- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

DreamBox Learning’s K-2 Math ($12.99 per month after a free two-week trial, www.dreambox.com/) delivers a robust, online math program geared to children in kindergarten, first and second grades.

The browser-based world — use Internet Explorer, Safari or Firefox with the latest version of Flash — with nothing to download mixes imaginative core learning tools with a series of games.

After a student picks an avatar, he enters simply animated areas that include My House, the Carnival and Adventure Park, the latter being an environment that presents four themed adventures: Pet Friends, Pixies, Dinosaurs or Pirates.

When beginning an adventure, the child plays a quick game that is actually a placement lesson, allowing the program to start the child at his skill level.

Once action begins, mom or dad might notice the child plays games on multiple skill levels. This serves to challenge, encourage growth of exhibited skills, reinforces skills already learned and encourages through the reinforcement of success — a standard set of values for a positive learning experience.

Regardless of which area of Adventure Park the child may choose to begin, the skills start at the same level, first introducing the child to numbers based on fives and 10s.

He begins with a “mathrack” and other tools to teach concepts of more, less and equal with sets of objects up to the number 10.

Similar to an abacus, the rack has rows of beads on a wire, which allows easy movement from side to side. There are 10 beads per row, the first five beads are red and the second five are white. This makes it easy for even the youngest child to quickly count the beads in groups of five and 10 without relying on counting them individually.

As game play advances, the rack holding 50 beads doubles to hold 100 beads.

The concept of fives and 10s is the basis for much of the learning that follows. Once mastered, the child moves on to comparing numbers and determining which is greater or lesser using symbols. This skill matures into creating math sentences using numbers and symbols.

The game then introduces numbers as a pattern through both the hundreds charts and the number line using more games and animations.

At the first-grade level, players hone their number comparison skills, the ability to use symbols to signify less, greater and equal numbers, using a number line and hundreds charts to count forward and backward, and using doubles to make addition easier.

Second grade sets the course for understanding numbers to 1,000 and the ability to add and subtract two- and three-digit numbers, skip counting to 100 and developing advanced strategies in addition and subtraction.

What makes DreamBox Learning K-2 work is the repetition of skills without it feeling repetitious, along with the use of visual tools that work. In addition to the mathrack, number lines and hundred charts tools, there are clever tools such as Snap Blocks.

The Snap Blocks help children to build and evaluate math expressions that use different numbers to reach the same result. For example, 13 can be expressed as 3+4+6=13 or 1+6+6=13.

Other fun tools to play games with are the “Compensation Buckets” that train children to quickly replace hard equations with friendlier ones. For example, 98+47 might be difficult to do in your head, but if you borrow two from the 47 and make the equation 100+45, the solution becomes simple.

While the child solves math problems, he earns playing cards filled with fun animations, adventure friends to play with and tokens to spend playing carnival games, Skee Ball being a favorite of the testers.

Visit My House and find your piggy bank with carnival tokens, certificates for completed tasks and, in the toy box, all the various tools, such as the mathrack, snap blocks and compensation buckets you have been playing with, giving children the chance to go back to favorite challenges.

As the child reaches milestones, the DreamBox program sends e-mail skill updates and ideas for games, teaching tips and more to the parents. Parents also can watch their child’s progress, in fairly significant detail, within a dashboard.

For the dollar cost (volume discounts for six- and 12-month subscriptions are available) DreamBox Learning K-2 offers more than 350 lessons to conquer some pretty serious skills sets within an intuitive, manipulative-rich environment. The program fosters not only the ability to handle curriculum-appropriate math, but also to succeed regardless of that child’s ingrained skill.

Joseph Szadkowski’s ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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