Educational Apps

Nathalie’s Picks

When we went on our March break trip to NY, the boys had a blast in the hands-on section of the Museum of Modern Art.  Of course, they very quickly gravitated towards the computers, and all three boys (aged 4, 7, and 11) spent half an hour on MOMA’s pick of the best art app: Fresh Paint by Microsoft.  The museum staff told me that they had tried out many apps for making art on both conventional and touch-screen computers, and Fresh Paint was their favourite.  The boys loved it, and would easily have spent a lot more time there, but we had to leave to meet friends.  There is a wonderful palette of colours to choose from and blend, the choice of many media, and my kids loved how they could use the paintbrush to blend and feather their paint strokes.  That MOMA had given it the thumbs up after testing what’s available just sealed the deal for me.

I will give another shout-out to the Handwriting Without Tears app for the i-pad.  It really has been effortless for my youngest to learn how to form his upper case letters with this app, and I feel so assured that he is off to a really positive start with his writing skills.  As is the case with all HWT teaching materials, the app appeals to all kinds of learners: visual, auditory, tactile and kinetic.  The narrator is really speaking to young children, though, so for older kids, it might be best to mute the sound.  It can get annoying!  The app visually prompts the correct stroke order in any case, so the auditory prompts are not necessary for learning.

My older two boys do a math enrichment class after school called Spirit of Math.  An essential part of the curriculum is drills that help students learn to do addition, subtraction, multiplication and division quickly and accurately.  Spirit of Math has an app for the i-pad that is really versatile and user-friendly.  There are multiple ways the user can key in the answers to the drills, which is so important for i-pads because location really does determine how you will hold and use the i-pad, and it may change from lap to sofa to desk!  It’s also lefty-friendly.  (None of us are lefties, but it makes me so happy when I see lefty-friendly thought go into design.  I’ve used lefty scissors, and it’s really hard to use them!  I’m glad someone’s looking out for lefties in the digital world.)  Kids can track their own progress as they get faster, and multiple users can use the same app.  The math skills cover all age ranges, so this is not one the kids will out-grow quickly.  I’m a great believer in drills to help promote speed and accuracy with math facts.  It’s just great to see the kids so confident with their arithmetic.  Since each drill takes only five minutes, it’s a quick and painless way to have a learning “ticket” to the games on the i-pad.

Last, but not least, we’d like to give a shout-out to Kidipede, a kid-friendly and safe site for children 10-14.  The site focuses on history and science.  Karen Carr, the founder of the site, wrote to 4 mothers to tell us about her project:

My students and I started the project that grew into Kidipede way back in 1995, when there was just nothing online at all about the ancient world – it was so long ago that when we wanted to be listed in a directory, I called the lady at Yahoo on the phone, and asked her to add us to the list of websites they had! That was before Google, or Wikipedia, or anything… at first, I remember, we were the only result for “Plato”.

Imagine a day when you spoke to a person from Yahoo on the phone…..

Beth-Anne’s Picks:

Big+Zoo+Fun+-+1The iPad and iPhone are great organizational tools and lots of fun to game with, but are also conduits for reading and early literacy.  I like to balance our iPad with thoughtful stories.  One story that I was recently introduced to is Big Zoo Fun

Big Zoo Fun is a new animated children’s book that is available for the iPad and iPhone.  Follow along as a family takes an exciting trip to the zoo where they encounter all sorts of animals who like to show off their special talents.

While it’s rated 4+, my 2.5 year old son has enjoyed sitting with me on the couch and reading this story over and over.  The animation is both engaging and enjoyable to watch as the zoo animals showcase their specialties.  The disappearing chameleon continues to elicit delightful squeals while the tiger’s roar is often mimicked.

After discovering this app, I contacted the creator Thadeus Rankin, and asked him how he came to create an animated book app.  While he does not have children of his own he says that he has always been inspired by the quality of work drawn or painted by a multitude of illustrators and animators.  As a child he always envisioned the movement of the characters within the stories he would read.  This admiration lead to a mission to one day continue that captivation and to pass down onto others that same level of awe and excitement that he was so fortunate to experience in his youth.

Rankin’s love for animation, childhood and storytelling is evident in his loveable story, Big Zoo Fun.

My boys are getting older and outside influences are starting to make their presence known.  There have been talks in our home about words that are not welcome.  Instead of droning on and on about how these words are “bad”, I tell the boys that these words are not only inappropriate but they are not smart.  I tell them that people use those words when they aren’t smart enough to think of a better word to describe how they are feeling.  Enter the Thesaurus Rex by  This app allows kids to find the perfect words to strengthen their personal lexicon.  Do not be obtuse!  Edify yourself and expand your intellect!

A few months ago we received an email introducing 4Mothers to the on-line interactive math game, Prodigy.  While my boys are fans of IXL, this math game does look like it would appeal to them.  After watching this pre-view video, I have book- marked the site for use over the summer to keep those math skills sharp . . . under the guise of a game that blows things up.  I am fairly certain that will earn me top marks from my boys!

Handwriting Without Tears

This past weekend, I attended a one-day Handwriting Without Tears conference in Toronto, and it has turned me from a happy customer to a cheerleader.  Carol has written before about the HWT system, and it was actually her post that got me to their website to buy the workbooks to use at home with my kids.  Many of the participants at the conference were occupational therapists, and it was startling to realize that when kids have problems with handwriting, it’s more often the OTs than the teachers who address those problems.  How can it be that handwriting has come under the purview of special ed?

In the 1970s there was a shift in educational philosophy from phonics to whole language learning.  With that shift, teachers’ colleges stopped training student teachers how to teach handwriting.  Many people of my generation (1970s) were taught handwriting because we had as teachers the last cohort who learned how to teach writing.  Today, handwriting instruction is no longer part of the curriculum for students in elementary schools.  Now, it is up to the individual teacher whether or not to include structured handwriting instruction: correct pencil grip, paper position, stroke order and uniform letter formation.  Not only is handwriting no longer on the curriculum, those who do teach it in a structured way face a stigma for being retrograde.  A friend who attended the conference with me was told explicitly by a mentor in the school board not to put the workshop on her resume when applying for teaching jobs because it is perceived as old-fashioned.

When my eldest was in Junior and Senior Kindergarten, it never occurred to me to ask if he was being taught to write.  I just assumed that daily work practicing writing letters over and over again with the correct stroke order would be part of the day, like it was for me.  He was left to copy the letters in any way he liked, which led to some very creative, and ultimately damaging, habits of stroke order.  I was assured that his writing would improve with age, and that the irregularities would sort themselves out.  They didn’t.  When it came time to learn cursive letters, the kids were given instruction for only four weeks, then they were left to decide for themselves whether to print or write in cursive.  Without a requirement, my son reverted to his slow and unevenly-formed print.  The facilitator at the conference gave me a lot of peace of mind about helping my son to re-train his hand.  She compared the bad habits to when you move the garbage can in the kitchen and you keep tossing things to the place that the garbage used to be.  It’s a simple matter of regular reinforcement of the new, and will take only 15 minutes a day of work over two or three months to correct.  By the end of the school year, we can correct and improve both his printing and his cursive.

My middle son, luckily, has had teachers who do include handwriting instruction.  We have been doing sporadic work at home in the workbooks, in part because I am not so worried about filling in the gaps, but his writing is not terribly neat, either.  After the workshop, I am persuaded that daily reinforcement at home this year with pay off enormously in the years to come.

My four-year-old son loves the HWT i-pad app, and it has actually become the ticket to any and all use of that screen.  He will pick it up and say, “Can I do five letters today, Mum, to get screen time?”  If it’s a week day, when we do not have t.v. or other play screen time, he will happily do the letters anyway, and I could not be happier with how seamlessly this learning fits into our lives.  At four, he already knows the stroke order for all the capital letters, and that learning has been effortless and fun.  He had his first go today on the chalk board (see Carol’s post for details about the chalk board), and I was so impressed by how neat his letters are already.

As far as I can tell, most private schools in Toronto use the HWT books in their elementary schools.  Our neighbourhood tutoring school also uses the books, but it costs $35 an hour to have handwriting instruction there, and I balked at paying that much for something that I can do almost effortlessly at home.  (I say almost, because it does require a lot of discipline to get those books out every day.)

The system

HWT was founded by Jan Olsen, an occupational therapist whose son had difficulty with his handwriting in Grade 1.  She went into his classroom for 15 minutes each morning, gave him, and eventually several of his struggling classmates, direct instruction, and the company has taken off from there.

The HWT materials begin with preschool and end with Grade 5.  The student workbooks do not have the grade level on them, so as not to discourage students who are developmentally behind their age group.  Students begin with manipulatives (wooden shapes out of which to form the letters), progress to writing upper case in JK, lower case in SK, and cursive by the end of Grade 2.   All the books have a double-lined guide for letter formation, and the lines get gradually narrower as the fine motor skills develop.  All of the books also include grammar instruction, so students learn grammar rules as they learn handwriting.

The HWT systems begins by teaching all the capital letters first.  This is because a person can be functionally literate with capitals alone.  If a child can master all the capital letters, most of which are easier to write than the lower case letters, he or she can be a functional writer for all classroom writing.   This helps with fluency for all writing activities in the class, no matter what the grade.  The strokes for capital letters are easier for small hands, and in some cases, the capital letters are shaped the same as lowercase letters, so the child already has a head start with the lower case alphabet.  Letters are not taught in alphabetical order, but are grouped so that children learn all similarly-written letters together (E, F, L, D, P) reinforcing correct stroke order and beginning position.

The system is designed to appeal to all kinds of learners: visual, aural, tactile and kinesthetic.  By teaching the letters in non-alphabetical order, the system also pre-empts common problems with letter reversals.  Lower case d, which appears much more often than the letter b in English, is taught early, and the letter is reinforced for a long time before the letter b is introduced.  The workbooks are all designed to be equally friendly to left- and right-handed students.  Best of all, I have found the materials to be very reasonably priced.  And the website offers all kinds of free materials.  What’s more, facilitators will come to your child’s school to do a “lunch and learn” or a seminar for teachers who are interested in incorporating the system into their classroom instruction.  If you want to see handwriting re-introduced into the classroom (where it should be!), talk to your child’s teacher or principal about getting a representative to your school.

Until then, and as a supplement to what the kids do in school, this is an efficient and fun way to ensure writing success.

Handwriting Without Tears: An Easy Writing Practice for Kids

My oldest son just turned six and doesn’t read (on his own) or write with much enthusiasm yet.  I’m not worried.  He has taken his time meeting many milestones, but when he’s ready, the milestone is met easily and willingly achieved and any space in development amongst his peers is quickly closed.  As a big believer in life learning and letting kids learn on their own internal schedule, I haven’t pushed my son’s literacy.

And yet… I noticed while volunteering at school that he was careful about writing letters, and saw how frustrated he became when his teacher suggested a change to his way of making a letter, and in trying to implement the change, he wrote the letter incorrectly.  I realized that I was seeing interest in writing, and probably confusion over how to do it.  Knowing that, and motivated to make my son as comfortable and confident as he can be in grade 1 this fall, I thought maybe doing a bit of formal writing practice at home might work well for us.

I had come across Handwriting Without Tears awhile back and took note of it.  I revisited their site, watched a couple of videos, looked up reviews on natural parenting websites (like Mothering), and then took the bait.  HWT is an empire, and you could buy lots of stuff and go to lots of seminars – I’m actually interested and would enjoy attending one, but it doesn’t get close enough on the priority list to make it happen.  So I settled for buying a few simple and affordable supplies:  a couple of rectangular chalkboards ($5) and a couple of early printing books ($7.75).

The simple chalkboards (about 4″ x 6″) are the focal point.  My boys (6 and 4) each have their own, and take to their respective writing easily, due in large part to the pleasure of the little boards (also used, of course, for drawing, plus my husband wrote a message on one for me today before leaving for work).  We follow the method I watched in one of their videos:  first we write the letter in chalk on the board, then take a little wet sponge to erase the letter, and finish with a dry sponge over the same letter to dry it off.  The idea is that the child is going through the motions of writing each letter three times, and the child is stimulated in three different tactile and sensory ways while writing.

With HWT, the child writes letters not in alphabetical order, but in groups according to similar writing patterns.  For example, the first group of letters include F, E, D, and P, because all of these start in the top left corner of the board and draw a big line downward, and then require a “frog jump” back to the top left corner to complete the letter.  Similarly, C, S, O and T are grouped together because these letters start at the top centre of the board.

It’s a system that is straightforward and accessible to children.  In simplifying the writing process, success is quick and the writer gains confidence quickly – I’ve been really happy with my HWT purchases.  If the boys had resisted the writing practice, which is the only formal kind of “learning” I’ve tried at home, I’d have dropped it.  But they haven’t.  Our routine is light:  10 or 15 minutes, and so far we just work on a letter a day as I really want our writing practice to be stress-free.  The boards are fun to use.  Most wonderfully, my 6 year old knows that when he sits down to write, he is going to be able to do it.

HWT also has wooden letter sets, made up of sticks and semi-circles of different sizes to shape letters together.  They’re a bit pricey at $32.50, so I made my own with an exacto knife and very thick cardboard.  My almost four year old, for whom writing the letters is obviously quite a bit harder, really liked these.  I don’t love our cardboard pieces – maybe they’ll look better if we paint them.  The boys don’t seem to care, and made letters with them (and used the semi-circles for beards and mustaches in pretend play for a good while).  As I have another little boy who would use those wooden pieces, I might end up shelling out for them.

And it’s not just me who likes HWT.  A friend came by and inquired about our chalkboards.  I told her about them, and she went home, found the site on her own and bought some.  Then she gave me a glowing thank you saying that the boards are working beautifully with her four-year old daughter, who is now taking much pride in her writing.  HWT has been a pleasurable way for both of us incorporate more writing into our children’s lives.

Finally, just to be clear, I’m writing this review without any prompting or perks from HWT.  However, if someone from HWT reads this and feels like saying thank you, I really do like your wooden letter sets.

Do you have any writing practices, formal or informal, that work for your kids and that you could share?  I’d love to hear.