Does Brain Age Work?

Nintendo games such as “Brain Age” have been popular for a few years.  And like a lot of fads, my family is usually the last to get on the band wagon (if we bother hopping on at all)!

Advertisements suggest that “Brain Age” will exercise your pre-frontal lobe.  The implication is that your brain will get a daily work-out and your memory and over-all mind-power will be enhanced.

Last year a New York Times article downplayed the “braining training phenomenon.”  The reporter’s opinion: Brain Age games help you learn specific tasks.  So, if you spend your time practicing Sudoku, you’ll improve your Suduku skills.  Big deal!

However, I think there might be more benefit to it than that.  Perhaps the game won’t stave off Alzheimer’s, but my kids are more enthusiastic about problem solving and memorization.

Basic Math

My kids have been playing with their Brain Age game for only a few days, so I don’t know how long the love affair will last.  However, as of right now, they are in love with the math section.  The problems are simple stuff they already know: addition, multiplication, subtraction.  But they are trying to beat their time and improve their accuracy.  These are elements that have frustrated them before.  Normally, when my daughter sits in front of a math problem, she day dreams her way through long-division, always taking forever to complete her problems.  She’s the type of kid who feels a lot of time-related pressure.  (She has a Baseball Math game that she hates because it allow only a few seconds to answer the questions.)  However in “Brain Age,” she’s trying to beat her best time — and not trying to beat the clock.  There’s no angry buzzer, just her own personal sense of self-improvement.


I can’t say that Sudoku develops any worth while critical thinking skills.  But perhaps I’m just bitter because I’m terrible at the darn game.  My kids like this activity –but it isn’t their favorite feature.  If it develops anything, I would guess that it enhances once attention to detail and perhaps increases one’s level of patience.  (Unless one decides to chuck the machine against the wall — but again, that’s just me!)

Reading Aloud

As a parent of a reader with special needs, I truly appreciate this feature.  One of the “Brain Age” activities involves reading words, sentences, and paragraphs aloud.  My nine-year-old usually doesn’t want to read out loud.  Yet, for some reason, she has embraced reading aloud for the sake of the game.  She’s quite determined to improve her reading time (of which “Brain Age” keeps track).  She also likes the fact that the reading level increases, and I like listening to her confidence grow.

So, does “Brain Age” increase one’s memory?  Probably not any more than reading a newspaper or doing a crossword.  But does “Brain Age” inspire me kids to challenge themselves and have fun learning / practicing basic skills? The answer is yes.

Obama and McCain: Views on Homeschooling

About a year ago, many Homeschool families were enthusiastic about Mike Huckabee.  Remember him?  Republican Governor of Arkansas and rock n’ roll legend from his 1996 band, Capitol Offense:

Yep, that’s Huckabee with the guitar.  Who would have thunk it!  Anyway, Huckabee is a strong advocate for a parent’s choice to homeschool their children.  But for better or for worse, Huckabee will not be in the White House in 2009.  So, what about the current candidates?  Where do they stand?

Barrack Obama:

Senator Obama doesn’t mention homeschooling directly on his website (at least I couldn’t find a direct reference to it).  However, I have discovered some interesting excerpts from his book, The Audacity of Hope. He writes: “none of these [educational] policies need discourage families from deciding to keep a parent at home…For some families, that may mean doing without certain material comforts. For others it may mean home schooling….Whatever the case may be, such decisions should be honored.”

If you homeschool your child through a charter school, then this passage from Barack Obama’s website should be of interest to you:

“Support High-Quality Schools and Close Low-Performing Charter Schools: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will double funding for the Federal Charter School Program to support the creation of more successful charter schools. An Obama-Biden administration will provide this expanded charter school funding only to states that improve accountability for charter schools, allow for interventions in struggling charter schools and have a clear process for closing down chronically underperforming charter schools. An Obama-Biden administration will also prioritize supporting states that help the most successful charter schools to expand to serve more students.”

This sounds reasonable for the most part; however it does mean you want to be very careful in selecting your child’s charter school.  If the charter school performs low (and this is usually established by standardized testing at the beginning and end of the school year) there’s a decent chance that the charter will be streamlines, restructured, or even dismantled.  Still, it seems that homeschooling will continue to be a viable option if Obama is elected.

John McCain:

Senator McCain’s website also avoid a direct discussion of homeschooling.  However, during the debates he said this:

Q: How can we improve the quality of public schools in this country?

A: Choice and competition is the key to success in education in America. That means charter schools, that means home schooling, it means vouchers, it means rewarding good teachers and finding bad teachers another line of work. It means rewarding good performing schools, and it really means in some cases putting bad performing schools out of business. I want every American parent to have a choice, a choice as to how they want their child educated, and I guarantee you the competition will dramatically increase the level of education in America.

Based upon this, it would seem that McCain strongly favors the option of homeschooling as an alternative to public schools.

So, no matter who makes it to the White House, it seems that he will continue to support our educational choices.  Let’s hope it remains that way.  Otherwise, the new President will have a formidable opponent: angry homeschool parents!

“The Way We Work” by David Macaulay

Are you familiar with this series?   David Macaulay is the author and illustrator of “The Way Things Work,” a popular text among kids and adults.  In the original book, Macaulay explains the inner workings of hydraulic dams, trains, engines, pulleys, and just about anything mechanical.

In his latest intellectual adventure, “The Way We Work,” he explores the amazing mechanics of the human body.  The illustrations are vivid, vibrant and filled with detailed cross-sections.  In addition to drawings human anatomy, Macaulay includes his unique style by incorporating his own quirky characters.  Microscopic little people ride on red blood cells, toss paper airplanes into the ear canal, and crwal through the lower intestines.

If that sounds a little weird, it is.  But that’s just what my kids love about these books!  The text is a bit more sophisticated than what my six-year-old normally sits through.  However, because she’s so mystified by the graphics, she wants to learn more about what’s going on.  She’s more than willing to listen to the text.  then, she asks questions, and I do my best to follow up with the correct response.

Science isn’t my forte, but thanks to “The Way We Work,” I feel like I can not only understand how the human body works, but can teach what I know to others.

“How Should I Reward My Child?”

Over the years, I have met a lot of children (and young adults) who received money for good grades.  Some students earned something quite simple: Five dollars for every A.

Some kids received much more lucrative rewards.  In fact, several years ago, I had a college student who took my lower level English class, not because she wanted to learn anything, but because her father promised her a new car if she merely earned a “C’ in college.

And guess what?  She failed my class.  She turned in about 30% of the work.

Now, the students I’ve been discussing thus far are examples of the public school system.  Most home-schoolers don’t receive traditional grades.  And perhaps for this reason, I have not met many homeschool  families who exchange scholastic achievement for dollar bills.

To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it.  We have sometimes used little things like Pokemon cards are special activities (like going out to see a movie) as a “carrot” to help motivate the girls to read.  Every summer, our local library offers a program for kids.  The young readers earn points for each book they complete.  By the end of the summer, they can exchange the points for prizes — toys, art supplies, little trinkets.  On the one hand, the program encourages my daughters to try new books.  it makes them excited about going to the library.  And yet, call me idealistic, I wish that the joy of learning could be its own reward.

What are your thoughts?  Do you financially reward your kids for academic progress?  Do you think that prizes and rewards hinder or enhance the learning process?

The Good Ol’ Days? (A Visit to the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse)

Last weekend, my wife and kids (along with other adventurous homeschool families) visited Sutter’s Mill and experienced the lifestyle of early California gold-miners.  After a few days of panning for gold-flakes, they packed up their gear and explored Old Town Sacramento.  The girls’ favorite stop was the Schoolhouse Museum.  Here are a few photos:

Check out the inside… they’ve got a storm for those frosty school mornings:

Museum volunteers invited the children to participate in a mock classroom environment.  They wrote on chalk slates.  The boys and the grils were separated to different sides of the classroom.  and they were given an extensive list of rules and punishments (which all involve a lashing from the teacher!)

Here are a few highlights from the list:

Wearing Long Fingernails — 2 lashes

Telling Lies — 7 lashes

Giving Each other Ill Names — 3 lashes

Drinking Spiritous Liqous at School — 8 lashes

Boys and Girls Playing Together — 4 lashes

and my personal favorite:

Climbing Over Three Feet Up a Tree — 1 Lash for each extra foot.  (So do not climb a thirty foot tree!)

The kids had a great time.  But what was fascinating is that my younger daughter was really getting into the structure of the classroom.  She enjoyed sitting right in front row, raising her hand, eager to participate.  My older girl prefered to stay in the back of the classroom, reluctant to participate, content with listening to others.  What’s most interesting about that, is that in our homeschooling life, my daughters are not brownie-point earners or wallflowers.   My wife and I gained a glimpse of how their personalities might be shaped if they were in a public school system.  (Or perhaps I should say a public school system in 1848!)

Listening to Your Children’s Dreams

No, I’m not talking about eavesdropping while your kids mumble in their sleep.  (Although that can be quite entertaining.)  I’m talking about listening to the hopes and goals of you child.

Now, every good parent already does this, whether or not they homeschool.  But homeschool parents are in a very special position — because they can empower that child with time, energy, and encouragement moreso than families who are locked into a rigorous public school schedule.  It’s no coincidence that so many Olympic athletes and muscial prodigies have been homeschooled.

Sometimes we parents ask that famous question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  And sometimes, right smack in the middle of doing the dishes or licking an ice cream cone, the child announces, “I want to be a doctor” or “I’m going to be the greatest piano player in the world” or my personal favorite, “I’m going to build underwater houses.”

As a homeschool parent, I
listen to my girls as they daydream about their hopes for the future.  They ask questions, and together with books, off-hand experiences, and the internet we discuss potential answers.  Their dreams, whether fleeting or persistent, inspire them to keep on learning.

Right now, my 9-year-old has her mind set on becoming a farmer.  So, we have been discussing:

  • History: Farming techniques in Colonial America
  • Math / Economics: How much does it cost to run a farm?  What much profit does an average farmer make?  What are the expenses of raising animals?
  • Biology: How do farmers make the most of their soil to grow crops?
  • Ethics: What moral responsibilities do farmers have to their livestock?
  • Writing / Spelling: Write paragraphs about an ideal farm.  Practice spelling using farm animal words.

Now, it’s quite likely that next week, my daughter will trade her farmer dreams in for an imaginary career as a scuba diving instructor.  Then, we’ll learn about oceanography and the history of sea exploration.  But for now, farming is her passion, and I want to foster her love of learning.  So, for as long as she wants to chase her dream, I want her to know that the possibilities are limitless.

Panning for Nuggets of Gold (and a Bit of History Too!)

My kids are so excited right now!  They spent their Sunday morning knee deep in icy river water, panning for gold.  And guess what, they discovered some!  Just some gold dust, really.  But it was enough to get them very excited, and enough to give them a glimpse of what it must have been like to be a Miner Forty-niner.

Unfortunately for me, I’m holding down the fort at home, grading papers and battling paperwork.  The rest of my family (wife, kids and Grandma) journeyed to Coloma, California to participate in the town’s annual Gold Rush Live event.  

They are spending the weekend learning about gold mining techniques, of course.  But they are also learning the stories of the many people who ventured to California, seeking their fortunes. My girls are rather familiar with the topic already, since we covered it in my daughter’s “O California” history book.  Also, we recently read a wonderful historical novel by Sid Fleishman, By The Great Hornspoon.  I highly recommend this kid-friendly book.  It’s very funny, yet offers a vivid depiction of life during the height of California’s gold frenzy.

Sure, the girls have read about it before.  But now, they get a chance to experience this world themselves.  They get to wander and explore the tent city:

And they get to interact with the many volunteers who assume various roles.  Much like a renaissance fair or a civil war re-enactment, this event features hundreds of folks who wear authentic clothing and really immerse themselves into their specific roles.

What a great weekend.  They get to have a blast and learn at the same time.  Man, I wish I was there!  Maybe the girls will strike it rich and I can quit my day job!

Good Old Fashioned Flash Cards

I’m endlessly fascinated by the vast contrasts between my two children.  They are both good-natured, witty, energetic, and usually kind to one another.  However, their learning styles are becoming increasingly different.  We tried using flash cards with my older daughter when my wife and I began teaching the multiplication tables.  We soon discovered that our bright eyed girl wasn’t into rote memorization.  She’s got to use her hands to learn stuff.  She’s very tactile.  So, we found a Math program that caters to her style of learning (Math U See is the name — not everyone is in love with this system, but it’s been working for us.)

Anyway, after the “multiplication flash card fiasco” we put the notecards away.  I assumed that our youngest girl would want to learn the same way — hands on, tactile games, building blocks, marbles, and anything else a kid could grab.  Well, the younger one does enjoy manipulatives, but it’s not the only way she learns.

Two weeks ago, we began learning the capitals of the world — starting with Europe.  She wasn’t really memorizing very much just by spinning the globe or flipping through her atlas.  However, once we started showing her flash cards, her brain shifted into high gear.

I’m sitting at my computer right now.  My little six year old is in the other room.  I’m going to call out to her right now.  “What’s the capital of Latvia?”

“Riga,” she replies.

“What’s the capital of Estonia?”

“Tallinn!” Uh-oh. That last answer was supplied by my nine year old!  They’ve developed a friendly competition.  And, although it’s harder for my older kid to remember dates and facts, her little sister’s knack for flash cards had made her (and the rest of us) reconsider this old fashioned method of memorization.

Are Online Video Games Educational?

I loved playing Super Mario Brothers on my old Nintendo when I was a teen.  I learned how to jump on mushroom people and shoot bouncing fireballs.  But I don’t believe I learned anything useful.

As a college professor, I meet lots of students who tell me about their “mind-numbing” experience with multi-player games such as World of Warcraft.  They have told me things such as, “I had to quite it cold turkey” and “I was so addicted to that game.”  Sounds like they need a twelve-step program.

I would have guessed that games such as World of Warcraft are a fun waste of time.  Entertaining and benign as long as you don’t spend too much time absorbed in the game.  And if you do get “addicted,” well… say goodbye to your grades and your social life!

But perhaps I’ve mijudged the social and educational value of these games. recently published an article in which focuses on a group of homeschoolers (both kids and parents) who have a World of Warcraft Guild known as “Horde of Unschoolers.”

So, what are the benefits of these online games?  Well, many of them do have chat features and forum bulletins.  The LiveScience article maintains that this encourages students who would otherwise detest writing instead embrace writing long diatribes.  And, according to the article, the content and style of the written communication are surprisingly advanced.  They also contend that science and math comes into play as well.

I’m very curious to learn more about this.  It sounds almost too good to be true.  Of course, for most families, learning is synonymous with fun.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that video games can lead to learning adventures.

Here’s the complete article.

TV Or Not TV — That Is the Question!

When I was a kidm I would trudge my way through a full day of public school, and once I returned home I would emotionally inject four hours of television-opium into my system.  There were days when I actually lied to my parents about my homework just so I could watch my G. I. Joe cartoons.

It wasn’t until I turned 17 and graduated from high school that I finally detoxed from the t.v. set.  And because I was such a coach potato as a child, I’ve tried to instill stronger, better values into my household.  We might watch television once in a while — but we’re usually playing outside, or going to soccer practice, or just sitting around drawing, writing, or reading.  We haven’t given up television entirely though.  Here’s a rough idea of how much TV the kids watch:

1 or 2 hours of Discovery Channel (Per Week)

1 Feature Film (Per Week — BTW: A few days ago we watched a great chess movie, “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”)

1 Episode of “The Biggest Loser” (Per Week — My wife’s guilty pleasure)

30 mins – 1 hour of Animated Programming (Per Week — that’s my guilty pleasure!)

So, in an average week, the kids absorb between 5 and 7 hours of television.  (Fortunately we have a digital recorder so we skip all of the commercial content.)  According to, the average American child watches 25 hours of television each and every week.

So, on the one hand I feel pretty good about my family’s relatively low intake of television.  However, many homeschool families have unplugged their idiot box.  They have long since shunned their televisions, and perhaps don’t even own one.  Oliver Van DeMille, author of A Thomas Jefferson Education,  suggest that families remove the television from the living room — if not out of the house altogether.  Isn’t it fascinating how so many homes make the television the centerpiece of their main room?  Perhaps instead the living room should be a place to read, talk, play board games, and sit and look out the window while the rain falls.

Sounds nice — doesn’t it?  Perhaps I’ll wean myself (and the rest of the family) away from television 100%.  But for now, every once in a while, I still need that little fix of Spongebob Squarepants.