Thursday, March 24, 2011

Field Trip to Our State Capitol - Topeka Kansas

Monday we went on a field trip to Topeka Kansas and took a tour of the capitol building. I was very impressed at how well behaved Gess was. She paid attention the entire time and never tried to leave the group. It was very informative and we were blessed with a tour guide who happened to have a song for every stop along the way. Gess even said her favorite part was when he had us all sing our state song together, which for the state of Kansas is "Home on the Range." Here is Gess with Larry, our singing tour guide.

Before we went to Topeka we spent a few weeks studying about Kansas and of course learning what all our state symbols were. Our local library had the book Fun Kansas History Projects by Sally Toth which has reproducible activities in it. We did the Kansas Symbols flip book which was really fun. Upon completion of it, Gess was able to name all the Kansas symbols without help. She now knows what our flag and seal look like and knows our state motto (in English) as well as our state animal, amphibian, reptile, insect, bird, flower, and tree. Here are a few of the pages she did.

Now that Gess had some of the symbols down and we had read a few books about Kansas and it's history, we were ready to head to Topeka and tour the capitol. Having not grown up in Kansas myself, I learned quite a bit too. My main concern was not that Gess learned lots of facts during the tour, but that she got to experience the feel of the building and have some visual tools to teach her both the history and importance of what our government does and has done.

There are murals all throughout the capitol building that tell about different parts of Kansas history. The Kansas Historical Society has a neat package they offer every child that visits which consists of the main mural, as well as other historical figures, a puzzle page, a fan of the capitol craft and a tour book. Here is the mural The Tragic Prelude colored by Gess!

The Tragic Prelude by John Steuart Curry shows John Brown, the abolitionist, during the time called "Bleeding Kansas." This mural has many examples of symbolism. Below are the symbols and what they represent.

1. Tornado - A force of nature representing the gathering storms of the Civil war
2. Pioneer with oxen and wagon - The steady stream of settlers moving west
3. Sharps rifle - The weapons sent to help free-staters fight pro-slavery forces
4. Union flag - represents the North in the Civil War
5. John Brown with blood on his hands - the abolitionists who wanted Kansas to be a free state no matter what the cost
6. Union and Confederate soldiers' bodies - Representing the more than 600,000 who died during the civil war
7. Bible with Greek letters alpha and omega - representing the beginning and ending of slavery
8. Confederate flag - the southern cross, the battle flag of the south
9. African American slaves - the fighting in Kansas and eventually the entire Civil War was centered around these people
10. Prairie fire - Represents the fiery destruction the Civil War would cause
11. Sunflowers - The Kansas state flower

We saw many other murals and learned a lot more of our history too. Congress was in session so we were not able to tour the chambers, but we were taken into the old Supreme Court room that was used until sometime in the 70s when it moved to another building. It is now set up as a conference room, but is still very beautiful as it has recently been restored.

They ended our tour and allowed us to go in and watch the session of Congress taking place. We were warned that there was to be no flash photography and no talking. I was not sure how Gess would do sitting still after an hour long tour, but as it turned out I did not have to worry. We sat in session long enough for them to call a Congressman to the floor who moved that the session break until 2:00pm. It was lunch time! Oh well, at least we got to see them "officially" dismiss!

The Capitol is under quite a bit of construction and restoration work. We were unable to go to many parts, including the dome because of it. In fact, as we drove up and saw all the green safety gates or what have you that surrounded the dome Gess said, "That looks strange." Indeed it did! Here Gess is walking down another hall under heavy construction.

And here she was as we were about to go start our day in the Kansas State Capitol building! She was excited...and a little goofy!

I just don't think there is a better way to learn than to see first hand what you are studying. Field trips have the be the best hands on experiences! We will continue doing some of the crafts in the book I got from the library and work on the hand outs we got from the capitol. Now that she has seen it in person, I know it will mean so much more to her. We also went to another museum while we were in Topeka. I will share more about that in my next post.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fostering Independence: The Computer

Children with Down Syndrome are often smaller than the average child and they also often struggle with motor skills and other issues that make using a computer a little more difficult (at least when they are young). However, we were able to start Gess using the computer at a pretty early age with the helps of a few tools we found.


Computer Mouse - When Gess was about 3 years old she really had a hard time getting her little fingers in a proper position to use our adult sized mouse. They actually make mice for children that are not only smaller but very cute. We however opted to just run down to the store and pick up a micro-mouse that was made small to use easily with a laptop. It wasn't very expensive and it fit her hand rather well. It took me some getting used to, but I really actually liked it once I did.

Large Print Keyboard - Then we got a large print keyboard. Gess has had trouble with her vision and even now with her glasses she has trouble reading smaller font and text sizes. So we went to look for a large print keyboard. Again, you can get one of these designed specifically for children. Crayola has a really cute one for that.

However, we decided to go with an adult large print keyboard because the child's keyboard doesn't have the short cut keys to control things like volume and it also doesn't have the number pad on the side. Since Gess and I were sharing a computer I was not willing to give up those functions when I was using it too. So instead, we got a large print keyboard made for adults. You can find them with black keys and white lettering but I really liked how this one made the keys stand out and thought it would work best for Gess. She really took to it and it was so great when she was finally able to start using it to actually type.

Headphones - While children's websites are often educational and fun for kids, sometimes parents are not interested in hearing them too. We found these headphones for Gess this year which are not only great for the computer but also in the car when she is listening to her MP3player.

KidsGear headphones are perfect for children. Because they are made smaller they fit more comfortably on their head but they also come with an adapter which controls decibel volume to one that is safer for children. In other words they can't make it so loud that it will damage their hearing. Gess loves wearing them.

Learning Computer Skills

Now that she had the tools she needed to be on the computer we needed some software to help teach her the skills. Knowledge Adventure has some of the best early educational games I have ever come across. They are called JumpStart and they even have a game for toddlers.

In the JumpStart Advanced Toddlers game you learn basic computer skills which allows the child to play even before their motor skills are fully developed. In one game you just look for what is behind the leaves. To remove the leaves you simply move the mouse around. As you move mouse the leaves disappear. Children therefore quickly learn that moving the mouse does something on the screen. This was a favorite game of ours when Gess was really small and it wasn't long before she was able to do much more on the computer.

We used the JumpStart games for several years, we went through Jumpstart Preschool, Jumpstart Kindergarten and Jumpstart 1st Grade. Then they came out with JumpStart World. We became members for quite awhile until we realized that the educational aspect pretty much disappeared. There are some things you can do to learn now, but mostly it's just fun and games so we decided to not pay a monthly fee for that. Still, their early games are very good. Another problem we began to have was that the games were often "timed" so while Gess had the skill, she was not able to do it fast enough to win the game. Because many games are timed we are having a hard time to find "educational" games she can play now.

Tools for Surfing the Web

Sqworl - Now that Gess had both the tools and the skills it was not long before she was trying to surf the web. Before Gess had her typing and spelling skills up to par we found this handy little page that providee her with a visually appealing, kid friendly way for her to find her favorite spots on the web. It is called Sqworl. You may have noticed I have a link to Gess' user page on here so others can see some of the resources we use on the web. Basically all it is a bookmarks page that shows a picture of the homepage as well as just the name of the link. Here is a video that shares it works.

Sqworl Screencast from Caleb Brown on Vimeo.

And here is a link to the page Gess uses. The amount of pages sure has grown over the years!

Readability - I know I have shared this on here already by telling you how we use it for our daily bible reading, but I want to be sure to mention this really helpful asset for special needs children. Readability is a program you can download as an add-on that will help not only increase the font size and color of the text, but will make the entire page easier to read by taking all the busy distractions away.

A website can be very helpful and have lots of information but it can also have so much stimulation that it's really hard for some people to stay focused on the information they need. This handy tool helps take all that distraction away and sets up the font to the size and coloring that is easiest for you to read. It's so nice that I find myself using it sometimes. They also have a video showing you how it works.

Readability - Enjoy Reading, Support Writing from Arc90 on Vimeo.

Parental Controls

If anyone has followed me here very long you may have remembered my funny post about how Gess made a purchase on Ebay. Jumpstart was of course one of her favorite things to do on the computer and when she began to spell and type it on her own she would do so in the search bar. Low and behold she clicked enough times to find and purchase a Jumpstart game on Ebay. Thankfully we got it for around $5 rather than the $80 she had bid on it! That made me aware that I had to really be careful about logging on and off my stuff when she used the computer. For awhile we just made her a separate user that didn't allow her to download things, but the more she learned to spell, the more she started to see on the web.

Gess loves Mario video games and often "googled" Mario. Well, unfortunately people have made some pretty sick videos and websites about Mario. So now we were at the point that we needed to get some parental controls.

I am cheap and hate to pay for anything I can get for free, so I first began looking for an open source option. While I found one in FoxFilter, I don't think I will be able to use only the free version for long. While FoxFilter is working great for us now, each time it blocks a page it has a link right there that says to "add an exception." Once Gess realizes that by clicking that she will get where she wants to go we will have a problem again. Still, it is only $9.99 - $14.99 for an entire year, so when I have to pay for it, I certainly will choose to stick with FoxFilter.

These are some of the ways we have helped Gess to learn to independently use the computer. She certainly has learned well. Our next goal will be to teach her how to type correctly. That will be one daunting task, I am sure!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fostering Independence: In the Kitchen

Last week I wrote about how we have enabled Gess to fix her own breakfast cereal each morning in my blog Fostering Independence: Breakfast Cereal. Well, that is only one of the ways we have helped Gess to be more independent in the kitchen. We actually started activities like this at a very early age.

When Gess was a preschooler I found her to be very destructive. After raising two boys, I was surprised that this quiet little girl seemed to make more of a mess than they ever did. It was not just that she was "messy" but she was getting into things she was not supposed to. After several times of finding broken eggs on the floor, I decided I had to try to figure out how to stop it. Instead of just applying discipline I first wanted to figure out "why" she was so determined to get into the fridge. It was then I realized that she was simply trying to be like mommy. Instead of punishing that behavior and locking her out of the fridge, I decided to try a different approach. Why not find ways to let her use it?

Gess was still drinking out of a sippy cup at the time so I started keeping one of them filled with juice in the fridge. I showed her where it was and when she asked for a drink I would encourage her to get it herself. So sometimes when she was thirsty she would go get her own drink. Having just one thing you were allowed to touch in the fridge is not that fun though, so I looked for other things I could let her have. We started getting snacks like individually wrapped cheese chunks, cups of fruit, and yogurts for her to have. She would still need to bring them to us to open, but she seemed so happy to just be able to get them by herself. The incredible part was I really did stop finding broken eggs on the floor of the kitchen! We still keep juice boxes in the fridge so she can still get her own drinks and snacks. We also have a snack basket in the pantry of non-refrigerated healthy snacks for her to grab too.

Now that she had a couple of things she could reach on her own, We began to make other things easier for her to access as well. All my cabinets are very high, so we started keeping her small plates, cups and silverware within reach on a shelf in the pantry. When she got old enough to reach the silverware drawer we started teaching her to set the table. You can get place mats with all the dishes in place for them to use, but we just made one out of paper and had her follow that example.

She just loved feeling like she had the freedom to get things herself and that she was helping to share in the responsibility at meal time, just like mommy and daddy. Of course every kid loves to help cook and I let her help do that whenever possible. We actually try to make baked goods as gifts.

Making playdough is also a fun way to use the kitchen. You can finds tons of recipes at Then after you make the playdough (with adult supervision of course) you can give them lots of cooking utensils to us as they play with the dough.

It's also a good way to practice cutting food without making a mess. I am excited because Gess has just finally started cutting her own food rather well.

Gess just seems to love do anything I do. She even loves putting the garbage bag liner in the trash can when I take out the trash. Every time she hears the sound of me whipping the garbage bag to open it up, she comes running. So that is her job now, I take the garbage out and she puts the new liner back in. It's funny what things seem so fun for a child to do!

Then of course, I think every kid loves to help wash the dishes. Getting a bunch of plastics dishes in soapy water is a fun way for them to "clean up." Here is Gess doing that when she was much younger.

You have to be careful though because sometimes they want to just jump right in!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The R-Word

03.02.11 is the national day to bring awareness for ending the R-word. The campaign is called Spread the Word to End the Word. When we use the R-word in ways it was not intended we end up hurting innocent people. If you ever feel the need to say the word retard, or retarded, as a slam against someone or something, stop and think; you are hurting people just like my Gess. You are hurting people who work harder, and longer to accomplish things we take for granted. You are hurting people who strive and never give up. You hurting who people who offer you a hand of friendship. I know that hurting these people was probably never your intent. It probably never crossed your mind that it hurts people who don't deserve it. Well, it does. And now that you thought about it, why not stop using the word in that way? Instead let's give people with intellectual disabilities the RESPECT they deserve. That's an R word I think everyone should learn.


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