We've reviewed a few story-type programs in the past, and they're always a hit. When the Crew offered us Orphs of the Woodlands from Star Toaster to review, Matthew and Celia were thrilled to be chosen. "Orphs" is an interactive storybook experience that combines reading, comprehension, vocabulary, math, science, and other subjects into a game-like program. It's geared to 4th through 7th graders, which puts 5th grader Celia right in the middle, and 8th grade Matthew just above the target range.
The Treasure of HighTower, the first book in what I hope is to be a series, begins with an "application" to become a secret agent. Already they were hooked. Each chose his or her online persona - Matthew used his nickname, Zilla, while Celia chose the pseudonym "Bob".
From the very beginning, I was delighted with the whimsy of the program. Check out the directions at the bottom for where to put your application! I adore little details like this.
From the beginning, this story is a fun read. Don't misunderstand me -- it is very hefty on the content, with loads of vocabulary and plot. However, that doesn't mean it's boring. From the very beginning, the story is fully of whimsy.
After each chapter, you are called on to work on a series of projects to earn coins to move on. Not all subjects are part of each level, which helps keep the tasks interesting.
And again, the bits of whimsy continue.
I do think they have a point. After all, "Cenam coqui, ut non opus insanimus," does sound more exciting than "I better cook something for dinner before they drive me crazy."
Speaking of cooking dinner, I love how there's not just academic application of information, but practical as well. So often I hear "But why do I need to know this? There's no point..." Studded through the story were recipes for different dishes. Well, if you want to know how to make something, you need to know vocabulary...and math...and science...hmm. The recipes were definitely cause for excitement here. When I went to go through the screenshots Celia took as she read/played, there were 72 pictures. Over half were recipes. Matthew called me over when he got to this one, and begged me to make it.
I looked at it and cringed. The only ingredient on that list Celia can have is salt, and Matthew is allergic to nuts! (Plus all of our baking is gluten free so I don't have wheat flour flying around my kitchen.) Matthew looked at me and said, "But you can make anything!" I guess after 10 years of allergy cooking and recipe adapting, he's got faith in my skills. After some strategizing, I think I've figured out how to replace the unsafe ingredients so that he can try making the recipe. There will be No-Nuts Nutty Nut Bread, but that's another post.
In addition to academic activities, there were short character training bits. I have seem some character learning activities that feel like "be good...be smart...know how to act..." is being bludgeoned into you. Not here at all. Presented as a "science" lesson, Matthew and Celia learned about qualities of animals worth emulating.
We absolutely loved this program. A normal subscription is for 60 days (with discounted 30 day extensions), but Crew members were generously given a year's subscription. (You can also sign up for a free trial here.) At first, I was a bit skeptical that the two months' time was just a way to get an extra renewal from parents. Celia is a strong reader, so I expected her to get through most of the program in two months, but I was shocked when Matthew was almost as fast as she was. Both were done in less than two weeks. Why? Orphs.
AHA! The Orphs. These poor creatures are what turns Orphs of the Woodlands from academic exercise to fun game. The goal of answering questions and fulfilling tasks isn't just for the sake of being tested, but so you can earn gold starts to help save the Orphs.
Now you're asking, "Ooooh-kay. What's an Orph?" An Orph is...wait for it...an orphan. Yeah, pretty obvious, huh? It took me a until into the story and a "Duh, Mom" look to catch on - I was expecting something grand and mystical. In the story, Orphs are orphaned Woodland creatures. When you sign up as a spy, you're working with the secret WAK Underground group to stop the evil Night Creatures who are killing the adults and leaving the young animals orphaned. As you go through the story and activities, you earn stars that can then be spent on taking care of Orphs. However, critical thinking skills come into play -- there are plenty of orphs, but you can't just collect them like trading cards. You need to spend your stars carefully, so that there is enough food, shelter, and protection for the Orphs. If you aren't careful, your Oprhs will wander off in search of one of these, and you'll lose them. Matthew started before Celia, and was laid back about the program. Celia came home, and got started, and suddenly had practically an army of Orphs.
Matthew, being homeschooled, would work in the daytime and greet Celia at the door when she got home from school -- "I have 20 stars and two Orphs." Suddenly my laptop would disappear for an hour, and then Celia would shout, "I've got 30 stars and twelve Orphs AND and an orphanage!" Back and forth they went! One day, Celia didn't make great choices with her stars, and some of her Orphs wandered off while she was at school, and yes, there were tears.
Matthew was upset that at the last minute, his Orphs disappeared. He's really hoping there is another installment of the story. (He'll also pay better attention and not race through tasks, so he can beat his sister. Once they're done, they're done, so if you fail at a task there's no way to go back later and get a second chance.)
I loved this program, and hope there is a new installment soon, too. It was a fun way to combine several subjects into a single program that neither child could wait to play on, and would be an excellent summer reading program. I woke up one Saturday morning at 7:00 and found Celia already at work, reading so she could get enough stars to feed her Orphs. Secret agents Zilla and Bob are ready for their next assignments!
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