What: Drawing around our shadows to see the way the sun moves – and how silly it looks when our shadows stretch or shrink!
How: You need a space long enough to do the shadows, that gets some direct sun. Our driveway is our preferred spot. Also, chalk. Then, it’s just a matter of when you do it. This week’s drawing was in honour of the winter solstice, done not long after dawn, so the shadows are at their longest for the year. On other occasions we’ve repeated the activity at noon or in the afternoon, so that you can see how the shadows point the same direction at a given time (they’re parallel) but point the other way later, or how they are much shorter at noon than they are early or late.
Extras: There’s so much to play with here, in the themes of astronomy, seasons, time and change. Winter and summer shadows are quite different in direction and size. If you do this activity every couple of months the kids may remember what it was like the last time (mine didn’t!) – or take photos to assist the comparison. You could stand on one spot and repeat the outline every hour or two to overlay a series of shadows for that day (older kids could talk more specifically about angles or measure lengths). There’s plenty to talk about how the sun moves, how it’s lower in the sky or higher with the seasons, how dawn is late in winter but very early in summer (if you’re getting up to do a dawn drawing!). My preference is to not talk much about it, but to try and do the exercise often enough that the kids themselves realise that something is changing and start the conversation themselves. Though more often they’ve gotten distracted by the presence of chalk and begun colouring in their own pictures and adding details – and that’s just fine too. At some point I will probably use this activity as a foundation exercise before we play with sundials – both the normal fixed kind and the kind where you use yourself as the gnomon. I’d love to build one of these in the garden with stepping stones! And of course there’s the survival skill of using the movement of shadows to find north, which is easier understood if you’ve spent time thinking about the idea that your shadow isn’t fixed or constant.
What: Circles of “stained glass” patterns made with cellophane and cardboard, to play with winter light.
How: I cut circles from cardboard from the boxes frozen pizzas come in, and cut patterns in them with a Stanley knife or craft knife. Kid 4 and Kid 2 helped me paint the cardboard black (sitting on some layers of newspaper of course). When it was dry we took pieces of coloured cellophane and stickytaped them to the back of the cardboard, sometimes layering more than one piece to get different shades or depths of colour. Then we blu-tacked them to the window to see them in the light!
Extras: We just did very simple patterns with no particular rhyme or theme. I was picking up on the idea of “wheels” and some of the traditional circular designs (the quartered circle, a six-fold wheel, a St Leonard’s Cross) but didn’t talk to the kids about them at all. You could choose colours and shapes more carefully to fit a theme or idea, copy famous windows and patterns from around the world, do more complicated patterns and pictures inside the circles – there’s plenty of room to make beautiful art out of these. The first ones I ever saw were ones my mum made when I was perhaps 4 myself – she made angels for Christmas. I was captivated by the stained glass effect and the visceral sense of how it felt to have colours falling through the windows – I think I danced the story of the colours on my skin for the rest of the day, or just stood there soaking it in in absolute delight. As an adult I remembered the project and thought it would be a good thing to do for Midwinter when we celebrate the returning of the light. As my kids get older we might make another set of these, and let them do more of the planning and the cutting – these ones were set up beforehand ready to go and pretty heavily guided.
What: Painted fallen leaves, arranged on the wall.
How: We collected fallen leaves from one of the local plane trees, choosing a range of sizes but mostly “the big ones”. Then I gave Kid 4 and Kid 2 each a paintbrush and a plastic takeaway container lid with some dobs of acrylic paint on it, and let them go for it. They mixed some colours on the tray, and others directly onto the leaf. I painted a few as well to get a bit of variety in colour and style. Once they were dry, we arranged them on the wall as if the wind was blowing them along. Kid 4 helped me with the sticking and enjoyed getting up on the stepladder to do it. So there were two activities here.
Note to people in other climates: here, leaves fall in winter – if they fall at all in this evergreen land. It just doesn’t get cold enough before then. So this for us is very much a winter activity. We also don’t get much of what people talk of as autumn colours – again, because even in winter it’s not cold enough to trigger the colour change in most of those trees that are famous for it. So painted leaves can be as close as we get, even if the colours are unusually fantastic.
Extras: Talking about the seasons with the kids is something I have to do every autumn and winter – they are barraged with the cultural ideas of “fall” and “autumn leaves” and it’s not always obvious to them that the autumn they experience isn’t like that at all. Though as they get older they’re noticing it more. Our autumns – and indeed, much of our winters – means bright, bright flowers against brilliant hotly blue skies. Bougainvillea, trumpet vine, poinsettia, plumbago, umbrella tree – oranges, reds, corals, pinks, scarlets, light blues, purples all so vibrant. Autumn is also the time when the eucalyptus trees lose their bark and show their trunks in an amazing range of colours. So going on a colour hunt is something we should try doing (though now that it’s winter it’s too late for the tree bark!). There are other things to try with plane tree leaves too. This year we’re making a picture with the plane tree leaves, and I’ll put that up as a separate post once we’ve done it.
What: Eggs and cotton wool dyed with things from our kitchen or garden
How: We boiled three different dye-things in their own saucepans of water, with a little vinegar to help the dye set, added a few eggs to each pan and let them soak overnight (12-18 hours all up). Yellow is turmeric peelings (leftover from some turmeric-lime truffles I made), pink is beetroot peelings (leftover from feeding the kids beetroot!), and blue is red cabbage. We had lots of fun watching the cabbage change colour as we added the vinegar, then eggs (with an alkaline shell), then baking soda to counteract the excess vinegar either Kid 1 or Kid 3 “helped” me pour. The eggs are brown (like almost all eggs sold in Australia) so the final colours have that base, but we also boiled white cotton wool in the water, to put in the egg baskets, and that came out with clearer colours. The cotton wool isn’t something you can keep forever though. Especially the lot that was cooked in the cabbage water – that keeps the odour of boiled cabbage!
Boiling the cotton wool was good, to see the real colours of the dye.
Getting to play with the change of colour with the red cabbage was unexpected. We ended up doing that later as another activity – getting all of Daddy’s shot glasses and filling them with cabbage water, then adding various things from around the house to make a rainbow (which I’ll post on another time).
You could try dying with other things – onion skins are a common one (except the eggs are already brown!). I have dyers’ chamomile growing in my garden but we’ve never collected the shoebox of flowers you’d need for enough dyestuff. Turmeric, beetroot and red cabbage are reliable which is why I used them.
Lastly, of course, there’s the egg hunt, which was the real reason for doing this project!
What: Marking the autumn equinox by prepping the rain gear.
More details: In Perth, where I live, there’s almost no rain from November to the autumn equinox in March. Spring is long and warm, summer is long and hot. The first rains after the autumn equinox is an important local change of seasons for us, it’s the end of heatwave season and the end of endurance. And it’s the beginning of puddles! So we always mark the autumn equinox by going over the rain gear. Everyone has to have a working umbrella and gum boots that fit and don’t leak. Raincoats are awesome too, though we don’t do those every year. Two or three years ago the first rains were on the equinox, the year before that they were the first day of April, this year they were on Easter Saturday, the last Saturday in March. So usually if I’m getting organised around the equinox it mostly works out, timing-wise, for us to have our gear ready when the puddles arrive. Kid 6 this year spent a lot of time asking if it was the equinox yet.
This year I knew our current kid-sized umbrellas were broken so I picked two up as souvenir presents on a recent trip. They change colour when wet which has provoked some discussion as to *how*. Other years we’ve looked online at umbrella stores and hunted for favourite animals and styles, or searched for boots that match a current umbrella. Gum boots usually come from wherever we come across them – I tend not to buy them online due to needing to size them well, though I have at least once. Mostly that’s camping stores or discount clothing stores, once an agricultural supply store, it really depends. Because the heatwaves only finish with the first rains, a lot of stores here don’t get raincoats and gumboots in “until it’s cooled down”, which is usually after the puddles arrive. So I get them where I find them.
How: Blow up and tie a yellow balloon. We had pale and gold balloons and ended up with one of each. I also had a card of yellow lace that the local fabric/craft shop was getting rid of in a $5/card sale. It took about a metre and a half of lace per balloon, cut into three pieces of varying length. Tape the lace around the balloon in layers so that the ruffles hang down. This is not as easy as it sounds. Kid 4 did a great job of concentrating but grew tired of it after three rounds of ruffles, Kid 6 liked the idea of as much ruffle as possible but really needs more Mad Stickytape Skillz so four was their limit. If you can, get the top layer of ruffle around the approximate middle of the balloon.
Then, draw a chick face on with permanent markers. I made the mistake of sending Kid 4 to raid my pen drawer for them, and they came back with all the pointy-tipped ones – and then managed to pop their balloon with one on the very last bit of drawing. There were many tears. Gentle is the order of the day, and possibly broad-tip pens! I blew and taped a replacement balloon so that they could both finish their project.
Extras: This was part of a morning of Easter crafts, where we did a whole bunch of egg and chick type activities (mostly $2 kits from the supermarket or chemist). Two more Kid 6s came over as we were nearing the end, and made themselves each a balloon too – a funny-face egg and a blue chick. They were very surprised to discover that we were using permanent markers and they couldn’t change their faces once drawn – that might be an interesting variation, to use normal textas and tell stories with changing emotions on the faces.
Eggs, chicks and religion: I don’t always focus on the egg side of things, because Easter here is not at nesting time – it just happened that way this year. We’ve had conversations before about whether you see nests and eggs in trees at this time of year, at the spring equinox as well as Easter, and we might have a conversation about that later today again. As a non-Christian household I don’t go into the symbolism of rebirth at this point or discuss “the real meaning of Easter”. I stick to seasonal observations as much as I can with the kids. And today I choose to smile and skate past Kid 6’s determined pronouncements that a pet rabbit will hatch from their egg.