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!

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!

Mosaics on sticks

What: quick kids craft activity sticking tiny tiles on pre-cut shapes with good wood glue.

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Star by Kid 4 (who dislikes things with people in them), person by Kid 6 (who always likes things with people in them).

How: This was a short craft activity we did at the local arts centre’s stall at the local council’s Harmony Day multicultural fair, led by one of their mosaic teachers. The shapes-on-sticks were basically craft popsticks sourced from craft supplies somewhere. The glue is a good-quality wood glue, repoured into kids’ glue bottles for the use of tiny hands. The tiny tiles come just like that, no cutting or sharp edges required, and they’re a good size for a kids’ project like this. She said, however, that there’s only one place in this city you can buy them (and if you’ve ever shopped for replacement or specialist tiles for something, it’s the store you will have heard of). So some careful sourcing of materials for this activity is required. The kids took about five to seven minutes to make their item, it took ten minutes of my carefully holding them flat inside little ziplock bags while we walked around the fair for the glue to be mostly set, and a few hours to be fully dry.

Extras: Doing this with paper squares on paper (as in my previous post), colouring squares on graph paper to create a picture, tiling Smarties or lollies on biscuits or cookie dough – any other mosaic-related activity really. Because this was for Harmony Day, the stall at the fair had a poster wall with big pictures of cool mosaics from lots of countries (and time periods) around the world, and the mosaic teacher took the kids around to the posters and they talked a bit about the mosaics and guessed / chatted about which countries they came from. So that cultural and historical context and looking at different styles is a possibility too.

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.