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.

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

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.

LEGO Scooby-Doo and the Haunted Isle

My kids didn’t even know who Scooby-Doo was before stumbling across this game while looking for Lego-related apps.

The game is rated 10+ but we tried it anyway and I haven’t seen anything particularly ‘mature’ about it and our 4-year-old enjoys it without being scared (and this is someone who is sometimes scared of things on Sesame Street)

This is an official Lego app, and has the quality is consistent with all other Lego products I’ve seen. And like most other Lego apps, this is free, without ads, because the game itself is promoting the Lego sets.

The game itself is a platformer with some simple fighting of monsters in order to collect keys – a basic premise, but done well and manages to be not frustrating for younger kids while not boring for older ones.

Once a Pawn a Time

I’ve heard of chess prodigies as young as 6 and have played chess against 6- and 7-year-olds who knew what they were doing and were even able to beat me (although I’m not a great player). So I was eager to introduce chess to our oldest at that age. Once a Pawn a Time was a gift that arrived at the right time, when I was considering buying a set anyway.

The game includes a standard board and pieces as well as two books that explain the rules in a fun, kid-friendly way, by anthropomorphizing the pieces and by introducing the rules slowly, one-at-a-time. I’ve seen kids get overwhelmed by the number of rules and the amount of abstract thinking that chess requires, so this method of explanation seemed good to me. Our older kids took to it right away, choosing to read the books and learn the rules even when the board and pieces were not at hand. And they talked incessantly about chess for many days after.

It turns out that our kids are not quite as precocious as I had assumed they would be and the rules took a while to sink in, and I still have to sometimes remind them of certain details (en passant in particular) but other aspects seem very easy to them, such as visualizing which squares the knights are attacking. All kids are different of course.

We use the board and pieces for lots of inventive play – playing checkers using nickels and pennies, or adding extra pieces such as Star Wars figures or Hot Wheels cars to the board and giving them special abilities. Chess can seem dour and serious, but it can also be lighthearted and silly.

Many months later, we don’t read the Once a Pawn a Time books anymore but we still pull the board and pieces out every other week or so. We keep it on a shelf in the living room, so it benefits from high visibility. I love that we can sometimes take 15 minutes to play a quick game in the morning when there’s time between breakfast and catching the bus.

Even if you don’t buy this particular one, get a chess set if you don’t have one. I feel every home with kids ought to have a chess set. It’s one of those obligatory possessions along with a copy of Goodnight Moon or a teddy bear.

Star Trek – The Animated Series

A lot of cartoons aimed at kids are not very good. They are either insipid, appealing only to toddlers, or have too much adult humor, or are essentially long advertisements. So I sometimes look for older cartoons, hoping that they will transcend, but boy oh boy are they violent. We tried watching Heckle and Jeckle, and the kids thought they were a riot, but they were so brutally violent that they are no longer allowed.

So, it was a pleasant surprise when I stumbled across episodes of the old Star Trek cartoon. I hadn’t realized (or forgotten) that the show was ever made. It was aired in 1973 and 1974 and was voiced by the original actors, lending some credibility to the show. The animation is pretty crummy, in the same cheap style as the old Spider-Man cartoons from the same era. But the animation quality doesn’t matter to kids so much.

What was appealing to me was the stories of adventure and working together and the importance of following rules and the idea of ‘conquering’ space by cataloging its peoples and planets rather than by defeating them. And the kids love space adventure stories with weird aliens and spaceships and the occasional threat of photon cannons, although problems tend to get resolved by talking it out, not by fighting.

Netflix is streaming season 2

Wikipedia has some info about the show

Bad Lip Reading Star Wars Songs

BLR is a YouTube phenomenon. A guy dubs over news clips and videos with silly nonsense and sometimes songs. The songs are very, very good – well-composed, well-performed and sung, and slickly produced. His re-dubs of music videos are better than the originals.

Not all of them are particularly kid-friendly, but most are.

In 2016, Disney hired him to create some dubs of clips from the original Star Wars trilogy, with guest star help from Jack Black and others, in order to promote the new Star Wars film. These are pretty good, but Disney has a way of inserting crude sexual humor into kids’ media. I assume their intention is to make it more entertaining for the adults watching, but it ends up being awkward and feeling inappropriate.

However, the BLR guy included little tunes in these dubs and then went ahead and produced full song videos from them. They are excellent. The kids and I have watched these several dozen times.

I’m not a fan of how Disney has treated the Star Wars franchise, partly because of the fetishization of the Empire instead of the rebels, partly because the new ones are so much more violent than the originals, and also because the writing for episode 7 felt like mere fan fiction.

So, the kids haven’t seen the new ones. But they still love the figures and the Lego sets and the aesthetic.

Rolling Stone has an interview with the creator, as does The Washington Post. And The Village Voice has a more recent one as well.


And a list of funny, catchy Star Wars songs would be incomplete without these:

Little Robot

Price: $11.55
Was: $16.99

We got this from the library, which has a lot of graphic novels and other quasi-comic books – a lot more than when I was a kid, but back then the genres were more explicitly separated (novels OR picture books OR comics). Little Robot has a lot of panels with no dialogue at all, so the storytelling is necessarily done through the images. I had thought that would make it hard to read at bedtime, but I would just point at the pictures or sometimes describe the image and its role in the plot. This book was the favorite pick for bedtime reading for 3 or 4 days in a row and our oldest read through it a few times.

The plot is not so different from that of T2, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the early ’90s. A robot gets lost and is found and protected by a child and then they both have to flee from the evil robot sent out to collect the first robot. The story manages to straddle the line between being fun and being almost a little scary.

The imagery is appealing and Little Robot won the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award in 2016

The protagonist is a young girl who lives in a trailer park near a research lab, or something. Her circumstances are not relevant to the story but I found that it humanized her and made me want to root for her character more.

The author/illustrator, Ben Hatke, has several other books in a similar vein.