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.

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.

Andrew & Polly

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

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

Sandra Boynton

Sandra Boynton has had children’s books in print for the past 40+ years, ever since publishing “Hippos Go Berserk” in 1977. Her distinctive and very recognizable illustration style may be more familiar from her many, many calendars, coffee mugs, and cards. By her own estimate, she has drawn between 4,000 and 6,000 greeting cards! Her most famous is probably the birthday card that reads, “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes”

We have several of her 60+ children’s board books and they are an easy and popular gift to give and receive. The drawing style is fun and whimsical and the “stories”, as simple as they are, are great for read-along time. Our kids essentially memorize entire books and then can read along with us.

Her most popular books include “Moo, Baa, La La La!”, “The Going to Bed Book”, “Barnyard Dance”, “A to Z”, “Blue Hat, Green Hat”, and “Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs!” A complete list of her books is on her Wikipedia page

She also has several children’s music albums, including:
“Rhinoceros Tap” (1996)
“Philadelphia Chickens” (2002)
“Dog Train” (2005)
“Blue Moo” (2007)
“Boléro Completely Unraveled” (2010)
“Frog Trouble” (2013)
“Hog Wild” (2017)

Our kids love “Philadelphia Chickens” in particular.

More information about her books at sandraboynton.com

Kratts’ Creatures – Zoboomafoo – Wild Kratts

It all started when brothers Martin and Chris Kratt grew up in New Jersey, went camping, and took some pictures of local wildlife. This blossomed into lifelong love of nature and specifically of documenting it and sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Their first show together was Kratts’ Creatures in 1996. They evolved the concept a bit and ran Zoboomafoo in 1999, Be the Creature in 2003, and Creature Adventures in 2008. They have been making the current incarnation, Wild Kratts since 2011. This more recent version has much more animation, which my kids find appealing. (They aren’t so interested in long-form nature documentaries with nothing but video clips of animals)

The older content, such as the Zoboomafoo series, has aged well (although the brothers themselves are visibly much younger) and I’ve found used DVDs for very cheap. (The hard part about DVDs these days is finding a working player).

There are also several free onlne spinoff games on PBS Kids Games. Monkey Mayhem is my kids’ favorite.

There are also lots of books based on Wild Kratts and even action figures, and even also a live stage show!

The Kratt Brothers’ enthusiasm is infectious and I find myself jealous that these guys can travel the world, making a living from doing what they love.

The videos and everything they do is wholesome, entertaining, and educational. It’s the kind of thing I have no hesitation of letting my kids watch during their allocated screen time.

There are free videos, games, and other activities on the Wild Kratts website at PBS kids dot org.
(The games are all done in HTML5 so they work on all types of computer, iPad, etc. with no need for the now-deprecated Flash plugin.)

B. Fish N’ Splish

Of all the toys in our house, this one has probably been played with the most (apart from legos). We got it as a gift for our oldest’s first birthday and it has been an essential part of the tub toy collection ever since.

It’s a well-designed toy with all the features that kids want:
• Cups to pour water
• Cups with holes
• Little captain figure
• Floating boat
• Fishing rod with fish
• Mirror
• Comb and brush

The fishing rod itself is an essential toy for us that has spent as much time outside the bathroom as in it.

The boat even has an elastic band that allows you to wind up the paddle-wheel in the back, which then actually powers the boat forward.

All the pieces fit inside the boat so you can keep things tidy when not in use.

And the components are designed with no deep crevices so there is no place for mold to hide, which has been an issue with some other bath toys we’ve had.

Highly recommended if you need a gift for a 1- or 2-year old

Disney Pixar Storybook Collection

This is a collection of abbreviated versions of all the Pixar movies in book form.

It has been published a few times, each time with a few more movies added. We have the third edition of this book from 2016 which includes:

  • A Bug’s Life
  • Brave
  • Cars
  • Cars 2
  • Finding Nemo
  • Finding Dory
  • The Good Dinosaur
  • The Incredibles
  • Inside Out
  • Monsters, Inc.
  • Monsters University
  • Ratatouille
  • Toy Story
  • Toy Story 2
  • Toy Story 3
  • Up
  • Wall-E

The kids don’t need to be familiar with the movies to enjoy the stories. In fact, we had never heard of some of them (e.g. the dinosaur one, which was kind of a weird story). The plots are highly abridged in order to fit into ~10 pages so the stories as they are retold may not even be all that familiar anyway. And some movies that were duds in my opinion (e.g. Cars 2, Monsters University) actually work better as books than films. The plots are streamlined, with extraneous side-plots removed, leaving only the central character arcs and lessons about honesty or friendship or whatever.

It’s a hefty book with many hours of story time inside. A typical bedtime for us will be each kid gets to pick one of the stories, which ends up being half an hour or so in total. The book is almost like having 17 little golden books in one massive tome.

The illustrations are fun. They are not simply stills from the movies but have been redrawn to better evoke key scenes from the stories.