Gumdrop construction

What: construction using gumdrops and toothpicks. This was one of a series of STEM projects I did over one set of summer holidays when we were trying to do at least one STEM thing every other day. I got the idea from the Tinkerlab book (which is much recommended and which I will review here eventually).

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Vertical is over-rated.

How: I think I used one bag of gumdrops that I tipped out onto a tray for better sorting through (seeing as some kids *have* to use The Right Colour), plus a spare bag in reserve if it was needed, and I had a couple of toothpick holders with double-ended toothpicks in them that could get passed around. I put them all out on the table at a family event, and children and uncles and grandparents all had a go.

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A variety of creations and careful sortings.

Kid 3 is pattern-obsessed and enjoys visual-spatial stuff, and spent quite a bit of time doing extended 2D flat patterns with a very simple arrangement repeated. Kid 5 is much less spatial or directional, and had a lot of fun just playing and seeing what happened without repeats, but also stayed 1D and 2D. Eventually I built a 3D shape or two to show them that they could go up as well as out, seeing as they didn’t appear to have imagined that on their own, and Kid 3 happily copied it to see if they could. They had minimal success seeing as the gumdrops do tend to sag over time, and sometimes quite quickly if not placed carefully. But the idea was there. Kid 5 was surprisingly engaged with the activity and took quite a while to start asking if they could eat the gumdrops yet – it’s usually the first thing mentioned.

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“This one is purple, and then a yellow one, and then orange next. I’ve made ten squares.”

Extras: there’s so much you could try here. Marshmallows instead of gumdrops, kebab skewers instead of or as well as toothpicks to get different length sides. It was hard to do long sides using multiple segments as they did tend to sag, so you couldn’t easily do big structures with just the toothpicks – but you could try. Copying interesting architectural structures – e.g. building the Eiffel Tower, seeing if you can make all of the regular-sided polyhedrons, or just build a Monster Truck model or a T-Rex. Or go the other way for a more junior age group, and see what 2D shapes you can build. What *does* a 36-sided shape look like anyway? And how many toothpicks and gumdrops do you need? Any kind of construction that suits your fancy. All should be possible with patience. And possibly blue-tack instead of confectionery, though that’s not nearly as much fun!

Everything goes on a cracker

What: Strawberries on cheese-and-crackers

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Mummy, it’s bigger than my mouth.

How: Kid 5 invented this. They like crackers, they like cheese and particularly the soft kind that comes with chives, and they like strawberries – the bigger the better. The only “how” here that’s at all difficult is how we got one to last long enough to get a photo. Food construction For The Win! The curious bit about this is that Kid 5 hates mixing food. But they ate their mixed constructions quite happily. So it was a tentative foray into the idea of what happens when you combine flavours and textures in one mouthful. Maybe we should have watched the beginning of Ratatouille next!

Extras: When this happened, it was just food experimentation, plain and simple, with the big box of strawberries Grandma had got from a local farm plus our usual collection of cheese-and-crackers left over from morning tea with some visitors. A wider range of ingredients could get some more serious building going on with more focused ideas about shapes and meaning and imagination. It also seems like I missed an opportunity to build on this spontaneous kid-generated activity by doing more play with food flavours and textures, and hopefully sneak in a few “mixed” dishes into our meal routines. I have very few of those – no winter soups or casseroles, because anything mixed is “yucky”. Another direction to go is that there are carved-strawberry-and-topping hor d’eouvres and kids’ finger food that you can make, so we could build on the basic idea and make something more complicated or fancy-looking. Kid 5 at this stage was using very basic kids’ kitchen knives (paring and smaller) to cut softer things like strawberries, watermelon, cucumber, banana and mushroom, so we could have gone with a cutting exercise of some sort. Wasn’t going to happen on this day though – the important bit was that the strawberry was as big as possible!

The Spy Cake

What: “a chocolate mint cake, with white icing with red and black on it and spy butterflies”, for Kid 7’s spy themed birthday party. It was the final prize in their secret agents mission.

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I have a ways to go before I manage to make cakes that reliably don’t crack.

We went through quite a few variations of what it would be, actually. The original plan was to have one of those printed-icing things with the cover of one of the EJ Spy School books. But I forgot I needed to organise that well ahead of time! So this was our fallback. I think Kid 7 had intended it to be a layer cake with a chocolate layer and a mint layer, but when I found this out less than 24 hours before the party I really didn’t have the mental beans to do that. So it was all one chocolate cake with spearmint and peppermint oils added. We had to work out what “spy butterflies” meant in Kid 7’s head but eventually realised that they are little drone cameras, and mentioned in one of the EJ Spy School books. So the butterflies were done with a push-cutter thingy and pre-bought black fondant. They were supposed to have red eyes but I didn’t find red cabochons so silver it was.

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Close-up on the butterflies and that drippy glaze icing. The pattern’s part of the butterfly presser. Getting the cabochons to stay on was a challenge.

Icing was a bit tricky – most types of icing have been rejected by Kid 7 as being “yucky” – including cream cheese icing, chocolate-sour-cream icing, standard buttercream, fondant and just plain whipped cream. However, Kid 7 was able to specify that they wanted “the kind of icing you make just by mixing the sugar with some water”, so an icing sugar glaze it was.