Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Economics for Kids

I can’t begin to understand the current economic situation myself, let alone explain it to my kids. But if ever there was a time to bone up on our country’s money system and how banks and businesses operate, this is it. According to The Wall Street Journal’s Work and Family column, even though kids don’t pay the bills, they know when their parents are under stress, and it can hit them hard. So for all you who are scratching your heads over how to explain what’s going on to your children, here are some online resources that can help.

First, some lessons in basic economics. For elementary and middle school students, most economics Web sites deal with concrete subjects such as coins and bills. For instance, H.I.P. Pocket Change from the U.S. Mint has light features like games, cartoon, coloring pages, as well as a more informational timeline that ties money in with history. At the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing site’s kids section you can design your own bill, play trivia games or download an interactive animated tour through that looks at the new security features in currency and shows how Secret Service Agents are trained to look for counterfeiters. But if you’re interested in learning about economics concepts – including supply and demand, interdependence and the stock market – the Social Studies for Kids site explains things in a way preteens can understand.

One site that aims to teach kids how markets work is MinyanLand. The site, (which requires free registration, including parent’s email), aspires to a very lofty mission: “to help address the gap between classes created in part by the financial illiteracy of many in our country, if not the world.” Players choose a character and receive $50,000 in MinyanMoney and a condo worth $50,000. They can increase their virtual bank balance by “doing real-life chores your parents assign,” playing games, and keeping their creature healthy. They can also spend money at the mall, renovate their home, invest, and earn “incentives” for charitable giving. The site is a joint project of Minyanville (a private financial “infotainment” site featuring articles for families on explaining “depressing times,” afterschool jobs and allowances); the non-profit National Council on Economic Education (which offers classroom resources, many free); and the Kaboose network of family Web sites.

For tweens and teens most money sites talk about budgets, credit and spending wisely. Don't Buy It, a companion site to the PBS series, focuses on media and shopping smarts for 9- to 11-year-olds. It All Adds Up is somewhat creaky, decade-old interactive site that lets high school students see what it’s like to use credit to buy cars, electronics and other consumer items. I Buy Different comes from The Center for a New American Dream and the World Wildlife Fund. It helps kids make connections between the products they use and the environment, and suggestions actions they can take to make a difference in their community and across the globe. Many more wonderful links from places like MIT, the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, have been collected at the South Plainfield Library’s Homework Links Consumer Education & Money Management page.

Finally, financial news outlets for adults can also help parents understand and explain what’s going on. Marketplace Public Radio recently spoke with Kiplinger's Janet Bodnar, for example, whose column “Money Smart Kids” has many useful pointers in its archives. The Motley Fool’s newspaper column and website explains stock market happenings in understandable terms, and MSN Money Central contains a useful section with tips on bargains and freebies that will help you and your kids save money. All these resources can be helpful to turn to during these tough times.

Family Online Picks

Wall Street Journal Work and Family Column

H.I.P. Pocket Change

Social Studies for Kids



Don't Buy It

It All Adds Up

I Buy Different

South Plainfield Library Consumer Education

Marketplace Public Radio

Money Smart Kids

Motley Fool

MSN Money Central

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Helping people learn to use words well is a popular topic for online experts. The funny thing is, none of them agree how to do it. Some swear by spelling rules, while others focus on word origins or using tricks to memorize tough words. There are word games to practice skills, word-a-day email services to build vocabulary, and online dictionaries galore. Plus hundreds of sites for people who just love words.

The biggest problem you’ll have searching for websites about words and writing will be sorting through them. But do take the time to dig. You may discover the help you’re looking for in unexpected places, such as sites for parents of dyslexics or for adults learning English. Most sites are reasonably family-friendly. Some have separate sections for “rude” language; only a few have it mixed right in. Keep in mind that sites from outside the U.S. may use British spelling (“color” vs. “colour,” for example).

Search terms you can try include “spelling rules” (26,000 hits alone on Google), “spelling lists,” and “spelling mnemonics” (those little rhymes and sayings that help you remember how to spell hard words – extra points for spelling “mnemonics” right). Take a tip from those SAT prep classes and type in “‘word origins’ Latin Greek” to bone up on English roots; is a good place to start.

Learning is fun with sites like David Appleyard’s guide to mnemonic initial sounds, which explains how Harry Potter fans knew right away that Slytherin and Snape were the bad guys. Build your family’s vocabulary one word at a time with A Word A Day, online or emailed right to you. Challenge your emergent readers at Or if you’ve got a kid who thinks it’s spelling that needs fixing, not kids who can’t spell (a notion that’s been kicking around for probably a century or more without much success – see “Adirondak Loj” near Lake Placid), send him to The Spelling Society for a look at their ames, offisers, leeflets, and so on (and a kids’ page listed in their links).

Many teachers believe the best way to improve writing skills is to write, a lot. Story starters, also called writing prompts, give budding authors fresh ideas. Younger children can try the examples at, while Everyday Spelling, the site that supports the textbook series, has writing prompts, word puzzles, spelling lists and more by grade through middle school.

The best online dictionaries, like Merriam-Webster, go way beyond a spellcheck and a thesaurus. Enchanted Learning’s picture dictionary for new readers not only links to related pages on the same site, it also comes in several bilingual versions. has a list of specialty dictionaries, including’s reverse dictionary to find that word that’s stuck on the tip of your tongue. And word snobs can turn to the mother of all reference books, the Oxford English Dictionary, for word games from easy to “fiendishly difficult,” quotations, and much more.

Your kids don’t have to be serious word lovers to love the Spoonerisms, palindromes, and silly signs at But REALLY serious word lovers should take a peek at how the champs train at, online home of the Scripps National Spelling Bee (which will hold this year’s televised finals starting June 1st). Who knows? They might just get inspired.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Music Appreciation

Even kids who have a real ear for music may have trouble learning to read a staff, with all its squiggles and dots and phrases in Italian. It can take a lot of work before those half steps and eighth notes all start to make sense. I know! When I was learning to play the violin, I could tell which notes went with which fingers on which strings -- but I never really understood how a scale worked until I began to play the keyboard. Once I saw all the notes laid out in front of me, in a nice repeating pattern of black keys and white keys, half steps and whole steps, suddenly everything became clear.

So when I realized the other day that the son who plays the violin was having trouble figuring out the key signature in his pieces, I sat him down at his brother’s piano to try to explain. But I figured there had to be more I could show him online – and, of course, I was right. I found web sites that help you figure out key signatures and much more. Learning to read music is useful, but learning to appreciate it is even better. Whether or not you believe in the “Mozart Effect” (the claim that listening to classical music can make a kid smarter) knowing how a symphony or a concerto is put together, and training your ear to hear themes and variations, can be as satisfying as solving an elaborate puzzle. Consider these resources your musical introduction:

Classics for Kids is a content-rich resource for kids and adults. First, you can listen online to 6-minute-long radio segments with Naomi Lewin that are all about classical music. Topics include composers like Mozart and Leonard Bernstein, musical periods like Baroque and jazz, and concepts like rondo and incidental music. Then there are the games that let kids compose simple tunes or quiz themselves on note names. Finally, parents can find articles filled with tips and advice, such as how to help kids practice effectively. There’s even a valuable page of music education links!

Big city orchestras are another place to find music info online. The San Francisco Symphony Kids’ Page is an interactive site that gives you a tour of the instruments of the orchestra. Other sections cover the symbols of the musical staff and concepts like tempo, rhythm, instrumentation and pitch. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra Kids’ Page, which got a mention in Family Online’s column about making instruments, also has an instrument dictionary and pages where you can listen to audio clips of intervals, arpeggios and chords. Meanwhile, at the Carnegie Hall website, interactive animated features let you explore Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 "From the New World."

The Online Music Theory Helper by Ricci Adams from the Children's Music Workshop of Los Angeles isn’t flashy, but it takes you page by page through lessons on scales, chords and the like using the occasional animated note or audio clip where needed to make a point clearer. Quiz yourself on the notes of the staff or the keyboard using its “trainers,” or tune your ear to recognize intervals and chords. There are also useful articles that explain what to expect at a concert or how to deal with stagefright. The Music Room by Michael Bower of the Capistrano Elementary School, also in California, is even more low-tech, but clear and easy to navigate. It includes pages with music clips on symphonic concepts like inversion and counterpoint, periods including Medieval, Baroque, and Romantic, the

For older kids and adults, Intro to Music Theory is a free online course from Connexions, a site for sharing free educational material, by Catherine Schmidt-Jones. Actually, it doesn’t look to be much more detailed than the sites mentioned above for younger musicians. There are hyperlinks but no animations interval, major and minor keys and scales, triads and chords; its big plus is that the whole course can be downloaded as a PDF file.

OK, so the “Mozart Effect” may not be real. But listening to classical music can’t do any harm, can it? Just ask anyone who can’t hear the William Tell Overture without thinking “Hi Ho Silver! Away!” Movies, cartoons and TV shows that use famous symphonies and concertos as soundtracks and theme songs can make those musical motifs stick with you forever. Remember when Casper the Friendly Ghost helped Schubert finish his Unfinished Symphony? Or Bugs Bunny’s immortal “What’s Opera, Doc?” As a recent story on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition points out, you can find many of these masterpieces (including “The Rabbit of Seville,” and the “Fantasia” parody “A Corny Concerto”) on YouTube. Share a few with your family; you may never be able to listen to classical music the same way again.

Update: The excerpt above is from the PBS show From the Top. The website offers streaming video of really talented kids playing classical music.

MusicTeacher2009 is another YouTube video to check out. Thanks to the anonymous commenter!

Family Online Picks:

Classics for Kids

San Francisco Symphony Kids’ Page

Dallas Symphony Orchestra Kids’ Page

Carnegie Hall

Online Music Theory Helper

The Music Room

Intro to Music Theory

NPR Cartoon Music Story

Sunday, May 04, 2008


Despite their ickyness, bugs are really fascinating creatures. Insects, spiders, and other creepy crawlies make up most of the animal life on Earth, both by number AND by sheer mass. In fact, there are more different types of beetles alone than there are plant species! And insects have been around 350 million years longer than we have (humans only appeared 130,000 years ago). With bugs such a major part of our world, you might as well learn more about them. Who knows? You might even grow to like them.

The first step in finding out about the bugs around you, of course, is figuring out what kind you’ve got. That’s where the Web site What’s That Bug? comes in. Created as an art project by California photography professors Daniel Marlos and Lisa Anne Auerbach, here you’ll find gorgeous photos sent in by readers, with helpful (and often funny) comments. The British-based What’s This Caterpillar? has a North American section. Bug Guide is an online community of amateur naturalists hosted by Iowa State University Department of Entomology that collects information on where and when bugs are found for scientists’ use. The guide sorts its bug pictures by class (arachnids, insects, centipedes, etc.) and even includes a section on bugs that have immigrated from other countries, such as a tortoise beetle found on a bunch of bananas from Ecuador in a grocery store in New Mexico. Ask Dr. Bug doesn’t have a lot of photos, but you can email Entomology prof Bob Allen from California State University, Fullerton for an ID. (Dr. Bug says 95% turn out to be potato bugs, disturbingly human-featured cricket-like critters which, thankfully, only live in the Southwest and have their own site,

Articles on bugs (for reports or your own interest) can be found at sites like Bug Info, from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and the Australian Museum Online, which offers nicely presented information and printable fact sheets on bugs from all over. Bug Bios is a unique site with photos, a Cultural Entomology that talks about bugs in art, literature, religion, etc., and an extensive links page.

Want to invite bugs to your backyard? Monarch Watch has a section on growing milkweed and other plants to create your own butterfly garden. If you’re thinking of keeping a bug as a pet, The Amateur Entomologists' Society has caresheets for everything from crickets to tarantulas. The retail site has tips for making your bugs cozy. EarthLife is a site with lots of links on bugs, including pet info. And the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Butterfly School tells you how to make your own butterfly house. If you’d rather visit bugs elsewhere, you can check out the Montréal Botanical Garden’s Insectarium, the largest in North America, which even looks like a bug when viewed from the tower of the nearby Olympic Stadium. Or you can watch live leafcutter ants scramble about their “formicary,” or glass ant case, at the London Natural History Museum’s Antcam.

Alright, so you don’t want to make friends with bugs. But you still might like to invite them to dinner – that is, if you’re an adventurous eater! The PBS TV series NOVA has a slideshow on people eating bugs around the world. And Iowa State University's Department of Entomology offers Tasty Insect Recipes like Banana Worm Bread and Chocolate Covered Grasshoppers. Of course, you don’t have to get that intimate with insects to appreciate them. But now that you know how interesting and beautiful they can be, you may not be so quick to squish the next bug you see.

EXTRA: Find links to bug crafts I made and demonstrated during my Bug House workshops at my website Crafts for Learning!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Magic Tricks for Kids

I’m one of those people who likes to enjoy a magic trick without trying too hard to figure out how it’s done. But as the mother of a budding magician, I’ve had to acknowledge the fact that a lot of magic involves gimmicks bought in magic shops. Luckily, though, not all magic tricks require special equipment. You can start doing magic with only a deck of cards, a piece of rope, and a few coins. Here’s what my son Anthony has learned so far about being the art of prestidigitation:

· The easiest tricks to start off with are rope tricks.

· Once you know the trick and the secret move, practicing is fairly easy. I try to practice as much as possible whenever I learn a new trick.

· It’s best to talk over the part where you have to make a secret move, so people don’t know what you’re doing.

· I love the look on people’s faces after you perform a magic trick.

Anthony got his start in an afterschool magic class, but there are plenty of Internet resources if you want to learn some easy tricks at home. Parents who want to encourage a child's interest in magic can also check out the Web site Kapoof! Magic You Can Do, where teacher Andy Makar offers advice, a library of tricks, and lots of links. The family-created Kidzone from DLTK has a section on magic tricks for children as well.

Other worthwhile sites include Anthony’s pick, The All Magic Guide, which offers a variety of trick instructions with photos, magic show videos and more; How to Do Tricks, which also includes coin trickery, levitating illusions and street magician tactics; Good Tricks, where you can learn the secret behind “mind reading” demonstrations; and Mighty Tricks a blog that has not been updated recently but which still offers interesting videos and some super magic tricks. You can also find a comprehensive links page at Magic Tricks.

Perhaps the best way to learn how to be a magician may be to watch a master in action. Endurance artist David Blaine, who has lived in a fishbowl in Lincoln Center and hung suspended over London in a glass box for 43 days, has videos of both his stunts and some card tricks at his Web site. For other famous magicians, however, you’ll have to do some searching on YouTube. We enjoyed seeing clips of David Copperfield disappearing the Statue of Liberty and walking through the Great Wall of China. The comic duo Penn & Teller have some interesting segments where they give away the tricks of the trade by doing the popular cup and ball sleight of hand with clear plastic cups. But the present-day performer we enjoyed the most was Criss Angel. On his A&E show Mindfreak, Angel takes his illusions to the street, enlisting passersby who are shocked (and sometimes horrified) at some of tricks. He does some beautiful levitation from building to building, but he also does coin swallowing and voodoo doll routines that are on the gruesome side. For many fans of magic, however, the brush with death is what makes it so exciting.

Of course, the granddaddy of all showmen was Harry Houdini. You can watch silent film clips of Houdini’s escapes, and play an online escape game, on PBS American Experience. The Library of Congress has an online collection of Houdini documents. And The History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, Wisconsin – where the magician lived when his family first came to America from Hungary in 1878 – has an online exhibit called “AKA Houdini” about the man and his times. Magicians today still try to top Houdini’s tricks, but few succeed. Maybe – with a little practice – you can be the one to match his amazing feats!

Update: We just had a great time at the exhibit Magic: The Science of Illusion at the NY Hall of Science. Be sure to catch it if it comes to your area!

Family Online Picks


Kidzone Magic Tricks

The All Magic Guide

How to Do Tricks

Good Tricks

Mighty Tricks

Magic Tricks

David Blaine

Criss Angel A&E videos

Houdini PBS site

AKA Houdini

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Two hundred years after Charles Darwin’s birth – and a century and a half after the publication of his book On the Origin of Species – the theory of evolution is as controversial as ever. In the United States, that is. According to a 2005 New York Times article, the idea that complex organisms developed from simpler species through random mutations is almost universally accepted in every other industrialized country. Ever since John Scopes went on trial in Tennessee in 1925 for telling his biology students about natural selection, however, American school teachers have shied away from discussing evolution in the classroom. Generations of us have grown up not really understanding evolution or the process by which scientific theories are tested and confirmed. So with a year to go until Darwin’s 200th, intelligent educators and scientists have designed Web sites to supply those missing links.
Swathmore College biology professor (and father of two young children) Colin Purrington believes parents can begin to “homeschool” their kids about evolution as early as kindergarten. And a fun place to start is Alaskan marine artist Ray Troll’s Web site Troll Art. Watch a single cell morph into a human being on Troll’s Evolvovision, then click on his somewhat retro comix-style poster The Way We Were: The Path of Human Evolution to read explanations by fish biologist Carl Ferraris. The site Becoming Human, from The Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, challenges you to assemble a chimp and a human skeleton from a mixed pile of bones. And the Natural History Museum of London’s Evolution Web page includes a natural selection game where you play a young bird trying to eat enough bugs to get through the winter.
The PBS Evolution Web site is another great resource for kids. There’s a whole library of interactive features, including games like Evolution in Action, which that lets you change the environment to see how random mutations affect a creature’s ability to survive, and The Mating Game, where you help contestants pass their genes down the evolutionary line. There’s also the PBS series Nova’s Missing Link and Origins pages.
Still confused? Understanding Evolution, a collaboration of the University of California Museum of Paleontology and the National Center for Science Education is a comprehensive, clearly written site that touches on science, history, research and how evolution factors into daily life. There are explanations of the role DNA plays, common misconceptions and dozens of useful links. Or to find out more about the descent of man, check out the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program. Wander through the online Hall of Human Ancestors, then click on a branch of the Human Family Tree to look at virtual 3D fossils and read about human precursors.
In recent years February 12, has been celebrated as Darwin Day, with Phylum Feasts (including foods from all the plant and animal groups) and Primordial Soup, plans for a recreation of Darwin’s exploratory journey to the Galapagos islands on the HMS Beagle, and re-enactments of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial, which pitted celebrity lawyer Clarence Darrow against politician William Jennings Bryan, as recorded by humorist HL Mencken, is a fascinating piece of social history. My family watched the slightly fictionalized version told in the Spencer Tracy film Inherit the Wind, then checked the facts at the Famous Trials in American History Web site by University of Missouri law professor Douglas Linder.
It took Darwin 20 years to publish his theory of evolution, as you’ll learn from the companion Web site to the traveling exhibit which stopped at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2006. But you shouldn’t wait so long. Evolution is the unifying principle in biology, says Swathmore’s Purrington, make sure your kids have the facts they need to begin to understand the mystery of life.

Update: Find more evolution resources for kids at my blog Home Biology!

Family Online Picks (with additional links added):

Becoming Human
Natural History Museum London
Nova: Missing Link
Understanding Evolution
American Museum of Natural History Darwin exhibit

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Crime Solving for Kids

Cops and robbers? Old hat. Nowadays, crime-fighting kids would rather look for fingerprints and DNA samples than chase bad guys with guns. The hit CBS TV drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has spawned a whole generation of kids who want to try toxicology (finding drugs or poison in the body) ballistics (matching patterns on weapons and the crime scene) and forensic anthropology (examining skeletal remains) to figure out who dunnit. And educators and educational websites are jumping on the trend. Even if you don’t have a crime lab in your home, you and your kids can investigate cutting-edge police techniques – and learn a little science -- on these sites.

(Note: You may want to preview these sites, which after all deal with murder and mayhem, before going on them with younger children. Sites that are suitable for little kids are indicated.)

Fans of the CSI franchise can find several sites directly related to the show. The CSI Handbook on the show’s official website is a clickable illustrated glossary of terms used by Crime Scene Investigators to describe evidence, tools and procedures. And the Boston Museum of Science’s recent exhibit, CSI: The Experience, has a website with a printable Family Guide containing at-home activities like analyzing blood spatter (using the fake blood recipe provided) and extracting DNA from fruit. There’s also a CSI Web Adventure from Rice University that takes you through the steps of analyzing crime scene evidence in a police lab. You can find a page of related links too.

Other interactive websites for kids include Anatomy of a Murder from the Montreal Science Center, where you help forensic experts in an animated crime scene. (Scroll down to “Interactive File On Criminalistics.”) Then there’s the Virtual Museum of Canada’s Interactive Investigator, which lets you explore a cartoon crime scene, collect clues and send them to the lab to be analyzed. (Both websites are also available in French.) At the PBS NOVA website, you can click-and-drag objects create a DNA “fingerprint” in a non-gory cartoon lab to solve the mystery of who stole a lollipop, and read about the new 3-D mug shots. (The rest of the website related to the program "The Killer's Trail," about the re-opening of the 1954 murder that inspired “The Fugitive,” however, is not as kid-friendly.)

For more activities you can do at home, the children’s site CyberBee has a Who Dunnit? section that tells you how to practice taking fingerprints, make impressions of teeth, and calculate a person’s height from the size of their shoe. Or watch two girls solve the mystery of a birthday party mess on an online episode of the PBS Kids show DragonFly, which has also suggestions for exploring evidence like bicycle tire tracks.

Older kids can find lots of good information about Forensic Entomology -- studying insects and insect eggs around dead bodies to determine the time or location of death – at the WhyFiles from the University of Wisconsin. If that’s too icky for you, there’s also an article on document analysis, including whether you can tell someone’s personality from their handwriting. (Most scientists say no, but in France 70 percent of employers use handwriting to screen job applicants.)
The popularity of CSI and similar shows has its good side and its bad side. The bad side, according to National Geographic, is that the so-called “CSI Effect” means jurors now expect more DNA and high-tech evidence before they’ll convict a defendant – even if it’s more traditional proofs are already available. But for students – questions of the effects of violence on television aside – the “CSI Effect” has been a positive thing. An article from the National Science Teachers Association says that kids who took a “Draw-A-Scientist Test” created fewer portraits of mad scientists and more images of regular men and women having fun in the lab. The kids give CSI the credit – and that’s almost as good as catching crooks.

Family Online Picks:

CBS website-CSI Handbook

CSI: The Experience

Rice University Web Adventure

Montreal Science Center

Virtual Exhibit on Forensic Science

PBS Nova Create a DNA Fingerprint

CyberBee Who Dunnit?



National Geographic “CSI Effect” article

NSTA “CSI Effect” article