Archive for August, 2012

Would You Let Your Kids Take a Gap Year?

Friday, August 31st, 2012
Service projects and volunteer trips are just some ways students spend their gap year.

Service projects and volunteer trips are just some ways students spend their gap year.

My parents desperately wanted a college education for all five of us kids and worked hard and sacrificed to make that happen. There was just one rule: Do it in four years right after high school. Times were different then. It was more affordable and going to college straight out of high school seemed crucial to your success. Times have indeed changed, and one could argue that kids aren’t as prepared for college as they once were. Marie Schwartz, founder and president of TeenLife Media, posses the idea that a gap year between high school and college could be beneficial to some students. According to her latest post, Europeans and Australians have long encouraged kids to learn responsibility and acquire real-life skills through experiences outside the classroom. Australian actor Sam Worthington has often mentioned in interviews about his unique gap year after high school. Although he grew up in Perth, when he was college-aged, his father gave him $400, sent him to the other side of the continent and told him to “work his way home.” His road led him to Hollywood instead of college, but it is interesting to think about what a year of exploration could do for other students. Some sects of Amish have Rumspringa—a time when adolescents have a year to explore life outside their closed community before taking adult membership in the church. Would you consider a gap year for your kids? Do you think you may have benefited from a year to prepare for college?

Bringing Children’s Apps to Life

Thursday, August 30th, 2012
Toca Boca fan Victor made his son a train to play in while using the Toca Train app.

Toca Boca fan Victor made his son a train to play in while using the Toca Train app.

Toca Boca, Parents’ Choice Award winning app developers, recently posted the above picture on their Facebook page. It shows how one of their fans, Victor, created a cardboard box train for his locomotive loving son to sit in while he plays with the Toca Train app. The app, which functions as a toy rather than a game, allows children to freely navigate a train around a cheery island setting. Victor’s toy adds additional physical buttons for his son to play with in addition to those the app provides. Since the app offers a first person perspective for little train engineers, adding a physical train to sit in makes sense. Here are more details from their page:

Victor’s son has always been very interested in trains and is a big Toca Train fan. So Victor decided to make a real train for him out of an empty printer box, using the inside packaging for a control panel. The newly bought printer was used to print out designs for the train interior.

When Victor noticed his son driving the train with Toca Train running on an iPad on his lap, he mounted it on the dashboard, which was a huge success.

Victor has posted more pictures of his creation, which show off the detail of what he built.

Have you ever tried a project like this at home? We love the idea of melding digital and hands on play, especially when it involves a simple cardboard box. You could also use household materials to make an easel for an art app or construct faces from common objects as you do in the app Faces iMake. What other fun blends of digital and low-tech play can you imagine?

Reconnect Project Challenges You to Go Offline for a Day

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012
IMG_2823.jpg by Flickr User CC Chapman via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Flickr User CC Chapman via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How often do you connect to the internet? Do you ever try to go offline? Whether you’re looking at Twitter, checking the weather, or finding directions, there are many ways that we use the internet each day without even thinking about it. Our kids do the same, and rely on the internet to help them download music, connect with friends, and complete homework assignments. Sometimes it can feel like all of this online time prevents families from having quality time together. But what if we all took a day to step away from the internet? Could we do it? And, more importantly, would it bring our families closer together?

The Reconnect Project challenges everyone to go offline and step away from their internet-enabled devices for the entire day of Sunday, September 2nd. That includes your phone, video game console, computer, tablet, or any other connected gadget. The idea is that without the internet to distract us, we can each focus on completing a creative project during the day. Parents might try out some of the home improvements they’ve been gathering on Pinterest, and kids might try to build a new fort. You could also take a family trip to a new place, and use a regular camera to take pictures of what you see.

Do you think that you could do it? How would your family use its disconnected time to, well, reconnect with each other?

Sara Farber Writes What Toys Say

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
Sara Farber

Sara Farber, toy superhero, at work

Sara Farber “loves writing puns for four-year-olds.” Farber is a toy writer and content developer, meaning that she is responsible for the jokes, songs, and chatter emanating from many of the talking toys in your home. She also develops content for apps, digital books, virtual worlds, and electronic games.

We here at Parents’ Choice are connoisseurs of good toys, and we appreciate how much work is poured into them. There are many behind-the-scenes elements that go into creating a successful toy that promotes play and learning seamlessly, and it was a treat to hear how Sara, who has contributed to several Parents’ Choice Award winners, is involved in that process. She spoke to Parents’ Choice about the work she does, and we hope that toy lovers young and old will enjoy the glimpse she gives of how toys are developed and designed.

As a student at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, Sara Farber studied behavioral biology. Though she could have spent her professional career researching rat behavior, Sara chose instead to begin work at the Calvert School in Baltimore, where she developed cd-roms for children. After spending time programming and managing content at the Calvert School, she moved to NYC and began work at Sesame Workshop, still called Children’s Television Workshop back then, as a Producer of preschool CD-ROM games. It’s there that she rekindled her love of Muppets and became even more focused on creating kids’ interactive entertainment. She then moved on to become Manager of Global Product Development at VTech, where she transitioned from software to electronic toys, learning the ins and outs of the industry from an amazing team of experts. Next, Sara spent six years at Fisher-Price as the Director of Content Design, where she continued to hone her skills while building a robust content department. In the midst of all that, Sara earned her M.A. in Cognitive Development from Teachers College, Columbia University. She has also studied Sketch Comedy Writing and Improv at Upright Citizens Brigade.

Scribble Press - Sara Farber wrote fill-in-the-blank templates for Scribble Press, and advised on age and gender-appropriate themes.

Farber wrote story templates for the Parents’ Choice Award winning Scribble Press app.

Now Sara works as a freelance writer and consultant for toys, apps, and games. Her clients have included Fisher-Price, Gund, Hasbro, Scribble Press, and Spin Master. A typical request for Sara’s services might be, “We’ve got a singing, dancing Mickey Mouse and we need a script and song lyrics for it.” That’s not as easy as it sounds, and a lot of research goes into each of her projects. Sara says that she has worked on hundreds of products featuring over forty licensed brands throughout her career, from Dora the Explorer to Barbie to SpongeBob SquarePants. Each one has a unique voice, and Sara notes that “What’s funny for Elmo is different from what’s funny for Winnie the Pooh.” To prepare herself for new jobs, Sara watches hours of movies or TV episodes. Recently, she watched The Penguins of Madagascar to prepare herself to write dialogue from their perspective.

After researching each character, Sara develops a script based on what she’s learned about their personalities and mannerisms. For more complex toys and educational software, she may spend weeks researching and developing the story line, curriculum, and supporting games. Writing the lines said by the characters in the toy comes last, and any work must be approved by the licensor of that character. Toys must say things that children understand, but that adults still find funny too. Sara also tries to keep things silly enough to inspire creativity. When writing book templates for the story-writing app Scribble Press, she added playful themes like “My Dog Ate My Homework” and “My Babysitter is a Zombie”. Such offbeat story starters require kids to use their imagination in order to finish the tale.

When it comes to toys and games that talk, the last step is recording the actual voices, and Sara often assists with that aspect too. She’s worked on chatty characters ranging from grumpy dinosaurs to sweet teddy bears. Getting the right voice is important. The age and gender of the actor cast for the part is carefully considered for each toy. When directing the voice talent, Sara emphasizes clarity and delivery.

Sara Farber's Schmovie


After fifteen years in the toy and children’s media industry, Sara has started her own company, Galactic Sneeze, which she runs with her husband. They’ve created the board/party game Schmovie, which challenges players to craft witty titles for outlandish movie premises. Years of writing witty one-liners for talking toys prepped Sara for creating this laugh out loud game, which she hopes will be a huge success. The game will be available soon, and in the meantime you can “Like” the Facebook page to play along. See if you can come up with the best answer to their daily challenges. The winner receives a customized Schquid Trophy with his or her name on it! A recent challenge asked: “Got a title for this SCHMOVIE? An ACTION FILM about a KILLER SANDWICH. Can you beat “Rye Hard”?

Sara is committed to “inspiring creativity from a young age.” She has spent years studying and developing play patterns for toys and games, and says that “even though the work itself isn’t always fun and games, the end result is.” The next time that you play with a talking teddy bear, remember that someone like Sara wrote the words it says!


Time Shift Your TV – The Political Conventions

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Political Conventions - The CandidatesThe Republican National Convention kicks off on Tuesday in Tampa. Conventions used to be where we found out who the nominee for president would be from that party. Now, of course, we already know that Mitt Romney is the candidate and that Paul Ryan is his pick for a running mate.

But that hasn’t stopped the media from racing to Tampa (even with Hurricane Isaac already interrupting plans), with ’round the clock tweeting, streaming and broadcasting planned.

So, should we care about the convention? Should kids in your family care about political conventions in general?

PBS’ Washington Week host Gwen Ifill talked a bit on her blog last week about why conventions matter. She reminded that conventions “set the stage for our quadrennial embrace of the Democracy that makes us uniquely American.” In other words, she says, they set the stage for the fall campaign and reveal each party’s official platform.

Watching the conventions can be valuable to help you make an informed decision about which person should run our country. Whether you follow conventions via morning shows, evening news, prime-time specials or through the Web or social media, there are several questions to keep in mind as it all unfolds, says Ifill. These include: “Who is this fella Romney? Why should we rehire a president when the economy is so sluggish? What are the nominees’ character traits? Are the vice presidential nominees equipped to take over the job at a moment’s notice? Do we like their wives?”

Kids can find easy-to-read, boiled down information about the process and the issues at’s Kids Pick the President page. Parents should visit our article The Importance of Teaching Democracy, which includes ideas and resources for getting kids excited about voting.

And be sure to Time Shift Your TV for two Nick News election specials – The Issues on Sept 10, and The Candidates on Oct. 15 – which are sure to shed more light on the race.