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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
The site is not just free, but has no ads of any kind.
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.
Games Magazine has been around for 40 years. I was around 8 when I started getting it. I couldn’t do most of the puzzles in there but enjoyed the ones I could, and strived to do better each issue and try new puzzles. The format of the magazine has changed quite a bit since those early days and gone are some of my favorite sections, such as the Hidden Content. Also, they have since merged with World of Puzzles magazine to become ‘Games World of Puzzles’.
But the magazine is still the single source for puzzles by the best puzzle designers in the country. No other magazine or website comes anywhere close to having the wealth of styles and quality as Games.
They have finally updated their website where you can get a sense of what the issues are like.
An issue typically has lots of standard pencil puzzles (crosswords) more challenging ‘cryptic crosswords’ (like the kind you see in the Times of London) and unique puzzles such as solo battleships and many others. There are also brain teasers, logic puzzles. And also game reviews (both board and electronic) and contests. There are also usually two pages devoted to kids’ games, which are easier versions of some of their standard puzzles.
It’s a magazine that can sit on the coffee table for weeks with something for just about everyone in the family. An annual subscription is a good gift for a precocious child, and is a good alternative to videogames.
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.
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 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.