Once a Pawn a Time

I’ve heard of chess prodigies as young as 6 and have played chess against 6- and 7-year-olds who knew what they were doing and were even able to beat me (although I’m not a great player). So I was eager to introduce chess to our oldest at that age. Once a Pawn a Time was a gift that arrived at the right time, when I was considering buying a set anyway.

The game includes a standard board and pieces as well as two books that explain the rules in a fun, kid-friendly way, by anthropomorphizing the pieces and by introducing the rules slowly, one-at-a-time. I’ve seen kids get overwhelmed by the number of rules and the amount of abstract thinking that chess requires, so this method of explanation seemed good to me. Our older kids took to it right away, choosing to read the books and learn the rules even when the board and pieces were not at hand. And they talked incessantly about chess for many days after.

It turns out that our kids are not quite as precocious as I had assumed they would be and the rules took a while to sink in, and I still have to sometimes remind them of certain details (en passant in particular) but other aspects seem very easy to them, such as visualizing which squares the knights are attacking. All kids are different of course.

We use the board and pieces for lots of inventive play – playing checkers using nickels and pennies, or adding extra pieces such as Star Wars figures or Hot Wheels cars to the board and giving them special abilities. Chess can seem dour and serious, but it can also be lighthearted and silly.

Many months later, we don’t read the Once a Pawn a Time books anymore but we still pull the board and pieces out every other week or so. We keep it on a shelf in the living room, so it benefits from high visibility. I love that we can sometimes take 15 minutes to play a quick game in the morning when there’s time between breakfast and catching the bus.

Even if you don’t buy this particular one, get a chess set if you don’t have one. I feel every home with kids ought to have a chess set. It’s one of those obligatory possessions along with a copy of Goodnight Moon or a teddy bear.

Star Trek – The Animated Series

A lot of cartoons aimed at kids are not very good. They are either insipid, appealing only to toddlers, or have too much adult humor, or are essentially long advertisements. So I sometimes look for older cartoons, hoping that they will transcend, but boy oh boy are they violent. We tried watching Heckle and Jeckle, and the kids thought they were a riot, but they were so brutally violent that they are no longer allowed.

So, it was a pleasant surprise when I stumbled across episodes of the old Star Trek cartoon. I hadn’t realized (or forgotten) that the show was ever made. It was aired in 1973 and 1974 and was voiced by the original actors, lending some credibility to the show. The animation is pretty crummy, in the same cheap style as the old Spider-Man cartoons from the same era. But the animation quality doesn’t matter to kids so much.

What was appealing to me was the stories of adventure and working together and the importance of following rules and the idea of ‘conquering’ space by cataloging its peoples and planets rather than by defeating them. And the kids love space adventure stories with weird aliens and spaceships and the occasional threat of photon cannons, although problems tend to get resolved by talking it out, not by fighting.

Netflix is streaming season 2

Wikipedia has some info about the show

Count Your Chickens

Peaceable Kingdom has something of a corner on the market for ‘cooperative games’. These are games where everyone playing either wins together or loses together. There are no individual winners or losers.

I had a conversation with a friend a while ago and he was saying how important playing sports was for kids. They learn teamwork, reliance on others, etc. I agreed but suggested that playing in a school orchestra or band can be just as good for teaching those concepts. And music has one advantage over sports in that performing is not about winning and losing, which is not how most situations work in life. Instead, everyone in a band contributes and the group’s success is determined by the participation of everyone. These Peaceable Kingdom games are meant to promote that idea. They have lots of similar board games with the same idea.

So, the cooperative game we got was ‘Count your Chickens’. Kids take turns moving chicks into the coop, and if all 20 make it in before mama hen gets home, everyone wins. Otherwise, everyone loses. We have one child who is particularly competitive, overly competitive, and we had hoped this game would offer an alternative to the zero-sum attitude. Whether it has or not, who knows. But everyone likes it regardless.

The pieces are pretty cheaply made – like a dollar’s worth of cardboard and ink – but the game was a hit and the kids continue pulling it out every now and then. The game is so simple, on the level of ‘Candy Land’, but also includes a counting component that makes the game educational even if you don’t care about the collaborative aspect.

Puss in Book

One of the characters in the movie Shrek was Puss in Boots, a character that dates back to 16th-century Italy. Puss got his own spin-off movie, and then a few more, and now Netflix has launched a novel format of choose-your-own adventure-style storytelling. A clip of the video plays and then the character asks the viewer whether to (e.g.) follow the princess or challenge the villain. The viewer clicks the answer they want and the story proceeds.

If a choice ends badly for the hero (the cat), the story bumps back to the previous choice and the view can try again without any of the frustration that sometimes comes with interactive fiction.

I wasn’t a big fan of Shrek, but I found the Puss in Boots character appealing – a dashing, cocky rogue who actually isn’t all that strong or able is a good metaphor for many children – and we all were laughing out loud at some of the dialogue in Puss in Book. And my kids really liked the format of choosing how the story changed. ‘Agency’ is one of those themes we parents frequently discuss, and being able to direct the story is fun for kids, especially those who can’t read yet.

This kind of format is not entirely new (remember ‘Clue’ from the ’80s?) but watching videos on the tablet, like we do, makes this format much more practical.

I hope Netflix does more with this medium.

Puss in Book on Netflix

Romper has a brief article about it

Bad Lip Reading Star Wars Songs

BLR is a YouTube phenomenon. A guy dubs over news clips and videos with silly nonsense and sometimes songs. The songs are very, very good – well-composed, well-performed and sung, and slickly produced. His re-dubs of music videos are better than the originals.

Not all of them are particularly kid-friendly, but most are.

In 2016, Disney hired him to create some dubs of clips from the original Star Wars trilogy, with guest star help from Jack Black and others, in order to promote the new Star Wars film. These are pretty good, but Disney has a way of inserting crude sexual humor into kids’ media. I assume their intention is to make it more entertaining for the adults watching, but it ends up being awkward and feeling inappropriate.

However, the BLR guy included little tunes in these dubs and then went ahead and produced full song videos from them. They are excellent. The kids and I have watched these several dozen times.

I’m not a fan of how Disney has treated the Star Wars franchise, partly because of the fetishization of the Empire instead of the rebels, partly because the new ones are so much more violent than the originals, and also because the writing for episode 7 felt like mere fan fiction.

So, the kids haven’t seen the new ones. But they still love the figures and the Lego sets and the aesthetic.

Rolling Stone has an interview with the creator, as does The Washington Post. And The Village Voice has a more recent one as well.


And a list of funny, catchy Star Wars songs would be incomplete without these:

Little Robot

Price: $10.98
Was: $16.99

We got this from the library, which has a lot of graphic novels and other quasi-comic books – a lot more than when I was a kid, but back then the genres were more explicitly separated (novels OR picture books OR comics). Little Robot has a lot of panels with no dialogue at all, so the storytelling is necessarily done through the images. I had thought that would make it hard to read at bedtime, but I would just point at the pictures or sometimes describe the image and its role in the plot. This book was the favorite pick for bedtime reading for 3 or 4 days in a row and our oldest read through it a few times.

The plot is not so different from that of T2, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the early ’90s. A robot gets lost and is found and protected by a child and then they both have to flee from the evil robot sent out to collect the first robot. The story manages to straddle the line between being fun and being almost a little scary.

The imagery is appealing and Little Robot won the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award in 2016

The protagonist is a young girl who lives in a trailer park near a research lab, or something. Her circumstances are not relevant to the story but I found that it humanized her and made me want to root for her character more.

The author/illustrator, Ben Hatke, has several other books in a similar vein.

The Camelback Dogs!

Price: Check on Amazon

This seemed like a very odd book when I first read it to the kids after receiving it as a gift, but we’ve all grown fond of it. This one does not get read as frequently as some others on our shelves, but when we do read it the kids are in rapt attention.

The story begins with a kid discovering and interacting with strange alien creatures and then they all go on a surreal journey involving sand castles and harpsichords. During this journey, the main character experiences curiosity and confusion, but also joy and peaceful contentment. In the end, we are left wondering whether the entire story was a dream. It is ultimately, a very happy and optimistic story.

The story and pictures are dream-like and as I read the book, my kids want to make sense of what is going on. Tomkins’s illustration style is distinctive and full of detail so there is a lot to look at.

This author/illustrator has several other appealing books but because he works with a smaller publisher (Sasquatch Books) his titles don’t get the same exposure as mainstream ones. So if you want to give a book as a gift and want to make sure the recipient doesn’t already have it, this is a good bet.

Block Craft 3D

This is essentially a clone of Minecraft and the main reason to play this is if you want to play Minecraft but don’t want to pay for it. It’s a pretty faithful copy with some slight differences and is close enough to the original that even kids who have played real Minecraft should have fun with this one.

The game has ads but they are not intrusive – certainly much less annoying than the ads on most other free phone games I’ve played.

The game gets 4.5/5 on Google Play and 4.9/5 on iTunes and is one of the top results when searching for “minecraft” or “minecraft clone” or “free minecraft”

We actually have a Minecraft account but still play Blockcraft for 2 reasons:

• Blockcraft is slightly simpler than Minecraft, which means the interface is less complex, which means the screen is less cluttered. Minecraft is great on a large screen but can be a bit frustrating on the small screen of a phone, while Blockcraft is a little easier to manipulate.

• The newer versions of Minecraft seem to emphasize all the ways you can destroy things with T.N.T., fire, etc. while the emphasis on Blockcraft seems more about the building. What we were looking for in the first place, when we first used Minecraft, was “virtual legos” and Blockcraft actually satisfies that description a bit better than Minecraft. (Lego also has good, free games that let you play virtual legos, My kids’ favorite is “Lego City 2”)

Block Craft 3D on Google Play for Android devices

Block Craft 3D on iTunes for Apple devices

Blockcraft is made by (I believe) a Brazilian developer that calls itself TFG.co and they make a lot of games for older kids (i.e. violent games). You can read more about Blockcraft on their site

Minecraft’s developer, Mojang, was bought by Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014, and I had assumed they would use their new pile of cash to sue developers such as TFG.co since the latter is so obviously ripping off Minecraft and is surely denying Microsoft revenue, but I haven’t heard about a lawsuit yet.

Bob the Builder: The Legend of the Golden Hammer

This movie is from Bob the Builder’s “middle period”, when the animation was done using CGI but meant to look like the original stop-motion style, but before the change to a more human-like look for the characters. This older look is more popular in our family. We seldom watch the new one, even though it is freely available on PBS Kids.

The structure of the story is that of a scavenger hunt, with each discovery leading to a new clue, ultimately resulting in the finding of the golden hammer. The tone is gentle and fun and the kids like the pacing. It’s like a mystery thriller for kids. There is lots of reinforcement about what has happened, what the characters have done and seen, so it’s not confusing for little ones, but it doesn’t get bogged down in repetition so is not boring for older ones.

IMDB has a rating of only 6.6/10 but our kids love it. This is one of the few movies that the kids ask for by name.

It’s available as a DVD and also streaming on Netflix and Amazon prime.

“Golden hammer” is the embodiment of The Law of the Instrument, the idea that your most familiar or available resource becomes the only one you rely on. In other words, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I don’t know if the writers were making a point or not, but when I’m watching children’s cartoons, I find them more entertaining when I deconstruct them ad absurdum.

Scamp to the Rescue

Price: Check on Amazon

This book may not be in print any longer and it’s easy to see why since the theme of kidnapping is no longer one you see in children’s books.

This is the story of the four puppies belonging to Lady and the Tramp: Scamp, a rascally energetic boy, and his three well-behaved sisters. Scamp is always getting into trouble until one day his sisters are dog-napped by an evil man and woman. He would have been as well, but was off getting into trouble. He managed to find them, rescue them, and escort them home, where he is ultimately forgiven.

We currently live in an era of children’s media, exemplified by shows such as Daniel Tiger, where there is no evil, where all characters are well-behaved and generally pleasant to each other. This is good for young kids, but as they get older, they become fascinated by themes such as violence and sinister intentions. Our oldest also can relate to Scamp, as someone who has so much energy that he often gets into trouble, and it’s appealing to have a story where that character is redeemed.