It's a Wonderful (Online) Life . . .
For far too many pages, I've talked about the dark side of the Internet and the need to protect our children online. But, as I've told you over and over . . . the Internet is a terrific place with thousands of interesting sites for families and children. It opens up a whole new world to us parents, and to our families.
I share a few ways you can enjoy the Internet as a family, and some examples of how other families have used the Internet for fun and learning. Our family reviewers and resources recount for you, in their own words, some of the ways they use the Internet every day to enhance their lives.
Children improve their communication skills online and meet people from other countries and cultures, sharing information, photos and stories with the world and other family members, and learn not only to be creative, but to share their creativity. Children can research school projects right from home, and families can plan vacations online. And students can keep in touch with teachers, even after graduation.
Family members provide support for each other in tragic and trying times, and share their joys in good times. New parents learn parenting skills, and can always find an answer to their questions and someone willing to help. The list goes on and on.
Hopefully, you'll share your stories with me too, so I can share them with others at our website, www.familyguidebook.com. After all, we're all in this together!
Johnny Can Write (and Research)!
When I was growing up (if you ask my kids, in the days before electricity and indoor plumbing . . . ), writing was something we did because we had to. We had to write thank you notes for birthday gifts. We had to write essays for school. Writing was painful and formal. (Maybe that's why it took me so long to write this book!)
No wonder everyone complained that Johnny couldn't write. But, that must have been before Johnny got online. The Internet and online services have changed all that. Kids have to write to communicate. It's how they "talk" online.
Many families are building websites for themselves and their kids. and these sites are first rate! One of my favorite kids' sites written by kids (and judging by the awards they've received . . . a favorite of many others as well) is Kids of the Web (www.hooked.net/~leroyc/kidsweb/index.html). Three kids, Brian (age 14), Mark (age 12) and Amanda (age 6), and their dad, Leroy, have designed a site to highlight other sites written by or about kids, and it has been visited by over 100,000 people. Obviously, they're doing something right!
Actually, this shows more than how talented families can create something together. The Kids of the Web project demonstrates how people can use something like building a website to help build a family. Leroy isn't Brian, Mark or Amanda's birth father, having married their mom several years ago. But the site has helped bring them closer, and has given Leroy an opportunity to show them how much he loves them.
If you want to see other websites written by kids, try KidWeb (www.teleport.com/~rhubarbs/kidweb), which also collects sites written by kids and families. If you design a site together, you can register it with KidWeb too.
Kids are contributing to important sites online as well. World Kids Network (www.worldkids.net) uses kids to help craft their site: over 80 percent of the site is "put together and/or run by children."
Kidzine, ABC network's news site for kids on AOL (keyword "kidzine" or "kids") is written largely by kids too. Susan Treiman (email@example.com) designed and runs Kidzine, and will soon take over the ABC.com site as well. (In my humble opinion, that's a smart move on ABC's part, since Susan has managed to increase activity at the Kidzine site to over 9 million hits a month!)
Susan sees the entire world as subject matter for her kids' reporting.
They write about topics as far ranging as the current baggy clothing craze, or dealing with an alcoholic parent. But in addition to building a wonderful resource, there's a method to Susan's madness. While learning to write news, kids are also learning about the news. The site offers "Children's Express," a weekly e-zine about current events. And Susan tells me that most of the kids who take the news quiz at the site get all the answers right.
In addition to reporting news, the kids are collaborating in writing fun things online too. The kids wrote a joke book with over 700 entries available at Kidzine. They're even getting excited about science. Susan brought Michael Gillan on board as "Dr. Universe." He takes the kids on online science field trips, which have become a very popular feature.
Children's Express (www.ce.org) also uses kid reporters to research and write the stories for the site. It has more of a global flavor and has produced some wonderful reporting.
If you just want to share some artwork or something special your children have written, there are sites for that as well. They're called "refrigerator door sites" because you can post things you would normally place on your refrigerator door at home. The Global Show-n-Tell Museum (www.telenaut.com/gst) is a great place to post your children's artwork online. You can also just look at the artwork supplied by other children from around the world.
Undoubtedly, though, KidPub (www.kidpub.org) is the leading refrigerator door site, with over 500,000 visitors and thousands of stories written by children from all over the world. Originally begun as a place where the hosts' nine-year-old daughter could show her work, it fast became a place where everyone else's daughters and sons could show theirs as well. In an interesting FAQ, the host explains that his daughter only contributed one article to the site. Lucky for us that he kept the site running anyway.
Want even more proof that the computer helps make kids literate? I asked children around the country to help me review children's websites and online areas. The youngest reviewer is three years old (dictated to her mother), and the oldest one is eighteen. Other than correcting their spelling and some obvious grammatical errors, I left their reviews unedited to make a point. These children, and all others who use e-mail and communicate online, are writers. It's a more informal writing style (almost like a conversation), but they are sharing their ideas and making themselves easily understood. They can write!
In addition, our children are learning how to find things on the Internet. They're finding information as diverse as academic research, travel options, college data and consumer product and source information. The term paper, which used to contain a bibliography gleaned from the local library, now contains sources from all around the world. To get you started, I've recommended two research sites I like a lot:
One, The Study Web (www.studyweb.com), was specifically designed for helping with homework research, with a database of over 17,000 research quality URLs. (And remember the problem with source reliability I raised in Part 2? This site prescreens research sites for reliability. So if you're looking for Elvis sightings, you may have to look elsewhere . . . sorry.) Kids can research using keywords, or by topical indices. (They're also rated with RSACi.) The Study Web even ranks information by school grade levels, so ten-year-olds won't have to muddle through research information appropriate for sixteen-year-olds. Printable images and downloadable materials are clearly marked as well.
The other great research site, the Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org), contains everything you could ever want in a research site, and more. It has special sections for teens, which include advice columns, and sections for "youths" as well. The teen section is steered by an advisory board actually comprised partly of teens. The site is designed to be responsive to the needs of teens, and it shows. The teens we had explore the site were uniformly enthusiastic about its contents. One of their favorite pages was the "Career" page, with career choices that include biographies of people working in each field.
The youth section contains a page that helps younger children learn about the world and cultural differences, as well as book reviews written by children and audio books online.
Kid-friendly, it's stocked with lots of information, but it's a fun site: one page teaches you how to say "hello" in over 30 different languages. It also features a list of sites on the Web, organized by Dewey Decimal System categories, so librarians on the ground can help younger kids frame their research projects for cyberspace. (Remember that librarians are the secret weapon of studentsand lawyerseverywhere.)
In addition to researching for school projects, kids are also researching schools themselves. Teenagers can check out prospective colleges, and can even apply right online, and parents can learn about college financial aid and the application process.
There are three college prep sites which we recommend, Princeton Review's website (www.review.com), Petersons' website (www.petersons.com) and The Stanley Kaplan website (www.kaplan.com).
Of the three, I think that Princeton Review's site has the most information, in the most user-friendly format. The site has 1 million visitors, who view a total of, roughly, 3 million pages each month! The three sections of the site I thought were the best were their new parents' discussion boards, "Parents Only," where parents can share our "I have no clue what to do when my child applies to colleges" neuroses with other similarly situated parents; their "Counselor-O-Matic" page, where your children can submit their credentials and find colleges likely to admit them based on these credentials; and "Find-O-Rama," which helps find colleges that meet your children's criteria. It's a great place to start learning about the college application process.
When my daughter, Taylor, applied to colleges last year, we used Petersons' site. I also bought their guides and thought that their The Ultimate College Survival Guide was an extremely helpful resource for both teenagers and for parents. (It's still the bible, as far as Taylor is concerned, and we compiled our college shopping list right from the book.) I also recommended it to other parents, and still do. It's the best single source of college-specific data we've found, and luckily, you can buy it online.
In addition, the Petersons' site has an instant inquiry section from where you can send an e-mail to any college in their database. It also has video clip tours of many campuses, and news updates from a large list of colleges. I found that using The Princeton Review site first to help narrow the choices based upon both eligibility and preferences, and then checking out more about the specific schools using the Petersons' site was the most efficient and effective way to get the college search started.
The Kaplan site was more fun, but not as informative about colleges. It is directed more at the preparing-for-the-entrance-examination market. They use games at the site to help kids sharpen their test-taking skills, which is what Kaplan is all about. (The schedules of classes to prep for the SATs and other examinations are available online too.) The kids enjoyed the "Beach Blanket Brain Drain" section, although it's fun, not substance. Parents can laugh and learn from the "Tuition Impossible" game too, especially as tuition deadlines draw near.
FinAid (www.finaid.com), for financial aid assistance, does it all. Maintained by Mark Kantrowitz, the author of The Prentice Hall Guide to Scholarships and Fellowships for Math and Science Students and sponsored by NASFAA (the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators), it's not very colorful and doesn't have glossy graphics, but is incredibly informative. You can learn about financial aid scams, calculate aid contributions, and find special interest aid all at one site. Using this site will save parents a lot of time and money, and they won't need a separate scholarship search service.
Recognizing how well our kids can navigate the Web, many families I spoke with now research their vacations online. Most airlines have websites and so do most hotel chains. Lots of discount travel services are available on the Web too. Many families even assign their family vacation research to their teenagers. They research a few travel locations, ways to get there, things to see and where to stay.
Chrissy Peters, my law firm administrator and dear friend, is an Internet newbie and mother of one of our kid reviewers. She recently planned a trip entirely on the Internet and AOL, as is recounted here:
The Peters' Family Vacation, by Chrissy Peters
Recently, in preparation for a family vacation to Washington, DC (if you could call it a vacation... all that walking) I went to AOL's Travel section. I found it very helpfulall kinds of information about the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, the hotel we were going to stay at. At the time I was looking, Washington, DC was the featured spot of the week! What luck. I was able to get a ton of information from AOL, and I also went on the Web and picked up all kinds of information on where to go, what to see, what time things were open, and how to obtain VIP tickets for early tours (8:00 a.m.) with no waiting lines at the White House, the FBI and the Capitol!
I could have bypassed my travel agent (and probably should have) and made the travel arrangements myself. We took Amtrak, and Amtrak's webpage gives you all the information you need and allows you to make your own reservations, purchase tickets, the whole nine yards. After we came back, I looked over the FBI webpage (www.fbi.gov) I thought it was, as the kids say, "pretty cool"! I never would have thought to check that Web site out before going to DC, but since the webpage address was on the cap my daughter bought, I had to see it! Next, I'll check out the White House website. I wish I had done that in advance too, but since we never got to see it in person, my daughter can take the "Socks tour" for kids at their website.
I frequently use the Internet for our family vacation information. I've earned a reputation for accomplishing the impossible, often, with some of the "finds" I've located online.
Last year, by searching websites about Arizona and its National Parks, I was able to book a suite with a balcony right on the edge of the Grand Canyon on a couple weeks' noticeit's usually booked years in advance. Watching the sunrise over the Grand Canyon while sipping tea in lounge chairs is something neither my best friend, Lanell, nor I will ever forget. Being able to reach people on the ground with local expertise and contacts is a great advantage! And you can do it all from the comfort of your family room.
Shopping is much easier on the Web, too. Most of the major retailers have glossy and easy-to-navigate websites, and many are offering consumers the ability to purchase online. This is a particularly useful service for working parents and parents with younger children, who don't have the chance to get out and shop as often as they would like. (These sites all offer secure transmissions for your credit card information.)
The two sites my kids and I use the most are Spiegel's and J. Crew's. Both are easy to navigate and have everything organized well for online shopping (since they're both catalogue retailers, that makes sense). Spiegel can be found at www.spiegel.com and J. Crew can be found at www.jcrew.com. (With two kids in college, I have just decided to turn over my entire paycheck to J. Crew each week. Just think of the paperwork they'll save . . .)
Let the Web Entertain You
You can even check out local movie listings, theaters and Broadway shows and buy tickets online. The Web has many movie sites. At least two are parent-friendly. Moviephone's website, Movielink, is at www.777film.com. That site has a Parent's Rating Guide, which explains why each top movie was given its rating (e.g., "brief mild language"). Also, you can search for movies by type, and one of the choices is "family." As with Moviephone, the Movielink site gives show times and theatres, and offers for many the option of purchasing the tickets online.
The site designed expressly for parents is www.screenit.com. That site contains reviews of movies, music and videos, rated in several categories. The categories include "alcohol/drugs," "profanity," and "sexual content," among many others. Each reviewed movie has a chart that summarizes the rating in each category. The best thing about the site is that it then goes on to explain in detail the contents of the movie with respect to each category (for example, a rating of "mild" profanity may be explained as "the word hell is used three times"), so that parents can judge for themselves if a movie (or video or music album) should be off-limits.
All the information you need to plan your theatre-outing can be found at www.playbill.com. It contains listings of shows and theatres not only on and off-Broadway, but also regional theatres around the country, and theatres in Canada and London. In its "Theatre Central" area, it has links to other performance-related sites by name of celebrity or category of performance. The "Theatre Listings" section lists the plays. If you don't know what play to see, you can search by type. There's even a search that finds only those shows that are suitable for children. The listings include a brief synopsis, cast list, show times and prices, a street map with the location of the theatre, and in many cases a seating chart. If you register, you can also join the Playbill Club, which entitles you to get discount tickets to certain shows and theatre-related merchandise.
To purchase tickets, playbill.com links to NetTicks, www.telecharge.com. At Telecharge's site, you can order tickets online. NetTicks also gives information about the shows, including information for parents that playbill.com does not have. That information is in each show listing, under "Audience." There, NetTicks gives its analysis, noting, for example, that a particular show "may be inappropriate for children 12 and under." The listings also remind parents that children under four are not admitted to any Broadway show.
Traveling the World
The Internet is global, remember? That's one of the best things about it. It's also a terrific way to get your kids ready for their future. The days are over when the world was broken into little fiefdoms. All business is global. Even the mom-and-pop grocery stores are buying international goods, and your local businesses are selling to, buying from, or sharing expertise with, other businesses around the world. What better way to teach your kids global thinking and painlessly prepare them for their careers than letting them speak to the world right now?
Want to travel to a different country each month? Do it from your computer chair at World Surfari (www.supersurf.com). It's a great way for your family to learn about the world together. The site features information about history, society and the people of the country of the month.
Interested in learning about kids worldwide? World Kids Network (www. worldkids.net), as I've mentioned before, is one of my favorites. It's glossy, and packed with information about kids worldwide. It has a wonderful links page, too.
It's fun to try to find international penpals and sites, and especially if your child is studying another language. It's a great way for them to practice communicating in it. World Kids Network is a good place to meet kids from around the world. So is KidsSpace (www.kids-space.org), a particularly good site for finding international pen pals. They also have very strict terms of service designed to protect kids from adults masquerading as children. Kidscom.com (www.kidscom.com) will be adding foreign language options shortly. It also is very world conscious.
KidLink (www.kidlink.org) is a site developed internationally for children from all over the world, where they can converse in listserv discussion groups (conducted by e-mail) in sixteen different languages, although English appears to be the base language for the site. In order to participate in the discussion groups, children have to register and answer five questions relating to how they see their role in the world and how they hope to improve it. What a wonderful way to get your children started in a global community.