Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bones (and a bit of eyes!)

We are keeping the kids home from preschool for a couple of months, and to keep back the tide of inevitable  chaos and 3.75 year old madness, I designed units to do with them, including schedules and regularly scheduled edumacation and whatnot. This is Day 1, posted a couple weeks later because, um, nothing ever goes as planned!

First day of week one was marred by an eye doc appointment for Alex- and our eye doc appointments have been known to take five hours because she is always triple and quadruple booked or more, there's four rooms and two waiting rooms, all of which are full and the doc cycles through each room while her staff cycles people in and out of rooms. It's not unusual to have three stints in the waiting rooms with each visit, which is a pain for anyone, but I really think I deserve a medal everytime I make it through a visit like that with two small children.

To make matters worse, Anya had a sudden reaction to the antibiotic she was on for a sinus infection and we had to race to the bathroom down the hall many times.

However, the eye doc had a great model of the eyeball and I talked them through all the parts of the eye, and we tried looking through the lens showing various pathologies, so they could see how if anything happened to the lens it would not let light in. I wrapped my coat over their heads and held the cataracts lens up to the one spot I was letting light in, and asked them to tell me what they could see. We also looked at the eye muscles and talked about how the doctor could move them and shorten them, but only because Alex had strabismus surgery last year and Anya will have it next spring.

A side note on preschoolers and twins and surgery: I've read that you should consider carefully whether to tell kids much details about upcoming potentially traumatic procedures, but decided that it would be good for my kids to know. When I started talking to Anya about needing surgery, Alex piped up to tell her about his experience, and to tell her which parts were scary, but how it wasn't *actually* scary, how his eyes hurt afterwards and he wanted me to be there, but that then I came and it was better. Anya asked him questions ("Was it scary when they took you away from Mama?" "No, it was a little bit scary, but then I was pretty brave and the doctor was nice."). I told them that my mom would come to visit for Anya's surgery just like she ahd for Alex's and that got them pretty excited. They are planning to do each and every thing exactly the same, but with the roles reversed. Anya will wake up before it is light out and go to the hospital, and Alex will stay home with Mama's Mama and make cookies for Anya to have when she feels a little better. I really think this is one of those times that the awesomeness of twins shows through.

When we finally got home from the doctor, we started talking about bones. There were a couple of points that I wanted to make sure we covered, and then I oversimplified all the rest.

Important Points:

  • Bones are hard and rigid, so they are strong but they can break (the kids are obsessed with casts and stories about broken limbs, so we had a headstart on this one), They keep us upright and protect our body.
  • Different bones have different jobs in our body; some help us stay upright (backbone), some help us walk or move things (long bones of the legs and arms, pelvis)  and some protect vulnerable parts of our bodies (brain, ribcage).
  • Bones are white because they are made up of the mineral calcium, which we have to take into our body by eating things like yogurt and dark green vegetables and drinking milk.

My more advanced points that grow off the above:
  • Bones can grow: kids' skeletons are growing and making them get taller, but bones also grow if a bone is broken and the two broken edges grow back together.
  • Special cells called osteoblasts take calcium and other substances from the blood and turn it into bone on the growing or broken edges. If the rest of the body needs calcium, special cells called osteoclasts come along and break down the bone and let the calcium back into the blood. This is fun because you can pretend to be PacMan munching on bone. And again, we've talked about bones a lot prior to starting this lesson, so we had a head start.
  • Bones make up a frame for all the rest of our bodies, and all the bones fit together and work together and with the muscles and connective tissue.
Our project for bones was fun and the kids loved every step of it (and it was so easy- I did it totally on the fly, no prep work or even forethought!): 

The Life-Sized Bone Puzzle
I had the kids take turns laying down and holding still on top of a long strip of easel/mural paper, while the other kid and I traced the outline of the their body. 

Once we were done I did a refresher on parts of the body- I was pretty sure they knew it all, but every once in a while they surprise me by not knowing something and I feel like a dummy for not teaching them something so simple.

Then while the kids played with their body outlines, I grabbed some cardstock we had leftover and started drawing bones.

You can see that they are really basic, and I was concerned that all the long bones would be indistinguishable, since my drawings leave something to be desired and the kids are only in preschool, so I included some tells, like the hands/feet attached to the lower extremities and the femur's prominent one-sided head where it fits into the pelvis. I put these aside for the moment.

I had the kids come over and show me where they knew they had bones: they pointed out their legs and arms, and poked especially at bony prominence like the ankle bone and wrist bone. That told me that 1) I should physically show them some other bones by making them more obvious and 2) I might have to work hard to convince them about bones like the hips which are harder to see and feel as obvious bones. 

I started going through the bones, showing them on my own body and theirs, bending and getting into funny positions to try to reveal the bones as much as possible, and having the kids do the same. They were totally into this- having each kid curl up in a tight ball while the other felt all the bumps of their vertebrae was especially awesome.

Once they were excited about the skeletal system and seemed comfortable pointing out where certain bones are on their own bodies, we moved back to the body outlines. Unlike some of my other projects, I emphasized simple, common names because I think even the simplified skeleton involved a lot of memorizing and that I was already pushing the kids' limits. It was important to me that they be exposed to the technical terms, but more important that they start seeing how all the individual pieces fit together.

Here's the basics of what I went through:

  • The Skull - Protects our brains and forms our face.
  • The Ribcage - I showed them pictures from an anatomy book to show them how it actually looks like a cage, surrounding and protecting the heart and lungs.
  • The Pelvis/Hips-This is a tough one, since I didn't want to talk about the first thing I think of, which how the shape of the pelvis affects the passage of an infant through the birth canal. I talked instead about it looking like a butterfly and generally looking funny compared to other bones, and that it was where the legs attached.
  • The Backbone - We stacked blocks on top of one another to show how the backbone is made of vertebrae stacked on one another, and I emphasized that it helps us stand upright.
  • The Long Bones of the Arm and Leg - uppers each have one large bone, while the lowers have two bones. You can feel the lateral aspects of each lower arm bone.
As we went through these with the cards, I asked them to help me place them on the life sized outlines, and was quick to give help the first time around. Then I had them gather up the cards in piles and try to piece together the skeletons on their own. It was awesome. They were really excited, helped each other and only asked for help from me a little bit. Then they did it over and over and over till I put the whole project away the following day.

I eventually added some additional hints to help them remember some functions, like adding a red heart in the middle of the ribs, so that it actually looked like it was being protected. and the diaphragm muscle so that we could start talking about breathing in a couple of days.

One project I didn't do, but plan to someday, is to illustrate what happens to bone when the osteoclasts pull calcium from the bones- osteoporosis. That happens when the rest of the body needs calcium (and is of course much more complicated than this!) and is one of the reasons we need to take in enough food with calcium. To illustrate, take a sponge and get it soaking wet with a watery clay mixture (like slip), making sure to squeeze it out and let the slip soak in all the way, then let it dry. It should be rigid like a bone, then put it in a container of warm water, saying that the warm water is the osteoclasts, who have come to help get some calcium to the rest of the body. After a little while, the clay should get soft and dissolve out of the sponge. Cut the sponge open and let the kids see how the interior is spongy and the "bone" is no longer strong and hard. I hope that such a lesson would make the importance of eating enough calcium more real to them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lungs and Air

I've got my 3.75 year old twins at home instead of in preschool for a short period of time, this is Day 4 of my Big Preschool at Home project- I'm hoping to keep up with the blogging, both as a record and to help anyone else who is planning something similar or wants to supplement preschool with some discovery learning and science activities.

Upside Down Lungs = Tree!
Breathing and lungs did not lend themselves to preschool projects quite as easily as the heart or the GI system. We talked about air coming in, and I flipped over diagrams of the lungs so that they really looked like trees. I was surprised at what a difference that made- it was as though when I first started talking about the windpipe as a large tube, like a trunk, and how it branched and each branching tube got smaller, just like a tree, they were just staring at me blankly, but after I showed them the lungs actually looking like a tree they could visualize it.

The other analogy that I used was for the alveoli. I asked them to imagine a balloon tree, so that at the end of each little "twig" in the lung tree, there was a bunch of little balloon instead of leaves. Alveoli are often described as looking like grapes in anatomy classes and texts, but while they do look like grapes, that image of solid tissue (combined especially with the fact that to the naked eye lungs look solid rather than hollow) make eventual understanding of the function of the lungs that much more difficult. Plus, with young kids, balloons are way more interesting than grapes.

At this point I feel like I need to talk about why I am teaching my preschoolers about stuff that lots of adults don't know. I don't really have a good answer except "Why not?" They seem to love learning how things work, the natural curiosity of the age can be applied to a specific subject (like physiology) rather than being generalized in a series of random (and never-ending!) "Why?" questions- all it takes is just introducing a topic and getting them excited. It's like vocabulary- I could use the word nice to describe a desired behavior and while praising specific incidences, but "nice" is a pretty vague word, and the kids hear it to describe pleasant weather, as an exclamation along the lines of "rad!" and to describe a good steak. So I use the word considerate, and tell them how "consider" means to think, and how we want to think about how our actions affect those around us, and (since I know they are three and learn from concrete examples) then we talk about the real world, all from the perspective of being considerate: When you snatch a toy from Alex, how does it make him feel? Is it considerate to snatch? When you throw trash from the window of a moving car, what happens to it? Who cleans it up? Does it mess up nature? So is it considerate to litter? And pretty soon they are noticing the world through a new lens, one that is more nuanced and more practically applicable than the simpler concept of "nice". They can learn it, I mean, learning the meaning of words (or the way the world works) is a complex business which they are primed for right now, why not go ahead and expose them to a more thorough toolbox and let them use as much of that awesome ability to learn new concepts as possible? 

Maybe some of it will stick, maybe it will make biology easier for them (I kinda doubt that). Or maybe it will function as a cool foundation for developing investigative, scientific minds. Or maybe it will get them excited about asking questions and trying to figure out answers to those questions- wait those last two are the same thing: SCIENCE! Maybe it will prevent them from feeling like science is scary, as so many people do, just by taking away the barrier of scientific jargon. Or maybe it won't do a damn thing except help me, as a parent, come up with some fun stuff to do during these infuriating, amazing, exhausting, beautiful, long and over-so-fast days of raising young children. 

Back to the project!

We had a good foundation with the fact that the blood needs to bring air to the cells. And they knew enough to know that we breathe in through our lungs to get air. We busted out the stethoscope again and I traced where the air went in, down the trachea and into the lungs, and reminded them about how the ribs formed a protective cage around the lungs and heart. 

Then I got a balloon out and blew it up and deflated it several times, asking them to tell me what is inside of the balloon when it is full. We talked more about the lungs being an upside down balloon tree, and I asked them to take deep breaths and imagine that every time they did all the balloons on the tree got blown up super big, then on every breath out, they deflated. When the balloons were blown up, I continued, the blood could come by and grab some air from them and take it to the cells. 

We looked at some pictures of the alveoli capillaries, and I showed them how the blood came in without oxygen (blue), picked up air from the balloons, and then left filled with oxygen (red). Not sure if any of that part sunk in, but they loved the pictures and tracing the path of the blood from blue to red with their fingers.

The project I decided to do was about how we breathe in and out, rather than what happens to the air inside our body. It was not ideal, given the emphasis I placed on lung function in my week-long lesson arc- that is, I had kind of bound the whole week together on circulation not the mechanical way that we breathe. Hey, anyone who isn't as much of a physiology nerd as me, want a one sentence explanation of how we breathe? The diaphragm muscle moves down, creating space and a pressure vaccum that allows the lungs to expand, the alveoli fill up with air due to a pressure differential rather then being inflated like a balloon or a car tire, does that make sense? However, I was totally stumped how to make a hands-on project showing something like oxygen transfer. We could have played a game with trains to get into the idea of transportation, but I decided to go with a project where we built a little model of breathing because it seemed like it would hold the kids' interest more. In hindsight, I'm not sure if that's true!

We made a model of a lung that shows how when the diaphragm moves, air gets pulled in to the alveoli- represented by the balloon inflating inside the bottle. There are a ton of instructions for this project online, some listed below. Here's how I did it:


2 balloons (good to have spares in case you butcher your first one)
Small plastic bottle
duct tape


  1. Take the bottle and cut the bottom off.
  2. Without inflating, tie one of the balloons off, then cut the top off of that balloon. Try fitting the cut top of the balloon over the cut bottom of the bottle. Cut a little less off next time if it doesn't fit or leaves only a tiny bit of the knotted balloon stem dangling from the bottom- you'll need to pull on that knotted end to create negative pressure in a minute.
  3. Duct tape the cut balloon to the bottom of the bottle. Make sure to seal it well, because any air leaks will ruin the effect.
  4. Take the second balloon and inflate it a couple of times- the balloon will inflate more easily during the experiment after being stretched. Then stick the straw into the balloon and secure with duct tape, again, being careful to seal well to prevent air leaks. Try blowing it up with the straw to check for leaks. You can stop right here and let the kids play with this contraption, they'll be able to blow up balloons like this even as little kids, which is so fun for them!
  5. Insert the balloon side into the neck of the bottle and secure with duct tape, making sure there are no air leaks, but leaving the straw end free.

Have the kids look at the deflated balloon inside the bottle- this is the lungs/alveoli. The bottle itself is the chest cavity/ribs and the cut and tied off balloon at the bottom is the diaphragm muscle.

Watch the lung-balloon carefully as you pull the diaphragm-balloon down and away from the chest-bottle: It will inflate, just like the lungs do when the diaphragm contracts and flattens, creating more space in the chest cavity, causing negative pressure and air is sucked right into the lungs.

Now, the balloon-lung may only inflate a little, possibly only enough to get rid of the folds of the balloon- a smaller lung-balloon or a large chest-bottle and diaphragm might make it more obvious. We used a small 16 oz. water bottle and two 10" balloons just because I had them lying around. If you run into problems with the lung not obviously expanding, check for air leaks, then try sucking on the straw so that the balloon has no residual air at all, then the difference when some air gets "breathed" in will be more obvious.

My kid enjoyed the project, but as I said, the meat of the lesson may have been over their head. They've definitely internalized the process of breathe in air with the lungs -> blood takes air from lungs and transports it to the cells, and that cells need more air when they are exercising (big ups to my husband; when the kids told him they learned about the lungs and breathing, he asked them about times that they got out of breath and how running around made them feel- I totally spaced on that angle, which has proven to be a great teaching tool that we can talk about all the time while playing!)

And the part of the project that was the most fun for the kids? Blowing up the lung balloon with the straw!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Digestive System

I've got my 3.75 year old twins at home instead of in preschool for a short period of time, this is Day 3 of my Big Preschool at Home project- I'm hoping to keep up with the blogging, both as a record and to help anyone else who is planning something similar or wants to supplement preschool with some discovery learning and science activities.

The digestive system day got off to a rocky start with both kids cranky- my more resilient kid was brought to tears because her brother was the first to find a pen for our shopping list!

I've been so focused on our body lessons that I haven't quite stayed on top of some household duties, so we started by first talking about food in our house, food that is healthy, and what different foods help our bodies do. Anya has been toying with the idea of not eating anything that comes from dead animals- her love of sausage and bacon is proving a sticking point for any vegetarianism- and so we talked a lot about the sources of different types of foods. That segued nicely into getting a household chore done: the shopping list and trip to the grocery store. 

Our usual method is that I ask each kid to list 2-3 things they think we need, and as they say them I first draw a picture of the item, then sound out the word as I write it out. Each kid gets a list made this way, and it is their job to keep an eye out for their items and remind me to get them. I'm always pleased when they can remember something beyond their favorite foods and especially when they ask what ingredients we need to make something they are craving for dinner, I hope it is a skill that comes in handy when they are on their own- I know plenty of adults   who have a hard time shopping effectively and planning meals!

During our drive to the store I talked them through the process of digestion. I asked them to tell me what happens first to food that we eat, and was expecting to hear "it goes to our tummy", and so I was thrilled when Anya told me that first our teeth "crunch up all our food"- that led into talking about saliva and how it and the teeth start the process and help make the food into a moist, soft ball to swallow. I also threw in a little bit about the importance of chewing and had them think about times that they had swallowed something hard and had it hurt- tortilla chips being the big offender. We talked about the stomach and how it mechanically squishes the food up even more, and I introduced the idea of stomach acid that continues to break down and soften the food even more. The intestines are next, and I was able to tie them into the circulation system we talked about yesterday. I made sure to ask some questions to prompt them to remember yesterday's lesson, and it definitely helped. Then we talked about how the nutrients and good stuff were transferred from the food in the intestine to the blood waiting to take the nutrients to the hungry cells. And then, once all the good stuff is taken out, the waste that's left over is... POOP! Oh, so much joy in our household! Learning about POOP!

As a side note, I use driving time to introduce topics and do my little mini-lectures a lot because

Anya's Macrophage
  • It staves off boredom in the car, and as any Yoda Mama knows, boredom leads to antsy-ness, antsy-ness leads to button-pushing, button-pushing leads to fighting and fighting leads to yelling, misery and the Dark Side.
  • I have a captive audience, and the kids are much less likely to get distracted by the cat walking by or a beloved toy in the corner or a shiny piece of tinfoil on the floor. It doesn't take much with the three year old set!
  • They love it! Seriously, they get excited and request certain topics over and over. I credit our driving talks about the immune system for the fact that Anya drew that thing on the left. When I asked what it was she said, "It's that kind of tiny cell in your body that eats all the bad germs, what's that one called again? Yeah, a macrophage, it's a macrophage!" My heart, she swoons!

Later, we did our big digestive system project:

First we got a couple of ziploc bags, a small container of water dyed green, a little bit of vinegar, some saltines, a cheap nylon knee-high (left-over from making fairy wings, you can pick 'em up 4/$1 and they have tons of  uses, grab some next time you see 'em for cheap!), scissors and a Sharpie.

I talked to them about digestive acid in the stomach again, and showed them how I added some vinegar to the green water to make our pretend stomach  acid. Then I had them help spell their own names on the bags and drew a simple drawing of the stomach, along with arrows showing where food goes in at the top and out into the intestines at the bottom. We added our stomach acid and then the kids started adding crackers. Once the bags were sealed, I asked the kids to be the stomachs, to mush the crackers up so that our pretend body could digest them.

They went to town, and I had them stop and make observations about the changes in the crackers, "like playdough" and "soft" were the two big descriptors. It think it is one of the coolest meta-learning parts of projects like this, that they are learning the scientific method, from lit review to gathering materials to performing the actual experiment to observing the subject and finally talking about the whole experience and learning to apply it to other situations. I'm hoping to introduce ultra simple hypothesis testing soon, and getting them used to the idea by frequently asking them questions in the form of "What do you think will happen when we do ______?"

I let them play with the stomachs for a while while I cleaned up. I've found it is really important for them to have plenty of breaks from active talking and lessons, though I admit that my tendency is to go on and on. I kind of wish I had had this experience with preschoolers before I taught experimental methodology to undergrads- I would have been a better teacher if I had learned that not everyone wants to be overloaded and stuffed full of info while in learning mode! It's also important for me to take these breaks, so that the mess of two kids at home doesn't start overwhelming my already-scant housekeeping skills and so that I have some recharge time to avoid feeling spread too thin.

Next up, intestines! I took the stocking and cut off the toe, and used the empty water cup to hold it open, cut the corner off the ziplocks and had the kids help me squeeze the stomach contents into the intestines. 

I showed the kids how the lining of the intestines was permeable- it lets some oozy stuff out which I called the nutrients- and I explained that the blood vessels came right up next to the intestines and let the blood pick up food for all the hungry cells. As we squeezed more of the mush through the nylon, more of it came out the sides as nutrients, and the stuff in the middle got smaller. I asked them which was bigger, all the food we eat in a day piled together or the poop we have the following day, and pointed out that that's because our body takes in and keeps all the good stuff and pushes the rest out as poop. The grand finale, of course, was when the nylon finally pooped out the leftover green-cracker-mush-pretend-poop. Messy but totally worth it!

Fake Poop Hands!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I've got my 3.75 year old twins at home instead of in preschool for a short period of time, this is Day 2 of my Big Preschool at Home project- I'm hoping to keep up with the blogging, both as a record and to help anyone else who is planning something similar or wants to supplement preschool with some discovery learning and science activities.

On the docket for today: Blood, circulation and the heart, as a part of our week about the body.

We listened to the heart, breath sounds and the belly in the morning after breakfast, and I asked the kids to imitate the noises we heard. I have a stethoscope, but this could be done just by laying an ear on chest and belly in a quiet room.

Then for a short sit down lesson on blood. First we looked at pictures of the circulatory system, and I talked to them about how it is basically just a bunch of tiny tubes running through the body (we've talked before about tubes, and how the body is made up of many hollow tubes) filled with blood. Then we took a quick book break (which I'm discovering is vital to this school-at-home process and looked at vessels on our own bodies- the inside of the wrist and elbow are two good spots to see them if you have a pale kid, but gentle pressure around the adult's lower arm will make anyone's veins pop up a little, enough to be felt.

We talked about how the cells in the body get hungry and need oxygen/air, and how the blood's job is to bring food and oxygen to the cells. I illustrated this by grabbing their big toes and pretending to be a tiny big toe cell shrieking in hunger. Then I traced how the blood would come charging down to bring food to the cell.

(This could also easily be turned into a running game. One kid could be the hungry cell, some food or play food in a big pile in another area (the "stomach/belly"), and some chalk to draw the outline of the this stomach and a maze of chalk "vessels" connecting the two. One person can be the blood, running through the maze to bring food to the hungry cell. We'll probably try this out later this week.)

After they seemed like they grasped the idea of blood transporting things the cells needed through the vessels, it was time for the big fun project: DIY Giant Heart!

I rigged this up almost totally on the fly, and it really worked out well!

I got a jar and filled it halfway with water, added some red food coloring to be the blood. Then I got a turkey baster and the clear tubing from our seldom-used Nosefrida, but any clear tubing would work. I stuck the turkey baster nozzle into the tubing (it was a tight fit that kept popping out, so I duct taped it together and it worked like a charm). Next a tried to minimize mess by putting it all in a pan to catch the inevitable spilled "blood". Lastly, I got several small cups to be my hungry cells that needed blood to bring them food and air.

Before the big reveal of the project, I presented them with a problem: if the blood is in the vessel, how does it move to the hungry big toe cell? To illustrate, I got some "blood" in the tubing (before attaching it to the baster)  and showed them the hungry "cells" and asked how the blood could get to the cell. I was totally pleased with Alex's answer that we could "squeeze the blood through"!

I introduced the idea of a heart as a big muscle that squeezes the blood through the vessels, and then showed them how the baster bulb was like a big  heart that could pump the blood to the cells. They each took turn pumping the blood and holding the vessel in the cells, learning how to suck the blood back to the heart as well.

After all that kind of intense learning, I left them to play with the tubes and suction- it was awesome to hear them pretending to be hungry cells, working out problems ("No, Alex, you have to squeeze the heart, this cell needs food!"). When they spilled, I asked what it meant when blood comes out of the vessels where it is supposed to stay, and Anya chirped, "It's an owie!" so we talked about how the spilled "blood" in the pan was a bruise- still in our imaginary giant's body but not in the vessels where it should be.

After about a 45 minutes of playing with the project, we cleaned up and I briefly mentioned that the when the heart squeezes it makes a noise, which is the lub-dub we heard with the stethoscope that morning. I asked if they remembered the other two sounds we heard (they did) and introduced the idea that the lung and belly sounds are related to air and food,  two things that blood transports to the cells. We haven't started on those two yet, but I felt pretty good about all the stuff we learned about the circulatory system as a good lead in to digestion and respiratory.

All in all, it's been an amazing two days of working with the kids on some stuff that could have been overwhelming. I'm in awe of their minds, and how they are constantly learning and investigating, and the more opportunities I provide, the more connections they make.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Big Stick, Mama, That'll Blow Your Mind

We got this crazy wonderful machine: it turns dairy products into delicious treats. Oh, how I love you ice cream machine!

First recipe I picked up off a message board and I chose because it had two ingredients and was relatively healthy and I could whip it up with the kids without residual guilt (OMFGCHILDHOODOBESITY! DON'TLETTHEMEATSUGARANDOHMYLORDINHEAVENTHEFAT! THEFAAAAA-AAAAT!!!1!)

Orange Julius FroYo
1 quart of lowfat vanilla yogurt
1 regular sized container of orange juice concentrate, thawed
a glug or two of vanilla extract

  1. Dump the yogurt in a large bowl, add the OJ and vanilla, stir till combined.
  2. With the machine assembled and running, pour the mixture in.
  3. Check in 20 minutes or so to see if it is churned enough for you. Freeze for an hour or two if you like your FroYo harder.
This was a huge hit with the kids, though Luke found it overly tart. I think it would be better with about 1/2-3/4 of the OJ added, or with something like an OJ-Banana or Strawberry-Banana blend. Or that tropical juice with passionfruit, that would be way tasty for something so easy.

But, really, did I get an ice cream maker for healthy frozen treats? Absolutely not.

I'm a little afraid of the madness I will create if left to my own devices, some sort of chocolate peanut butter brownie toasted almond sweet cream concoction, so I asked Luke what sort of ice cream he'd like. His reply, "Caramel Swirl"

Caramel Swirl. We need a good vanilla base, not of the heavy, egg-y sort. And while a quick check of online recipes suggested just swirling in some jarred caramel topping, that sounds so dull, so canned, like the way all budget restaurants all taste like the same Sysco ingredients cooked in the same way. And caramel is so deliciously easy!

Caramel for Swirling or Topping:
3/4 cup white sugar (though I plan to try brown sugar next time)
1/4 cup water.
1/8 teaspoon sea salt - optional and adjustable- add less or a pinch of regular salt for a more traditional caramel, add more for a truly salty caramel, which is so yummy I dream of it.
1/2-1cup heavy cream
a couple glugs of vanilla extract

  1. Mix ingredients in a small heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Mixture will eventually begin to boil and bubble, allow it to cook at this rate, watching it closely for changes in color. You want a nice deep amber color- pale like butter will taste insipid, like plain simple syrup, too dark like coffee will taste burnt. Watch closely because it can go from butter- to coffee-colored 
  2. Remove from heat and gently, carefully, pour in your heavy cream. Be prepared, it let loose an explosion of steam and furious boiling and the caramel will go through a series of alchemical changes, solid, liquid, gaseous, it will seem as though you have conjured a djinni  in your saucepan, but things will settle down after some stirring. I suggest a long handled solid mixing spoon for this, and watch out for your fingers and the explosion of steam! 
  3. Add cream till you think you have a consistency that works for you- be aware that the caramel will get harder as it cools, if you find that it is too hard and chewy (or like a hard candy!), simply warm it over low heat with lots of stirring and add more cream- but remember to go slow, you can't make it less runny if you add too much! Let cool to room temperature before adding to ice cream if you are planning to swirl, use while still warm for a topping.

Next: Ice Cream. I used Alton Brown's Serious Vanilla as a base, though I made some changes and was very pleased with the results.

2 cups half and half
1 cup heavy cream
1/2-3/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean 
  1. Combine first four ingredients in a heavy saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, and scrape out the pulp with a spoon. Add pulp and beans to the saucepan.
  3. Allow the mixture to come to a simmer- not a full boil, just till you see the very first tiny bubbles start to surface. Remove from heat and chill. The flavors will meld nicely if you let it chill for a full 24 hours, but it will still be yummy even if you just let it cool the bare minimum of time. It does need to be very cold, or else the ice cream won't freeze properly in the machine.
  4. Turn on your machine and pour the liquid in while it is churning (otherwise it will freeze to the sides and the motor won't be able to churn properly). Check back in 20 minutes or so and it should be setting up nicely. you can keep churning for a while longer, or go on from here. the ice cream will be soft serve consistency at this stage.
  5. With the machine still churning, pour in the caramel in in a steady stream, but don't churn for too long. Working quickly, turn off the machine and transfer the ice cream to a sealable container- you don't want to so thoroughly mix the caramel in that it become caramel ice cream rather than caramel swirl; you also don't want the ice cream to linger in the frozen bowl form the machine, or it will freeze hard to the sides.
  6. Try some delicious ice cream right now, or leave it to harden up in the freezer if you prefer.