RoverCraft

What is it

RoverCraft is an app that lets players build “space cars” and drive them along bumpy alien landscapes, collecting coins and avoiding crashes.

Who is it for

The game is simple enough for kids as young as 4 to have fun with it, although only older kids would be able to understand it well enough to get high scores.

What Kids like

They like the building, and they like the driving, and they like the upgrades. As the player collect coins, they can use the money to buy more and stronger materials for their vehicle, and unlock other worlds (Mars, Titan, etc.) The achievements are attainable, but take a little work, so the reward system is well-balanced and engaging.

They also like the catastrophic failure that ends every driving run. The player basically drives their car until it crashes, and the crashing is fun, so even when they lose they can enjoy it.

What Parents like

The building part is creative and forces problem-solving (how to structure the chassis so that the vehicle can cross the chasm without falling in?)

The driving part is thrilling but not overly competitive. The players are effectively racing against their own previous times.

What the critics think

The app gets 4.4/5 on Google, 4.5/5 on iTunes, and 4.6/5 on the Microsoft store.

Criticisms are that there are too many ads and that the developer (Mobirate) doesn’t update the game frequently enough.

Concerns/flaws

There are a lot of ads that the player has to endure or click off. There are in-app purchases that can distract from the gameplay, and we as parents need to make sure that the purchasing feature is disabled on the phone/tablet.

Who made it

RoverCraft is made by Mobirate, who also makes the Parking Mania series, other space-themed games such as Space Expedition and Space Bikers, and several others (Stick Fu, Jelly Jumpers, Dead Ahead).

When was it made/history

Mobirate was founded way back in 2003. RoverCraft was first released in 2015 and has had sporadic updates since then.

Where can I get it

Google Play Store, iTunes, and the Microsoft Store. You can even use Amazon to get it for Android devices, if you wanted.

The Fixies

What is it

The Fixies is a Russian cartoon series about a family of tiny (1cm tall) fairy-like creatures who repair everyday items, and in the process teach about physics, electronics, and other useful DiY knowledge.

Who is it for

The show is a big hit with our 4-year-old but a lot of the content is sophisticated enough for much older kids as well.

What Kids like

The characters are fun, with the kids getting into and out of trouble and the parents offering guidance when necessary. The animation is bright and engaging. The theme song is catchy and the show makes good use of music.

What Parents like

I like the fact that it’s Russian. It’s nice to have a reference to Russian culture that has nothing to do with politics. And I like having influences from other countries. Geronimo Stilton is from Italy, P.J. Masks from France, many (most?) PBS Kids shows are from Canada, and lots of the more cutesy cartoons are from Korea and Japan. Although each cartoon has basically the same formula (a group of young people work together to solve problems) each one has a slightly different feel to it that is representative of its country of origin.

In the case of The Fixies, the subject matter is significantly more in-depth in terms of engineering/STEM topics. For example, one episode had a bit on pipe fabrication, how pipes can be made by rolling and welding a sheet of metal (which results in a seam) vs. extruding a solid block to make a seamless pipe. I can’t imagine any American show covering that level of detail.

Each episode includes a 40-second bit on how things work, in a fun and educational way.

There is also a typically Russian attitude toward toughness and responsibility. While most American and Canadian cartoons seem to value self-affirmation over anything else, The Fixes put that value below those of being responsible and getting the job done. One episode had the children try to do a quick fix in order to earn a prize and at the end the father gives them a cheap, flimsy award to reflect the quality of work they did.

But really, the Russian-ness is not obvious. I wouldn’t have noticed or guessed. if I hadn’t looked it up. (The one big clue is the catchphrase the characters use when they’ve fixed something, “tideesh”, which sounds very slavic to my ears.)

Another quality of the show, that may have something to do with it being Russian, is that there is a strong message about the importance of fixing what you have as opposed to throwing something away just because it’s broken.

What the critics think

I haven’t seen any reviews of the show. They have a sparse IMDB page and nothing on Wikipedia despite having several hundred episodes (~140 dubbed into English) and a feature movie. The show was nominated for an APKiT award, which is, as far as I can tell, a Russian equivalent to the Oscars.

Concerns/flaws

I found no flaws with the show itself, but it seems to be available only via YouTube and has multiple ads to skip in each 12-minute episode.

Who made it

The show is made by Aeroplane Productions in Moscow

Lots of info on their website https://www.thefixies.com/

They are doing what lots of other children’s media companies are doing, creating related apps, games etc. Most of the Fixies games are in Russian and don’t yet have English translations.

It looks like the company is actively looking for licensing in other countries and it would be great if Netflix or Amazon or Hulu or PBS Kids picked it up.

When was it made/history

The original, Russian show began in 2010 and the English version was released starting in 2015.

Where can I get it

As far as I can tell, it’s only available via The Fixies channel on YouTube

Bloxels

What is it

Bloxels is a free make-your-own videogame app that lets kids (or adults) create 8-bit style sprites and levels for 2D platformer games without needing any coding. The Bloxels kit includes a 13×13 grid with colored blocks so that younger kids can manipulate ‘pixel blocks’ (bloxels) physically before committing them to the game.

There is now also a Star Wars version

Who is it for

Bloxels is recommended for kids age 8-12, but our 4-year-old has had a lot of fun with it. Older kids will get more out of it, but it’s fun for just about any age. The bloxel cubes are about 1 cm2 (¼”2) so it could be a choking hazard for very young kids.

We’ve had fun with it at home, but PixelPress is pushing for the games use in classrooms and I can easily see it used as an educational tool.

What Kids like

Our kids have played with Bloxels on and off for the past few months, since we got it, so it has passed the ‘lost in the closet’ test – that is, the kids choose to pull it out every now and then. The older ones do everything on screen, using only the free app. The younger ones like designing characters using the physical bloxel cubes. Everyone enjoys playing the levels they make.

There is a community aspect to Bloxels, where you can play other people’s games, but we haven’t gotten into that.

What Parents like

Bloxels seems like a great way to introduce basic ideas of programming without having to get into actual code. The kids spend much more time creating (designing characters and levels) than they do playing (running and jumping and shooting).

What the critics think

Bloxels has been nominated for several education and game awards and most reviews I’ve read have been positive.

Concerns/flaws

Most of the criticisms I’ve read have to do with how the app captures the image of the 13×13 bloxel grid. The image capture relies on the camera in your phone or tablet and can be frustrating to use, although we haven’t had much trouble with it.

There is really only one type of game that can be created with Bloxels, and that’s the 2D platformer, where a character runs, jumps, collects power-ups, shoots monsters, etc. There are so many other kids of games, and if your child doesn’t like 2D platformers, they won’t have much interest in making them. But that is a theoretical concern in our case, since our kids like that kind of game. As a parent, I would rather the games involve puzzles or problem-solving, rather than shooting monsters, but as a former game designer, I realize that those sorts of games are much more difficult for children to do well.

And the Bloxel pieces are quite small – possible choking hazards for little siblings, and they hurt to step on when not put away properly! but that’s a problem we have with lots of toys (e.g. Lego) and is not an inherent flaw with Bloxels.

Who made it

Bloxels is made by Pixel Press, which makes a few other similar make-your-own game apps, such as Floors and Adventure Time Game Wizard. Pixel Press has since been bought

When was it made/history

Bloxels started as a Kickstarter project in 2015 and got enough funding to go mainstream and eventually partner with Mattel.

Where can I get it

You can get the Bloxels app on iTunes, Google Play, and for the Kindle Fire. And you can get the physical kit on Amazon or the Bloxels site

Spaceflight Simulator

Every week we try out at least 5 different apps, either on an Android phone or the iPad. They are all free except for the rare occasion when we decide that the paid version will be worth it (e.g. in the case of Plants vs. Zombies). The apps are free usually because they have ads, and often the ads are so frequent and interrupt gameplay so inconveniently that we delete the app altogether. Some apps are free because they are promoting a product, such as all the Lego games. But I was surprised to see that the Spaceflight Simulator app was entirely free. The developer decided to use the mobile version as a free trial, hoping that those who like it will spend money on the Steam or console versions. I hope this monetization model succeeds. Mobile is the obvious place to casually try things with minimal commitment.

The game itself is a stripped-down Kerbal Space Program clone, in which you build rockets out of various components, try to get the rocket into orbit, and ultimately reach other planets. It’s fun for adults and kids but is an absolute sensation with our 7-year-old, who has only ever gotten into orbit once, yet still has a blast just building and testing.

One problem we have with many of the free mobile games (apart from the ads) is how so many of them rely on violence and aggression to play the game. Spaceflight Simulator does have explosions, but they are the negative consequence of poor building, not the objective. Instead of trying to blow up other people’s virtual property, in this game you inadvertently blow up your own creation. So the child still gets the little thrill of seeing a crash, but not the reinforcement equating violence with success.

The interface is very simple and plain. Anyone who wants the garishness of games such as Candy Crush will be disappointed.

The game is great way to teach physics and basic engineering, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for STEM/STEAM-type apps.

On Google Play Store
On Apple iTunes

The Little Penguin: Pororo’s Racing Adventure

IMDB and other review sites don’t seem to like this movie much, but the kids and adults in our family thought it was great, exciting, well-paced, and very entertaining. It was made by a Korean company, and has a slightly different feel to it compared with Japanese animations, and certainly different from American or European ones.

The story is of a little penguin and his animal friends racing and overcoming obstacles such as bullies as well as physical obstacles.

Not much to say about it really. It is just a kids’ movie, but we liked it a lot and have frequently sought it out again, but haven’t been able to find it streaming anywhere.

Slingball

Price: $12.10

This was a gift from Grandma. She found it for $4.99 at a drugstore or somewhere like that. It was not meant to be a Major Gift (the way Lego sets are, for birthdays and Christmas) but the Slingball set ended up being the Essential Toy that went with us everywhere for a few days.

The toy is a pair of nets, which each have a hook on the side, and a pair of balls that have rubber loops coming out of them. You hook the loop to shoot it and in theory someone else catches it in their net.

Most of the fun was in weaponizing the toy, but because the ball is soft foam and the rubber loop is not long or strong enough to provide all that much power, it can’t do much damage, and we even contemplated allowing this as an indoor toy, although we soon changed our minds.

When ‘fired’ at close range toward a sibling’s face, the ball does hurt (as we discovered) but only as much as a rubber band snapped from the same distance and far less than a small plastic train engine hurled from the same distance (as we also discovered).

This was fun to take to the park and play catch, or shoot it straight up to see if we could catch it, or aim at targets such as trees.

It’s such a simple idea, that we didn’t think it would be fun, but it was. And we thought the nets or balls would fall apart after a few days of abuse, but they are still in perfect shape.

His Shoes Were Far Too Tight

This book is a collection of absurd poems by Edward Lear, selected from his two books of nonsense literature, “A Book of Nonsense” (1846) and “Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets” (1871). The most famous of Lear’s poems is “The Owl and the Pussycat”. Many readers who don’t know Lear will know that poem.

Perhaps because the works predate many copyright laws, many of Lear’s poems have been reprinted over the years without attribution. I recall a book of rhymes from my childhood with one his:

I eat my peas with honey
I’ve done it all my life
They do taste rather funny
But it keeps them on the knife.

This verse is sometimes attributed to Ogden Nash and sometimes to Anonymous and sometimes even to someone else who predates Lear himself.

The book was edited/selected/curated by Daniel Pinkwater. Daniel Pinkwater is known to me by his books from the 1970s, such as Lizard Music and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. I haven’t introduced my kids to those yet.

Because the writing of His Shoes Were Far Too Tight is so old, and the illustration style is so “artistic” (i.e. the opposite of the simplistic style of many modern kids’ books, such as those Mo Willems) I thought my kids wouldn’t like it. I’ve tried Alice in Wonderland with them and they couldn’t get into it. But to my surprise, they did. The illustrations by Calef Brown are complex and interesting and the stories are at the right level of absurdity for kids – where it feels like you know what’s happening but there are also things that just don’t make sense.

My kids favorite story was that of the Pobble Who Has No Toes, and asked to hear it again the next day.

It’s a fun, silly book without much depth to it. But because the writing is old enough to be considered ‘classic’ you can feel like you’re providing your kids with sophisticated culture when you read it.

There are other collections of Lear’s poems, but this has the nice illustrations and Pinkwater intro, so is at least as nice an edition as any other.

The kids have yet to ask me what ‘runcible’ means, and that is an indicator of the absurdity of the verses. There are so many strange, hard-to-understand aspects of the rhymes that an unfamiliar word does not stand out.

Boss Baby

Technically the movie is titled, “THE Boss Baby” but we don’t call it that. This is not a movie I would have picked as a likely candidate for movies that get re-watched in our household, but the kids love it.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen other kid-friendly movies (The Road to Eldorado, Atlantis) but none of them resonated well with our kids and we didn’t even bother finishing them. We’ve seen Boss Baby maybe 10 times now.

The movie is made by Dreamworks, which I have a somewhat low opinion of. Their movies, in contrast to Pixar, seem to go for cheap laughs and get by with making every character either a wisecracking cynic or a bumbling idiot. This movie is not all that different, but it’s very well-made and has a good message about jealousy and getting along.

Alec Baldwin does the voice of the baby, and his performance alone makes it worth watching.

ABCYa

ABCYa.com has 300+ kid-friendly games, some of them quite challenging and fun. The site is free, with banner ads (for things like Froot Loops) or you can pay $7/month to sign in and avoid ads. Unlike some other sites, ABCYa doesn’t seem to use video ads, which we find more intrusive. We tried using ad-blocker with the site, but the games were disabled when we did so. If you have trouble seeing the games, try disabling your ad-blocker.

Most (or all) of the games had been made with Flash, which is supported less and less each month. (Chrome will soon drop support for the Flash plugin altogether, but you should still be able to use Flash games with with Firefox, Opera, or Edge.) But ABCYa has been porting its games to HTML5, which is supported well by all browsers and you should be able to access the games with any device.

Our 4-year-old asks for this site all the time, a few ties each week. There are so many games that they can find something new every time. While some of the games are pure fun, none are violent and most reinforce some educational concept such as addition, letter shapes, etc. We occasionally let the kids use sites such as HTML5games.com but that has more intrusive ads. We prefer that the kids play the games on PBS Kids but many of those games are a bit too difficult for the younger kids.

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