Travel tip: rehearse the security line with the kids

firstSamantha Brown has posted a great tip for those flying with younger kids for the first time: rehearse the airport security line:

“One thing you can do before you leave is rehearse the security checkpoint.  Make it a fun event that everyone will enjoy and prepare them for what to expect at the airport.”

She goes on to list several steps for creating a mock security checkpoint in your house. That’s pretty clever. Once we started flying with the kids, we read My First Airplane Ride by Nancy Speir together. After several readings, they had an idea of what would happen, and even said, “This is like the book” at one point. But I think Samantha’s idea of rehearsing the line is even better.

When I was a kid, you could go to the airport to simply watch planes take off and land, but I don’t think they let you do that anymore.

Smart pajamas read to your kids at night

CNET on Smart PJs, “The world’s first and only interactive pajamas”:

“Smart PJs, called the world’s ‘first and only interactive pajamas,’ require downloading a free app for iOS or Android and scanning one of dozens of codes from the Smart PJs with a smartphone or tablet. The device then reads aloud a story, sings a lullaby, or broadcasts pictures of animals or other bedtime-appropriate cuteness.”

Horrible. Awful. Why read to your children when you can toss an iDevice at them? In fact, you don’t even have to pick out the story anymore. Jr’s PJs will do that for you! There’s more:

“‘Now your child will be excited to go to bed,’ says a promotional video for the product.”

Yeah, nothing helps a toddler fall asleep faster than excitement. Sign me up.

App of the Week: Notabli

notablieNotabli is a fantastic little iPhone app (free) that lets you share you favorite moments with your kids safely, securely and privately. Think of it as an invite-only social network that lets you show off your kids. I use it with my sisters and parents, all who live hundreds of miles away from my family. Here’s how it works.

Begin by adding information on your kid(s), like name, nickname, birthdate and gender. Select a cute cover photo to represent him or her. A tight shot of Jr’s smiling face is best, as the icon will be small. Next, get adding some moments.

Notabli lets you add photos (shot with the app for pulled from your Camera Roll), video, audio entries to text. Entries can be viewed by child or in a single stream. Those who have been authorized to participate can leave comments or mark certain moments as favorites.

Parents get special privileges, in that up to two parents can contribue moments to a child’s pool, and across devices. For example, my wife is out with the kids as I type this and has added a few photos of our kids having a nice time. I see them on my iPhone, and my sisters and parents see them on their iPads. It’s more fun than email, safer than public posting like Facebook and it looks really good.

The settings give you the option to copy photos to your Camer Roll and upload over cellular. You can connect to Facebook and Twitter if you like, but that’s totally optional (I haven’t). Finally, optional notifications can be enabled for new moments, comments or “hearts,” which indicate a post that has been marked as a favorite.

I don’t use Notibli as a photo album, but it’s great for sharing photos of the school play or the pinewood derby with those who can’t be there. Email works too, yes, but Notabli looks much better and even my parents (sorry, mom and dad) have no trouble using it. It’s a great little app.

You’ll find other featured apps here.

Children need to get bored

Dr. Teresa Belton:

“When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. The time they spend on these things has increased.

But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

Yes, yes, yes, ten thousand times, yes. I know families who flip on the in-car DVD player every single time they drive anywhere and it makes me want to jump out of my freaking skin.

Turn off the Goddamn iPad and do something.

Paper books and kids

monsterattheendofthisbookPatrick Rhone makes a great point regarding ereaders, paper books and kids. He and his wife want to demonstrate their love of reading to their daughter. The couple owns a lot of ebooks, but staring at an electronic display is no clear queue that mom/dad are reading a book:

“The books we actually read, the majority of any reading we do, are mostly on screens now… [but] we could be doing anything on the screen. And she knows it. She knows the Internet is sometimes on that screen. She knows that movies are sometimes on that screen. She knows that games and music are on that screen..How is she to pick up the physical cues that Mommy and Daddy read a lot of books?”

That’s a great point. So, Patrick is going to make an effort to read more paper books, so his daughter can see mom and dad reading. Well done.

Now, excuse me while I switch into Curmudgeon Mode.

I don’t like electronic kids books. At all.

I worked as a teacher from 1994-2000. Back then, “interactive books” were popular. Some featured a strip of sound effects buttons that were to be pressed as the story was read. I despised those books because the students treated them as toys that just happened to have books attached. Some even pulled the buttons off, disregarded the book and walked about making random sound effects.

Living Books by Brøderbund were also popular back then. They shipped on CD and featured read-along animations based on popular titles like Arthur and Dr. Seuss. I still have that damn Just Grandma and Me memorized, right down to Little Critter’s inflection. The problem with Living Books was that nearly every object did something; click a crab to make it snap its claws or click a bus to hear its engine rumble. They were toys masquerading as books.

The “book as toy” phenomenon migrated to the iPad with digital children’s books. I’ve purchased a few for my own children (ages 7 and 9) and found the experience disappointing. Instead of listening to the story, my kids only want to “see what it does,” randomly tapping, swiping and flicking every image. When they find an interactive element, they go nuts — swiping, tapping or flicking it repeatedly. At that point, we aren’t reading. We’re playing a video game.

I know there are several decent interactive books for adults available, and that’s fine. But ebooks for kids that “do stuff?” No, thank you. My daughter loves the Harry Potter series. We do play around on Pottermore, but despite the fantastic ebooks available, we read of Harry’s adventures in paper exclusively.

2012 Holiday Gift Guide: Parents

My first paid writing job was for The Parenting Post, official blog of Parenting Magazine 1. You’ll find an archive of my posts here. I no longer write about the kids online, but they do still exist. With almost a decade of parenting in my rear view mirror, I’m still a newcomer but I’ve learned a thing or two as well. Here is a list of gifts that will delight parents of young kids. With a geek twist, of course.

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  1. No longer active.

Netflix’s “Just For Kids” feature is better with Guided Access

Netflix recently updated its app for iPhone and iPad (free, universal) with a feature called “Just for Kids.” It’s meant to present kid-friendly movies and TV shows while hiding those inappropriate for children. It’s a nice first step, but that’s all it is. I was able to exit Just For Kids mode easily, and even view an R-rated feature when it should have been hidden.

Here’s a quick look at Just For Kids from Netflix as well as how to increase its effectiveness with Apple’s Guided Access.

Enable Just For Kids mode

Flipping the kid-friendly switch is easy. You’ll find a button in the upper left labeled Just for Kids. Tap it and the app displays a nice grid of kid-friendly programs and family features. Tap any feature to view a pop-up window that presents either a grid of episodes (if your target is a TV show) or a synopsis and rating (movies). I’d be happy to hand this over to my kids during a long road trip, if only it weren’t so easy to exit.

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How to child-proof your iPhone

Many parents, like me, let their children play with their iPhones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always end well. I’ve had  friends lose apps, incur unwanted purchases or otherwise regret giving their iPhone to their children. My own kids enjoy Angry Birds and browsing photos. They also navigate away from the app they started with and go “exploring.” This could be a nuisance if they find YouTube, or a real problem should the launch financial apps or execute in-app purchases. While the iPhone’s parental controls aren’t perfect, you can take steps to child-proof your iPhone. Here’s how.

Passcode

The first and most obvious line of defense is a passcode. A passcode prevents a user, like Jr., from getting past the lock screen. There are two types of passcodes: simple and complex. Here’s the difference and how to set them up.

A simple passcode consists of four numbers. It’s easy to remember but also easy to guess. A complex passcode is much longer and contains alphanumeric characters. Obviously it’s less easy to remember but also significantly harder for Jr. to guess. Follow these steps to create either type:

  1. Tap the Settings app, then tap General.
  2. Tap Passcode Lock.
  3. You’ll be prompted to enter a passcode. Enter it twice to produce the passcode options screen.

At this point you can replace the simple passcode you just created with a complex one by moving the Simple Passcode slider to the Off position. Other options let  you determine how long the iPhone must be in sleep mode before requiring a passcode (from immediately to four hours) and voice dialing. You don’t want Jr. burning through your minutes, after all. Finally, you can opt for the iPhone to erase all of its data after 10 failed passcode attempts.

Of course, I hand my iPhone over after it’s already been unlocked. If you do the same, a passcode isn’t very useful. Let’s check out Restrictions.

Restrictions

Here’s how you can disable apps, purchases, email access, ratings and more. If you want to prevent Jr. from launching Safari, deleting apps, listening to age-restricted music or noting the iPhone’s location, you can with Restrictions. Here’s how.

Open the Settings app. Next tap General and then tap Restrictions. You’ll be prompted to enter a restrictions passcode. Note that this is not the same as your iPhone’s general passcode. Next you’ll find four sections:

  1. Apps to allow or disable
  2. Location/email account options
  3. Content options
  4. Game Center

The individual apps that can be enabled or disabled are Safari, YouTube, Camera, FaceTime, iTunes and Ping. Move each app’s slider to the Off position to prevent the iPhone from launching them. In fact, each time you disable an app, its icon disappears from your iPhone’s screen entirely. For example, if you move YouTube’s slider to the Off position, the YouTube icon will not appear on the iPhone’s screen.

You’ll also see Installing Apps and Deleting Apps. Move each slider to the Off position to prevent each action; the former will prevent new apps from being installed and the latter won’t let you (or Jr.) delete apps. You can still enter jiggle mode by holding any icon, but the “x” that allows an app to be removed will not appear.

Next, exercise (limited) control over location services and email accounts. First, tap Location to see the locations options screen. You can disable/enable location services on an app-by-app basis or turn it off entirely. Likewise, tapping email accounts and then Don’t Allow Changes won’t let you modify existing email, contacts or calendar information or create new ones. Of course, Jr. can still read your mail (and reply to it), so this isn’t entirely useful.

Let’s talk about in-app purchases. You’ve heard the story of that 8-year-old who spent $1,400 buying Smurfberries for her little Smurfs in the Smurfs’ Village app. That little financial fiasco prompted Apple to drop the in-app purchase window from 15 minutes to 5. I don’t know about your kids, but mine can still do damage within five minutes. Fortunately, you can disable in-app purchases entirely.

Open the Settings app, tap General and then Restrictions. Next, move the In-App Purchases slider  to the Off position and presto! Little Suzi won’t be able to buy a single Smurfberry.

Additionally, you can prevent the iPhone from playing back music, podcasts or apps with certain ratings. The same goes for TV shows and movies. Best of all, you can choose which country’s rating system to adopt, should you travel often or have a thing for foreign programming. Lastly, Game Center restrictions let you disable multi-player games or adding new friends.

Navigating Away

Another big problem is that kids often navigate away from the app you initially hand over. You give Jr. Angry Birds only to find him watching movies on Netflix a short time later. While there’s no official solution for this from Apple, there is a bit of hardware from Paperclip Robot that does the job.

The BubCap is a sticker that sits on top of your iPhone’s Home Key, making it hard to press. There are three models available: Regular, Ultra and Max. The difference is the thickness; Regular is pretty easy to press while Max is very difficult — even for an adult. There’s no way a young child will be able to press the Home Key and escape Plants Vs. Zombies with one of these in place. Each collection costs only $5 and fixes Jr.’s little wagon but good.

Hardware

For many the problem isn’t in-app purchases or inappropriate Netflix videos, it’s Jr.’s rough-and-tumble manner of handling the iPhone. He’s got no interest in messing with your finance apps but will likely pound your precious into the ground (or at least rub his grubby hands all over it). Here are some hardcore cases that are up for the punishment.

The OtterBox Defender ($49.95). This thing is badass and absolutely up for any punishment Jr. can deliver.

The Woogie iPhone Case + Speaker ($19.99) Soft and cuddly protection with a built-in speaker.

The Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn “iCan Play” Case ($14.99) I’m not convinced that a tiny baby needs an iPhone, but if s/he does, put it in one of these.

On the iTunes End

iTunes offers its own form of parental controls, some of which are quite useful. For example, you can set up a special “allowance” account that you fund with a pre-paid amount of money. Once it’s been spent, it’s gone until you replenish it. Apple explains how:

“1. Open the iTunes Store and click Buy iTunes Gifts from the Quick Links section on the right.

2. Scroll down to the Allowances section and click “Set up an allowance now.”

3. Enter the requested information on the page as follows:

  • Your Name: This is the name that will appear in your message to your recipient, telling him or her who the allowance is from. You can enter anything in this field (Mom, Dad, Aunt Karen, Mr. Cornelius Oswald Whitman III, Fido, or anything else).
  • Recipient’s Name: This is the name we will use to address your recipient in the message.
  • Monthly Allowance: Choose an allowance dollar amount from the pop-up menu. This is the amount that will be deducted from your credit card each month.
  • First Installment: Select the appropriate radio button to either send the allowance immediately (allowance will then be given on the first of the month thereafter), or start the allowance on the first of the next month.
  • Recipient’s Apple ID: Select the appropriate radio button to either create an account for your recipient (if he or she does not already have a iTunes Store account), or enter the recipient’s existing account name. Then type the recipient’s email address (for a new account) or iTunes Store account in the Apple ID fields.
  • Important: If the recipient already has an iTunes Store account, please do not create a new account.
  • Personal Message: This text will appear in your message to your recipient.

4. If you’re not already signed in to the iTunes Store, you may be prompted to sign in using your iTunes account information to complete the allowance process.”

iTunes also offers a list of Parental Controls. To get at them, select Preferences from the iTunes menu and then tap Parental. You’ll find options to disable podcasts, Internet radio, Ping or access to shared libraries, as well as ratings-based content restrictions for movies, TV shows, apps and music. Make these changes to the copy of iTunes that syncs with your iPhone to prevent those files from appearing on the iPhone to begin with.

Of course, the best thing we as parents can do is monitor our kids when they’re playing with our (expensive and, let’s be honest, made-for-adults) iPhones. I don’t always do that and I suspect you don’t, either. For those times, the strategies above will help. Good luck and happy iPhone-ing.