Shadow outlines

What: Drawing around our shadows to see the way the sun moves – and how silly it looks when our shadows stretch or shrink!

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Long Midwinter’s Day shadows, parallel like sunbeams.

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.

Review: Minnie’s Diner – A Multiplying Menu

Minnie’s Diner – A Multiplying Menu
written by Dayle Ann Dodds, illustrated by John Manders

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About: Minnie’s Diner is conveniently located near to the McFay farm, full of hungry boys. Each one is double the size of the next – and places double the order! Bouncy rhyming text sets up a story based purely on the idea of doubling and exponential increase. And it’s funny. We happened to acquire this book at the time that Kid 6 was beginning to work on the idea of doubling, and it fit in perfectly. It’s also an introduction to powers of 2, should you be needing reinforcement on that concept.

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“I’ll have what Bill has, but make it a double.” “Of course,” said Minnie, “That’s no trouble.”

 

Good things:

  • Maths makes the plot and meshes into the story
  • Doubling, exponential increase and powers of 2
  • Repetitive text for easier reading
  • Variety of visual perspective angles
  • It’s about food! My kids forgive a lot for that.

Immiscible glitterable bottleable

What: a (well-sealed) bottle that shakes up and separates out

How: You need a leftover plastic soft drink or sports drink type bottle, around the 600ml size-ish makes for good handling, with a lid that can be glued shut. (This isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary… oh, who am I kidding. Glue or tape that f@!#!@ker down good and tight once you’re done.) Fill about a quarter of the bottle with oil, add a capful of food colouring, a guinea pig’s fart’s worth of loose glitter (I don’t know how much that is exactly, but I’m told quite sincerely it’s correct), and then top up with water leaving a small airspace at the top.

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Mostly separated pre-shaking. The glitter usually collects at the base of the oil, but some always sticks to the bottle sides.

This was a baby toy I made for Kid 1 after seeing something similar at an open playgroup-in-the-park in Darwin. The idea is that they can shake it up, roll it around, try and crawl towards it or grab it, fiddle with the textures on the bottle (if your bottle has textures), all depending on age. And, of course, they can watch what happens as the oil and water mix and then separate out again. I found that the glitter tends to stay in the oil, and the colouring stays in the water. I suspect it might be possible to get oil-based colourings that would colour the oil as well so you’d have two quite different colours. I just used craft glitter, but if you were concerned about it being swallowed then edible glitter’s available at cake stores and should work fine for this too. I’ve never bothered trying to explain the oil and water thing to the kids, to me this is just a foundational activity, the sort of thing the kids add to their memory banks of “how the world works” that later on they can pull out and say “Oh, is *that* what that was about”. Such as when a grandparent says knowingly “Like oil and water, dearie” and the kids are all “Like what now?”.

Extras: Really, there’s not a lot more to this, it’s pretty much what it says on the box (but maybe with less syllables than I like to use). There is one modification I’ve seen that could be useful though – using the bottle as a timer. Go to your room, and you can come back out when the bottle’s cleared again. Gives them something to watch, and a known amount of time to spend calming down or getting themselves together or just getting over it (whatever “it” is). My bottle only takes a minute or so to clear, but I think there are recipes online using glitter glue that separate out a little more slowly so you can tweak the timing.

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!

Midwinter “stained glass” windows

What: Circles of “stained glass” patterns made with cellophane and cardboard, to play with winter light.

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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.

Review: 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids

150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids, by Asia Citro, MEd

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About: This is hands-down one of my favourite books and a regular go-to for “What can we do this afternoon?”, “Mummy, please play with us” and “I don’t know what to DOOOOOOO” moments. I look through the book myself for something I’m willing to face up to, or I hand the book to the kids and get them to pick something out that they like the look of. I’ve also handed this book to Daddy for his nights-doing-stuff-with-kids and told him if he picks something he wants to do, I’ll make sure we have the ingredients. I really like Citro’s approach – she encourages a lot of the fundamentals of very-early-childhood science, which is basically investigating substances and the way they behave when you do stuff to them. It’s all play. Much of it is messy. It’s fun, it’s delightful, it’s imaginative, it can be wondrous. Many recipes and activities are suitable for kids who put things in their mouth, or who have allergies. Some take more prep or cleaning up than others, so I can choose what I’m capable of on a given day and find something fun. There’ll be a few activities I post up on this blog that have come from this book, or from Citro’s blog, FunAtHomeWithKids.com, which is well worth an explore. The age range of activities is probably 0 to 10 years, at least, so it’s a book you’ll get plenty of use out of.

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Each activity has preparation time, suitable age range, and a bunch of other quick things you might be looking for (eg eat safe, gluten free, nut free etc). I also like the “Tips for doing things on a budget” boxes in each section of the book, though they are less relevant if you’re not in the same country as the author.

Good things:

  • Wide age range suitability
  • Lots of ideas with accessible ingredients
  • Well laid out and photographed
  • Kids can look through the book themselves
  • Good science fundamentals (and literacy and numeracy and manual dexterity)
  • Basically, all-round good early childhood resource
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There’s also variations on each activity, to break it down or build it up to different age ranges, or to work with different materials if you don’t have something in the cupboard, or to extend it if you’ve already done this activity ten times and your kids want to do it *again*.

Review: The Unbreakable Code

The Unbreakable Code, written by Sara Hoagland Hunter and illustrated by Julia Miner.

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About:In World War II, the Americans needed a code that couldn’t be broken by the Japanese – and they recruited a group of Navaho to develop one. This book tells the story of the Navajo code talkers, put together out of interviews with many of the surviving code talkers, and framed in fiction as a grandfather telling his grandson not to be afraid to move to a new home. It’s an important part of American and WWII history, a discussion of how codes, languages and alphabets intertwine, and a clear portrait of what advantages cultural differences can bring to a multicultural society. It also tells clearly and effectively of the sadnesses of war, the punishments applied to Native Americans who tried to hold onto their culture and some of the barriers they faced to acceptance. The reading level is quite high and the themes quite strong, so I’d put this book at at age level of say 5-10 years old, despite it being a picture book with stunning illustrations.

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“The code had to be simple and fast. We would have only one chance to send each message. After that, the Japanese would be tracing our location to bomb us or trying to record the code.”

Good things:

  • Positive indigenous contribution to society
  • Central characters are Native American
  • War descriptions effective but without undue emphasis on the terrible
  • Places the code talkers in cultural and historical context
  • Talks about language and codes and how the code was developed
  • Promotes the use and value of indigenous language
  • Includes the basic code used by the code talkers
  • Beautiful oil painting illustrations

Book safe for Super Spies

What: A book safe, used as part of the secret agent mission for Kid 7’s birthday.

How: I found a book with very specific qualities. It had to be hardback, quite thick, quite large, and something we never wanted to read again and didn’t care if it was cut up. The last bit was the hardest. Though after I showed my husband the final product, he said “Hey, you should have asked me” and handed me a book he’d won as a quiz night prize that would also have been perfect. I’ve kept that one in case the kids want to make one of their own – because I made this one in secret, as part of the party preparations.

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It took ages to make that hole. I was disappointed at how small it turned out to be when I put the magnifying glasses in it.

The basic method is that you leave a block of pages untouched at the front to make the book appear normal. Then you use a Stanley trimmer or similar cutting knife to cut your hole, working your way down through the layers of pages until you have a hole of sufficient size. Once you have your hole, smear glue carefully around the outside of the book over all the pages that are part of the hole but not the “lid” pages. I didn’t think that would be enough, but once the glue dried the safe part held together quite well and you can still flick the first few chapters normally.

I kept the bits I cut out to make the clue for this activity. Several of the bits I’d cut out were chapter titles with numbers on them – “One”, “Eight”, “Eleven” etc. I used as many of those as I could find and wrote one letter on them each that would make a message when the pieces were laid out in number order. The messages were “In A Book” and the author’s surname (visible in Really Big Letters on the book’s spine).

When party time came, the kids earnt the envelopes with the clue messages by completing the disguise relay. Then they had to work out what the message was.  I had to help a little here as not all kids were solid readers. I also had to somewhat lay out the things that were obvious – such as these were pieces of a book, they should look where books are, maybe start with the books that are full of words like these pieces rather than the books that are mostly pictures, is there a book with “Douglass” on it? I was trying to get them to do as much of that process themselves as they could, but books that are full of nothing but words are a little new to this age group (as is that kind of logical processing of the obvious, though kids 9 and 11 were making the leaps themselves).

Eventually they saw the book they were looking for. Then I made them stop, think, work out if there was a way to get the book down safely without climbing up the bookshelves to grab it immediately (excitement is such a rush). They had to flop around dramatically because thinking was so hard and they couldn’t work out what to do, but eventually they realised that they were flopping on a handily-placed stepladder and used it. When they got the book down, they discovered that it was a book safe. Inside the book safe they found magnifying glasses (cheapies from an online party store), and a new clue page. I couldn’t fit quite enough magnifying glasses into the book, so I was standing ready with a bag to hand out the extras or make sure people got the colour they wanted if that was an issue (it mostly wasn’t, but I couldn’t be sure beforehand).

Code wheels for Super Spies

What: Code wheels made as part of the Secret Agent mission for Kid 7’s birthday.

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Codebreakers at work making their equipment. One day I’ll tell them about Bletchley Park.

How: The kids found a briefcase that contained code wheel sheets, split pins, scissors (they got to keep a pair each, I’d ordered a bulk pack from an education supplies online store), and a new code message written in rotary cipher (moved on 7 places for a 7th birthday). I got the code wheel sheets as a download from The Science Museum in the UK and printed them myself. They’re the kind that have two wheels that you have to cut out and attach together, so I needed to print them on something sturdier than normal printer paper but that would still go through our printer. That was tricker than I expected – I used to use 110gsm paper for that sort of thing but the local office supplies store only had 80gsm or 210gsm (which won’t feed through a printer). Eventually I found some fancy stuff used for printing wedding invites etc, and that mostly worked OK but was not as cheap as I’d thought it would be.

So then the kids happily went and sat in the loungeroom and cut out and assembled the code wheels. I thought that might be slower and more confusing, but they all did it quite easily. Kid 5’s age group might have been more erratic with the scissor precision, but the 6-7 year olds were perfectly fine and didn’t need explanation on how to make the wheels at all, just intuited it.

We ran into a problem though using the code wheels to translate the message. Remembering which wheel was code and which was decode was very tricky for the kids (though pretty straightforward for kid 9 and kid 11). I’d also gone seven places back instead of forwards. And the code wheel itself had lots of extra characters so wasn’t just a straight alphabetic rotation. Which would have been fine if I’d used the same code wheel to make the message. But I hadn’t – there are lots of online scripts to encode messages and I’d used one to write my rot-7 message so that I wouldn’t make any mistakes. The result was that the message didn’t actually translate. I had to redo it on the fly using a spare code wheel, and I did make at least one mistake. But eventually the group of us all worked out that the message said “Towel Up!”, and ran for the bathroom.

Spy gear gained and used in this exercise: scissors and codewheel.

Rear view glasses for Super Spies

What: rear view glasses, found as part of the Mission during Kid 7’s spy-themed birthday party. And a message in mirror writing, to solve using the glasses.

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The pre-prepared glasses that Daddy and I stuck together.

How: I looked for rear view glasses online but couldn’t find any cheap enough to order in party quantities. Kid 6 had a pair from a school book club set, and I’d made some once as a kids activity at a science museum. So I knew the rough idea. I ended up ordering a bunch of kid-sized sunglasses from an online party goods store, and a bunch of small craft mirrors from a big box craft store, and assembling them myself. I did consider getting the kids to do it, but thought it might be a bit slow/tricky for a group of six and seven year olds to manage themselves. Maybe nine to eleven year olds would have been fine with it. The problem with self-assembly is that the bits don’t quite match up in size and shape – the glasses have too much curve in them (you want them to be quite flat rather than following the line of a face), the mirrors are too big to fit inside the frame and at the same time too small to see effectively in – that sort of thing. I tried superglue but couldn’t get the mirrors to stick well enough to the frames, so ended up using double-sided sticky tape. Which was mostly a temporary solution, but held together well enough to get through the party.

The kids found the glasses all ready for them in a box in the bathroom, and gleefully put them on. I’ve found with these that they are really tricky to use the first time, and then the second time it’s a lot easier. It takes a little practice working out how to focus on the mirror and make sense of what you’re seeing, and then how to turn your head so you can choose what to look at. The kids had fun trying them out. Some got it, some didn’t, but the idea was Super Cool (and it was sunglasses which are automatically cool) so that was all right then.

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Where do you write a message in mirror writing? On the mirror, of course.

Also in the bathroom, on the mirror, was this big message, in code. Well, in mirror writing. Which doesn’t seem like a tricky code, but given that several of the kids are still working through the first hundred sight words list and can’t immediately recognise words when they see them, and some are not reliable at identifying mirrored and flipped letters like b/d/p/q, mirror writing *was* tricky. I made it a little trickier by breaking up the words and using multiple colours so that even the kids who would normally recognise the words on sight didn’t just immediately know what the message was, and that seemed to even up the speed a bit or at least slow down the faster ones. Trying to read the message with the glasses was a bit tricky for the kids, but being in the bathroom there was another option. Several of the cabinets had mirrored doors, and there’s a mirror on the bathroom door, and if you move the various mirrors around you could get it so the letters were all the right way without having to use the glasses. The message was written with some pens I found that are specifically for use on mirrors, glass and bathtubs and the like. They go on like oil pastels and wash off easily.