Planet Plates

The kids got these as a gift one year. I think we, as well as the giver thought of it as just a novelty that might not get much use, but the plates have become an essential part of our kitchen and we have used them just about every day for years now.

I estimate that about 40% of our glassware has been broken since we had our first child. A lot of the breakage is from a small toddler hand reaching for a glass or dish on a table, with us not realizing that the kid is now tall enough to reach it. But most of the breakage has actually been from us, exhausted while washing dishes, or distracted while clearing the table with a baby on one hip.

We’ve been using a lot of canning (Mason, Ball, etc.) jars, not because we’re trendy hipsters but because that’s almost all we have left to drink out of, and the thick glass of canning jars is more likely to survive being dropped on the tile floor. I have a somewhat Darwinian approach to kitchenware: ‘Survival of the fittest’ – if it breaks, it wasn’t meant to be. But that philosophy doesn’t work so well when there’s nothing left.

So that’s why we were happy to receive and use the planet plates. They are big enough so the different foods don’t touch each other (for those who care about that) and the planet patterns are fun. The kids occasionally fight over who gets Jupiter or Earth. No one wants Mercury, which looks a bit like barf and stays on the bottom of the pile in the cupboard.

The plates are made out of melamine, which is slightly more forgiving than other plastics. Our Batman and Superman bowls crack whenever they have been dropped. And I’ve had to superglue them. None of the planet plates has ever broken or cracked.

More at The Unemployed Philosophers Guild, which has lots of fun stuff for kids and adults.

Plants vs. Zombies

We didn’t even had kids yet when this game first came out. And there is a whole group of elementary school-age kids who can now rediscover what was a huge hit back in 2009/2010.

I think it’s one of the great games, in terms of theme, design, and extensive gameplay. There is probably 100 hours worth of gameplay with all the mini-games, and it has high reply value.

The basic mechanic is ‘tower defense’ but with weaponized plants being the towers and zombies being the invaders. I would argue that the game teaches concepts such as planning ahead, rationing resources, and basic intuitive math.

We don’t like our kids playing violent games, but zombies are already dead, so it doesn’t matter. Also, the zombies are aggressive as they try to eat our brains, so we have the moral high ground in blasting them with frozen peas. And a cute little cartoon plant is so far removed from the realistic-looking weapons in other games that I don’t have a problem with the violence at all.

The game is available on just about every platform and there are free versions for Android and iOS with some ads (you watch an to get extra powers, such as a rake that a zombie steps on to decapitate himself).

The sequel has gotten mixed reviews (made by a different developer who had bought the rights to the first one) but we haven’t tried it.

Geronimo Stilton

I had never heard of Geronimo Stilton before having kids, and just randomly stumbled across these CDs at the library when planning a road trip. These were a big hit and we started playing them in the evening at bedtime.

The concept is that Geronimo Stilton is a mouse and a newspaper editor who winds up in zany adventures with his sister and nephew and others. Geronimo is a bit of a nebbish and a reluctant hero, making the stories comical.

There are something like 30 stories that have been read and recorded on CDs, in collections of 2 or 3. The narrator of the first few CDs is Edward Herrmann and of the others is Bill Lobley. Lobley in particular is a very skilled voice actor and he makes the characters and story very entertaining, enough to engage parents as well as children.

It turns out that Geronimo Stilton is practically a media empire, with dozens of chapter books, comic books, graphic novels, audio CDs, and a TV cartoon. It was fun for our kids to hear the stories first on audio, and later to read the comic versions, putting faces to the characters they had become familiar with.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that our kids spend more time with Geronimo Stilton stories than any other single thing, including Lego and Minecraft.

The appeal is still a bit of a mystery to me, but I think part of it is the set of main characters, which is different from characters in most American media. Geronimo Stilton is translated from the original Italian, and some of that European perspective comes through. Specifically, most current American children’s media either has all characters be equally genial and pleasant, or has all characters be equally snarky.

Mostly gone are the days of Winnie the Pooh, when the main character (Winnie) was funny because he was so stupid, but other characters were very distinct: Eeyore the grumpy one, Rabbit the fussy one, etc. Compare that to most Dreamworks or Disney movies now where everyone makes wisecrack remarks but are mostly interchangeable with each other.

Geronimo Stilton is more in the older form, with a central hero (Geronimo), a sidekick (his nephew Benjamin), comic relief (his cousin Trap), and the girl (his sister Thea). This form was the standard for American movies and TV for decades. But G.S. twists the form. Geronimo is timid, not heroic. The kid (Benjamin) is not obnoxious and in fact everyone likes him. He’s smart and reliable. And Thea, the girl, is actually the boldest, most courageous and decisive, as well as the most athletic of the group. Even Trap, the comic relief subverts the trope by saving much of his ridicule for the hero.

Even though the characters are mostly male, the character of Thea is a good role model for girls. She likes fashion, but not obsessively so. She is portrayed as attractive (I think. She is a mouse after all) but not in an idle princess kind of way.

We love us some Geronimo Stilton. If were to have another kid, I would lobby for “Geronimo” as a middle name.

Andrew & Polly

Price: $8.99

This duo came out with one of the catchiest songs of the year in 2015.

Years later, one of us (parents) spontaneously starts singing this song.

Their music is catchy and funny and everyone loves it.

From their website:

Andrew & Polly compose and produce songs and score for children’s television, advertising and independent film. Polly Hall is an Emmy-Nominated songwriter and Andrew Barkan has composed score for over 45 independent films, including five features. Their advertising experience includes work for GE, Levi’s, Toyota, Nike, Starbucks and Sprint. Their work in children’s television includes songs for Wallykazam, the score to the Nick Digital Series “Welcome to the Wayne,” the score for “The Outsiders” and digital projects for Sesame Studios and Disney.

Lucy Kalantari

Whether with TV shows, music, movies, videogames, or books, a challenge is finding stuff that the kids like that we parents can also enjoy, or at least tolerate, even when it’s just the noise we hear on a device from across the room. This is especially true with music when driving. Lucy Lalantari is a recent discovery, who makes music that both the kids and parents can enjoy, and I mean not just grudgingly tolerate but actually enjoy.

From her website:

Kalantari went to the Purchase Conservatory of Music for composition and production. She has published many works in various genres spanning from singer-songwriter to industrial rock. After being introduced to the ukulele by a colleague, her writing took a shift as she created sounds inspired from the bygone jazz era. Listeners likened her laid back voice to that of Billie Holiday, and Kalantari herself noticed how natural it felt to sing and write in this genre.

Two months after giving birth to her son, she participated in a song-a-week project in 2013 while staying home with her newborn. She found herself with a handful of upbeat ukulele ditties pleasing to babies and adults alike. This collection became her debut into the kids independent music scene, as she released Pockets Full of Joy, in 2014. Pockets landed a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award and earned a place in The Best Kids Music of 2014, by Cooper & Kid.

The sound is very New York, and the prominent clarinet in many tracks gives it an almost klezmer sound, reminiscent of Woody Allen movie soundtracks. Some of her songs are very much kid songs, others are grown-up jazz songs, and some are specifically songs for parents.

Steam Powered Giraffe

Price: $8.99

It has been fascinating to watch this band evolve over the past ten years. From busking at Balboa park in San Diego to a huge theatrical production on a constant nationwide tour.

From their website:

Steam Powered Giraffe is a musical project from San Diego, California. It was formed in 2008 by twin siblings David Michael Bennett and Isabella “Bunny” Bennett. Together, along with a cast and crew filled with theatrical backgrounds, the group takes on the guise of singing antique automatons and the fictional robotics company that made them.

The quirky act combines comedic sketches, improvised android banter, and original music fused with multimedia visuals, billowing steam effects, and robot pantomime.

Our 4-year old often asks to watch their songs on YouTube, the two below being the favorites:

The concept is of self-aware robots that perform music, but the story is far deeper than that, with an almost unbelievable amount of backstory that explains the origins of the robots as well as a set of very surreal comics.

The songs are fun and energetic with a combination of old-timey melodies and steampunk stylings. Although some aspects of the performance are outrageous, it remains family-friendly.

More at their site

Battle of the Planets

Price: Check on Amazon

Imagine a Star Trek plot with Power Rangers characters, scored by a hodge-podge of John Williams sound-alikes and late ’60s sounds influenced by bands such as Procol Harum, and voiced by Casey Kasem?

The answer is Battle of the Planets

My son asked me what were my favorite shows when I was his age. There were so few options compared to now, but I recalled Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Crusader Cat and Minute Mouse, Zoom, 321 Contact, Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Tunes shows, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Kroft Superstars (Land of the Lost and the other ones), The Banana Splits, The New Zoo Revue.

When I was older I loved Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, The Greatest American Hero, the A-Team.

But the show I was absolutely obsessed with when I was his age was “Battle of the Planets”. I even wrote and drew what would now be called fan fiction in my own comic book version of the show that I called “Battle of the Stars”.

The show had Japanese animation and was a mishmash of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Japanese shows such as Power Rangers and Voltron.

A drawback to the show is the odd addition of the robot making oddly romantic comments about the one girl character. I think they go over the heads of my kids, but it’s jarring.

The plots and themes are complex, as though originally written for a different show and then shoehorned into a kids show. Or maybe the bar was higher for kids in the 70s.

DVDs are hard to find. But they’re all on YouTube.

Wikipedia has a lot of information (of course they do!)

Japanese Eraser Animals

I don’t know whether this is the Next Big Thing, but my kids love these little things. They come in animal shapes, vehicles, pastries, etc.

They are made of eraser rubber (but don’t actually fit on a pencil) and are each composed of multiple pieces, so each creature is a small, simple 3D puzzle.

The creatures are very cute and something about the colors and the texture of the eraser rubber makes them seem almost like cartoons somehow made real.

They make good party favors or the sort of thing you might include with valentine cards for classmates, or as part of a grab bag.

You can get a big set from Amazon or a pack of 8 or so from some dollar stores. There are some Japanese “$1.50” stores in California that carry them, too.

Sandra Boynton

Sandra Boynton has had children’s books in print for the past 40+ years, ever since publishing “Hippos Go Berserk” in 1977. Her distinctive and very recognizable illustration style may be more familiar from her many, many calendars, coffee mugs, and cards. By her own estimate, she has drawn between 4,000 and 6,000 greeting cards! Her most famous is probably the birthday card that reads, “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes”

We have several of her 60+ children’s board books and they are an easy and popular gift to give and receive. The drawing style is fun and whimsical and the “stories”, as simple as they are, are great for read-along time. Our kids essentially memorize entire books and then can read along with us.

Her most popular books include “Moo, Baa, La La La!”, “The Going to Bed Book”, “Barnyard Dance”, “A to Z”, “Blue Hat, Green Hat”, and “Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs!” A complete list of her books is on her Wikipedia page

She also has several children’s music albums, including:
“Rhinoceros Tap” (1996)
“Philadelphia Chickens” (2002)
“Dog Train” (2005)
“Blue Moo” (2007)
“Boléro Completely Unraveled” (2010)
“Frog Trouble” (2013)
“Hog Wild” (2017)

Our kids love “Philadelphia Chickens” in particular.

More information about her books at sandraboynton.com

Kratts’ Creatures – Zoboomafoo – Wild Kratts

It all started when brothers Martin and Chris Kratt grew up in New Jersey, went camping, and took some pictures of local wildlife. This blossomed into lifelong love of nature and specifically of documenting it and sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Their first show together was Kratts’ Creatures in 1996. They evolved the concept a bit and ran Zoboomafoo in 1999, Be the Creature in 2003, and Creature Adventures in 2008. They have been making the current incarnation, Wild Kratts since 2011. This more recent version has much more animation, which my kids find appealing. (They aren’t so interested in long-form nature documentaries with nothing but video clips of animals)

The older content, such as the Zoboomafoo series, has aged well (although the brothers themselves are visibly much younger) and I’ve found used DVDs for very cheap. (The hard part about DVDs these days is finding a working player).

There are also several free onlne spinoff games on PBS Kids Games. Monkey Mayhem is my kids’ favorite.

There are also lots of books based on Wild Kratts and even action figures, and even also a live stage show!

The Kratt Brothers’ enthusiasm is infectious and I find myself jealous that these guys can travel the world, making a living from doing what they love.

The videos and everything they do is wholesome, entertaining, and educational. It’s the kind of thing I have no hesitation of letting my kids watch during their allocated screen time.

There are free videos, games, and other activities on the Wild Kratts website at PBS kids dot org.
(The games are all done in HTML5 so they work on all types of computer, iPad, etc. with no need for the now-deprecated Flash plugin.)