Look out for Mater!

This is a little golden book about Lightning McQueen trying to be a good friend to Mater, who has a knack for getting in trouble. It has a good lesson about friendship and following rules, even if the kids aren’t into the movie Cars. My kids never got into the movie, but love the characters and the stories based on them.

My big train book

This is the only book that we have three copies of, one at home and one at each of the kids’ grandfathers’ houses. There’s not much to it, just a bunch of pictures of trains. There is no story, but it’s a book the kids seem to enjoy reading with their grandfathers.

Simply going through the pages, identifying the trains, seems to lead to story telling and good bonding.

I like vegetables

This is a board book about vegetables (obviously) and opposites (above/below, inside/outside, etc.) and also has textures on the pages that the kids can feel.

It’s a simple book but one of the popular ones. Our 4-year-old even pulls it out sometimes.

Backyardigans

This is a Nick Jr. cartoon that was very popular with our kids. The music is particularly good.

5 animal friends play together with a different theme (Egypt, under-the-sea, space, cowboy, etc.) each episode. The friends take turns being the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and the overall tone is very kind and gentle.

It ran from 2004 to 2010 with a total of 80 episodes.

You can watch for free at NickJr.com if you have a cable tv account, and it’s available on amazon’s streaming video service as well. (And they’re all on YouTube too, although you may have to hunt for them.)

Dinosaur Train

This is a series run by Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa, who seems to be in charge of at least half of all children’s TV programming these days. You can watch the series for free at PBSKids.com or via the PBS Kids app (also free). Neither the site nor the app has ads either. Just make sure to support your local PBS station.

The show is light-hearted and full of factual information about dinosaurs and prehistoric times (assuming you can ignore the fact that the dinosaurs all speak English, ride in a time-traveling locomotive, and are not constantly trying to eat each other).

There are tons of episodes, available in DVD form. A good bet for any kid who’s really into dinosaurs.

Spiderman 1967 series

We watched a bunch of these on YouTube. They’re corny and dated but the kids loved them. And the old cartoons from the 60s seem so much less violent than those from other decades.

The animation style is pretty simple, so older kids probably won’t be into it. But it has that classic theme song:

“Spiderman, spiderman, does whatever a spider can.
Spins a web, any size, catches thieves, just like flies.
Look out. Here comes the spiderman.”

The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown

This was my dad’s favorite book when he was a kid, but I didn’t know it until I happened to see it among a set of Little Golden Books at the grocery store.

Little Golden Books were a big part of my childhood but lately the brand has been diminished a bit since they now let just about any story be published with that distinctive gold spine. But the classics are still worth reading and still appeal to modern kids.

This is now one of my favorites as well. Margaret Wise Brown has such a distinctive rhythm and this may be her best work. The words on each page dance. Perhaps my favorite page in any book is this one:

“And suddenly Brush woke up and Hush woke up.
It was morning.
They crawled out of bed into a big bright world.
The sky was wild with sunshine”

The illustrations are also lovely and strange. Just a wonderful book.

Robot Turtles board game

This is a clever game that got a lot of media attention when it came out, touting its ability to teach STEM concepts, specifically logical thinking.

The box says for ages 4 and up but I don’t think 4-year-olds are able to grasp all the rules of the game, which are a bit complicated even for me. However, once we laid out all the pieces, we came up with all sorts of new games to play and had quite a lot of fun building ‘snow forts’ and taking turns trying to move the ‘lasers’ around in order to melt them.

My son got quite obsessed with the game in fact, even though we had yet to actually play it according to the official rules, and every day for about a week he wanted to play again, until he eventually got tired of it. It sits prominently on a shelf in the living room and we’ll get it down again soon. The reason we haven’t yet is because the rules are complex enough that an adult has to sit with the kids and walk them through each step.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! board game

This is based on a book by Mo Willems. None of us were familiar with his stuff until after we got the game, but that didn’t matter.

The box says it’s for ages 3 and up, but the rules are too complicated for our 3-year-old. However, the board and pieces lend themselves to making up new rules and we’ve been able to have fun playing the game even when skipping some of the rules.

The box also says for 2 to 4 players, but it’s not much fun with only 2 players. It’s much better with 4. So I wouldn’t advise this game if it’s just going to be, for example, one parent and one child playing.

The spinner is cheaply made and was sometimes frustrating to spin, but generally the look and feel of the board and pieces are very appealing to children and they wanted to play it as soon as they saw it, even without any understanding of what the rules were.

LEGO Life magazine

LEGO has a free magazine that comes out 5 times per year.

In some ways the thing is one huge ad, but the puzzles and activities (mazes, code-breaking, etc.) are pretty fun and our 6-year-old looks forward to it coming in the mail.

The cost is free, but you do have to sign up for a Lego ID, which means giving your email address.