Scholastic’s KidQ App Connects Us at Breakfast

I think I’ve heard enough about MineCraft for a while. I’m fairly certain, also, that Jay and Chris are tired of answering questions about their new teachers and classmates at school.

There might be hundreds of ways to ask, “So, how was school today?” But these guys have heard them all and they have perfected the artful dodge — aka a one-shouldered shrug and a mumbled, “It was OK.”

And there might be thousands of ways to describe the quest for a new pickaxe or an encounter with creepers or the latest legend of Herobrine. We know they love it, we know it’s supposed to help with problem-solving skills, but I’m kind of ready for MineCraft to go the way of Rainbow Loom.

So, Scholastic came along right on time with their request for me to check out their new KidQ app. The art of conversation with an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old had begun to deteriorate noticeably. Especially at the breakfast table, where we stuck to the basics: homework, lunch options, homework and EAT YOUR EGGS for God’s sake don’t you know there are STARVING kids somewhere in the world who would LOVE to have scrambled eggs and toast, etc.

You know, the usual.

That changed when we introduced the KidQ app from Scholastic to our breakfast routine.

What is KidQ?

Scholastic describes it as a free app for Android and iPhone that: “facilitates conversation via fun Q&A’s about the things that kids (and parents!) are the most curious about. … Each day, users are notified of a new playful question that serves as a conversation starter along with the official answer. Families will have a blast as they compare their explanations to the facts!”

That’s the pitch. Sounds nice, sure, but couldn’t we just come up with questions of our own to ask the kids at breakfast? The answer is yes, we could have — and we did. In fact, that part of our interaction hasn’t gone away. At breakfast and dinner, we still talk about what’s happening in our lives (OK, yes, the conversation does in fact extend beyond school and MineCraft).

But now? Before we even get settled in our chairs, instead of begging for five minutes of MineCraft on our iPhones, one or both of them ask: “Dad, what’s today’s KidQ question?”

I’ll say this right now — I was not so sure that our kids would buy into the whole, facilitating “conversation via fun Q&A’s” thing. I figured I’d try it a couple of times and see if it took.

It didn’t hurt at all that our first question was about the distance a skunk can spray its smelly musk.

Oh, man. That hooked ‘em. They laughed and laughed at the thought of a skunk spraying. I love how kids that age so easily amused by smelly things. The answer, by the way, is up to 10 feet accurately, and up to 18 feet randomly.

We skipped along with a few more questions:

  • Why do hummingbirds hum?
  • How do bees make honey?
  • What are shooting stars?
  • What causes you to hiccup?
  • Why do you think geese fly in a V formation?

The way we use it is:

  • I ask the question.
  • They give their answers.
  • I read out the Scholastic answer.
  • We go through the set of Fun Facts that are included with every question and answer.

Sometimes, we’ll talk about the topic a little more, and that will lead to conversation about something else, and something else. Other times, they’ll immediately ask me to read the next question. They greet each one with delight, often with laughter.

Here’s an example of the question, answer and Fun Facts from a couple of days ago. I chose it to share here because I am from North Carolina originally and a lot of our family still lives there. Someday, we’ll take them to Kitty Hawk, N.C., for a visit to the Wright Brothers Memorial. And when we do, we’ll say, “Hey, remember that KidQ question about North Carolina? Why the license tags say First in Flight?”

I’m pretty sure they will.


The question.


The answer.


Fun Facts.

It’s as cool as it looks. And did I mention this thing is free? Simple follow this link: and download the app to your Android device or iPhone. You’ll have the option to sign in with Facebook or Twitter and share the questions, if you want. A new question will be provided each day at a time of your choosing. You also can elect to skip a question and move on to the next one any time you like. So far, I haven’t found a limit to the number of questions you can ask each day.

Which is fine with Jay and Chris. Oh, they still squeeze in their MineCraft time each day. But it’s good to know that they can appreciate the fine art of conversation about something that doesn’t involve this guy: Creeper

Disclosure: I was compensated by Scholastic to use the new KidQ app and spread the word about how great it is for generating conversation with kids and making them think a little. But between you and me, I would have used this app for nothing. Our kids like it that much. 

Creative Minds Podcast Appearance with Chris Read of Canadian Dad

From left: me, Chris Read of Canadian Dad; Kevin McKeever of Always Home and Uncool; Whit Honea of the Internet. I spent an hour Tuesday rambling about baseball, storytelling and other things on Chris' Creative Minds podcast.

At Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans this past February. From left: me, Chris Read of Canadian Dad; Kevin McKeever of Always Home and Uncool; Whit Honea of the Internet. I spent an hour Tuesday rambling about baseball, storytelling and other things on Chris’ Creative Minds podcast.

One of the best things about publishing this online … whatever it is … journal, I guess … is the chance to develop friendships with people all over the world. One of my favorites is Chris Read of Canadian Dad.

Chris was kind enough to feature DadScribe on his Dad Blogs Exposed series about a year ago. And Tuesday, he was kind enough (again) to invite me to join him for an hour-long conversation on the Creative Minds podcast he produces with fellow Canadian Mike Reynolds of Puzzling Posts. Mike was out Tuesday attending to under-the-weather family members (get well soon, Mike’s family!), so it was just me and Chris.

Chris indulged my rambling about baseball writing and storytelling and parenting and other topics, and I enjoyed every minute. We name-dropped a few of our favorite fellow online writers and I made a few lame attempts at jokes about how Canadians occasionally add a “u” after an “o” in inappropriate places.

It was a good time, and I hope you get the chance to listen. Here is the link to the podcast, which is  also available through subscription on iTunes.

Thank you again, Chris and Mike, for the invitation. I’d love to do it again sometime.


We Need to Hear Something Good

It’s kind of rough right now, isn’t it? Ferguson. James Foley. Gaza. Syria. Ukraine. Ebola. Seems like everything is going to Hell. And that’s on top of our own everyday challenges, which we all do our best to conquer, but sometimes seem overwhelming.

How do we cope? Hugs help me. This morning, I felt the weight of the world release its grip for just a moment as I was embraced by the boys and my wife on my way out the door. I am fortunate. I know happiness. I also know stress and distress, and I worry about things. Sometimes I can’t sleep because of it. Oh, you, too? Yeah. It’s not easy, is it?

When we’re alone with our thoughts, when the news seems only bad and getting worse from outside and inside our personal spheres, how do we remind ourselves that it’s not all sadness and anxiety and woe? I’m not sure we can, frankly. Yet, I saw something nice today on the road to work, and it made me wonder.

A nine-banded armadillo decided to cross the road near my subdivision during morning rush hour. Armadillos (AKA Florida speed bumps) are unfortunate victims all the time, but this little guy was lucky. Every car on both sides of the two-lane road stopped and waited while it crossed from the woods into a patch of high grass on the other side. It would not have surprised me to see the first car just drive right on and kill that creature without a thought. Seeing what happened instead lifted my spirits — all those cars lined up for a full minute or more, just to let one small armored ground squirrel get where it needed to get on a muggy Florida morning.

It was a small, good thing, a brief flash of collective consideration for another living being by a group of strangers in a hurry, and it made me feel better — if only for a minute or two. I know it sounds trite. I know it’s a little cheesy. I know one lucky armadillo making it across the road in rush hour traffic because of the kindness and decency of a few morning commuters won’t erase the worries of the world.

But what if we all took the time to notice one small, good thing and shared it? All those small, good things combined might make a dent. It might give us (or someone else) the mental and emotional lift we need to carry on in the face of all the craziness. Maybe. I don’t know. If you do have a story to share, though, I know I’d love to read it.

Please share it in the comments below, or on my DadScribe Facebook page. Something small. Something good. A reminder that there is more to life than worrisome world events and day-to-day stress. Something to help us all make it through another day.

Thoughts about SeaWorld never stray far from Dawn

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

No matter where my family and I went Wednesday at SeaWorld Orlando, I thought about Dawn Brancheau.

In the morning, we stopped and gawked at a dozen or more dolphins swimming leisurely along in their open-air enclosure.

I thought of Dawn.

We watched a SeaWorld caretaker bottle feed a rescued baby manatee, who is destined to be released back into the wild.

I thought of Dawn.

We saw a 3D sea turtle film at the Turtle Trek exhibit, and we saw a rescued turtle with paralyzed rear flippers thriving in that environment, and we listened to (and approved of) SeaWorld Entertainment’s message to “be an everyday hero” when it comes to sharing the world with marine animals.

I thought of Dawn.

A SeaWorld trainer interacts with a killer whale at Shamu Stadium after the performance on Wednesday.

At Shark Encounter, I thought of her. At the Antarctica section of the park, even as we froze our toes in the penguin exhibit, Dawn was never far from my thoughts.

Occasionally, I checked my iPhone for updates on SeaWorld Entertainment’s tumbling stock, a result of a worse-than-expected second-quarter earnings report. I checked Twitter and other online channels and was not at all surprised to see anti-captivity activists revel in the apparent public rebuke of SeaWorld’s practices regarding the company’s trained killer whales and dolphins in Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego and other marine parks around the world.

I thought about Blackfish, the compelling documentary that attempts to indict SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas.

I thought about the passionate entreaties and the harsh vitriol I’ve read on Twitter and Facebook and at animal activist sites like the Dodo and PETA-backed SeaWorld of Hurt.

I thought about SeaWorld’s detailed online response to those claims, and I thought about how frustrating it must be to SeaWorld that its message of animal rescue and environmental conservation has been largely lost in the public discourse in the wake of Blackfish.

Shamu Stadium was packed for the Wednesday afternoon performance of One Ocean, SeaWorld Orlando’s killer whale show.

Then we watched the orca show at Shamu Stadium, where the killer whales jumped out of the water while trainers danced and gestured and tossed fish into open orca mouths. The performing killer whales also used their tails to splash spectators in the first few rows.

The stadium was packed.

I kept looking for Tilikum, the 12,000-pound killer whale that killed Dawn Brancheau on Feb. 24, 2010. I thought about Tilikum in his holding pen somewhere behind the main performing pool. I wondered if he was listening. I wondered if he was watching.

I thought about the three people whose deaths were attributed to interaction with Tilikum – Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes and Dawn Brancheau.

I mostly thought about Dawn, who died only yards away from the stadium where thousands of spectators cheered other killer whales jumping and splashing on Wednesday.

I thought about the arguments against keeping marine animals in captivity. I thought about how millions of people would never see these animals up close if not for SeaWorld, and how seeing these animals up close makes them real, and how proximity can engender empathy.

I thought about my sons, both of whom love animals.

After the show, a few handlers demonstrated to our group how the killer whales have been trained to respond to signals requesting that they provide urine and blood samples used to monitor their health. One trainer narrated, while a handful of others interacted with the orcas.

Later, I talked to Craig Thomas, a 28-year SeaWorld veteran who responded to the alarm the night Dawn died (click here for a transcript of my interview). He used to work with Tilikum. Now, Craig Thomas is the assistant curator of Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Orlando.

The whole time I talked to Craig Thomas, I thought of Dawn.

I thought about how both sides in this controversy have interpreted Dawn’s legacy. SeaWorld Orlando named its education center after her and holds an annual 5K run/walk in her honor. The makers of Blackfish and the adherents to its message have turned Dawn’s death into a rallying point for the anti-captivity cause.

I thought about all the subpoenas and legislation and the political back and forth. The impassioned pleas and boycotts on one side. The defensive posturing by a corporate giant that has done what it does for 50 years, and only now has begun to acknowledge that things must change. Change means significantly larger killer whale enclosures in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando, along with a $10 million matching donation for killer whale research.

I thought about all of that, and about Dawn, and about how parents can explain the issue to their kids.

Many might simply say SeaWorld is in the wrong, that it is morally reprehensible to use sentient creatures like dolphins and killer whales to make money by amusing the masses.

Others might say that the animal rescue efforts SeaWorld undertakes, and the message of conservation that SeaWorld advocates, are worth talking about, worth preserving. And that the way to bring attention to those efforts and that message is to expose as many people as possible to the beauty and intelligence of killer whales and dolphins – that the shows make it real for millions of people.

Opposing ideals, opposing ideologies. Both compelling, both important.

I prefer to think about Dawn, and to share the message of the Dawn Brancheau Foundation, which is “dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need.” I’ll think about Dawn’s family, which issued this statement about Blackfish. It reads, in part: “Dawn’s death is central to our story.”

I’ll share the facts with our children, who are not too young to start thinking about the welfare of these wonderful animals we are so fortunate to see up close. I’ll let them know some people think it’s wrong to put animals in cages, while others believe that as long as the animals are properly cared for and treated with dignity, there is a place for zoos and marine parks in our society.

I’ll tell them about Dawn. And I hope when they think about all of this, they think about her, too.


The memorial plaque at the Dawn Brancheau Education Center, SeaWorld Orlando.

Disclosure: I was invited to experience behind-the-scenes tours at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa for purposes of learning about SeaWorld Entertainment’s conservation, rescue and veterinary care programs, as well as the entertainment component of the park’s marine mammals and other animals. Opinions are solely those of the author.


In Transit

He turns and grins, speeding ahead of me on the moving walkway, pulling the suitcase behind him, sprinting away and looking back over his shoulder as he moves, laughing and checking to make sure I’m still trying to keep up, making sure I’m still with him.

The rolling suitcase looks huge as he drags it behind him, the handle gripped in his small hand, its bones still as delicate as a bird’s but growing, growing stronger every day.

He looks back and smiles that smile, brilliant white permanent teeth still too big for his 8-year-old mouth. That smile.

I smile back and quicken my pace. He laughs and turns away, sprinting again toward the end of the moving sidewalk.

“Don’t run,” I say.

He slows and as I watch him struggle to keep control of the suitcase my eyes moisten and my throat tightens and I fight back tears because here, on this long, glass-enclosed concourse between the main terminal at TF Green airport and the rental car center, as we race along from one moving walkway to the next, as he looks back over his shoulder and grins at me, in a moment of perfect and terrible clarity I am reminded that one day he’ll look back and I won’t be there.

I’m here now, though.

I blink away the tears and break into a sprint, catching him in two strides, passing him and laughing, racing ahead and looking back over my shoulder to see him laughing, too, and trying with all his might to keep up as we hurtle toward the end of the moving walkway.

One of America’s Summertime Favorites: at the Zoo with the #PretzelGuys

Pretzel Guys

Our Zoo Day pretzel pack included two kinds of sunscreen, kid-sized shades, plenty of water, a point-and-click camera and lots of Snyder’s of Hanover pretzel snaps and sourdough nibblers.

Disclosure: I was compensated by Life of Dad and Snyder’s of Hanover for my participation in this promotion. 

Pretzels make it easy for parents. Toss a few into a snack bag, and they’re the ideal school lunch side dish. Kids got the afternoon munchies? Grab the pretzels.

Need to fight off hunger during a hot and humid summer trip to the zoo? Put together a Pretzel Pack — Snyder’s of Hanover sourdough nibblers and pretzel snaps, along with sun screen, shades, a point-and-click camera and plenty of water — and all will be well.

We spend a lot of time at the zoo. Tampa, Florida, has one of the country’s best, Lowry Park Zoo, and the annual family pass is a great value.

Summertime in Florida means … well, you know what it means if you’ve been here in July or August. When we walk around the zoo or a theme park this time of year, we work up a crazy thirst and an even crazier hunger. This time around, after visiting some of our animal favorites, we ducked into an air-conditioned dining room and broke open the Pretzel Pack. As you can see in this quick video diary, the boys are crazy about these snacks!

Full disclosure: My older son was NOT reading from a script when he said, “Man, these things are SO delicious!” He was eating the pretzel snaps, but he could just as easily have been enjoying the sourdough nibblers, the pretzel butter snaps, the mini pretzels or the pretzel sticks. I mean, there’s an entire wall dedicated to Snyder’s of Hanover pretzel varieties at our local grocery store. Our kids love them all.

Now, I get to tell you about a chance to win $10,000 toward your next summer vacation. Snyder’s of Hanover is holding a big contest — America’s Summertime Favorites Sweepstakes — over on its Facebook page, with weekly entries and prizes. Keep checking back all summer for new ways to win.

And speaking of winning, I will join several of my blogging pals for a Twitter party Wednesday, July 30, at 1 p.m. ET. No RSVP is necessary, and prizes will include $50 VISA gift cards and a grand prize of a $150 VISA gift card. It will be hosted by the Life of Dad guys, who can be found on Twitter at @LifeofDadShow. Follow me, too, if you like: @DadScribe. The hashtag to follow during the Twitter party and throughout the summer is #PretzelGuys.

And don’t forget to check out the Snyder’s of Hanover America’s Summertime Favorite Sweepstakes on their Facebook page. I mean, $10,000 for a dream vacation. Just imagine how much fun you could make with that kind of prize …

SnydersHanoverTwitter V2





What do we tell the children?

What do we tell them?

What do we tell the children of Gaza as the tears stream down their faces, leaving tracks in the layer of dust that settled on their cheeks after bombs turned their homes into craters?

What do we say to the terrified children of Syria, where the innocent years have been smothered in bombs and blood?

What words are there for the lost and desperate children of the American border, where they stream across in their thousands, running from death, hoping for a new life?

What do we tell them? What can we do?

We see the images on TV, hear the horror even in the refined, detached voices of the men and women assigned to cover it. How can we change the channel? How can we look away?

How can we not, though?

It is easier, safer, to turn away from the horror than to stand up to it. Chores and errands demand our attention. Games and movies beckon. The lawn needs mowing. The baseball team is heating up down the stretch. Football is starting. School is around the corner. Vacation, birthday parties, a trip to the zoo.

All of this is here, in front of us. This is our reality. All we have to do is change the channel. All we have to do is click over to BuzzFeed or Upworthy or Reddit or Facebook.

Get lost in the fun.

Forget the faces. Forget the agony. Forget the blood.

Forget those children.

Hey, sorry. We all have problems.

Besides, they aren’t my children.

But yes.

Yes, they are.

They are mine.

They’re yours, too.

These children? We can’t see their faces, hear their cries, and relegate it to that place in our minds where unpleasant thoughts go to hibernate, waiting to stir when poked and prodded by our demons and thrust into our nightmares.

We can’t do that. We can’t just ignore it. Can we?

But what do we tell them? What can we do?

If I was there, if I didn’t have my own concerns and problems and distractions, if I could drop it all and run to them on the Rio Grande and in Gaza City and Aleppo, I would tell them that there is more.

That this is not all there is in this world, that life is still beautiful. That there are flowers and toys and music. That somewhere on this planet, a kitten purrs and a toddler laughs and laughs.

That even though the world allows little boys to be blown to bits on the beach as they play soccer;

even though men with guns and foul faces force little children to trek across dangerous Central American  fields and treacherous waters in a blind search for something better;

even though it is unspeakably awful now and sadness, despair and anger are their close companions … there is hope.

There is more.

I would tell them: Don’t give up.

You are precious.

And I would take them in my arms and hold them close, and cry with them until our mingled tears soaked the dry and fractured earth.