Rainbow room

What: Decorating the room with “real” rainbows, made with CDs.

How: We chose a few spots by windows that get direct sunlight, and put old CDs there. The rainbows form throughout the day, moving, shrinking, appearing and disappearing with the sunbeams.

As an activity this takes no time at all, unless you do it as a discovery project (see Extras). The beauty of it is in what it does to a room that you’re spending a lot of time in. Our CDs are in our north-facing front lounge room, which is the warmest and brightest place for most of the day during winter. The rainbows brighten it even more. For us it’s purely a decorative thing, all of us love colour and find the rainbows peaceful.

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Obviously this works best on a white ceiling, so please pretend ours is white and not covered in years of grime.

 

Extras: And, of course, there’s heaps of things you can talk about. We went through an accidental-discovery moment, which you could set up in advance to happen if you wanted to. First we discovered one of these rainbows that had formed by accident, and had to find what was making it. That took some conversation and exploring. Then we had to get some more old CDs to try making more. When that worked, we put them in windows – but the rainbows moved! And later when we looked again one of them had disappeared! The idea that things change over time, even if we’re not watching them or even when we are, is a basic scientific idea that kids spend a bit of time learning and reinforcement never hurts. Especially the bit about how you don’t have to be afraid of change because everything *does* change.

My kids aren’t old enough for me to bother with explaining the difference between diffraction (which is how CDs make colour) and refraction (which is how rainbows make colour). It’s enough to talk about how white light is made of all the colours and if you separate them out, that’s when you see the rainbow. Kid 6 worked out for themselves that this was a bit like when they looked through Mummy’s prism. Kid 5 also happily talked about times and places they’d found rainbows. We got to talk about the colours we could see, and whether they were distinct bands or blended into each other, and how many colours we thought there were. That’s always a good conversation, because kids get drilled early on the idea that there’s seven colours in a rainbow, and there totally isn’t. ROYGBIV is just the way it was written down some three hundred years ago by an early scientist, when we named common colours differently to the way we do now (cyan, anyone?). And it’s a handy acronym for remembering the order of colours, if you want to talk about how rainbows always have their colours in the same order, but beyond that its usefulness drops off quickly. (Yes, I have opinions on colour.) Add that to how kids get all kinds of weird-coloured rainbows on their toys and clothes, especially girl clothes, and they can come up with some fascinating and funny observations. Though I still don’t have a good answer to “Why isn’t there any pink in it?”. (I tried saying that it’s just that pink is “light red”, but that didn’t wash.)

Review – Alfie’s Big Wish

Alfie’s Big Wish, by David Hardy

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About: This is a sweet little kids’ tale, about loneliness and finding a friend, set within the context of nomadic Aboriginal culture. David Hardy is Aboriginal, and also Disney-animation-trained, so the illustrations have that 2D cartoon cuteness and impishness to them that really works. At first I had misgivings about Disneyfying Aboriginal folk, but then I figured Disney does that to everyone so I’d probably rather have the representation than the lack of it. And it’s grown on me.

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“Why is there no one the same size as me?” My own Kid 4 and 5 say this a lot.

Good things:

  • Lead is POC, Aboriginal, traditional culture
  • Emotionally expressive illustrations
  • Australian landscape and colours
  • Rhyming text, limited number of words on a page for early readers.
  • Author/illustrator is Aboriginal

Cookie cutter colourings

What: Drawings and artwork using cookie cutters as tracers

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Yes, that butterfly is one single (very treasured) cookie cutter. Kid 6 is all about bigger is better. I love the spirals and linework they’re exploring here. The pen was new, a reward from school.

How: I’m not actually sure. I was cleaning the kitchen, and I looked over at the table to see Kid 6 and Kid 4 working away. Apparently Kid 6 had come up with the idea and organised the two of them to do it. It appears that they chose one or more cookie cutters, traced them onto paper, and then worked back into the design with solid colours (kid 4) or lines and patterns (kid 6). They were perfectly happy working away and conversing in a polite and friendly fashion with each other, so I didn’t ask too many questions in case I interrupted them and broke the magic.

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Kid 4 doing more intricate tracings, but simpler infill.

Extras: This was fine on its own, just choosing how you work back into it was giving the kids plenty of variety. But going in different directions – I could see doing this as a wrapping paper thing – the cookie cutters would allow you to repeat shapes easily into a pattern. You might even be able to tesselate them. As a single art piece you could assemble several cookie cutters as parts of a picture and trace those. I’d be more inclined to take a variety of cutters and trace all over the place with lots of overlaps, and then colour the odd shapes created by the overlaps and spaces between. I suspect you might be able to use the cutters on scratch paper – that stuff that’s coloured underneath but has a black layer on top that you scratch away – which could give us some interesting negative effects too. Or placing the cutters on white paper and then using toothbrushes to spray edicol dye across the page, so that you get the shapes of the cutters white against the dye. Lots of things for me to think about!

Playdough cookies

What: Edible playdough / cookie dough, created with and baked.

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Patterns, layers, marblings, plain cookies, pressed-on spots, twisted spirals and The Biggest Cookie Ever.

How: There are a few recipes online, pick one that suits your diet and what you’ve got in the cupboard. Most any white cookie dough of a suitable texture works, as long as it can be rolled out, squished up, and hammered over and over again without getting too “worked”.

For us playdough cookies can be quite an event. First you make the plain cookie dough. Then you split it into two or three or four bowls (depending on how much dough you’re making) and work the colour in. I have tried using “natural” colours but they’re not always bright enough – choose whatever colouring works for you. Too much liquid colour added makes the dough too sticky to work, so be prepared to juggle that and add more flour if you need to.

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This step is messy. And that’s OK!

Then, once you have your coloured dough, it’s off on the construction side of things. The first time I did this I think I just let the kids do whatever. The second time I showed them how you could spiral strips of different colours together and we all made cookies of that type. One time we used two colours arranged in cylinders to make a checkerboard pattern when it was sliced, but I’ll post about that separately. This time was one of the “just let the kids go” times. Whenever we do this, I always make a few and pick something odd to do as an example, which the kids might or might not try themselves. This time I did some layering – putting a star of one colour on top of a circle of another colour. Kid 4 copied that trick, but Kid 6 was too busy making The Biggest Cookie Ever (which was a lesson in itself about structural stability). I also did one marbled cookie, with two colours marbled together, and next time I might show the kids how to do that particular trick. Or I might do cut-outs, or stamp designs in, or press lines in with a knife or fork. Most cookie or clay techniques can be demonstrated, and this has become one of our go-to activities.

Once the trays are full, you bake the cookies. I recommend supervising the thickness of the cookies put on the tray so that they bake evenly. I also recommend baking them for only just as long as the recipe and cookie thickness suggests – once they start to brown you lose that excellent colour. And then: you get to eat them afterwards. With some negotiations, of course, which is the other reason I always make some of my own. I might not be allowed more than one small one otherwise!

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Part way through. Both kids are starting to get tired and lose focus. Some days they last longer than others. I choose the quantity of dough partly on how many I think we’ll make that day.

Extras: This activity is all about the creativity. And eating cookies. But… it’s also an excellent opportunity to bring in clay and modelling skills, like the marbling (which is really good if you want to go on to use those plastic clays to make beads for jewellery), or structural stability. Layering colours, sticking pieces together in patterns, making 3D patterns that you only see when sliced (like those rock candy pulls you can get for weddings and birthdays!) – there are plenty of opportunities to extend this. Once the eldest child – a Kid 5 or 6 at the time I think – suggested we try and sell the cookies to Daddy and promptly attempted to extort as much cash out of him as they could get. While that didn’t work out entirely in their favour when Daddy took the whole tray of cookies hostage, playing “shop” or “cafe” is still a good idea. Cookies are fun to put on plates and serve!

Review – Mermaid Queen

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Subtitle: “The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, who swam her way to Fame, Fortune and Swimsuit History”

Mermaid Queen. Written by Shana Corey, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham.

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“Annette Kellerman loved to make waves.” Most pages have more text than this.

About: Annette Kellerman lived in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th century. She learnt to swim when sports were unseemly for women, invented water ballet, and eventually became an international swimming star of sea, stage, pool and, as time went on, movies. In the process she designed her own swimming suits, challenged US law and became part of fashion history as well. She’s one of those once-household-names that’s been forgotten this many decades on. She’s great to read about. Her story is told simply, it’s easy to follow, and there are solid author’s notes at the back of the book that you can use to look up or go into more detail on some of the events in her story.

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“But swimming had made Annette’s legs strong. And in the water, she didn’t feel plain or clumsy or weak. She felt beautiful and graceful and fancy-free.” There are many obstacles for Annette to overcome. A mysterious non-permanent disability is hand-waved away in the book but discussed more in the author’s notes.

Good things:

  • Female athlete
  • Bravery, courage and persistence
  • Success story
  • Vividly and rhythmically illustrated with hints of Art Nouveau styling
  • Advocate for women’s health and dress reform
  • Shows cultural change
  • Great author’s notes
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The final page, showing changes in women’s swimwear design from Annette’s time onwards.

Gods’ eyes

What: The “gods’ eyes” that were a Big Craft Thing to make when I was a kid.

How: Kid 3 and Kid 5 went out into the garden with instructions to find two sticks, reasonably straight, “about yay long”. I had to assist them a little with assessing whether a given stick was strong enough or too thin or thick – understanding the relationship between “width” (diameter) and area of cross-section is a long way off – but they could do length fine. I got out my box of miscellaneous wool and let the kids choose an initial colour. We crossed the sticks, I tied on the first end of the wool and showed them how you go around a stick, then on to the next and around that, and keep going. When you get to the end of a piece of wool, pick a new colour and tie a new length on.

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Kid 5’s piece, decorated to be “a compass”, with mine and Kid 3’s in the background. Hanging was just a matter of wrapping a string around the same way.

You’ll find better instructions than mine online. What’s more important for you to know is that this was *hard* for the kids. Kid 5 is spatially-challenged anyway, all directions are identical, subjective and meaningless, and Kid 3 is a fiddle-fingers who can’t *stop* turning things around in their fingers. Even though the steps of a Gods’ Eye are simple, they rely on you doing them the same way consistently over and over again. So I spent a lot of time droning the rhythm at the kids – over, around, over again, across to the next – and helping them remember which way they were going so they didn’t unwind their hard-won earlier work or just do the same two spokes over and over again, or switch from looping over to looping under, and so on. Holding the wool at the correct tension was also tricky – it’s a skill you expect a kid to maybe begin to learn at this age, but my two hadn’t learnt it yet. The idea that you had to keep making sure the wool was tight enough and not hanging floppy every time you looped it was a bit tricky. But, they got there in the end. Kid 5 did quite a credible effort. Kid 3 did sufficiently well for them to be proud of their work, and enjoyed it enough that nine months later (as a kid 4) when they had to take something they’d made to school for class “news”, they remembered the Gods Eyes and asked to make a new one to take along. And that effort was distinctly better and easier.

Extras: On the face of it, this activity is just about manual dexterity, manipulating sticks and wool in space, the textures of wool and wood, feeling and holding the tensions steady – getting a feel (literally!) for textiles. It’s the sort of thing you do before you go onto knitting because it’s so much bigger in scale than little needles. A related activity would be back-and-forth weaving on simple looms.

Where this activity jumps into the extras though is in cultural awareness and in religion. Gods eyes were a big thing in the 80s. When Kid 4 asked to make one for school I went looking them up to see if there was another name for them, because as a non-Christian family in a very multicultural school I didn’t want to have to defend Christianity in a discussion about religious materials. Then I realised that their actual name was Ojo de Dios, they weren’t originally Christian, and that the 80s had blithely appropriated a really interesting cultural artefact for the sake of something “pretty” (how unusual /sarcasm/). At any rate, I attempted to teach Kid 4 the Spanish name and that they came from Mexico for the “news bulletin”. So depending on the age of your kids, going at some level into the cultural history of these is quite interesting.

From a pagan and religion POV, I quite like them. They are similar to Buddhist prayer flags or prayer wheels – physical prayers activated by movement. There are some conceptual similarities to the little icons of saints that people used to carry or have on their mantelpiece (and many still do). Making them is a lot like walking the medieval labyrinths, those pilgrimage substitutes, with the same kind of meditative repetition. As a mindfulness activity it’s quite fun too. I will bring these back into my pagan teaching at some point, when we discuss focus objects and how people use objects (and their making) to focus magic or prayer, and also as part of the ideas of sacred landscape and conscious journeying. They’ll also no doubt be a good example of the “cultural trappings” of magic, because the colours had such important meanings in a long-ago-far-away culture but now we might assign quite different meanings and have access to a different range of colours so the “meaning” or “intent” is not a universal constant.

Origami baby ball

What: a lightweight origami toy/gift for a little baby.

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Four month old, fascinated by something they can actually grab and hold and turn.

How: To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how or where we found the instructions for this, it was a random origami book somewhere, but I’ll bet it’s available on YouTube nowadays. The idea was that you folded six of these shapes, attached them together as a cube, and they flexed into a ball shape. The only trick was attaching the bits together. I think I used stickytape for this one, because I didn’t want to risk staples flying around when the baby grabbed with both hands and yanked in opposite directions. The first time I made one of these, for my first Kid 0, I used paper glue (just a standard glue stick) and that worked OK until they worked out how to apply more force than the glue resists. So, fastener is your choice, see what works for you and your kid’s developmental stage / attitude towards interesting objects. I found there was a huge difference between 3 months, 4 months, 6 months – and between children of the same age (there are smashers and kissers and many types between).

I loved this ball because it was light weight, so the baby could pick it up, wave it around and then when their hand strength predictably yet unexpectedly failed they could drop it on their face – and this wasn’t a problem. I also liked that it had lots of pointy-out bits – paper, not stiff, so they didn’t hurt or poke, but small grasping fingers could find plenty of bits to latch onto in order to try and grip. That made it suitable for a whole range of manipulative abilities, it wasn’t something they just accidentally knocked around the room because they couldn’t grasp it when they threw their arms in its direction. Because it was home made we could use a range of textures and colours and patterns in the paper, getting more subtleties than baby toys often have. It’s also visually interesting, with the combination of detail and symmetry. And it’s paper, so if they chew on it, well, it gets soggy and maybe it tears, but at the end of the day it’s still only paper. You can make another one easily enough.

Extras: The first one of these was made as part of an origami party for Kid 0, when friends of ours came over and made lots of origami shapes for a mobile. So it was a nice social thing. It was actually made by a Kid 11, from memory, who really enjoyed working through the printed instructions and then repeating the steps five times to get the six identical pieces. I think you’d need at least a Kid 8 or 9 to make it – it wasn’t too tricky, but it did take a little folding precision (plus of course the ability to read and follow instructions!). I made the one in the photo here, and I also made a third one that we mailed to a friend for a new baby gift. Lightweight = cheap postage!  These latter two were both made under Kid 1 and 2’s “supervision” – they helped select the pieces of paper I used and which order they attached in.

Review – Winter is Coming

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Winter is Coming
written by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Jim LaMarche

 

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The story begins on the title page, in silence, unremarked. Were you watching? Did you see it begin?

About: One autumn a girl goes into the wood, day by day, with her notebook and pencils. She climbs up on a platform in a tree and sits there quietly, watching, listening, drawing and writing what she sees and hears. Slowly the season changes, the animals come and go, they prepare for the cold. Winter is coming. Then one day the snow falls, and winter is here. I love the way seasonal change is described, how the skills of nature observation are blended into the story, the detailed observations of animals. I haven’t bought this one for ourselves, because it’s very North American – the animals that visit, the snow and cold and frost, all things we just don’t see where we live. I’ve been tempted though because it is so good at describing the nature observation, the patience, the stillness and listening and watching, the tracking of changes over time. Anyone who’s learnt about “sit spots” will resonate with this book.

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Each double spread is a different day, somewhere in the passing autumn, with magical drawings of season, animals and watching. Most include the watching spot in the big old tree.

Good things:

  • Nature observation skills
  • Seasonal changes
  • Animals and behaviour observed and described in detail
  • Patience, persistence, stillness, watching, listening
  • Cycle of the year
  • Girl lead character – but really, it could be anyone, any child will be able to imagine themselves in that role.
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A typical page of text.

Little faces

What: Little changeable faces made from cardboard rolls, for storytelling and talking about feelings.

How: I took a couple of toilet roll centres and cut a face-shaped hole in each. I cut the other end a little, folded and spread the cut bits out onto a circle of cardboard cut from a used postpak and glued it down. When the glue was dry, I painted them with bright colours and patterns. Then I took the cardboard centre from a roll of alfoil or plastic cling wrap, which was narrow enough to go neatly inside the toilet roll centre, and cut it to length to fit inside the toilet roll. I drew faces around it with different expressions – cross, angry, happy, silly, sad, surprised – three faces to a roll. Then when it was all dry I assembled them.

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“He’s a silly nutmeg!” Dotty winked. That made Wiggles laugh! But Bluey didn’t like being called a silly nutmeg. He got cross.

Kid 2 loved them. The way I used them at that stage was to have little conversations between the people, where I modelled saying things that made people feel happy, sad, cross, whatever, or that were said with that kind of emotion, and turned the faces to match. This sometimes took a bit of quick thinking! I had lots of requests to “tell a story with the faces” to the point where I ended up hiding them away for a while. I’d often be asked to repeat the exact same story, and I couldn’t remember what I’d said the first time! That child is big on conversation and oral language, so the Little Faces were popular for a good year or so. I haven’t really had them out since , they got packed up for moving cross-country and have mostly stayed buried. So I don’t know how well they would have gone with the less conversational child, or at later ages. I may have to find them, put them out on a shelf and see if the kids will model their own conversations or if they can recognise the emotions drawn.

Extras: Kid 2 really wanted to make their own set of these, but it didn’t happen. It’d be a good craft project on the holidays now that the kids are a little older and I’m more patient with their attempts at gluing. As to using the set, getting the kids to tell their own stories – or to retell things that happened – would be interesting to try. I also see a good role for these in talking about how saying different things can change the face (feelings) of other people, now that Kid 6 is beginning to negotiate schoolyard politics rather than just blundering into them by accident and Kid 4 is having to deal with the politics despite being mostly oblivious.

Under the table Cubby House

What: A tablecloth made from an old sheet that converts the dining table into a cubby house.

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Quick and simple. Mopping the floor first was the longest bit.

How: I had been wanting to make a tablecloth cubby house for ages. You can make them properly sewn to the right size (i.e. cubical with no baggy corners), and I imagined sewing on swatches of multicoloured fabric to make it look like an actual house with windows and doors etc. But in the end I opted for the simplest possible version. I had an old sheet that needed sides-to-middlesing but I’d never gotten round to it. A few minutes with marker pen and scissors, and the cubbyhouse tablecloth was done. I highly recommend drawing a rectangle on the top so that you know which bits of table and cloth to align.

I made this one December, just at the start of the six-week summer holidays. I thought the kids would enjoy having a quiet, enclosed space to play in every so often across the holiday season, be it together for a game or just on their own without anyone else in their face. Especially Kid 3, who would be starting kindergarten at the end of the summer and who definitely needed some practice dealing with their emotions while hiding from people. In fact what happened was that it was used a little bit at first and then not again for a while – it was hard to keep the floor under the dining table clean enough for them to want to go under, plus we kept needing to take the tablecloth off so we could do craft projects or playdough or other messy things. Making it this simply also meant it was a little vulnerable to ripping – despite the “door”, those windows were very tempting to climb out of! However, as an additional idea to keep kids busy or distracted for some random small time in a small space without a lot of outdoors options (this was heatwave season!), it was just fine.

Extras: This works quite well with the under-table chalkboard. I could also make another one of these, letting the kids be in charge – Kid 5 was quite keen on the idea of decorating it themselves with textas (in fact they did so), and Kid 7 would be quite eager to help with selecting fabrics and cutting shapes to make more solid decorations. I think I might have gotten more use out of it in the first round if I’d steered activities they could do inside the cubby, like setting up a tea party or putting colouring books in there. Kid 3 and Kid 5 weren’t quite able to generate enough ideas for things to do themselves inside a cubby.