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

Slingball

Price: $38.97

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.

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.

Japanese Eraser Animals

I don’t know whether this is the Next Big Thing, but my kids love these little things. They come in animal shapes, vehicles, pastries, etc.

They are made of eraser rubber (but don’t actually fit on a pencil) and are each composed of multiple pieces, so each creature is a small, simple 3D puzzle.

The creatures are very cute and something about the colors and the texture of the eraser rubber makes them seem almost like cartoons somehow made real.

They make good party favors or the sort of thing you might include with valentine cards for classmates, or as part of a grab bag.

You can get a big set from Amazon or a pack of 8 or so from some dollar stores. There are some Japanese “$1.50” stores in California that carry them, too.

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”

B. Fish N’ Splish

Of all the toys in our house, this one has probably been played with the most (apart from legos). We got it as a gift for our oldest’s first birthday and it has been an essential part of the tub toy collection ever since.

It’s a well-designed toy with all the features that kids want:
• Cups to pour water
• Cups with holes
• Little captain figure
• Floating boat
• Fishing rod with fish
• Mirror
• Comb and brush

The fishing rod itself is an essential toy for us that has spent as much time outside the bathroom as in it.

The boat even has an elastic band that allows you to wind up the paddle-wheel in the back, which then actually powers the boat forward.

All the pieces fit inside the boat so you can keep things tidy when not in use.

And the components are designed with no deep crevices so there is no place for mold to hide, which has been an issue with some other bath toys we’ve had.

Highly recommended if you need a gift for a 1- or 2-year old

Mudpuppy Puzzle Wheels

We get lots of gifts for the kids, and it’s very hard to tell in advance which ones will get played with a lot, and which will just stay at the bottom of the toy box. I don’t even remember who gave this to us, but it is one that each successive kid has pulled out and played with over and over. Even the older kids will play with it when they see it again, even if just for a few minutes.

The ‘puzzle’ is a circle with 6 pieces around a 7th central hub piece. Each puzzle is themed. We have the farm one, but the company has several others, such as construction vehicles and forest animals, as well as licensed images from Eric Carle, Babar, The Little Prince, etc. The puzzle has pictures on side and solid colors on the other

The theme doesn’t seem to matter much with our kids. The appeal is the size and shape of the pieces that even little hands can manipulate, pulling out of the box and putting back in. And for little brains, 7 pieces seems to be the right number in the balance between boringly simple and frustratingly complex.

The thick cardboard has gotten a little worn after so many hands have handled it, but it’s still in decent shape after the 5+ years we’ve had it.

LeapPad Ultra

We got this second-hand. It’s pretty expensive and we wouldn’t have bought it new. The kids love it, to the point where we have to confiscate it when screen time gets out of hand, and we can use it as a bargaining tool.

It’s basically a computer tablet, like a big smart phone. The default apps are pretty good, but to get more you have to pay $5 or more for each one. And if you get it used, like we did, you have to set up a new account to download new apps, and doing that wipes all the previously-downloaded apps.

The video apps have only 3 or so video clips in each bundle, and we got the ones with that annoying git, Caillou, which our three-year-old watches repeatedly. But the other apps seem genuinely educational while also entertaining.

I can see that one of the big parenting issues in front of us is managing the usage of electronic devices.

Flip-Track Mountain

We got this used and it may be ‘out of print’ now. It was an enormous hit with our two-year-old and remained so until he was 4 or 5. The tracks don’t fit with any of the other track-based toys we have, and some of the plastic fittings have gotten worn over the years, but we keep it in a plastic tub in the attic and pull it down every now and then for the kids to play with.

The tracks are patterned as road on one side and train rails on the other, so you can flip them depending on whether you want to drive a car or a train. Seems trivial as an adult, but it appeals to young kids.

And most of the fun is in putting it together, rather than actually playing with it. It’s essentially a 3D puzzle that the child assembles, with the trick being how to get the track to loop around and reconnect with itself.