Dec 182013

Doom RazorThe time for Christmas presents is upon us. Our Senior Junior Toy correspondent Declan P, aged 10, loves Combat Creatures and has filed this report.

It is a time for trees, lights and baubles. Of course there is always the fourth thing on that Christmas list: Presents. There are many new toys appearing every week, and indeed, every day at the moment. There are, of course, some that stand out and just work: Combat Creatures – the ultimate in blasting robots – is one of them.

These six legged robots are a lot of fun to play with and delightful to watch; though the armour is a bit hard to assemble. There are currently two models. They are Stryder and Doom Razor. Doom Razor comes with a disc launcher and is red. Stryder comes with a dart machine gun and is blue. Although they are quite noisy, especially on a wooden floor, they are lots of fun to play with. The controllers are relatively simple, and only take a minute to get a hang of.

StryderThese blasting robots come with decorations, and can be personalised for all those aesthetics lovers out there. But they are also designed to look good just out of the box. They each have detachable parts; one set is the leg armour, there are six parts to that; the other two parts are the head, which keeps score; and the weapon, which you use to fire at the other Combat Creature.

Though they are designed for two players it is fun to just run around shooting people with them instead of firing at another robot. It is also quite fun to just shoot at towers of cans and knock them over. They also pair up well with Nerf guns so that you can have a duel with a person instead of a robot (with them being honest about keeping count of their lives).

The packaging advertises that it comes with targets. These turn out to be printed on the inside of the box and it is hard to get them off (even though they have a dotted line which they have already cut) and they are quite small and have nothing to hold them up. A plastic cup makes a better target.

There are ups and downs to these six legged fighting machines, but ultimately they make a great present.

Sep 032013

thinkspaceThinkspace is becoming  the sort of facility that I used to think could only be found in Europe or the US. It’s a genuinely creative area offering novel technology-based programs of an extraordinary standard. Just take a look at their upcoming holiday workshops.

There’s programming with Scratch; there’s electronics (although I question their decision to design their own board instead of using an off-the-shelf item); there’s game design at several levels; there’s Minecraft. They offer most of these as general courses or with a girls-only alternative.

One course that particularly caught my eye is Game Coding, described as ” Learn how to create basic code in Python, running on the Raspberry Pi computer, and apply that knowledge to the Minecraft world.” Game, Python, Raspeberry Pi, Minecraft – talk about ticking the marketing boxes. But in addition to excellent marketing, that’s a genuinely interesting and challenging area and the sort of course you simply wont find elsewhere in Sydney.

I had a brief chat with Thinkspace about their approach. The line I loved was when they said “You don’t spend too much time in descriptions with 10-year-olds during the school holidays. You just get them doing stuff.” And that encapsulates Thinkspace’s core philosophy: learn-by-making. Giving kids the chance to learn by trying things out in a challenging but supportive environment is just fantastic.

I’m a big fan of Thinkspace and I live in hope they’ll expand their activities into later teenage and adult areas too – having them run a maker space would seem to be the best possible fit. I can only hope that the Powerhouse, whose vision has otherwise been sadly lacking over the last few years,  realises both what it has on its hands today and the enormous potential to do more with it into the future.

Regardless of hopes for the future, today Thinkspace is going from strength to strength teaching young people about technology and is a wonderful asset for Sydney.

Check out their website for all the gory details on the holiday workshops.

Aug 212013

With the deepest of bows to this Geek Mom article, here’s my more Australian list of 50 things a geeky kid ought to do before turning 12 (an event only weeks away for my older son).

  • Tear something electronic apart
  • Build something fabulous with LEGO
  • Look at something under a microscope
  • Build a robot
  • Body surf
  • Learn to use a saw, hammer and screwdriver
  • Hold a live animal, especially of the kind they might eat later
  • Write a program
  • Do a practical joke
  • Attend a geeky event
  • Save up for something they really want
  • Go for a bush walk and carry their own stuff
  • Plant seeds and watch them grow
  • Look through a telescope
  • Watch a movie trilogy (you know the ones)
  • Create a lightsaber or magic wand from an old cardboard tube
  • Learn how to use a map
  • Stay up and really look at the stars (and ideally pick out the Southern Cross)
  • Read a trilogy
  • Organise a collection of something
  • Mix something cool with a chemistry set
  • Visit a science museum
  • Get covered in mud
  • Learn a magic trick
  • Mix Mentos with Coke
  • Snorkel with the fishes
  • Make a stop-motion animation
  • Build their own fort or cubby
  • Read a comic book
  • Learn to hold their fingers like Mr Spock
  • Watch an animated series (Batman, Last Airbender, etc)
  • Launch a model rocket (or rocket car)
  • Play a video game all the way to the end
  • Jump off something into the water
  • Build a model
  • Make a webpage using tags
  • Have a water fight
  • Sew a button
  • Make a fire and cook damper
  • Make a Rube Goldberg machine
  • Spend a night in a tent
  • Fly a kite
  • Make a paper airplane or newspaper boat
  • Cook a meal
  • Dam a creek
  • Visit an observatory
  • Build a go-cart
  • Learn about a significant Australian scientist
  • Invent something
  • Watch clouds go by for 15 minutes
Jun 272013

There are a few interestingly geeky school holiday options flowing through my inbox at the moment.

The Australian Museum has Scientist for a Day. There are two programs, one just titled Weird Science and the other a more explanatory Animals of the Wild. Weird Science is pitched as: “Throw out your outdated ideas that science is all test tubes and text books. Celebrate the weird and wacky world of the most extreme science. Put your goggles on for some totally outrageous hands on experiments.” In Animals of the Wild you learn all about animal behaviour and instincts. For all the gory details see here.

Over at Thinkspace at the Powerhouse, they have their usual wonderful array of programs: Thinkspace is really growing to become a treasure. From game design to creating circuits, from Minecraft to practical electronics – there’s really a great range here. What I particularly like is that they are going beyond the science as a cool show level (how many times can sherbet be created to no useful outcome?) and creating real engaging courses for older kids. Interesting to see so many aimed solely at girls too. For all the gory details see here.

Professor Plum’s in Crows Nest is also running some programs in conjunction with Fizzics Education and CSIRO. These are aimed at slightly younger kids perhaps, but look interesting if your kids haven’t done this wort of thing before. For all the gory details see here.

(By the way, I know I wrote yesterday about not conflating science and technology, but you see this article is about both those things so it’s OK.)

Jun 142013

Activity FinderThe Activity Finder from Fairfax is an app to “Quickly find the best activities for kids wherever you are in Australia.”

The app, which is only available on iOS, is very easy to use. You fire it up and get a map with pins displaying nearby activities. The activities are also listed at the bottom of the screen. Touching an item listing pulls up further descriptive information and links to phone or website bookings. A few of these that I tried came up with incorrect links and that reveals one of the challenges facing an app like this – keeping the underlying data accurate and current.

Overall the app is well-presented and has an interesting range of activities. It works as you’d expect.

There’s nothing I can see in the app that explains how individual activities make their way into the listings. However, the app does say the listings come from OzKidsActivities, and their site suggests they are a paid directory. Nothing wrong with that, but it would be nice to have that information more explicit in the app as it would help explain why some activities are, or are not, listed.

It also raises the obvious point that you could just go to the OzKidsActivities website for the information. While that’s true, on a quick play, the app does seem much more user-friendly than the website.

I like the fact you can filter the results by type, picking only school holiday activities for example. The missing piece, however, is really a capacity to filter for time. The map with pins approach looks great at first, but I soon realised that I have a fairly wide area that I can contemplate looking for kids activities in. It’s rare that I’m standing in a spot and think to look at what is available right beside me – especially as so much needs booking. Far more often, I’m looking for an activity in, for example, the first week of the school holidays. In the same vein, it would be useful to be able to filter by age group.

I can see this app will be a useful addition to many people’s parenting arsenal. Personally, I’m not likely to use it so much without more filters – but that may say more about my own approach than the app itself.

The app is free, although it carries advertising. Because it’s free there’s certainly no downside in getting hold of it and seeing if it works for you.

Essential Kids Activity Finder

Essential Kids Activity Finder

View in ITunes. $free
May 202013

flexischoolsFlexischools has just launched a new mobile site. It appears to be a mobile skin on their web pages so it is platform neutral – which is a good thing. Sadly it’s not fully functional compared to the desktop site.

I like Flexischools a lot and use it all the time. I was really hoping that their announced changes would address some of the quibbles I have with their approach. The good news is that you no longer have to buy an app to go mobile, and that’s certainly an improvement although I never could understand why they charged for the app in the first place.

The bad news is that they haven’t addressed what I consider to be one of their major weaknesses. Even on the desktop there’s no way to order something for a range of days. I can’t be the only parent whose child wants the same thing for several days in a row but something different the following week. On the desktop I can select an existing order and then add it to another date, one day at a time: It’s far more clunky than I’d like but it can be done. The mobile version doesn’t even have that degree of functionality: Every day’s order has to be created from scratch – which is a complete deal-breaker for me.

On the desktop this update doesn’t address my concerns from my initial review that “My only criticism is that the interface design could do with some work. It functions, but it’s not entirely intuitive or pretty.” They’ve put a lovely new login screen up but haven’t addressed the interface and functionality once you get behind the shopfront.

It’s great to see Flexischools is not resting on its laurels. Going properly mobile is a great move. The whole thing remains a wonderful service which uses technology to make a chore enormously easier. But I can’t help being a bit disappointed with this update and hoping for more next time.

May 102013

walksafelyappThis app aims to encourage kids to walk to school on the upcoming Walk Safely to School Day.

The app appears fairly straightforward. You start it up and press the big green arrow button and the app will track your walk via GPS and end up telling you how far you’ve walked. It keeps a record of your walks although I struggle to see enormous utility in this. If you’re only walking on the one day, the official Day, an on-going record isn’t much use. Even if you walk every day, you are presumably walking the same route. Perhaps seeing if it takes you different times might be a challenge but then having some metric or table to indicate that would be good. I’m guessing that isn’t there partly because having kids rush to school doesn’t seem all that clever given road-crossing and so on; and, realistically because this is aimed a primary school kids, in most cases the app will be being carried by an accompanying parent who may well not want to rush like a mad thing. There’s also a point system

The interface is simple and nicely designed. The tracking seems to work well. There is a bog limitation in that the app seems to need to be open and at the front of your screen on an iPhone to work. So if you check your mail,. take a call or do anything else the app stops tracking you until you bring it back to being centre of attention. Especially given that this app is focused on results on a single day, i can see that being frustrating.

More concerning than these quibbles is the aggregation facility. You can register your details and your information will be captured and sent to your school via somewhere. That allows the school to see who’s walking and how far they’ve walked. It’s in this area that things get a little hazy. It’s not clear who you are sending the information to – the information on how old you are, where you live and the route you take walking to school. It’s not clear how long the information might be held and what if anything might be done with it. It’s not clear how securely it is being held. It’s not clear if you’re dealing with the developer, under whose name you downloaded the app, or the Pedestrian Council who organise Walk to School Day. The app does not appear to include a privacy policy.

Look, if this app encourages people to walk then it’s a good thing. It looks good and works fine, especially for something designed to be used in limited circumstances. A little more thought abound the privacy issues wouldn’t have gone amiss though.

If you are simply looking for way of seeing how far you have walked just search iTunes for “GPS tracker” to get a range of free and paid-for apps that will do the job. For more information on Walk Safely to School Day, an initiative I heartily endorse, see:

Walk Safely to School Day

Walk Safely to School Day

View in ITunes. $free