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.

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

Battle of the Planets

Price: Check on Amazon

Imagine a Star Trek plot with Power Rangers characters, scored by a hodge-podge of John Williams sound-alikes and late ’60s sounds influenced by bands such as Procol Harum, and voiced by Casey Kasem?

The answer is Battle of the Planets

My son asked me what were my favorite shows when I was his age. There were so few options compared to now, but I recalled Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Crusader Cat and Minute Mouse, Zoom, 321 Contact, Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Tunes shows, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Kroft Superstars (Land of the Lost and the other ones), The Banana Splits, The New Zoo Revue.

When I was older I loved Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, The Greatest American Hero, the A-Team.

But the show I was absolutely obsessed with when I was his age was “Battle of the Planets”. I even wrote and drew what would now be called fan fiction in my own comic book version of the show that I called “Battle of the Stars”.

The show had Japanese animation and was a mishmash of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Japanese shows such as Power Rangers and Voltron.

A drawback to the show is the odd addition of the robot making oddly romantic comments about the one girl character. I think they go over the heads of my kids, but it’s jarring.

The plots and themes are complex, as though originally written for a different show and then shoehorned into a kids show. Or maybe the bar was higher for kids in the 70s.

DVDs are hard to find. But they’re all on YouTube.

Wikipedia has a lot of information (of course they do!)

200-VS Attack – Bump ‘n Eject RC Battle Bumper Cars

This was a gift for the birthday boy at a party we attended and we got a chance to play with it. It was a lot of fun.

Remote control cars have been around a while (Tesla built an RC boat in the late 1800s!) and whenever I’ve played with them, my instinct is to crash into things. I know not everyone does that (I’ve seen grown men spend hours driving RC cars in circles in empty parking lots) but I think most kids do. So it seems obvious that there should be an RC car that allows, even encourages kids to crash into each other.

The trick is how to record a hit. When kids are play-swordfighting, it’s hard to know if you got a hit. The other kid can just say you missed. I’ve seen kids tape markers to the ends of yardsticks, and a hit is visibly displayed, but that gets messy. But with cars, there has not yest been a good way to know whether your strike made contact until now. On both sides of the cars are sensors, that when hit popup the little figure driving the car. Very simple and very obvious. The sensors on these are the right sensitivity, neither too sensitive nor not enough.

We had lots of fun with these, kids and adults.

The Amazon page has this listed under lots of different names. Looks like resellers are able to brand them however they like. The labels on the cars themselves read “200-VS Attack”

Minecraft: The Island

We have some Minecraft-obsessed people in our house and when visiting the library we always look for Minecraft-themed books for design ideas. We picked up “The Island” not knowing anything about it and the kids lost interest when they saw that there were no illustrations.

But I read the first chapter at bedtime and they were hooked. They couldn’t get enough and I ended up reading two or even three chapters per night until we had finished it. For that one week we were all obsessed.

The story is a first-person narrative of a character in Minecraft, as though their consciousness suddenly dropped out of the sky. The narrator has to figure out how to survive in the world, creating shelter, acquiring resources, defending against monsters – all the things that a player has to do in the game. So there is a Robinson Crusoe-aspect to the story, combined with details specific to the game.

The story is by Max Brooks, who is probably best known for his zombie novel, World War Z, which has been made into a movie. He knows how to pace the action, build suspense, and how to create a real page-turner.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is how it weaves philosophical ideas into the action. When there is a moment of quiet, the narrator asks himself questions such as, “Who am I?” and “What is the meaning of this place?” I don’t know how much of that made an impression on my kids, but I like that I could expose them to that kind of thinking via a book.

In a way, the book is basically a long advertisement for Minecraft, but it was still very enjoyable for all of us.

The book has been on the New York Times bestseller list, and I can see why. It is not high literature and there are many passages with loose grammar that made me cringe a little. The ending felt a little rushed as well – as though the author wasn’t sure how to end it until most of it had already been written. But none of that matters for the kids.

I’m guessing there will be a sequel.

Good Eats

Watching Good Eats was one of my weekly rituals back in the ’90s, back when the Food Network was an emerging force on television. Unlike the standard TV chef format (cook looks across a counter at the viewer while preparing food), Good Eats’ Alton Brown gets into the science of food and does so in a fun and wacky way. This is great family viewing because parents learn about cooking and kids are entertained by the antics and learn some chemistry as well.

More on the show and some examples of Alton Brown’s style at foodnetwork.com

Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land

Price: $9.99
Was: $14.99

This is one of the great Disney shorts from their “classic” period of the 1950s and ’60s. It has Donald going on an adventure, learning about how math is the foundation for music, architecture, nature, and games. It explains the Golden Ratio phi and how simple ratios explain many things that we may not have ever thought about.

This is a great intro to some basic STEM concepts and will get kids in a creative and curious mindset.

In middle school, we would watch this in math class on the last day before winter break. I always had fond memories of it and was happy to be able to share it with my kids.

It’s hard to track down some of these older Disney cartoons. It’s only 27 minutes, so buying a DVD seems excessive. It is up on YouTube, but I assume those are not official copies.

It’s worth watching with the kids. Be warned though that you may have a strong urge to play pool when it’s over.

How to Build a House – Technical Tales Series

Quarto is a publisher of art books, children’s books, and science kits, among other things. They have dozens of imprints, including Walter Foster Jr. which focuses on “art, transportation, history, craft, gardening, and more”. It is a welcome alternative to the Disney-dominated world of children’s media.

One of their series is Technical Tales, in which a mouse named Eli and his mouse, bird, and frog buddies build things such as a plane, a car, or a motorycle.

The one we got the other day was the one about building a house. The book has a ‘layered’ approach, which I have seen more and more lately, in which there is a story interweaved with more technical descriptions. This has the advantage of making the book more appealing to a broader audience, since a child may be only interested in the story while a sibling (or the same child years later) is more interested in the technical explanations.

The illustrations (by Martin Sodomka) are highly detailed and interesting to look at just on their own. They are somewhat reminiscent of the David Macaulay, although these are in full color and almost photo-realistic in places.

The story (by Saskia Lacey) is about friendship and how group projects need to take all voices and needs into consideration, which is a good lesson for our kids to hear.

This is a good book for an adult to read to a child, or for more experienced readers to read on their own.