Tech Tips for Avoiding Summer Brain Drain

Tech contributor Mario Armstrong talks with NPR's Farai Chideya ways to keep your children school savvy and still enjoy their summer vacation.

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ED GORDON, host:

It's the time of year kids love and parents dread: summer vacation. Kids enjoy three months of sun, fun and freedom. Their parents, well, they worry about keeping them busy. Now, learning doesn't have to stop when school's out. The Internet, computers, and other devices, bring lots of resources home.

Tech contributor Mario Armstrong shared some tips with NPR's Farai Chideya, including how to make the outdoors educational.

MARIO ARMSTRONG reporting:

I just got back from doing a camping trip and went to the outdoors and had my 3-year-old with me. And we went to Discovery.com, basically the online channel to Discovery. And there's tons - if you go to PBS.org, there are a lot of other educational things that you can do. So you have your choosing.

We did some outdoor things, as well, where we did with insects. And we had some other activities that we did outside and there were a plethora to choose from off of this Discovery Web site. I was really quite shocked with all the activities that other people have given us as ideas to take while we go away on our family trips this summer.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

What about making the best use of the TV or the computer? Maybe you can suggest a couple of games or DVDs that are good learning tools.

CHIDEYA: Ooh, games and DVDs are good learning tools. One of the things that I've noticed at PBS.org, especially on their - see, here again, I'm biased a little bit because I have the 3-year-old. But some of the cartoon series that they have, like Clifford the Dog, Dora the Explorer.

Some of the other things that I found not only just on PBS.org, but there's also e-learning devices. Some of the learning tools outside of what you can do online are like LeapFrog. Very popular tools that you can have fun with, in terms of entertainment as well as education.

But the one that I like the most is made by VTech and it's called the V.Smile. This is a handheld device that's almost like carrying a safe PlayStation with you in the car. And it's available for different ages; everything from as low as 3-year-old all the way up to, say, that 15-year-old that's maybe playing a Nintendo, but also wants to have some educational value. I would look at the V.Smile line of products.

They have really cool laptops, but the gaming device that I'm talking about is the one that allows you to be able to play everything from SpongeBob on one end or learn your numbers or letters with the guys from Sesame Street. So I would look at those types of in-car technologies that you can use that can also eat up some of that travel time, but still give them education and help retain some of what they learned throughout the school year.

CHIDEYA: Finally, if you have older kids, you know, maybe the 'tweens, who are old enough to stay home by themselves, too young to go out and get a job, which I don't even know if parents make kids do that anymore, but I know that I worked in the summers at the ice cream shop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARMSTRONG: And if I didn't...

CHIDEYA: That's just me being cranky.

ARMSTRONG: ...I was cutting grass.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, exactly. But what can you do to make sure that the kids actually aren't watching inappropriate TV stations or going onto unsafe Web sites?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, so this is the classic, because a lot of folks don't know about the tools that you can do within your television as it is already. Several years ago, manufacturers of televisions were required to start making in their televisions the ability for you, as a parent, to have parental controls locked into the programming. That's why programming is rated when you look at it, whether it's childhood - I mean, child programming or whether it's R-rated programming or mature audiences; you can rate that.

You can also - if you look at your menu through your television, or your DVR -have other parental lockout features like times that your device can be used. So there are controls that are already built in with that technology. If you want to take a step outside of that, you can start really looking at whether you want to monitor your kids activities through the Internet at your office, what you can do through a webcam, if you want to go that far. You mentioned NetNanny and those types of tools that allow you to do that, as well.

Other than that, I would really force people - maybe force is a bit strong -but I would challenge people to maybe visit the sites like I mentioned before. I really liked - and I know I said this before - but I really liked Discovery.com Web site. There's just so many creative things that you can do and find for every interest on that site, as well as the PBS.org Web site; a lot of educational things. And a video as well as offline things that you can do to get them outside of the house and still have fun during the summer and learn at the same time.

CHIDEYA: Thank you, Mario.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with NEWS AND NOTES tech contributor Mario Armstrong. Mario also covers technology for Baltimore area NPR member stations WYPR and WEAA.

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