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).

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.

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.

“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!

Review: 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids

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


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,, 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.

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
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*.

Everything goes on a cracker

What: Strawberries on cheese-and-crackers

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!

Back-of-the-door marble chase

What: A home-made marble chase, built by the kids, on the back of the front door, made from toilet roll tubes and cardboard boxes.

Kid 5 testing the newest tube while Kid 3 cuts the next tube. The small box at the end was so that we didn’t have to keep searching everywhere for where the marble had ended up THIS time.

How: I collected a bunch of toilet roll tubes and set a couple of small boxes aside from the recycling pile. I taped one of the tubes to the back of the door with masking tape, and when the kids had gathered to see what their crazy mother was doing this time, I dropped a marble in the tube and let it roll out. Then I gnashed my teeth and rent my hair and bewailed at the insufficiency of it all and said it Needed To Be Bigger. The kids took over at that point. My main contribution was to insist that they did one tube at a time and then tested the chase with a marble, so they could decide if they needed to move the tube closer or tilt it more or what. Sometimes the testing had to be done several times “just to be sure”. Sometimes they’d have to change something further back down the line because the marble now had more speed when it got to that point. They worked out for themselves that they might need to cut the end of a tube a bit so that it would catch the marble better. Kid 3 and Kid 5 both did really well with this, though I did need to stick around – if I wasn’t paying them my direct attention they tended to wander off to find me instead.