RoverCraft

What is it

RoverCraft is an app that lets players build “space cars” and drive them along bumpy alien landscapes, collecting coins and avoiding crashes.

Who is it for

The game is simple enough for kids as young as 4 to have fun with it, although only older kids would be able to understand it well enough to get high scores.

What Kids like

They like the building, and they like the driving, and they like the upgrades. As the player collect coins, they can use the money to buy more and stronger materials for their vehicle, and unlock other worlds (Mars, Titan, etc.) The achievements are attainable, but take a little work, so the reward system is well-balanced and engaging.

They also like the catastrophic failure that ends every driving run. The player basically drives their car until it crashes, and the crashing is fun, so even when they lose they can enjoy it.

What Parents like

The building part is creative and forces problem-solving (how to structure the chassis so that the vehicle can cross the chasm without falling in?)

The driving part is thrilling but not overly competitive. The players are effectively racing against their own previous times.

What the critics think

The app gets 4.4/5 on Google, 4.5/5 on iTunes, and 4.6/5 on the Microsoft store.

Criticisms are that there are too many ads and that the developer (Mobirate) doesn’t update the game frequently enough.

Concerns/flaws

There are a lot of ads that the player has to endure or click off. There are in-app purchases that can distract from the gameplay, and we as parents need to make sure that the purchasing feature is disabled on the phone/tablet.

Who made it

RoverCraft is made by Mobirate, who also makes the Parking Mania series, other space-themed games such as Space Expedition and Space Bikers, and several others (Stick Fu, Jelly Jumpers, Dead Ahead).

When was it made/history

Mobirate was founded way back in 2003. RoverCraft was first released in 2015 and has had sporadic updates since then.

Where can I get it

Google Play Store, iTunes, and the Microsoft Store. You can even use Amazon to get it for Android devices, if you wanted.

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

Spaceflight Simulator

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.

On Google Play Store
On Apple iTunes

ABCYa

ABCYa.com has 300+ kid-friendly games, some of them quite challenging and fun. The site is free, with banner ads (for things like Froot Loops) or you can pay $7/month to sign in and avoid ads. Unlike some other sites, ABCYa doesn’t seem to use video ads, which we find more intrusive. We tried using ad-blocker with the site, but the games were disabled when we did so. If you have trouble seeing the games, try disabling your ad-blocker.

Most (or all) of the games had been made with Flash, which is supported less and less each month. (Chrome will soon drop support for the Flash plugin altogether, but you should still be able to use Flash games with with Firefox, Opera, or Edge.) But ABCYa has been porting its games to HTML5, which is supported well by all browsers and you should be able to access the games with any device.

Our 4-year-old asks for this site all the time, a few ties each week. There are so many games that they can find something new every time. While some of the games are pure fun, none are violent and most reinforce some educational concept such as addition, letter shapes, etc. We occasionally let the kids use sites such as HTML5games.com but that has more intrusive ads. We prefer that the kids play the games on PBS Kids but many of those games are a bit too difficult for the younger kids.

Chrome Music Lab

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.

Chrome Music Lab

They require no instruments or musical knowledge. The site relies on JavaScript, which is supported on all browsers on all devices.

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."

musiclab.chromeexperiments.com

The site is not just free, but has no ads of any kind.

One drawback we found is that there seem to be memory issues with JavaScript on some browsers, so using the site for a while will fill up memory and slow everything down. Quitting the browser and opening it again seemed to take care of it.

Peppa Pig

Peppa Pig is a British animated show for younger kids. The owners of the trademark have been liberal with licensing the image and there are Peppa Pig playsets, dishes, even bicycles, as well as books and DVDs. Based on the licensed products, it seems the show is aimed exclusively at girls but our boys love it. There is an idea in children’s media that girls don’t mind watching shows with boys as protagonists while boys don’t like girl protagonists, but Peppa Pig has shown that idea to be untrue.

Part of the appeal for our kids is the snarky, even rude tone of many of the characters. They are frequently bickering and mocking each other in a realistic way that most kids can probably relate to. In one episode, the kids make fun of the dad for being fat and spend a lot of the episode fat-shaming him. I feel like an American show would not depict this kind of thing.

The dialogue is witty in a dry, British way that makes it appealing to us grownups as well. I laugh at some of the lines, even if the kids don’t quite get it. Other subtle aspects are funny as well, such as that all the animal characters speak in British English, with various U.K. accents for each species (Irish for one, Yorkshire for another) while the talking vegetables all have ridiculous French accents.

The animation is extremely simple. It looks like they drew it in Flash. You can even see where the vector lines don’t quite match up in places. But that simplicity is probably part of the appeal as well. My kids just don’t seem to like photo-realistic media. They much prefer highly abstract cartoony-looking stuff.

The official Peppa Pig website has games, videos, and activities.

And you can watch free, full episodes at the Peppa Pig Nick Jr site

The videos are all on YouTube as well, but those have ads, and not always appropriate ones.

If your child is a fan of Peppa Pig, they will probably like Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom which is made by the same company (Neville Astley and Mark Baker, and produced by Astley Baker Davies and Entertainment One) and has the same look and feel, even the same voice actors. It also has music by Julian Nott, who may be best known for creating the music for the Wallace and Gromit movies.

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.

FunBrain

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad for FunBrain but they have been around since 1997 and are one of the best sites for safe, educational games and videos for kids.

Their target audience is pre-k through grade 8. The site is free to use although it pays for itself via ads. The ads are not very intrusive, but do promote products like Lucky Charms and Froot Loops etc. I would have tagged this site as appropriate for younger kids, but it’s too easy for little ones to inadvertently click an ad and then not know how to get back to the site, so I recommend the site for kids who are at least 6.

The site offers games, reading, and videos.

Many of the games seem to use HTML5 rather than Flash, which means they should run on any device, in just about any browser.

The reading section has full books with scanned pages that a child can read on a tablet or phone or other device.

The video section has a lot of original content not available elsewhere, with puppet characters, cooking shows, music, and more.

All in all, a good, free, safe place to let your kid explore and learn while having fun.

Puzzlescript

Puzzlescript is JavaScript-based game engine that is very easy to use and is a great way to introduce people to programming. Just about everyone I know who is paid to write code got their start because they were motivated to create games.

Puzzlescript games are very blocky and retro-looking, which may not appeal to kids used to the cinematic look of modern video games, but that is part of the price of having such a simple engine.


[typical puzzlescipt game screenshot]

Many of the games are good, however. Most are of the “sokoban” push-the-blocks around type.

Some examples are “Flying Kick” by Aaron Steed and “Boxes and Balloons” by Ben Reilly and many others can be found in the official gallery

Some games include the concept of bullets but most do not and none could be described as violent. The nature of the engine means games end up being logical puzzles.

Puzzlescript code looks like this:

[Enemy | Wreck] -> restart

[ > Player ] [ Ship ] -> [ > Player ] [ > Ship ]

[ >  Ship | Iceberg ] -> [  >  Ship | > Iceberg  ] Sfx1
[ Enemy | ... | Ship ] -> [ > Enemy | ... | Ship ]

So, rather than lots of intimidating jargon, the code uses names and simple punctuation to set the rules.

Puzzlescript is completely free, and creator Stephen Lavelle deserves a lot of credit for opening his creation to the world. Even better, games made with Puzzlescript have the code immediately available, so if you want to see how something is done, just look at the code someone else wrote. For example, all the code used in the Flying Kick game mentioned above is here, open in the code editor no less, so you could start modifying that game.

Any good instructional system has to reward curiosity, and the Puzzlescript engine does that very well.

Main Puzzlescript site

How to make a Puzzlescript game

PBSKids.com

This is a site as well as two apps, one for videos and one for games. There are no ads and they are completely free. Just make sure to support your local PBS station, which helps fund them.

The videos and games are or/for characters/shows such as Daniel Tiger, Peg and Cat, Cyberchase, Curious George, and many, many more.

I wasn’t aware until I had kids, but most of these shows are produced in Canada and employ lots of comedians. Martin Short is the voice of Cat in the Hat, Gilbert Gottfried and Christopher Lloyd are voices in Cyberchase, etc.

There is a huge amount of content, all of it good.

PBSKids.com