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Finally, track your period and your steps

Finally, track your period and your steps

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I bought an Apple Watch. More specifically, I decided my Christmas presents would add up to an Apple Watch. Before that, I supported the Pebble smartwatch on kickstarter. I had a fitbit for awhile.

So you know, I’m into this smart watch/tracking stuff thing.

I track my bike rides, the food I eat, the steps I take, how long I sleep. But for some reason, none of these neat little things track something all women I know have tracked since they were about 13: our periods.

Yes I know there are many apps for that, but how can the all-knowing Apple Health app offer to track practically everything, but not my menstrual cycle? Is it really just because there’s only men in the room when they plan these features?

Then there’s tracking apps themselves. Why are they all pink with flowers? Menstruating is not a big deal, it’s just a monthly biological cycle. I don’t like talking or looking at people’s teeth, but I don’t feel any need to make a huge deal about it when someone talks about their dentist appointment, toothpaste, or bleaching stuff.

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Now that we’ve all agreed we’re grownups, I have to tell you about this new tracking gadget. The Leaf by Bellabeat. It’s not sporty, it’s doesn’t scream TECH OBJECT, it’s wearable in several ways. You can track your monthly cycle, and see how your exercise, sleep, and breathing changes in relation to it. Doesn’t that sound interesting and useful? I have to say, this isn’t hard stuff, but somehow no one has bothered before now. Possibly my favourite part of this is the 6-month battery life. Yes, you read that correctly. Six. Months. All of this for about $130 US. The preorders are flying out the door, so if you’re thinking about it, do it now. I ordered mine yesterday.

Congratulations to Bellabeat’s Urška Sršen, and thanks for making a piece of tech that addresses our needs.

Images courtesy of Bellabeat. This post contains affiliate links. 

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Three Great Problem-solving iPad Games for kids

Three Great Problem-solving iPad Games for kids

One of my son’s favourite type of iPad game is the well-designed problem solver. It’s not something he gets jump-up-and-down excited about, but they are the ones with staying power.

Our favourites right now:

Monument Valley

Walk a small girl through an Escher-like landscape, twisting and turning pieces of the structures to reveal new pathways. It really challenges ideas about up and down, directions and perspective. There’s a beautiful soundtrack that draws you in, as well as a flock of mysterious birds that appear throughout the level. Gorgeous game that’s won many awards for good reason. My son has played this one through countless times. Monument Valley game by ustwo

 

Odd Bot Out

How Martin Magni, the indie developer behind Odd Bot Out, managed to imbue a single block with an eyeball and legs with a personality, I don’t know. But my son loves this one. You walk your block bot around obstacles using switches, cables, other bots, and magnetic blocks to finish each level. The difficulty doesn’t ramp up too quickly, which is a failure of so many of the other problem-solving games we’ve tried, so my 5 year old has been playing this one for weeks. Odd Bot Out by Martin Magni

 

Gesundheit!

This one appealed to my five year old right away, in that the whole premise is sneaking around obstacles and distracting monsters by sneezing snot they chase after and eat. That sounds unbelievably disgusting, but somehow the cute animation style makes it hilarious and not all that gross (really). The tinkly, tweepop soundtrack makes a nice change from your average game music too. Where does the problem solving come in? It’s all about bouncing snot off walls at certain angles, planning your route, and patience. Gesundheit! game by Matt Hammill

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Robotics and electronics for kids: where to start

Robotics and electronics for kids: where to start

robotics-text

Wouldn’t it be cool to ask your child: ’Do you want to build a robot that feeds your fish?’

The answer is clearly yes, but that’s going to take a degree in engineering and a large workshop full of tools you don’t have to sort out isn’t it? Actually, no.

There’s been a cool scene brewing out there, sometimes referred to as ‘maker culture’, all about getting down to brass tacks and building something cool. Parents have been at the forefront –  making neat stuff with and for their kids. I’m sure you’ve done the same, really, whether it’s involving your kids in baking cookies, feeding the chickens, gardening, crocheting, tie-dying, and whatever else you happen to know about. This particular corner of the maker universe is all about electronics, coding, robotics, and wearable technology.

What I find fascinating about this whole scene is the positivity. There are loads of companies focused on enabling everyone to build Cool Stuff. The sheer volume of creativity is stunning. Frozen cosplay? Totally, here are 27 tutorials on everything from Elsa’s tiara to using bits of glass to truly capture the idea of that glittery cape. Light up your shoes with flexible LEDs? Sure. Stitch lights and sensors into your skirt so it lights up when you move? Yep.

If you’re looking to get started in the world of electronic stuff, there are a couple routes to take. Key things to know here: as the supervising adult, you will have to help if your child is younger than about 8 or 9, but my 5 year old is perfectly able to get in there and do a project with adult assistance. You don’t need any previous electronics or coding experience to do these beginner steps. The documentation and videos that go with these kits are excellent and easy to follow.

There two main companies that make beginner kits for kids: Snap Circuits and littleBits.

Snap Circuits is electrical engineering for kids. You get a basic breadboard (that flat thing you attach wires and components to) and things like resistors, LEDs, and sound-producing components. The Snap Circuits Jr kit includes 100 different experiments to build, including a doorbell, flying saucer, and alarm. Everything is in plastic holders, and it requires no additional tools. Snap Circuits is all about the technical elements of electronics: how parallel circuits work, how resistors work, that kind of thing. The basic 100 experiments kit costs $30.

littleBits, however, is more like programming for kids. Each piece snaps to another, which you can attach to a person, a playdough sculpture, a LEGO car, a windmill made of craft sticks… really anything. The base kit includes things like a DC motor, a pressure sensor, a light sensor, and a bright LED. It’s much more 3D than the Snap Circuits, and would be a good entry point into robotics. However, it’s more expensive. The littleBits base kit is $100 US, and it’s a challenge to get in Canada without paying their (starting at) $37 shipping charges. It seems expensive when you think of it as a toy, but when viewed as a beginner robotics kit, it seems more reasonable.

If you have older children who are really keen, the world of Arduino is like peeking into Narnia through the wardrobe. This is where you get into the really cool wearable tech, complicated robotics, and, it should be said, requirements for more tools. Though all you really need to start out is a $10 wire stripper. Arduino is an open-source electronics platform that was designed to make building robots and things like that easier for hobbyists. There are countless books, blogs, instructions, and plans out there for incredible things you can build with Arduino components. Start with the Arduino site, then move on to Make: magazine, and adafruit to see what’s possible.

Electronics shops sell Arduino kits and components, and it’s easier to find in Canada than littleBits. The Official Arduino Starter Kit is about $125, and includes instructions (and all the bits) for projects like a light theremin, a lamp that responds to touch, a colour-mixing lamp, and a motorized pinwheel. It does require some basic coding, so this wouldn’t be very fun for kids much younger than 12. The sky’s the limit with additional components. You can find cheaper base kits at about $50, and if you know exactly what you want, you can buy the Arduino microprocessor itself for about $30. However, I can’t be held responsible if you’re pricing out 3D printers by next Christmas.

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Five tips for geocaching with kids

Five tips for geocaching with kids

geocaching with kids

Like many preschoolers, my son seems to have an unusual attachment to the Newtonian laws of motion. Getting him outside can be hard, but then getting him dressed is hard. Once he’s rolling out the door, however, he can’t stop jumping up and down.

This spring we’ve taken to geocaching, or as my son calls it, treasure hunting.

After downloading an app on your phone, you can view the treasures (or caches) around your neighbourhood. Suddenly there’s all these little things hidden everywhere and you had no idea. It’s one of my favourite things about geocaching, revealing that other layer.

Generally, a cache is a small tupperware box with little toys and things in it, as well as a small pad for writing your name and the date on it. Some caches are tiny and only have the logbook, or a tightly rolled piece of paper to record your name.

Here are some things we’ve found that makes going on a geocache treasure hunt a bit easier:

1. Bring something to trade. Caching etiquette is to take something and leave something of equal or greater value behind – so best to have a stash of dollar store cars, marbles, and whatnot with you. Also bring a pen or a pencil for writing your entry in a nanocache, as they don’t usually have anything in there but the log sheet.

2. Research before you go. Caches can take awhile to find, as they’re ingeniously hidden. Before we head out as a family, we (meaning the parents, often the night before) research the caches we’re going to look for, which includes reading all the hints, and checking all the photos. This isn’t strictly the way you’re supposed to do it – but when you’ve got small people jumping up and down next to you, 20 minutes of nuanced searching is not really going to happen. Sometimes, too, you’re required to climb to a less-than-safe spot, or duck under fences, not particularly things I want to encourage in a 4-and-a-half year old. Obviously, you will know best what your kids are up for, and tailor this one to their ages.

3. Have a talk about failure. A conversation about the possibility of not finding any treasure is well worth having before you leave. Nothing like a meltdown in the middle of a busy area because there’s nothing there. That brings us to the next tip…

4. Pick an area with a few caches close together. If your first attempt doesn’t yield any treasure, having a back-up (or two) close by makes success more likely. And your smaller treasure hunting mates more keen on the outing the next time.

5. Just buy the app. There’s a website you can search, but the official $10 app is the best bet. Easy to use, clear and map-enabled, the app helps you keep track of caches you’ve already found. It may seem steep, but think about paying for a movie for the family, or a visit to a museum.

Do you look for geocaches with kids? What are your tips?

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Board games: Castle Panic

Board games: Castle Panic

castle panic

One of our favourite games at the moment is [amazon_link id=”B002IUFSPM” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Castle Panic[/amazon_link]. It’s a co-operative game, which makes a nice change from straight I-win-you-lose competition. 

You and your fellow players are attempting to defend your castle against marauding monsters who are approaching from all sides, making their way from the forest to your castle walls. There are little stand up pieces to represent castle towers and castle walls that sit in the centre of the board, which is divided into coloured zones and rings. There are no tokens to move every turn, rather each player tries to knock out as many monsters as possible using the cards in their hand: a selection of colour-coded archers, knights and swordsmen. There are some special cards that allow a player to throw monsters back into the forest, tar monsters to keep them from moving forward, and rebuild walls. All monsters move towards the centre, and more monsters are chosen and placed on the board before it’s the next player’s turn. The monsters win if they can knock down all your castle towers. The players win if they defeat all the monsters with at least one castle tower still standing. All the monsters. And there are a 49 of them.

A full game runs about half an hour. Our 4 and a half year old can play his turn without a lot of help from us, despite not being able to read the cards (each one has a picture, and I think he’s starting to recognize the words now too). We let him pick the monsters for each of our turns, which keeps him involved in each turn. Because it’s a co-operative game, there is discussion every turn about who will use what card and when, and trading as well. Each player rolls the die to decide which zone the new monsters will be placed in, and we also let him do these rolls as well. Special monsters that trigger other events, like adding even more monsters or moving all existing monsters in another ring, keep that part of the turn a bit unpredictable. After playing it just about twice a day for a couple of weeks, our son has all the attributes of the special monsters memorized (‘Mummy! The Orc Warlord moves all monsters forward!’), as well as getting excited when the Fortify Wall card comes up.

It’s a good mix of simple game play and unpredictability, making it interesting enough to play again and again. There’s a [amazon_link id=”B009YQGES8″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Wizard’s Tower expansion to the game[/amazon_link] we haven’t tried out yet, too. It’s also one of the cheaper ones out there, retailing for about $35.

The age range on the box suggest 10 and up, but I think a 6 year old would have no trouble playing unaided. Also labelled for 1-6 players, and it really is entertaining for just 2 players. That’s a bit critical, because many of these more interesting board games don’t work very well with fewer than 4 players. This one is an exception.

Watch the Castle Panic episode of Tabletop to get a sense of the gameplay, and because it’s a pretty hilariously accurate representation of most of our own Castle Panic games.

Fireside Games

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