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Journalist and author says digital play is good for kids


toppo bookDo you worry about your kids and video games? They’re playing too much? They’re playing games that aren’t good for them?

Greg Toppo, author of the April book The Game Believes In You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, says he saw a “real divide” among parents during his researching and writing.

“There were some parents who were, for lack of a better term, living in the ‘80s. They had this understanding of video games as these shadowy pieces of media in an arcade, right alongside pinball – even though it’s right in their living room and even though it looks and smells incredibly different from anything they played as teenagers.

I also saw a lot of parents who get it, who not only understand but also are also taking that next step and playing games with their kids. That’s essential. You can’t stand in the doorway clucking your tongue.”

There are many benefits to video games, says Toppo, whose book explores how games are revolutionizing learning.

Games make players think like scientists, encouraging “systems thinking,” and problem solving. He also points out that games allow us to fail again and again, to make new mistakes, but urging us to keep trying. And what may look like mindless escapism is actually helping cultivate the ability to concentrate.

But what about those shooter games?

Toppo doesn’t dismiss violence or violent acts, but maintains that games are neither good nor bad – they simply reinforce existing values. “I think we have a much higher standard for video games,” he says, noting that we regularly watch football and hockey – two very aggressive activities. But do we tell our children not to watch?

Toppo also explores video games in the classroom, noting that teachers need to embrace the digital world and the best games are ones that allow teacher to adapt them to the lesson at hand. “A 99 cent app can be used and passed around – an easy and inexpensive tool.”

When asked what is the hottest game now in the educational world right now, he said, “There are a million of them.” But one he says is particularly popular is iCivics, a series of games inspired by Sandra Day O’Connor to teach students about democracy. “They’re really good games. You could get off the phone with me and sit and play them for hours. They’re dynamite.”

Toppo’s biggest takeaway from the book?

“I guess I would say, as parents we need to step back and take a breath and think about the ways kids are using media. They are a lot smarter and sophisticated about it than we are. They just need help describing what they’re doing. In a sense, one of the things I wanted to be able to do with this book is translate what’s happening with kids to their parents.”

Toppo says he has done some book readings and nothing makes him happier than when a young person approaches him. “My heart melts – they’ll say, ‘I’m a huge gamer and my mom doesn’t understand.’ What I’m really hoping is that gamers will buy the book and underline the parts they think their parents need to read.”

After reading the book, I came up with 5 Tips for Parents. Toppo agreed with all but one.

1. Play the games your kids are playing.
2. Talk to your kids about the games. Ask what they are getting out of it.
3. Note what kind of gamer you are. Do you take failure in stride? Keep trying? Do you trash talk? Do you ask for help? Your kids take cues from you.
4. Check the rating on the game. It’s there for a reason.
5. Monitor how much time is spent on any kind of screen, video game or otherwise.

Toppo says No. 5 is wrong.

“That’s not the right way to look at it. Even parents who are very sophisticated about this stuff toss around words like ‘screen time’ and they think they’re saying something. I would say ‘screen time’ was a great idea 10 years ago. It’s an antiquated concept.  What matters is what’s on the screen.”

He points to the iPad. “It has real potential to bring parents and little kids close to have really important interactions. To set a timer on that seems silly.”

(For some ideas of what to play, check out the mobile apps in our just-announced Fall 2015 Parents’ Choice Small Screen Awards)


Carpe Small Screen


TinyBop MachineAh yes, the small screens that fill our lives. Many of us can’t seem to get through a day without them. But that’s a conversation for another day. Today, we’re pleased to announce the Fall 2015 Parents’ Choice Small Screen Awards for Mobile Apps, Websites and DVDs.

For those who like numbers or neurons, our mobile app choices are sweet. Curious about shapes, George? You’re in for a treat. And for doctors of Seuss, this can’t be beat. We’re crazy about gears and tinkering with machines; we took a bath and said nighty night to a troupe of circus animals. We learned about letters and helped deliver them. And Daren taught us how attributes help us see and think in many new ways. There are two spots stand out from the crowd; one starts with a ladybug, the other with a sailor. Can you spot the difference?

Our latest Website selections favor the curious, about books and robots, from those taking small steps to campus steps. And the DVDs spotlight the alphabet, the quirky and the forgiving.

For more than 37 years, Parents’ Choice has worked to bridge the classroom and the playroom, with recommendations for children’s media and toys that encourage the probing and poking that curiosity breeds. Parents’ Choice Award winners hand deliver the fun – and the rewards of learning something new.





Millennial Parents: Are they really different?


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Being a new parent can be overwhelming. At times you think you’re going through something no one has ever gone through before.

That’s partly what prompted Jake Greene, 35, writer/producer/director and father to kids ages 3 and 1, to come up with Millennial Parents, a funny web series that focuses on Kurt (Lea Coco) and Annie (Laura Eichhorn), new parents to son Tanner.

“It’s obviously inspired by what’s happening in my life,” says the Los Angeles-based Greene.

Working with friend/collaborator and director Natalie Irby, Greene wanted to “capture these moments that a lot of people are going through and put them in digestible format.” The goal, he says, was to “give people the bite size laugh – as well as some heart – that they used to get in Sunday morning comics.”

But is millennial parenting really any different from any other generation of parenting?

Yes and no. After watching the web series segments, some of which are hipster hilarious, I can tell you that many cover common parenting themes and topics that we’ve all faced, such as:

–       My kids are better than yours (It’s impossible to avoid this feeling when talking to other moms and dads.)

–       Vacation hotels suited to kids, not luxury relaxing (You’re booking the Great Wolf Lodge, not the Ritz Carlton.)

–       Worries about the child’s future (Will he be smart? Will she be athletic? Will they be good-looking?)

–       Writing a will and who’ll care for the child (Is Uncle Gary really the best choice to raise the kids if you die in a car crash?)

–       That too-cute babysitter

But Kurt and Annie also do face things specific to this generation – such as worrying about artfully posting the right photos on Facebook and singing nasty lullabies to baby Tanner.

Nasty lullabies? What’s up with that? Greene notes: “The number one song in 1964 was I Wanna Hold Your Hand. The no. 1 song is 1994 was I’ll Make Love to You.”

Times have changed. We’ve progressed.

“There’s really a pressure to be cool that just wasn’t there for previous generations,” explains Greene. And this is illustrated in episode 110, titled Are We Cooler than Our Parents?

“Everybody always wanted to be unique and fun, but you can look online now – and we all check it hourly – and you see these magical takes on the cosmopolitan life people are leading because that’s on their feed. You get worried you’re old or dated.”

He adds, “My parents were fun and they were wonderful parents but you want to do things your own way and blaze your own trail.”

The big difference in generations? We live in the digital age, the era of information.

“I think the challenges are largely the same; they just manifest themselves in different ways,” admits Greene. The freak-outs come over different things. “I can’t imagine the level of stress my parents had when they had health issues or school questions and they didn’t have immediate access to all the answers we have.”

But he also hopes that there those universal themes in Millennial Parents, humorous moments that anyone will likely get.

“If you’ve been a parent or if you’ve been in a relationship or felt like your life was chaotic, even though we have some ridiculous stuff, it’s grounded in the truth of those moments.”




Are the new Amazon and Netflix kids shows any good?


toddler-tablet-on planeI was recently on a plane, sitting next to two young kids. They looked to be about three and six years old. Soon after we all got settled into our seats, their mom handed each of them a tablet. The kids plugged in their headphones and were mesmerized for much of the nearly two-hour plane ride. Mom read a Real Simple magazine and dozed.

Scenarios like that are exactly why Amazon Studios announced the debut of six new kids pilot shows on Friday, June 26, through its Amazon Instant Video service.

Four animated and two live-action series hopefuls – one for preschoolers and the other five for the 6-11 age group – will be available for viewing. Customers will be invited to watch and provide feedback, a direct pipeline to let Amazon know which ones should be turned into full series for Amazon Prime members ($99 a year).

It’s a concept that makes a lot of sense. Traditional broadcast networks usually see pilots, decide to air the shows and then use ratings as their guides. A series will either get yanked after a couple of episodes or more episodes will be ordered. And, of course, with children’s television, there are FCC rules for broadcast networks with minimum requirements for educational programming.

Testing the waters Amazon’s way saves everyone a lot of time and money. It also means that more quality programs for kids – shows you WANT your kids to see and not just settling for what’s on – will be available. So if you don’t think it’s high-quality, let Amazon know.

Amazon also notes that these projects have some impressive creative talent behind them – producers and writers who have been involved in shows including Gilmore Girls, Hannah Montana, East Los High and Fraggle Rock.

Amazon’s four new animated shows are:

The  Adventures of Knickerbock Teetertop (for pre-schoolers)
Knickerbock Teetertop, the smallest kid on the enchanted Wonderpine Mountain, wants to be a big adventurer just like his grandpa. Knickerbock bounces along rugged terrain, pushes against the elements, and challenges himself to overcome obstacles. As he encounters problems Knickerbock uses perseverance, grit, and some encouragement from Grandpa to “adventure on, adventure through.”

Lost in Oz  
Lost in Oz is set in a modern, metropolitan Emerald City. Stranded in this spectacular world, 12-year-old Dorothy Gale befriends West, a young, street-smart witch grappling with dark temptations, and Ojo, a giant munchkin. With Dorothy’s dog Toto, this unlikely crew embarks on an epic journey, seeking out the magic Dorothy needs to get back to Kansas. The challenge for Dorothy, and everyone else in this world, is that Oz is facing the greatest magic crisis in eons.

Bear in Underwear 
Welcome to Shady Glade Woods where Eddie Behr, an eternally optimistic, high energy bear, and his quirky group of animal friends and family reside. Eddie aspires to be a forest legend just like his dad, who discovered “pants” at an abandoned campsite (they are actually “tighty whiteys,’ but no one knows the difference!). Although Eddie is eager to make just as positive an impact on his community as his father did, he soon realizes that success may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. Bear in Underwear is based on the bestselling books by Todd Goldman.

Lily the Unicorn 
In Lily’s world, anything is possible: a simple song she hums can go viral and top the charts. A quiet surprise picnic for her best buddy Roger can lead to a city-wide adventure featuring falafel waffles and a wise guru. Lily the Unicorn puts a hilarious spin on everyday situations as she transforms even the most typical day into something extraordinary. Lily the Unicorn is based on the hit children’s book by Dallas Clayton and is produced by The Jim Henson Company.

And the two live-action shows are:

History of Radness 
A History of Radness captures the experience of aspiring musicians forming their band. The story follows siblings Jack and Tessie from their less-than-cool middle school beginnings at Pleasant Meadows Middle School to the start of their music careers as they put together a band of like-minded musicians, considered outsiders by fellow classmates.

The Kicks 
Devin Burke was the star player on her soccer team back home until her family moved to California midway through the school year. Now, Devin has to rise to the challenge after discovering that her new school team has been on a losing streak over the last few months and is badly in need of a leader to rally the team together. Based on a book series by US Olympic Gold Medalist and current US Women’s National Team soccer player Alex Morgan.
None seem devoted to STEM issues, and most seem more focused on entertaining than educating, but we should wait and give them a chance.

Of course, Amazon is not alone in offering original kids content online. Netflix announced in February that it was ordering five new shows, including re-makes of Inspector Gadget and Danger Mouse. Four of the five new shows are animated series. A live action series about a toy shop called Some Assembly Required rounds out the new lineup. Inspector Gadget and Super 4 are already available for viewing.

Gadget is taken from the original 1980s cartoon about the bumbling detective, his smart niece Penny and her dog Brain are the brains behind the operations, which center around trying to stop evil Dr. Claw.

Super 4 is far more compelling and enjoyable, centered around four friends and heroes – Alex the Knight, Twinkle the fairy, Agent Gene and Ruby the Pirate. They are Playmobil characters come to life, so of course it’s essentially a long commercial for Playmobil sets. But it’s got heart and good writing and the characters are pretty charming. A Playmobil live action move is said to be in the works for 2017, following the success of The Lego Movie in 2014.

Some Assembly Required debuted on Friday, June 19.  Unfortunately, it’s not very good. The series centers around Jarvis, played by charismatic teen Kolton Stewart,15,  who sues a toy company after a chemistry set blows up his house. He winds up owning the toy company. The problem is that most of the jokes are not funny, and the stereotypes of the kids are not cool. One girl is on his team because she’s beautiful. And there’s a “bimbo” joke. The surfer dude daredevil kid is, of course, really dumb. And Jarvis’ best friend is beyond silly.

Bottersnikes & Gumbles, based on classic Australian children’s books, is set to arrive in 2016. As it the reboot of Danger Mouse, a British animated series.

Just as Amazon has attracted heavy-hitting talent, Netflix has been steadily expanding its children’s TV lineup to include content from partners including PBS, Disney Channel, DreamWorks, Cartoon Network, Mattel, Hasbro, Lego and Scholastic. A few years ago, the company signed a deal with the Walt Disney Company to make its service the pay TV home to all its live action and animated films beginning in 2016.

A nice feature of Netflix is that you can search for shows or characters or age groups. So if you don’t find a new series you like, you can go to Wild Kratts or The Magic School Bus or Bill Nye the Science Guy.

The classics still hold up.




Start with a book!


reading-rocketsRachael Walker, our dear friend at Reading Rockets, has lots of resources and ideas to help encourage kids to learn, read, and have fun this summer.

Start with a Book, features 24 kid-friendly themes, like dinosaurs, building, animals, sports, superheroes, music and more! Each theme introduces young readers and their families to great fiction and nonfiction books, along with hands-on activities that support reading, writing, and critical thinking skills and links to other great websites and apps with related content.

Carol Shen ( and member of the Board of Directors of The Reading Connection) is blogging for Reading Rockets about her kids’ learning adventures. Maria Salvadore takes young readers on summer reading journeys to Paris, Provence, Zimbabwe, the beach, Market Street and more! Check out Maria’s 2015 Summer Reading Guide.

Plus, Start with a Book offers Reading Tips to Go to support to parents who need extra help coming up with ideas to keep kids’ reading and writing skills improving over the summer. Subscribers to this free service get 3-4 short text messages per week—all summer long—in English or Spanish.

Not a bad way to start the summer! Thanks, Rachael!