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

Price: Check on Amazon

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

Doc McStuffins

I first heard of Doc McStuffins from a joke Nick Offerman told about the ubiquity of the character and the show’s theme song. And I couldn’t relate directly, having never seen the show, but I had had similar experiences with other shows, such as Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or Caillou, which have songs catchy enough to take up permanent residence in your head, but aren’t so good that you want them there.

My dad then found some Little Golden books at the grocery store for maybe $1.50 apiece that were essentially book versions of some of the episodes. In my experience, novelizations of movies are one of the lowest forms of literature and I assumed that these books would be similarly terrible. And the name, “Doc McStuffins” sounded cutesy and stupid. But they’re actually pretty good. The writing of the original show is decent and the book versions tighten up the dialogue in order to to get to the heart of the plot.

The stories revolve around a girl who gives medical help to her stuffed animals. There is a bit of a ‘Toy Story’ feeling since the toys and dolls become inert when the parents or other kids are nearby. The stories begin with a toy or doll experiencing some problem and Doc then runs test to identify the problem and come up with a cure (which may involve duct tape or some other MacGyver-y solution). This is actually an excellent way for kids to get exposed to the scientific method and logical thinking.

We eventually found the show on TV and the kids got excited when they saw an episode that they had already read. And they enjoyed even more reading the book version of a episode they had already seen. Since they already knew the story and the dialogue, they had an easier time following along in the book.

I was surprised to learn that the show was a Disney Junior program. I love the classic Disney movies, but I associate current Disney programming with garbage shows such as “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”, or other shows that sexualize preteens. So it was refreshing to see a show, and read books that do not do that.

Being a Disney product, you better believe there are loads of plastic toys for sale with the Doc character’s face on them. I can’t vouch for any of those, but the books and the show are good.

Richard Scarry’s Best Mysteries Ever!

Richard Scarry invented many memorable characters, including Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm, that lived on in cartoons and educational CD-Roms even after his death in 1994.

This book seems to be based on the animated series, “The Busy World of Richard Scarry” and was written in 1998. It does not include the standard Scarry characters, but does include new ones, including:

– Intrepid reporter Cucumber and her assistant Pickles
– Detective Sneef and his side-kick Sniff
– Detective Couscous

The book has 8 adventures, with one of the main characters solving a crime somewhere in the world. Each story is in a different setting (Brazil, India, Sahara, etc.) and the book includes a large map of the world, so this is (among other things) a good introduction to geography

The drawing style is exactly the same as Scarry’s and the stories are fun and engaging. The kids like this book a lot.

The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me – Roald Dahl

This is a Roald Dahl story I hadn’t heard before, certainly much less-well-known than “James and the Giant Peach” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. It also doesn’t have the undercurrent of terror and threat of violence that most Dahl stories have.

Some animals have a window-washing business and a kid joins them.

The kids liked it and particularly enjoyed the audio cd performed by actor Richard E. Grant.

The audio runs 42:30.

Philadelphia Chickens

This is a unique book. Sandra Boynton (most famous for desktop calendars and coffee mugs with phrases such as “Don’t Let the Turkeys Get You Down”) wrote a musical and got performers (Kevin Bacon, Eric Stoltz, Meryl Streep, etc.) to sing the songs on the included CD.

The CD is about 48 minutes long and includes 20 songs. The book includes illustrations and lyrics in the first half, and sheet music for all songs in the second half. A younger child can listen to the songs while following along in the book, and an older child can try to play along using the sheet music.

The inclusion of celebrities on the recordings will not appeal to kids, but it’s fun for adults to hear the actor Scott Bakula sing about Pig Island:

The only way to get there is by Piggy Express — You’ve got to close your eyes and then whisper, “OOO, YES!”

The music itself is not remarkable. The melodies are not memorable enough to have you humming them afterward. The fun is in the words and the pictures.

How to Be a Viking

Price: $13.36
Was: $15.00

This book introduces the character of Hiccup, who went on to have more adventures in the better known series, “How to Train Your Dragon”. It’s a fun, but serious story of a little boy who is thrust into the world of adults (specifically tough viking men) and has to overcome fear and take on responsibility.

The book comes with a CD of the author, Cressida Cowell, reading the story. The CD also includes a track of the actor David Tennant (Dr. Who #10, among many other roles) reading a selection from “How to Train Your Dragon” in his rich Scottish accent.

Geckos Make a Rainbow, Geckos Go To Bed

Price: $8.10
Was: $8.95
Price: $8.95

We bought these two books when we lived in Hawai’i and were standard bedtime reading for our two-year-old, even after we moved to the mainland. They were precious enough to lug with us.

The drawings are fun and there is enough Hawai’ian imagery and references for the stories to feel a bit ‘exotic’ to some children, but no so much that they seem strange.

The Geckos Go To Bed story is very silly, with about 20 geckos jumping in and out of bed, knocking over the lamp, spilling milk, etc. So you may want this to be the first book of the night, not the last, because it is a bit stimulating.

Jon J. Murakami has several other books in his gecko series as well.

The Giant Jam Sandwich

This is a classic that our kids asked for again and again, even taking it to kindergarten for show-and-tell. The illustration style is unique and appealing. And the text, written in verse, makes it easy for children to follow along:

Bap gave instructions for the making of the dough.
“Mix flour from above and yeast from below.
Salt from the seaside, water from the spout.
Now thump it! Bump it! Bang it about!”

The book we got came with a CD, so the kids can listen in the car or follow along with the pictures.

The story (spoiler alert) concludes with the asphyxiation of 3,999,997 wasps. The idea of so many dead bugs did not bother us or the kids, but might be alarming for some.