Summer vacation tech tips

Hey, parents! Summer vacation is here!

No, don’t sob. Because I have a few tips and tricks on how can you get your kids through summer without having their brains ooze out their ears from doing nothing but play Plants vs Zombies 2 which can’t arrive soon enough.

Of course your kids should get outside. They should spend most of their time outside, depending on the bear threat in your area. Do all the standard fun summer stuff with them. Take them to the wave pool, the zoo, the mysterious island where they play The Most Dangerous Game. But when you’ve done all that and you realize it’s only day four of summer and you’re all out of ideas, here’s a few I’ve found come in handy and have used in the past when my son is home sick. Even though summer is made for outdoor activities*, if you work from home like I do, you might find yourself with a kid on your hands who’s already sunburned and has finished Kingdom Rush Frontiers and you’re on deadline. You don’t want them turning into complete troglodytes by September, even if they’re tanned troglodytes. You also don’t want to have to murder them.

(* Disclaimer: summer is not technically “made” for anything. It is the result of a tilt in the Earth’s axis.)

The iPad full o’ learnin’

If you’re like me, well, I’m sorry. I really am. But if you are, you probably have at least one old iPhone, iPod touch, iPad or, heck, even a Nexus 7 or something lying around. Wipe it and set up restrictions so that no apps can be loaded without a password (on iOS under Restrictions, set Require Password to Immediately). You might also want to turn off Safari and FaceTime just to make sure. Lock the thing down solid. Then get some educational material.

Some ideas:

  1. Books – Duh.
  2. iTunes U – This might be a possiblity but finding material is a challenge. Clicking on K-12, for example, just brings up a list of the schools publishing the material, which isn’t very helpful. Most of the material at this level is geared toward educators rather than kids and the rest is probably drier than your kid is going to sit through during summer without filing the device into a lock pick to engineer an escape.
  3. Educational apps – Apple’s definition of what’s “educational” is sometimes loose (I saw Evernote in there, for example), but you can find any number of apps that are both fun and use math. Some we’ve gotten in the past for my son include Handwriting Without Tears, Sakura Quick Math and Sakura Time.
  4. Fart apps – These teach kids vital information about the gastrointestinal process.

I might have been kidding about one of those.

Writing time

Let’s say you’re a big-shot Internet writer making money hand over fist. Just theoretically. I mean, let’s say you’re someone other than me. You want your kid to follow in your footsteps because Internet writing has been very, very good to you. Or, let’s just say you want your kid to know how to string a sentence together. That’d be good, right?

My son’s teacher mentioned he was having a little trouble with coming up with sentences. He could read and write well, but was having a hard time thinking up new sentences on his own. When all you have around you are Macs, every problem looks like a problem that can be solved with a Mac. Turns out that’s actually appropriate in this case, unlike when our basement was leaking.

As fate or software design would have it, there’s a really good way to show your kid how to form sentences that lets them use the computer they can’t part with for forty seconds without having a fit. It’s collaborative editing software, tools that let two or more people edit the same document at the same time and watch the other person’s edits taking place. Using this, my son was able to see me write my sentences on my MacBook while I could see him writing his and help him along.

You can use desktop tools such as SubEthaEdit and… actually, I think that’s it for Mac desktop tools. It’s a great application but if $38 seems like too much when you don’t know if this is going to take, there are several online options, including CollabEdit, MeetingWords and Squad.

We used MeetingWords as it seemed relatively simple and was more designed for prose than code. The story my son and I collaborated on turned out to be about a character we named Mr. Fartsalot. Without giving away too much before the movie deal is signed, Mr. Fartsalot saves a town with a unique power he has. No spoilers.

Learning to program

This was a bit of a dark horse since my son is in the 3rd grade, but he was more interested in it than I thought he’d be.

The two applications I investigated where KidsRuby and HacketyHack. Turns out they’re both based on the same lesson plan, so we tried out HacketyHack. At his age, I needed to really help him through the lesson, but when I explained that programming was how people made Minecraft mods, he was substantially more interested.

Even with this modest beginning, he’s got more than a five year head start on me in having been exposed to programming. Not surprisingly, there’s a Lifehacker piece on the subject of getting your kids into programming.

Ultimately, of course, summer is for activity. I’m not advocating keeping your kid inside staring at a screen, but some days it’s inevitable. Be prepared.