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.

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Blanket tent

What: A blanket tent playspace in the loungeroom.

How: Well, we tried a few construction methods, it wasn’t all Mummy saying “do this and then do that”. So, this was our first successful attempt (I don’t have any photos of the first try!).

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Mummy, this really isn’t very big. How can we make it bigger?

Basically, we needed a long stable thing for a ridgepole – a broom worked well because the end of the broom helped keep the ridgepole from sliding off the couch – two places to hold the ends of the ridgepole (not as easy as it sounds!), a not-too-heavy blanket, and enough space on the floor free of Lego bits to actually make the tent (that was the hardest bit). Plus lots of conversation, querying the basic principles (“I think if you put it there it’s going to fall straight down… oh look, it did”), discussion of how the blanket just hangs straight down and doesn’t actually make a triangle shape, finding things to hold the edges of the blanket in place so that it does make a triangular space, and plenty more. I like to let the kids lead and discover, so they discovered for themselves that the blanket didn’t make a triangle. And that the blanket they were using didn’t make a *big* triangle. And stuff like that. I mainly only intervened to a) send the ideas in the direction of a blanket tent when the possibility first appeared, and b) if they actually looked like they were going to hurt themselves. Oh, and the occasional c) when they knew what the problem was but needed help solving it, I’d make a suggestion to get them going in the right direction to find the solution. Remember the philosophy: never open the door for them, just ask them if they’ve noticed this really cool doorhandle. (Or with kids well out of their depth in a situation, open the door but never push them through it.)

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The final version, weighed down with some books to keep it stretched out. Which worked fine until they wanted to take the books inside to read with them.

Extras: Well, we managed a few construction attempts at this blanket tent. It’s, as usual with me, all in the things you choose to discuss. We talked about triangular spaces, especially when they discovered that the blanket space was actually really tiny and they wanted more room. We tried a bigger blanket. We could have tried a different ridgepole, or taken it outside and used a tree branch and a tarp for an all-weather setup. If I had an old triangle tent we could have set that up, or I could have gotten out the little dome tent and we could talk about circles having more space inside them than triangles and why tents nowadays go up in circles rather than triangles. And of course, this also leads into a survival skills lesson: the basic debris hut shelter, your simplest “I’m lost in the bush and need to survive the night” shelter, works on a ridgepole triangular structure. So this activity is like a primer for some of the ideas that they’ll use when I show them how to make their emergency shelters.