zoo near you to get up close and personal with all the animals, children can visit them virtually with this app’s giant panda cam, as well as five others that zone in on gorillas, tigers, flamingos, lions, and golden lion tamarins. The app also includes an animal index that lets kids test their species knowledge, and a whole host of information about animals noises and ecosystems (iPad, iPhone & Android, ages 2+, $2).
Avokiddo Emotions. Kids will come down with a serious case of the giggles when they’re introduced to a zany zebra, shy sheep, jolly giraffe, and modest moose. These characters are meant to introduce children to the vast and confusing landscape of their own emotions as they dress up, feed, and interact with little essential pieces of themselves (iPhone, iPad, & Android, ages 2-5, $3).
Sesame Street Family Play. This is an app that’s actually an anti-app, offering parents stuck with their kids in the waiting room or on the train with over 150 fun games they can play together on the spot. Because sometimes, you’ve all had more than enough screentime for the day (iPhone & iPad ages 2-5, $1).
National Geographic’s Look & Learn: Animals Vol. 1. This bundle of three apps—Animal Bounce, Animal Match, and Animal Words—encourages awareness of the natural world through photographs, animal sounds, and game play. Really, this is a theme that never seems to get old among the under-5 set (iPad & iPhone, ages 3-5, $3).
Gro Garden. Kids become virtual gardeners as they plant and care for crops, feed hungry animals, and make compost from food scraps. It’s the next best thing to getting your kids to plant their own gardens on your windowsill—and infinitely more tidy (iPhone, iPad, Android, ages 5+, $3).
NASA’s Rocket Science 101. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to launch a NASA rocket! Select a mission and build your own rocket that you can then send into orbit. Kids will learn the details of particular NASA missions as well as all about the various components of the launch vehicles and what it takes to get one of these amazing pieces of machinery to break free of gravity (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 5-10, free).
It’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. Join this fierce predator as she shatters the stillness of the prehistoric forest! Kids can explore pictures, learn new vocabulary, and personalize the app’s story with their own narration. Because seriously, have you ever met a toddler who wasn’t into dinosaurs? (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 3-5 $3)
Thinkrolls. This is a logic puzzler for elementary kids that’s meant to enhance problem solving, memory, and spatial cognition skills. Every time children sit down to use it, they learn a little something about force, acceleration, buoyancy, heat, elasticity, and gravity while helping 22 Thinkrolls characters navigate through a maze (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 3-8, $3).
Toca Lab. This colorful STEM-savvy app lets children discover all 118 of the elements from the periodic table (which is more than their parents are likely to know, unless they’re chemists) by experimenting with the various tools provided. Bonus: they won’t be able to blow anything up! (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 6-8, $3)
The Robot Factory: Build Robots. Children can create any robot they can imagine from 100 parts including exoskeletons, telescopic arms, and spider legs. They can test them by running them through a fantastical world full of obstacles. Then, they can take them out to play (virtually, of course) with whenever they choose (iPhone & iPad, ages 6-8, $4).
Sky Map. This clever app turns your device answers (almost) all your questions about the night sky. Just point your smartphone upwards and Sky Map will tell you exactly what stars, planets, moon phases, constellations, messier objects and meteor showers you see (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, free).
Leafsnap. This electronic field guides uses visual recognition software to help kids (and their parents) identify tree species found in the Northeastern US and Canada from photographs you take of their leaves. Great for budding (har) botanists and arborists, and a super way for kids and parents to learn together (iPad & iPhone, all ages, free).
Audubon Birds Pro. This mobile field guide will help you and your kids identify 821 bird species, let you explore an advanced gallery for easy comparison, and contribute to NatureShare, a social community of birders who observe, identify, and share their observations online. Once you get started, you’ll be amazed at how many birds that aren’t pigeons you’ll find hanging out at the local park (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, $10).
Project Noah. This super tool lets you explore and document insects, animals, plants and trees on a platform designed to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere. Just upload your own photo of a species and within hours, other users will weigh in with their expertise to identify it. A great way to learn about your environment as a family, and to discover that there are many other like-minded, nature-loving urbanites among you (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, free).