Dinosaur Train

This is a series run by Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa, who seems to be in charge of at least half of all children’s TV programming these days. You can watch the series for free at PBSKids.com or via the PBS Kids app (also free). Neither the site nor the app has ads either. Just make sure to support your local PBS station.

The show is light-hearted and full of factual information about dinosaurs and prehistoric times (assuming you can ignore the fact that the dinosaurs all speak English, ride in a time-traveling locomotive, and are not constantly trying to eat each other).

There are tons of episodes, available in DVD form. A good bet for any kid who’s really into dinosaurs.

Spiderman 1967 series

We watched a bunch of these on YouTube. They’re corny and dated but the kids loved them. And the old cartoons from the 60s seem so much less violent than those from other decades.

The animation style is pretty simple, so older kids probably won’t be into it. But it has that classic theme song:

“Spiderman, spiderman, does whatever a spider can.
Spins a web, any size, catches thieves, just like flies.
Look out. Here comes the spiderman.”

The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown

This was my dad’s favorite book when he was a kid, but I didn’t know it until I happened to see it among a set of Little Golden Books at the grocery store.

Little Golden Books were a big part of my childhood but lately the brand has been diminished a bit since they now let just about any story be published with that distinctive gold spine. But the classics are still worth reading and still appeal to modern kids.

This is now one of my favorites as well. Margaret Wise Brown has such a distinctive rhythm and this may be her best work. The words on each page dance. Perhaps my favorite page in any book is this one:

“And suddenly Brush woke up and Hush woke up.
It was morning.
They crawled out of bed into a big bright world.
The sky was wild with sunshine”

The illustrations are also lovely and strange. Just a wonderful book.

Ranger Rick Jr. magazine

Price: $24.95
Was: $49.90

In this digital age, tangible media like postcards and magazines are special for children. I like magazine subscriptions as gifts because they continue being a part of the child’s life for months later.

Ranger Rick Jr. is the version of Ranger Rick for younger kids and comes out 10 times per year. It is published by the National Wildlife Federation and it focuses on animals and nature.

Unlike some media aimed at kids, the tone of Ranger Rick is very gentle and mild and there are no ads for sugary breakfast cereals or whatever.

Wallace and Gromit

I remember seeing “A Grand Day Out” at an animation festival around 1990, and then seeing “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave” a few years later. I was so thrilled by them (not least by the incredible chase scenes toward the end of ‘Trousers’ and ‘Shave’) that I seriously considered animation as a career.

Our kids love these, in particular the first one, “A Grand day Out” in which Wallace and Gromit build a rocket to visit the Moon. We’ve tried to show them more recent Wallace and Gromit adventures such as “A Matter of Loaf and Death” and “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” but they found them to be a bit too scary.

The themes are very much G-rated and are hilarious for both kids and adults.

Smithsonian Folkways Children’s Collection

This was a Christmas gift and a surprise huge hit with the kids. We had it in the car for a long road trip to their grandpa and nana’s house and we ended up playing it over and over and for weeks later. It is one of very few CDs where the kids want to sing along and some of the songs are so catchy that all of us (adults too) often randomly start singing one chorus or another around the house.

More information on the Smithsonian site:

“Twenty-six songs, play-party games, and poems selected from over 200 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and Folkways Records present a panorama of music performed for and by young children. Includes notes, song texts, and a complete list of recordings for children. Well-loved songs and unexpected treasures from Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Langston Hughes, Ella Jenkins, Suni Paz, Pete Seeger, and others.”

LeapPad Ultra

We got this second-hand. It’s pretty expensive and we wouldn’t have bought it new. The kids love it, to the point where we have to confiscate it when screen time gets out of hand, and we can use it as a bargaining tool.

It’s basically a computer tablet, like a big smart phone. The default apps are pretty good, but to get more you have to pay $5 or more for each one. And if you get it used, like we did, you have to set up a new account to download new apps, and doing that wipes all the previously-downloaded apps.

The video apps have only 3 or so video clips in each bundle, and we got the ones with that annoying git, Caillou, which our three-year-old watches repeatedly. But the other apps seem genuinely educational while also entertaining.

I can see that one of the big parenting issues in front of us is managing the usage of electronic devices.

Flip-Track Mountain

We got this used and it may be ‘out of print’ now. It was an enormous hit with our two-year-old and remained so until he was 4 or 5. The tracks don’t fit with any of the other track-based toys we have, and some of the plastic fittings have gotten worn over the years, but we keep it in a plastic tub in the attic and pull it down every now and then for the kids to play with.

The tracks are patterned as road on one side and train rails on the other, so you can flip them depending on whether you want to drive a car or a train. Seems trivial as an adult, but it appeals to young kids.

And most of the fun is in putting it together, rather than actually playing with it. It’s essentially a 3D puzzle that the child assembles, with the trick being how to get the track to loop around and reconnect with itself.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Price: $6.19
Was: $8.99

This is a strange book and I can’t understand why it’s a classic, but it is. We got multiple copies as gifts when the kids were born, and we got a bit of a nostalgia rush when we looked at it for the first time since we were kids ourselves. But I don’t think the kids liked it much. I don’t recall them ever asking for it when we read stories at bedtime.

Margaret Wise Brown has a unique voice and her rhythm is evident in Goodnight Moon, but this is not one of her best. Yet, it seems every American kid needs to know it.