Kubo and the Two Strings

This is a movie that flew under the radar (at least my radar) and I hadn’t heard of it until we stumbled upon it on Netflix while searching in vain for a Miyazaki movie. Of course, since having kids my culture and media radar is essentially non-operational and I know next to nothing about new TV shows, bands, or movies.

The movie starts out pretty dark and there is enough violence that I came close to turning it off a few times, but our kids never seemed to mind it and we finished it and the next day they wanted to watch it again. I guess violence isn’t so scary when it’s done to and by little puppets. It’s an intense movie and worth watching even if there aren’t kids around.

Kubo was made by Laika, best-known for Coraline, and uses the same stop-motion style. We adults loved Coraline when that came out (10 years ago! geez) but it was spooky and scary enough that I’m not ready to share that one with the kids.

The art and animation is very attractive and there are lots of making-of videos on YouTube.

Details on the Laika site

EcoLunchBox

When the kids started kindergarten, we began the ritual of packing lunches, but were concerned about the cost, health aspects, and environmental problems with using little plastic sandwich bags. So we splurged (~$30) on a metal ‘bento box’ we found online.

We got the Three-in-one and we’ve used it every day (at least, every school day) since. It keeps food separate, which is not just for picky kids, but to keep damp food (baby carrots) from touching dry food (sandwich). It packs up compactly but holds enough food for a kid’s lunch.

It washes easily. We usually wipe it down at the end of the day and put in the dishwasher after every 3 or 4 uses.

The first time we used it, the metal clasps held the top on so tightly that our little one couldn’t open it. But we just bent the clasps slightly outward and now it has a snug fit but is also easily opened.

We though the kids would be excited about it, but they’re not. Just the parents are.

ECOlunchbox has lots of similar products.

Chrome Music Lab

Chrome Music Lab is a collection of 13 free online musical ‘toys’ that let kids (and adults) play with music and in the process, learn something about pitch, rhythm, and structure.

Chrome Music Lab

They require no instruments or musical knowledge. The site relies on JavaScript, which is supported on all browsers on all devices.

Each ‘toy’ (or ‘experiment’ or ‘app’ etc.) focuses on a different aspect of music and all differ in how technical they are. None are difficult to use. Young (3- or 4-years old) kids seem to enjoy Kandinsky and Oscillators, which make fun musical sounds based on the user’s mouse movements. While slightly older kids can get into constructing melodies, playing with modifications of their voices, or exploring visualization of tone and rhythm.

Overall, it’s fun and educational for kids, and a great alternative to videos or video games during ‘screen time’.

From their website: "Chrome Music Lab is a collection of experiments that let anyone, at any age, explore how music works. They’re collaborations between musicians and coders, all built with the freely available Web Audio API."

musiclab.chromeexperiments.com

The site is not just free, but has no ads of any kind.

One drawback we found is that there seem to be memory issues with JavaScript on some browsers, so using the site for a while will fill up memory and slow everything down. Quitting the browser and opening it again seemed to take care of it.

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.

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.