Zoodles Blog Learn and Play Every Day

June 29, 2010

We think Shrek can do more for your children than sell Happy Meals

Contributed by Dave Young Director of Product Design

Contributed by Dave Young, Zoodles Director of Product Design

The characters that children love are powerful tools able to incite both positive and negative behavioral patterns in children. It isn’t hard to find examples of how cartoon characters can undermine a parent’s authority in deciding how to raise their children.  However the interests of the businesses that create this content and the families that consume it don’t have to be at odds.

It’s easy to understand the motives of each group at a high level. Content creators want to entertain your children so that they can influence your consumer habits, while Parents want to raise children that are happy, healthy, and smart.

Between these lines there is great opportunity to align the interests of both parties. The company that aligns itself with the interests of parents is the better company.

Raising happy children:

Everyone is thrilled to be working together to help parents raise happy children. If a character makes a child happy, the parent is happy and will buy branded merchandise which makes the company happy. For this reason there’s a ton companies out there competing to entertain your children. We should recognize this as an opportunity for parents to expect more from these brands and be more selective over which characters they allow into their homes.

Raising healthy children:

It’s really hard for busy parents to raise healthy children and frustrating when their efforts are at odds with some of the branded characters their children love.  The content creators, in the effort to get better brand exposure, are inadvertently harming your children by associating their brands with foods that lead to serious health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

This has been popping up a  lot in the news lately:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is threatening to sue McDonald’s if they don’t stop distributing Happy Meal toys within 30 days. CSPI claims the use of Happy Meal toys is illegal and predatory and lures kids into unhealthy eating habits.

“McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children. McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children’s developmental immaturity — all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health. It’s a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction,” stated CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner in a letter to McDonald’s CEO.

The findings, reported online June 21 in Pediatrics, reflect on the food preferences of 4- to 6-year-old boys and girls who found foods tastier when the packaging bore the likenesses of beloved TV and movie characters.

“So the priority should be first to get these characters off of unhealthy foods,” she added. “And then as a goal ultimately to get them actually put on the packaging for healthy foods. But first we have to focus on dealing with the unhealthy options, because I don’t think slapping them on healthy foods while they’re still on unhealthy foods is going to work.”


Raising smart children:

Unfortunately both parents and teachers face some really tough challenges in these economic times. Budgets are being cut left and right in our schools and at home.

Zoodles is working really hard on a very creative solution that aligns the interests of content creators with those of parents and teachers. Content creators are a bit ahead of the curve trying to market the brands you buy offline by providing free games online (eg. Dora The Explorer Games, Blues Clues Games, Sid the Science Kids Games, Curious George Games, Lego Games etc etc). The internet is a great place for these brands to market themselves because parents and teachers have come to accept that while TV “rots the brain” computers offer new interactive educational opportunities.

However, parents and teachers need a solution that doesn’t require their constant supervision. They’re afraid of their children accidentally deleting files or navigating to content that’s inappropriate or too advanced for them to play independently. They’re afraid of these things because they happen all the time.  Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome are all designed for adults and are too complicated for children to use on their own.  Parents can’t Google to find the best games for their children because Google’s search engine doesn’t understand the ways in which their child is currently developing or the implications of their child’s special needs. Google doesn’t know how to rank search results for your child based on the state and national educational standards. Even when parents leave their children alone on reputable childrens sites, their children are exposed to images and video advertisements for Viagra, the Playboy Bunnies, and violent video games that, thanks to these advertisements, are only a click away.

This is the reason why Mark Williamson founded Zoodles, and we have something really great to offer. Our service is designed to be simple and easy to use for both parents and children. All parents have to do is enter in their child’s birthdate and we help you select the best content for their age, making sure that all the games they play are both fun and educational.  As your child gets older, Zoodles adjusts the games we recommend to them to help them develop the skills that they are currently learning. We have an educational team that helps us select the best of Nick Jr Games, PBS Kids Games, Disney Games, and National Geographic Kids Games. We also have games from some sites you probably haven’t thought to visit before, including the best of NASA Kids Games, StarFall Games, American Girl Games, Fact Monster Games, Nobel Prize Educational Kids Games etc etc  (the list goes on and on).

Kids are happy because they are having fun. Parents are happy because their children are learning while playing independently. Content providers have the opportunity to build stronger relationships with young families. Best of all, everything I just mentioned is free!   :D

Zoodles also offers some great premium features for parents that want to have a more proactive role in their child’s development.  We help parents block ads, set time limits, adjust violence filters, and block the brands they might be getting sick of (eg Barney Games).  Parents can even choose to promote educational subjects to help their child spend more time playing fun math games or fun reading games.

Parents and Teachers are excited that they can now review the educational merits of the games and brands that are available online. Content providers for the first time are able to quickly identify what skill sets their target demographic needs help learning and quickly assess the strengths and weaknesses of their competition in that space.

We think Shrek can do a lot more for your children than sell Happy Meals.

There’s a huge opportunity ahead of us for brands to align with the interests of both parents and teachers. With so many brands to choose from, parents should have more control over which brands they welcome into their home, based on the quality of content coming from these characters.

June 27, 2010

Six Tips for a Calmer, Happier Summer for Your Family

Filed under: Family Activities — Tags: , , , — Erin @ 2:00 pm

Guest blog by Renee Brown, owner of Restoration Organizationfamily image

There’s so much to love about summertime, but with all of that comes a new dizzy level of crazed activity for families of young kids. Day camps, swimming lessons and lack of school year structure can throw the best of us into a tailspin. Is there hope? Absolutely! With a bit of attention to creating new organized processes and systems, you can turn this summer into your best one yet.

  1. Write it Down: First and foremost, you must have one and only one calendar for everything. Think about what makes the most sense for you and your family. A huge monthly one posted in the kitchen? An electronic version on the computer? Perhaps the calendar on your phone? Whatever you pick, make it the one place you visit at least a couple times a day to enter new information and events, update details and of course, to see what’s on deck for the day. What will make this the most successful is if you train yourself to input everything: soccer, games, camps, weddings and family get-togethers. Train your family to check the calendar frequently to keep track of their own events.
  2. Mom’s Taxi: Since summer generally means an abundance of driving to and fro, think of your vehicle as a second home. What would be helpful and useful? Mandatory items include a hanging garbage bag (mine hangs behind the front passenger seat and gets emptied each time I gas up, so there’s never an overflow issue), a container of wipes (lifesavers!), a first aid kit, blankets for an impromptu picnic or for rain-drenched bleachers, box of tissues (summer allergies, anyone?), a small notepad and a few pens, activity items for younger kids, hand lotion, lip balm, bug spray and sunscreen. Look around your home for small boxes or containers (how about those gift-with-purchases bags that seem to multiply?) to corral the items in your car.
  3. House Rules: These will vary according to your children’s ages and stages, but ideas include no wet swimsuits on the floor, no running in the house, no TV or Zoodles until after breakfast, beds made immediately, etc. Summer is also a great time to teach kids new skills, such as how to do laundry and clean a bathroom. Remember, even though you know you can do these jobs faster and more efficiently yourself, your kids need to learn these all-important life skills and the sooner, the better. I taught my sons to do their laundry when they were in 4th grade and after a short learning curve, they never looked back! Now as teens they have learned to think ahead and wash their baseball uniform before the game. Success!
  4. Taking time to just enjoy: We all love to savor these three sunny months each year, so please don’t over schedule, jam-packing each day so everyone gets exhausted and crabby. Build in some fun, simple activities, such as lying on blankets in the backyard at night to view the stars, catching lightning bugs, or getting up early and watching the sunrise with a picnic breakfast. Remember, sometimes the most valuable moments are the simplest!
  5. De-Clutter: Summer is also a terrific time to go through kids’ clothes, books and toys. Set a goal and create a plan so that you have done this for all of your kids before school starts up, otherwise there will be no room for new fall clothes and the onslaught of new school papers and projects. Get your kids involved in this process and gently help them let go of things that are no longer relevant. To make it an even more valuable experience, bring the kids along when you donate the items to a shelter or non-profit. Make sure to go one step further and explain how their former belongings will be a blessing to someone else.
  6. Corral the Art: Another good summertime sorting-through project is going through your kids’ artwork. Make time to sift through a pile and let your child tell you about each one. Take pictures of them holding their favorites. Consider creating an art gallery of their best work. You can buy cheap frames at garage sales, and create a fancy show piece. Think about where the art could be displayed, perhaps the wall going downstairs? A big wall in the family room? Don’t forget about big wall spaces such as your garage. Another great way to use artwork is to gift it to family and friends or, use it as gift wrap or to make a card. Win-win for everyone!

So you see, with a little planning and a little project management, before you know it, things will feel a lot less crazed. After all, summer is meant to be savored not just survived. You never know when you are making a new memory!

Author Byline


Renee L Brown, Owner Restoration Organization

Renee Brown was born organized and after helping friends and family through the years, she finally began a freshly minted career as a professional organizer with her company Restoration Organization. Her specialties include whole-house de-cluttering, management and organization. She loves working with busy families and professionals, helping them create more space and peacefulness. A former editor for TV Guide Magazine, Renee has juggled many communications gigs through the years, all while single-handedly raising her two teenage boys. Her website is www.restorationorg.weebly.com and you can find her blog at http://mom-interrupted.blogspot.com

June 25, 2010

Using Your Garden to Grow Minds


Guest blog by Stephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D.

You can use your garden to grow minds as well as food.  The very things that are necessary to make a garden grow food, flowers, and hay can also be used to educate children in science and math, reading, following directions, nutrition, and cooking.  Even something as mundane as pulling weeds can involve lessons in taxonomy and composting.

Taxonomy lessons

For example, your child can sort the weeds into piles of similar plants.  A simple guide to weeds is not very expensive and usually has big pictures for easy identification.  Using the shapes of the leaves, color of the flowers, and type of stems, the child can work to identify the type of weed.  This can lead into a discussion about the life cycle of a plant and why some are useful in the garden and others are not.  The same plants that are pests in the garden might be grown in a pasture.


After the weeds are identified, you and your child can work on a simple compost pile.  If you have 2548355070_ec3ea13411hoofed animals, you have a source of manure.  If not, kitchen scraps that are not from meat or fat can be used.  Layers of weeds and manure or scraps can be made, or laid on an existing compost pile.  The child can have a small one that he or she can turn and monitor until it becomes rich compost.  This compost can then be returned to the garden so the cycle can start again.

Soil test

Check with your local Extension Office for the best soil test kits (they are inexpensive and sometimes even free!).  A soil test can be used for several lessons.  Start with elements and which ones are important in growing plants. Move on to how those elements get into soil, and how soil is formed.  A hands on lesson can involve the gathering of the soil needed for the test.  Shovel a little dirt from five or six sites and allow the child to mix it with his or her hands.  Then let them pack the soil into the sample bag.

Plant circulation systems

While you are waiting for the results, which will take about two weeks, you can cover photosynthesis and how plants take up water and nutrients from the soil.  Roots need food, so the plant’s circulatory system, a simple one, can come next.  Finally, you can discuss why plants are green and go over chlorophyll.

Soil test results

When the soil test results come back, it is time for a little math.  Usually, for lawns, the results are expressed in Soilpounds of element per 1,000 square feet.  Fertilizer usually comes in 40 pound sacks that only have a percentage of the element in them, with the rest being carrier.  You can cover fractions and multiplication while figuring out how much of the bag to spread to meet the recommendations.  You can go to the Tulsa Master Gardeners website and find calculators to make this easier for you and smaller children.

If these topics have wet your interest, there are lots more where they came from.  In fact, there are two years of curriculum in science, math, literature, and various other topics available from the United States for the cost of the books.  Children who complete the curriculum may be certified as Junior Master Gardeners. It is possible to teach much more than where food comes from if even a small spot is under cultivation.

Author Byline

StephStephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D.  is a master gardener, photographer, and writer in Texas.  You can see her photographs and read her work at http://blog.stephaniesuesansmith.com.

June 23, 2010

Home Security During the Summer Party Season

Filed under: Family Activities — Tags: , , , , , — Erin @ 2:56 pm

pool bbqWith the warm weather here, you’re probably cleaning out your swimming pool and pulling out the patio chairs. As kids get out on summer break and the days get longer and hotter, it’s the perfect time to plan a summer barbecue or a party. Entertaining outdoors during the summertime is certainly a lot of fun, though it also comes with some responsibility!

Open house for burglars?

Unless you have a doorman, it’s impossible to personally greet everyone as they walk into your home. During the party, you’ll probably end up leaving both the front and back door unlocked and open so that guests can come and go. Though this is certainly convenient, it isn’t always prudent. Doing so may invite unwanted elements into your home because they can tell that you’re having a lot of people over, and with that comes the potential for them to get lost in the crowd. Consider buying a hidden camera or “nanny cam” to record what goes on when you aren’t there.

Introduce yourself

If you plan to host a summer party, don’t take this as a warning to keep your home shut off from the outside. Instead, keep in mind that you need to pay attention to the faces in the crowd. Perhaps your Valuablesfriends or coworkers have brought someone you’ve never met to your summer bash. If you haven’t been introduced to someone you see inside your home during the party, now is the time to do so. If someone has slipped in unbeknownst to the host or guests, everyone might assume that they are there with someone else, and they will be free to rob small valuables left lying around, as well as scope out your home for a future robbery.

Lock your private rooms

None of your guests will feel offended if you lock up certain rooms of the home, such as your bedroom or home office. Use locks or motion alarms to keep guests away from these areas during the party. After all, guests shouldn’t be wandering into these places anyway, when they could be outdoors enjoying the party. It also makes sense to do a quick sweep of your home before the guests arrive to remove any small and valuable objects from the areas guests are likely to be.

Remember your swimming pool

pool alrm picFinally, if you do have a backyard pool, it is your duty as the homeowner to keep your guests safe around it. Even if the pool is off-limits for swimmers during the summer bash, the possibility still exists for someone to fall in. A pool alarm will alert you to a child or adult in the pool, whether you have dozens of guests over for a party or are home alone with your family. This simple device is a must-have security feature for any pool owner to install. With the start of summer and the swimming season, now is the time to buy a pool alarm.

Inviting dozens of guests over to enjoy a summer evening at your home is 2834603121_pool nitecertainly an enjoyable occasion, but the night could take a sudden turn if you return indoors to find that you’ve been robbed while you were on the patio entertaining your guests. Whenever you have a large number of people in your home, be mindful of the security threat that this presents, and take the necessary precautions.

Author Byline

Tara-HomeSecGuest Blog by Tara Shaw, a mother of three happily living in Austin, Texas.Tara was born in England and moved to USA in 1998. Together with her husband James she started the Resist Attack website in 2009 to make available a wide variety of personal safety products and to educate families on how to stay safe. So far they have published over 250 articles on the subject.

June 20, 2010

Father’s Day with Zoodles CEO, Mark Williamson

Filed under: Family Activities — Erin @ 11:20 am

dadFor those of us here at Zoodles, Father’s Day is more than just an event to squeeze in amidst schools closing for summer, signing kids up for camps, and attending graduation party after graduation party.  Of course we all have our own Father’s to buy ties for (they’re in the mail folks, they are in the mail!) but if it were not for one particular father, this company would not exist today. And  because of that, we here at Zoodles have found a new level of appreciation for Father’s Day.

Mark Williamson is our Founder and CEO. Yes, he is the guy who signs our paychecks. But Mark is also an exceptional father to 2 beautiful little girls. And were it not for them, catapulting him into the role of father and fatherhood, I expect that his life may have taken a very different course, altogether. Because if Mark had never become a father, if he had never had the pleasure of experiencing that overwhelming love and passion for his children, he may never have been inspired to create this fabulous tool we all call Zoodles.

feetMark and his wife Tara welcomed their first bundle of joy into the family in July of 2004. Little did either of them know, but with the birth of their daughter Abigail, the wheels for what would eventually give rise to Zoodles, had been set into motion. Soon after Abbie arrived they had their second child, Samantha, and Mark and Tara settled right into parenthood. Life was hectic but full of a thousand little miracles that come from loving and raising 2 small children. The girls were growing and changing so quickly that time seemed to literally fly by. Only Mark’s career seemed to be moving faster. One business Mark sold to Amazon, another he worked for was acquired by Research in Motion, and a 3rd business, MyTinyHands, founded by wife Tara, is still retained by The Williamson’s family.

mark-abbieFast-forward to the year that Abigail turned 4. Daddy was home watching the girls so mom could get some much needed R&R. The day started out just like most other days, his dax frustrated Abbie gave her father an idea which would ultimately lead him to build and design Zoodles. If you are not aware of our Zoodles Founding Story, it is a great read. It is the story of how WE came to be. A story which stars a father and his daughter. So Father’s Day is a very special day to us here at Zoodles. We not only believe in this product, but we love this company and we are so proud to be working for a man with such a love and passion for children, that he built a business upon it.

Integrity is something most of us are looking for in another person. Integrity in a business, well that is even harder to find.  But thanks to Mark and to Zoodles, we have been lucky enough to find both.  This Father’s Day we wanted to take the opportunity to share a little bit more about Mark and what it means to him to be a father. We hope you enjoy his answers as much as we did!

What do you enjoy most about being a Dad? Least? There really is so much to love about being a Dad that it is hard for me to choose just one thing.  If I had to choose just one thing it would be helping my children learn new things.  It is really rewarding to see them develop new skills since it brings them such joy and pride.  My least favorite thing is when I find myself in a position where I can’t help Abbie or Samantha… for example when they get hurt or are sick I wish I had a super power to make them feel better.

In what ways are you and your dad alike? My Dad and I share a lot of qualities, like our love of sports, business, and technology.  We are certainly more similar than different, and for that I am grateful.

Once you learned you were having a child, what did you worry about? I didn’t worry too much until I found out I was having a daughter.  Being a guy I had a fear that I wouldn’t really figure out how to play and bond with her.  That fear vanished the first time I held her as I just knew we would get along famously.

What is the secret to raising good kids? If I had the answer to that Zoodles would be in a different business :-).  If anyone has this answer please email or call me as I need to know!

Do you think today’s fathers have it harder, easier or just different? I think society’s view around the role of a father has changed over the last few decades, so I would have to say it is just different.  Maybe my Dad & I should exchange some notes this father’s day!

What is something fun that just you and your daughters do together? This year Abbie and I went on a Dad / Daughter ski weekend and we had a BLAST!  I can’t wait for Samantha to join us when she gets a little older.  Until then, me and the girls do gymnastics every Saturday together followed by getting an ice cream cone!

What is something cool that your daughters have taught you? Patience.  Raising kids requires an immense amount of patience.  I certainly could use more of it, but they have really taught me what patience really is.  On a more fun note, I think my kids have taught me to dance!  I have never liked to dance, but when my girls ask for me to dance with them I can’t say no… they are so much fun to dance with!

If you could give your (little) girls anything in the world what would it be? The ability to live a happy and fulfilling life.  If they are happy in their life I will feel like I succeeded as a father.

What do you want to make sure your children always remember about their childhood? I hope that they remember how much fun it is to be a child… and that they strive to find a life that is equally fun to live.

What do you want them to learn from you? Given Tara’s business and my profession I certainly want my daughters to have an entrepreneurial spirit.  They should know that they can achieve anything in life if they work hard.

What is the sweetest thing either of them has ever said to you? “I love you Daddy”… how can a Dad’s heart not melt when your daughter says that?

What makes you get up in the morning? I really love my life so getting up in the morning is easy.  I really love my kids, my wife, and my job… what else can a guy ask for?

They say behind every good man there is a good woman. Well in this case, we’d have to say that there are three:  Tara, Abbie, and Samantha –  thanks to all of you!

Happy Fathers Day Everyone!


The Staff at Zoodles

June 14, 2010

Father’s Day Fun!

Filed under: Family Activities — Erin @ 4:26 pm




7 fun and frugal summertime activities

Filed under: Family Activities — Tags: , , , , , , , — Erin @ 10:18 am

Contributed by Danae G.

Contributed by Danae G. Zoodles Marketing Team

Wondering what to do with your children this summer that won’t break the bank (they can’t play Zoodles all day now that we’ve added our play timer!)? Creativity and advanced planning are your best bets for building fun family memories that you can enjoy, guilt-free.

Visit the library.

libraryThe library is not what it used to be! But they’re still completely free. They have kiddie computers, child soft seating, and baskets of toys to encourage free play. Children have their own DVD section, books on tape (great for car rides), and story time is quickly being rivaled by the library’s free summer reading program. This is an excellent program that gets kids really excited about reading books (they can even win prizes!). This summer my local library’s having Rubber Band Car Races, a puppeteer show, and at some point, a fireworks display. All really fun stuff that I wouldn’t have thought would be available through a library.

Dollar movies.

Check with your nearby theaters to see if they offer summer movie clubs. This typically means you pay a reduced cost if you take the kids to a movie during the week. No, you’re not going to see Disney’s latest release, but they usually show pretty good children’s movies that most kids will enjoy. Word to the wise, if you don’t want to spend all that you just saved at the concession stand, pack some snacks to enjoy once you are inside the movies.

Turn on the sprinklers.

Tsprinklershis is one of the best ways to cool off when it’s hot out! Delay the sprinklers so they come on later in the morning than usual. Kids love getting wet and will be entertained for hours (assuming your local water supply and water bill allows!). Besides watering the grass, there is really no clean up like you would have if you pulled out the kiddie pool. And I don’t know about you, but I like NO CLEAN UP!

Explore your neighborhood.

When my kids were little we walked around the block almost everyday. Granted, they are likely to say “that sounds boring”, but once they’re on the walk, they usually change their minds. When you’re at the library, pick up a book on edible plants and trees so when you go on your walk, the kids can try and identify what they could live on if they were “lost in the forest.”

Set up a lemonade stand.

lemonadeI just love the entrepreneurship lessons involved in this one! Loan the kids some “seed money” for supplies. Take them to the store and have them pick up the necessities like cups, lemons, and sugar. A powdered mix is fine but it’s a lot more expensive, less authentic, and not nearly as fun to make. Whether the kids are inside (preparing the world’s best lemonade) or outside, remember to have an adult with them at all times. And not just because they tend to drink up the profits!

Check out local museums.

There are probably several museums nearby that you’ve never heard of before. And most of them are free.  Do a search on Google or post a question on your Facebook and let local friends and family share their favorite spots. Spending time together as a family and learning about new things is a wonderful combination any time of year. Plus, if you walk the kids around long enough, they are likely to fall asleep in the car on the ride home!

Smores and backyard camping.

smoresWhat kid doesn’t like building a fire after dark and roasting marshmallows? This, in and of itself, makes for a fun and exciting evening any day of the week. But why stop there? Dust off your tent, unroll those sleeping bags, and sleep under the stars to create an unforgettable experience for children of all ages. No need to pack the car, drive for 2 hours, or make reservations a year in advance. Just open your back door! Build a campfire, tell silly stories, and play flashlight tag. Don’t forget your cell phone (no reception problems here!). There are some great constellation apps available that are sure to thrill even the finickiest of children. It’s amazing what we can teach our kids these days, right from the comfort of our very own backyards.

backyardDo you have any ideas to share? Please leave us a comment, We’d love to hear from you! And remember, the kids will be off to college (or at least back in school) before you know it. Make the most of the short time you have with them by building fun family memories that can be cherish for years to come.

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