StoryBots

What is it

Storybots is a series of 100+ educational music videos featuring animated and/or puppet robots. They cover subjects such as the planets, dinosaurs, the alphabet, and more. The production quality is very high and the videos are very entertaining.

Who is it for

Kids of all ages can get something from the StoryBots videos. They are highly entertaining, so even if a child doesn’t understand the subject matter being covered, they can still enjoy the music and the silly antics of the characters: Beep (green), Bo (purple), Bang (blue), Bing (yellow), Boop (red), and Hap, their manager (olive)

What Kids Like

The music is great, with very catchy melodies and the characters are silly and entertaining.

The premise of the show is that the robots live inside our digital devices and are constantly trying to learn about the human world by asking questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” – questions that children also wonder about.

What Parents Like

The education is snuck in painlessly and kids can’t help but learn. The language is totally G-rated with no violence so it’s easy to leave the screen on without having to worry about what the kids are watching.

I like the music and, as a fan of animation, love the fact that the characters are sometimes presented in 3d animation, 2d animation, hand-drawn style, puppets, or claymation. I can’t think of any other project that presented its characters in such a variety of mediums.

What the Critics Think

StoryBots has won a Winner of Teachers’ Choice Awards, a Tech Edvocate Award, an Emmy, and has been nominated for an Annie and a Peabody award. So in a nutshell, it is highly regarded by critics.

Concerns/Flaws

It’s just great. I can’t think of any criticisms.

Who Made it

StoryBots is produced by JibJab, who you may remember as the creators of animated political satire during the 2004 presidential election.

and who went on to create shorts for Noggin and Disney before building their personalized ecard service

JibJab has been able to attract top talent and many famous singers and actors are part of the videos.

History

StoryBots was first distributed as shorts on YouTube in 2012 and “Ask the StoryBots” was picked up as a full-length show by Netflix in 2016.

Where Can I Get it

StoryBots has literally hundreds of videos on their
YouTube channel
and “Ask the StoryBots” is available for streaming on Netflix. They have a Spotify channel and multiple music albums as well.

More at storybots.com and Wikipedia

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.

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

Planet Plates

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.

More at The Unemployed Philosophers Guild, which has lots of fun stuff for kids and adults.

Battle of the Planets

Price: Check on Amazon

Imagine a Star Trek plot with Power Rangers characters, scored by a hodge-podge of John Williams sound-alikes and late ’60s sounds influenced by bands such as Procol Harum, and voiced by Casey Kasem?

The answer is Battle of the Planets

My son asked me what were my favorite shows when I was his age. There were so few options compared to now, but I recalled Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Crusader Cat and Minute Mouse, Zoom, 321 Contact, Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Tunes shows, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Kroft Superstars (Land of the Lost and the other ones), The Banana Splits, The New Zoo Revue.

When I was older I loved Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, The Greatest American Hero, the A-Team.

But the show I was absolutely obsessed with when I was his age was “Battle of the Planets”. I even wrote and drew what would now be called fan fiction in my own comic book version of the show that I called “Battle of the Stars”.

The show had Japanese animation and was a mishmash of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Japanese shows such as Power Rangers and Voltron.

A drawback to the show is the odd addition of the robot making oddly romantic comments about the one girl character. I think they go over the heads of my kids, but it’s jarring.

The plots and themes are complex, as though originally written for a different show and then shoehorned into a kids show. Or maybe the bar was higher for kids in the 70s.

DVDs are hard to find. But they’re all on YouTube.

Wikipedia has a lot of information (of course they do!)

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