Math: All You Need Is Games

Image By Rebecca Angel

I was the kid that had to stay in at recess in second grade. Was I bad? No, I needed extra help in subtraction. Sister Brendan, a very nice old lady (who gave me snacks too) sat patiently with me each day to get my wee brain to learn the tools of taking away in an equation. I was a smart kid, and I could memorize how to do it, but I didn’t understand why and that made me second guess myself and screw up on tests. Eventually I got the concept, but I also learned another lesson: Math isn’t fun.

But it can be! My teen son loves to play board and card games with his young cousin. They both homeschool, so I suggested he come up with a math curriculum for her that incorporated games we already owned to teach the concepts she was supposed to learn in second grade (according to Common Core for a reference). Her parents thought that was great, and when she took a simple test at the end of the year, she aced it. No boring textbooks and worksheets!

Unlike most math curricula that teach one concept at a time, games utilize several skills at once in a fun atmosphere that keeps the challenges from getting overwhelming. Basically, instead of learning to do math on its own, the student is using math to play the game.

Granny Apples is a good example of multiple math skills at once. It is a simple game of tossing wooden apples on the ground and counting the different types to find a total score. However, it involves fractions, addition, subtraction, sets, and is all mental math in a visual setting. There is no writing involved, which is perfect for learning concepts without tripping over the writing/reading challenges. It is a fast game with tactile satisfaction with smooth wooden objects.

Bakugan is perfect for those writing/reading challenges, and so fun that kids will not care. Each sphere is tossed into a ring and pops open to reveal a monster. Each monster has a number printed on it for its “battle score.” But these scores are up to triple digits. The student must keep track of all the digits, keep their columns neat, and continually add and subtract to figure out if they win the battles.

Polyhedron Origami is not a game, but the best way to teach geometry of three dimensional shapes—by building them with paper. It is not difficult, but requires attention to detail, with a satisfying ending of something beautiful with math. Using this method, even the youngest students can make truncated octohedrons, and know what that means!

Phase 10 Card Game is all about sets, patterns, and reasoning.

Could there be a more entertaining way to learn graphing skills than Battleship?

The top half of the Yahtzee sheet is a fun introduction to multiplication. Rolling dice, counting, and writing. Over time, students will count the dice faster and faster based on the visual sets of dots on each die. This is learning sets and geometric reasoning for multiplication skills. Sounds complicated, but in this game, it’s just fun.

Games like Cathedral Chess, TangoesMancala, and Connect 4 are ways to teach spatial reasoning, patterns, shapes, strategy, structure, reasoning, and mental acuity. They range in complexity, but are able to be played by children as young as five in simple formats.

Check out some other posts about math games here and here and here and here.

What games does your family play that teach math concepts?

We Can Do It! Lessons From My Son

Some people think homeschoolers teach their kids at home, short and simple. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sure, I might teach my son, the Chief, how to do math, or how to find out more information about his favorite planet, or we might read stories together. But truly, the learning goes both ways. Take this, for example:

Spyro 2: Ripto's Rage!
Image: Insomniac Games and SCEA

A few years ago, the Chief discovered video games. The only thing we had at the time was the original PlayStation game and a few disks, including his favorite, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage. I usually sat on the couch and was watched him play while I did other things. Every two seconds, I would cringe and say things like, “Be careful! No, don’t do that, you’re going to die!” And, “You’d better get more butterflies so you can earn more lives.” At one point, there was this big boss, and he was shooting fireballs, and the little dragon couldn’t move fast enough… and… and… and… D’OH, sure enough, Spyro bit it. Not only that, but it was his last life, and the screen filled with the message “GAME OVER.” This was back when dying was a little more complicated than it is now, and you could lose a day’s worth of gaming progress.

I have to admit, I was hesitant to look over at my son. I felt kind of crushed on his behalf. Then I heard him LAUGH! He just pushed a button and started the game all over again, continuing on as happily as ever. All I could think of were all those times I had played that same game, and all the times I died and became so frustrated and stressed out that I…well, might have said some things that weren’t acceptable in mixed company. And yes, I knew how silly it was to get so frustrated over a game, something that didn’t really exist, but there it was. I admired my son for his good attitude, and for keeping the good spirit of the game.

Fast forward to the other morning. I’ve been working on a scene in my current novel, and it just would not work out. In fact, something was extremely broken about my whole idea, which seemed to be working so well up to that point. I pulled my hair out and cursed at my computer, finally announcing that the thing was impossible.

Then, I remembered. The Chief, who has the attention span of an ant and who should be the one to get frustrated by things, just accepts when things don’t go right the first time, like when he had to start over again at his game. He simply saw it as the nature of the beast. He wasn’t good at something, he didn’t get it right, so he just kept on trying until he did get it right. He can be so zen about it all. I suddenly felt kind of foolish. Why was I getting so frustrated? Furthermore, what sort of example was I setting for the Chief? That you just quit when something gets too hard? No way.

So thanks, Chief, for that lesson.

Image: J. Howard Miller, public domain

Building the Future with Lego Space

LEGO Space: Builiding the Future \ Image: No Starch Press
Lego Space: Building the Future. Image: No Starch Press.

All kids go through learning phases where they just can’t get enough of a particular topic. For my son right now, that topic is space and what better way to learn about it than through Lego? That’s where Lego Space: Building the Future by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard comes in.

I was really excited to check this book out because: 1. My son is really into space and I knew he would love it; and 2. it puts the topic in a way that will not only teach my son, but also inspire him to get creative with his own Lego bricks.

The book doesn’t so much tell the real history of space as much as it tells it’s own story. The first 10 pages are filled with some history, but after that, the book goes its own way and takes some creative licensing. Throughout the story, the authors take some time to stop and show you how to build what you are seeing. I thought this was a neat aspect of the book, because my son already wanted to build what he saw, so this gave him a head start.

LEGO Space: Builiding the Future Sample Page \ Image: No Starch Press
Lego Space: Building the Future sample page. Image: No Starch Press.

The only downside to this book that I can tell is the price. I showed it off at my son’s science fair night and the first thing the librarian and his teacher did was note how expensive it must be. Considering the quality of the photos inside and the fact that’s a pretty hefty size, it doesn’t surprise me that it costs $24.95 retail.

Lego Space: Building the Future has inspired my son to put down the video games and instead got him to focus on his much-neglected Lego bricks. I’m not kidding when I tell you that he spent hours building space stations and looking over the book for ideas. A few times, I would hear him get really excited about a particular fact and he would read it out loud with enthusiasm that I’ve only seen when he’s in a theme park.

If your child is into Lego, space, or both, I highly recommend Lego Space: Building the Future. It might be a bit more expensive than other books, but in my opinion, it’s well worth it if it gets my son reading.

Lego Space: Building the Future is available on Amazon for $19 (hardback) and $12 (kindle).

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

EZLeaps Make Learning to Tie Shoes a Snap

EZLeaps in action. Image: Rachel Cericola.

My son is now in second grade. To date, we’ve mastered all of his milestones pretty well. Sure, potty training took a little longer than I would have liked, but he’s a sweet guy, he’s active, and he has a hearty interest in his school’s STEM lab.

The one thing we can’t seem to grasp is how to tie shoes. I’ll admit, I’m not the best teacher. It certainly doesn’t help that my husband and I have been putting the whole thing off for a little while now. After all, Velcro shoes are easy and plentiful. Now, I’m starting to get the feeling that he’s a lone wolf. It’s time to join the pack.

Did I happen to mention that I’m not the best teacher?

In the middle of my panic, I was contacted by EZLeaps. This small company was founded by Eileen Sloan, a former first grade teacher and mom, who obviously handled her frustration a lot better than I ever could. She invented a little shoe tying system—the kind that you see and think to yourself, “Why didn’t I come up with that?” It’s just so darn easy.

A peek at the 12 styles. Image: EZLeaps.

The EZLeaps system is basically a plastic card that looks like it was attacked by someone who’s a little hole-punch happy. And before you scoff at spending six bucks on a piece of plastic, think about how many dollars you’ve spent on other pieces of plastic. That said, this thing actually works.

Also, it couldn’t be more simple. Grab a shoe and start with the initial “X.” Actually, that was the one thing we seemed to master on our own. Once that is ready, place the EZLeaps card on top of the X. From there, you weave the laces through the holes on the card to make a pair of loops. Then, tie the loops in X fashion. Make them tight, double-knot if you like, and you’re done. Then, just lift the EZLeaps off. It’s like magic.

The video below shows exactly how it’s done. After our first try, my son got so excited, he actually tied his shoes on his own—all without the EZLeaps card. This is something that’s never happened before. I almost passed out. Since then, we’ve had a few setbacks, but he’s working on it with EZLeaps. And because of that, I’d say this is money well spent.

Speaking of which, EZLeaps are priced at $5.49 each and available in 12 different styles, with colors, cupcakes, ponies, sports, and even an “Artist Pad” design that lets you draw whatever you want right on the card.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

A Science Literate Family

Royalty Free Image. Caption By Rebecca Angel

“Science is the study of the world around us, using evidence to understand and explain how it all works.”

“Experimenting, testing hypothesis, observing nature on earth and in space, chemical reactions, things that have to do with motion…”

“Science is discovering stuff, figuring stuff out. It’s like solving mysteries.”

These are the answers I received when asking a few kids what “science” was. Then I asked them what “literacy” meant. Silence. With a couple of prompts, one boy hesitantly said, “Reading?”

Yes. Literacy in its most basic definition is the ability to read and write. According to Wikipedia, science is “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” I think the kids’ answers were just as accurate. Science Literacy is a combination of these terms to express the ability to understand and converse within the world of science. Why does it matter, and how can you bring science literacy into your family?

According to a well-done publication on bringing science literacy into the American education system called Benchmarks:

  • When people know how scientists go about their work and reach scientific conclusions, and what the limitations of such conclusions are, they are more likely to react thoughtfully to scientific claims and less likely to reject them out of hand or accept them uncritically.
  • Once people gain a good sense of how science operates—along with a basic inventory of key science concepts as a basis for learning more later—they can follow the science adventure story as it plays out during their lifetimes.
  • The images that many people have of science and how it works are often distorted. The myths and stereotypes that young people have about science are not dispelled when science teaching focuses narrowly on the laws, concepts, and theories of science. Hence, the study of science as a way of knowing needs to be made explicit in the curriculum.

In a previous post, called Kids Talk Science, I suggested keeping up on the latest science through easily accessible magazines like Science News, passing it on to your children, and having interesting science chats during dinner. You don’t have to be an expert in a science field to discuss evidence of life on Mars, the latest in electric car racing , and if feelings of love are just a bunch of chemicals.

If you are within driving distance of a college or university, you can take it a step further by attending a talk. My family is lucky enough to be in a small city with numerous higher institutions. There are regular open lectures by the professors on their research, as well as visiting scientists from around the country. These are not dry lectures, but revelations so new most haven’t been published. It is a wonderful way to see how scientists are excited about what they do, don’t have all the answers, but LOVE questions.

One of our favorites last year was a talk on the science of smell, and that yes, mosquitoes do like certain people better than others! The speaker was dynamic, and the science was clear. Not only was it informative, but we were encouraged to participate. “If you’re ever in New York City, come be in our study. We always need volunteers!”

Just last week my son and I attended a lecture on astrobiology. Although the topic was of interest, the talk went over our heads with slides of physics equations. Was it a waste of time? Absolutely not! Afterwards, we asked someone in the audience if they could explain part of it, and she did. Ah… We had an interesting discussion all the way home about the possibility of life on other planets.

Attending these talks shows science as a process, as a social endeavor, and something that everyone can join—even if it’s just to ask questions. It should be a source of pride to hear first-hand all the cool stuff being discovered in your community. For the speakers, they are there to share their passion—they need an audience! And seeing kids is encouraging. Who knows? Your child might work under their microscope one day.

So I encourage everyone to peruse their local college or university websites for upcoming lectures and presentations for the general community, bring science literacy to your family. Plus, you might learn something too!

3 Things to Remember When Teaching a Friend

One knitter teaching another, CC BY-SA moonrat42

As geeks, we love to share our passions. We want others to love the things that we love, and we get excited when they do. It’s part of what defines being a geek. But let’s be honest. A lot of us really, really suck at it when it’s time to teach a friend, especially if it’s a new skill. The result sounds like this:

“Could you actually show me instead of just doing it for me?”
“NOOOO, you have to slow down! What was that?”
[insert sound of things being smashed in anger]

Teaching is its own skill. That’s why we give people college degrees in it and put them in charge of educating our children. Here are three things that are easy to forget when you try to teach someone something you’re already good at:

Recognize and appreciate their learning styles

My husband gets frustrated with me when I ask him for written information, which he reads to me, and then I take the paper or book and read it again myself. I simply process information better visually. Other people–and I’m pretty sure said husband is one of them–are better auditory learners. If you’re trying to teach an auditory-learning friend a new skill over IM, you’re going to have a bad time. She’s going to have a really bad time.

Suit the method to the learner. Simply ask what’s the easiest way. Get together in person if you can. Use video chat, instant messaging, emails, photos, scans of drawings–whatever it takes to get the job done for the learner, not for you.

Show; don’t do

This to me is the most important one. Once you’ve told someone everything you can tell them about how to do something, all that’s left is simply to do it. The learner. Not you. It’s so tempting to grab the knitting needles and cast on for her or the keyboard to fix an error for her or the controller and play through that hard level for her. But then how is she going to cast on the next project? Fix the error and what if it happens again after you leave? Defeat the boss on the next level?

Yes, you can do it faster, and that seems simpler. But then your protégé has learned nothing, and that defeats the whole point. You can demonstrate when it’s necessary, but let the learner do it for herself.

Dock your mock

Friends tease each other in a friendly fashion. But think about how it feels when you’re trying to learn something new, especially something you’ve wanted to understand for a long time. And then think about how different the “friendly” teasing feels when you’ve finally made progress. When you say, “I hope you’re not put in charge of food after the zombie apocalypse, because we’re all going to starve!” might be just the moment when your brown-thumbed friend was feeling really proud of the single tomato sprouting in his otherwise dead garden. Rein it in.

Brainy Film Contest Winners

I just watched an entertaining video about congenital anosmia, the inability to smell. It was the winning video submitted to in their annual Brain Awareness Video Contest. You can check out all of the top videos there, plus submit your own for next year’s challenge. Getting people to watch these videos shows how amazing and complex our brain is, and how even the smallest problem can have large effects, as well as bringing awareness to little-known conditions so people can empathize, or get the help they need. For example, in the smell-less video, people without this sense need to be extra careful about cooking dangers.

The best way to learn about something is to do a creative project around it. So consider entering for next year! This could be for a biology class, or a family activity to explore a condition of someone you know.

Image By
Image By




It’s Official: Take a Course In Pirate

Image from Mango Languages

English: Oh, my gosh! The ship isn’t moving!

Pirate: Blow me down! The ship’s becalmed!

In honor of Talk Like A Pirate Day on September 19, Mango Languages has a free course in talking like a pirate. Mango is a foreign language teaching site that your library can join and offer courses to its patrons! The Pirate course is designed like all their other courses: Several chapters in step-by-step guide to give you conversational tools, with spoken examples, pronunciation guides, and timed quizzes.

There are helpful grammar tips such as: “Keep in mind that a pirate usually doesn’t change the form of, or conjugate, the verb “to be.” Learn cultural notes like, “A ship will get becalmed by lack of wind, but poor sailing skills or a lazy crew definitively won’t help. Get your men working or make them walk the plank!”

I love that it was given all the treatment of their other courses. Who said foreign languages couldn’t be fun?

Quick Summertime Toddler Activity: Fizzy Science Fun!

Photo: Kristen Rutherford
Photo: Kristen Rutherford

It’s never too early to introduce a child to the wonders of science! Here’s an example of a multi-step reaction that’s super simple, extremely cheap, and a great summertime activity for your toddler.

What you’ll need:

  • 1 Pyrex dish
  • 1 box of baking soda
  • 1 bottle white vinegar
  • liquid food coloring
  • plastic dropper bottles (I bought some on Amazon here but you can find droppers at dollar stores – or you can use cheap plastic bowls for each color. Just fill them up as if you are going to dye Easter eggs. Then, use a spoon instead of a dropper when you add the vinegar.)

Cover the bottom of the Pyrex dish with about ¼” or ½” of baking soda. (You can use more if you want!)

Pour vinegar into the dropper bottles and add food coloring to each one.

Give your child the colored vinegar droppers and let them drip it into the dish with the baking soda.

Photo: Kristen Rutherford
Photo: Kristen Rutherford
Photo: Kristen Rutherford
Photo: Kristen Rutherford

















Ta da! Bubbly fizzy colors!

What’s happening here is that the acetic acid in the vinegar reacts with the sodium bicarbonate and forms carbonic acid. Carbonic acid is unstable, and immediately decomposes into carbon dioxide and water. That’s what causes the bubbles!

Photo: Kristen Rutherford
Photo: Kristen Rutherford

Bonus: if you’ve put in an extra thick layer of baking soda, you can stir the colors up and maximize your fizz.

Have fun!

Wombi Monsters Teach Letters, Numbers, & Shapes to Pre-Schoolers

Wombi Monsters © Wombi
Wombi Monsters © Wombi

Last year my son started at our local pre-school and ever since his appetite for knowledge has simply grown and grown. Every day he points out letters, numbers, and shapes around our home or on the street and asks what they are. He’s even asked for phonics books as his bedtime story. It’s something I want to encourage and so when Wombi released a new series of three Monster apps that teach letters, shapes, and numbers I was eager to see what he would make of them.

Each app teaches one of the three groups and all three use an identical interface so your child will only need to be shown how to use one app and they will automatically be able to follow the other two. All three feature a friendly yet hungry cartoon monster who will ask you child to select an item of food and feed it to him or her. In the letter and number apps, these are biscuits and mushrooms with a letter or number printed on them. The monster (a sea captain octopus or a pink monster scientist) will ask for a letter or number and your child will need to find it on the tray at the bottom of the screen and drag it to their mouth. Continue reading Wombi Monsters Teach Letters, Numbers, & Shapes to Pre-Schoolers

Give Kids Arduino Adventures

Image courtesy Apress.

Arduino Adventures: Escape from Gemini Station is a great introduction to Arduino robotics projects for kids (and adults who want an easy starting point.) The book was written by James Floyd Kelly and Harold Timmis and published by Apress. Full disclosure: James Floyd Kelly is a contributor on GeekDad, and Apress is also my book publisher.

The basic structure of Arduino Adventures is the intertwining of the “escape from Gemini Station” story followed by a lesson and project. The projects build upon themselves and eventually finish with a completed robot and some explanation of Arduino programming.

There’s no soldering required, and there’s even a kit you can purchase with all parts for all the lessons mentioned in the book. Even without the kit, most of the parts should be available at your local Radio Shack.

The structure of the book is very logical, and the authors took care to eliminate a lot of the more frustrating points with big robotics projects, such as soldering errors. By the end of the book, kids should have some building blocks for understanding electronics and programming, although this book will not bring them to expert level. However, this sort of scaffolded introduction into robotics could easily spark their interest and motivate them to explore on their own.

This is the sort of mother-child project bonding book I’d recommend for the 8-12 year olds who are new to robotics. Older kids may want to go through the lessons on their own. I plan on going through the lessons with my daughter’s robotics club, because it gives the younger kids some projects that don’t require soldering and go beyond Snap Circuits or Little Bits.

4-H Is 4 Geeks

Image courtesy 4-H

One of the biggest myths I hear about 4-H is that it’s only for farming families. While it’s completely true that the organization was set up as a tool to promote “modern” farming methods through after-school agriculture clubs, that’s not the whole picture. There’s still a lot of farming in 4-H, yes, but there’s also a lot of science and art. In fact, there are even rockets and robots.

4-H fills in a lot of the “What am I going to do all summer?” gaps for our family. Not only are there practical projects, but we also find local camps and workshops; we even sent our girl off on a bus this year for her first away camp with actual camp stuff. You know, horse riding, archery, canoeing, and crafts.

My daughter assembling a robot kit.

4-H is actually part of the extension program of land grant universities in the US, but the system is set up to allow kids to pick their own projects and enjoy practical learning in the areas they choose. While the county fair tends to be the star of the show, 4-H is really something you can do all year, either by yourself or in small project groups. I have a homeschooling friend who uses 4-H for the very convenient pre-made project curriculum, and the monthly club meetings give kids a shot at running the local club. Stick with it long enough, and your high schooler could even get a 4-H scholarship.

When I was my daughter’s age, I was a prize-winning entomologist. I couldn’t interest my daughter in that subject, but she did pick up an interest in robotics, sewing, quilting, cooking, and photography. She’s going to try to recruit some peers for a robotics project group, and this year one of her photographs will be at the state fair.

Now that the summer is winding down and school year is winding up, it might be a good chance to check out your local 4-H club. To get started, find the extension office near you or check out the starter kit for the National Youth Science Day project in October.

Muse of Nerds: Joy Hakim, Storyteller Extraordinaire

I received lots of kudos for getting to interview Joy Hakim. Maybe this is because most of my friends are geeks of some sort, most homeschool their kids, and we all have read Joy’s books, amazed at how she draws us into learning so easily with her gift of storytelling. I hope you enjoy this interview:

You have written A History of US, and The Story of Science, as a way of teaching through stories; characters and their world lead the reader on a journey of learning with a focus on American history, or Physics. What was the inspiration behind these projects?
Well, there was the day a son brought home a new middle school history. I knew that textbooks are rarely page-turners (although they should be), but this book was beyond dull. The writing was barely literate, the page layouts dreary. I was so enraged by it that I actually called his history teacher.

“I hate the book too,” he told me. I shook my head. How could a book so obviously flawed make it into schools? (I would find out.) Anyway, being a journalist, and caring about words and ideas, I decided to see what I could do.

As for storytelling, that’s the classic way civilizations have always passed on their ideas and information. That we have turned away from it in teaching our children has been a tragedy.

How long did it take to write each series? What kept you going through the writing process?
I’m not sure, because I always seem to be doing several things at once. About seven years for each is a guess. I worked on a PBS special, called Freedom: A History of US, while writing the science books. And I did other things too.

What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on two books on evolutionary biology. I hope your readers will give that subject a chance. Earth and the life upon it change. There are no dinosaurs walking about. I’m fascinated with the subject. In one of the books I begin with a letter Galileo wrote to an Italian prince telling him of the wonders he has seen through his occhialino (microscope) where “one can contemplate infinitely the grandeur of nature, and how subtly she works. . . “

Within my homeschooling community, you are a superstar. Pretty much every family I know has used one or both of these series. When you first started writing, what were your hopes for the project?
Like most writers, I just hoped to get published. Actually, given the quality of history texts, and the widespread call for better school books, I assumed that if I wrote well the publishing world would fall at my feet. I was naive. Every publisher I sent the manuscript to rejected it. One actually said, “It doesn’t sound textbooky.” How A History of US finally got published is a long story. It wouldn’t have happened without my friend/agent Byron Hollinshead, a former president of Oxford University Press.

At the moment, I read aloud a chapter a week of The Story of Science to a few kids at a local coffee shop, and then we have a lively chat. What do you hope every reader takes from your stories?
What do I hope my readers will take from the books? I hope they’ll learn to think. To do that they’ll need to read beyond my books. In this Information Age, being able to find information, process it, and then make use of it, is an essential skill (and it’s fun too).

You are certainly a history geek (that’s a compliment.) What are your other passions in life?
My family comes first. I have three children and five grandchildren and they are all perfect. (Can you hear them laughing in the background?)
I’m awed by the homeschoolers I meet. They are all great. I really mean that. Maybe it’s because those who take the time to come to a conference or a book-signing are special. I don’t meet those who stay home.

For more information on A History of US or The Story of Science, check out Joy Hakim’s website.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us on GeekMom. Best of luck on your new series, Joy!

IPads in the Classroom: A Case Study in Auburn, Maine – Part One


My son turned two this fall. By the time he starts kindergarten in three years’ time, I have no idea how he will be learning. The first computer I was exposed to in elementary school used 5 ¼-inch floppy discs; I’m not even sure he’ll be using a computer by then. Classrooms around the country are beginning to introduce students as young as five to iPads in an effort to determine if they will be useful in the classroom, and if they will be more cost effective for the functionality. Quite frankly I wasn’t sure how to feel about this. I plan on being involved in my son’s education. I’m going to be the kindergarten mom rallying support for construction at the high school he will attend in a decade. I’m going to be the middle school mom lobbying for the ed tech in the first grade classroom. So I need to know, where do I stand on technology as part of my baby’s education?

At the beginning of the current school year I had a chance to talk with Peter Robinson, the Director of Information Technology for the Auburn school department in Maine. With the support and help of his district and some federal money, Robinson’s staff is pioneering the use of iPads in the classroom–in kindergarten to be precise.

The pilot program began last spring. A literacy specialist in the district was having trouble getting through to some children. They weren’t responding to conventional or even unconventional methods, so she thought outside the box and brought her iPad in to school. Loaded with a select a few educational apps, it allowed her opportunities to reach children who had been untouched by other efforts. It allowed them learning opportunities that they just weren’t open to by other means. It also sparked many conversations in the right places, and at the right time.

Five teachers received iPads at the end of the 2010-11 school year. On loan to the district from Apple, they gave teaching staff and administrators a chance to see what the applications could be, no pun intended. There was great excitement to get the program up and running in the district’s 16 kindergarten classrooms, but rolling out the program took longer than anticipated. Not only did the school board and public need to be convinced of the benefits, but Apple needed time to figure out how to relate to school districts. For a company focused on the personal market, this was a big step. Robinson says they rose to the challenge.

Image: Sarah Pinault

In discussions here at GeekMom, one of the biggest concerns has been just how much time would be given over in the classroom to the iPad. At home, we as parents spend a lot of time fixating on what is and is not a healthy pastime. Would this take away from the more tactile experiences we all recall from Kindergarten? Robinson was clear to point out that the iPad is not an all day, every day tool — they still get the paint out and make a mess! Movement, play, tactile and traditional kindergarten methods are still very much in use; the iPad is now another tool in the arsenal of the teaching staff. The district is being very flexible with its program. No limits have been set in terms of minutes, because that goes against the idea of finding that teachable moment for the individual child. For the research portion of the project, the portion they hope will fund the next stage, there has of course had to be some consistency. They do prefer that staff use the iPads as a tool for 20-30 minutes over the course of the day. Recognizing the needs and limits of such young children, they also recommend that a session cap out at 20 minutes, which is a long time for a kindergartener.

At the end of the day Robinson is satisfied that the staff are well trained and need to be trusted and supported in their classrooms. They know when enough is enough. They know when the iPad would help teach a lesson, and when a trek outside to the playing fields would. The iPad is not intended as a “sit still and learn” device. Superintendent Tom Morrell has instructed staff to “find the apps that get them dancing, singing and playing.”

Turning such expensive devices over to small children was another concern, so I talked with Robinson about policies concerning the “home” of the iPads. For right now, the program stays within the school building. One of the fears, a very palpable one, is that the teacher is responsible for the devices, and that is too much pressure to place on one person. In addition, the Auburn community at large has shown concern for bullying from older children who might seek to get the devices for themselves. So for this year the devices are locked up in the school, a policy which will be evaluated come summer. At this point both staff and parents will weigh in on the issue, and then maybe the iPads will go home with the kids. Perhaps every night, perhaps only for special projects. The idea with this, as with much else in the program, is that the decision will come organically from the classroom and not from an administrative decision. The same thing happened with the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), which sought to “equip all students and teachers in grades 7 to 12 with personal learning technology statewide.” Robinson argues that we cannot let fear and trepidation stand in the way of what can be accomplished. The only breakage so far has been from a staff member carrying one with a stack of books. The children’s iPads all have specially-designed cases. They are rubberized and bounce when they hit the ground. Robinson also points out that when a kindergartener drops something, it doesn’t exactly have a long fall!

After speaking with Peter Robinson, the idea of the iPad as a tool in the teacher’s arsenal excites me. Visit GeekMom again tomorrow to read the second half of my discussion with Robinson, in which we talk about how the teaching staff is taking to the program and the ways in which the district is supporting them in making the iPad an effective tool.