By Gary Butler
WHILE YOU’RE NOT exactly enjoying the metal maids and flying cars promised in The Jetsons, you like to think of your family as wired. You can’t live without your PDA, your teen’s texting thumb is practically raw, and Junior does his grade-school homework in PowerPoint. But chances are, like the average Canadian family, you’re not getting the fullest use out of the ever-expanding roster of digital devices. And get this: unleashing your inner tech geek can not only save you time, it may bring your family closer together.
1. Make grocery runs easier
Time-saving programs like “Gourmet Recipe Manager” (grecipe-manager.sourceforge.net) store your favourite recipes and create grocery lists easily uploaded to a hand-held device from your computer.
2. Make a blockbuster
“My son and I made a monster-movie trailer using our digital camera, his Bionicle figures and some Hot Wheels cars, and the editing software that came with the camera,” says Nathan Whitlock, father of Iago, 8. “We even had shots of us screaming, Godzilla style.” Consider uploading your masterpiece to youtube.com, a site where the world can watch and share original videos. Just don’t forget that they can be rated, mercilessly and anonymously, by any friends and relatives that you invite to see them.
3. Get some text education
From downstairs (you) to upstairs (your tween), text messaging means you don’t have to be in the same room to communicate ““ even if you would prefer more face time (and he wouldn’t). Getting him to teach you how to text may even equal some quality time together. “My kids and I text stuff all the time,” says Ian Harvey, a single dad of two. Your recommend starter text: GT OFF D FON & GT DWN 4 DNR.
4. Download a lullaby, or Alexisonfire
Kelly Smyth, mom of Ella, 3, and 18-month-old Nolan, is a keen downloader of music and audiobooks. Favourite sites include itunes.com, audiobooks.com and amazon.ca. “I also burn theme CDs for my kids and their friends,” she says. “I enjoy it and it’s economical ““ a blank CD only costs about $1.” For Christmas, she gave out kid-themed holiday music CDs. She’s also made customized loot-bag CDs for parties, such as a dance mix of the Bob the Builder theme for a little Bob fan.
5. Build something cool together
Yes, Dad, that’s correct: when you were a kid, Lego was inanimate (except for those times you held your Lego plane aloft and made propeller sounds while you “flew” it). But you grew up ““ and so did building blocks. Today’s Lego Mindstorms (mindstorms.lego.com) and Vex Robotics (vexlabs.com) actually move, which means you can now help your child build a robot that will fetch you a beer. Sweet!
6. Blog on
Help your child start her own blog, where she can archive her thoughts, art projects and audio clips. Blogger.com offers easy-to-follow directions on getting started. Note: make sure she understands to stop blogging or text messaging if a stranger asks personal questions or wants to share “secrets.” Visit netsmartz.org for more info.
7. Develop little brains
PDAs come with an incredible number of education-oriented game options for preschoolers and grade schoolers alike. Look for additional downloads at clickgamer.com or absolutist.com/palm. “MeCHeM,” for example, invites young chemists to equip battle robots with the various properties of periodic-table elements.
8. Hand over the camera
You’ll be surprised at how quickly they learn to shoot. Use the photo software, too. “An art project at our daycare involved printing black-and-white digital snaps of each child and letting the kids colour them,” says Peter Forrest, dad to Ava, 2. “The effect was very Andy Warhol.”
9. Pay the bills while on vacation
Use Canada Post’s online mail service ePost.ca for all your recurring household bills, viewable and payable anytime (including 2 a.m. Florida time).
10. Create your own virtual family together
When the life simulation computer game The Sims arrived in 2000, no one suspected it would become the best-selling PC game in history. (It’s multi-platform now,
by the way.) So why not create some digital doppelgangers in the Sims 2 version and watch them resolve your own (mild, we’re sure) disagreements?
11. Get in tune with your kid
Share a moment and let your tween look up MuchMusic’s “High Rotation” video page (muchmusic.com/music/highrotation) on your PDA or wireless cellphone. Pretend that you know how to spell “Rihanna.”
12. Connect with distant relatives
Family members of all ages can appreciate the simple joys of basic e-mail. “We use the scanner to send (preschool) artwork to Grandma, and she emails back,” says Julia Lawn of North Vancouver. Her family also relies heavily on iPods for long car trips to visit relatives and more.
13. Explore the world together
Use Google Earth (earth.google.com) to take your Grade 5′er on a virtual tour of the world’s eight wonders ““ nine if you include your house. Hint: let her do the searching.
14. Show off your kids
“Get a wifi-enabled wireless webcam and haul it around the house with the kid to show him off at the office,” suggests Clive Thompson, dad to six-month-old Gabriel. “When he’s old enough to walk, he can hold the wireless cam, too.”
15. Gather round the computer “radio”
Download classic family-friendly radio shows by registering at homeschoolradioshow.com.
“We use our Palm to play these,” says Kari Norman, the tuned-in mother of Katie, 6, Leif, 4, and 16-month-old Matthew.
16. Research (and make!) savvy purchases
Whether she’s researching the right stroller or finding a deal on a vintage Strawberry Shortcake lunch box, Smyth saves time and money online. She browses sites such as toydepot.com, kididdles.com, howstuffworks.com, bestbuys.ca and eBay.ca.
5 MORE DIGITAL TIPS
Don’t know your WAP from your PVR? Get a clue with step-by-step instructions at the following sites:
> Learn how to build a digital kids’ art gallery, download music and create online photo albums on the “Family & fun” page at microsoft.com.
> Translate texting lingo at transl8it.com.
> Search on “mobile internet” on sites such as shoprogers.com or wireless.sympatico.ca to read up on Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and accessing the ‘net with your cellphone. (Or, er, read your manual.)
> Select the shows you want your kids to watch with a personal video recorder (PVR), after reviewing articles such as the “Canadian HD PVR Review” at digitalhomecanada.com.
> Punch in “satellite radio” at cbc.ca for a backgrounder on subscription radio. “Satellite radio gadgets” (show #318) on callforhelptv.com is also helpful. CF