Saturday, July 20, 2013

Five Minute Creations

Making stuff- is there anything more fulfilling? I like working on the fly with not much planning and lots of improvisation. There's something thrilling about making it all work from the contents of an old junk basket and a glue gun.

Alex peeled a water bottle label off and stuck it around his wrist, then got excited, talking about how he wanted to make "stuff" to go on it, stuff he could use, like wires and buttons and screens. Dude dreams big, and so after telling him how cool I thought that was, I carefully mentioned that although we could do something like that, the wires and buttons and screens wouldn't actually, yknow, be a functional high tech device. He grinned and rolled his eyes at me (ach! time, you speedy bitch, where did my babies go?) and told me that it would just be an awesome toy for imaginary games. Rad. Although where was that perspective when he was 2.5 and I built him a little car out of balsa wood and wheels and he rended his clothes in fury at the lack of a tiny perfect engine? Whatever, this new development is all good, I won't question it anymore. Dude wants to Make Stuff, and I love it!

So we made these:

Scraps of felt (leftover from Halloween costumes), mini-LEDs and coin batteries (leftover from the wedding), a couple of glass beads, all glued together. And now we have Power Wristbands! Five minutes of  making, five minutes of talking about electrical circuits while I glued, and endless exploration of the big beautiful world. Hell yeah!

Monday, January 21, 2013

"I Have A Dream" Project

My mother was at the I Have  A Dream speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in August of 1963. She was 18 and four months pregnant with my older brother.

One of her early memories from when she was a child was from when my grandfather, a fierce and devoted union leader, took her and my uncle with him to walk to union meetings because he thought he was less likely to be shot if he was with his children. There had been threats.

When my brother was about five, and my older sister a young toddler, my mother took them to a peaceful protest at People's Park in Berkeley, CA. Governor Reagan did not like those hippies and their Park. My brother can remember trying to run from the tear gas on his little legs, while my mother and her friend, both of them carrying a younger child, each held one of Dylan's hands and lifted him off the ground to flee.

As a young teen, I protested the first Gulf War, and as a young adult I protested the next Gulf War. In my thirties I took my children to sing union songs at the Madison capitol as corrupt politicians tore away at everything my grandfather worked for his whole life. I hope that I will not being protesting another Gulf War in my middle age, but I have my doubts.

Protest and social activism are a part of who I am, a part of my moral fiber. I find my faith and devotion in the power of people working for positive change.

I want my kids to grow up knowing that faith. I want them to know that people have that sort of power, and that great evils can be stood up to, can be fought with words and action, and that there is hope.

My kids and I read Martin's Big Words today. We had read it before and Anya sobbed inconsolably when it described his death. She requested that we not read the end today, and I struggled before closing the book early but did talk to them about his death being an important part of his story.

After that we did a project like this. I read part of MLK's speech to them, and we talked about how he imagined a way that the world could be better, and then as he grew up he acted on his dream and was able to make the world a better place. I asked them to think of ways that they could imagine the world as a better place while we created a sky collage out of tissue paper and construction paper.

I cut out clouds, and asked each kid to tell me what their dream was. It was tempting to prompt, since I was a bit worried I might end up with something like, "I have a dream that kids can have treats all the time, even before dinner when cruel mothers usually refuse." BUT I am so glad I didn't because I love knowing their unadulterated dreams.

Anya initially  said that her dream was "that people would plant more plants. To Eat. Because they are yummy." Then she switched to "people being nice to each other." And finally decided on "that everyone will stop throwing trash on the ground."

Alex first said that he hoped that people would stop shooting animals, but then told me that he hoped that people would stop shooting everything. Surprising coming from a kid who loves gunplay who is growing up in a place where hunting season is practically a holiday. Must be some of the California hippie rubbing off on him!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How Awesome is Measuring?

How we describe the world is incredibly important. This has been a recurring theme for me in everything from therapeutic psychology (where how we describe our processes and history becomes an integral part of how we experience our lives) to my tempestuous love affair with Science (the procedure for hypothesis testing demands precise measurement, and yet how we define our variable and even the act of observing our variables may alter their measurement. Oh Science, you magnificent tease!).

For the preschool set, measurement is important because it integrates a bunch of early math components, and yet it is easy enough for them to do on their own, and is one of those things, like knock-knock jokes, that they seem to happily incorporate into their everyday life so frequently you might wish you had never handed them a ruler. There's counting, obviously, but also the thrills of comparing which helps them understand the importance of the ordinal/relational quality of numbers. The other thing about measuring is that it is so useful in the sort of simple experiments which we do in investigative learning. I've showed them how to measure before, used it in some of our exploratory play, but I had never just talked about measurement in general. And since I love nothing more than a meta investigation, I decided to get them going exploring the idea of precise ways to describe their world.

Footwear Measurement is vital.

Printable Rulers, cut out
half sheets of paper folded and stapled to make observation books
stuff to measure!


1. I printed and cut out the rulers- I thought about trying to dig out some wooden rulers, but these were nice because the kids could wrap them around objects.

2. I made them each a book to write down their observations. I've been trying to get them interested in keeping a science journal, but so far they seem to only use them if I make a little mini-book for each project. I hope that this at least will help them get into the habit of recording their observations. Only one kid is ready to start trying to write and sound out words, so I suggested that they draw a picture of the object and write out its measurement in numerals.

3. I set them loose!


Baby Tiger is 7 inches long- I didn't even need Alex's translation!
Alex particularly loved this project, which was especially nice because unlike Anya, he is not terribly interested in practicing how to write numbers. But when it is in the name of science, he was all over it!

He was stymied by a box that was longer than his ruler. When I asked him if he could think of ways to measure it, he suggested we cut it up and measure the pieces, but was dismayed at the thought of losing the box in the process. I had to hold my tongue not to bring up Schrodinger's Cat which is a bit much even for me to wrap my head around! But the essence of the problem (precise observation altering the subject) seems similar enough that I was tempted! Eventually I showed him how to mark the spot where the ruler ended, measure the remainder and add the measurements together, but he's not quite there yet in terms of comfort with the idea of addition. He was really excited when I did it, though, and went back to measuring smaller things with even greater enthusiasm.

Anya measured her shoe collection almost exclusively, and measured them in ways I was not expecting, which was cool.

She lost interest pretty quickly, but went back to it after she saw Alex still excited ten minutes later.

She also suggested that we could start measuring our trees, and came up with some interesting ways that we could do so, involving Luke scaling to the top and dropping down a very long measuring tape. I told we could measure how high he goes in them next time he's pruning.


After they spent about 45 minutes measuring things, we watched a clip from Sid the Science Kid about measuring, and we talked about why measuring is important. I framed it in terms of hypothesis testing. Recently we had been talking about plants that could continue to grow in water, like green onions after you cut them, and the kids were insistent that they didn't need soil at all and we could plant a water garden. I told them that I thought they would grow more in the soil, and that only certain plants would grow in the water. To show them how measuring could be used to precisely describe the world, I explained that we could try one onion inside and another outside and observe. They both immediately understood that the bigger one would show whether soil or water was best for the plant's growth, but it was only after I mentioned that there might be very little difference that Anya grabbed her ruler and said we could measure the difference to see even a little change.

This brought to mind our chicken scratch notes on the kitchen doorway showing the kids' heights over time. We marked their heights again, then measured the amount that each had grown since last year, as well as the difference between them. I showed them how to use the metric and imperial units. I think the idea of comparisons over time and between individuals became real to them during this part, which was awesome. I hope that we will be referencing the stuff we learned today in our projects in the future. I also really want to find a kid friendly scale! More dimensions! More measurement!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Flower Challenge

Tinkerlab is an awesome blog about fostering creativity and hanging out with kids doing cool stuff. I've come to rely on Rachelle's fun activities and inspiration, as well as enjoying her perspective. This mommyblog thing is a delicate line to walk- how to write passionately about your beliefs and children without coming off as judgmental about other perspectives or styles; how to talk honestly about the good and the bad, the mistakes and the failures; how not to fall into the trap of bloggy narcissism; how to write about the good stuff without causing others to hateread your blog and doubt your words. Tinkerlab is a keeper, walking that line with a grace and an enthusiasm  that I find infectious.

One of the awesome community-building projects she does over there are her Creativity Challenges, in which she invites other parents to write and link to creative projects related to the theme of the challenge. Unlike the types of projects I typically blog about, these challenges should be child-driven; that is, that the children should initiate and follow through with their own creativity, rather than participate in an activity that the parent/teacher designs and sets up. I love the idea of child-driven work, and my kids certainly do a ton of it on their own, but I seldom set up "invitations" as many child-driven parents do. I prefer, because of my own temperament and the pressure of working from home with no child care, to do slightly more structured work, activities, and then let them children take it wherever they want. I haven't taken part in the previous challenges partly because I imagined that if I tried just setting them loose on a totally child-driven challenge, that they would go in opposite directions and want me to follow- a pretty common problem in raising twins! But on the way home, as we were talking about flowers and root systems, I decided to go for it and join in on the Flower Challenge.

I explained the idea behind the challenge, and at first Anya did not want to do it because she thought the word challenge meant it would be a competition. She's not naturally averse to competition, in fact, both of them are so fiercely competitive that any whiff of there being a winner and a loser and there is sure to be a knockdown drag-out fight- Anya has learned that to maintain her awesome relationship with Alex, they need to just stop competing. I wonder if her dad and uncles will ever learn that! But when I re-framed it as a challenge for her mind to think of cool creative fun projects to do with flowers, she got on board. We talked a little about how they could think of learning experiments to do or questions to ask and try to solve about flowers, or they could gather flowers and do something with them, or they could make flowers out of something else. They decided to gather flowers, and Anya wanted to decorate our windows with them, while Alex wanted to attach the flowers to a piece of paper and paint a scene to go with them.

I asked Anya how she would like to attach the flowers to the window- we couldn't use contact paper because the flowers she were quite large, and she first wanted to use glue or starch, as we had with tissue paper window decorations in the past. Eventually she decided on tape, so I got her set up with some packing tape and left her to work on it while I helped Alex get his paint set up.

Alex arranged his plant bits on his paper and started gluing them, then painting in the scene, then gluing, then painting and so on. Alex is a kid who imagines all kinds of wild scenarios and is usually the driving force behind the complex imaginary games they play, and who spends hours designing and taping together robots made from the recycling, and who will dictate ten page stories to me every chance he gets. So I was surprised to see that he decided to create a very naturalistic scene where the bits of plants were representative of whole plants. The only exception is the dandelion puff as a storm cloud, which may have been influenced by me commenting on a similarity the other day. He's been fascinated with rainbows since we saw two different double rainbows on our drive home from Upper Michigan last week, so he created a sunny and rainy day, but then didn't want to paint a rainbow because he was worried he wouldn't be able to do it without ruining the rest of the picture that he was so pleased with. Kind of a bummer of a feeling, but I didn't want to push him as he seemed to drop it quickly and move on (which is rare for my ruminative son!). I will probably do a more focused project on rainbows, and hope that builds some confidence for painting them.

Alex's Sunny and Rainy Day

Anya came over while Alex was working, and decided that his project looked like more fun, so he gave her some of his collected flowers, and she went out with me to pick some more. She started with a large flat dandelion leaf and immediately declared that it was the grassy hill. This was also surprising, since Anya is often a very literal kid, and I fully expected her to glue the flowers down and paint a vase to hold them. She was playing with a magenta bloom, looking at it from different angles and seemed unsure of what to do next. I asked if it looked like anything and she decided it was a fairy skirt. Once she had that decided, she was eager to go hunt for some petals to be the wings and a round flower to be the head. I let her pick two fresh iris petals, despite the usual picking ban on my favorite flowers, because I knew how perfect they would be as wings- see, I kind of suck at child-driven... I just want to get in there and do it with them! She glued them in herself, and I took myself over to Alex so I wouldn't be tempted to interfere with her vision for the fairy.

Fairy Seeing Flowers She's Never Seen Before by Anya

It ended up being a really fun project, and I love it when my assumptions about the kids are challenged!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Princess Feet

A good friend introduced me to Katy Bowman's work on biomechanics and body alignment a couple of months ago, and I've found her work to be fascinating and incredibly helpful, not just for my own issues, but as a healthcare provider. Many of her posts on the importance of healthy body alignment and the effects of one part on the entire system compliment my own interest in the importance of  breathing technique and body position in working with issues such as pain, anxiety and decreased oxygenation, especially during recovery and physiological stress.

One of the subjects which Bowman talks about frequently is the importance of walking, squatting and the cascade of problems which positive heeled shoes can cause. I was never a big fan of heels, and have been carefully considering the angle of my shoes ever since. But my fashion sense has always been decidedly...unfashionable. I cannot say the same for Anya, and preschool girls have some very particular ideas about what to wear.

The Princess Years

Yesterday morning, my 4-year old daughter wobbled into the room wearing a princess tutu, a princess tiara and one of the 6 pairs of cheap plastic princess heels she was given for Christmas last year. I had thought she forgot about them when I buried them in the costume box, quarantining them from the real shoes. I have socio-political issues with girls and princess culture. My kids know that I hate princesses, know that I dislike that princesses rarely save themselves in stories, are considered special simply by the circumstances of their birth or because of their beauty. When I explained the problems of a monarchy vs. a democracy, Anya was the first to chime in that the people should decide who the leaders are. And yet. The princess culture in the preschool set is overwhelming, infectious, and all-consuming. The fixation with prettiness is problematic but workable; the conflation of "pretty" and "fancy" with "princess", and "princess" with the requirement of pretty above all else!!!1!- that is the spiral of death by pink for me.

When Anya wobbled in in that outfit, all smiles and pride in how pretty she was, I knew I had to pick my battle; all out War, Mom vs Princess was asking for an epic loss. I told her how beautiful the dress was, how impressed I was that she had created a whole costume for herself, and how beautiful she was when she was pretending to be a princess AND when she was being regular Anya. She asked what I thought of the shoes. I told her that I didn't like high heel shoes because the heels were no good for running and no good for the muscles, bones and the whole body.

She twirled for me a couple of times, then wobbled her way out.

Be free!
A minute later she wobbled back in and said, "Why are my pretty shoes not good for my body?" I know what to do with that kind of soft pitch! I leapt up and showed her where her hamstrings are, showed her how to feel them stretch, pointed out where they attached to the skeleton- we did a great activity using a little movable guy with rubber bands attached to his bones to represent muscles and how they move bone, which I'm just realizing I never blogged about- and she was fascinated. Then we lay down and held up our legs to look at the angle of our feet and how a pointed toe shortened the length of our hamstrings. I talked to her about how walking like that and never stretching them out would make the muscles get tighter and shorter, till it was so bad that our feet couldn't even get into a neutral position without some effort on the part of our muscles. And, by the way, our lesson on simple machines has totally come in handy- the kids now often differentiate between things that take work from our muscles and things that don't!

Next, I did some silly poses to try to show her how the whole body has to compensate for the forward lean of the body standing on heels. Katy Bowman's illustrations are better than my clowning around, but when your audience is 4, a little mama slapstick goes a long way towards remembering a complex lesson!

Anya wobbled back out to the living room, then returned, without the heels and said, in the most woeful voice ever, "But how can I have princess shoes if they are bad for my body?" I took her out to examine her shoe collection and tried to push the hot pink, turquoise glittered light up sneakers as sufficiently fancy for a princess. Anya was not impressed.

Then I had an awesome idea.

Princess Feet

"I think that princess FEET are even cooler than princess shoes, don't you?" She looked doubtfully at her feet. "I can make your feet extra fancy and special!"

I collected up red, pink and purple markers, a washable glue stick, gold glitter, and two colors of nail polish. I painted her nails and drew suns, hearts, flowers and swirls all over the tops of her feet, then rubbed some glue stick over the top and went to town with the glitter. She was beyond thrilled.

We went outside to test out her new princess feet. It turns out that not only are princess feet cool-looking and fun to create, but you can run in them way better than in high heeled princess shoes.

 We also did some careful scientific tests of climbing, playing, skipping and hammock pushing. Princess feet outshone princess high heels in all the categories!


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Marbling Paper

I love the look of marbled paper like Suminagashi, but have been put off by the unknown chemicals and hassle of getting pre-made kits- I was especially worried that a kit would turn out to be too difficult for the kids.

Then I saw this post on Inner Child Fun, about how to do paper marbling using just laundry starch and acrylic paints!

I have tons of old acrylics laying around, so all I needed to buy was a $2 bottle of starch, which is useful for so many projects we do anyway.

I set each kid up with a small, flat-bottomed plastic container and poured in about 1/2-1" of starch. Then each kid chose their colors, and I let them drip the paint right into the starch. Then they used bamboo skewers to swirl the paint and starch. We lay cut pieces of watercolor paper on the marbling solution, then lifted them up and put them in a large container of freshwater, where the starch washed off, leaving the paint in beautiful patterns. We set them to dry on an old sheet.

Some things we learned:

  •  The really old (~18 years old!) ones had often gotten too dry or had changed in some way that caused them to drop to the bottom of the starch, which meant that they would not swirl and could not be lifted off with the paper floating on top- I did try sinking a paper to the bottom, and while it picked up some of the old colors, it was a garbled mess, not pretty and swirly.
  • The more liquid, "soft-bodied" acrylics in squeeze bottles worked much better than the more expensive professional paints in tubes. 
  • Lots of small drops works better, because overzealous preschool squeezing of the paint causes huge glops of paint which immediately sink to the bottom.
  • Glitter can be added after the paint and will transfer beautifully.

  • We ran into a funny issue which I haven't solved yet: Our first prints came out great and very little of the paint came off the paper in the wash along side the starch. But as we progressed, more and more of the paint came off in the wash. I tried changing to fresh water and changing to fresh starch. The new starch helped with a certain muddiness that was taking over - all preschool art must eventually become Preschool Gray- but even with an essentially new set-up, we had a harder time keeping the paint on the paper in the wash. Eventually I tried just not washing some, which caused them to stick a bit to the cloth where they were drying, but I just peeled them off, re-washed them and lost no paint.
  • Note that acrylics do not wash out of clothes, and can permanently adhere to many non-porous surfaces if not cleaned up right away with soap and water. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Simple Machines for Preschoolers

Child-led learning. It all sounds so lovely and peaceful. But really? I end up using child-led inspiration for our activities when the kids are at their worst, when nothing I do can stop the cycle of twin-on-twin aggression, when everyone is too tired or sick or grumpy to concentrate on what I planned.

Alex and Anya were having a bad morning, switching off roles of tattler and mischievous imp, with increasing escalation and contrariness towards each other. Alex shouted from the living room, "No, Anya! Don't stick that in the couch! Mama, Anya won't stop and she's ruining our couch!"

When I got to the living room, Anya was scowling at Alex and mumbling something about a lever while gripping a long skinny paintbrush. She had been shoving it into a hole in the couch so she could make a lever to push and pull.

Things were getting dire. I needed something to distract them. Science to the rescue!

I asked them if they would like to learn about levers.  I took the paint brush and showed them how moving the whole thing moved it only in one direction, while if I balanced it on a Lego, I could push down on one end and watch the other end rise. I introduced the idea of pivoting, and that there was specific point at which the brush pivoted, which is also called a fulcrum. We looked at some levers around the house, like scissors, and I had them identify the pivot point.

I looked around for a quick and dirty way to show them the difference in the amount of work that it took to lift things with a lever and without. We had an old box filled with Playmobil parts, and I duct taped the trusty paintbrush to the bottom of the box and had the children lift it straight up. Then I had them add in our Lego fulcrum again and try pushing down to lift it up. I described how when we did it the first way, our muscles did all of the work, but in the second way, the lever did some of the work, meaning less work for our muscles.

I asked them to think about if we would be able to lift more or less with a lever. I asked them if they could think of any outside toys we had that were levers. They struggled with that question a bit, so I asked if they could lift each other up in the air- which backfired, because Anya can totally lift Alex- but then asked if any of their outside toys made it easy for them to take turns lifting each other up in the air. I sat in front of them going back and forth with my finger on a pencil lever held over a Lego fulcrum, and eventually they realized that see-saws are simple levers.

Since Anya's desire to push and pull levers was the start of all this, I gave them plenty of time to play with all our improvised levers and make some new ones of our own- though I did convince her to avoid poking more holes in the couch to do so.

Next we moved on to ramps, which were much easier to grasp- perhaps I should have started with them? I demonstrated how a little car needed me to push it on a flat board, but would move on it's own down a ramp, again emphasizing that in the former, my muscles had to do the work and in the latter, the simple machine did the work.

I was hopeful that if I set them up with a good ramp that I could take a kid-break while they explored. I love doing these projects, but I think we all do better if I can have plenty of downtime between projects!

I grabbed the remains of the (poorly constructed) dollhouse that I built for Anya a couple of years ago and duct taped two boards together. One side we propped up in the couch, the other was to let the cars run on after they built up speed on the ramp. I was going to have them measure the length that each car got on the board, but all of them went much further, so I settled for giving them a piece of tape to mark the farthest any car got on the rug a couple feet out from the ramp.

They tried a ton of different small vehicles, and seem to realize quickly that the cars with motors never built up speed- we had a good but brief talk about how those cars are designed to go forward powered by the motor, and that the wheels could not move freely with gravity, like simpler cars could. I did have to remind them to not fling the cars down the ramp, but rather than phrasing it as a rule, I explained that we were measuring the work that the ramp was doing, and that if we used our muscles to propel the car, we wouldn't be measuring just the work of the ramp.

They also experimented with pulling the ramp farther out or pushing it in, changing the angle, and the behavior of the cars going down it. Very cool to watch them exploring!

Eventually Anya started wandering off, but I thought we could milk the ideas I had introduced just a bit more. As we were walking to the backdoor, I asked them to look around for more levers and ramps. Alex, who was still very into rolling things down ramps, went flying over to the fridge and announced, "Ramp!" proudly at the magnetic marble run. Yay!

Anya and I went ahead outside while he played and Anya peered around and told me in that condescending preschooler way, "Now, Mama, the slide, right here? That is a ramp, Mama, did you know that?"

She also decided that the rocking horse was a lever, pointed out the see-saw to me, and told me that we should use a ramp to get the snowballs on top of each other for a snowman.

Science FTW!