Nerf Guns and Nonsense

My older son peered through the blinds into our back yard, but made no move to join his friends.

His homework was finished and he was free to play until supper time. Yet, the Monday afternoon soccer game went on without him.

“Aren’t you going outside?” I said.

He turned away from the sliding glass door and shook his head.

“No,” he said. “Not today. I just don’t want to.”

Strange. He loves to play outside. I knew why this time was different.

“Is it because of the Nerf gun thing?” I said.

He nodded.

“A little bit,” he said.

He turned back to the sliding glass door and peered out at his friends playing soccer in our back yard. He wanted to be out there playing, too. Instead, he watched from the cover of the blinds.

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The Nerf gun thing. In our neighborhood, Nerf foam dart gun battles rage almost daily. There are Nerf assault rifles, Nerf sniper rifles, Nerf blasters, Nerf cross bows, Nerf cannons. The neighborhood lawns are littered with discharged and forgotten Nerf darts.

I don’t like Nerf foam dart guns. I don’t like guns, period. I don’t like watching kids pretend to shoot each other. I worry that they might become inured to violence, and I worry that a blue or orange Nerf dart might strike one of my kids or a neighbor kid in the eye and cause permanent damage.

Naturally, our kids have about a half-dozen Nerf guns.

We allow them to participate in these neighborhood foam dart battles, with the stipulation that they wear the protective goggles that came with one of their Nerf gun sets and that they don’t aim the Nerf guns at other kids’ heads.

The Nerf gun thing that kept my son inside peering through the blinds instead of running around outside on the brown winter grass had its origins in a bicycle race over the weekend. A race my son lost to two other kids, both of whom are older, bigger, stronger and faster than my third grader.

Before that bike race around the block, one of the older kids – a good kid, a kid we know – announced that the race loser would be subjected to an undefended barrage of Nerf darts shot at him point-blank by the other two race participants.

In essence: a Nerf gun firing squad.

Our son told us Sunday night about his scheduled next-day “punishment” for losing the bike race. His mom and I told him there would be no Nerf gun firing squad. He would have to tell the other kids it’s not going to happen.

We left it at that, but we both woke up thinking about it the next morning. My wife called me on her way to work and we talked about it.

Was this a case of bullying behavior? Was it just “kids being kids?” How can parents tell the difference? What should we do about it?

In the moment, shortly after he informed us about the kid-manufactured consequences of losing that bike race, we told our son to stand up to the other boys if they tried to get him to “take his punishment.”

But were we sure he knew how to do that?

My wife and I decided that it wasn’t a case of repetitive bullying behavior, based on what we know about the kids involved and our son’s relationship with them. These kids are a grade or two ahead of our son, but we know them. They’re generally nice kids, not mean-spirited, and our son enjoys their company.

Still, it’s not easy to say no to friends. We wanted to make sure our son was equipped with the words he needed to gracefully minimize a potential conflict and prevent a potential long-term rift with his buddies. She and I talked about it and, together, made a plan of action we could suggest to him if it came up.

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Back at the blinds, our son was of two minds as he peered out: He longed to go out outside and play, but did not want to be shot at with Nerf dart guns.

I said, “You can go outside if you want to. Those guys might not even remember the bike race. But if they do, and they say something to you, do you know what to do?”

He nodded and said, “Yeah, come back inside.”

His expression told me he wouldn’t be happy with that outcome, so I was glad his mother and I had come up with a suggestion.

“Well, sure, you could do that,” I said. “Or you could look right at them and say, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to stand here and let you shoot me with Nerf guns. Let’s just play soccer.’”

Then I said, “Let me know if that doesn’t work.”

He thought about it for a few seconds, then reached for his fleece pullover.

“OK,” he said. “I’m going outside.”

I resisted the temptation to watch him through the blinds. I’m not against keeping a close eye on my kids, but this was one time I felt like he needed some space. I figured if he needed me, he’d come get me.

An hour later, he came in for supper. I asked him as casually as I could if the Nerf gun thing had come up. He said it had.

“Oh?” I said. “And what happened?”

“I told them it was just nonsense and to keep playing soccer,” he said.

I smiled and repeated, “Nonsense?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I forgot the other word you told me, but I like nonsense better, anyway.”

I told him I liked it better, too, and asked how his friends had taken it.

“We just started playing soccer again,” he said.

I told him I was proud of him.

I liked that he was not intimidated by his older friends into going along with a bad idea.

I liked that he found the fortitude to face his apprehension.

I liked that he accepted – and improved upon – the plan of action his mother and I devised to help him.

I loved that our son learned something about his own strength of will. And, even though he lost that bike race, he defeated his own uncertainty and managed a difficult situation with words and with grace.

 

Sunday Morning

I hear a kid yelling upstairs. Roaring, actually. Repeatedly. I’m downstairs and I hear a kid roar over and over.

My investigation consists entirely of one question directed toward the general vicinity of the stairwell.

“Jay, that sounds awful,” I yell. “Are you OK?”

The roars cease.

“Well, Chris is being a maniac.”

The mystery is resolved and the investigation concludes with a succinct, disembodied answer from somewhere upstairs.

Sunday morning.

Think these guys are ready for #MonsterJam? Oh, yeah.

A photo posted by Carter (@dadscribe) on

 

5 Things Kids Will Love About a Snowy Holiday in Kissimmee

When I asked my son to list his five favorite things about our recent Snowy Holiday getaway in Kissimmee, he groaned. Not because he didn’t want to do it, mind you. He groaned because … well, here’s what he told me.

“Do I have to make it five? There’s so much more than that!”

He was absolutely right. Each stop on our weekend excursion gave us dozens of memories. And we even came in a day late, so we missed the ICE fun at Gaylord Palms (we’ll take that in another time).

I explained to Jay that I wanted our final Snowy Holiday post to reflect the Kissimmee experience from his perspective, so other kids and their parents can know what it’s like. Once I convinced Jay that choosing only five things didn’t mean he was disrespecting the rest of the fun we had, he settled in and wrote down his list.

By the way, one of the many things I love about my older son is his propensity for joy, especially when it comes to spending time with friends. I am reminded of this every time I watch him meet someone new. Most of the time, he and his new friends begin to play and interact as if they had known each other all their young lives.

I saw it in action again in Kissimmee, when Jay met the kids of my fellow attendees at the Experience Kissimmee media event — Marisa from Adventures of Tampa Mama, Carlee of Frugal and Fun Mom, and Melissa of JonahBonah. All four kids had a blast, and Jay made my heart melt a little when he told me his real favorite thing about the weekend: “Hanging out with my friends.”

The Snowy Holiday kids: four Floridians frolicking on the ice in Celebration. Photo: Carlee Chambliss Colonneso, Frugal and Fun Mom

The Kissimmee Snowy Holiday kids: four Floridians frolicking on the ice in Celebration. Photo: Carlee Chambliss Colonneso, Frugal and Fun Mom

Top 5 things my third-grader loved about our Snowy Holiday adventure in Kissimmee:

5. Encantada Orlando Resort.

When we arrived on a Friday afternoon, we were blown away by the size and comfort of our townhome at Encantada. We have stayed at several theme park resorts and non-affiliated hotels throughout the Kissimmee and Lake Buena Vista area. Now that we know about the amenities and affordability of Encantada, we will add it to our vacation rotation.

Snowy Holiday

He loved Encantada Orlando Resort so much, he vowed to buy it one day and live there.

4. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.

More often than not, this wonderful night-time event at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom would top the list of any kid who spent a weekend in Kissimmee. We managed to work our way right up next to the Cinderella Castle stage for a super-close view of the Frozen holiday show, then we rode the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and a couple of other rides before grabbing a snack at Casey’s on the way out of the park. It was the perfect way to begin our weekend.

Snowy Holiday

We were that close to Elsa and Anna during the Frozen show at Cinderella Castle.

3. Feeding dolphins at Sea World.

Jay had been to Sea World before, but he had never interacted with the dolphins at Dolphin Cove. There were three animal interactions on tap this trip, including the Penguins Up Close Tour and the chance to feed a two-toed sloth and pet a ball python at the animal ambassador pavilion. He will always remember the first time he touched the chin of a dolphin and dropped a fish into its mouth. So will I.

Snowy Holiday

He fed this dolphin a lot of fish.

2. Go-karts at Fun Spot America.

At Fun Spot America, we could have braved the 300-foot SkyCoaster, which is the world’s tallest of its kind. We didn’t do that. Maybe next time. As it was, Jay and I had a blast riding the multi-level go-karts. It had been years since I drove a go-kart, and this was Jay’s first time in the passenger seat of a two-seater. We went pretty fast, and the turns were tight. We will most definitely be riding go-karts again soon.

Snowy Holiday

We went very fast on the multi-level go-karts, but we never tipped over. Somehow.

1. Ice Skating at the Town of Celebration.

Skating at Now Snowing was an amazing experience for both of us. I had never been on ice skates before, and Jay had only done so once, during a summer camp field trip. It took a few minutes for me to convince him to give it a try — during which time I felt like I was trying to convince myself, too. We strapped on our skates and, even though the surface was hard white plastic instead of real ice, we “glided” along with few spills and lots of laughter. Now, we can’t wait to go skating on real ice as a family.

Snowy Holiday

A Snowy Holiday selfie on skates in the Town of Celebration.

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Holiday Text to Win Sweepstakes

Experience Kissimmee is offering a chance to win a three-day, two-night Snowy Holiday for you and three of your closest friends or family members.

Here’s how to enter:

Text “snow” to 82257

Or …

Go to the official sweepstakes website, SnowyHoliday.com, and fill out the entry form.

The prize includes two nights at a Kissimmee destination resort, theme park admission and tickets to local attractions for the winner and three guests. To learn more or to follow the winter fun, follow Experience Kissimmee on InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

Disclosure: We were invited on the Experience Kissimmee Snowy Holiday media event to review the fun winter activities available in the Kissimmee area. Park entry and accommodation were provided for review purposes.

Making Memories on a Snowy Holiday in Kissimmee

My first time on ice skates, at the Now Snowing Christmas event in the Town of Celebration. It took some convincing, but Jay finally joined me. He looks pretty happy about it, doesn't he?

My first time on ice skates, at the Now Snowing Christmas event in the Town of Celebration. It took some convincing, but Jay finally joined me. He looks pretty happy about it, doesn’t he?

We stood on the edge of the rink and watched the skaters slip and slide and trudge and glide across the faux ice. The expression on Jay’s face was a portrait of conflict. I could tell he was intrigued, but it was equally obvious it would take some serious convincing to get him out there.

For a third grader with a Star Wars LEGO obsession, money talks.

“I’ll make you an offer, Jay,” I said. His eyes remained fixed on the little girl in our party. She was a couple of years younger, and she was having a blast on skates. The warmth of her smile would have melted the surface if it had been real ice.

“My offer is this,” I said. “I’ll give you $20 – right here, right now – if you go out there and skate with me.”

His eyebrows shot up and he turned his face toward me to see if I was serious. I was, but there was a limit.

“You have five seconds to decide,” I said. “Five … four …”

He laughed and looked over at his two new buddies, both from Florida, both a bit older than Jay, neither all that inclined to go skating, either.

“Three … two …”

He laughed again and yelled, “Maybe!”

“One. Buzz! Offer rescinded,” I said, not feeling the least bit guilty.

Snowfall in Central Florida? Ice skating? Winter? Yes, yes and yes.

Snowfall in Central Florida? Ice skating? Winter? Yes, yes and yes.

Would I have paid up? Sure, why not? But the idea wasn’t to bribe my son into participating in the incredible winter fun at the Town of Celebration’s annual Now Snowing event. It was to illustrate to him just how fun it actually would be. That semi-serious offer of $20 meant a lot of potential fun — and a lot of LEGOs.

It was an offer he could refuse, though, so I resigned myself to enjoying the “snow” and the other winter fun on tap that night. (Not to mention the impending supper of roast pork and sangria at the Columbia restaurant.)

Jay and his friends watched the little girl slide and smile her way around the rink a few minutes more. Then, as I was about to make my way to the wandering carolers near the tall Christmas tree, he changed his mind.

“Dad?” he said. “I want to do it.”

“Really?” I said. “Even without the $20?”

“Yep,” he said. “Even without the $20.”

The thing about winter in Central Florida is there’s no snow and very little ice. Skating takes place indoors or on temporary rinks set up for the holidays.

Before that night in Celebration, I had never had ice skates on my feet. Jay had, but only for a day during a summer camp field trip, and it had been at least two years – an eternity for a third grader.

The Snowy Holiday party had a great time with our hosts, Experience Kissimmee. Here we were together at SeaWorld, with a couple of new sea lion friends.

The Snowy Holiday party had a great time with our hosts, Experience Kissimmee. Here we were together at SeaWorld, with a couple of new sea lion friends.

You know what, though? I wasn’t nervous. Once I figured out how to strap on the skates, it was a smooth ride. We held hands the first time up the rink, each of us taking slippery little baby steps along the wet, plastic surface. I let go of his hand, and off he went.

Then … it snowed.

It was, without a doubt, the highlight of a weekend full of incredible Snowy Holiday memories in Kissimmee.

Here are the other highlights, each of which easily would be a keystone moment for any family vacation:

I already shared our impressions of our amazing accommodation at Encantada Resort and our first night fun at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party during our first day in Kissimmee. We missed out on the Gaylord Palms ICE interactive exhibit and show, but we’ll be back for that one day.

At SeaWorld, Jay met a king penguin named Cobie and fed a dolphin. The park was decked out for Christmas, and my animal-loving son got to interact with creatures he never would come into contact with otherwise. We also got to visit the baby manatee we met during the summer, and she certainly seemed to be thriving. It’s always eye-opening to see up close the conservation and rescue efforts of the animal care staff at SeaWorld. I wish they could somehow cut through the rhetoric on both sides of the controversy and really get the word out about the important work they do to help animals.

At the Town of Celebration, we reveled in the “snowfall,” listened to the Victorian-era Christmas carolers and, as mentioned, went “ice” skating for the first time. Funny that two dudes from Tampa ended up eating dinner at the Columbia, but it was fortuitous because a member of our party introduced me to a garbanzo bean and spinach appetizer that I later made for my family on Thanksgiving. Yes, it was delicious.

At the starting line of the multi-level go-carts at Fun Spot America in Kissimmee.

At the starting line of the multi-level go-carts at Fun Spot America in Kissimmee.

On Sunday, the final day of our Snowy Holiday, our group went to Fun Spot America in Kissimmee. It is one of two Fun Spot parks in the area. This one features the world’s tallest SkyCoaster, a 300-foot-high hoist-and-drop that sends victims … I mean thrill seekers … plunging at 65 mph. Some in our group braved it; Jay and I chose instead to ride the multi-level go-cart twice before jumping aboard the RockStar Coaster and spending an hour or so in the arcade. We had never been to Fun Spot, even though we were always intrigued by the iconic SkyCoaster towers we saw on the horizon during our many trips to Disney World. We will go back, and I can’t wait to take my younger son on the go-carts.

We did all of that on our father-son weekend in Kissimmee. When I asked Jay on the ride home what he’ll remember, he immediately told me the ice skating. He’ll soon share his top five experiences on a guest post, so keep an eye out for his DadScribe debut in the next few days.

During the drive home, as the last remnants of adrenaline receded, my son grew quiet. His head drooped. I saw his eyes flicker and knew sleep was close. There was energy enough for one last question, though.

“Dad?” he said.

“Yes, buddy?”

“When do I get my $20 for skating?”

I looked in the rear-view mirror and answered his sleepy grin with one of my own. There’s no way to put a price tag on a moment like that.

“I’ll owe you,” I said, and my son fell asleep in the back seat while I drove us home.

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Holiday Text to Win Sweepstakes

Experience Kissimmee is offering a chance to win a three-day, two-night Snowy Holiday for you and three of your closest friends or family members.

Here’s how to enter:

Text “snow” to 82257

Or …

Go to the official sweepstakes website, SnowyHoliday.com, and fill out the entry form.

The prize includes two nights at a Kissimmee destination resort, theme park admission and tickets to local attractions for the winner and three guests. To learn more or to follow the winter fun, follow Experience Kissimmee on InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

Disclosure: We were invited on the Experience Kissimmee Snowy Holiday media event in order to review the various winter activities available in the Kissimmee area. Park entry and accommodation were provided for review purposes.

Kissimmee Winter: a #SnowyHoliday Right Here in Florida

CinderellaCastleWinterWe’re going to North Carolina next week for Thanksgiving. My folks live on a farm up there. Our boys love hiking through the woods, searching for animal tracks, imagining they’re Civil War soldiers or ancient explorers.

It’s a world removed from our home in suburban Florida, where the horizon is a silhouette of swaying palm trees and a “cold” day is defined as one that requires wearing long pants and maybe a sweat shirt to school.

Knowing it’s a bit chillier up there this time of year, my 8-year-old son, Jay, asked with hope in his voice: “Dad, will there be snow at the farm?”

I had to tell him that there probably would not be snow, that even though it will be a lot colder than we’re used to, it rarely snows in Eastern North Carolina this time of year. He was visibly disappointed, but then I reminded him that we don’t need snow in North Carolina next week, because he and I are about to embark on a snowy holiday this weekend – right here in our home state of Florida.

We were invited by Experience Kissimmee to spend a weekend having all the winter fun the Kissimmee area has to offer. Jay and I and a group of blogger friends will stay at Encantada Resort, take in Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Celebration at Magic Kingdom, check out SeaWorld Orlando’s holiday preparations, dive into a media preview of the Now Snowing holiday event at the Town of Celebration, and take a Boggy Creek airboat ride at the headwaters of the Everglades.

Jay and I met a big shot with big ears and a big hat last year at Disney World. As Floridians, it's great to have all this right here in our back yard.

Jay and I met a big shot with big ears and a big hat last year at Disney World. As Floridians, it’s great to have all this right here in our back yard.

Whew. That’s a lot, but because of school and work commitments, Jay and I won’t be able to join our friends in Kissimmee until Friday afternoon. The fun we’ll miss includes a media preview of the amazing ICE! interactive exhibit at Gaylord Palms Resort, dinner at Sunset Sam’s, breakfast at the Market Street Café, a holiday treat cooking session at the U Can Cook school in Celebration, a visit to Chocolate Kingdom and lunch at Flipper’s Pizzeria.

(Wait, what? There’s a Chocolate Kingdom? And we’re MISSING it? Oh, we are so coming back for that.)

This is a wonderful way for my son and me to make new memories in an area, Kissimmee and Central Florida, where we have had some of our best times together as a family. Walt Disney World, of course. But also SeaWorld and LEGO Land, and the fancy resort hotels we’ve been fortunate enough to stay at occasionally.

We are a theme park family, yes, and now we’re going to get to experience some of the other fun that is, after all, only a short drive up the interstate for any Florida family. It is great to know that all of this is right here in our Florida back yard, so we don’t have to spend a small fortune to make lifetime memories at attractions millions of people travel thousands of miles to see every year. Yes, Florida residency does have its perks.

Before we head out for our adventure, I want to let you know that Experience Kissimmee is offering a chance to win a magnificent, three-day, two-night Snowy Holiday for you and three of your closest friends or family members.

Here’s how to enter the “Holiday Text to Win” sweepstakes:

  • Text “snow” to 82257

Or …

  • Go to the official sweepstakes website, SnowyHoliday.com, and fill out the entry form.

The prize includes two nights at a Kissimmee destination resort, theme park admission and tickets to local attractions for the winner and three guests. To learn more or to follow the winter fun, follow Experience Kissimmee on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

And to follow along with our adventure this weekend, keep an eye out here, on my Facebook page, the Twitter account and Instagram feed.

There might not be snow on the ground in Eastern North Carolina next week during our Thanksgiving trip to visit family. But we are going to see snow. In Florida. This is going to be so cool.

ExperienceKissimmee

What’s Important

What's important? This, always.

What’s important? This, always.

What’s important?

It’s a question. The question, really. It’s also an imperative statement reminding you to recognize and acknowledge something you ought to appreciate in the moment.

I’m thinking about what’s important. Do you know?

These things we write. These stories we tell. This used to seem important. It might have been, sometimes. I’m not sure anymore.

Now, on a bright Sunday afternoon, I sit on the couch with a football game on TV and watch my older son skip in and out of the house. He’s outside in the November sunshine playing with friends. He’s inside getting a cold drink of water.

I watch him from the couch. He comes in through the sliding glass door and reaches up on tiptoe to retrieve a plastic cup out of the cabinet. He is not tall enough yet for this act to be performed casually. It takes effort, this reaching up. On tiptoe, nothing is easy.

He gets the plastic cup and opens the refrigerator. I hear filtered water pour into the cup.

I watch him, and he sees me watching him. I don’t say a word while he finishes drinking his water. He puts the cup on the kitchen table and, before he heads back outside, he walks with a purpose across the family room toward me.

He grabs me in a hug and kisses me on top of my head. He kisses me again, then pats me on the head.

“I love you, dad,” he says.

“I love you too, bud,” I say.

And just like that, he’s back outside running in the sun, playing soccer with his friends in our back yard.

Was that important? Did it matter?

Do you care? Probably not. Nor should you. It’s my life. It’s my memory. You have your own.

Of course I care. It was one significant exchange during a languid weekend that will be otherwise remembered, if it is remembered at all, for a visit by my wife’s sister from Massachusetts. The sisters spent Saturday night away while the boys and I hung out and watched Shrek.

Did that matter just now when you read the title of the movie we watched Saturday night? Was that important?

It was a detail, a small dash of color. I might have said we watched “something” on TV, or we played board games. Maybe we went to the beach and lit a bonfire and drank Jack Daniels all night while surf fishing for the giant hammerhead shark that patrols the Gulf of Mexico just off Tampa Bay. Maybe that was someone else, or us in the future. Or maybe it never happened and never will happen.

Does it matter?

What’s important?

Right now, my wife and two sons are hunched over a toy circuit board on the family room floor. The TV is turned on — halftime of a Carolina basketball game. It’s muted. As I tap away at a blog post on my laptop, they fiddle with the circuits. A doorbell, a Morse code signal box.

“We got this light working,” she says. “How come nothing else is working, though?”

They’ll figure it out.

But so what if they don’t?

Does it matter?

What’s important?

I feel like whatever it is, I can almost reach it. It’s right there on the lowest shelf in the cabinet. All I need to do is reach a bit higher. I’ll get it if I keep reaching. Just a little farther.

And you’re watching. I see you watching. But I’m reaching, up on tiptoe, where nothing is easy. When I find it, I’ll let it soak in for a good, long time. I won’t let it go until I know the answer. And then I’ll come to you, if you’re still watching, and I’ll grab you in a hug.

I’ll kiss you on top of your head and kiss you again. Then I’ll go outside to run in the sun, where nothing matters but the grass and the trees and the laughter of children under the bright, blue sky.

 

 

 

 

 

Animal Jam Review: The Boys Have a New Favorite Game

Animal Jam

The boys have played Animal Jam every day since we introduced it to them. It is already their new favorite game.

Before I get into the fun Jeff Bogle and I had introducing Animal Jam to our kids, let me just share the repercussions at our house.

First: My two sons, 8 and 6, have asked to play the game every day for a week. Second: Every time they sit down to play, they ask if I can contact Jeff to have his girls play, too.

I was first introduced to Animal Jam at Dad 2.0 Summit this past winter. National Geographic was a sponsor of the event and livened up the sponsor showcase by bringing along live animals for attendees to hold and gawk at.

I held a skunk. Also, an alligator.

Animal Jam

Animal Jam and National Geographic hung out at Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans. And brought a few friends.

It made for a great photo opp, but I figured my kids were so deep into Minecraft at the time that any attempt to interest them in another online game – even one involving one of their favorite things, animals – would be futile. But I loved the concept, and I kept an eye on how Animal Jam worked with other dads in the blogging community.

That’s how I found a contest hosted by my friend Creed Anthony, who publishes the blog Tales from the Poop Deck. The Captain, as he’s known, was giving away a one-year Animal Jam membership, and I figured I’d enter for kicks.

Sure enough, I won the contest. Still, it wasn’t until Jeff suggested that he and I introduce our kids to the game together and chat about it in real time that I activated our account and set Jay and Chris loose in the virtual world of Jamaa.

On an early October Saturday afternoon, Jeff and his older daughter (the “Bear”) up in Pennsylvania logged in on their account. Jay and I did the same down here in Florida.

Here is an edited version of the real-time chat Jeff and I conducted via Facebook while our kids created Captain Speedywolf the wolf and Professor von Cloud, the koala, and immersed themselves in their exploration of the ecological environments of Jamaa.

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(We activated our memberships and the kids dived right in. They started in a common area called Jamaa Township, where Halloween festivities were in full swing – complete with spooky music, decorations and costumes that can be “purchased” using in-game currency known as gems or diamonds.)

Animal Jam

Captain Speedywolf is jamming to the Halloween music in Jamaa Township. That wolf rocks.

Carter: This is cool

Jeff: It really is.

Carter: Jay wants to go to his den.

Carter: The Bear can visit.

Jeff: She just arrived. No doorbell to knock so she let herself in. ;)

Jeff: Let’s decorate!

(Jay used his gem stash to “buy” a table for his personal area, known in the game as a den.)

Jeff: Sweet table.

Carter: Jay wants to buy stuff.

(The Bear’s koala, Professor von Cloud, started to dance on Jay’s new table.)

Jeff: Geez, 2 minutes in and she’s table dancing. Nice. ;)

Animal Jam

Here’s Captain Speedywolf at the entrance to his den. In the foreground, you see his soccer net and a few of the 19 pets he has adopted.

Carter: Awesome. Laughter here!

Carter: This reminds me of absolutely nothing we did as kids.

Carter: Can you imagine if we’d have had this kind of thing in the 70s? Crystal Sands!

Jeff: I really cannot imagine being able to do this with friends as a kid. I would’ve seen even less of the sun and the great outdoors than I did.

(In an aquatic area called Crystal Sands, our kids find a virtual aquarium that features a series of quick, educational videos about sea life and virtual water slides that the characters can ride down. Both the Bear and Jay quickly view a couple of videos and take a ride down the slides.)

Jeff: Water slides!!

Jeff: The Bear is in the aquarium.

Jeff: Watching a video upstairs.

Animal Jam

Captain Speedywolf is about to go down the water slide in the Crystal Sands environment.

Carter: Upstairs. Wow, that’s neat.

Jeff: Some serious electric eel knowledge being dropped in here. Super cool.

Jeff: “Electric eel give off 5x electric outlet shock.” Yikes!

Carter: Watching a coral video.

Jeff: The video integration is smooth and makes total sense, content wise.

Carter: Sharks!

Jeff: This is some serious educational stuff, quick bits of knowledge animal lovers and curious sponges are gonna love.

Carter: “Faster moving sharks need to keep moving to breathe. Nurse sharks and others have pumps and can hang out.”

Jeff: Really? I had no idea.

(Chris, our first grader, suddenly became VERY interested in what his big brother was doing on the laptop and came over to watch.)

Carter: “When can I play?!?” – Chris, 6

Jeff: Ha!

Jeff: The pool next to hot tub is a game. The Bear is playing now.

Carter: Jay, too

Jeff: Rad sting ray.

Animal Jam

Admiral Coolshark in his natural environment, the Deep Blue.

(The kids began to experiment with changing their identities. They each created a penguin to take advantage of the animal-specific activities offered during game play. They can play as a wide variety of animals, including a shark .)

Jeff: Going to Penguin Party.

Carter: Can’t do it. Water slide!?

Jeff: The Bear is making a new animal, becoming a penguin to get there.

Carter: Down the water slide …. woo hoo!

Carter: This Halloween theme is great

Jeff: It is. The music is cool.

(One of the biggest hits with our kids is the ability to “adopt” pets within the game. They found the pet shops pretty early and visit them frequently during game play. The pets are smaller versions of different animals and tag along with the main character animals. Pets also are used to play mini-games in Animal Jam.)

Jeff: The Bear wants to find the pet shop to get a pet.

Carter: Jay wants to do that too. Also stuff for his den.

Carter: Sugar glider!

Jeff: It is hard to figure out where to go in here. Have you found a map of the specific area? With details?

Carter: No. Only world map.

Zippyninja

Zippyninja, the sugar glider. He was the first pet, and still the favorite of Captain Speedywolf.

Carter: Zippyninja the sugar glider.

Carter: Zippyninja flies along behind Captain Speedywolf.

Jeff: Hey! We see you!

Carter: Jay loves that cat!

Jeff: That is a RAD pet and pet name. Let’s do the pet game.

Carter: “Look at this little guy! They’re all so cute!”

Carter: Jay wants another pet.

Jeff: He’s a future ‘Crazy Cat Lady.’

Carter: “Daddy! When can I please play that game?” – Chris

Carter: Minecraft might have to take a back seat for a while.

Jeff: Right? This is super and expansive.

Jeff: I like that there are pet specific experiences. Encourages collecting more pets and trying out more animals.

Carter: Is there a story line, or all open play?

Jeff: Little narratives, like this phantom thief mini game, but in general this seems wide open.

Carter: It’s really immersive.

Carter: “When’s it going to be my turn, Daddy?” – Chris

___________________

Our kids kept playing right on past our 45-minute online chat. Both of the younger siblings, Chris and the Mouse in Pennsylvania, jumped in with their older siblings and had a blast.

As I mentioned, Jay and Chris have played Animal Jam every day since that first foray into the online world of Jamaa. In fact, Chris filled out an “about me” questionnaire at school this past Monday, and he listed Animal Jam as his favorite game. That’s saying a lot, because I didn’t think anything could knock Minecraft off its lofty perch in our family’s gaming life.

Animal Jam just might have done that.

Here are a few things to know:

  • Animal Jam was created by Smart Bomb Interactive, a Salt Lake City-based development studio.
  • One of the main focuses of the game is Internet security. All of the sharing and interactivity functions within the game can be deactivated by parents through a parents-only dashboard. It took a couple of minutes for us to figure out how to block “buddy” invitations, but once we did that and blocked unwelcome conversations, the boys were free to move around without fear of potentially unwanted interaction.
  • As you might expect with any National Geographic endeavor, education is paramount. The developers created Animal Jam Academy, a place where kids can go to learn more about their favorite animals and participate in hands-on activities.
  • Rewards are earned as players learn. Scattered throughout each environment are flora and fauna that can be clicked to earn flash cards. Complete the set for each land, and earn a gift of game gems.
  • The game is free to play, but to access all of the features a membership is required. Memberships are available through tiered pricing: $5.95 for one month; $29.95 for six months; $57.95 for a year. The fee includes extra gems and diamonds that can be used to “purchase” items within the game.

There is a lot more to the game, including the fact that a portion of every membership fee is donated to the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative. I don’t want to give too much away, though, because much of the joy in this game comes from exploration and discovery.

Be sure to check out Jeff Bogle’s post on our fun time with Animal Jam, and let us know what you think of the game! Jeff is giving away a handful of one-month Animal Jam memberships, so make sure you head over there and enter.

You can also learn more by checking out Animal Jam on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Animal Jam in association with National Geographic. All opinions expressed are my own or those of my kids, who will no doubt ask to play Animal Jam again this afternoon when they get home from school.