Duolingo

Duolingo

I often have a desire to better myself, but being extremely lazy I seldom make the time. So it’s good for me every time I stumble across a “life hack” that offers a positive change for minimal investment of time or effort. The first such thing I tried was the “7-minute workout“, which is essentially just good, old-fashioned calisthenics, in 30-second sets. It’s a good workout and seems to be at least as beneficial as running a few miles, which is usually too much of a commitment for me to make.

Another one of these life-hacks is Duolingo, which operates on the premise that you only learn effectively in 10-minute chunks. Trying to do more than that has diminishing returns – it’s a waste of time to try to cram for two hours when only that first ten minutes will be effective. I’ve been using Duolingo for several months and can vouch for its ease and effectiveness.

What is it
Duolingo is a free (ad-based) language learning app available on all platforms, including a website. They offer dozens of languages.

Who is it for
It doesn’t seem geared for any particular age group, but a child using it needs to be a competent reader in English, since most of the prompts in the app are written English. Our 7-year-old is a good reader and has been using Duolingo to learn French.

What Kids Like
The interface is heavily gamified, with constant feedback, badges, leveling-up, etc. So there is continual affirmation and a sense of progress.

They see it as yet another game, yet instead of learning about how to defeat zombies or level up their spaceship, they are learning a foreign language.

All instruction is passive and indirect. There is no overt instruction – no lectures, only translation of words and sentences. If you translate correctly, you get a happy chime and your progress bar goes up. If you fail, you get a chance to try again and you can’t complete the level until all the sentences in the level have been translated correctly.

What Parents Like
I like that it works and I need to do nothing to motivate my child since the app is fun on its own. I like that there is an app on my phone that I can share with my child that isn’t yet another game or Youtube, or whatever.

The interface is really one of the most effective teaching environments I’ve ever seen. I wonder whether other subjects could be taught this way.

What the Critics Think

iTunes users rate it 4.7/5 as do users on Android

Language-learning site Fluent in 3 Months has a review https://www.fluentin3months.com/duolingo/ and gives the app 4 out of 5 stars

PCMag gives it 4.5 stars

Concerns/Flaws

My complaint is that not all language courses on Duolingo are good. The Chinese one, for example, is terrible. I think the Duolingo interface works best with Roman alphabet languages. Trying to learn Arabic, Russian, or any Asian language will be a challenge – too big of a challenge for a kid because they have to learn the alphabet as well as the vocabulary and grammar.

Who Made it

Duolingo is based in Pittsburgh and was started in 2011. There are currently 300 million users

Where Can I Get it

Download from iTunes or the Google Play Store
or just visit the Duolingo site

Pig Will and Pig Won’t

My dad got this book for my kids. He fondly remembered reading it to my brother and me when we were young.

What is it

Pig Will and Pig Won’t is a simple book about two brothers, one of whom behaves well while the other does not. The good pig gets rewarded and the bad pig changes his ways because he wants rewards as well. Although this sounds a bit Machiavellian for a kids book — teaching them that good behavior is a quid-pro-quo situation where treats are ‘bought’ by not misbehaving — the story is fun, sweet, and engaging.

Anyone who remembers Goofus and Gallant from the Highlights for Children magazine on the coffee table at the pediatrician’s office will recognize the theme.

Who is it for

All kids could use a reminder about the importance of good behavior, but we noticed the book resonated particularly well with our oldest, who is frequently chastised for behavior. The story and language is quite simple, so only younger kids will get much out of it.

What Kids Like

The kids like the classic Richard Scarry drawing style. They always enjoy looking at the details in his illustrations. And they like that the characters ‘win’ in the end.

What Parents Like

There really are not many engaging books that depict good manners. So many books now focus on space and STEM and try to be fun without really giving examples of how to act. Perhaps books on manners is an old-fashioned idea.

What the Critics Think

Goodreads gives it 4/5

Who Made it

Richard Scarry wrote and illustrated over 300 books until his death in 1994. He trained as an artist in Philadelphia before moving to Switzerland and many of his books take place in a kind of idealized Swiss village.

His most famous characters are Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm.

Where Can I Get it

Google has a preview

The Great Paper Caper

Caution: Reading this book with your kids will probably make them want to start folding paper airplanes (and you will want to as well), so may not be ideal for bedtime reading.

What is it

The Great Paper Caper is a unique book, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, previously known for “The Incredible Book-Eating Boy” and many other titles.

Most of the creatures (plus one kid) of the forest work together to solve the mystery of why so many tree branches are disappearing.

Who is it for

This is a fun one for non-readers and beginning readers as well as more mature readers. The story is not that complex, but most of the plot is implicit and the very young may not understand what’s going on. For example, on one page we see an owl alighting upon a branch, and a few pages later we see the owl trying to do so again, but no branch is there. Inferring that someone has sawn off the branch is a mental leap that very young kids can’t make.

While younger kids focus on the animals and the overt aspects of the pictures, older kids focus more on the bear and his motivations.

What Kids Like

The book is very dense with details. Even the inside cover includes instructions for different paper airplanes (and the instructions on the inside of the back cover are different from the ones on the front). So they like poring over the drawings, studying the details.

The book is also very varied in how it approaches storytelling. A few pages have overt descriptions of what is happening, other pages rely entirely on images to tell the story. Part of the book is a kid-level police procedural while others parts are a touching, almost somber exploration of the motivation of the “villain” in the story.

And of course, they get inspired to make their own paper airplanes.

What Parents Like

I’m generally a fan of auteur works like this, where the pictures are drawn by the person who wrote the story. Having a single vision for art and word makes it a more personal and unique creation. Collaborative works can be wonderful, but they are more likely to have that taste of where the creative decisions were made by committee. This book does not have that problem, and the occasional weirdness or inconsistency in style makes it that much more interesting for both adults and kids.

This is also fun to read because there are multiple ways to do so. Because so much of the story is told through pictures, I can choose to either describe the actions in detail, or briefly, or I can just stick to the text and let the kids figure out the meaning of the pictures on their own.

The book hints at issues such as mistrust and guilt, and if you take the time the book can spawn some interesting conversations with your kids.

The book is even used as a teaching resource to explore issues such as empathy and creativity

What the Critics Think

“The Great Paper Caper” gets 4/5 on Goodreads

Publishers Weekly has a review, as does The School Library Journal

Who Made it

Oliver Jeffers is an Irish artist (born in Australia and now living in Brooklyn) also known for his childrens’ book illustrations, most famous for the pictures in “The Day the Crayons Quit” by Drew Daywalt, and also for the pictures in “The Boy in the Striped Pajames” by John Boyne.

Jeffers has many of his own books as well, that he wrote and illustrated on his own.

He has been putting out two or three books each year since 2004.

Where Can I Get it

Google has a preview

Harper Collins has an mp3 of the audiobook version

On Beyond Zebra!

Dr. Seuss wrote more than 60 books, many of them selling 10 million or copies or more over the past several decades. While “On Beyond Zebra!” has never been as popular as “The Cat in the Hat” or “Green Eggs and Ham”, it is one of his better ones, in my opinion.

I don’t actually recall how we got this added to our collection, but it was probably a gift. And of all the Dr. Seuss books on our shelf, this is the one the kids pull out most frequently. “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” is fun, and we read that to the kids when they are very young, but they lose interest in that once they begin learning to read on their own.

And while I frequently push for titles such as “Bartholomew and the Oobleck”, that just doesn’t resonate with the kids as much as “On Beyond Zebra!”

What is it

The book is typical of most of Dr. Seuss’s books, where each page is a nearly standalone depiction of a whimsical creature in a whimsical location, with a few lines of verse. In the case of this book, however, each page is also devoted to an exotic novel letter. That is, the book suggests there are letters that come after ‘Z’, which are needed to spell these creatures and their locations.

Who is it for

“On Beyond Zebra!” is ideal for kids in the first few years of learning to read. I would say ages 4 to 7

What Kids Like

The kids like the exotic creatures, such as the cow with 98 udders or the “Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs” that float around as living stepping stones. They also like the invented letters. For new readers, the standard alphabet is already strange and foreign, so introducing them to ever stranger, more foreign letters actually gives them confidence about the standard letters that they do know.

What Parents Like

It’s a book that’s fun to read, and the images are so fantastical that I’m able to maintain my interest. And more than many other books, “On Beyond Zebra!” inspires questions about words and animals.

What the Critics Think

Goodreads gives “On Beyond Zebra!” 4 out 5

Oliver Jeffers has

Concerns/Flaws

Some of Dr. Suess’s books have not aged well, with depictions of people or cultures or places that are now seen as offensive. This book has none of that, however.

Google has a preview

Someone has taken the time to add the “Seussian” letters of “On Beyond Zebra!” to the Unicode standard: http://www.evertype.com/standards/csur/seuss.html

The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes

What is it

‘The Wild Robot’ and its sequel ‘The Wild Robot Escapes’ is a very charming 2-part (so far) series about a sentient robot surviving in the wilderness, written and illustrated by Peter Brown.

Who is it for

The official website gives the recommended ages of 8 to 11, but every one of us enjoyed the audio book, even the 4-year-old. The books are chapter books, with occasional (wonderful) illustrations, so young readers who are used to a lot of pictures won’t want to read it. But the story is deep enough that adults and older children would enjoy it.

What Kids Like

It has robots, and fighting, and talking animals, but also feels like a “grown-up” story in some ways. Characters suffer and get distressed. Some characters die. This is all handled very well, and is not upsetting to kids.

What Parents Like

The story is surprisingly rich and deep for a book aimed at children. While the story on the surface may seem simple and childish, the themes of identity and purpose and community are thought-provoking.

The audiobooks were rare examples of stories that both adults and kids were eager to continue listening to.

What the Critics Think

4.1/5 on Goodreads, 4.9/5 on Barnes & Noble, 4/5 on Common Sense Media, and 96% on Google.

The relatively lower Goodreads score was a surprise to me, but I think some of their readers aren’t into robots.

Who Made it

The books were written and illustrated by Peter Brown, known for simpler books including “The Curious Garden”, “Children Make Terrible Pets”, and “Mr. Tiger Goes Wild”.

The audio books were read by Kate Atwater / Kathleen McInerney (I think it’s the same person, but am not sure). The audio books are excellent for long car trips.

History

Peter Brown has a fairly detailed write-up of the process of creating the book. Interesting to aspiring writers or anyone curious about the process.

"However, I wanted to tell a different kind of robot story. I wanted to tell the story of a robot who finds harmony in the last place you’d expect. I wanted to tell a robot nature story."

"For this to truly be a “robot nature story” Roz would need to encounter a wide variety of natural elements. And the story would have to take place in the future to explain the existence of intelligent robots. I imagined how the wilderness might look in a few hundred years, and two things occurred to me: 1) because of climate change and rising sea levels, animals from far and wide might eventually be forced together as they all seek higher ground, and 2) some of that higher ground might become completely surrounded by water, forming new islands. With that in mind, I set the story far in the future, on a rugged northern island that was formed by rising seas, and that had a diverse array of weather and flora and fauna."

"The Wild Robot is the story of Rozzum unit 7134, a robot who wakes up for the very first time to find that she’s alone on a remote, wild island. Roz doesn’t know how she got there, or where she came from: she only knows that she wants to stay alive. And by robotically studying her environment she learns everything she needs to know. She learns how to move through the wilderness, how to avoid danger, she even learns how to communicate with the animals. But the most important lesson Roz learns is that kindness can be a survival skill. And she uses kindness to develop friends and a family and a peaceful life for herself. Until her mysterious past catches up with her.

It took eight years, but I finally found an answer to the question that led me down this path. What would an intelligent robot do in the wilderness? She’d make the wilderness her home."

Where Can I Get it

You can read a preview here although it does not include the illustrations.

The books and audio books are everywhere.

Machinarium – Amanita Design

What is it

Machinarium is a point-and-click adventure game featuring a cute robot solving puzzles in a beautifully-drawn quasi-steampunk city.

Who is it for

It’s for anyone, young and old, but some of the puzzles are pretty tricky and even precocious children under 7 or so would need some grown-up help. But it’s a great game to play with a child.

What Kids Like

The character is cute, the atmosphere is immersive and captivating, and most of the puzzles are very satisfying. There is no speed/dexterity component, so players do not need to rush and can go at their own pace.

What Parents Like

The puzzles make you feel smart when you figure them out, so the game feels almost educational. It is aesthetic, and as stated above, is a good game for an adult to play with a kid. The music, by Tomáš Dvořák, is fun, happy, and pleasant.

It’s been at least 15 years since the ‘Golden Age of free Flash web games’ if there ever were such a time, back when Homestar Runner was the best thing on the Web, and Machinarium came out toward the end of that era. There were so many Flash games that I loved that my kids won’t ever see because Flash will no longer be available soon, but thankfully there are some relics of that period, such as Machinarium, that remain.

I also like the Eastern European aesthetic of the game. The developers of Machinarium, Amanita Design, are Czech, and the look and feel of the game, the characters, the puzzles have a quality that is simply different from the American and Japanese games that flood the market.

What the Critics Think

Machinarium gets 9/10 on Steam, 4.6/5 on Google’s Play Store for Android, 4.3/5 on Apple’s iTunes for iOS, and 4.6/5 on Jay is games, which also has a nice write-up of the game.

  • IGF 2009, Excellence in Visual Art Award
  • Nomination for 13th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards (DICE Awards)
  • Gamasutra, Best Indie Game Of 2009
  • VGChartz.com, Best Indie Game Of 2009
  • PC Gamer, Best Soundtrack of 2009

In 2011, Adventure Gamers named Machinarium the 17th-best adventure game ever released.

Concerns/Flaws

The only complaint is that some of the puzzles have the quality common to point-and-click type games, where you sometimes have to click on just the right pixel to prompt a reaction and there is sometimes a lot of frantic clicking trying to find that one spot.

Who Made it/History

Machinarium was the first full-length game, made in 2009 by Amanita Design, based in Brno, Czech Republic (more on Wikipedia) after years of success with shorter games such as their Samorost series

Where Can I Get it

You can play the free demo online using Flash. You may need to activate the Flash plugin in your browser.

The full set of links (Humble Bundle, Steam, iOS, Android) is on the Machinarium page

The game is going for $10 these days. If you don’t want to spend any money, or want more of a preview, check out Amanita’s other games, such as the free Samorost or The Quest for the Rest

Steam Train, Dream Train

What is it

Steam Train, Dream Train is a very charming, beautifully-illustrated book that tells a simple story in verse of a freight train being loaded by animals, explaining all the types of train cars along the way.

Who is it for

Kids as young as 2 (or possibly younger) who are in a “train phase” enjoy the images of the train. Slightly older kids enjoy all the details in the pictures showing the animals and cargo, kids a bit older than that enjoy the verse by Sherri Duskey Rinker and can read along. So 2 to 5 is probably ideal. It’s been a fixture on our shelf for years as each kid discovers it.

What Kids Like

Trains are always a hit for some kids. The illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld are wonderful and full of details for the kids to pick out.

What Parents Like

The theme is of a night train being loaded before bed, and is perfect bedtime reading. The final page makes you ask the question of whether the story you just read is real, or part of a dream.

The cover is attractive and passes the “Melissa and Doug test” of being appealing enough to show off on a bookshelf.

I have a fond memory of buying this book soon after it was published, on a lovely, snowy evening in December at Books of Wonder in New York. I read it to our oldest perhaps 50 times over the next few months.

What the Critics Think

4.4/5 at Barnes & Noble, 4.1/5 at Goodreads

Who Made it/History

Tom Lichtenheld drew the pictures and Sherri Duskey Rinker. They worked together on Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site in 2011 as well.

Dig Out!

What is it

Dig Out! is an app game on Android and iOS. Control a miner in a 2D world, digging gems while avoiding falling boulders and monsters. The game is similar to many others I’ve seen, but this one is polished and developed much more, giving it high replay value.

The game has an infinite number of randomly generated maps, ways to level up and trap monsters, and competitive leaderboard to compete with others or against previous scores.

Who is it for

Anyone can play, but from my experience, the age that enjoys it the most is 6 to 9.

Apple rates the game 9+ while Google rates it Everyone. Our 7-year-old loves it.

What Kids Like

I should point out that of all the games we’ve downloaded to the tablet or phone over the past year or so, this is one of the top 5 that gets replayed the most. (Others include Tiny Rails, Plants vs. Zombies, Whoowasit, Clumsy Ninja, and of course, Minecraft).

I’m not sure what the kids like exactly, but I think it’s the random generation of levels that keeps it fresh, along with the simplicity of the controls. Also, the game permits very quick games or extended ones.

The graphics are very appealing as well.

What Parents Like

Although one aspect of the game is crushing enemies under rocks, the cartoony graphics and otherwise non-violent content makes the game harmless fun.

There is not much to the game in terms of education, other than the kind of problem-solving in most computer games.

What the Critics Think

The game gets 4.6/5 on iTunes and 4.5/5 on the Play Store

Concerns/Flaws

The game is not educational, doesn’t encourage cooperation or anything like that. It’s “just” fun.

The game has ads and in-app purchases, so parents need to keep an eye on that.

Who Made it/History

Dig Out! was made by ZiMAD, an established Russian game developer best known for their Magic Jigsaw Puzzles

The game was launched in 2016 and has been tweaked multiple times since then.

Where Can I Get it

Available on Apple’s iTunes for iOS and Google’s Play Store for Android.

Stinky and Dirty

What is it

Stinky and Dirty is a show based on characters from a couple of books, about a garbage truck and an excavator who solve problems together.

Who is it for

The show is good for kids of most ages, maybe 3-8.

What Kids Like

My kids like the celebration of filth, which is unusual among kids’ shows. Sometimes toys and games rely on the yuck factor, with slime boogers and fart noises, but ‘Stinky and Dirty’ manage to involve mess and rot and dirt without being gross.

The show is also good about how it presents problems and engages the viewer to think of possible solutions along with the characters.

What Parents Like

Years ago we got the original book called “I Stink!” that the kids liked enough to ask for it multiple nights in a row, although I initially didn’t care for it. It seemed a celebration of noise and filth that I just didn’t find amusing when trying to put little ones down for the night.

A few years later I saw that Amazon was premiering a new kids’ show called Stinky and Dirty that had animation that looked an awful lot like the book, and sure enough, the show is a spinoff of the book and its sequel. I suppose that’s a dream for many children’s book authors and illustrators, to have their work turned into a show.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I and the kids really like it.

The books are quite simple, running through the alphabet and showing vehicles making vehicle sounds. But the show is about teamwork and problem-solving, in a way that isn’t done on other shows.

The animation style is unique. It’s 3D but texture-mapped to look like paper illustrations.

The characters drive around together solving problems. Several times each episode, one of the characters asks, “What if…?” And this makes it a great example for problem-solving. Their efforts don’t always work out, but they keep trying.

I also like that the show is following in the somewhat recent tradition of using veteran actors for the voices (Martin Short on ‘The Cat in the Hat’, Christopher Lloyd and Gilbert Gottfried on ‘Cyberchase’, Elvis Costello on ‘Pete the Cat’). In this case, Wallace Shawn (Vizzini from ‘The Princess Bride’ and Rex the dinosaur from the Toy Story movies) plays Tall the crane.

What the Critics Think

7.1/10 on IMDB, 5/5 on Common Sense Media

Who Made it/History

The original book was written by author Kate Mcmullan and illustrated by her husband, actor Jim McMullan.

The show is made for Amazon, by Guy Toubes, who has written for lots of kids’ shows including ‘Odd Squad’, ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie’, and ‘Chuck and Friends’.

Where Can I Get it

You can watch the first episode on YouTube

The show is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Pete the Cat

What is it

Pete the Cat is a series of books starring a cool cat and his animal friends.

Pete the cat is now an icon with his own musical and his own TV show on Amazon Prime.

Who is it for

The books are for younger kids, as they tend to focus on simple concepts such as colors, friendship, etc. The show seems to be intended for slightly older kids and has stories and subtle jokes that probably only grown-ups will appreciate.

What Kids Like

Regardless of my initial impressions, kids love it. They love the illustration style and the attitude of the main character, Pete, and they love the repetitive say-along style of the writing.

We have several of the books and frequently check others out of the library.

What Parents Like

I first heard of Pete the Cat in 2008 or so. A local bookstore had a huge poster of the cat and books signed by the author. I did not understand the appeal and thought the writing and illustration was so crude and simple that anyone could do it. It made me think that I could write a children’s book if this thing could get published.

But I haven’t written a children’s book and not only did “I Love My White Shoes” get published, there are now 40+ titles in the Pete the Cat series.

The show is actually interesting to me. I don’t really have much of an opinion of the books, but the show has a certain sophistication that most kids’ shows lack. The characters talk about presence of mind and consciousness that no other show does. If anything, it hearkens back to Linus’s monologues from Peanuts.

Many kids’ shows focus on one subject. ‘Peg + Cat’ and ‘Odd Squad’ discuss math, ‘Super Why’ covers reading, ‘Arthur’ covers issues related to responsibility and friendship, ‘Word Girl’ does vocabulary, etc. But ‘Pete the Cat’ is the only one that covers philosophy. In the Halloween episode, characters have lines including, “I’m not dressed as a ghost, I’m dressed as your preconceived idea of a ghost”

There is also a strong focus on music, and real-life couple Elvis Costello and Diana Krall do the voices for Pate the Cat’s parents.

What the Critics Think

The show gets 8.5/10 on IMDB and the books get 4.4/5 on Goodreads

Who Made it/History

From Wikipedia:

The book uses a character first devised by James Dean, an artist active in Atlanta, who drew up Pete in 1999 and in 2006 self-published The Misadventures of Pete the Cat. Litwin wrote a story about and a song for the cat, and the two began a partnership.

The collaboration between Dean and Litwin was severed in 2011. James Dean and wife Kimberly Dean continue to write and illustrate the Pete the Cat series, now over 40 books, together. Pete the Cat, the animated TV series which was released on September 21, 2018, based on James and Kimberly’s children’s books produced by Alcon, Appian Way and Phineas and Ferb co-creator Swampy Marsh was preceded by a New Years special on December 26, 2017 on Amazon. The cartoon includes the voices of Elvis Costello and Diana Krall.

Where Can I Get it

The books are everywhere. The show is on Amazon

More about the series and the author and illustrator