Saturday, December 24, 2011

Math Apps - Carnival of fun

I've renamed our smartphone the funphone. It's really not any more smart than my past phone, it's just a LOT more fun (and more expensive to run) than the archaic model I set aside in August. Even the educational games I've loaded "for the kids" are fun. So fun, in fact, that the same girls who have recently taken an if-it's-educational-it-can't-be-fun attitude ask regularly to "play" with it. They know they're learning math, French and U.S. History, but they're willing to make that sacrifice in the name of entertainment.

In an effort to put my research of app sources in one place (and to share them with you), I thought I'd run a few blog carnivals here over the next week or so. I'll start with math-related apps today, then feature other subject areas in future posts. I hope this compilation serves as a good resource for other parents like me who hope to make these technological tool-toys equally fun, functional and educational rather than the complete time-wasters they could easily become.

Over at iEAR, they've got a few reviews of math apps. Most of the reviews include details about the featured program, including cost and links for download. Due to its layout, the site's a little tough to read (more paragraph breaks would help declutter the text areas and make them easier to read), but the basics of each game are there as are suggestions from the reviewers for program improvements. Not sure I agree with the reviews since the "two-thumbs-up" app looks a lot like worksheets that no one really thinks are fun - least of all my girls, but I'll keep watching the page for future reviews which will help me cull the herd before downloading to try them myself.

I like the reviews at Fun Educational Apps. The site is easy to navigate using the search tool that's available on the front page, or by clicking on age-level tabs near the top of the front page.

AppDictions is easy to read, navigate and search, but beware the tempting ads for "too-good-to-be-true" items. I read several of their reviews and came away wondering if they'd really run any of these apps or if they just regurgitated the sales info from the game developers. Much of the same information is available in the iTunes store.

TechLearning has aligned its app reviews with core standards for grades 9-12. Each app includes a very brief description including price and basic idea of the software, but there's no apparent personal review. Has anyone involved in the list actually used any of these apps?

I really like the Teachers with Apps blog in large part because it seems to include students' input about the apps. The reviews are informative, easy to read and include students' takes on the apps as well as teachers views.

Wonder if games are right for kids? Some food for thought:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Organizing Kids' Rooms

Organizing "stuff" is a chore for anyone, but with kids it seems even more difficult. Their collections of toys and clothes and, in some cases, animals, quickly add up while the walls of the family home generally remain fixed. Given the opportunity, they'll play with all of their toys at once, display all of their collections and reserve every ripped, torn shred of favorite outfit to which they've grown attached. So how do you organize your kids' stuff (and your stuff) so you don't step on toes, don't reduce beyond reason and still maintain a workable home? I've been doing some research in hopes of finding new solutions to our cluttered home, and while I'm finding helpful tips, I've yet to find a complete solution.

We live in a small house, by American standards. There are four of us sharing roughly 1,300 square feet. For down-sizers and folks who live in harmony with their rural communities or have a lot of outdoor room in which to stretch, that's probably grand. But in a suburban setting, it's not so hot. Do the math. That's 325 square feet per person in which we include the kitchen and bath facilities and inside walls. (Yes. They count. And the space they take is exponentially more noticeable in a small house than in a larger one.)

Sure, the Ingals family did just fine in their little home on the prairie with a shared loft bedroom for the girls. But times were different, and their home was surrounded by thousands of acres of open space, nature. Rural living brings with it, also, chores that help fill the day; chores that take moments these days given the automation. Wintertime would pose a greater challenge with more family members sharing the small space for more hours of the day and night. But still, there were winter chores and tasks to be done.

First step at our house is always sorting the closet and chest of drawers. It's an easy way to pare down the collection of clothes that have either been worn to threads or that the kids have outgrown. We divide the outgoing clothes between the recycling bin (ripped, torn or stained clothing), the local shelter-related thrift store (wearable, but not favorites) and friends who appreciate hand-me-downs (favorites that the girls would like to share especially with their smaller friends).

While we all love our stuffies, the menagerie has grown uncontrollable. We could pack half away and rotate the garage-packed half with the inside half now and again. In fact, that's an option with all of our belongings: pull out a segment and store the rest to be rotated in at some random time in the future. Certainly we do this with seasonal toys. (Christmas comes to mind.)

We already have a cute little shelving unit in the closet and it's great as a catch all for small things or sets of small things. But it's not ideal for larger items. It's probably time to redesign the closet with better shelving that can catch a lot of the bigger toys or sets without having to break them down for each storage session. For collections, I'm thinking about installing some display shelves for my older girls' dolls. She pulls them down to play with them, but also likes them to be on display for her full enjoyment.

I found some helpful hints here and here. This one is great if your kid only has one truck and doesn't care if he can access those boxes on the top shelf. And, finally, this one cracked me up. Step one: Toys outta there! Really? Where do you propose those toys go!? The KITCHEN? Garage? Backyard? Shed? Not entirely child-friendly, those.

No matter which article you find useful, be realistic. Be sure to take a look at the "end result" photos of any of these closet organizing places or bedroom organizing articles (especially those from commercial sites) and really THINK about what's in their room once all is said and done. Typically, there are no toys or stuffies or books in sight, and no apparent storage place that would accommodate a REAL kid's stuff.

What do you do to keep your kids' stuff organized, manageable while still accessible to the kids?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Travel Favorites Worth Mentioning

We're home, we're unpacked, we've recovered from the turkey fest and life is nearly back to normal. Nearly.

My desk, however, still hasn't entirely recovered. I have a stack of business cards and wrappers and fliers I collected throughout the trip to help me remember some of the most outstanding surprise stops along the way because I wanted to share them here. With you. Sure, this would be best divided between various articles specific to location or attraction type, but for the sake of getting my desk back to work (and because the Internet is now infinitely searchable regardless of the logic of a given blog) here we go:

Maple, Cinnamon and Raisin Bread from Ellmore Mountain Bread - We picked up a loaf of this crusty bread while visiting another great stop, Butternut Mountain Farm's Country Store, in Johnson, VT. The store carries all things maple - candy, various syrups, cookies, jams. If it's made with maple, it's probably in this store. The bread was an impulse buy. It was in a basket by the cash register. We were there shortly before lunchtime. Once we returned to the car, we ripped off little tastes. No need for butter or jam or, well, ANYTHING else. While crusty on the outside like a good homemade loaf should be, the inside was soft, moist, not overly sweet, certainly scrumptious. We ended up tearing the whole thing apart with our bare hands. It was that good! My understanding is that both businesses may ship, and their selections are ideal gifts, if you're willing to spread the love.

Major kudos goes to The Floridian in St. Augustine, FL. Had they such a restaurant here, I'd likely break the family budget. The food here is not only fantastically delicious, but the menu is loaded with healthy options. I was nearly taken by the Zucchini Casserole (featuring, among other things, pepperjack and chevre cheese sauce, heirloom tomatoes and salsa), but settled with great satisfaction on the Southern Belle Salad (peaches, Sweetgrass Dairy bleu cheese, roasted sweet potatoes, toasted pecans over a bed of local lettuce all topped with their own lemon-basil vinaigrette and drizzled with Florida honey). Not only was the main menu wonderful, but there was a long list of daily specials, many of which were quite compelling, and the children's menu involved - GASP! - real food! There was not a single offering of the common staples among children's menus. I applaud The Floridian for finally feeding kids what they WILL eat, and enjoy, if only given the opportunity.

Lei's Linens in St. Augustine, FL featured beautiful cut embroidery table linens, doilies, place mats, table runners and table cloths. If I had a nice table on which to display this during special functions I would have purchased one. Hmmm...wait...these COVER the table. Good thing they have a site! I confess I also balked at the purchase because, particularly when I travel, I like to buy gifts by locals. I'm not really sure where these are made, and we were in a tourist area rife with mass-produced, foreign doodads that would remind me no more of Florida than of California, or China for that matter. Still, these are beautiful works and maybe I should've just gone for it.

Koffee Kup, 1407 13th St., St. Cloud, FL, was a special treat the morning we dropped Mr. B off at the airport. From Orlando, the girls and I were headed south via the back roads. We stopped for groceries in St. Cloud and were directed by the cashier to a local breakfast place. I'd failed to listen well enough to his driving directions, so in the parking lot I asked another local for details. He provided them, but as we turned to go our opposite directions he said, "You could do better, though." Well, THAT's what I wanted to know. He directed us to "Cup O' Joe." We drove up and down the one-mile drag, but only spotted Koffee Kup. MUST've been what he meant. It was still early Sunday morning, but the place was packed. For good reason! I'm not usually big on traditional breakfast food, but they served it up hot and fresh with some specials that even had me grinning.

How we happened upon Carolina Cider Co. near Yemassee, SC I can't really figure. It was just one of those roadside stops you make on a long trip. The stand offered pies, first of all, and free tastes, and cider. I think it was the pear cider that got my attention, and the pies that got the girls'. We swung in and were rewarded not only with our free tastes, but with a complete restocking of our trailer pantry with tasty local goodness. Sure, they have all your basic fruit jams and preserves, and some fruit butters, too. But there were other flavorful surprises, among them: Black Bean and Corn Salsa; Sweet Fire Bread & Butter Pickles with Peppers; Dilled Green Beans; Picked Watermelon Rind; and various temperatures of Chow Chow Relish. Definitely worth a stop if you're in the area, or a cruise through their online catalog.

We enjoyed our afternoon of making VERY unique "snowflakes" with Marion Nichols, a paper-cutting artist at City Museum in St. Louis, MO. I made a snowflake of adjoined octopi. E made one featuring mermaids. V's featured dragons. Mrs. Nichols has penned a few books on the subject, including patterns. We picked up a pair of the books and the girls have had fun with them here at home. Our snowflakes will never be the same! Thanks, Mrs. Nichols! Her books can be ordered via or call City Museum at 314-231-2489 ext 127.

We were all but adopted by KT and Rusty of Windham Upholstery

Texas is, I'm told, FULL of fantastic barbecue spots. We found a few, and saw a few more along the way. The best we've ever had were those we found alongside the road in random spots, not widely advertised. It was the smell that drew us to both. I'm sorry to say I don't know where that first notable portable BBQ was back in 2008. My aunt and uncle and I found it on our way through the Texas panhandle. THIS year, however, I took notes! By far the best BBQ find on this trip was Joel's BBQ in Flatonia, TX. Now, I would LOVE to have stopped at more BBQ places along our route, but even with an unlimited budget, hitting them all would have been impossible. Joel's drew us in with its fabulous barbecue scent, and sent me away smiling with incredibly fast customer service and a perfect chopped beef sandwich. If you're headed across I-10, be sure to take exit 661, then turn north. You can't miss it.

And just about everything Oldtown Bay St. Louis, MO. This spot, just around the corner from Waveland, MO, is pure Americana at its best. Old-town feel, good eats, GREAT company! Sure, they get hurricanes and floods and the occasional Gulf oil spill. Yes, they get temps in the 90s with high humidity in summer, lows in the 40s with high humidity in the winter, and the bugs can be a nuisance. But the people. The PEOPLE here are so fantastic! Friendly, cordial to strangers, community oriented. I asked a couple of locals inside Sloppy Dogs Cafe why they've stayed even through all the bad news. Without a skipping a beat, one said, "Because we get to meet friendly people like you." Indeed, pick a spot to sit in any local establishment, sit back and watch. You'll see locals, long lost friends, and strangers greet each other cordially, even enthusiastically. Need coffee, hot breakfast, Internet connection or just a place to sit and watch? Try Mockingbird Cafe.

And, finally, a blog which we found useful after our FABULOUS shelling days on Sanibel Island, FL. Did you ever find seashells you just couldn't identify? Try for a photographic encyclopedia of the shells that roll onto Florida's western shore (and other parts of the world).

If you have some off-the-beaten-path, locally owned favorites, please share them with us! We LOVE 'em!

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