Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: Tri-Cross

I've always tried to focus on the positive aspects of homeschooling, but there is one negative that rears it's head from time to time.  We generally finish school early in the afternoon, long before the other children in our neighborhood return home on the yellow bus.  This means Schnickelfritz has to amuse himself or (gasp) .... play with mom.  We try to keep a good supply of games around for just such times--but it's not always easy to find something that amuses an almost nine-year old boy and his mama.  Our latest product to review with the Homeschool Crew fits the bill.  Suitable for ages 9 and up,  Tri-Cross by Games for Competitors  is simple to learn but involves  strategy and thinking several moves ahead like chess.

Each player begins placing  six pieces on the board as specified in the directions.  The pieces are marked with one to six symbols and typically move one space forwards, backwards, or sideways but not diagonally.  When a move ends with one of your pieces next to an opponent's it can set off a series of jumps.  Usually, the higher numbered piece jumps the lower and removes it from the board.  The jump may result in two more pieces being side by side and resulting in another jump and so on...  The one exception is the Tri-Cross piece (really a one) can jump the number six piece, making each piece vulnerable to at least one other.  This one little twist adds so much to the game--you want your Tri-cross piece out to try and capture the number six yet it is also in danger of every other piece on the board.  The winner is the first to occupy the center square for four complete turns or the one who eliminates all the other opponents' pieces.  Don't have a piece valued high enough to jump over the competition in the center square?  You can force him from the center by placing a lower valued piece next to it (if a jump can be made, it has to be made).  Have I totally confused you?  Perhaps this video will help.

It only took one or two practice games to get the rules down and then my little Mr. Competitive was ready to annihilate his mama--and he was usually the winner.  The game comes with several alternative rules to make the game more challenging.  You can start with placing your pieces face down on the board, only revealing them when they come side by side to an opponent's piece.  Can you keep track of where all six of your pieces are on the board?  In another version your opponent places your pieces face down for you.  We only played to two-player games but there are rules for 3 and 4 players.

There are three versions of the game:

The Standard Game ($24.95) comes with a fold-able hardboard playing surface and plastic pieces in a velveteen bag

The Wood Edition ($35.95) has a wooden board and playing pieces

The Eco-Edition ($19.95) features a woven cotton playing board and carrying bag.  It also makes a great travel game assuming you have a solid surface to play on.  I was very glad we brought this on our recent vacation.  It made the one hour flight delay much more tolerable.

Tri-Cross has taken its place in our line up of logic/strategy games and because of its alternative rules it can grow with us for a long time.  If you're thinking ahead to Christmas gifts, this would be an excellent choice.  You can read what others on the Homeschool Crew think of Tri-Cross by clicking here.
Disclaimer: I received a free Standard version and Eco-Edition of Tri-Cross from Games For Competitors for the purposes of completing this review.  There was no other compensation for my honest opinion.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Review: Aims Education Foundation

While we've never formally studied physics in our home yet, Schnickelfritz and I are always discovering how the world works around us--why we need to add salt to ice makes to make ice cream, why the hill for our K'nex roller coaster needs to be higher or steeper for the little cars to make it through the loop,  etc.  Recently we were given the chance to review Primarily Magnets by Aims Education Foundation.  Here was another perfect example of learning through play. 

The book we received is geared to K-2nd graders, but Aims has a whole catalog of  math and science materials for students up to eight grade.  They also have the supplies you may need for the book activities although they seem to be packaged in quantities designed for public school classes not homeschoolers.  We needed ring, horseshoe and bar magnets for this book and Aims only had them in sets of 25.  I was able to buy individual ones at a teacher's supply store.  You will also need magnetic and non-magnetic objects from around your house.  There was one activity the used iron shavings but I didn't want to deal with that potential mess.  That may be the most difficult material to get your hands on.   The book  contains supply lists,  teacher's notes and reproducible student handouts  for 18 activities (there is also a cd-rom in the back of the book with pdf files of the handouts).  Teacher prep time is minimal--I had to read the directions and gather materials.

 The first activity we tried was  Find the Force.  The original instructions call for hiding magnets in emptied and cleaned milk cartons--easily obtainable in a school environment.  It wasn't hard to find suitable substitutes in our home, we used a cracker box buta ny thin cardboard container should work.  With Schnickelfritz out of the room, I taped two ring magnets inside  the boxed and closed the contaner.

I introduced the game as Hide and Seek Without Leaving Your Chair.   Fritz had to pass  the remaining magnet on the outside surfaces of the box to see if he could detect the attracting or repelling forces and determine the location of the hidden magnets.  He enjoyed the activity so much we played it several more times.  Sometimes he "hid" the magnets for me and sometimes we used paperclips to "seek" the magnets (which was slightly harder than using another magnet since the force didn't feel as strong).  The whole point of the lesson(according to NRC Standards) was to learn that magnets attract and repel each other and certain kinds of other materials. 

Our second activity was one of several that involve manipulating an object on one side of a paper by moving a magnet on the other side.   Willy the Worm was made with a section of pipe cleaner.  By using a ring magnet taped to a ruler we needed to help Willy zig and zag through his underground home.  In our first attempt, I must say Willy was pretty lethargic.  I don't know if it was because I used cardstock rather than typing paper or because the chenille was interferring with the magnetic pull.  We made a second attempt by curling up the pipe cleaner trying to concentrate the thin wire into a smaller area and our efforts were rewarded.

 When Fritz jerked the ruler out from under the paper at the end of the maze Willy hopped on and stood up on the magnet as if taking a bow.

Primarily Magnets ends with review booklet the students can fill out and assemble and an assessment (I suppose you could call it a final exam).   Most of the student work is done by coloring, connecting lines from questions to answers, or circling multiple choices so it is not neccessary for students to know how to write.  I think the book and activities is ideal for the K-2nd grades when my goal is to develop a love of learning rather than worrying if he's learning any hard core science facts.  You can see what others on the Homeschool Crew thought about their Aims Activity Books by clicking here.

To Sum up:

Product:  Primarily Magnets

Provider: Aims Education Foundation

Retail Price: $18.95

Where to Buy:  Check out their Website  or request a catalog.

Ages:  K-2nd grade

Other Items Needed:  Ring, bar, and horseshoe magnets,  common household objects

Other Products by Aims:   They have a 40 page catalog full of science and math activity books, manipulatives, and science equipment

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Primarily Magnets for the purpose of completing this review.  I received no other compensation for my honest opinion.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Week 4 Wrap Up

It was another interesting week of trying to balance schoolwork with the work of getting Schnickelfritz's grandparents moved into their new house.  On Wednesday the moving van arrived.  I mentioned last week about Fritz want to help, but only on his terms.  Well, this week he was all excited about moving boxes and investigating the truck.  Thank you so much to moving men Josh and Earl for saving the light loads for an eager eight-year-old boy thrilled to help.  After dropping a load in the house he would race them back to the truck and Earl graciously lost every time.  

The flimsy blinds were broken in several places and most likely covered with cat hair so we tossed them out.  Until we located the box with new sheers and hardware we improvised with packing paper held up with blue painter's tape for the bedroom and bathroom windows.   Once, when Fritz had been too absent and quiet for too long I found him studying my taping job in the bedroom.  "You know if you tilt your head to the side this piece of tape looks like the state of Ohio?" he said to me.  "And here's one that could be Georgia."  In my head I thought that only a homeschooled kid would be making a geography lesson out of randomly torn pieces of tape.

On to our regular school work:  We completed Lesson 13 of Math U See Delta so we've learned all the division facts and how to find the area of a trapezoid.  We have been studying the Family Canidae in science but over the weekend we discovered spider webs covered in dew all over our lawn.  They've probably been there a long time but the dry weather prevented us from noticing them.  Each sheet of webbing had a funnel leading down to the lair of a waiting grass spider.  We had to fast forward in our science text to learn about arachnids.  Fortunately, I also had a publication by the Missouri Dept. of Conservation on common spiders of the state.  Two lessons here: never pass up a teachable moment and take advantage of the free materials offered by your state.  We've moved on to lesson three in Excellence in Writing and now have two dress-ups for our sentences--the who/which clause and -ly words.  In Missouri history we've reached  Marquette and Joliet's  journey down the Mississippi river.  We'll be pausing here for a while so we can read the Landmark book  The Exploration of Pere Marquette.  Fritz is always asking for more geography so we'll be mapping their progress as we read. 

Our extra-curricular activities are also swinging into high gear.  Fritz managed to earn his Matthew Bible merit and his Ropecraft merit in Royal Rangers.  These along with a prior Joel Bible Merit earned Fritz his White Falcon advancement patch.  Sometime this month he'll have an award ceremony for his Gold Trail Award from Ranger Kids.   We also enrolled Fritz in 4-H where he hopes to participate in the woodworking and bicycle programs.

The Toolman and I are back to school in a way.  We started attending Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University at our church.   We learned some amazing and alarming statistics about how many families are living paycheck to paycheck, that the United States has a negative savings rate,  and how much consumer debt has increased over the last two decades.   The first video contained a lot of humor to keep our interest, but there was clearly a lot of truth being spoken about the need to take control of our personal finances.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Review: Time 4 Learning

Schnickelfritz and I were recently given a chance to check out the online program Time 4 Learning.   Students from preschool to eighth grade can access lessons and quizzes in math, language arts, science and social studies.  There are more than 1000 lessons using screens to read or cartoon animation.  The program is marketed as a base curriculum or suppliment for homeschooler or as additional practice and tutoring for students attending a traditional school.

 First I had to enroll Schnickelfritz for the programs.  I assigned him a login password and then went to a screen to determine his grade level.  As a homeschooler of one, I always have trouble saying what grade that is--I know he's advanced in some areas and slow in others.  Time 4 Learning offers a questionaire for parents of Pre-K to 3rd graders to help determine placement level.     Even with the questionaire, I found Fritz was assigned to a math level that was too eay for him.   The program allows students to access the level above and below them at the top of the lesson screen (see below)

If the grade above isn't challenging enough, the parent can log in and choose the Upgrade Education Level icon.  The pop-up form will ask what changes are necessary and they will be may by the Time 4 Learning staff within 24 hours.  The parent also sets the minimum time needed for lessons and the maximum time allowed in the playground area of the program.  The default settings are 15 minutes of lessons and 15 minutes of play.  Students may choose from arcade-style games, puzzles or learning games.  Some students may need this dangling carrot to get their school work done, Fritz was not interested in the games.

We did not use Time 4 Learning as our core curriculum, so I did not assign specific lessons (each lesson has a code number that can be keyed into a box on the lesson screen for quick access).  I allowed Fritz to choose those topics that peaked his interest--naturally he gravitated to the math. 

Kids will need some keyboarding skills as Fritz had to type in "true" and "false", numbers, etc.  I also discovered while trying a social studies lesson that the answers are case-sensitive so a child will be told the answer is wrong if he types "italy" instead of "Italy."

For this reason, parents might still want to sit with their kids while they take the quizzes rather than just relying on the  progress report available for each student. 


My one disappointment with Time 4 Learning is the text of the lessons.  I preview the lesson on Hernando de Soto thinking we could use it along with our history lesson for the day.  We are currently reading from a "living book" about North American explorers.  I expected the online lesson to read more like a textbook (dry facts, not engaging), but it seemed more like a report written by a third grader not for a third grader.  The sentences are short and stilted.  This is not the example I want to set before my son who is still learning how to compose sentences and paragraphs.


I also want to relay an experience my son had while doing a science lesson.  At the top of the screen he was reading was a speaker-like icon which he clicked thinking the text would be read to him.  A window popped up wanting to install a program called Microsoft Agent with a warning that once installed it could not be removed without reinstalling the computer's operating system.  That sounded over my head so we called the Time 4 Learning's customer service.  Apperently there is a way to add the read-aloud feature for younger students but Agent is an old program that sometimes stalls the Time 4 Learning program.  The staff member offerered to send me an email with a download for another program that would do the same thing.  Since my son was having no problems reading the text on his own I declined.    In some instances a word beyond the reading level of the text would be underlined and we were  able to hear their pronunciation  by clicking on them--the speaker had a definite southern drawl.

Time 4 Learning is available as a subscription for $19.95/month (additional children are only $14.95/month).   There are lesson demos available on their website.  You may also read what others on the Homeschool Crew thought of the program by clicking here.

Disclosure: I received one month's free access to the Time 4 Learning website for the purpose of completing this review.  I received no other compensation for my honest opinion.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Week 3 Wrap up

We started our school year early for weeks just like this one.  Schnickelfritz's grandparents are moving to town and the house needed a lot of work.  The previous owners had a cat and a very different taste in decor so we were scrubbing down walls, scraping off wallpaper, vacuuming and re-vacuuming and more.  We managed to cover the essentials--Bible, reading, writing and math, but the rest of the time was used to develop Fritz's servant heart.  He was enthusiastic enough about wanting to help but he wanted the "glamor" jobs if you can call them that--painting and scraping wallpaper.  When he was assigned to picking up the glue-backed wallpaper scraps he balked at the job.   It was hard to know where to draw the line between forcing him to do the assigned task (and listening to his whining and complaining) or just letting him go off and play so at least we had some peace while we stripped wallpaper.  He did take to the vacuum cleaner, granted it is easier with no furniture in your way.  I'll have to remember that at our own house.

We complete Lesson 12 in Math U See Delta.  Fritz has no problems with dividing by 7 or 8.  We're up to Millard Fillmore on our Royal Rangers project on American Presidents.  I found a Scholastic poster of official presidential portraits that we've cut up and rather than writing their home states we've cut the shapes out using the 50 States cartridge on the Cricut.  I made a customized worksheet using Graphic Toolbox and StartWrite lined paper so Fritz can record terms of office, vice presidents, political parties, and two significant facts or events from each president's administration.

I'm collaborating with another homeschool mom in our town to set up our Land Animals of the Sixth Day science experiements.  I hosted the first one, to test the effect of camoflauge in being able to elude preditors.  Our three kids played the part of Skittles preditors.  We scrunched up yellow, orange and green construction paper and tossed them in a box with 42 Skittles of each color.  The kids had 2 minutes to seek and seize the Skittles but they were doing such a good job I cut the time to 90 seconds.  At the end we were suppose to count the Skittles found and with luck prove that it was easier to find the red and purple skittles because they weren't camoflaged to match their surroundings.  Unfortunately, one Skittle predator was a tad too enthusiastic in her role and began loading her mouth with Skittles as fast as she found them.  Once we caught her in the act we tried to establish the color and quantity that had been devoured.  At the end of our experiment we had found all but 4 purple candies but the color with the most still hidden was red.   I was trying to think on my feet and ended up saying that in real life experiments are done over and over to make sure results are consistent.  We also discussed other ways animals can avoid being eaten--like being very fast or hiding underground.


Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: Gridley Games

We're beginning another cruise with the Homeschool Crew and the first product of the year----is a game!  This certainly eased the way for my Schnickelfritz, who wasn't quite ready to delve into schoolwork yet.  Teachers have known for a long time that students need to review facts in order to retain information.  They also know that flash cards, listening to lectures, and filling in worksheets lead to boredom and a bored student isn't going to retain anything.  So why not find a game that cover the facts in a fun way and the kids don't even know they're learning.  We received Nature Nuts by Gridley Games to review and I think it's going to tie in well with our science lessons on land animals .  The game has received the Dr. Toy award--something that I've come to respect when looking for prospective toys and games for our family.

The packaging of Nature Nuts describes it as an expansion set for Griddly's original game Wise Alec or as a travel game.   You can easily add these cards to the Wise Alec board game since the card colors match up, but it can also be played alone.  Instead of moving pieces around a colored board you play for points.   Each card contains a 3-point and a 7-point question with difficulty reflecting the point value.  Before the game begins you determine how many points are necessary to win.  This makes the game easily adaptable for players of differing ages or science education.  An adult might have to reach 100 points while a first grader might only need 30.    It is even possible to earn points without answering questions--the purple Wise Alec cards award points for physical challenges (acting like a monkey for example).  There are 50 cards for each category and two questions per card.

A player's turn begins with the roll of a colored die.  The face color will  match one of the question categories-yellow for earth, red for animals, green for plants, purple for Wise Alec.  A roll of blue allows you to pick any category. An orange roll allows one of your opponents to pick for you. They may pick a difficult subject for you but you can earn double the points.   Then you  choose the hard or easy question on the card.  

I have to say that Fritz and I found the game frustrating at first.  He hasn't had much exposure to botany or earth science yet.  I felt like I was on the TV game show "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader. "  Somewhere in my past I learned that the wiggly tail on a paramecium was called a flagella but that fact had been transferred from the readily available data in my brain to the seldom if ever needed archives.  Other questions didn't seem so much science based as trivia, like what do you call a group of kangaroos or what do you call a baby animal X?

Since the game seemed so flexible about rules and game play we made up our own.   We didn't roll the die at all.  We presorted the cards and I pulled out the ones I thought he should know.  If he missed the question he could use a Wise Alec card as a second chance to earn some points.   As we progress through our science curriculum this year I may even add some questions based on our text.

I'm not sure what  Griddly Games had in mind when describing  Nature Nuts as a travel game.  It's true that your not using the Wise Alec board and the packaging is small enough to fit in a suitcase.  To my mind, a travel game is one you can play in the car or on a plane without losing little game pieces.  It would be a hassle to lift the entire set of cards from their holder in the box each time you needed to place a used card on the bottom of the deck.   Some of the Wise Alec challenges (seeing who can jump the farthest or doing push-ups) can't be done in the car or plane, at least not without drawing the air marshall's attention.

I think we will continue to play this game.  With Fritz's competitive nature, he is likely to try and remember the answers for future games even if we never get to the specific subject in our science books.   You can read what others on the Homeschool Crew think about Nature Nuts and another expansion set,  Civilize This by clicking here.

Product:  Nature Nuts

Provider: Griddly Games 

Retail Price:  $14.99

Where to buy:  Check their website for online retailers and stores in your state

Age:  8 and up

Other items needed:  A paper and pencil to keep score

Other products by Griddly Games:  The original Wise Alec game ($24.99) and several expansion packs.
Disclaimer: I received a free Natures Nuts game for the purpose of completing this review.  I received no other compensation for this honest opinion.
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