May 19 – Scratch Day 2012

March 9, 2012

If your kids have been turned on to the extremely fun computer programming software called Scratch, you might want to check and see if there is a Scratch Day 2012 event in your area on May 19th, where they can link up with like-minded kids and adults.

If you haven’t heard of Scratch and have kids interested in computer programming, you’re in for a treat.

Check out my review of this intuitive programming interface that had my 5-year-old writing his first program the first day he used it.


Posted under Homeschool Software

Free Alternatives to Staple Software Packages

February 15, 2011

(Guest Post by Lindsey Wright – Thank you!)

One of the highest costs home school students face is purchasing software so that they (and their computer) are well equipped to complete assignments. Luckily, if you are a student on a budget, there are software programs that will allow you to accomplish most of your education without spending a ton of money. In recent years independent programs have developed a variety of free software packages that have replaced old staples like Microsoft Office. There are so many free software alternatives you might feel overwhelmed if you’re new to searching them out. However, there are a few programs in existence that are absolute must-haves. Read on to determine which programs are worth checking out.

  1. (OOo) is a powerful free alternative to the popular Microsoft Office Suite. The basic applications that constitute OOo include Writer, Calc, Draw, Impress, Math and Base, the former four being equivalent to MSWord, Excel, Visio and PowerPoint. The default save extensions in OOo are proprietary, such as .odt, but you can save in, and work with, MS Office formats without any compatibility issues. Similarly, the MS Word templates work well in OOo Writer, and so do the MS Office macros in OOo Calc. Yet what is best of all is that OOo runs lightly, and a single Writer document takes only about 70 MB worth of memory to run.
  2. Foobar2000 is to audio players as Bruce Lee was to martial arts. Fast, compact, simple and elegant. The philosophy behind Foobar2000 is that there should be more music and less software. Visually, the program is fairly spartan, but it can be customized easily to suit your tastes. You can change visualizations, and configure libraries and layouts to make things more comfortable. There are also a lot of components available for Foobar2000 that allow for commands such as system shut down and music scheduling.
  3. As far as burning CDs and DVDs is concerned, CDBurner XP is a great free alternative to Windows Media Player. The interface is very simple; upon opening the program you can select from Data, Audio, ISO, Copy and Erase functions. As for the functionality, you can even burn Blue-Ray and HD-DVDs with this program. From Bulgarian to Ukrainian, the language support is strong and it also runs lightly (18 MB). While CDBurner XP doesn’t come with a DVD burner, it works well and is free, which is pretty hard to beat.
  4. Foxit Reader is a worthy adversary to Adobe Reader. In fact, people who are used to Adobe Reader will feel right at home when using this program. Foxit Reader has advanced features, such as the ability to highlight text, measure and scale, and turn PDFs into text. The software is very fast as well, stable, and takes about eight MB of RAM.
  5. Hate viruses and love free anti-virus programs? Avast! Free Antivirus is an amazing piece of software, which basically runs itself. The latest interface is clean and the software flows intuitively. The program scans files and folders in real-time, as they are opened or manipulated and analyzes suspicious program behavior. Avast! Free Antivirus uses fewer than 16 MB of RAM while running casually on default settings.

These programs are easy on your system, fast and efficient. The programs are free but their combined value is immense. Microsoft Office and a subscription based Antivirus alone would cost you a couple of hundred dollars a year. In terms of usage, OOo definitely takes home the awards. The service the program provides is so critical that the fact that it’s free shouldn’t cause anyone to pass it up.

Lindsey Wright is a music educator, computer repair consultant, and substitute teacher in Washington state.

Posted under Homeschool Software

My 5-year-old wrote his first computer program with Scratch

January 12, 2011

My husband found this amazing program, Scratch, that lets kids write their own computer programs without knowing a single word of programming language.  Best of all, it’s created by the MIT Media Lab with lots of funding to make it completely free!

This little program may not look like much, but the cool part is:  My 5-year-old wrote it!  He calls it “fat the cat”.

The cat starts spinning and gets bigger and bigger, thus the ‘fat’ part.

He wrote it using these innovative programming ‘blocks’ used in Scratch.  Here’s an example of a piece of his code:

You use the blocks to animate your ‘sprites’ (images), give them sounds, change their colors, and lots more.  Then, you can put a ‘forever’ block around the whole thing and have the action keep repeating.

There is no complicated code to learn, and kids aren’t frustrated by typing the wrong punctuation or variable by accident.

My 11-year-old son wrote and posted his favorite program:  Stick Gun Wars.

I know.  Four boys and I’m still trying to encourage their less violent ideas.

He loves the big Scratch online community where he is able to learn from programs other kids have posted.  He browses through the Scratch creations online and when he finds one he likes, he looks at the code to see how it was programmed.  And when he finally finishes one he is proud of, he can post it for others to see.

It’s saying something that the first week my kids had this program, all four of the older ones spent every spare moment programming, and still love to poke around on it months later.

Here are some links to get you started:

If you have any other good programming tools for kids, we’d love to hear about them!


Posted under Homeschool Software

Fritz and Chesster Game Review – My Kids Love Learning Chess!

April 21, 2009


My husband enjoys a chess puzzle every morning, which is the only reason the game appeals to my kids: Dad likes it so there must be something there. Then we found the Fritz and Chesster game for the PC. It uses a great story line and fun games to teach all the concepts of chess.

Gone are the days of Mom saying, “Uh, I don’t think the knight can go there,” and “Where do I set the bishops at again?”

In the day of XBox’s, DS’s, etc., how do you get kids interested in playing chess? And why would you anyway?

Because chess can:

  • Help on test scores.
  • Teach kids problem solving.
  • Thinking of all the possible moves in your head helps a lot with abstract reasoning.
  • Ups memory, language, and math skills.
  • Encourages creative thinking.
  • It’s fun, and gives the mind a workout at the same time!
  • You can do it together!

    Why Fritz and Chesster?

    It’s fun and teaches all the moves in chess: pawn moves, castling rules, promotion, mate, stalemate, everything! And then the second program, Fritz and Chesster 2, goes on to teach even more tactics and strategies.

    How it Teaches Chess with Stories and Games:

    It starts with a storyline about young Fritz who is left in charge of the kingdom while his mom and dad, the King and Queen, are away. Here’s a picture of the crew with King Black, the hardest king to defeat.


    Here’s a fun game using Sumo wrestlers facing off against each other. They teach how a king moves and the idea of ‘opposition’ as you try to force the other wrestler off the game mat. They are too fat to be right next to each other, so the rules are that they stay at least one square apart 🙂


    And how about bouncing a ball diagnally across a game board to smash toilet bowls? Yes, the potty humor is funny to kids, and meanwhile, they are learning how the bishop moves diagonally.


    What better way to learn how a rook moves in straight lines than trying to escape these spiders in the rook maze and earn a high score.


    And this horse has to jump over the fences, but in the “L”-shaped movement that a knight makes. What a great mind puzzle for kids!


    Once you learn all the rules, you get to practice by playing against opponents of various difficulties.

    At around $20, it’s cheaper than any chess lesson by an expert and with the ability to enter multiple names, all your kids can play.

    What about yourself? If you never took the time to understand how chess really works, give yourself a fun mental workout and learn it together with your child. Isn’t that half the fun of homeschooling? Learning together!

    (You can help support HomeschoolBytes by purchasing Learn to Play Chess with Fritz and Chesster from this link and/or doing any Amazon shopping from there also – Thanks!)

    I’d like to review a few more of my favorite learning software programs. Do you have any favorites? Or requests to review? Let me know in the comment section 🙂

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    Posted under Homeschool Software, Math Curriculum