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.
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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!

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*.

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.

Tesselation with blocks

What: Tesselating and making pictures or patterns with blocks.

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Several of the resulting creations, including some that come from putting blocks on top of each other. Note the flower stem is a two-layer pattern. 

How: I have no idea where we got these blocks – I played with them as a child, and it’s possible that my mum played with them as a child too. They are good manipulatives for starting to think about angles – many of the shapes fit together, in fact most – but not quite all. So you can easily spread a tesselating pattern out across floor space, working out from the centre. Or, you can just use them to make simple pictures, tangram-style. We did a bit of both. It held Kid 5’s attention longer than Kid 3, and I’ve played the blocks at younger ages too but this was the first time they really actively got into it and started manipulating the shapes themselves.

Extras: I think this is all in whether or not you want to start talking about the angles, how some corners are pointier than others, whether you want to look at the number of sides shapes have before and after you put them together, surface area, breaking up 360 degrees into equal parts, which shapes tessellate (and do you even want to say “tessellate” or do you want to say “fit together without spaces”, which I think is how it’s been put to Kid 6 in school).

Carrot prints and painting

What: Printing and painting with food dye, using carrots cut into shapes as stampers and “brushes”.

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In progress. Kid 6 is beginning a picture on the left, kid 4 is making random stamps in the middle, and I am partway through some more coordinated stamping on the right. There is a tray of blue dye and a tray of yellow. Carrots don’t “wash off”, so double dipping has predictable results.

How: Cut the carrots on a couple of different angles and at different sizes – you should be able to get small circles, big circles, ovals, irregular/pointy ovals, and even a rectangle or two of various proportions. I also cut one carrot unevenly so that it stamped a half circle, and cut another to give a more triangular result. Take plastic or styrofoam meat/fruit trays and put a few drops of different colours of food dye on them. Rub the carrots in the dye and stamp them or roll them or “brush” them on the page to make patterns and pictures.

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Kid 6’s finished pieces on the left, and kid 4’s finished pieces on the right (which may have devolved into finger work). Streaking was a popular technique.

Extras: Careful choice of dyes means you get to talk about mixing colours – and the colours WILL mix! You can focus on making patterns of whatever level of complexity your kids are up to, do it “wrapping paper” style. Or use the shapes to build up a picture and talk about what shapes are in the picture or make up different parts of the picture. I would have liked to talk about what happens when you roll – that mental translation from a 3D object to what its sides look like in a 2D form as you roll it across the page – but neither kid 4 or kid 6 was quite up for that. At first (and mostly) they just used the carrots like pencils, but as they went along they began to see that they could do more than that.

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My two pieces, made for the purpose of keeping my hands busy, talking as we went and (without specifically saying so) demonstrating ideas. The first was wrapping-paper style stamping, the second was experimenting with techniques and shapes to make a picture. The “dunes” at the bottom are one piece of unevenly-cut carrot, rolled across the page.

Pattern generation

What: A multicoloured pattern, similar to some wrapping paper designs.

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Shapes going diagonally to the right, coloured squares going diagonally to the left. A maths and art activity.

How:

  • We took an A3(ish) sheet of drawing paper and folded it into a strip, then folded the strip into a small square. When we unfolded it, there was a grid of creases in the paper.
  • In the first square we drew something small, an easily repeated shape, with a coloured marker from a tuned set of six. We then counted across one square and down one square and drew the same shape again, and repeated til we had a diagonal line that went down to the bottom of the page.
  • We then went to the second square, and drew a new shape in a new colour, and repeated this down the diagonal line. There was a little bit of fiddly explanation to show how the line “wrapped” around from the right hand side of the paper to keep going on the left – Kid 6 took this as a random nonsensical instruction and followed it meticulously, eventually beginning to get a glimmer of why, and Kid 4 (who is very pattern oriented) grasped the idea immediately but had difficulty with implementation. Both kids worked out pretty quickly that moving one over and one down always put you on the right of the drawing you did before.
  • We kept going until every square had a shape in it. This is where Kid 4 ran out of patience / thought their pattern was complete / decided they were Done, and where I encouraged them to stop.
  • Then, we took a new colour of marker from the set and coloured the right-most-top square’s background, and went one over-left and one down to make a new diagonal line. I took some care to try and pick a colour that wasn’t going to turn up in the shapes we were colouring around. Eventually Kid 6 worked out for themself that there was a repeating pattern in the shapes they were colouring around – e.g. orange, brown, blue, orange, brown, blue – and that some of the colours weren’t in each line at all. The idea was to keep the background colours wrapping around as well, but Kid 6 lost track of this and decided to do their lines in a symmetrical colour pattern (green – purple – blue – purple – green) instead of wrapping (green – purple – blue – green – purple – blue).
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Kid 4’s pattern, with just the shapes and no background to make it simpler/quicker. Kid 4 also made each diagonal its own pattern, with shapes rotating or growing or changing in size. They are a bit obsessed with patterns and I was OK with them playing with the idea of nesting patterns inside other patterns.

The whole thing took us quite some time, it was meticulous work, and a reasonable way to fill in part of an afternoon when it was too warm to go outside. I actually did this activity with each of the kids separately, having thought that kid 4 wouldn’t be up to that much drawing / colouring (which they hate) but that kid 6 would like the time working quietly with me and talking, and was quite able / needing to deal with 2D patterns instead of linear ones. However, kid 4 is competitive (they both are) and didn’t want to miss out on having a pattern on their gallery wall if kid 6 had one.

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Kid 6’s finished pattern, which they were very pleased with the appearance of. Tuned colour sets do help with the final result. 

Extras: In theory, if we used butcher paper instead of good drawing paper this could become our own wrapping paper. I suspect if it was a good enough piece I could probably digitise it and find somewhere online that prints wrapping paper too (Spoonflower?). We could do something like this again but with stamping and gluing paper squares instead of drawing and colouring, which would speed it up / make it a little easier on the non-drawing child (it’s a long time to grip a marker).  Spending more conscious time on the idea of nesting patterns would be interesting, to see how the results then changed across the whole grid. A related activity would be to tape paper around a cylinder of some sort, get them to draw lines around the cylinder and then untape it to see how the wrapping had mapped back to flat.

Book review: Handa’s Hen

Cover of book showing two African children and a black hen
Cover of book showing two African children and a black hen
Handa’s Hen by Eileen Browne.

This is one of many, many, MANY books that are based around counting to 10. There’s a limit to how many of such books you want to bother with, because really, it’s an incredibly boring plot device and your kids WILL work this out. However, there are some ages and stages where they like the predictability of it, or where you want to be practising their reading of numerals or number words, or where they are learning numbers as an ordered list (“seven comes after six and before eight”), or where they are learning to associate a quantity with a number, or where they are learning to recognise a small quantity visually without counting (“there’s three birds”). And we all have relatives and friends who will buy your kids something because “it’s educational”. So. You’ll have some of this kind of book around.

What makes this one any different? Well, I like it for several reasons.

  • The children are not white-skinned with red or blond hair. That’s a rarity in children’s books, where characters are either very pale people or they are animals.
  • The children are POC (People of Colour) from a non-English-derived culture.
  • The artwork is visually strong, colourful.
  • The environment in which the story takes place is a hot climate, which is important for me seeing as I’m trying to raise my kids with an understanding of the place they live in rather than the expectation that somehow everywhere they live is kind of like a second-best Europe. I find the Euro-centric dominant imagery of popular media a little disconcerting and not helpful to a peaceful future.
  • Handa and her friend explore natural surroundings through the book. I like the sense of adventure and play and belonging to nature.
  • The plot is based on a search-and-explore rather than just being a counting list, so it’s not *just* the sequence 1 to 10 that creates a narrative structure.
  • There’s a tracking reference. I love tracking myself, and one of my children is on-and-off keen about it too so having pictures of tracks automatically makes a search more interesting to us.
  • The language is nicely done – just repetitive enough to be rhythmic without being beat-heavy, not too complex, not too much text on any one page.
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“Five beautiful sunbirds,” said Akeyo. “But where’s Mondi?” said Handa.