The Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum

This is another classic book from when I was a kid. I’m not sure whether it is still in print but it’s one to look for at used book stores.

Unlike some of the other Sesame Street books from that era (the 70s), this one is better for kids to look at on their own rather than as a bedtime story. The illustrations by Joe Mathieu are so whimsical and full of detail that kids can spend hours finding every little thing.

Magformers


These things have been standard fare at childrens’ museums and science museums since they were developed in 2008. I had seen them many times but didn’t know what they were called.

Unlike some other magnetic toys, these are perfectly safe for infants to gnaw on. From the website:

“Each shape contains rotating Rare Earth Neodymium magnets, the strongest of their kind for guaranteed connectivity. Every magnet is kept safe and secure in Sonic welded, BPA free, HQABS plastic. This process of manufacturing ensures each magnet is encapsulated with the utmost security, providing a safe, long-lasting play experience.”

We found a box of them on sale and gave them as a Christmas gift to our kids and they have become standard fare in our house as well. The kit is a set of squares and triangles and other shapes with embedded magnets that allow the shapes to snap together.

It is one of the very few toys that is enjoyable and usable by kids as young as 1 as well as older kids. The magnets snap the pieces together so the infant doesn’t get frustrated when stacking them. The toddler likes matching colors and combining to make more complex shapes, and the older kids can make much complicated shapes and objects.

Magformers has recently vastly increased the type of kits they sell, with ones that let you build dinosaurs or vehicles or robots. Some kits come with gears and motors and other parts that allow you to make functional machines such as a working merry-go-round.

Like Lego, Magformers are fun just to fool around with, and are also fun to use when following instructions to make pre-designed objects.

Games World of Puzzles


Games Magazine has been around for 40 years. I was around 8 when I started getting it. I couldn’t do most of the puzzles in there but enjoyed the ones I could, and strived to do better each issue and try new puzzles. The format of the magazine has changed quite a bit since those early days and gone are some of my favorite sections, such as the Hidden Content. Also, they have since merged with World of Puzzles magazine to become ‘Games World of Puzzles’.

But the magazine is still the single source for puzzles by the best puzzle designers in the country. No other magazine or website comes anywhere close to having the wealth of styles and quality as Games.

They have finally updated their website where you can get a sense of what the issues are like.

Games Magazine - Games World of Puzzles

An issue typically has lots of standard pencil puzzles (crosswords) more challenging ‘cryptic crosswords’ (like the kind you see in the Times of London) and unique puzzles such as solo battleships and many others. There are also brain teasers, logic puzzles. And also game reviews (both board and electronic) and contests. There are also usually two pages devoted to kids’ games, which are easier versions of some of their standard puzzles.

It’s a magazine that can sit on the coffee table for weeks with something for just about everyone in the family. An annual subscription is a good gift for a precocious child, and is a good alternative to videogames.

Peppa Pig

Peppa Pig is a British animated show for younger kids. The owners of the trademark have been liberal with licensing the image and there are Peppa Pig playsets, dishes, even bicycles, as well as books and DVDs. Based on the licensed products, it seems the show is aimed exclusively at girls but our boys love it. There is an idea in children’s media that girls don’t mind watching shows with boys as protagonists while boys don’t like girl protagonists, but Peppa Pig has shown that idea to be untrue.

Part of the appeal for our kids is the snarky, even rude tone of many of the characters. They are frequently bickering and mocking each other in a realistic way that most kids can probably relate to. In one episode, the kids make fun of the dad for being fat and spend a lot of the episode fat-shaming him. I feel like an American show would not depict this kind of thing.

The dialogue is witty in a dry, British way that makes it appealing to us grownups as well. I laugh at some of the lines, even if the kids don’t quite get it. Other subtle aspects are funny as well, such as that all the animal characters speak in British English, with various U.K. accents for each species (Irish for one, Yorkshire for another) while the talking vegetables all have ridiculous French accents.

The animation is extremely simple. It looks like they drew it in Flash. You can even see where the vector lines don’t quite match up in places. But that simplicity is probably part of the appeal as well. My kids just don’t seem to like photo-realistic media. They much prefer highly abstract cartoony-looking stuff.

The official Peppa Pig website has games, videos, and activities.

And you can watch free, full episodes at the Peppa Pig Nick Jr site

The videos are all on YouTube as well, but those have ads, and not always appropriate ones.

If your child is a fan of Peppa Pig, they will probably like Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom which is made by the same company (Neville Astley and Mark Baker, and produced by Astley Baker Davies and Entertainment One) and has the same look and feel, even the same voice actors. It also has music by Julian Nott, who may be best known for creating the music for the Wallace and Gromit movies.

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