Zoodles Blog Learn and Play Every Day

August 31, 2009

Feeding Inquisitive Minds

Filed under: Family Activities — Erin @ 10:08 pm

Children are naturally inquisitive.  They like to ask questions and when those questions are answered, they have more questions about the answer!  Children are even more inquisitive when the subject matter is personal to them.  So today I want to share a safe and fun way for you to take your child on an information journey online.  Now most journeys online start with a search engine (like Google or Yahoo!), but for this journey we are going to use a new site called WolframAlpha.  Unlike search engines which point you to other websites for information, when you ask WolframAlpha a question, it will simply try to answer it for you.  This means you don’t need to worry about stumbling into sites you would rather your child not see!  It also means that setting up a little scripted journey is easy to do.

So Abbie (our 5 year old) and I started our journey with me telling Abbie that we are going to learn a little bit about her name and the day she was born.  She was immediately interested and promptly told me her full name is Abigail, so I simply typed Abigail into WolframAlpha


I told her that her name was a pretty great name since it is the 8th most popular name right now!  I also told her that many more children are named Abigail than adults since adults just realized how cool of a name it is and started naming their girls Abigail.  I asked her which she thought was more popular, Mark (my name) or Abigail, and she said Mark.



Abigail is a *much* more popular name these days, and I told Abbie that it looks like most of the Marks in the world were my age or older.

Then I asked Abbie for her birthday, which she responded with July 4th (which, by the way is a great birthday since it means I get the day off for all her birthdays!).  It turns out that numerous famous people were born on the 4th of July including the following:


Finally, WolframAlpha has a really cool feature where it has weather information on specific dates in the past, so I asked Abbie if she knew where she was born, and she knew she was born in Boston.  So we put in her birthday and Boston MA into the search box and I told her a little bit about the weather on her birthday.


After this little journey Abbie wanted to go on another journey, and she asked if we could “go under the sea” and take pictures with the photo booth software on my Mac.  So we had Samantha join us and took some pictures for fun:


So go ahead and take 20 minutes and feed your child’s inquisitive mind by taking them on a safe journey online.  Try out WolframAlpha and then keep playing online with Zoodles!

August 28, 2009

Introducing our Education Team

Filed under: Zoodles Blog — Erin @ 9:51 am

One of the great things about starting a company like Zoodles in Silicon Valley is the proximity to Stanford University.  Stanford students and graduates are incredibly bright and hard working, so when it came time to build our education team, we knew we wanted to fill it with graduates from Stanford who focused on education.  Before telling you a bit about each member of the team I want to share with you a little bit about the work the team does.

One of the first tasks the team took on was to dissect and understand both national and state educational standards.  We infused these standards into the Zoodles product which means that we are able to appropriately target games to children based on their age / grade level as well as their specific abilities (e.g. – ability to read).  With this understanding of educational standards the team then scoured the web finding the best games for children and tagging them appropriately.  In short, this team is responsible for ensuring that Zoodles has the most fun & educational content possible for children!  As you will see, we have an incredibly talented and highly qualified team for this task and reading through their bios should give you both a sense of comfort about who is screening content for your children as well as a sense of how seriously we take our role as curators of your child’s internet experience.

Rachel YongRachel Yong started working at Zoodles back in January while also enrolled in Stanford’s Masters Program in Learning, Design, and Technology.  After five years at Stanford (including her undergrad), she is glad to say that she’s finally graduated!  With a passion for using technology to help kids learn, you can imagine what a perfect fit Zoodles is for her. Working on the Zoodles Education Team has been a huge pleasure, both because she’s had the privilege of meeting Debbie and Nicole – extreme content experts – but also because she’s had the chance to start building her own expertise in the domain.  For example, she can confidently say that she now knows the national and state standards better than the back of her hand!  Even more importantly, she’s had the chance to really think about how to structure Zoodles so the games kids play can truly adapt to them and complement their natural cognitive and emotional development.

It’s hard to choose her favorite games after poring over so many great ones, but she can easily say which games she has personally spent playing – “off duty,” of course! – and those would be Fantastic Contraption and Untangle.  For kicks, she’ll also throw in the Most Grating Branded Characters (Based on Laugh), and they would be Dora the Explorer and Curious George…by a LANDSLIDE.

debbieDebbie Heimowitz has been part of the education team at Zoodles for the past seven months. Her background is creating educational films (including the Adina’s Deck series), as well as working at Disney Channel and Warner Bros. She loves discovering new games and videos that are both fun and educational! The most important thing is that kids are having fun while they are learning, which is her favorite part about Zoodles (and, of course, the amazing team!). The ratings and educational features are custom tailored to each child and parent- how cool is that! Debbie holds a Master’s degree in Education from Stanford University and Bachelors degree in Film Studies from UC Berkeley. In addition to Zoodles, Debbie creates & works in children’s films/tv, and teaches 5th/6th grade at a performing arts school. She hopes you are enjoying Zoodles and that you will check back frequently for new updates!

Holthuis FamilyNicole Holthuis has many years of experience as a teacher (high school biology), teacher educator, curriculum developer, educational researcher and evaluator.  She did her undergraduate work at UC Davis in Biology and then continued on at Stanford where she earned a Master’s degree and PhD in education.  She has had the opportunity to apply her skills to classrooms and non-profit programs around the Bay Area, with a focus on improving science curriculum and instruction in heterogeneous classrooms.

Nicole joined the Zoodles team about six months ago and is having a blast switching gears from a focus on learning that happens in the classrooms to learning that happens at home on the computer  She has three children, ages 8, 10, and 12, so she has first-hand knowledge of the challenges of finding safe, quality content on the web that her children will enjoy and learn from.  “One of my favorite things about working at Zoodles is the opportunity it gives me to discover some amazing websites.  There are some really poorly developed educational games and activities out there but there are so many real gems that are fun, stimulating and incredibly educational.  In particular, I tend to get completely caught up in the logic,  problem-solving, and spatial reasoning games that I have been reviewing.  Don’t tell Mark but I’d probably get more work done if some of these sites weren’t so darn challenging yet fun.”  You can check out some of Nicole’s favorites: Stained Glass and Line Rider on Zoodles.

August 24, 2009

5 Great Kid-Approved Reading Games on Zoodles

Filed under: Schools and Learning,Zoodles Blog — Erin @ 5:11 pm

Sometimes getting your kids to read can feel a lot like pulling teeth.  After a long day of school, they might try to convince you that “learning time” is over.  So how do we make “learning time” fun again?  How do we make learning so fun that kids don’t even realize they’re learning, and become eager to learn all the time?

Here at Zoodles we realized that we have a TON of information about how to make this possible.  After all, we have a huge number of kids playing in Zoodles every day, and they’re all learning without even knowing it!  We decided to take a deep dive into our data and see what reading games Zoodles kids have been playing on, and which of them have emerged as the tried-and-true Top 5 Most Fun.  For this study, we focused on kids ages 5 – 6, since the early reading experience (in school and at home) is so critical to a child’s academic success and can even predict reading achievement through 6th grade.  The “funness” of a game was determined by how long kids generally spent playing the game.

Let us know if your kids play these, or other, favorites!

1) Save a Baby Dinosaur!


Your child develops the basics in reading sight words while helping the Wonder Pets save a baby triceratops.

Educational value: Book and Print Basics, Early Reading / Phonics, Sight Words, Reading Comprehension, Elements of a Story

2) What’s In the Bag?


Your child develops logic, matching, and vocabulary skills by listening to a series of words and then choosing the object that those words describe.

Educational Value: Vocabulary and Concept Development, Word Meanings

3) ABC Match


Your child develops early reading and memory skills by matching pictures with the first letter of their name.

Educational Value: Early Reading / Phonics, Matching Letters to Sounds, Decoding and Word Recognition, Syllables / Word Parts

4) Lumpy and Roo, and a Mystery Too!


Your child develops reading skills as well as investigation and matching skills by reading along and solving the mystery.

Educational Value: Reading Comprehension, Elements of a Story

5) Word World


Your child develops spelling skills while using letters to build words.

Educational Value: Early Reading / Phonics, Matching letters to sounds, Spelling, Vowels and Consonants

All the Zoodles-approved games listed here are accessible from a 5- or 6-year-old’s Zoodles Toybox!

August 19, 2009

A night at the museum

Filed under: Family Activities,Zoodles Blog — Erin @ 4:31 pm

Las Madres, a great local parenting group, held an event last night at the San Jose Children’s Discovery Museum.  My wife & I first got involved with Las Madres when we moved to the Bay Area over 3 years ago, and we found the events and playgroups incredibly useful.  In fact, we met many of our good friends in the area through Las Madres.  So last night was a great night – Zoodles was an Children Playing on Zoodlesexhibitor at one of their family events and we had a chance to show Zoodles to both children and parents.  As the picture shows, we had three computers running Zoodles so children could come over and play and I am happy to report that children were engaged the entire evening (actually we had some children still playing 40 minutes after the event officially ended!).

By the way, if you live in the Bay Area, or travel here with family, I highly recommend the Children’s Discovery Museum.  They have lots of great exhibits for both children and parents.  My daughters and I *really* love the Water Works section, and my wife likes to point out that it was built for young children but I am normally the adult there who is having as much fun, if not more fun, than the children.

August 18, 2009

Parents Know Best

Filed under: Parental Controls,Personal Stories — Erin @ 2:16 pm

There’s no shortage of parenting methods and tools available to parents.  My first real experience with “parenting methods” came when Abbie was a baby and we were trying to figure out how we wanted to handle the stressful problem of getting her to sleep through the night.  While often marketed as “one size fits all solutions”, we found that these approaches didn’t work for us for a variety of reasons.  So we researched all the methods, talked to other parents and then selected the approaches that we thought were best for our specific situation.  Ultimately this approach resulted in Abbie sleeping through the night and Tara and I feeling like we did what was best for our child and for us as parents.  What this experience reinforced for me is that every child and family is unique and that what worked for other families may or may not work for us.  The old saying “a parent knows best” proved to be true.

The “parents know best” philosophy drives our approach to building many of our features for parents.  Some parents have strong feelings about the branded characters they want their children to interact with, while others have strong feelings about the type of activities that their child can do online.  An important part of the Zoodles offering are the parental controls we provide to parents that allow them to customize their child’s experience.  Here is a brief overview of the parental control features inside of Zoodles:

Promoting Educational Subjects – We have a team of Stanford-educated educational experts that hand curate the content we offer in our “virtual toybox.”  Part of the process of adding a game to our system is evaluating the educational value of an online game / activity. Since we know what concepts are taught in every game / activity parents can promote games from a specific subject area in their child’s toybox.  All you have to do is adjust the sliders in our Education & Parental Controls section of the parent dashboard:

Zoodles Educational Controls Math and Reading

Blocking Websites, Characters and Games – Every family makes their own decisions about the characters and websites their child is allowed to engage with.  For example, we don’t allow Abbie or Samantha to play with SpongeBob SquarePants.  SpongeBob is just one of the many branded characters we have decided that we don’t want our children engaging with.  We know of many parents who have an aversion to some of our favorite characters (Dora the Explorer, Sid the Science Kid, etc.).  Again, every family is unique, so Zoodles allows parents to block exactly the content they don’t want their child to engage in.  You can block an entire website, block a specific branded character, or even block a specific game that you don’t want your child to play with.  Here is what the interface looks like today to make this simple for you:

Block websites

Block Shows

Block Games

Restricting Types of Content – I have had the pleasure of talking with dozens (if not hundreds) of parents about the role that the computer plays in the life of their family.  One interesting trend has been that many Zoodles users are using Zoodles as a replacement for the TV.  Parents love the fact that the content is engaging, safe, and educational.  Many parents who want to replace “TV time” with “Zoodles time” enjoy the ability to customize what types of content their child can play with (e.g. – block all video content).  Here is what the interface looks like to easily remove or add different types of content to Zoodles:

Content Type Access

In keeping with our “parents know best,” please let us know how you would like to customize your child’s experience by leaving us a comment or sending us an email:  support@zoodles.com

August 13, 2009

Back to schools without books?

Filed under: Schools and Learning,Technology in the Home — Erin @ 3:55 pm

A recent article in the New York Times points to the transition schools will soon be making from textbooks and worksheets to digital books and interfaces.  Despite the generally optimistic outlook schools might have towards a digital future, mck12any parents are hesitant to feel the same.  There’s concern that something indescribable will be missing from their child’s education with the dearth of the textbook.  Here at Zoodles we thought we’d take a step back and look at what the Digital Era could mean for you as a parent, and how to come to terms with its transition into schools.  If you have any thoughts of your own on the matter, we would love to hear them!

  1. Moving to free, open-source digital textbooks alleviates a significant amount of the financial burden on state education systems, particularly if students already have access to some electronic form of distribution.  It can be extremely costly to keep traditional textbooks updated, and in a rapidly changing world, they’re quick to become outdated.  The transition helps your child get only the latest information in schools, and it also saves their backs from such heavy loads!
  2. Teachers are no longer forced to create lesson plans in subjects beyond their expertise or duplicate work that’s already been done by others.  Instead, they can combine their efforts and form a pool of only the best educational content online.  Saving teachers from having to sift through thousands of websites and activities on their own gives them more time to learn about your child.
  3. Kids are wired differently these days. With growing research on all the ways kids use digital media, it’s clear that kids are developing new (and necessary) skills for a changing world.  This generation of toddlers and teenagers are growing up setting the DVR to record their favorite shows, sending emails rather than letters, and tapping into the Internet every day knowing that they have an infinite base of knowledge at their fingertips.  Even from the usability testing that we do here at Zoodles, we’ve had some superhuman three year olds show us how to use the mouse, the keyboard, and scrollbar to play – and even cheat – at complex computer games!
  4. While the transition to digital in schools may be scary, there’s also a great opportunity to let the change carry over into your home.  With the Internet, you and your child gain access to worlds of amazing educational content, right from the comfort of your own home.

Thus, as a parent, you face the same responsibility that many teachers face every day – filtering thousands of pages of content down to only the best content for your kids.  Inspired by the open-source model described in the Times article, we decided to track down the best up-and-coming websites for finding open-source textbooks and curricula.


The first is Curriki, a non-profit organization started by Sun Microsystems with the intent of “creating a community that supports the development and free distribution of world-class educational materials to anyone who needs them.”


The second is CK-12, a non-profit organization with the mission of “reducing the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market, using an open-content, web-based collaborative model termed the “FlexBook.”  While the content on CK-12 is currently very focused on high school, the platform enables parents and teachers to share content for all grades.


Third is Scholastic’s TeacherShare, a new project by Scholastic that was founded with the mission of “making high quality educational content and tools freely available on the web.”

Finally, there’s Zoodles.  Like the others, Zoodles was founded to help you as a parent traverse the often-intimidating world of the Internet, and easily put only the latest and greatest educational content in front of your child.  Unlike the others, however, we focus our help on parents with younger children.  These are the parents who face the unique challenge of introducing their children to computers and the Internet for the first time, who spend late nights looking for activities that match their child’s rapidly changing abilities, and who worry that along the way the wrong website  will slip through.  With Zoodles, we hope that parents everywhere can feel equipped to face the digital future, whether it happens in schools or at home.

August 11, 2009

Preparing For The School Year

Filed under: Personal Stories,Technology in the Home — Erin @ 1:02 am

I admit it, I am a little nervous.  Normally at this time of the year I am nervous because I am waiting to see how the Chicago Cubs will break my heart… but that isn’t the case this year.  No, this year I am not nervous about the Cubs (this really is our year!), I am actually a little nervous because my oldest daughter is starting kindergarten!  This monumental event has had two questions running through my mind over the weekend:

  1. How did my little girl get old enough to go to kindergarten?
  2. With just a week until school starts, what can we do to have Abbie brush up on some math and reading basics?

Since Tara, my wife, will tell me that the answer to the first question is “you are getting old”, I will focus on trying to answer the second question.

Much has been written about the concept of “Summer Learning Loss”, so Tara has worked hard to keep Abbie engaged over the summer in numerous academic activities.  As Zoodles longest running user (yes, I exposed Abbie to our product *very* early… poor kid was our first tester ;-)), Abbie does love playing on the computer.  So this week we have decided to use a newly updated feature of Zoodles that allows parents to “promote” educational subjects in their child’s toybox.  The following picture shows our new interface which equally weights all the academic areas:

Zoodles Educational Controls

Given that we are interested in Abbie brushing up on her math and reading skills we have gone ahead and increased the focus on these subjects by simply moving the sliders up.  As you can see from the color coded representations of games, Abbie now has more math and reading games in the front of her toybox.  Pretty cool!

Zoodles Educational Controls Math and Reading

So now Zoodles parents across the country can let their child play online while also influencing exactly what subject areas they are going to be playing in!

August 6, 2009

When’s the right time to buy a laptop for your kids?

Filed under: Technology in the Home — Erin @ 3:01 pm

With the summer winding down and school just around the corner, many parents might be considering buying a laptop for their child. The recent onslaught of cheap and durable Netbooks available brings the question to nearly every parent’s mind:

Is now the right time?

The Disney Netpal in Princess Pink

The Disney Netpal in Princess Pink

Just this week, Disney has begun shipping its first line of laptops geared towards kids ages 6 – 12. The “Disney Netpal,” released in Princess Pink and Magic Blue, comes equipped with web-safe browsing and email, WiFi capability, USB connectivity, and a 0.3 megapixel webcam. On top of being marketed as sturdy and spill proof, the laptop weighs only 2.20 lbs and features an 8.9 inch display. The Netpal is just the latest to join the ranks of the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) and Classmate PC in the growing market of laptops for kids.

While none of us at Zoodles have had the chance to play with one yet, the $350 Disney Netpal inspired us to find out what kinds of questions parents should be asking themselves before reaching into their wallets to buy a laptop for their child.

Here’s what we found:

First, it’s really important to think about why you want to buy a laptop for your child in the first place, and what needs in your home you think it will fill.  Is your child watching too much television?  Many parents have the desire to replace television time with something better for their child, but just don’t have the time to find it.  As a quick fix, many parents feel that buying a laptop will do the trick, and that having a laptop will automatically make their children more prepared academically.  And yes, while research does show that having and using a computer in the home is positively correlated with academic achievement, there’s no distinction made between desktops and laptops (1). Keeping that in mind, there’s no reason why the desktop that you already have in your home needs to be replaced or supplemented.

Instead, what really matters is the kind of content that you’re putting in front of your child. A 2005 study from the Journal of Research in Childhood Education showed that kindergartners who frequently use educational math and literacy software or games are more likely to have high academic achievement (1). What this means for you as a parent is that getting your child off the TV isn’t enough, their time needs to be supplemented with interactive educational material to really make an impact.

Another reason many parents consider purchasing a laptop for their child is because they want him or her to be in a safe, contained online environment. Contained in both senses of the word – parents don’t want their kids to get access to inappropriate content, but they also don’t want their kids messing with Mommy or Daddy’s personal websites and applications!

The problem with buying a laptop to alleviate this fear, however, is that it has the potential to open a whole new panoply of other dangers. A laptop enables your child to use the computer anywhere they want, including a friend’s house, or their bedroom, where their online activities go unsupervised. In fact, Common Sense Media suggests keeping computers out of kids’ bedrooms until late middle school, when your child is old enough to understand basic Internet safety. If you’re ready to have that discussion with your child, take a look at some of the ground rules recommended by Common Sense Media to get started.

Here at Zoodles we believe we address both the concerns that might drive you to purchase a laptop. We not only provide your child with educational math and literacy content, but we contain your child in a safe and engaging online environment that you can always control and monitor, no matter what kind of computer they’re on, or where they might be playing. So whether you decide to take the plunge and buy a Disney Netpal or not, Zoodles has you and your family covered.

(1) Judge, Sharon. 2005. “The impact of computer technology on academic achievement of young African American children” Journal of Research in Childhood Education. (2005). Print.

August 3, 2009

How we (the Williamson Family) use Zoodles

Filed under: Personal Stories — Erin @ 12:03 pm

Every child and family are unique, but I thought it would be useful to share how Zoodles has become a part of our weekly routine in the Williamson household.  Abbie, our 5 year old daughter, like all children her age has a diverse set of interests.  She loves doing arts & crafts, playing outside, playing with her younger sister, swimming, watching TV, playing on the computer, etc.  Like all parents, Tara and I are constantly evaluating what activities are appropriate for a given situation.  There are specific situations where Zoodles is the perfect activity.

We have found that any time watching TV was a suitable option, Zoodles was typically a better option.  The television is a passive experience where children “lean back” and absorb the experience.  Abbie is intellectually much more engaged when she is on Zoodles and learning through playing games.  Prior to Zoodles, the internet simply wasn’t a replacement for “TV time” since the experience often resulted in her calling us over every 15 minutes with some technical problem (e.g. – pop-up windows, accidentally closing the browser, etc.) and we simply weren’t comfortable leaving her alone on the computer because she would invariably end up on some other site through clicking around and that made us nervous.  Zoodles solved both of these problems for us since the interface is made for children and the service controls what sites children are allowed to play with.

We have also found that Zoodles is a great “wind down” activity.  After a day full of activities (swim lessons, play date, etc.) Abbie can become pretty exhausted, we often find ourselves looking for an activity that Abbie can do on her own, at her own pace, that will allow her to “wind down” while giving Tara and I a chance to catch-up on the days tasks that we haven’t gotten to yet.  Any parent reading this will recognize this type of activity and the value of having a “go-to” activity at this point in the day.

Finally, we have found that Zoodles is a great way to find new topical areas for Abbie to explore.  Her interest in making charts and measuring objects was piqued after watching a great Sid the Science Kid video.  Seeing Abbie discover entirely new topics to explore is incredibly rewarding, and I will admit it was even more rewarding since in this instance it involved a topic I also love!

Every family is unique and I am certain that other parents have found completely different ways to use Zoodles in their home.  If you happen to have a great use for Zoodles that you think others should know about feel free to leave a comment to this post.

Powered by WordPress