An in-depth large family homeschooling review of the Night Zookeeper online creative writing program for elementary aged kids.
I am extremely passionate about literature and writing in our homeschool. I have a degree in English, so naturally, I want my children to write well. But more importantly, I want them to ENJOY writing!
Writing programs often contain lessons that end up sucking the joy out of the actual writing process for our children. They start in early elementary with dry, over-complicated assignments that are placed on repeat ad nauseum. Our children are not only frustrated by the lessons, they are often bored by assignments they can’t relate to on topics they don’t care about.
Because of this, I rarely share writing curriculum recommendations on Raising Arrows. I want my children (and yours!) to LOVE writing, and a lot programs tend to do the opposite.
When Night Zookeeper – an online creative writing site – contacted me about their program, I hesitated – wondering if this would be yet another curriculum that made writing drudgery.
However, after letting my three boys, ages 9, 11, and 13, use the program for a while, I was shocked by how much they loved it!
As with all the reviews I do, I’m going to lay out how we use it, along with the pros and cons I personally see in the program. But if you know right now this is something you want to check out, click THIS LINK or the graphic below to get a
7 day Free Trial + 50% off the annual subscription!
What is Night Zookeeper
If you are like me, you might be confused by the name Night Zookeeper and wonder how this is supposed to teach your child to write well, so let me explain that before we dive in much further!
Your child is the Night Zookeeper at a zoo with unique animals your child helps to create. The animals have special skills or powers that will help them fight the “voids,” who are creatures attacking the zoo. Your child writes stories about the animals in order to get more power for their flashlights so they can see more of the zoo and protect the animals. They can also play word games to gain more power for their flashlight or rank for their animals in different areas like writing, singing, dancing, gaming, and drawing – which will ultimately help them defeat the voids based on how much the animals have of each of those skills.
Simply put, Night Zookeeper is a game in which your child uses writing, spelling, vocabulary, and grammar to play the game.
Because of this concept, writing is FUN for your child and relevant to what they are doing at each step of the game.
As they find a new animal (or create one themselves), they are writing about that new animal. They are given prompts for writing to help them stay on track, and then each writing assignment is “graded” by a real person with real feedback. The extra games they are able to play reinforce their vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and writing skills along the way.
How we use Night Zookeeper in our Homeschool
I have two boys in the age bracket Night Zookeeper is best suited for (ages 5-12). However, I also have a newly turned 13 year old who I felt needed some help with spelling and grammar, so I signed him up too! (Account pricing levels range from 1 to 5 children.)
The site is accessed via your internet browser, and works on a PC, laptop, or tablet (not on a phone). Each of the boys have their own account login and use either dad’s iPad or the school laptop to access Night Zookeeper, only after their other schoolwork is finished, because they often get quite caught up in writing their stories.
When they first joined, they each created an animal using a drawing feature – which frankly, was a little difficult until they got the hang of it. (My perfectionist son was a little irritated with how imprecise the lines were, but he got over it when he saw that his brothers also did not have “perfect” looking animals.)
After they drew an animal and named it, they wrote a story about it. The first several times they wrote, I encouraged them to use the prompts Night Zookeeper gives them.
As they got better at coming up with stories on their own, they didn’t want to use the prompts anymore. However, Night Zookeeper does have requirements for each story like how many words it must be or certain words that must be used.
At one point while writing his story, Creed (9) said, “This is getting good!” That made my mama heart smile!
A day or two after writing a story and publishing it (we publish privately rather than publicly – either of which is perfectly okay), they are given feedback from a real person. This is mostly encouragement and suggestions on how they could make the story more engaging and/or grammatically correct. They are able to edit the stories, or simply leave them as is.
As you can see in the photo above, they collect rewards from their writing, and these are used to power up their flashlights to see more of the night zoo or to add skills to their animals.
They do not do Night Zookeeper every day (although they ask to do it every day!). We use it 2-3 times per week after their other schoolwork is finished, and I allow them to do one thing each day – which may be writing a story, playing a word game, or creating a new animal (all of which are guided by the program itself). I also allow them to trade their weekly typing time for Night Zookeeper.
CONS of Night Zookeeper
You child will definitely need help to get started. There’s a bit of a learning curve as with anything new. I sat down with my boys and helped each of them the first day to navigate the site, but it wasn’t long before they had it all figured out!
If you don’t set time limits, your child will take a long time on Night Zookeeper. As much as I love my kids enjoying the writing process, I do not like them spending inordinate amounts of time on the computer – which can easily happen with Night Zookeeper! Set a time limit, like 20-30 minutes, when they are on Night Zookeeper to keep them from getting lost in the zoo!
There is a magic or “power” aspect to Night Zookeeper. Ty and I are pretty careful about magic in books, movies, and other resources, so we were diligent about looking over Night Zookeeper when we first got it. The giraffe can disappear, the elephant has the power of time, and there are orbs that glow and power up your flashlight, but none of it was super concerning or evil. However, I know many homeschooling parents prefer to steer clear of anything that smacks of magic, so I wanted to be sure I mentioned this.
Pros of Night Zookeeper
The writing and games are interesting and useful! I detest twaddle and time wasters, and games that don’t teach anything are firmly in both categories. I was pleased to see the games in Night Zookeeper are useful and educational, as well as entertaining. My kids found them both challenging and engaging, so I’m a fan!
It can be used as a full Language Arts curriculum or as a supplement. If your child needs a Language Arts curriculum for credit, Night Zookeeper counts! If you just want to supplement your child’s learning with Night Zookeeper that’s ok too!
The adult tutors/editors give feedback so you don’t have to. As an English major, I enjoy helping my children write well, but not every parent feels confident in doing this. Having someone else critique your child’s writing takes the guesswork out of it for you.
There are helps for struggling learners like spellcheck, dictation, and prompts. Spellcheck is built in and prompts can be used to help a child formulate cohesive thoughts. And for the child who is dyslexic or has another reading disorder, you can either have the child dictate to you as you write their words or they can use the voicetext feature on their tablet.
I know some may feel this is “cheating” and not truly learning how to write, but I disagree. The purpose of grammar, writing, and vocabulary is to learn to communicate well. Even if your child never becomes a great writer or orator, learning how to formulate thoughts into sentences, even if they are dictated and spell-checked, will still benefit them greatly as adults.
It’s fun! As I said at the beginning of this review, I am passionate about children enjoying the creative process of writing. I don’t want them to feel like writing is a chore, and with Night Zookeeper, they are begging to write! So, that’s a win for sure!