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!