Star Wars

We don’t have any Star Wars-related suggestions at Matchstick. I loved Star wars as a kid, and had the figures and the trading cards, and spent hours drawing T.I.E. fighters and X-Wings, but as a movie and a concept and a universe, Star Wars is candy. I loved Star Wars when I was a child, but I loved Cap’n Crunch, too. I won’t let my kids eat that stuff now.

Kids love Star Wars and many adults are nostalgic for it, but the movies and books and games and other merchandise is fun without having anything redeeming about it. If anything, the big lesson of the Star Wars stories is that all problems can be solved with magic and/or fighting. Watch any kids after watching one of the movies and all they want to do is hit each other with sticks. It’s odd to see kids’ backpacks at school, many of which have images of stormtroopers with blaster rifles running and shooting – not the kind of imagery normally allowed or encouraged at schools.

One could argue that Star Wars gets kids interested in Space, but I would argue that it actually perverts interest in Space because kids would much rather watch a version of space that manages to have sound effects in a vacuum, where vehicles can travel from one planet to another in a few minutes.

I don’t hate Star Wars (although episode VII was merely poorly-implemented fan ficton) and I let my kids play with the toys from the 70s that my mom saved in the attic for all these years, but I don’t push it and don’t have any Star Wars-related book or toy recommendations. There are plenty of more meaningful, educational, and dare-I-say ‘wholesome’ stories out there.

Octonauts

The Octonauts is a video series on Netflix and available on DVD. Some of the stories are also available as books and there are several toys out there of the characters. The look of the show is unique, a cross between kid-friendly 60s-era James Bond, ‘Sealab 2020’, and cutesy Japanese anime.

The show is not the creation of some corporate art department, but the work of a single design couple, who call themselves meomi.

They “live in Vancouver, Canada where we spend our days making up stories, drinking tea, and drawing strange characters. We love learning about underwater creatures and sharing our love for the ocean with kids (and grown-ups) around the world!”

Our kids like the characters, the pace of the storytelling, and the balance of adventure just at the edge of sometimes being a little scary but not quite. The videos are fun for adults as well. We find ourselves watching along with the kids to see where the story goes.

We like the educational aspect as well. Some of the episodes are just as informational as Wild Kratts or any other nature-themed cartoon. A lot of what I know of deep-sea creatures is from Octonauts. (Who knew vampire squid were real?)

It’s a unique show and worth watching.

Mr. DeMaio – YouTube Channel

Mr. DeMaio is an elementary school teacher in New Jersey who makes silly and fun absurd educational videos for his students. Since 2013, he’s put a few dozen videos on his YouTube channel

His playlists include songs about multiplication and
social studies themes, but my kids’ favorites are the ones about space and science

Unlike those who make most educational videos on YouTube, Mr. DeMaio is an actual teacher and knows the perfect balance of humor and education to keep kids’ attention while dosing out the knowledge. He’s also completely willing to act like a fool and get kids to laugh out loud. You can see his progression as a performer over the past few years. The earliest videos have him as a cool, aloof guy while he is much more of a clown in his more recent ones.

The videos are funny enough that kids as young as 3 can watch them and enjoy them even if they don’t understand the education.

The videos are very silly and absurd and our kids regularly recite catch-phrases from the videos. The format of the space and science videos is to have Mr. DeMaio interview things such as a tornado, or the planet Saturn, and these things act in a way just as silly as he does, in a way that subverts the normal way that these things are normally presented. For example, the planet Saturn is normally depicted as silent and mysteriously beautiful. In Mr. DeMaio’s video, the first we see of Saturn is a goofy face superimposed over an image of the planet saying, “I have a cat named ‘Orange Juice’!”

The education is basic: the names and basic stats of the planets, the names of the continents, etc.

The downside of these videos is that they are on YouTube, which not only has ads, but ads that don’t seem to be targeted in any way. Our kids have ended up seeing ads for inappropriate things so we make a point of supervising them while watching anything on YouTube.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Pop-Up Book

This is a story familiar to most. The advantage of the pop-up format is that it makes the book appealing for a wide variety of ages. Younger children will have fun simply exploring the pop-ups and finding every hidden element. Slightly older kids will pick and choose which pages to examine more closely, and older children will read the book straight through.

The illustrations are by Quentin Blake, who has a distinctive style that many will recognize. His visualization of the story is a welcome alternative to the slick Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie version. The illustrations as pop-ups help convey the sense of wonder and discovery that the characters in the book feel.

The story (as far as I can tell) is slightly abridged from the original, streamlining some elements of the plot. Each major scene is given a two-page spread. Our kids would sometimes only want to see the Violet Beauregarde page, or only the Augustus Gloop page. This book made it easy to jump around like that.

Even if you already have a copy of the book, this is different enough that it’s worth having.

The Deep Blue Sea – A Book of Colors

This unique, somewhat minimalist book is about colors, but also encourages discovery and anticipation.

The pictures begin right at the start of the book, on the inside of the cover, and continue all the way through to the inside of the back cover. Each page introduces a new color and new animal/object, as well as a hint about what will be on the next page. This act of discovery, looking for the clue, was very appealing to our kids.

The art is distinctive, looking like computer-generated 3d images. I honestly didn’t care for the artwork, and still don’t upon reviewing it again, but the kids seemed to like it. But there is a contrast between the very bright foreground images (e.g. a purple parrot) and the much more subtle background detail (e.g. the fish swimming underwater) and the kids enjoyed hunting for these subtle details.

There’s not much to this book, really, but the simplicity is part of the appeal, and the details that it does have place it above other books that simply list colors and shapes.

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

I have met many, many adults who consider this book their favorite book of all time, even though they haven’t read it in twenty or thirty years. And I have met even more adults who have never heard of it.

The story is ultimately an adventure story, with the main character traveling in a strange land, meeting interesting characters along the way, some of whom join him. They stumble upon an epic quest and have to confront many challenges before saving the day and returning home.

But that is just the core plot. The real joy is the metaphor and wordplay. Many concepts are treated literally: Milo physically jumps to the land of Conclusions; The Spelling Bee and Humbug are large talking insects; The princesses Rhyme and Reason have been imprisoned. Milo begins the story bored, but over the course of the tale he learns that motivation and curiosity are the tools you need to help people and solve big problems.

The actor David Hyde Pierce (perhaps best known for the character Niles Crane from the TV show Frasier) recorded an audiobook version that is very well done and a good pick for a long car ride. It sounds trite to say, but it is one that the whole family can enjoy.

There was even an animated movie made in 1970 that captures much of the whimsy of the story, but doesn’t compare to reading the book and imagining the characters and hearing the wordplay in your own head.

The Phantom Tollbooth in Wikipedia

Press Here – Hervé Tullet

Known simply as ‘Un livre’ (a book) in its original French publication, ‘Press Here’ is a fun book that our kids enjoyed and wanted to read again and again. Of all our books, this one has probably been physically damaged the most through heavy use. The book asks the reader to press colored dots on the page, blow them, and tilt the book to slide them around. There are no electronics in the book, on the contrary the images are very clearly hand-painted and non-computer-generated-looking. So, the dots don’t actually move – you have to turn the pages to see what happens as a result of your actions.

For children used to interacting with the touch-screens of phones and tablets, the ‘old-fashioned’ medium of a printed book asking them to interact with it turns out to be a delight.

The author has written several other books for children, all fun, and many of which also include the dynamic of the book being treated as a physical object, and not just a set of printed pages.

Biography of the author

FunBrain

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad for FunBrain but they have been around since 1997 and are one of the best sites for safe, educational games and videos for kids.

Their target audience is pre-k through grade 8. The site is free to use although it pays for itself via ads. The ads are not very intrusive, but do promote products like Lucky Charms and Froot Loops etc. I would have tagged this site as appropriate for younger kids, but it’s too easy for little ones to inadvertently click an ad and then not know how to get back to the site, so I recommend the site for kids who are at least 6.

The site offers games, reading, and videos.

Many of the games seem to use HTML5 rather than Flash, which means they should run on any device, in just about any browser.

The reading section has full books with scanned pages that a child can read on a tablet or phone or other device.

The video section has a lot of original content not available elsewhere, with puppet characters, cooking shows, music, and more.

All in all, a good, free, safe place to let your kid explore and learn while having fun.

Schoolhouse Rock

Schoolhouse Rock was a big part of my childhood. ABC would show the ~3-minute cartoons during ad breaks on Saturday mornings. “Conjunction Junction” was probably the most memorable for me.

But then the 70s ended and the series was mostly unavailable until Disney bought the rights and began releasing them. And they are now available on DVD.

The set is worth having. There are 46 songs, which is well enough to keep kids occupied while learning.

I had though the old-fashioned hand-animation style wouldn’t be appealing to my kids, but they didn’t seem to care. The cartoons that resonated most with them were “Lolly Lolly Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here”, “Figure 8”, “3 is a Magic Number”, and “Interjections!”. We sang and hummed those songs for a long time after watching the DVDs.

The CD is separate from the DVD.

In my opinion, the math ones had the best music and the history ones were the weakest, but it’s still a good gift.

Puzzlescript

Puzzlescript is JavaScript-based game engine that is very easy to use and is a great way to introduce people to programming. Just about everyone I know who is paid to write code got their start because they were motivated to create games.

Puzzlescript games are very blocky and retro-looking, which may not appeal to kids used to the cinematic look of modern video games, but that is part of the price of having such a simple engine.


[typical puzzlescipt game screenshot]

Many of the games are good, however. Most are of the “sokoban” push-the-blocks around type.

Some examples are “Flying Kick” by Aaron Steed and “Boxes and Balloons” by Ben Reilly and many others can be found in the official gallery

Some games include the concept of bullets but most do not and none could be described as violent. The nature of the engine means games end up being logical puzzles.

Puzzlescript code looks like this:

[Enemy | Wreck] -> restart

[ > Player ] [ Ship ] -> [ > Player ] [ > Ship ]

[ >  Ship | Iceberg ] -> [  >  Ship | > Iceberg  ] Sfx1
[ Enemy | ... | Ship ] -> [ > Enemy | ... | Ship ]

So, rather than lots of intimidating jargon, the code uses names and simple punctuation to set the rules.

Puzzlescript is completely free, and creator Stephen Lavelle deserves a lot of credit for opening his creation to the world. Even better, games made with Puzzlescript have the code immediately available, so if you want to see how something is done, just look at the code someone else wrote. For example, all the code used in the Flying Kick game mentioned above is here, open in the code editor no less, so you could start modifying that game.

Any good instructional system has to reward curiosity, and the Puzzlescript engine does that very well.

Main Puzzlescript site

How to make a Puzzlescript game