Saturday, October 10, 2009

Be Your Kid’s Hero: Let Them Play Webkinz

It’s a known fact: many children love Webkinz, but as a parent or educator you may be wondering if it is education as well as fun. With so many interesting and entertaining games and activities it’s no wonder hours can easily be spent on this website. As a parent of a child who loves Webkinz, I decided to take a critical look at several different activities and games that Webkinz offers to evaluate their educational properties. I fortunately found many worthwhile activities, some of which reinforced already acquired academic skills. I was also pleased to find a few activities that not only taught a particular skill, but also helped develop it. Here is a brief overview of each of the games and activities that I researched and my opinion of them.

Booger Gets an “A

This game teaches beginner students basic math skills. The complexity of the problems increase with each level. Students are encouraged to use strategy techniques as the speed is increased.

Get Eleven Solitaire

Get 11 Solitaire teaches and promotes math drills at a higher level then Booger Gets an “A”. It allows students to acquire visual processing skill as well as work on developing their strategy, pattern planning skills, and processing speed.

Employment Office: Example Baby-sitter

This activity offers many benefits including encouraging students to not only work on their visual recognition of facial expressions (sad, hungry, thirsty, tired), but also makes them give the appropriate response. As the levels increase students are given more “children to baby-sit” and the complexity of the tasks increase based on their response time to the facial expressions. This activity also promotes hand-eye coordination, usage of the mouse and is ideal for AS (Autistic Spectrum) kids who have difficulty “reading” people’s non-verbal expressions.

Quizzy’s Word Challenge

This game can encourage hand-eye coordination and mouse usage, while improving planning and strategy skills to earn more points. Although this game reinforces known spelling skills it is not a substitute for phonics or spelling programs.

Tulip Trouble II

This game seems at first glance to offer little in the way of education, yet as I went through the game I found that it allowed students to work on many worthwhile skills. The game offered students the opportunity to exercise their visual processing. It also encourages students to focus and pay particular attention to details and subtleties. Complexity and intensity builds by the level although it is somewhat diminished with the lag time between levels. Hand-eye coordination and speed skills are a part of this game.

Lunch Letters

The ability to type is a great one to possess yet this game does not teach typing skills. If your student knows “QWERTY” this game will most likely reinforce those already acquired skills. Speed and complexity increases with each level encouraging students to push their skills. Note: If your student uses the “hunt and peck” method, this game will simply encourage them to continue using this method and could make it even more challenging for them to transition to another typing method.

Quizzy’s Question Corner

The success of this game depends largely on how motivated your student is and if they are interested in learning the information as opposed to simply earning points. Although some good information may be gained from this game I worry about several aspects. This game makes it exceedingly easy for students to not even read the questions, but simply keep “clicking” the multiple choice answers until they choose the right one by accident (points are still given). This game is also concerning because it fails to focus on mastery of information, yet if the questions are read and the correct age group is selected knowledge can be gleaned from this game.

Goober’s Lab

This activity is a great way for students to work on their visual processing and speed while at the same time focusing on detail discrimination. As students attempt to get three or more of the same color “atoms” lined up in a row they are working on visual organization and planning skills. Good hand-eye coordination and processing speed is encouraged throughout this activity.

Eager Beaver Adventure Park

Many of the same features as Quizzy's word challenge exist in this activity, hover, with the added complication of having to use letters that will "explode" and collapse causing the beavers dam to break over time if you are not quick enough or able to use the needed letters. Helps with word search skills (visual processing), spelling skills, as well as processing speed.

Try these and many other online games and activities. Some other free activities that help exercise cognitive skills can be found by going to , or

If you are interested in purchasing games and activities that keep brain function active, please visit For the hand held electronic SET game please contact The Brain Trainers as it is not yet available for sale on line.

Get a Brain Boast from Webkinz and many other activities that your children already want to do! You may reach Tara Jenner of The Brain Trainers by calling 239-218-4307 or emailing, if you need assistance in cognitive skills testing or cognitive skills training that is specifically targeted to develop new neural pathways using the science of neural plasticity. Our online BrainSkills program may just be the jump start you or your child needs.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Auditory Games to Play with Your Family - Games Part 2

This next game that works auditory analysis skills was invented by my nine-year-old daughter after taking a series of cognitive and academic achievement tests. She calls this game “Copy Me!”.

This game can be played anytime, anyplace and by anyone. You can spend a long time at this game or just a few minutes. This game is the definition of flexibility.

Here’s how you play:

As with all cognitive skills training games, begin very simply and build one feature or item at a time in order to set your student up for success. This game is intended to help students hear sounds in the spoken word and be able to repeat them correctly – each and every sound. It helps develop the skills needed for blending and segmenting words – the foundational skills for reading and spelling.

Start with the basic sounds: /i/, /e/, /a/, /u/, and /o/ (the ‘short’ vowel sounds) as well as /t/, /d/, /m/, /n/, /k/, /p/, /s/. /b/, /w/, /f/, /h/, /l/, /z/, /r/, /v/. Start with single sounds and proceed from there. Make sure that you are making the sounds correctly. For example, the sound /d/ is often mispronounced as “duh”. Try your best to avoid using the extra sound (this is really /d/ /u/). You say ‘dad’ not ‘duh a duh’!

Once the single sounds are mastered, begin by combining them into nonsense words and say them to your child. Star with just a vowel and a consonant (VC or CV presentation). Any combination will work. No need to worry about spelling right now.

Some ‘words’ you may choose would be:

Ak, ip, ta, fi, de, un, co, su, ra, em, le, ba, op, wi, and so on.

Say the make believe word and the student must correctly repeat the “word” without mistakenly changing a sound. If a sound is substituted for a different sound simple say “beep” and repeat your word. NEVER let them slide on a sound being off. In this game close is not good enough as it could actually create an incorrect auditory interpretation of something spoken – in short a bad neural pathway.

If your child struggles with this, after four failed attempts, break the ‘word’ down into two sounds separated by a pause and then blend it together. For example: /p/ (pause) /u/ and then /pu/. If need be, your child can repeat the single sounds first and then follow with the blended nonsense word. You want your child to succeed not fail. If they try unsuccessfully too many times in a row they can come to believe they can’t do the activity and this can develop into an self fulfilling prophesy as their brains ‘learn’ to believe this lie as a truth.

Once the two sound words are mastered with all the sounds listed above, it would be appropriate to add in other sounds and more of them. Do this incrementally by adding new sounds to mastery and then (and only then) add in more complexity by increasing the number of sounds in the nonsense words. You can use all sounds including the ones that are usually spelled with more complex codes (such as ‘igh’ as in light and ‘oo’ like in look and boot) since you are not worrying about spelling at this time, just focus on the pronunciation and sounds.

My kids really get into this game and end up with words as silly and complicated as hinkpointching (if you have trouble reading it break it down: hink-point-ching) and hinklestinkerplock (hinkle-stinker-plock).

Have the kids join in by saying words of their own making to you so they can be “teacher” and you the “student”. Occasionally, it is helpful to give them the opportunity to correct your mispronunciation of a sound within the word you are given by them. When they get really good you probably won’t even have to try to give them the opportunity to correct you – it will happen often enough anyway!

As Plutarch said : Many things which cannot be overcome when they are together yield themselves up when taken little by little.



Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Auditory Games to Play with Your Family – Games Part 1

OK so it took me a little longer than a week to get this blog entry up. Life is fun with 2 kids and a business …but often a little unpredictable :-)

This first game is a twist on “I spy!” Instead of the traditional approach of “I spy with my little eye something beginning with the letter I” (and you are looking at an ice cream or a picture of an igloo), simply switch to focusing on the sounds. Play the game “I hear with my little hear, something with the sound /i/ (like the first sound in igloo)” or the sound /i-e/ (like in ice cream)”.

At this stage it is not important that the players can identify which written letter or letters would be used to correctly spell the word. The focus is on the sounds only.

Taking this same game a little further, you can then have the child “spell” using sounds only. My little boy just turned 5 on March 30th and he thinks you spell “cat” with the sounds /c/, /a/, and /t/, and further that these sounds are represented by the letters ‘c’, ‘a’ and ‘t’ respectively. This way he can “spell by the sounds” really big and complicated words such as “birthday” by saying the sounds /b/, /er/, /th/, /d/, /a-e/ with breaks in between. He will later be able to learn which letter or letters are used to correctly represent those sounds in these words.

The Can Do Cubes phonics program, available on my web site, is a great tool to introduce the sounds and their written symbols. Made of solid wood with the written correspondences engraved onto each side of the cubes, they offer a tactile and visual component to the learning process. The cubes come in two boxes. The first box is Stage One, consisting of at least one written representation of each of the sounds in the English language. Stage Two introduces more complex written variations of the sounds.

The Can Do Cubes phonics program is great for beginners as well as those who need to back track to grasp this sound and code component of spelling and reading. Since spelling and reading are the flip side of the same coin, these skills are taught back to back. Fluency of segmenting, blending, and decoding and encoding are necessary for fluid reading and ease of comprehension. This program helps promote those skills.

This product is non-consumable and, therefore, very cost efficient when used in a family of more than one student. The cubes are very durable (believe me my son has tried his best to destroy them and has been unsuccessful after over a year’s use) and hold their resale value too.

It is easy to see using the Can Do Cubes that a single sound change can change an entire word.

The Can Do Cubes phonics program is very good for children who need to be on the move to learn best. My son likes to stack the cubes as he earns them (by correct recognition of the sound or the code) which helps with fine motor skills. When the stack is high enough he earns the right to either kick them over (only when given permission, but this also helps with other gross motor skills such as standing on one foot while the other has to aim at a target) or roll a ball at them like in bowling (again a good motor skill). My son sometimes likes slam dunking them into a small makeshift basketball hoop or bucket.

You and your child get to make up the rules. The possibilities are endless and you will be pleasantly surprised how creative your child can be. Remember that rewards for getting the sounds and code correct will cause a burst of dopamine, helping to lock in the learning, so let them experiment with different ways of working with the cubes.

My next entries will be on some games that help with sound recognition using nonsense words. My nine-year old daughter has called the first one “Copy Me!” and the second one “Fill in the Blanks”.

For more information on auditory analysis skills, testing and training visit The Brain Trainers.

By the way.....I hear with my little ear something beginning with /b/ (hint I’m tired)! Until next time.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Auditory Games to Play with Your Family – Introduction

In this week’s blog entries, I will be outlining several games that will help with sound recognition as well as sound segmenting, blending and analysis.

Let’s start with some background information to understand the importance of these skills.

Studies show that about 20 percent of the population has difficulty reading and spelling. Of this group about 80% have difficulty discerning the individual sounds within the spoken word.

These small “bites” of sound are called phonemes. For example in the word “cat” there are three distinct sounds /c/ /a/ and /t/ and for the word “with” there are also three sounds /w/ /i/ and /th/.

Each sound in the English language is represented in writing by a grapheme, made up of one or more letters of the alphabet. For example the sound /a-e/ (often referred to as the “long a”) can be represented in a number of different ways including ‘a-e’ like in cake, ‘a’ like in baby, ‘ay’ like in jaybird, ‘ey’ like in bird of prey, ‘ei’ like in reindeer, ‘eigh’ like in eight, and ‘ea’ like in steak.

Below is an example of how the /a-e/ sound is represented in the Can Do Cubes Phonics Program.

If your brain cannot “hear” the sounds then it will be difficult at best to spell without totally relying on rote memorization techniques. Spelling requires that you hear a word, segment it into its smallest sounds (phonemes) and then write down the code for each sound one after the next.

Reading works the reverse way by recognizing the grapheme or code and determining which sound it represents. After identifying what sound a single letter or combination of letters makes, blend the small sound units together to form a solid sounding word. Rote memorization is a coping option for some, but the brain can only memorize and retain so many sight words. This also limits reading more complex material or information on topics not yet covered, and can be very exhausting.

Let’s see an example using the word “dog”. Start by recognizing that the ‘d’ is pronounced /d/ (like in dad making sure not to pronounce it as /duh/), the ‘o’ is vocalized as /o/ (like in octopus), and the ‘g’ like /g/ (as in get). Saying the sounds individually at first and then with increased speed and closeness, by sliding from one sound to the next, you can decode the written word through blending.

The hard part is when you have a child who just can’t hear these small units of speech. Can this be fixed? Also, what about little ones? Is there a way to make sure they can and do develop this skill? The answer is a resounding YES for both situations! This is where brain training comes into play. You can work these skills early to avoid problems by encouraging effective neurological auditory pathways from the start. The same activities can be used to help ‘rewire’ the brain to hear these little sounds. This week's blog will outline some activities that will help with auditory analysis skills, but for more comprehensive brain training, I recommend BrainSkills on-line.

If you are concerned your older student can’t hear, blend or segment sounds, you may want to perform a simple test called The Gibson Test of Brain Skills. This test will take about 40 minutes and can be done in your home on your computer. This test will cover the sound segmenting, blending and analysis skills as well as processing speed, working memory, long-term memory, visual processing, word attack, attention, and logic & reasoning skills for only $29.95. If interested in more information about this test go to The Gibson Test of Brain Skills.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Exective Functioning Skills - Activities you can do at home

This week I decided to begin some additional cognitive skills activities with my two children. I have been doing even more research than usual on the topic of executive functioning skills and decided that I could create my own version of the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test using the Blink card game set and a few others items.
The Wisconsin Card Sorting Test is designed to help children and adults reason through possible options and determine through a process of elimination what “rule” applies. The reason this activity is so important is that studies show that executive functioning skills are not like other skills where mere exposure is sufficient. Executive function skills require active analysis by the student or adult through repetition and trial to encourage development and growth. “Telling” the child the answer defeats the purpose and even may inspire learned dependence and at worst could even cause a decrease in these skills over time.

Here’s what the goal is: Find a match to a single card from four available cards. The match can either be same color, same shape or same quantity. You need to decide which rule is applied and then the child needs to figure it out. You apply the same rule for up to 4 hands dealt. Then, you switch the rule to something different.

Come up with a creative way to let them know they selected correctly. We use a Staples Easy Button. You push the button when the correct answer is made and it says “That was easy”. As simple, noncommittal “beep” by the adult is sufficient for incorrect answers. This is not too judgmental and yet clearly identifies that they selected incorrectly.

After each selection by the student, immediately set up a new set of cards. Do NOT let the student continue guessing with the same set. This is pure guessing and does not work the strategy of the process of elimination and would, in fact, undermine the purpose of the activity at best and at worst would encourage a bad habit of guessing.

Here is an example: set four cards set out including 1. Three red tear drops, 2. One green lightning bolt, 3. Four blue flowers and, 4. Two grey triangles. The card that you have as the master card is a one grey tear drop. If you have preselected the “rule” to be color then the correct answer would be #4, if quantity was the “rule” then #2 is correct and if shape is the “rule” then #1 would be correct.

Repeat with new cards but using the same rule so the child can use a process of elimination to figure out which rule you are using. After four attempts they should have figured out the rule. Encourage then to tell you which rule they are checking each and every time. Once they make the correct selection for the rule have them tell you the rule that was applied. Repeat the steps one more time once they have discerned the correct rule to reinforce it.

To continue the game, select a new rule and repeat the steps above. You may also use objects or other card configurations as well. The SET cards would work. With SET the possible rules would be number, color, shape or shade – four possible options. With this variation you would want to give the child up to 5 attempts to discern the correct rule.

We have also been able to find various shape and colored buttons from our local school supply store. Using these we have been able to make certain rules including: same color and same shape, different shape and same color, different shape and different color, same shape and different color.
We have found the buttons to be really challenging because it is an either/or combination rule. As a parent the buttons are a little easier as I can draw them quickly from a pile and there is less down time for my children while I am preparing the set up. Down time is a brain break and does not accomplish the same thing as keeping the brain actively involved.

Be aware that this game will also work the mental faculties of the person setting up the cards or items being used. I would recommend doing a task like this for about 6 minutes. Go longer only if the child requests it and ALWAYS end on a success.

Don’t forget to have something that you child really finds fun as that signal they are correct. Research shows that when there is a release of dopamine, any new learning that precedes its release is “locked in”. This is also why you want a bland “beep” as the response to an incorrect response. You don’t want to punish with harshness, but a neutral correction will avoid a dopamine release on wrong responses.

Many games on the market today use very funny and exciting sounds for incorrect responses. Many of these sounds are so interesting that they could, inadvertently, have an undesired release of dopamine and undermine the learning process.

Be aware that an activity like this can be done with a child as young as two or three. Start with only one or two possible rules for the very young and increase the rule choices as they regularly get the correct answer. Correct answers should be achieved within the same number of tries as there are rules options.

Before beginning an activity like this, make sure the student can identify each of the elements they should be considering. Recognition of shapes, quantity, color and any other feature may need to be addressed first to ensure likelihood of success and decrease frustration for your child.

If you have more than one child, once the older student is proficient with this task at a basic level, they may become the teacher for the younger student at that level, while continuing on as the student for more challenging tasks. This will accomplish benefits for both children concurrently. Make sure the older student adheres to the guidelines of not telling the answer, giving much praise or reward for correct responses, and a non-committal “beep” for incorrect responses.

For more ideas and information about executive functioning skills and other skills that help make learning easier and more fun, please view other areas of The Brain Trainers site for information on Cognitive Skills Testing and Brain Training Programs (on-line as well as trainer lead), Instructional and Informational DVDs and Books, Educational Games and Activities and more.


Friday, February 27, 2009

BrainSkills and The Gibson Test of Brain Skills

I am so excited! Not only am I finally out of HTML he.., having finally upgraded my web site, but I now have the privilege of offering two new items that I hope will make cognitive skills testing and training more readily available to anyone.
Gone are the days of extensive neuro-psych evals that take days to complete and often months before a report is received. Never more will people be limited by geographical proximity to services. No more need to get a second mortgage to pay for cognitive skills training.

Most of us schedule and follow through with dental, vision, hearing and annual physical exams, albeit begrudgingly. The cost of cognitive skills testing, though, is usually prohibitive, even when insurance covers some of it. When several family members are struggling who gets the resources? This can often be a real “Sophie’s Choice” kind of situation. But, what about a brain check up? Everyone should know how their brain functions. This knowledge is crucial for so many things from education, to work, and to play.

The solution comes in the form of The Gibson Test of Brain Skills. For only $29.95 you can do a quick in home screening, with same day results, to find out where there are strengths and weaknesses that impact learning. Better still, once the results are in, there is a “fix”. That “fix” is the home study computer version of PACE (Processing and Cognitive Enhancement) called BrainSkills.

So often the $1,500+ professional evaluation takes months for the results to be dictated, and when they are they just say that since little Johnny is having trouble reading he should read more, and since little Mary is having trouble focusing she needs to pay more attention. While we’re at it let’s just tell a blind man that if he looks harder he will be able to see! Many people get offended because I label disabilities.

The reality is that a label is power when it is a starting place and addresses the skills, not the character of a child. Let’s be honest, if a child can’t read because of a disability, the label of dyslexia is not a personal attack but a determination of a wiring glitch. I can’t think of a child or adult who wouldn’t prefer the label of dyslexia over lazy, which is a personal attack and usually never feels true because of the effort being exerted.

Using the science of neural plasticity, BrainSkills works by developing new neural pathways to enhance the brain’s abilities. Once these new pathways start to develop, a student can soon see rapid changes. With a new found sense of future potential, applying themselves to the activities begets even greater growth of neuronal connections. The pleasure associated with improvement releases dopamine which “hard wires” the learned skills in place. BrainSkills is the answer for many who might otherwise not be able to afford training due to the cost of one on one training programs.

For only $495.00 you get a one year subscription to BrainSkills and the gateway to a new way of thinking. Families wanting the program for more than one person can get an even greater discount on the additional subscriptions when purchased simultaneously.

Please check of the rest of The Brain Trainers site and follow the links for The Gibson Test of Brain Skills and BrainSkills. The demo affords the chance to preview 3 of the 10 activities. You can even view a sample test report.

If you purchase BrainSkills and find you need a little more guidance or special modifications because of you student’s situation, I can be retained for consultation on an hourly basis. Please feel free to call or email me to discuss costs.

I encourage anyone who takes The Gibson Test of Brain Skills to give feedback on the experience on this forum.

Happy Brain Training!


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Possible Answer to Your Unexplained Exhaustion

Are you always tired, yet no medical tests performed or treatment offered can explain or adequately resolve your exhaustion? There are many possible contributing causes of fatigue, but one may not be well know or accepted as a valid condition by your physician.

A condition referred to as General Adaptive Syndrome, or more descriptively as Adrenal Fatigue may be worth looking into. Medical professionals readily acknowledge the end presentation of this disorder, which is called Addison’s disease, but often dismiss treatment and intervention opportunities in its earlier stages. Our adrenal glands are our bodies’ central control center, responding instantaneously with acute accuracy to stimuli including stress, injury, chronic pain, and emotional impact. Although capable of rapid recovery, some situations or repeat stressors can lead the adrenals to lose their ability to adapt, resulting in adrenal fatigue.

There are some common presentations occurring in adrenal fatigue cases. These often include, but are not limited to:
  • Difficulty or inability to get your day started until 10 a.m.
  • Drop of in energy level before noon with improvement after a meal.
  • Frequent debilitating exhaustion between 2-4 p.m.
  • Another improvement in stamina after an evening meal.
  • Difficult to stay awake after 9 or 10 p.m.
  • If pushing through the evening hours, many find their “second wind” and best energy of the day between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.
  • Even with an apparently adequate amount of rest, it is not restorative sleep.
  • Best and often most refreshing sleep comes between 7 and 9 a.m., if afforded that luxury.
Clinical presentations may occur in adults as well as children, often including a decreased ability to handle stress, feeling as though everything takes more effort, unresponsive or under-responsive to thyroid therapy, salt and sweet cravings to name a few.

Adults at high risk for adrenal fatigue include single parents, those working multiple or stressful jobs, care givers and health care professionals, as well as individuals exposed to repeated illnesses, persistent mental stress, and trauma (accidents, surgery, childbearing, loss of a loved one, and divorce).

Children experiencing the responses of “fight, flight, or fright” on a regular basis as a result of ADD, ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorders, or Sensory Processing Dysfunction, to name a few, may be at an increased risk of overworking their adrenal glands and throwing their bodies into adrenal fatigue over time. Academic stress, family concerns and other traumatic emotions may also trigger onset of this condition.

To learn more about Adrenal Fatigue and how to restore your body’s ability to regain this vital function, check out the book,
Adrenal Fatigue The 21st Century Syndrome by Dr. James L. Wilson, available through our site.

Tara R. Jenner, owner and managing director, The Brain Trainers and Keith S. Susko, MD, Board certified physician in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation with subspecialty board certification in Pain Medicine