Secret Coders

From graphic novel superstar Gene Luen Yang comes Secret Coders, a wildly entertaining new series that combines logic puzzles and basic coding instruction with a page-turning mystery plot! Follow Hopper and her friend Eni as they use their wits and their growing prowess with coding to solve the many mysteries of Stately Academy.

What is it

Secret Coders is a series (6 as of October 2018, and I think they are done) of graphic novels where kids have to fight bad guys using programming concepts.

This may sound dry, but the writing and drawing is compelling and the education value is high, but never at the expense of storytelling.

Who is it for

This is for kids who can understand abstract thinking. 7 may be too young, depending on the kid, 8 and up is probably right. A kid who has shown an interest in chess or writing code, is probably old enough and a good match.

What Kids Like

The kids like the fun, funny, exciting storytelling. The content is easily digestible and the experience of reading the books is similar to watching a cartoon on TV.

What Parents Like

I like that the educational aspect is deeper than many other STEM-focused books. These books cover topics such as binary trees, if/else statements, variables and other essential computer science concepts. But again, not in a way that takes away from the pleasure of reading.

The books are a great introduction to computer science, and there are really very few of those. Most CS intros for kids just start with a bunch of code without that initial hand-holding and explanation that many kids need, especially with such an abstract subject.

There is a website for the series: secret-coders.com with activities related to the books, and readers can download a simple coding language called Logo and try some of the code presented in the books.

In Secret Coders, Hooper, Eni, and Josh learn Logo, an ancient and nearly-forgotten programming language! You can learn Logo, too, by downloading and installing UCBLogo! UCBLogo is a Logo interpreter — a piece of software that allows your computer to understand the Logo language. You can download it for free here.

What the Critics Think

The box set and the 5th book in the series (Potions & Parameters) get 4.9 out of 5 stars on Amazon, which is very high.

GoodReads rates the books with an average a little over 4/5 The ratings on Amazon and GoodReads go up as the series progresses.

Common Sense Media gives the series 4/5

Winner of the Mathical Book Award in 2015.

(The Mathical book list is a great set of good books, organized by age.)

Concerns/Flaws

The illustrations are black-and-white (or really, black-and-white-and-green) and it’s possible that some kids, who are used to saturated colors in all their media, will be turned off by this. But that is a minor concern.

Who Made it

The books are written by Gene Luen Yang

From the Macmillan author bio

Gene Luen Yang writes, and sometimes draws, comic books and graphic novels. As the Library of Congress’ fifth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, he advocates for the importance of reading, especially reading diversely. American Born Chinese, his first graphic novel from First Second Books, was a National Book Award finalist, as well as the winner of the Printz Award and an Eisner Award. His two-volume graphic novel Boxers & Saints won the L.A. Times Book Prize and was a National Book Award Finalist. His other works include Secret Coders (with Mike Holmes), The Shadow Hero (with Sonny Liew), New Super-Man from DC Comics (with various artists), and the Avatar: The Last Airbender series from Dark Horse Comics (with Gurihiru). In 2016, he was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. National Book Awards Finalist

And illustrated by Mike Holmes

Mike Holmes has drawn for the comics series Secret Coders, Bravest Warriors, Adventure Time, and the viral art project Mikenesses. His books include the True Story collection (2011), This American Drive (2009), and Shenanigans. He lives with a cat named Ella, who is his best buddy.

The books are published by First Second, an imprint of Macmillan, with many beautiful and interesting titles, including the ongoing Science Comics series.

History

The first book came out in 2015 and the others were published about every 6 months after that.

Secret Coders (Volume 1)
Gene Luen Yang is the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and is a MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of what’s popularly known as the MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Welcome to Stately Academy, a school which is just crawling with mysteries to be solved! The founder of the school left many clues and puzzles to challenge his enterprising students. Using their wits and their growing prowess with coding, Hopper and her friend Eni are going to solve the mystery of Stately Academy no matter what it takes! From graphic novel superstar (and high school computer programming teacher) Gene Luen Yang comes a wildly entertaining new series that combines logic puzzles and basic programming instruction with a page-turning mystery plot!

Secret Coders 2: Paths & Portals
Hopper and Eni are back in the second volume of the exciting new computer-programming series by New York Times-bestselling author Gene Luen Yang.

Secret Coders 3: Secrets & Sequences
The coders are back in the third volume of the exciting new computer-programming series by New York Times–bestselling author Gene Luen Yang.

Secret Coders 4: Robots & Repeats
Dr. One-Zero has added a new class to Stately Academy’s curriculum. But in “Advanced Chemistry,” they only teach one lesson: how to make Green Pop! While their classmates are manufacturing this dangerous soda, the Coders uncover a clue that may lead them to Hopper’s missing dad. Is it time to use Professor Bee’s most powerful weapon: the Turtle of Light?

Secret Coders 5: Potions & Parameters
Dr. One-Zero won’t stop until the whole town—no, the whole world—embraces the “true happiness” found in his poisonous potion, Green Pop. And now that he has the Turtle of Light, he’s virtually unstoppable. There’s one weapon that can defeat him: another Turtle of Light. Unfortunately, they can only be found in another dimension! To open a portal to this new world, Hopper, Eni, and Josh’s coding skills will be put to the test.

Secret Coders 6: Monsters & Modules
The Coders always knew their programming skills would take them far, but they never guessed they would take them to another dimension! Or to be accurate, one dimension less—to save humanity, Hopper, Eni, and Josh must travel to Flatland, a dangerous two-dimensional world ruled by polygons. If they can return home safely with a turtle of light, they might just stand a chance in their final showdown with Dr. One-Zero!

Where Can I Get it

Amazon and everywhere else

Blocksworld

What is it

Blocksworld (not to be confused with similarly-titled games such as “block world”) is one of many Minecraft-inspired games, but Blocksworld stands apart in the quality of the game, the number of features, and the implicit instruction of programming fundamentals.

What Lego is to Minecraft, Duplo is to Blocksworld.

Who is it for

The game is complex enough to be fun and satisfying for almost any age. The controls are simple enough that kids as young as five can get something out of it.

There is a social component to the game, where users can share their creations. While a nice idea, this can lead to some inappropriate creations being available to everyone. Blocksworld has moderators to sift out the inappropriate stuff, but parents should be aware that sometimes nasty things get through.

What Kids Like

This is currently my kids’ favorite game. They would spend ten hours a day playing it. It’s very easy to build stuff, and not just static things like buildings, but driveable cars with lasers and the like. There are the usual game components such as credits and badges and levels, which help motivate and get a sense of accomplishment.

What Parents Like

My favorite aspect is the pseudo-coding that the game uses to give functionality to the creations. If you build a car with laser beams, you need to “program” how the car and lasers operate. This kid of coding is perfect to teach kids fundamentals of programming.

There are so many STEM apps out there, and most of them fail because they try to teach overtly. But most kids don’t want a game that teaches coding. They want a game that is fun, where the teaching is implicit.

The best educational games are those where the education happens in the background. People who played RISK! or Axis & Allies as kids know world geography, not because they were explicitly taught, but because knowing that stuff helped in playing the game.

What the Critics Think

The critics don’t seem to like the game as much as I or my kids do.

6/10 Steam
3.8/5 iTunes – Apple
3.1/5 Apprview.com

A review at gameslikefinder.com
and one at GeekDad

Concerns/Flaws

A couple things:

• Wow, so many ads! This game has more ads than other games I let my kids play. I allow it because I think the game has enough merits, but the volume of ads is a concern. And since you don’t know what ads are going to be displayed, you need to supervise the kid a bit more than you would otherwise.

• The social/sharing/multiplayer/community feature is well-done. The kids are motivated to share their creations and see what other kids have built. But it’s not hard to imagine what happens when some middle-schoolers find out that they can upload their “Momo” or “Evil Elmo” creations. Blocksworld has moderators who flag this stuff, and it’s generally a safe environment for kids, but again, supervision is strongly recommended.

Who Made it

Blocksworld is made by Linden Lab, A.K.A. Linden Research, Inc., who are best known as the creators of Second Life.

Most Minecraft-like games are made by random teenagers learning to program, but Linden is a group of very experienced developers, and their experience is evident in the quality of the game.

History

From the Blocksworld Wikipedia page:

Blocksworld was initially developed by Swedish independent video game developer Boldai, which was acquired by U.S.-based Linden Lab in early 2013.[3] An earlier version of the game was briefly available in 2012 in Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Denmark and Norway.[4] However, for the subsequent global release, the game was repositioned as a freemium offering where players have the option to purchase premium sets and games, additional building objects and pieces, coins, and other upgrades and extras for a small fee.

Virtual coins serve as the in-game currency, which can be either purchased via the in-app shop or rewarded through various community actions such as having creations rated via stars.

Players used have the option to pay 7.99 (US) or (CAD) dollars for Blocksworld Premium, which gives an infinite amount of designated blocks. Now, Blocksworld Premium is a subscription which has to be paid monthly/yearly and gives more benefits than the original Blocksworld Premium.

In September 2017, Blocksworld was released on Steam, prior to that, you could only play it on your browser or on your mobile device.

Where Can I Get it

Blocksworld is not available for Android, but is for iOS and is now on Steam as well.

Stinky and Dirty

What is it

Stinky and Dirty is a show based on characters from a couple of books, about a garbage truck and an excavator who solve problems together.

Who is it for

The show is good for kids of most ages, maybe 3-8.

What Kids Like

My kids like the celebration of filth, which is unusual among kids’ shows. Sometimes toys and games rely on the yuck factor, with slime boogers and fart noises, but ‘Stinky and Dirty’ manage to involve mess and rot and dirt without being gross.

The show is also good about how it presents problems and engages the viewer to think of possible solutions along with the characters.

What Parents Like

Years ago we got the original book called “I Stink!” that the kids liked enough to ask for it multiple nights in a row, although I initially didn’t care for it. It seemed a celebration of noise and filth that I just didn’t find amusing when trying to put little ones down for the night.

A few years later I saw that Amazon was premiering a new kids’ show called Stinky and Dirty that had animation that looked an awful lot like the book, and sure enough, the show is a spinoff of the book and its sequel. I suppose that’s a dream for many children’s book authors and illustrators, to have their work turned into a show.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I and the kids really like it.

The books are quite simple, running through the alphabet and showing vehicles making vehicle sounds. But the show is about teamwork and problem-solving, in a way that isn’t done on other shows.

The animation style is unique. It’s 3D but texture-mapped to look like paper illustrations.

The characters drive around together solving problems. Several times each episode, one of the characters asks, “What if…?” And this makes it a great example for problem-solving. Their efforts don’t always work out, but they keep trying.

I also like that the show is following in the somewhat recent tradition of using veteran actors for the voices (Martin Short on ‘The Cat in the Hat’, Christopher Lloyd and Gilbert Gottfried on ‘Cyberchase’, Elvis Costello on ‘Pete the Cat’). In this case, Wallace Shawn (Vizzini from ‘The Princess Bride’ and Rex the dinosaur from the Toy Story movies) plays Tall the crane.

What the Critics Think

7.1/10 on IMDB, 5/5 on Common Sense Media

Who Made it/History

The original book was written by author Kate Mcmullan and illustrated by her husband, actor Jim McMullan.

The show is made for Amazon, by Guy Toubes, who has written for lots of kids’ shows including ‘Odd Squad’, ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie’, and ‘Chuck and Friends’.

Where Can I Get it

You can watch the first episode on YouTube

The show is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Children’s Museum Networks

There are four networks of children’s museums in the U.S.:

  • ACM – Association of Children’s Museums
  • ASTC – Association of Science-Technology Centers
  • NARM – North American Reciprocal Museum
  • and ROAM – Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums
  • (If there’s another that I missed, please let me know at matt@matchstick.com).

    Belonging to a network means you can go for free or reduced entry to any other museum in the network. We’ve saved many hundreds of dollars by joining. Typically, the cost of joining one of the networks is $20 or so in addition to the cost of an annual membership at one of the museums in the network.

    We frequently go to children’s museums when the weather is wet or cold, and it can be a great way to have a playdate without having to mess up the house. And then when taking road trips to the grandparents, we will look for a museum on the way that is in one of the networks, and we go for free.

    ACM is the Association of Children’s Museums and has 341 member museums. You can use their online tool to find a museum or look at their PDF, current as of February 2017

    ASTC (pronounced “Aztec”) is the Association of Science-Technology Centers. The ASTC Passport Program is similar to the ACM one, though the focus is on children’s science museums. Their list of 364 participating museums is in a PDF, current as of 2017

    The NARM (North American Reciprocal Museum) Association is another network, much larger than the other 2, with 896 participating museums. NARM includes many historical sites and other kinds of places beyond the STEM-focus of ASTC. Use the NARM interactive map to find museums near you, or look at their PDF, current as of 2017.

    ROAM (Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums) is the newest museum network and has about 330 participating museums, listed on their website. Most of the museums in the ROAM network are fine arts museums, but the list is eclectic and also includes arboretums as well as history and cultural centers.

    Many museums belong to more than one network, so by joining a museum you may gain access to over a thousand other museums around the country.

    Look at these four networks for a children’s museum near you and see if there are other museums in the same network you are likely to visit, e.g. near a relative’s home. You may be surprised at how many children’s museums are out there. Many have limited marketing budgets and don’t advertise much.

    Many public libraries now offer museum passes available to be checked out. You often have to reserve them in advance. If there is a museum you have been considering taking the kids to, but have been reluctant because of the price, ask at your local library for a pass.

    Puzzlescript

    What is it

    PuzzleScript is an open-source HTML5 puzzle game engine. Open-source here means that it is completely free and all code is visible to anyone who wants to learn from it. HTML5 is what we used to call DHTML back in the day, and essentially means it’s made with JavaScript, and runs in a web browser. Puzzle game, meaning that the games produced are of the logical variety, as opposed to the action kind. And game engine means that the PuzzleScript libraries include all the logic you need to make a game. You don’t need to do any base-level coding, just design the levels and configure the libraries.

    Visit the PuzzleScript site for more

    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

    Who is it for

    Most of the games I’ve seen written in PuzzleScript have been made by young adults, but the interface is simple enough that adolescents could learn it.

    What Kids Like

    Kids like making things they enjoy. They see a funny video, they want to make a funny video. They see a cool stop-motion animation, they want to make a cool stop-motion animation. They see a computer game they like, they want to make a computer game they like.

    PuzzleScript is simple enough that a kid can make something playable very quickly, and since every game made in PuzzleScript has its source available (click ‘hack this game’ below the game) they can easily learn how others have achieved the mechanics of their games.

    Also, becasue HTML5 runs pretty much anywhere, publishing your game and sharing with others is very easy.

    What Parents Like

    JavaScript is a great way to introduce kids to the concepts in programming, and PuzzleScript makes this much easier by skipping over the more boring and frustrating aspects of coding, thus keeping kids’ attention a bit longer – long enough to stay motivated and actually build something.

    What the Critics Think

    I have not seen any reviews of PuzzleScript. Because it is free, there are no advertising dollars that would lead to reviews.

    Itch.io has lots of PuzzleScript games which is a sign that developers at least are taking it seriously.

    Concerns/Flaws

    If you look at examples of PuzzleScript games, you will see that they all have the same low-resolution look that may remind you of old Atari games. Kids today are used to photo-realistic graphics and the retro, old-school appearance of PuzzleScript may be a turn-off to some kids.

    Who Made it

    PuzzleScript is the work of Stephen Lavelle, who goes by the handle increpare. He is a prolific developer with many experimental projects on his site.

    History

    PuzzleScript began in 2013 and has been regularly updated since then. New games written in PuzzleScript are released all the time – every week if not every day

    Where Can I Get it

    Visit the PuzzleScript site for examples and full documentation. The coding interface is right in the browser window so nothing needs to be installed.

    There is a Google Group where users compare notes, troubleshoot code, and share games they’ve made.

    And there are books that can help walk your child through the process.

    If you just want to play the games, the official archive has plenty to choose from, although it is not at all an exhaustive list.

    Some of my favorites are

    Cratopia
    https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=7114130

    Heroes of Sokoban I, by Jonah Ostroff
    https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=6860122

    Heroes of Sokoban II: Monsters
    https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=6910207

    and Heroes of Sokoban III: The Bard and the Druid
    https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=7072276

    The Fixies

    What is it

    The Fixies is a Russian cartoon series about a family of tiny (1cm tall) fairy-like creatures who repair everyday items, and in the process teach about physics, electronics, and other useful DiY knowledge.

    Who is it for

    The show is a big hit with our 4-year-old but a lot of the content is sophisticated enough for much older kids as well.

    What Kids like

    The characters are fun, with the kids getting into and out of trouble and the parents offering guidance when necessary. The animation is bright and engaging. The theme song is catchy and the show makes good use of music.

    What Parents like

    I like the fact that it’s Russian. It’s nice to have a reference to Russian culture that has nothing to do with politics. And I like having influences from other countries. Geronimo Stilton is from Italy, P.J. Masks from France, many (most?) PBS Kids shows are from Canada, and lots of the more cutesy cartoons are from Korea and Japan. Although each cartoon has basically the same formula (a group of young people work together to solve problems) each one has a slightly different feel to it that is representative of its country of origin.

    In the case of The Fixies, the subject matter is significantly more in-depth in terms of engineering/STEM topics. For example, one episode had a bit on pipe fabrication, how pipes can be made by rolling and welding a sheet of metal (which results in a seam) vs. extruding a solid block to make a seamless pipe. I can’t imagine any American show covering that level of detail.

    Each episode includes a 40-second bit on how things work, in a fun and educational way.

    There is also a typically Russian attitude toward toughness and responsibility. While most American and Canadian cartoons seem to value self-affirmation over anything else, The Fixes put that value below those of being responsible and getting the job done. One episode had the children try to do a quick fix in order to earn a prize and at the end the father gives them a cheap, flimsy award to reflect the quality of work they did.

    But really, the Russian-ness is not obvious. I wouldn’t have noticed or guessed. if I hadn’t looked it up. (The one big clue is the catchphrase the characters use when they’ve fixed something, “tideesh”, which sounds very slavic to my ears.)

    Another quality of the show, that may have something to do with it being Russian, is that there is a strong message about the importance of fixing what you have as opposed to throwing something away just because it’s broken.

    What the critics think

    I haven’t seen any reviews of the show. They have a sparse IMDB page and nothing on Wikipedia despite having several hundred episodes (~140 dubbed into English) and a feature movie. The show was nominated for an APKiT award, which is, as far as I can tell, a Russian equivalent to the Oscars.

    Concerns/flaws

    I found no flaws with the show itself, but it seems to be available only via YouTube and has multiple ads to skip in each 12-minute episode.

    Who made it

    The show is made by Aeroplane Productions in Moscow

    Lots of info on their website https://www.thefixies.com/

    They are doing what lots of other children’s media companies are doing, creating related apps, games etc. Most of the Fixies games are in Russian and don’t yet have English translations.

    It looks like the company is actively looking for licensing in other countries and it would be great if Netflix or Amazon or Hulu or PBS Kids picked it up.

    When was it made/history

    The original, Russian show began in 2010 and the English version was released starting in 2015.

    Where can I get it

    As far as I can tell, it’s only available via The Fixies channel on YouTube

    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

    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.

    Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land

    This is one of the great Disney shorts from their “classic” period of the 1950s and ’60s. It has Donald going on an adventure, learning about how math is the foundation for music, architecture, nature, and games. It explains the Golden Ratio phi and how simple ratios explain many things that we may not have ever thought about.

    This is a great intro to some basic STEM concepts and will get kids in a creative and curious mindset.

    In middle school, we would watch this in math class on the last day before winter break. I always had fond memories of it and was happy to be able to share it with my kids.

    It’s hard to track down some of these older Disney cartoons. It’s only 27 minutes, so buying a DVD seems excessive. It is up on YouTube, but I assume those are not official copies.

    It’s worth watching with the kids. Be warned though that you may have a strong urge to play pool when it’s over.