Move your Kids from “Screen” to “Green”

By Tracey Dowdy 

After what seems like forever, the weather here in the mid-Atlantic and much of the rest of the country, it’s time to move your little ones from “screen” to “green” – in other words, let’s go outside and play!

Don’t panic, I’m not suggesting you try to force your kids to go “cold turkey” and drop their devices altogether, but these free apps will show your kids what’s offscreen is just as magical as what’s onscreen. 

Wondering what kind of bird is perched on your porch? Merlin Bird ID can help! Simply answer a few identifying questions or snap a quick photo, and the app will pull up a list of possible matches based on your region. Once you’ve identified your feathered friend, the app helps them learn more about how the bird sounds and where it lives with easy-to-read facts and information.

Photo Stuff with Ruff is a camera app complete with a photo gallery and built-in selfie moments, because what self-respecting Gen Z or Gen Alpha isn’t obsessed with selfies? Based on The Ruff Ruffman Show, the app encourages children to explore science in the world around them by taking photos of different natural and man-made items to complete silly scenes.

If nature isn’t really your child’s “thing,” perhaps the fun of a scavenger hunt will be enough to lure them outdoors. Monkey Spot Scavenger Hunt has a host of different hunts, each with unique tasks, even in the free version. The app is more than just an outdoor adventure.  For example, there are art museum and zoo adventures that will make your family field trip more exciting as well as storytelling hunts they can create with their friends. Each hunt features a list of clues to find and solve by taking and labeling pictures. Get ready to discover, create, perform, personalize, and inquire with clues like “Ask the favorite food of someone at your table,” or “Find a machine that uses gears.”

The Play and Learn Science app was developed alongside early childhood experts to provide families new ways to explore science together through play. The app includes fifteen games and activities like playing with shadows, choosing the best materials for an umbrella, and controlling the weather. The helpful parent section provides you with tips for parent-child engagement and activities for extending the learning into the real world. 

Plum’s Creaturizer is based on PBS Kids’ Plum Landing. The app encourages kids to dive into their imagination by creating their own creepy-crawly creature. Kids can then go from screen to green and back again by taking their creature outdoors to explore habitats where they think they might live. Kids can even take photos of their creatures superimposed onto real-world scenes within the app. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Clean Your Phone Without Damaging the Screen

By Tracey Dowdy

I think it’s safe to say we’re all a lot more aware of how easily germs and viruses can be transmitted than we were a year ago. As a result, we’re also quicker to sanitize surfaces, and that includes our phones. Some guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control have changed over the past several months as we learn more about the risk of contracting COVID-19 through surface-to-skin contact. We now know that coronavirus can last from hours up to several days on surfaces and objects but has not been shown to survive past seven days. 

There are many ways to clean your phone, including Phone Soap, but if you’re looking for a less expensive option, not all cleaning methods are safe. Follow these guidelines to ensure your phone is sanitized without damaging your screen.


Never use straight alcohol on your phone screen as it can strip the oleophobic and hydrophobic coatings that protect your display and other ports. There are DIY solutions such as creating your own mix of alcohol and water, but if you get the concentration wrong, you’re likely to damage your screen or fail to sanitize the device. Instead, use disinfectant wipes containing 70% isopropyl alcohol or Clorox wipes (Apple initially advised against Clorox or similar wipes on your phone, but they now say it’s okay). Another option is to spray a nonabrasive or alcohol-based (70% isopropyl) disinfectant on a soft lint-free cloth – not directly on the device itself – then wipe down while the device is powered down and unplugged.

Of course, the safest way to clean the screen and remove those greasy fingerprints and smudges is with a microfiber cloth. If it’s particularly dirty, wet the cloth – not the device – even though the latest phones from manufacturers like Apple and Samsung are water-resistant. Others are a mixed bag, with only specific models passing tests. You can also try a Microfiber Screen Cleaner Sticker designed to adhere to the back of devices, so you’re never without a cleaning wipe. 

If you have lint or other debris in the ports, use Scotch tape to lift it out. Lay it along the crevices or roll it up to reach into the charging port. You use a small tool like a toothpick or a micro vacuum tool to remove dirt from hard-to-reach places like the speaker port. 

Avoid using hand sanitizer, glass cleaners, anything with abrasive properties, vinegar, bleach, or any kitchen or household cleansers to disinfect your phone. Paper towels are a no-no as they too can scratch the surface over time, and compressed ait will only drive debris further into the device. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Top Emoji Keyboards for Android and iOS

By Tracey Dowdy 

If you’ve ever scrolled through your emoji and wished for a little more variety, you’re in luck. There’s no need to be stuck in a rut – there are scores of emoji keyboards users can download for both operating systems with everything from animated emoji to gifs to stickers to themes. 

Here are a few emoji keyboards for iPhone and Android users to check out and change up their text messaging. Enjoy! 

Bitmoji will be familiar to Snapchat users but is compatible with other apps as well. Users can create a cartoon avatar that looks just like you and adds another personalization level as your Bitmoji is incorporated into most stickers. For Android, you have the option to install it manually or through the Bitmoji app. Once you sign up within the app, tap the Globe icon to open the Keyboard tab and follow the prompts to enable the keyboard. To manually set it up, install the app and go to Settings. From there, tap Languages and input > Virtual (or On-screen keyboard) > Manage Keyboards > toggle on Bitmoji Keyboard. Free for iOS and Android.

Kika’s keyboard offers a jillion – okay, maybe just thousands – of emoji, fonts, gifs, stickers, and custom keyboard themes. It even has Kika predictive emoji and an emoji dictionary. The gifs work on social media platforms, and users can upload photos as the background to your keyboard. For Android, go to Settings > Languages and input > Virtual (or On-screen keyboard) > Manage Keyboards. For iOS, download the app, then choose Settings > General > Keyboard > Turn on Kika. You’ll also need to allow full access to use all the keyboard’s features. Free for iOS and Android.

Gboard (free for Android and iOS) lets you search for specific emoji, track your most-used emoji, add stickers to your texts, and use gifs and old-fashioned emoticons. To use Gboard, download it from the App Store or Google Play. Go into your Settings and tap Enable (Android) or Get Started (iOS). Note, Apple is notoriously proprietary about third-party apps, so you’ll need to manually enable permissions to use most of the features. 

The most intuitive keyboard on this list, Microsoft’s SwiftKey learns your writing style, including slang, nicknames, and favorite emoji. It’s also the most customizable. Users can add themes, features emoji prediction (that can be turned on and off in Settings), and “type with swipe” capability and seamlessly type in up to five languages without switching settings. Choose from 400+ supported languages. On Android, go to Settings > Language & input > SwiftKey. For iOS, tap General > Keyboard > Add New Keyboard. You’ll see all the keyboards you have installed on your device; choose SwiftKey to enable. If you want it to be your default keyboard, click Edit, then drag it to the top of the list.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Give Mom the Gift of Hassle Free Dinners

By Tracey Dowdy

If you’re wracking your brain trying to come up with a clever, unique gift for Mother’s Day, have I got a suggestion for you. At this point, no one needs to be reminded that the past year has been challenging, and perhaps no one has felt the pressure more than mom. One of the frustrations I heard most often from my mom friends was the never-ending demand for snacks and meals. It seemed the breakfast dishes had just been cleared when someone would be sniffing around the pantry looking for snacks. Those crumbs would be still on the floor when the cry of “What’s for lunch?” would sound. Don’t get them started on the “Spaghetti? Again?” battle over dinner time. 

This year, give mom the gift of one less thing to think about and shop for through a meal subscription plan. Each of these options – Home Chef,  EveryPlateFreshlyHelloFresh, and Blue Apron  – works similarly. Their chefs create delicious, balanced, and healthy recipes with all the ingredients you need shipped to your door. Each delivers to most US zip codes and uses packaging that keeps ingredients fresh for up to 24 hours after delivery (in case you’re not home) and for up to four or five days in the fridge. Each runs frequent promotions like Hello Fresh’s $90 credit and free shipping for new customers and Blue Apron’s $80 savings over your first four boxes. 

Home Chef categorizes its meals by difficulty, from easy to expert, and offers weekly recipe rotations for all skill levels and dietary preferences, including calorie or carb-conscious and vegetarian options. You can customize meals to upgrade, swap, or double up your favorite protein on select recipes, skip deliveries, or pause your account anytime. Plans start at $6.99 per meal with a minimum order of two meals/two plates, and shipping is $6.99 per order. 

EveryPlate’s meals start at $4.99 per meal, making it the least expensive option on this list. Their minimum order is three meals/two plates with $8.99 shipping per order. You can choose from 14 recipes that change every week, each with six simple steps and designed to be on the table in 30 minutes. The one downside is the lack of vegetarian meal options. 

Freshly meals are $8.99 each and require a four meal minimum per order – the most among the other plans on this list. Each fully prepared meal is delivered fresh and ready to heat and eat in three minutes or less. Plans are flexible, and you can change up your number of meals, skip a delivery, or cancel anytime. 

HelloFresh offers the largest variety of meal options of the services in this list and is America’s top meal kit, offering the widest variety of recipes to over a million customers around the country. Meals are $8.99 per plate with a two-meal minimum per order and $6.99 shipping. Choose from 25 fresh recipes every week, with options like “20-Minute Meals,” “Craft Burgers,” and “Taste Tours.” You can pause or cancel anytime, as long as you hit “Pause” five days before your next delivery schedule.

Blue Apron’s boxes offer step-by-step recipes for three meals for two, four, or six people, priced at $7.49 per serving with three meals/two plates minimum on each order, plus free shipping. You can choose from their Signature or Signature for four plans customized to dietary preferences to personalize the menus you receive. Right now, new Customers can save $80 over their first four boxes. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Mother’s Day Subscription Boxes

By Tracey Dowdy

Let’s face it, going to the mailbox to grab your mail is a lot less fun than it used to be. According to the U.S. Postal Service, we’re sending 4.3 billion fewer letters and cards than just twenty years ago. That’s a 61% drop from the days when email and text weren’t our primary lines of communication. These days, there’s a good chance there’s nothing but bills and junk mail in that mailbox. 

But there’s still something magical about going to the mailbox and finding something addressed to you that isn’t another credit card offer or flyer from your local dry cleaner. (Side note, support local small businesses). Everyone loves a surprise, and to know they’re thought of – it puts a smile on our face. 

One way to bring a smile to mom’s face this Mother’s Day is to gift her with not just any subscription box, but one filled with treats she’s sure to love. Here are some delicious options. 

Goldbelly “believes in the emotional power of food and understands that for many of us, food is our love language. They offer everything from regional favorites to full brunch platters, cakes, pies, and iconic sandwich kits. Is mom a Magnolia Bakery fan? Loves her some Primanti Brothers? How about cheesecake from the Nuns of New Skete? Goldbelly has you covered. Right now, they have special offers for Mother’s Day, offering everything from Mother’s Day Cupcake Bouquets from We Take the Cake in Fort Lauderdale to a Three-Course Shrimp & Grits Dinner for two from Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. You can even send a bouquet of a dozen bagel flowers from The Bagel Nook in New Jersey. 

If mom is a cheese lover, Murray’s Cheese has you covered. This isn’t your basic block of grocery store cheddar – we’re talking Murray’s Cavemaster Reserve cheeses – wheels that have sourced green then aged into unique creations in our very own New York City cheese caves. Their private line represents the best of a particular type of gourmet cheese, whether Comté, Parmigiano ReggianoCheddarStilton, or Brie. You can prepay for three months of cheese deliveries for $175, and each shipment will include three to four expertly selected cheeses. 

Does mom run on coffee and determination? We can do something to help with at least part of that – Trade coffee offers a personalized selection of coffee from top roasters across the country. The beans are fresh – like, really fresh – with some hitting your mailbox in as little as two days after roasting. Gifting a subscription is easy and starts at $13 for 12-ounce bags and goes up from there. You can also choose from Trade’s a la carte gift options, including individual bags or bundles that start at $48.   

Fish in the mail? Hear me out! Opened in 1822, the Bronx’s Fulton Fish Market is one of the oldest fish markets in the US, and if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to stroll through the market or taste their unbelievably fresh and delicious seafood, you know mom will love it. Seafood at your local grocery store has likely been frozen and then thawed and possibly frozen and thawed again. Fulton Fish Market’s offerings are caught, flash-frozen, packed, and sent straight to you. Any fresher, and you’d need a boat of your own. You can order fish by the piece, box, or a curated bundle. For instance, a 10-pack of 8-ounce salmon filets is roughly $90, or a halibut and salmon stock-up bundle for $99. You can also spring for the seafood subscription, and Fulton will send a monthly, bimonthly, or weekly curated box of fish starting at $65 per month for four 6-ounce portions. 

If mom has a straight-up sweet tooth and runs on bougie chocolate, Bar & Cocoa has you covered. Every month, mom will receive four full-sized dark bars from the finest bean to bar chocolate makers. Each box includes tasting notes, and all chocolate bars are plain, gluten, and dairy-free dark chocolate. Plus, shipping is free! A three-month subscription starts at $129, but you can spring for a six or 12-month run, and any of them can be canceled at any time. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Mother’s Day Gifts Under $50

By Tracey Dowdy

Many of us have felt the economic impact of the pandemic, and although there’s no gift too good for mom, our budgets aren’t as limitless as our love. Don’t stress – there are plenty of fantastic gifts for mom that fit your budget, and best of all, thanks to many of us being fully vaccinated, you may even be able to give her present to her in person this year! 

BagPodz reusable grocery bags Even before the pandemic, many states started requiring reusable shopping bags. Not only are BagPodz environmentally friendly, but they also stay in their own clip-on bag so that you can take them out one at a time. They’re machine-washable, so even if there’s a nasty spill, they’ll be clean for the next grocery run.

Tile Mate tracker Tile is a small Bluetooth tracker and that pairs with the Tile app (free) to locate commonly misplaced items like your phone, keys, or wallet in seconds. This generation of trackers has a greater range and have replaceable batteries. Right now, you can Get the Mate 2-Pack for $24.99 with a one-year subscription to Tile Premium.  

Amazon Fire 7 Tablet The Amazon Fire 7 tablet is a CNET Cheapskate Hall of Fame winner. Though there’s overlap between mom’s smartphone and a tablet, the larger screen and ability to disconnect from email and text can be a welcome change. It’s usually $50 but frequently goes on sale for $40. 

MixTiles Photo Tiles Have mom AirDrop or Nearby Share her favorite photos and turn them into Mix Tiles – 8 x8-inch tiles that can stick almost anywhere and can be repositioned without damaging your walls. Photos should be at least 499 x 499 pixels to make a clear print, and the app will warn you if your images are too small. Each tile is $11, shipping is free worldwide, and they ship to most countries around the world.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.


Make the Most of iOS 14.5

By Tracey Dowdy 

Monday, Apple released iOS 14.5 and iPadOS 14.5 worldwide. If you’re using a supported device, you can find the software update in your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch’s Settings app. The most significant change for many is App Tracking Transparency, Apple’s new policy whereby app developers are required to get user opt-in to track users between apps. Arguably, the best feature is one we could have used a year ago – the ability to unlock your phone without removing your mask. The downside? You need an Apple Watch for the feature to work. 

The App Tracking Transparency feature and policy are now fully enforced, starting with today’s release of iOS 14.5, iPadOS 14.5, and tvOS 14. Apps must ask for permission to track you across your Apple devices. If you decline the request or block apps from asking you, they have to honor your decision. Should an app get caught tracking you without your consent, Apple reserves the right to remove it from the App Store. Go to Settings > Privacy > Tracking on your iPhone or iPad to enable. 

Face ID now works with a mask, well, sort of. If you have an Apple Watch, you’re all set. If you don’t, we can only hope developers will introduce a way to unlock in the next update. In the meantime, with iOS 14.5, your iPhone will look for your paired Apple Watch to unlock itself if it sees the bottom half of your face is covered. If your watch is nearby, your iPhone will open just as it usually would when using Face ID. 

Siri has added new voices, so the default voice is no longer female. There are now four voices English speakers get to choose from, including two new voices modeled after Black American English. You’ll find these on the Siri page for voices within the Settings app. Choose “American” under variety and, in addition to the two existing American accents, you’ll find two more voices: a Black female voice and a Black male voice.

Apple has also added features to its Shortcuts app. One of the more labor-intensive yet popular additions is the ability to create your own app icons and customize the look of your phone. For example, instead of the Apple Mail app icon, you can download an icon and replace it with your customized choice and use it to launch the app.

Perhaps one of the best features of 1OS14.5 is App Clips, a miniature version of the full app that will save you time and storage space. App Clips focus on finishing one task quickly to allow users to open and complete a task in seconds. Without downloading or installing an entire app, you can still access its features for basic features like renting a tourist bike while you’re out sightseeing or making reservations at a restaurant without having to install a new app every time.  

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.