Written on June 12, 2013 at 2:43 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
Father’s Day is coming up fast. I have a gift all wrapped for the Dad in my life. But my teenagers prefer to leave all such matters to the very last minute. At that last minute, they will also be very short on cash. I’m not planning to take them to the mall, hand them money, and handle this for them. But I do plan to have some inexpensive or free last-minute ideas at the ready when they come to me desperate for something they can wrap and hand to Dad.
Microsoft Office 2013
I gave my two students a subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium ($99 a year) to share because I want them to do well in school. I rely on OneNote (included in that subscription) to take notes and keep track of research projects. It’s a great student tool. And this latest version of Office also comes with Word, Publisher, Excel, online storage for their files, and a million other useful student tools. That subscription is good for five computers, though, so they could easily gift one to Dad so he can work smarter, too. That won’t cost my teens a thing.
A Better Digital Card from Paperless Post
Dad starts every day with a cup of coffee and the news and his email delivered to his iPad. So the kids can start his day right — even before they even crawl out of bed — by sending him one of these wonderful cards from Paperless Post. Not cartoonish or smarmy, these cards are all class. And they simulate the experience of opening a paper card right on a digital device. So Dad can get a created-by-the-kids card without the angst associated with what to do with it – Keep forever? Throw away? — once he’s opened it. Many are free. Some cost a few PaperlessPost.com coins. Packages start at $5 for 25 coins.
A Good Audio Book for his Commute
Whether Dad commutes by foot, train, bus or car, listening to a good book while he does so will transform the time he spends getting to and fro from wasted to “me” time. My teens can’t afford to buy Dad a three month subscription to Audible.com ($45.) But – with a last-minute chore list and some help from me — they can scrape together $20 for a good book on Amazon that will play on an the Audible app on Dad’s phone. When my kids ask me for a suggestion, I’ll recommend any of the rather dark hard-boiled mysteries by Adrian McKinty narrated by Gerard Doyle. Or perhaps the wonderfully narrated by Colin Firth version of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Either will have Dad happily setting off for work…and perhaps walking a bit further to enjoy another chapter.
Written on June 5, 2013 at 12:35 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
Did you see the tech gift guide I wrote with my husband, Dan Tynan, in the June issue? (It’s not online yet.) There are lots of great tech gifts in it. But that story contains only a fraction of the cool gear we wanted to include. Here are some more ideas.
Nokia Lumia 521 Windows Phone
Is your grad old enough to take over his own cell phone plan? Sweet! Get him started right with this slick, capable, social connector Windows phone. Not only will it keep all his people glance-close on the start screen but he will be thrilled with its tight ties to his Xbox. And once he’s hooked on having it always with him, it will help him with his studies: Microsoft Office? And the best student tool I know of: OneNote. All right there in his pocket. That’s how to stay on top of school work. The low price and a no-commitment, no-contract plan from T-Mobile will help him handle his own fiscal autonomy, too.$129, Walmart
Ventev Colorful Chargesync Cables
I couldn’t persuade Dan or my editor that these cables would be well-received as a gift. But I love the idea of a pretty color-coded bouquet of chargers that solve – at a glance – the need to plug in all my devices and get them working again. Choose different colors for each of her gadgets, tie them up with a ribbon, and she will thank you every time she plugs in her favorite device.
Dad? Grad? Who doesn’t want one of these? I find the full-size iPad a bit big to cart around. But this little one fits easily into a purse, backpack, or hand. But it opens the door to quick bill paying, going to school via iTunes U, games, social media and the 300,000 apps in the Apple App Store.
$179 with a plan, Target.com
If your grad could use a little help keeping up with life or the demands of college, this phone will have his back. News? Directions? Help keeping track of his schedule? Yep. And in ways you never thought possible. Example: It will watch his schedule and start making suggestion when it’s time to get going. And it will amaze him with all the cool new technology it sports – such as the ability to watch his eyes to see if he’s still reading before powering down the screen. It will handle the minutia of life so your little genius can focus on decoding the genome – or whatever his passion happens to be. And you can pick one up at Target Mobile so it’s easy for you, too.
Is Dad trying to take better care of himself? Encourage that by giving him this stylish wristband that tracks steps, connects him to a community of other UP users for encouragement, and watches how well he’s sleeping so he can be happy, healthy, and hip. Comes in a great choice of colors (so you might want one yourself). He won’t lose it because it never has to take it off – not even to shower. And syncing it to his smart phone or tablet, is as easy as plugging in a pair of headsets. So it won’t add to his frustration. (Don’t tell him but this is what I’m getting Dan.)
Written on May 29, 2013 at 1:51 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
My son and all his friends are looking for summer jobs. And since all the job applications – for Target, Starbucks, and fast food places – are online, I’m sure a lot of pre-screening of applicants happens on Google.
From a teenager’s point of view (as far as I can tell) the online job application is the greatest thing since sliced bread. No getting dressed, driving around town, acting like a dork, filling out paper applications, and being polite to strangers. Job hunting can be done at any time of day and in any outfit. And when Mom and Dad ask if you are looking for a job, you can say, “I just applied at Target today.” (Even if you are still in your pajamas and have no intention of leaving the house.)
Even if teens don’t have to put on a suit and shoes and fix their own actual hair, though, they do have to do it virtually. Even if your teen is an honor student who has managed to get through high school (so far) without photos of beer guzzling or other youthful mistakes posted online, he probably has not thought to create an online snapshot of the things that makes him awesome. And having no online reputation can be almost as bad as having an embarrassing one – especially if there is someone out there with a similar name who pops up in a search.
Take a second to Google your teen. What comes up? Silly commentary on Twitter? Embarrassing photos? A YouTube video from fourth grade? Someone else? Yep. So it’s probably time to start creating an online presence that portrays the best parts of your teen’s life — that kid you know someone will want to hire, accept into college, or – yes, even – date.
This is often fairly easy to do. Post some pictures, links, or commentary of her accomplishments – that garden she’s proud of, the soccer game she’s looking forward to, the science project that won an award — to Twitter. Create an About.me page that highlights AP classes, interests, accomplishments, work experience, artwork, goals, dreams, and aspirations. When people Google her, they need to find something — preferably something accurate and flattering.
If the results you turn up are more than you can fix with a little positive boasting, you might want some help. In fact, everyone – not just your teen — could use a little help maintaining and monitoring their online reputation.
In the past, getting help with this from companies like Reputation.com or ReputationChanger.com was prohibitively expensive for this sort of situation. But a new site, BrandYourself.com, founded by a pair of college students who found themselves in need of reputation management services but unable to afford it, has stepped in to help. The basic service is free; premium services are $10 a month.
The site got started when co-founder Pete Kistler couldn’t get an internship because he was being mistaken – on Google — for a convicted drug dealer with the same name. He sought help and was quoted $8,000/mo. by reputation management firms. This was more than he could pay. But he and his friend Patrick Ambron, CEO and co-founder, saw this as an opportunity. If Pete was in this situation, other people must be, too. So, in 2009, the pair got to work creating a service that anyone could afford. Today universities like John’s Hopkins and Syracuse University purchase BrandYourself’s premium product ($10/mo.) for students and alumni.
This site helps you control what turns up when someone searches on your name by asking you to input the sites you would like to showcase. And it allows you to create a profile page that is optimized to turn up on the first page of a Google search.
I may not be coaching my son on what to wear to apply for jobs but I am sitting down with him and going over his online reputation. And it helps to have not only a tool he can use to take care of this but Kisler’s tale of reputation woe – instead of my son’s mistakes, which only makes him defensive – to illustrate why this is important.
Written on May 22, 2013 at 5:56 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
I was in a flurry of preparation for a trip to Europe. I had a million things to do. And I was worrying about leaving my 14-year-old daughter Ava home alone for a night while I was gone. (My husband and son had college-tour plans while I was away.) Ava assured me she was excited about getting some “alone time.” But she’s my baby. I was fretting.
In the midst of this, I took a call from some folks at Vivint, a home security company. They wanted me to try their home monitoring system because it was – they said — like some of the “future” technologies I’d covered in “Your Future Home.” It would tell me when my kids got home and let me see who was with them.
If I hadn’t been right in the middle of fretting, I might simply have said, “No thanks! I have to pack.” But as they explained how great it was for keeping an eye on a house when you aren’t in it, I started to imagine my trip with the option to also be a fly on the wall back home.
So I agreed. A few days later, a bright orange truck pulled into my driveway and a team of friendly installers busied themselves setting up a control panel, door locks, cameras, window sensors, and smoke alarms. (Component prices vary; monitoring starts at $50 a month.)
When they left, the only thing that was really noticeable was a touch-screen panel on the wall in the kitchen and the fancy new locks. We threw out our now-obsolete door keys and learned our new access codes. Bonus: I don’t have to worry (not that it had occurred to me yet) that one of my kids will lock themselves out when I’m too far away to help. We each get our own code to lock and unlock the doors. And I can issue a new code right from my phone if I want to let someone – repair person, house guest — in.
I showed my daughter how she could simply push a panic button on the wall panel. “So if there’s a fire or Zombie Apocalypse,” I told her. “Or you cut yourself and need medical attention, push that button and tell the person who comes on the intercom what’s wrong.”
Next I grabbed my laptop and went to the system’s online dashboard. I can lock and unlock doors, arm the security system, and view the video feed from my computer, phone, or tablet no matter where I am – as long as I have an internet connection. I told it I want to be alerted whenever anyone unlocks the door and anytime the fire alarm is triggered. When someone unlocks the door, it also grabs a short video so I can see who it is and if they are alone.
“Hah! I told the dog. “No parties for these teens when I’m away.”
I experienced an odd mix of despotism and maternal affection. But my fretting was gone. Now all I had to do to check on the kids was pick up my phone. That quickly became reflexive. If I miss them, I have a quick look home.
A few days into my trip, I got an alert that the fire alarm had triggered and the alarm system — unable to get a response — had sent the fire department. I looked in on the family room and all seemed well. But I called anyway.
“I was cooking.” My husband admitted. “And I didn’t answered my phone because it was set to silent.” An embarrassing false alarm. Now the fire department knows how reckless a cook he is. But it got me thinking about how inadequate our old fire alarms had been. If there was a fire when no one was home, their annoying chirping wouldn’t have done any good.
On the night my daughter was home alone, I looked in on the house whenever I had a Wi-Fi connection. I mostly I saw empty rooms because the cameras are trained only on high-traffic areas and she was in her room. I frowned at the dog, though, who was making himself quite comfortable on the couch when he thought no one was looking. But at least if the dog was sleeping, all was well.
As I was about to board a plane, I took one last look. And there was Ava, eating pizza, cranking up the music, and — could it be true? — doing homework. She was clearly enjoying her alone time – even while getting some work done.
I decided I should do the same.
I noticed, though, that she had left the front door unlocked. So — maternal fly on the wall that I now am — I clicked a button on the Web portal and locked it. Then it was easy to turn off my phone and enjoy my flight.
Written on May 15, 2013 at 4:17 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
As summer gets closer– at least the part where the kids aren’t in school – my panic gets more intense. My two teens are looking forward to having “nothing” to do. And I feel for them. It’s been a long year of math, enforced reading, homework, and high-stakes tests.
But what about me?
I don’t want to spend my summer chasing kids away from screens and worrying that they are rapidly forgetting all the math and science they worked so hard to cram into their brains. I am picturing the wet blanket I am about to become — tossing around pat phrases like, “Turn that thing off and go outside!” “Why don’t you read a book instead 144 texts that all say LOL?” — and I don’t like the image.
So I’m hatching a series of anti-wasted-summer schemes. Here are a few I’m considering.
Apple Camp is a free three-day session held at the Apple Store. If they are set on sitting in front of computers, at least they could learn some STEM skills and meet some other kids, right? These camps are for kids ages 8–12, though, so mine are too old. But maybe yours would like to work with Apple Store employees to shoot footage, create an original song in GarageBand on an iPad, and learn the ins and outs of iMovie to put it all together in a film on a Mac. At the end of the three days there is an Apple Camp Film Festival where campers debut their masterpieces. Move fast though. These are free and fill up fast. In fact, why not sign up to be notified when registration opens here. Registration opens in June and camp sessions will be held in July and August.
A Tablet Loaded with Learning
I know I will cave in to my teenagers relentless badgering for screen time eventually. So I’m grabbing a tablet and installing the YouTube app on the front page. It’s the first thing they they tap when they look at that screen. But I will subscribe to Steve Spangler Science, (see video above) MinutePhysics, and few other smart channels that specializing in entertaining learning from EDU YouTube. That way, at least some of the time they spend in front of a screen will make them smarter.
Let the Machine do the Nagging
Computers excel at marking time. Teens? Not so much. So I plan to offload some of the pestering to the machines. That way, when two hours – or whatever my kids and I have negotiated – is up, the computer will do the nagging and enforcing. I don’t have to use any of my classic wet-rag phrases or deal with the inevitable argument that follows. So, today, while the kids were at school doing their high-stakes testing, I installed the free Norton Family on all our laptops. Now, I can log on from any computer, tablet, or smart phone I have and set a limit on how long that laptop will let my kids stare at the Internet. If I’m worried about what they are up to online, I can also use it to monitor and block specific sites or categories.
Take Control of the Internet
I also use Linksys Smart Wi-Fi app on my phone to control when they can go online and what sites they visit – at least if they do it through my wireless router. Controlling access this way requires a bit more set up and the right router but it’s a great way to set a bedtime – or a designated outside time. And it gives me so much power! When I say, “Shut that thing off and go outside!” and receive, for my trouble, an argument or whining, I just pull my smart phone out of my pocket and kill the machine – or at least everything that’s interesting on that machine – with a couple of taps. And, just like that, everyone is doing what Mom wants — even if that means going outside to “do nothing” – just to I’ll turn it back on.
Written on May 8, 2013 at 5:44 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
Mother’s Day is coming at us fast. And that means your kids will be buying or making presents for you! That’s wonderful. We all love to get handmade cards or flowers stolen from our own garden. But according to an annual TechBargains.com survey, 73% of mothers would prefer an iPad to flowers. I am squarely in that 73%. But more interesting (since it’s pretty common knowledge that I’m a geek) is that my mother is, too. And she is …well…quite a bit older than I am and not a geek at all. (Telling you her age would only get me into trouble.)
I recently gave her a Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 ($179) and it brought with it a surprising side-benefit: It brought us a smidgen closer together. She is having a blast discovering things she likes (Audible, Skype, sending photos to Facebook, NextIssue for magazines, Netflix.com, financial apps, etc.), some of which I installed before giving her the tablet. She likes to go home and explore where no one is watching. And when she’s ready, she comes back for more advice on apps and resources she might like.
Before the tablet, she would come by on a Sunday “for a chat.” It was good to see her but uncomfortable because I didn’t really have time to sit around talking about nothing. Now she brings her tablet, pulls me onto the couch and shares things she has discovered (she is not too old for LOL cat videos) and I share things I like. And it turns out, I have plenty of time to enjoy a good laugh with her. She recently pulled my daughter into one of these laugh fests and the three of us crammed together on the couch to look at silly videos on Grandma’s tablet. My daughter won – hands-down – when it came to knowing where all the wet-your-pants-funny videos were. So we had a pretty good, multi-generational time gathered around a touchscreen.
My point? Maybe asking the kids to help you – even if only with advice or moral support — you get into a tablet or a smart phone wouldn’t be a totally selfish act this Mother’s Day. In fact, maybe all they really need is to know you would like it – and want their advice on what to get. (Though you might want to go armed with some of my advice, too. Teenagers tend to want what other teenagers want. So unless you are a teenager….) Who knows? The tech might turn out to be a good way for you all to connect. (And will certainly make it easier for you to supervise them.)
And don’t underestimate your own mother. Maybe what she really wants is to not be treated like a lost relic of an earlier age.
I wouldn’t take that “iPad” ($499) response in that survey too literally, though. I’m sure you — or your Mom — would be thrilled to get the Galaxy Tab I gave my mother or — even better — a Garnet Red Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 ($219), an engraved iPad Mini ($329), or the ($199) Kobo Arc, an Android Tablet and eReader with an engaging Pinterest-like interface.
You might also like many of the tech goodies I covered (with my husband Dan) in the Dads and Grads Gift Guide in the June issue of Family Circle. In particular, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is a great tool to help busy moms — or grandparents who can’t be bothered to own a computer — stay connected and organized. The screen is big (like a pocket tablet) and the built-in pen allows for some old-school-but-digital note taking (with pen and screen) and photo marking.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Written on May 1, 2013 at 5:05 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
I recently took my daughter Ava and her friend on a mini-vacation to Colonial Williamsburg. Ever a multi-tasker, I asked them to help me try out some tracking tools while we were there. I wanted to let them run free in this safe environment. But I also wanted to keep an eye on them. So I managed to convince them they were helping me with my work. It was a clever ploy. And it worked well. Here are the tools I used.
Tracking the Cell Phone
I already use my cell carrier’s family tracking service ($10 a month for both kids). (Your carrier very likely offers something similar.) If I don’t know where she is, I only have to pull up an app on my smart phone, tap her name, and wait a minute and the app will show me approximately where she is (or at least where her phone is, which is never far from her) right now. It won’t tell me that she is sulking in her bedroom only that she is in or near our house.
But she had a friend in tow, a lovely innocent girl that I wanted to be no part of losing while we were so far from home. So I had brought an eZoom tracking device ($99 plus service plan) from SecurUs to try out. (The company makes a suite of tracking devices for pets, elders, and – this one – for kids and teens.) I came clean and said to my daughter, “I can already find you if I need to, so let’s get M. (her friend) to carry this. That way I can try it out and if she happens to get lost, we can find her.” The girls were both surprisingly easy to talk into this. They apparently wanted their freedom. But they also wanted to know I had their back.
“You are free to go,” I told them after we arrived and had eaten dinner together. They looked at each other, amazed at the unbridled freedom of a hotel stay, and left before I could change my mind.
A few minutes later I got a text from the eZoom telling me they were traveling at 1.5 miles per hour and offering me a very accurate address for their location – right outside our restaurant. “Wow,” I said to my husband. “I think they are running!” This was good news. Our daughter had recently developed an aversion to activities that get her heart rate up. Sure enough, they ran past the window a few seconds later.
We didn’t hear from them for a while after that. But I could see (with a glance at my phone) that they weren’t far away and were staying well within the safe and historic Revolutionary City area.
After we finished our meal, we went for a walk and back to our room. And then my phone rang. It was Ava and she was scared. “We are lost!” she screeched, completely losing her cool. “Can you look up where we are and tell us?
This took me only a minute. “You are on Ireland St. The hotel is on England Street. It isn’t far.” I gave her directions and she calmed down.
I saw this moment where she wanted to know where I was as an opportunity. I like the Glympse tracking app. It’s free, works on most smart phones, and only lets people know where you are for limited amounts of time. It’s great if you are walking or driving and want someone to keep tabs on you till you get home safely. I’d like it if she would use it but she has – so far – been unwilling, insisting I’m “stalking” her. (Isn’t that also called mothering?) I sent her a “Glympse” from the app so she could see where I was in relation to her. She used it to guide her and her friend to me. I’m hoping — now that she has tried it — she will be more willing next time I ask her to “Send me a Glympse.” before she walks somewhere.
The next day, my husband and I left the teens sleeping in the room and went out for coffee. I sent them both a text saying that they could find us simply by installing the free FourSquare app and accepting my invite. I would check in when we found a good place for breakfast and that way they would know where we were – and what was on the menu.
FourSquare is a location-aware app/game that makes it fun to find your friends in the real world. Whenever you check in, it updates your FourSquare friends on your location, shows tips previous visitors have left, and provides details about the establishment (menus etc,). Some merchants offer discounts to players who check in at their store or restaurant. (It doesn’t track where you are if you don’t check in.) It can be very dangerous if you overshare your location and accept friend invites from strangers, or if you constantly post your location to Facebook or other social networks where you may have no privacy or “friends” you don’t know well. So you may be wondering why I was encouraging my daughter to use it.
Here’s why: My daughter is a social girl who likes Facebook. I wanted to talk to her about location-aware social media. I find she listens to me better if I know what I’m talking about. And since I already use FourSquare — it’s fun! – I thought I’d pull her into my network so I could play the game with her and explain the safety rules while I was at it.
When the girls found us in the restaurant, they pointed out that there were some “specials.” (Using the app to check in also nets you deals in the form of “specials.”) So I made them listen to a few rules, we discussed what might go wrong if someone untrusted or creepy could locate you through the app, and how you would avoid “oversharing.” A smart pair, they were clear on the dangers and how to avoid them before our food arrived.
I don’t track my kids very often and I always tell them I’m doing it. But I do like knowing that if she gets in a car (eZoom will text me if my daughter is suddenly traveling faster than she can walk), I will know about it immediately. I also like to – when my Spidey Sense tells me something is wrong – check that my son – who is driving — is actually where he says he is. So far, though they accuse me of stalking, they don’t really seem to mind. I think they like feeling safe and watched over even when I’m nowhere in sight.
Written on May 1, 2013 at 2:47 pm , by Family Circle
On this National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, guest blogger Michelle Edelman shares the surprisingly early sex talk she had to have with her 3rd-grader and where other moms can get help finding the right words to say.
I remember learning about sex from a Judy Blume novel that was covertly passed around my class in the corner of the public library. Later that year, my 6th grade teacher Mrs. Briggin sat us all in a circle and gave us a very matter-of-fact, anatomical explanation of sex. One of my classmates was so overcome with emotion during the discussion that she stabbed my leg with her #2 pencil. I then became secretly worried that I would die of lead poisoning and missed a good bit of what Mrs. Briggin said after that point!
Chances are you first learned about sex in some shrouded, fragmented way too. You probably also found yourself unprepared for the inevitable social situations at the intersection of Hormone Street and Sheer Panic Avenue. It’s likely the little threads of facts about “what goes where” left you woefully inadequate when it came to the real issues: Are you ready for this emotionally and physically? Are you prepared to take care of yourself? Do you even know this person? What do you expect to get out of this experience?
Now is a scary time to be raising tweens and teens. I have two daughters, ages 11 and 15. The pressure to be sexualized at a young age is everywhere. It has always been present in music and pop culture influences. But now with mobile phones and other digital devices, these influences are constant. Forbes Magazine reported that the average age a kid first sees a porn image is 11. “Sex” and “porn” are the #4 and #6 most popular searches on Google performed by kids. But they’ll see all sorts of images anyway, as they are preparing book reports or looking for Club Penguin because the images are so prevalent across the Internet.
When my youngest was 9, she asked me to buy her a book from the American Girl Company called The Care and Keeping of You. I heard “American Girl” and blindly ordered this book on Amazon. This is a company I respect. They taught our kids bits of history through the eyes of fictional girls with integrity and great values. So I didn’t think twice. Until our daughter announced that she thought her “hormonies” were not working. It was then I found out that she was reading a full-on manual about teen bodies, complete with drawings!
This was only a surprise because I had not prepared myself for my then-3rd grader to be so ready to have frank talks about her body and sex. But I’ve come to realize that healthy sexuality—especially the decision-making around intimacy—starts with healthy conversations at our homes. It will never be comfortable for people who are parents right now to relate to the world of our “digital native” kids. Fortunately there are tools out there that will help us facilitate conversation. It’s National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, and the folks at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy have decided to bail us parents out. Check out this quiz for your teen.
These questions get to the heart of the matter for kids. No matter how much “fact” our children accumulate, nothing can take the place of open conversation about what might happen when those facts are put to the test by peer pressure and the random chaos that is created by kids and technology.
You might not be in control of what and when your kids learn about the facts of the sexual experience, but you can provide an open environment where it’s OK to share and talk about the pressures of being a teen. And those discussions can make all the difference.
How did you first learn about sex? And what have you passed on to your kids? Post a comment below and tell us!
Michelle Edelman is the CEO and Director of Strategy of NYCA, a San Diego-based advertising agency.
Written on April 24, 2013 at 11:40 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
When my son Cole (16) was in the fifth grade, he told me, “History is stupid. Every year I memorize the same dates. I got it already! Can we move on?”
“No!” I cried. “History is the greatest story ever told!”
He laughed, his pity evident. “Is not,” He insisted.
“It’s not the history that’s stupid,” I explained. “It’s the way it’s being taught.”
He dared me to prove it.
“It’s on!” I said. And I made it my mission to do just that.
Today, I am happy to report, he is a self-proclaimed history buff. His Advanced Placement (AP) American history teacher recently told me that he is one of her best students. He loves history. And so does his sister.
Nothing changed in either of their schools – until he got to AP classes. But that dare changed a lot of things outside of school. We play games, watch movies, discuss books, and take vacations whenever possible that uncover the rich details and fascinating stories of human history.
Because of this, I love Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. This immersive history experience built on the site of the original Revolutionary era town is like a history amusement park. Using artifacts and interpreters in period clothing, it lets you step inside the story of the American Revolution and see and touch it. We have been several times since my son’s fifth grade dare.
So when its PR department asked if I’d like to try Colonial Williamsburg’s immersive, text-based game – RevQuest: Save the Reolution! - designed to engage kids (it was designed for kids 7-14 but I think it works for much older kids, too) in the Colonial Williamsburg experience, I quickly said yes.
As soon as I told my daughter Ava (14) she would need her cell phone and texting skills to solve a mystery set in Williamsburg, she was in. But Cole refused to come, insisting he was too old – and much too knowledgeable about American history – for such childish amusements. So my daughter enlisted friend and we went without him.
RevQuest: Save the Revolution! is an interactive alternative reality game that asks players to solve a historical mystery based on clues given out at the outset by finding clues embedded in the town, exhibits, and museums – some of which involved interviewing or bribing (with play money) the actors who play townspeople, and by texting clues to get more leads.
When we arrived, we picked up our tickets, (the packet to play the game is part of the standard entry ticket), registered our phones, and got down to business. We had to decipher a puzzle in our “Order Papers,” to meet with our handler, the agent who would explain our mission. He warned the kids it would be dangerous, that he needed agents who would not quit, and that they were risking their lives.
Awesome! My two teenage spies pretended to be too cool for this. But they were quickly trying to figure out who was a spy and who could be trusted. The search for clues took them through many of the exhibits and exposed them to a lot of history.
A technical glitch with our cell phones left me and my husband unable to text in clues. (Don’t register your phone the day before you play, as we did. The game resets every day.) So the girls were on their own. They went off to foment revolution while we toured the historical homes, investigated historical apothecaries, shoe makers, and milliners, and generally geeked out on the history, all of which was awesome.
While we were exploring, we – strangely since we were a long way from home – ran into a good friend of Cole’s from school. She was, apparently not too old for a family vacation, since was touring the Revolutionary City with her family. When we explained the game we were playing, they eagerly went off to get their own tickets.
Shortly after that, we ran into our teenage spies, seeming a little lost, in front of Chalmers Pub , which dates back to Revolutionary times. So we all sat down together for a meal. While we were eating, a man dressed in historical garb stopped by our table to say hello and ask where we were from. We told him. And he made an historical joke that my husband and I laughed at. Chuckling, he went away. And I was left to explain to the puzzled teens what was so funny. (It had to do with taxation in the 1700s. You try to get a teenager to listen to that sort of thing! But they were rapt and happy to be able to get the joke. I love this place!)
The girls shared the clue they couldn’t solve and we helped them decipher it, setting them back on track. Having proved ourselves useful members of the resistance, we were invited to help them see it to the end.
And the ending was as satisfying as the game itself. The mystery we solved was a true historical one with many questions unanswered to this day. It was the story of a slave who had changed the outcome of the war by acting as a double agent. Fascinating. As a reward, we were given a gold coin that gained us access to a further mystery that led us to the local art museum and took us to a Web site with more detailed history on our spy.
The episode of the game we played – RevQuest: The Lion and Unicorn – is no longer running. But a new episode debuts in June. It is called RevQuest: The Black Chambers. It, too, will follow a historical storyline, require texting, and ask players to engage with the exhibits and interpreters to identify secret foes to liberty. But the question of whose liberty – American or British – you are protecting isn’t revealed until you are well into the game. This, in itself, helps you get into the mood of the times. The question of where people’s loyalties lay – often even your own – was often a unclear during this Revolution.
By the time we got home, my son had heard all about the game from his friend and clearly wished he’d come with us.
“That’s okay,” I told him. “You can bring a friend when we go play the next episode.”
“Thanks!” He said. And he hugged me.
“Sure.” I said.
I think, when it comes to convincing my kids that history is cool, my work is done.
Written on April 18, 2013 at 6:48 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
It’s the time of year when I start fretting about what I am going to do with my teenagers all summer. If I leave it to them, they will waste hours, days, even weeks watching TV and playing video games. When they were younger, I sent them to camp. But most camps are geared toward younger kids. My daughter Ava (14) is too young to get a job yet most of the camps she once liked are no longer open to her. Fortunately, I saw an opportunity in something she said recently.
“I want to work at Tumblr!” She announced, referring to the company behind the hip blogging tool she adores. Previously she had declared her future would be spent at Google. Or Microsoft. It isn’t the job or company that appeals to her. She isn’t ready to commit to either of those yet. It’s the culture. “I want to work somewhere where everyone is six years old at heart!” She explained. She saw a photo online of Tumblr’s dog and game-friendly offices. I told her of an office I’d seen on a tour of the Googleplex (Google’s Silicon Valley campus) that reminded me of her room because of the stuffed toys strewn everywhere. And she’s heard tell of the Microsoft Seattle Campus, and other cool work/play environments. It looked to her as if, with the right job, she would never have to grow up.
It’s an awesome dream. If your job is also play, you’ll never work a day in your life. I know she will need some serious STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills to work at these places. In fact, increasingly it looks as if she will need those skills to get work anyplace. So even if this dream evaporates like many of her previous childish aspirations (princess, jaguar, international spy), I still want her to have those skills.
Numbers that make me want my daughter to gets STEM skills:
- The U.S. this year will create some 120,000 new jobs requiring at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science. But all of America’s colleges and universities put together will produce only 40,000 new bachelor’s degrees in computer science. (Source: National Talent Strategy whitepaper)
- In 2011, only 21,139 of 16 million students across the United States took the Computer Science AP test – or 0.13% of all AP tests taken that year. (Source: Computer Science Education Week)
- Among the students who took the exam, only 19 percent were female. This is the lowest percentage of any of the AP exams. In comparison, 47 percent of the Calculus test takers were female. (Source: Computer Science Education Week)
- 5 of the top 10 fastest growing jobs will be in a computer related field and 2 of the top 3 bachelors’ salaries are in computer science and engineering. (Source: Computer Science Education Week)
I like those odds for her – if she has strong STEM skills. So I’m always on the lookout for ways to encourage, coax, wheedle, tempt, and manipulate her into getting excited about these subjects, especially since these are often thought of a “boy” or “geek” topics. So when Microsoft called and asked if I would help get word out on its DigiGirlz high-tech summer camp for girls I thought, “Perfect!”
I sat down with Ava to peruse the Web site and ask her “professional” opinion about whether the camp looked like a fun thing for girls her age.
DigiGirlz High Tech Camp offer hands-on workshops that teach high-school girls to build websites, develop video games, edit digital video, create podcasts, and more. The sessions are taught by women who work on cutting-edge tech at Microsoft so, along with some mad STEM skills, Ava could pick up a mentor and role model who might remember her and help her get a job at Microsoft when she graduates from college down the road.
She had to think about it for a couple of days. Did she want this future vision enough to embrace her inner geek now? Would her friends think she was a dork for going to a technology camp? Was she willing to give up a week of languorous summer idleness for the possibility of getting some STEM skills and some new (possibly geeky) girlfriends?
“I want to go!” She announced two days later. Unfortunately, when we looked closer, we discovered she is too young to go to the camp near us this summer. So we put it in our plans for next summer and I seized the moment and directed her to a listing of STEM camps put together by Entertainment Software Association (ESA).
We found one! iD Tech Camps are weeklong summer tech programs where ages 7-17 engage in STEM education on universities around the country. She honed in one that would help her – one day – turn her love of photography and blogging on Tumblr into a lucrative career. And since this camp takes place on a college campus that she considers a “dream school,” she will get a taste for college life there at the same time. Win! Win! I signed her up.
Now I have to figure out how to pay for it. But I’m feeling pretty good about my day. I just took care of two summer’s worth of camp planning, helped my daughter take a big step toward her dreams, and wrote this blog post. How’s your day going?
Resources for finding a STEM Summer Camp for your Teen:
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) list of STEM camps: This summer, more than 100 camps across 26 states will offer 690 programs in video game design, development, programming, and related topics. The number of video game design programs offered at U.S. summer camps has more than doubled since 2012. The ESA assembled a list.
DigiGirlz, one of many programs under the Microsoft YouthSpark initiative, features hands-on workshops that teach high-school girls to build websites, develop video games, edit digital video, create podcasts, and more. The sessions are taught by women at Microsoft who work on cutting-edge tech, opening the doors for mentorship and ongoing inspiration.
ID Tech Camps week long summer program engage ages 7-17 in STEM education at over 60 prestigious universities in 26 states. These camps teach real skills on real tools: Creating apps for iPhone and Android, video games, web sites, digital movies, 3D models and animations, robots, and more. Students use industry products like Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, Autodesk Maya, Microsoft XNA Game Studio, and much more. There are both day camps and sleepover camps where kids stay in college dorms.
Written on April 10, 2013 at 2:23 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
I have just completely reorganized my dry-goods pantry. Naturally, I used technology to make the job go faster, get everything super organized, and save money.
I took a laptop, a trash bag, and some cleaning supplies in there and finished the job with the minimum of effort. In fact, quite a bit of technology went into this project. Here’s what I did.
First I pulled everything out, throwing out old spices and baking supplies, and washed down the shelves. But rather than just toss everything that was past its pull date, I pulled out a tablet computer and ordered replacements as I went. Ordering everything online meant I could take on this project at any hour of the day. It also meant I got exactly what I wanted and upgraded my ingredients considerably – for less money.
I replaced some of my baking goods and cleansers at Alice.com. And I ordered crackers and other snacks at Paydragon.com using my smart phone. This service has an app for iPhone and Android that lets me scan the item I’m replacing and click order.
Some of my spices were quite old, though. And many of those were bought in haste when a recipe required it. I am a huge fan of TheSpiceHouse.com and have been ordering spices from there for years. Good spices make cooking a visceral pleasure. And ordering good spices online is cheaper than buying tired ones at my local grocer. Even my teenagers love it when I order spices from here. Everyone has a favorite – popcorn cheese, scented sugars, fine vanilla – that makes preparing food fun as for them as it is for me, even if their cooking is no more extravagant than microwave popcorn or cinnamon toast. In fact, the pleasure of ordering new spices here is why I took on the pantry reorganization in the first place.
Ordering spices in bulk online saves money here. But I need my own jars to put them in when they arrive. But bags of spices are difficult to store and use. So this time I decided I would go all in and replace my odd assortment of jars along with the tired spices. I started by ordering new spice jars at Amazon.com. I got some larger jars – to match – to hold grains, nuts, and dried fruits.
My new jars and spices arrives a few days after I cleaned and tossed things. And I spent another – very aromatic and pleasant – hour filling those jars.
To make everything clear to everyone who cooks in my kitchen, I labeled all the jars with an Epson LabelWorks LW-400 ($38 at Amazon.com) label printer. This labeler lives in my pantry and has saved may dishes from “I thought that unlabeled jar had sugar in it but it was actually salt.” It runs on batteries, lets me change fonts and print size for every label, and prints out a label tape that exactly fits the item I’m labeling. I don’t know how I ever lived without it.
Everyone has been experimenting with flavors. I’ve made some Cajun, Thai, and Indian dishes. And my daughter (14) has turned Chicken salad – with interesting spice experiments – into an art form, which has made out brown-bag lunches something to look forward to every day.
Written on November 7, 2012 at 8:38 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
If you have teens, it’s a good bet they are asking for a smartphone if they don’t already have one. And as the holidays get closer, that asking will get more and more fevered. It’s certainly easy enough to walk into a store and walk away with a state-of-the-art smartphone without a huge outlay of cash. But that’s because the real cost with a smartphones is the service plan. If your teen destroys that phone before his line is eligible for an upgrade, the replacement will require a much heftier outlay of your hard-earned cabbage. So it’s a good idea to do a bit more thinking than that. Here are a few things to think about before you go shopping.
Water is–finally!–no longer Kryptonite for mobile phones. So if your teen is likely to drop it in the pool or washer. Or if she is prone to falling out of boats or walking into the shower with it in her hand, look for a waterproof model. It just might survive a bit longer. The Kyocera Hydro from Boost Mobile is a waterproof Android phone that costs only $79 on a $55-a-month unlimited plan. I tested its waterproof abilities by tossing it in a pool while filming video. (That’s a photo of it in the pool.) It was fun. And it got some great footage from underwater. Here is the video:
Pay for the phone, Save on the bill
You end up paying for those “free” phones by signing a two-year contract with your cell provider. And if your teens are like mine, no one uses the talk minutes you are locked into paying for every month. It doesn’t have to be like that. Check out Ting.com. You pay up front for the phone. But then you pay only for the calls, texts, and data you actually use. Run the Ting savings calculator to see how your costs would compare to your current plan. A 100 minute-plan is only $3. But if you don’t use those 100 minutes, you’ll get a refund. I tried it for a month – it wasn’t my main phone but I used it – and spent very little money. A smart phone can use Wi-Fi when a network is handy. So this pay-as-you-go plan can save you a bundle if your teen only needs cellular data occasionally. At the moment, you have to buy the phone from Ting (prices vary) but soon you will be able to bring your own device into the plan.
Bring Your Own Device
You can pick up a used smart phone at Glyde.com or Amazon.com for much less than a new one. Then all you need is the plan. If you bring your own phone to the plan, you don’t sign a contract and that means you can hold out a fancy new phone for a reward for awesome grades or turn off the teen’s plan if things go badly. Adding a teen to your own plan is cheap, usually less than $10 a month, plus data.
Wireless providers understand that you want your cellular data – probably not in huge amounts – available to more than one device when you have a couple of teens in the house. So they have started rolling out plans that let you share one data plan with the entire family and all your devices. They are a bit complicated to understand. But if you do a little math, you might save some money. Check out the online calculators at ATT or Verizon to see if this will help your bill.
Turn it into a lesson–and a clean house
Set your teen down at Gazelle or Glyde and show her how to sell her old gaming devices, video games, music player, movies, and cell phones to earn enough cash to buy her own smart phone. Then make your contribution a no-commitment plan. The folks at Gazelle tell me that an iPod Touch can bring in $100. And even a broken iPhone 4s can net up to $100. Considering you can pick up a refurbished Android phone at Glyde for less than $100, this could be a profitable way to clean the house.
Windows Phone 8 launched recently.
And it’s a great smart phone option for teens. It has fantastic study tools (Microsoft Office) and games (Xbox built in.) But since the operating system is much less popular at the moment than the iPhone or Android phones, you can get great deals on new phones. These phones have beautiful screens, fantastic cameras, and the Windows interface is very personal and keeps teens in touch with you and their friends at a glance. My kids love it.
Christina Tynan-Wood writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle, and is the author of “How to Be a Geek Goddess.” You can find her at GeekGirlfriends.com, as well as here on Momster.com. Follow her on Twitter, @xtinatynanwood.