Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Spy Adventure and Pixar Play for VTech’s Innotab (a review)

It’s easy to add more hours of fun to your child’s Innotab with Learning Cartridges from VTech.  These can make great little holiday extras for under the tree or tucked into a stocking.  We recently had the opportunity to try out and review two new cartridges, and 5-year-old Emma loves them!

Review of I Spy Adventure and Pixar Play for Innotab 3S at Homeschooling Hearts & Minds

Review VTech I Spy Adventure Innotab at Homeschooling Hearts & Minds

I Spy Adventure

ages 4-7

MSRP:  $24.99

Available from VTech, Amazon, and other retailers

Based on the popular I Spy books from Scholastic, I Spy Adventure will have your child practicing early reading skills, matching, sorting, and problem-solving with 50 levels of game play that become progressively harder as each level is mastered.

Emma loves the bright, photo-realistic pictures and the sense of accomplishment she feels while playing these games. 

Review VTech I Spy Adventure Innotab at Homeschooling Hearts & Minds

Review VTech I Spy Adventure Innotab at Homeschooling Hearts & MindsThese activities encourage abstract thinking and are great for visual spatial kids.  Emma is one of those kids who loves (loves) to play with math manipulatives, to build and discover patterns, and so on…we constantly have attribute blocks and other little bits and pieces under foot from her experiments.  I Spy Adventure allows her to play with some of these ideas in a way that doesn’t make a mess and is highly portable (for those moments when she’s waiting for her sister’s ballet class to finish, for instance).  This one’s a keeper and because it increases in difficulty, it will grow with her.


Review Pixar Play Innotab at Homeschooling Hearts & Minds

Pixar Play

ages 4-7

MSRP:  $24.99

Available from VTech, Amazon, and other retailers

Disney’s Pixar Play features characters from 4 of our favorite Pixar films:  Finding Nemo, Monster’s Inc., Toy Story, and The Incredibles.

The games all have an easy and a difficult level, making it easy for kids of different ages to enjoy.  Emma’s favorite (so far) is a simple Finding Nemo platformer where you have to navigate the perils of the ocean, while collecting bubbles and friends.

Review Pixar Play Innotab at Homeschooling Hearts & Minds

Her second favorite is the “photo studio,” where you can take pictures of yourself or your friends with your favorite Pixar characters (or masquerading as them).

Review Pixar Play Innotab at Homeschooling Hearts & MindsEmma as Violet, from the Incredibles

Review Pixar Play Innotab at Homeschooling Hearts & Minds

and as Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story

Review Pixar Play Innotab at Homeschooling Hearts & Minds

and in Violet’s energy globe

The only downside we’ve had with the Pixar Play cartridge is that it doesn’t automatically read all the options to you---for instance, when choose one of the movie titles, it will take you to a screen where you can choose a game, but the games are only identified with buttons that have writing on them.  When you click on it, it tells you the name, but only after you have selected.  It would be nice if there were picture buttons for the games to help out kids who are not reading independently yet.

Both the I Spy Adventure and Pixar Play Learning Cartridges have added substantial play value to our Innotab 3S and either would make a great holiday gift for the VTech loving kid in your life.  They are compatible with all current Innotab learning tablets, as well as the new Innotab Max, and are available from VTech, Amazon, and local retailers.

Disclosure:  I received these two learning cartridges for free from VTech to facilitate my review.  All opinions expressed here are my own.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Nancy Drew: Labyrinth of Lies (a review)

When artifacts for her  museum’s upcoming exhibit disappear in transit , Melina calls her sleuthing friend, Nancy Drew, to come to Greece and help her finish setting up the exhibit and to check out the troupe of actors who will be performing Persephone for the opening.

Nancy quickly finds herself working through a labyrinth of secrets and lies.  Help her uncover the truth in this puzzle adventure from Her Interactive.

nancy drew-001

Nancy Drew #31:  Labyrinth of Lies

by Her Interactive

Ages 10 to adult

Puzzle Adventure for PC


Windows® Vista/7/8

OS X: 10.6.8 Snow Leopard/10.7 Lion/10.8 Mountain Lion/10.9 Mavericks or higher

Please see the Her Interactive site for addition specs.


Labyrinth of Lies is a puzzle adventure.

As Nancy Drew, you’ll travel to various locations of the game, collect clues, talk to characters, pick up tools, and solve various puzzles to advance the story line. 


Characters are CGI renderings and conversations are scripted (ie, you’ll have a list of things to say to the character and click on them to say them, then the character talks back to you).


In game tools include:

  • a cellphone, which allows you to converse with Melina and the Hardy Boys (yep, Joe and Frank will do some research and send you important information), take photos, play little games, and access your diary which will automatically record some notes from your doings and conversations
  • a list of tasks to complete and check off and you complete them (some have the option of getting a hint)
  • a list of important notes

Tasks vary from typical puzzle game fair (finding a missing key, password, or combination to a lock), completing museum displays by putting together information from various resources, interviewing characters to find out key information, poking around in typical Nancy Drew fashion, picture puzzles, solving puzzles to unlock a new area, and so forth.

What did we think?

It’s a bit uneven.   I started out playing this with my 10-year-old, but it is hard to get into the storyline as there is a lot of reading near the beginning.  Reading this book for clues to solve one puzzle, reading that book to find more clues for another puzzle, reading a script, reading another copy of a script.  I don’t mind reading, but too much on a computer screen boom, boom, boom like that made my eyes go wonky and it was just plain boring for my child.

After you get past that, there is more active doing in the game and the pace improves.  She rejoined me later to solve some of the puzzles.  So the pacing is a bit off, and there is a bit of a expositional hump to get past, but it’s worth it to work through that. 

The puzzles vary a good bit in quality.  A couple seemed more like busy-work or dreaded “reading comprehension” things where you had to read a long document and pick out specific little things to find the answer ---there was not real thought involved.

The picture puzzles are tedious.  Placing 70 pieces on a screen with no reference as to what the finished picture is supposed to look like, and only being able to view a handful of pieces at a time (you can scroll through them, but you can only see about 7 at any one time) took awhile.

It’s not always clear what is optional and what is needed to complete the game---there are optional things in the game (for instance, you only really need to do one particular picture puzzle, but there are several of them).

On the other hand, many of the puzzles do require putting together information from multiple resources and/or reasoning out answers.  Nancy will often you give a verbal cue when you stumble onto a puzzle or something you need for one, which is helpful for tweens.

There are educational elements.

You’ll learn about ancient Greek pottery, the gods, mythology, Greek architecture, and more---studying the ancient world?  This may be a fun add in for your kids to play in their spare time.  You can do multiple saves, so multiple kids could play and save their own game.

There are little things I don’t care for---

The game involves different areas that are all within walking distance, but it several clicks to get from one to another, because you can’t zip to a distant locations you’ve already visited (or at least, I see no evidence that you can, the in-game help is minimal).  This means a lot of wasted time.

It’s not obvious that you can keep something and add it to your inventory when you first pick it up.  You pick in up and then look at it, then when you zoom out, it will show you a new icon if you can add it to your inventory.

The game automatically gives you notes on your notepad and also in your cellphone’s diary, but it doesn’t note everything that happens or even all the important things.  If you leave the game and come back to it a few days later, you may forget what you were doing.

These are minor, but things that could definitely be improved in future Nancy Drew games.

Labyrinth of Lies is Kidpropriate.

“Kidpropriate” is a term we’ve coined in our house.  It means that something is appropriate for kids:  no sex, drugs, gore, or excessive violence.  Not super scary.  No “mature” themes. 

Lately I’ve had issues with getting a game for PC that is just too scary for my kids to watch me play---there seems to be this trend towards the supernatural, murder, curses, and stuff like that.

Every family is different, of course, so I recommend previewing things before turning your kid loose on them, but I’m confident that Labyrinth of Lies is something I could allow my 10-year-old to play on her own without risking any nightmares or premature loss of innocence.  I’ll be looking at the other Nancy Drew games for her in the future.

You can purchase Nancy Drew:  Labyrinth of Lies directly from Her Interactive or from local and online retailers.

I received one or more of the products mentioned above for free using Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

Monday, November 10, 2014

How to Homeschool Kindergarten for FREE!

There are thousands of free resources out there for teaching young children the three Rs and more in your homeschool.  But we all know that materials vary in quality, right?  Even the ones you pay for sometimes end up being stinkers.  It can be hard to wade through all that is available. 

How to Homeschool Kindergarten for FREE @Homeschooling Hearts & MindsThis is not meant to be an exhaustive stockpile of freebies---a list with hundreds of free cute kindergarten printables and such would be a bit overwhelming, right?

This is a list of top-notch resources that will give your early learner a strong skills foundation.  I’ve chosen resources that are easy to implement and won’t keep you completely tied to your computer, but will give you a strong skeleton to which you can add whatever your homeschool heart desires.  I can’t guarantee that they will fit you and your child perfectly (because we’re all unique), but these programs aren’t stinkers.  Most of them I am currently using with my daughter, Emma (age 5), or have used with another child in the past.

Reading and Writing

There are a number of vintage phonics primers and readers available free for download, including McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer, which is available from Project Gutenberg as  a pdf, ePub, or Kindle file (save yourself some ink).  This is a tried and true method and for variety sake, we combine a similar program with…

Progressive Phonics, a complete program with readers that can be viewed online or downloaded to print.  This program uses partnership reading.  Initially the parent/teacher reads most of the page and the learner reads the indicated words.  Over time, the student reads more and more of each reader on her own.

We add in Starfall, a free website with reading and handwriting resources.  There are interactive books and activities, as well worksheets and mini-books you can download and print.  For handwriting and spelling practice, check out the “ABC Print-Outs” and “Reading and Writing Journals.”  This may not be a complete complete program in itself, but it’s a good place to start and works well with Progressive Phonics.  Note:  Starfall does use some sight words. 

Donna Young offers plenty of handwriting worksheets to give your child plenty of fine motor practice.  If writing on paper is still too hard, you might try practicing in a salt box or air writing as those muscles develop. 


I highly recommend reading to your kids often and from an early age.  If you have access to a good library, you’ll have a large selection of books to choose from for literature. 

Kathy Jo Devore offers Pathways, a free (and excellent) reading schedule for Pre-K through K that features many public domain books which you can find online and download to a tablet or e-reader for free (or print).  There are additional selections that you can probably find at your library, but there are SOOO many books scheduled that it’s easy to pick and choose what to use.  There is MORE than enough here to keep you in books all year and many of the books can go along with your science studies.


The Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching (CIMT) has a 100% free, downloadable elementary curriculum Mathematics Enhancement Programme.  It includes daily lesson plans, practice books, and copy masters.

Depending upon your K-er’s current level, you might choose the Reception year or Year 1---Emma started off this year using Reception, but raced through it, and about halfway through the lesson plans I switched her to Year 1 (which she is loving). 

Now, this program is from the UK, so it uses metric units, British money, and there are some British terms used.  If you are from another country, you may need to make some minor adjustments (one of the worksheets wanted to know how many “lorries” there were pictured, for instance).  I just change those things to what we would call them in the US---the lesson plans are written to the teacher.  For money and measurements, we prefer to do hands-on informal things at this age, anyway.

Can you do more than that?  Sure!  But math is all around---play with toys, build with blocks, tell the real time, bake, sort, discover patterns…Keep it light and have fun.

Social Studies

In addition to getting out and about and learning about your community, a favorite free resource in our house is Home Geography for the Primary Grades.  All you need is the book and your own neighborhood. 

Add in some family history by creating a family tree and telling true stories about your family.  If you want to expose your child to more history and geography, pick some interesting selections from your library.  Generating interest is more important at this age than retention, so let your child pick books that look interesting to her.


There are many directions you can go with this.  Nature study is fun with young kids and be very informal.  Just go outside, see what you see, and talk about it.  Pick up a book at the library if you find a topic you want to learn more about. 

If you want something a little more organized, but still very flexible, try The Handbook of Nature Study, both the site and the book (which is available in the public domain here).  The site uses the book as the basis for “Outdoor Hour Challenges,” which will get you and your child out communing with nature with regularity.  Just pick a new challenge each week to try.

Peruse your library.  There are lots of great science series aimed at young children.  One of our favorites is the “Let’s Read and Find Out” series.

If you want something more structured, The Math Science Nucleus is a free K-6 science curriculum that covers 6 main areas each year:  Plate Tectonic Cycle, Rock Cycle, Water Cycle, Life Cycle, Applied Science, and Universe Cycle (these can be viewed online or find the link near the top of each page to go to the download page for that area---includes lesson plans, background information, lab activities, and student workbooks).   There are a few materials called for that you probably won’t have on hand. You can find a list of them here

If you have older children you are also homeschooling, your K-er will probably enjoy “tagging along” for their social studies and science studies, too.

Art & Music

My suggestions in this department are going to be a bit sparse, partly because it’s hard to find something that meets the requirements I set up for resources in this post and partly because kindergarten is a time for exploration and little ones can learn so much about art and music by looking/listening and doing.  If I didn’t live in a state with mandatory kindergarten and that requires that I show proof of instruction in ALL the subjects, I would consider that enough.  But I do have a couple of really good freebies to suggest.

Meet the Masters is a free downloadable K-5 picture study program that includes art prints to print, guidance for discussion, and related art projects.

Hoffman Academy offers free video piano lessons (my kids love these!).  There are pay materials that you can add, but the video lessons are quite valuable and fun for your littlest ones on their own.

Check your local library for art and music programs!  This is a great way to do crafty things without having to stock the supplies and clean up the mess yourself.


Play outside.  Hop, skip, gallop, jump, “tightrope” walk (use a jumprope to walk on or draw a line with chalk), catch and throw, use a bat, dribble a ball, ride a bike…if you want a curriculum that shows you proper form and gives you an idea of what you can expect in terms of physical development, here’s a downloadable pdf for the elementary grades that focuses on physical skills.  There are 12 skills, with 12 different levels of mastery.  There are streaming videos here that demonstrate the skills.  The scope and sequence will give you an idea of what level of mastery is appropriate for kids of different ages.   You can use this program with all your elementary kids.

This list is a place to start. 

There are plenty of real-life opportunities and online goodies that can be added to provide a unique education to your child, but it’s important to start with a strong foundation.

You might also like:

All About Gardens and Farming---30 FREE Resources!
44 Awesome Free Resources to Study Art and Music!
Study the Night Skies---21 FREE Online Astronomy Resources

Do you have a great free kindergarten resource to recommend?