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!

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!

Art party #4 – the cake

What: a watermelon-flavoured cake with mint leaves and berries, jelly on top, no chocolate, no icing, and no cake. Kid 5 can get a bit specific about their requests some times.

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Just before serving. By the way, that dark jelly is better than red wine.

How:

  • Take one watermelon, cut a cake-sized cylinder from the middle, cut the peel away from the outside. In hindsight, it’d have been easier to eat if we left the peel on.
  • Make a couple of pizza-trays of strawberry and raspberry jelly, using berry juice instead of hot water. Completely fail to prepare the trays for easy jelly removal, causing the jelly to come out in vague chunks. For bonus points, attempt to warm the tray in the oven while cooking pizza so that the top of the jelly melts and the bottom remains completely stuck.
  • Tip the jelly onto the cake. Try to land it on the top of the cake rather than half-on and half-off, because it *will* slide under its own mass and watermelon has no grip on the jelly.
  • Cover the cake with spearmint leaf lollies (still available in dollar and home brands if you look for them) and berry lollies, then put cake in the fridge to ensure the jelly doesn’t melt while decorating.
  • Come back to the cake the next morning and redo all the lollies seeing as they will have slid off the jelly overnight and soaked in watermelon juice, rendering them surprisingly inedible.
  • Attempt to stick a candle into the jelly in a way that will let it stay upright, while not causing the jelly to slip off.
  • Go into the party room and start everyone singing Happy Birthday.
  • Pay attention when your spouse is calling from the other room “I can’t get it to light!!!”
  • Get everyone singing again.
  • Leave spouse attempting to cut pieces of cake and put them on party plates without losing any of the lollies on top or accidentally flicking jelly across the room as he tips the slices.
  • Go get the tray of plain watermelon slices you prepared earlier from the rest of the watermelon, and put it out for the kids to devour.
  • Put watermelon cake back in the fridge after the party. Wait until it has been completely forgotten by Birthday Child, and add to compost.

(Honestly, this could have been done really well and been excellent, and in fact many bits of it were excellent. It just didn’t happen that way *this* time.)

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Handing out slices to the crowd.

Other art party activities: suncatchers, sticky tape resist paintings, balloon painting, paint making and party bag decorating.

Natural-dyed eggs

What: Eggs and cotton wool dyed with things from our kitchen or garden

dyed eggs

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!

Extras:

  • 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!

Review: Noodle Magic

written by Roseanne Greenfield Thong, illustrated by Meilo So

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Noodle Magic. Written by Roseanne Greenfield Thong, illustrated by Meilo So.

About: A cute little tale about finding the magic within, told in the style of a Chinese folk tale. Plus, noodles! That made it an instant hit with my kids. The author spent 16 years living, working and studying in Asia, the illustrator is Hong Kong-born and British Empire raised. This book goes nicely in my collection of books about makers.

Good things:

  • Non-Eurocentric / Western-centric setting and characters
  • Little girl finding her own ability to do incredible things
  • A maker story
  • Author and illustrator both having a genuine connection to the culture they’re depicting
  • Sense of community in the illustrations
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The next morning, Mei and her friends played and jumped with strands of white, wheaty dough. “If only I had your gift,” Mei sighed. “I think you just might,” said Grandpa. But Mei knew that no one could spin magic like Grandpa Tu!

Pasta pictures

What: Pictures made by gluing coloured pasta to paper.

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Red and blue pasta stuck to heavyweight black paper. This was my bird, that I could work on slowly filling in the space and adding texture while the kids talked to me over their own work. Keeping my own hands busy elicits a lot more conversation from them.

How: We had two bags of previously coloured pasta (see Extras) that I wanted to get out of the craft cupboard. So I put them on the table with some PVC “gloopy” glue (in a plastic cup, with paintbrushes to apply it) and some black and white paper and let the kids go for it.

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The Flower of Heaven, done by Kid 6. Glue is put on the paper rather than the pasta, to avoid the food colouring coming off on fingers *quite* so much.

I like to work with the texture and shape of things to make texture in the artwork, building up solid shapes, but the kids aren’t quite on that page yet. Kid 6 is (as is typical I believe) quite line focused, and used the pasta to make outlines of what they wanted to achieve. In their second piece they’d seen what I was working on and tried laying out pieces of pasta to take up space, then gluing them down – which resulted in the butterfly. Kid 4 went abstract, with no picture at all, and concentrated on making a pattern. After the pattern was done to their mental and emotional satisfaction, they began to add in other bits to make it more of a “picture”.

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Kid 6’s butterfly. This was originally more densely packed inside the wings, but the process of lifting each piece off, putting glue on it and putting it back got a bit much and they lowered their goals a little bit .

Extras: This is actually the third activity we’ve done with this pasta. Kid 2 and Kid 4 helped me make it originally – we put pasta in plastic bags with a whole lot of food colouring and mixed it around and around (from the outside of the bag) until they were all covered in colour. Smooth pasta takes colour better than textured pasta, but the latter gives some cool effects too. Also, the blue was harder to manage because when it was even, it’s a bit dark and you can’t see the colour. Brighter and lighter colours are more optimal. The second activity was once the pasta was dried – we used it for threading pasta necklaces. There’s an age where threading seems to be a useful manual dexterity skill, and pasta and a bit of wool is a nice cheap way to do that. Plus having two linked activities meant we got a bit of time spent for not so much of my mental effort. Unfortunately, macaroni is really crap for threading – a lot of the pieces are squished at one end so you can’t get wool through, and that was very frustrating for Kid 2 and Kid 4. The penne was fine! The last thing you could do with this pasta is try cooking it. We didn’t, and now I wouldn’t because it’s had a *lot* of handling and sitting around gathering dust etc etc, but if you were doing these activities all in the same week then cooking up the pasta and seeing if it held its colour would be a nice finisher off. Plus then you’d have none left to take up space forgotten in the craft drawer.

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Kid 4’s pattern, with some additional bits to begin turning it into a “picture”. I think it might be a plane with wings, or something with wings, I’m not sure.

Food art plates

What: Morning tea or afternoon tea, sometimes lunch, served as curious and decorative plates.

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An actual picture rather than a decorative collection. Kid 3 has insisted on eating their snow peas disassembled ever since. Kid 5 was pleased that they recognised it as a picture and talked about it a lot. Only about half of the plate was eaten each, but it got them considering what they’d be willing to eat and making some decisions for themselves, which I try to allow within reason.

More details: Food art is one of those things that very occasionally you have time for, but mostly you just look at pictures of other people doing it on Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook and think “my gods, how does anyone have the time for that?”. And usually I’m in the latter camp. But occasionally I squirrelled away the time to try, such as when we were visiting Grandma. It let me give foundations for later concepts such as matching shapes, colour themes, presentation of “cafe” food that we were serving. It also broke up the routine just a little, allowing me to introduce or reintroduce unusual foods and combinations and try and keep the variation going. Because, you never know what they’ll be willing to eat when they’re caught by surprise, and all the gods know they’re not willing to eat just about anything you give them. The other thing it did was occasionally give *me* a creative outlet or break in routine so I didn’t feel totally stultified by the constant and relentless demands of toddlers on my attention and energy. So yeah, this is one of those things that made *me* feel better, which I then justified afterwards (though the reasons are still good).

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Stars. Star shaped flowers, bread with avocado, pieces of plum arranged with almonds. Kid 1 and Kid 3 were both amused at this. We also talked about how there was blue, red, yellow and green all together. Activities/moments like this let me get food into both of them despite one eating one thing and the other eating another. Over time they’ve learnt to negotiate with each other to swap bits, though they need more practice at that.