Review: Our Kids’ Best Christmas Gifts

Blokus and Hot Wires
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As usual the boys got plenty of interesting gifts for Christmas and large boy’s birthday. Rather than telling anyone what we thought of them straight away, I decided to wait until we’d played with them for a while and then do some reviews.

Blokus

Small boy got Blokus for Christmas from himself’s sister (purchased from his Amazon wishlist). It’s intended for age 7 and above, but small boy loves tactile games and we thought he’d enjoy it.

We’ve played a couple of rounds of Blokus several times during some weather-enforced inside days. The idea is that each player has 21 pieces made up of between one and five squares and they want to place them all on the board to win. You can only place each piece so that it touches a corner of another piece in the same colour – but must not touch a side. The first piece has to go right in the corner of the board and you can touch the sides of pieces in other colours.

Its partly about spatial awareness, partly about planning and tactics, and partly about luck. If you can’t place any more of your pieces you have to wait and then count up how many squares you have left over all your remaining pieces. So if you have two pieces with five squares (10 total) left you score more than someone with than someone with two threes and a two (8 total) and they beat you, even though they dropped out first. You also get extra kudos if your last piece to place is the single square.

Its pretty complicated for five year old small boy at first, but he got the hang of it after a few rounds and even beat Mum (with some sage advice from Dad) a couple of times. Even after we’d finished playing he had lots of fun just making shapes and putting the pieces together on the board in different patterns. I’m sure there’s some good educational aspect going on to do with pattern matching and recognition.

The only disadvantage is that the one and two square pieces are pretty small, they could easily get lost or fall into awkward places – our coffee table has a decorative slot in the surface and they can be fun to prise out of there.

I think Blokus is hard, yellow is my favourite colour to play with, and I really liked it when I beat mum!

Small boy, age 5 and a half

Hot Wires

This was a birthday present for large boy when he turned 9. We’d seen Hot Wires in a science museum shop last year (when visiting such places was normal) and thought he might like it. Its a really great introduction to circuits and understanding the components: resistors, capacitors, LEDs, buzzers, lights and so on.

He wanted to play with this almost as soon as he’d opened it (even though there were other gifts still unwrapped). The game comes with a book of tutorials that are great and showing children how to connect the pieces together (from a professional technical writer, that’s high praise). Once himself had done the first couple with large boy, he made his way through the rest independently.

When he’d understood the tutorials and what all the components do and how they can fit together, including parallel and serial things and using more or fewer batteries, he started to make his own circuits up. That meant that he had to plan them a bit, adjust what he was doing to make things fit and then work out why it wasn’t working sometimes.

Large boy really loves playing with this and building different things, I think he gets a real sense of achievement. Some of the pieces are a bit small (again) and I’m slightly concerned when they’re spread all over his bedroom floor that either I’ll tread on one and break it or they might get lost.

Hot Wires is really fun, I like that you can build cool stuff and do lie detectors.

Large boy, age 9

Space Master

This was a bit of a random pick by me while browsing Amazon, I added it to small boy’s wishlist and my parents got it for him for Christmas. Its made by a company called VATOS but I haven’t seen a website for them, so the best link I can give is for the Amazon product:

The great thing about this is that there are lots of levels of difficulty. For beginners, you can add spacer blocks that are three layers tall so that you’re only trying to fill five layers with blocks. Then for harder solutions you can take the spacers out. A little book shows you combinations of pieces that you can try to fit into the scaffold and includes solutions for when you get stuck (or just to use from the start if you really don’t know what you’re doing).

Small boy can get really absorbed by this, he’ll play with it for 30 minutes all by himself (a major achievement for him to not be bugging his brother). He’s learning to follow instructions and problem solve too. I love wooden toys too and it feels really durable and well made.

I like this because it tests your skills at fitting things together.

Small boy, age 5 and a half

Greek Mythology Top Trumps

This was a stocking (Santa) present for large boy. He’s been very absorbed by Greek and Norse mythology since reading a whole load of Rick Riordan books this autumn. He has played a lot (and I mean a lot) of Top Trumps over the last few years – he used to take them to school and thrash everyone at after school club. So the Greek Mythology Top Trumps was a pretty easy pick for him.

There’s actually whole bunch of gods in there that I’d never heard of and I really feel like I ought to read the little blurb on all the cards. As usual, he thinks they’re great and can beat anyone in sight.

This is fun except no one wants to play it with me because I keep beating them. I didn’t learn much about the gods because I read it all in my books already.

Large boy, age 9

KiddiZoom Studio

When we asked the boys what they would like to ask Santa for, they both said they wanted a camera. Maybe me snapping away on my phone all the time has worn off on them. Large boy got his first proper camera (a small Sony one) and small boy got a VTECH KiddiZoom Studio. At about the same age, large boy had a VTECH camera, a big chunky robust one that takes dreadful photos and has a few simple games on.

We chose the KiddiZoom Studio because the photo quality looked like it would be fairly decent and it would give small boy the opportunity to take photos when we’re out and about in nature.

I’ll be honest, he’s taken a lot of blurry fuzzy messes, a lot of selfies, quite a few pictures of teddies and some unrecognisable junk. But he’s also taken some nice pictures of his brother and of places we’ve been for walks. Here are a few:

My camera’s really good because I can take photos and add extra bits to them or do special effects, and so I can play games!

Small boy, age 5 and a half

Raspberry Pi 400

My dad messaged me at the beginning of November to see if I thought large boy would like a Raspberry Pi. My first response was pure fear. I might be a technical writer for a big software company but I know nothing about how computers fit together. I knew the Raspberry Pi was a component system where you could build it yourself and, well, I didn’t think large boy would be capable and I certainly didn’t fancy that!

So we did a bit of research and discovered that the latest 400 model is far less grass roots. Its essentially a keyboard with some ports in the back and once you plug in your peripherals, its just a normal (Linux) computer with a small processor and whatever hard disk you have on the SD card you’re using. Once we knew it wouldn’t involve soldering or building cases, it sounded like a great idea.

My parents ordered online and we kept the Pi for a few weeks until Christmas, in the meantime organising a new monitor for himself through his work so that small boy could inherit the 15 year old one he had been using. On the big day, large boy was totally thrilled, he couldn’t wait to set it up on the desk he’d had for his birthday. Over the Christmas holidays he played with it loads, did all the Scratch tutorials and the first two Python ones (whoever heard of a 9 year old learning Python? what? its not that unusual? OK). He decided to spend some of his birthday money on a USB speaker so he could listen to music (specifically Queen’s greatest hits) on YouTube.

And then the schools closed on Monday 4th January 2021.

That first day of home learning, the Tuesday, they didn’t do much but we had emails explaining the Zoom lessons planned. Then we did something we would never have even considered. We bought out 9 year old a web cam for his Pi.

The independence his Pi has given him has made his home learning so successful, and so easy. Really, for a total cost of under Β£150 (plus a monitor, but you can pick them up cheap second hand) he has the complete system he needs. He’s learning how to be safe, how to make good choices about what he does and use his time sensibly. Sure he’s playing snake and tetris, but he can also be found absorbed in his books ignoring the screen.

I love my Pi! Its great for playing games and building Scratch things. Mum says its our saviour for home learning, she’s right – its everyone’s saviour. I like that it has Google so I can play games and listen to Queen on YouTube.

Large boy, age 9

Lego Speed Champions Jaguar

Who doesn’t love some Lego? Well, my mother in law asserts that we’re swimming in the stuff and to be honest she isn’t wrong. There is a LOT of Lego in this house. Last year small boy “unmade” a lot of it, so not only is there a lot of Lego its also all mixed up in tubs. So the fire station and satellite and other big pieces that would be central to games aren’t built up. However, that means the boys have mountains of bit to build whatever they like from. In the first lockdown, they did daily Lego challenges to build something different.

So, the boys always, always each get something Lego for Christmas. Small boy got a rocket and launch pad that has survived for almost a month unbroken. Large boy got these Speed Champions Jaguars.

We are a motor racing family, there’s no hiding it. Add to that my father in law’s dedication to Jaguars, when himself’s parents saw these they couldn’t resist. Large boy spent two very happy afternoons building them and they’ve been involved in races and all sorts of games ever since.

These cars were really fun to build. They look just like the real cars too!

Large boy, age 9

What were yours?

What were the best Christmas gifts in your house this year? Not the most wanted or the top of the wish list ones, the best that you’ve used and enjoyed the most in the last month.

20 thoughts on “Review: Our Kids’ Best Christmas Gifts

  1. Blokus sounds fun, especially for my son! The best Christmas gifts this year were Lego sets (as always) and an easel so the kids can draw while standing. It’s so simple but they love to stand and do their art more than they like sitting! One of the three of them is always using it, including our 2-year-old.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The lego jaguar looks ace. The hot wires looks really clever, something my daughter similar age as large boy has been learning in school before Christmas. A great line up of gifts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That looks fantastic. We’re big fans of family games in our house too. You can’t beat a bit of Lego or Top Trumps either. The Greek Mythology ones sound like a good way of bringing my Year 7 lessons to life. I might have to buy some!

    Liked by 1 person

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