A few weeks ago, we spent a lovely afternoon at the Daly Arts Court for Culture Days. There were Culture Days activities taking place all over the city, but the Daly Arts Court was where we wanted to be. Or rather, where I was sure the kids would prefer to be if they only knew what was waiting for them.

And what was that?

Adventures in squishiness, that was what. Oh, and LED lights, too.

We were greeted outside the building by these lovely steampunk stilt walkers:

Outside, people were printing on t-shirts with pieces of old rubber tires. If you had the patience for it, you, too, could choose an old logo t-shirt from their stash and make it look like it had been run over by a car.

Inside, we found circus performers who were hanging upside down from the ceiling by a long loop of fabric. If you were just a little bit brave, you, too, could try your hand at twisting yourself into the fabric like a pretzel and hanging upside down. (I was not brave.)

In another room, there was button-making and needle felting and weaving. Our B was fascinated by the weaving machines and we wound up spending quite a bit of time learning how it all works. Somehow, I see a loom in our future.

But the real draw — the entire reason I had chosen to visit the Daly Arts Court on this fine autumn day — was to play with play dough. But not just any play dough, oh no!

Electrically conductive play dough.

Oh, what fun you can have with a battery, a few LEDs, and a handful of squishy, squashy, electrically conductive dough! It didn’t take the kids long before they were completely immersed in the learning.
About 9.2 millisecconds, to be precise.

The coloured dough is conductive, thanks to its salt content, and electricity readily passes through it. The uncoloured dough contains no salt and therefore acts as an insulator, preventing electricity from flowing through. Together, they can be squished and smushed and rearranged until you have the most fascinating of electrically-charged creatures.

Of course, a battery only holds so much juice. With one LED, you get a nice, clear, bright light.

With half a hundred LEDs, eventually they dim to almost nothingness. (Though that, apparently, it absolutely perfectly delightful. Plus it makes for some great science learning.)

The kids weren’t the only ones to have fun. The Man We Call Dad built an architectural wonder of a structure with smooth lines and easily visible current pathways using nothing but conductive dough.

As for me? I built a dragon.

We spent well over an hour playing with dough and talking with the lovely people from ArtEngine.

And then B and I went down the hall so we could try our hands at belly dancing.

(No. That isn’t me. That’s the instructor.)

All good things must come to an end, of course, and this day was no different. We left, we had dinner, and we headed towards home… with a small stop along the way to buy some LEDs. Wires, too. And batteries. And buzzers. And motors.


Well, because conductive dough is absolutely simple to make for yourself, you see, and then we could play and play and play as long as we desired. And we could invite the neighbour kids to join us.

Which we did.

They played for hours.

If you would like to try your hand and building your own squishy circuits, you can watch the TED talk video and download the dough recipes and, with a battery and a few LEDs, you’ll be having fun in no time at all.



Making butter by hand

In the middle of our crazy weekend, we decided to make butter. B has been studying pioneer times, which included into a dress-up-like-a-pioneer day at school and a day-long trip to Upper Canada Village. With all that pioneery activity happening at school, well, we just had to bring some of it home, too.

So we made butter.

Butter is spectacularly easy to make. Plus it builds arm muscle and tires children out, which is a definite bonus. For some reason, I have almost always made butter in a clean plastic peanut butter jar. I have no idea why, other than it being a good size for small hands to hold on to, and relatively unbreakable. Plus it doesn’t hurt so much if you just happen to drop it on your foot.

Not that I’ve done that. Not recently, at least.

To make butter, you will need the following ingredients:

A pint of whipping cream
A empty peanut butter jar that has been thoroughly cleaned out, or some other jar if you prefer
A few sets of hands to help you shake it
A bowl and spoon
Fresh bread, crackers, or steaming hot baked potatoes to taste test with.

Yup, it’s true: butter has precisely 1 ingredient: cream.

Start by filling your jar about 1/3 of the way full of cream. Close the lid tightly and hand it to a child and tell them to shake it until it turns into butter. They will most likely look at you as if you’ve grown three heads. I recommend smiling innocently and repeating your instructions without any further explanation — it isway more fun when the butter-making process has a few surprises in store.

After a minute or two of shaking, the whipping cream begins to, well, whip itself into whipped cream. Your jar, which initially looked like a clear plastic jar with a bit of milk in the bottom, now looks like a solidly white jar of nothingness. Sort of like marshmallow fluff, only less sticky. Like this:

If you take the lid off, it looks like this:

The kids can taste-test it at this point. When I used to do this with school groups at the museum, everyone wanted to taste it at this point. Except my odd kids who don’t like whipped cream absolutely will not taste anything remotely resembling whipped cream unless you bully coax them into it.

I coaxed. They tasted.

Essentially, it takes like whipped cream, but without the sugar, so not quite so yummy.

Taste-testing thus accomplished, we put the lid on tightly and shook it some more. After a few more minutes, it still looks like whipped cream, but it is starting to look a little lumpy and strange, and when you open the lid again, this is what you see:

Now is the time to start asking them questions like: What the heck just happened? and But where’s the butter? You will probably get some pretty hilarious answers if you don’t give them any spoilers.

The next step is more of the same: put the lid back on again (securely!) and keep shaking. But here is where is starts to get interesting. All of a sudden, the solid creamy mixture that you’ve been shaking around in the container starts to slosh a bit. If you shake really hard, not only does it slosh, it starts to make a thumping noise. Visually, things change too. Where the jar has been solidly coated in white up until now, suddenly it begins to clear, and you find yourselves with a lump of something sort of squishy and oozing a whitish liquid and generally looking very strange. Here’s the view from the side:

And here’s the view from inside the jar:

So you put the lid back on, very securely (don’t ask me why I keep warning you to put the lid on securely. I’m sure you can imagine it. Just make sure you are imagining it in a museum classroom full of 30 kindergarten kids, their teacher, a handful of parent chaperones, and your boss looking on for good measure).

And shake it some more.

This is where it gets really fun. As the butter forms a solid ball, it starts to really bounce around the jar with a solidthunk-a-chunk sound while the watery buttermilk sloshes and slurps along in perfect harmony with your shaking.

As you can see here, the butter and the buttermilk have completely separated from each other. Your butter is now almost ready to eat! Start by pouring the buttermilk into a bowl or a jar — don’t waste it! It makes the best pancakes and is yummy baked into homemade bread.

Dump the butter into another bowl and put it in the bottom of your sink. Turn the tap on very cold with just a thin stream of water and squash your butter with the back of a spoon while you rinse it. Don’t worry, the butter will stick together, it won’t rinse away.

When the butter starts rinsing mostly clear, turn off the water, put one hand on the butter to hold it in the bowl and dump out the rest of the water. I usually mash it a bit more with the spoon to make sure all the liquid is out of it (or as much as I can get, anyway).

Transfer the butter to a small mason jar or a dish and pass it around for a taste test on fresh bread, crackers, or hot baked potatoes. The rest should be stored airtight in the fridge, either in a small mason jar or butter crock, or just wrapped in tin foil or waxed paper.

Now, are you ready for the truth about what happened to turn cream into butter? (Are you sure you want the truth?)

Milk is made up of thin, watery milk and little globules of fat. When you shake the milk or cream a lot, the fat globules tend to stick to each other. If you do it just a little bit, you get whipped cream, where the fat and the milk are still pretty evenly dispersed. If you do it a lot, the fat globules clump together, the milk loses its grip on the fat, and you’re left with butter and buttermilk. We rinse the butter at the end to rinse away the last bit of buttermilk, which helps the butter stay fresh longer.

So what’s the deal with salted vs. unsalted butter? Basically, salting butter was originally done to help preserve the butter in the days before home refrigeration. You should always cook and bake with unsalted butter as the salt content will affect the chemical reactions in the food (such as yeast rising), the moisture content (very important for pastry in particular), and the taste.

All Guts, No Glory

We are a rather geeky household, if the truth be known. With more computers than people, and with both the adults making their living in the IT world, computers are a fact of life around here. When we were investigating schools for the kids, a strong computer program was a non-negotiable must-have item on the list. Up until now, we’ve been pleased with the school’s program, but at some point this year, I started to feel a vague sense of disquiet.

While the kids are confident computer users, their understanding of what computers are made of and how they work was sorely lacking. Oh, they had the general idea, but there were large pieces missing, and all of those pieces fell firmly into the category of “any geek-kid worth their salt would know this stuff.” Things like not really understanding why it is that when you put your thumb drive in the computer at school, it always shows up as F:, but when you bring it home, on your computer it is E:, but on Mama’s computer it is I: instead. And what exactly is a ‘drive’ anyway?

So we took one of our old computers and did this to it:

We exploded it. It was prefaced by a few lessons in the history of computers and robotics, and software vs. hardware, and it was tremendous fun.

We paid careful attention to the idea of information storage, which of course necessitated dragging out an old floppy disk and a hard disk drive too. And yes, before you ask, we exploded those, too.

We aren’t done our explorations yet, nor are the kids done their computer education — not by a long shot! But we are well on our way, and we’re having tons of fun.

Isn’t that what learning is all about?

All by myself

We like to play around here. We like to play a lot. We play with friends, we play with toys, we play with crafts… and we play with science. Lately, K and B have been migrating away from playing with science with me. It’s not that they aren’t doing science, oh no! It’s that they prefer to do it themselves, with just a little bit of guidance and help through the trickier bits. The word of the day around here is one that I used to think was the province of two year olds: I can do it myself!

At two, “I can do it myself!”  was usually spoken in defiance, and often involved self-care like fastening buttons or brushing teeth. Nowadays, I find it spoken with a sense of wonder and surprise, and with an ever-growing sense of one’s own true capabilities. Whether it is baking muffins, pruning bushes, or frying yourself an egg for breakfast, the realization that you are no longer quite a child but are, in fact, a capable, useful, and rather independent kid… it’s priceless.

I’ve always been a big believer in setting kids free to do as much as they can on their own from as soon as they are capable and willing to do it. As toddlers, they learned to dress themselves and how to cut their food with a knife at dinner time. As preschoolers, they learned how to get their own cereal and pour their own milk and help set the table. As they grew, and as their motor skills grew more refined, more and more of their daily lives was given over into their own care. Lest you think I am a crazy woman who gives knives to two year olds — wait, I am a crazy woman who gives knives to two year olds — rest assured that all is done safely, and with child-sized tools. If you want your two year old to learn how to use a knife and fork, you must do it with child-sized utensils, not a heavy adult tool. I draw heavily from the Montessori philosophies in that area.

As my kids have continued to grow, we’ve continued to encourage them to explore and learn for themselves, rather than trusting solely to book learning. (Though we do love books around here). You gain so much by discovering something for yourself rather than merely having someone define it for you. You learn better when the experience is multi-sensorial and just a little bit crazy and intimidating and challenging and fun. And you gain confidence when the adults around you teach you some basic safety rules and then set you free in the kitchen or in the science lab, and you come out the other side alive and well and having had a roaring good time.

The Young Scientist Club kits are perfect for all of this. The kids can (and often do) perform the bulk of the experiments on their own, with just a little help from the grownups. But, up until very recently, there always was help from the grownups at some point or another. We’ve turned a corner, it seems. The grownups are now relegated to being spectators.

Of course, that does free up the hands for taking photographs… and what crazy photographs you get when your kids decide to tackle the kit on pH!

They mixed up a simple acid/base indicator using a kettle full of water and the last of that cabbage from the garden, and then they filled half an egg carton with a variety of substances and went about discovering what, exactly, it means when we say something is an acid.

First by taste…

And then with the indicator…

And finally with the pH strips that were included in the kit. There were several more little experiments in the kit and they enjoyed all of them. They had an absolute blast working with graduated cylinders and pipettes and watching chemical reactions take place right before their eyes. They giggled, they made faces, they talked about what they were seeing (loudly, and with much enthusiasm), and  they focussed their attention on what was happening in a way that rarely happens when you passively watch someone else showing you how it works.

And then they promptly demanded to know when they could do the next kit in the series.

By themselves.

Because grownups, it seems, are fast becoming unneeded around here. At least when it comes to science. And muffins.

Busy fingers…

I’ve been a bad blogger. A very bad blogger. I haven’t posted anything since… wait… What!?! Seriously??? October 22nd?!? Oh dear. But you see, my fingers have been oh so very busy in the evenings… too busy for blogging, it turns out! But as my fingers have been busy doing the things that make life so fun, I refuse to apologize. Life is for living, after all, and living has been happening in spades these past two weeks.

Hoopla book cover

First, some news: my copy of Hoopla made it into my eager little hands and I just had to spend a day or three devouring it. It is absolutely beautiful, and contains some truly amazing projects. I am astonished that little old me is keeping company with the truly fabulous stitching talent to be found in the book. My three embroidery pieces were photographed in Vancouver’s beautiful Stanley Park and I couldn’t be more pleased with how the photos turned out, but I’ll post more about that tomorrow, and show you some pics of my little contribution to the book. For now, you’ll have to settle for a little sneak peek:

Sneak peek at Nest

There’s been a lot of living and doing and learning going on around here, and the last week of October was full of all sorts of spooky fun, science, and a lot of math, too. Wait, what? Math?
Yes, you read that right. We’ve acquired a new set of math textbooks called Life of Fred. Fred is hilariously funny. He teaches math in the most wonderfully absurd and yet somehow completely practical way. In fact, Fred is so absolutely hilariously funny that B worked her way through 8 chapters of Apples (the first elementary-level book) in a single evening. And then she did some more the next night. And the next. She’s now on to book two, Butterflies, and is flying through it at rapid speed. At this rate, she’ll be ready for algebra next week and calculus by Christmas, and K racing right along with her. Yesterday morning around 6:30 a.m., they were having a convoluted discussion about sets and set theory and whether or not they could make a set out of their breakfast cereal. (They could. Just in case you’re curious. I think I’m going to need to brush up on my own math skills just to keep up with them!)

Just to shake things up a little, we did another science kit from The Young Scientists Club, and this one involved building our own metric spring scale out of a shoe box, two paperclips, and elastic string. It was awesome fun, and they weighed all sorts of things. Once they bored of it, I pulled out a real spring scale (I cheated – it comes in the next kit but since I’d read ahead to prepare, I knew it was there) and they got busy and weighed everything all over again with the official spring scale to check how accurate their home made one was.

This entire experiment just served to reinforce for me the need to have kids learn things from scratch, one baby step at a time. How they need to get their hands right into the learning. And how the learning has to be broken down into pieces that are just the right size to make them really, really think.

Had I simply handed them a commercial spring scale, explained how it worked, and asked them to weigh things, the activity would have lasted 10 minutes tops and been punctuated with lots of “I’m bored!” and “Do I have to?” and “When’s lunch?”  Instead, it was an entire morning of trying things out, adjusting, fixing, frowning, pondering, testing, and trying again. It involved some frustration, to be sure. Some confusion. Some experimentation. It also involved a pinched finger, and a frustrated pair of hands trying to get a little bowl to hang level from a stretchy string.

But those little hands learned, bit by bit, and slowly it came together. This success was followed by checks and double checks, and then cheering and laughing and “Dad! Come see what we built all by ourselves!” It was accessible science at its best. Just like the ping-pong robot, there was genuine authenticity in the learning process.

It occurred to me afterwards that the thing I liked most about the Young Scientist Club and Life of Fred (and to a slightly lesser extent, Jump Math) is the ease with which they integrate authentic learning into their process. Each step is taken, one tiny bit at a time, and in a way that is completely accessible to kids of all ages. If I hand you a spring scale and ask you to explain it, it is complicated. If I instead explain the principles behind a spring, talk about how heavy things stretch the spring farther than light things, then let you build a contraption that does exactly what I’ve been talking about… you are invested in your own learning. You aren’t learning by being programmed like a computer. You are learning by absorbing and thinking and questioning and examining and feeling and touching and trying and making mistakes and finding solutions.

When we tape a ruler beside our homemade spring scale and start comparing objects, and then make our own “ruler” using known weights and a blank card, you understand in a truly visceral way why there are little lines with numbers beside them on the side of a spring scale. What’s more, you truly understand what those numbers represent. You’ve held a single gram weight in your hand. You’ve held a fistful of ten grams. And you’ve carefully weighed them in both your own hands and using your scale.

What’s more, if you don’t understand it right away, because it is made of a shoebox and paperclips and a bit of stretchy string, you aren’t afraid to question what is really happening. To test it. To try things out. To experiment. To strive for understanding, not because I told you that you must understand this, but because you genuinely want to know. And because you can look at this thing, this ungainly beast that is a surprisingly accurate measuring tool, and say “That’s mine. I built that!”

And when The Man We Call Dad raises his eyebrows and tilts his head sideways in an attempt to figure out what, exactly, you are so very proud of, you aren’t afraid to say out loud: “Want to know how it works?” and just that quickly your fingers are full of gram weights and other little objects as you set about teaching everything you just learned to someone new.

Busy fingers are often a sign of busy minds. We like busy fingers around here.


One tiny baby bird

We have society finches, and they are by nature very, very social. So social, in fact, that they spend each night piled higgeldy-piggeldy on top of each other in the nest. The one, small, nest that really only comfortably fits two, in my opinion. But what do I know — I’m not a society finch. And according to our finches, six birds fit just fine, thank you.

This morning, Mama bird had kicked all the other birds out of the nest… except one. As we gave them fresh water and food, we realized that there weren’t six birds in our cage any longer. There are seven.

Newborn society finches have got to be the tiniest, most adorable things I have ever seen, and this new baby is no different. As he was just born overnight, I took photos through the top of the cage as best I could — I apologize for the poor photo quality. Phoenix is sitting on top of him, keeping him warm, but I jostled her just enough to get a peek at the tiny, pink blob sheltering under her wings.

Click the picture to see it full-size; it’s much easier to see the baby then. In the next photo, you can see his entire body, his stubby little baby wings and chicken legs, and his head with its oversized dark eyes, still sealed shut.

He is completely featherless and his skin is so transparent you can see the veins and arteries running through his body. And he is absolutely tiny. It is hard to describe how incredibly fragile he looks, and yet, he is full of strength. Already he flaps his little naked wings and pushes strongly with his whisker-thin legs and lifts his head high as if in greeting, though I know at this point he is still completely blind.

To give you a sense of scale, Phoenix is at most 10 cm long from the tip of her beak to the tip of her tail, which puts this little guy around 2 or 2.5 cm long from beak to tail stub. He is tiny.

It’s amazing how such tiny, fragile things can bring us so much joy and hope.

Crossbows and pencils and electrical tape, oh my!

Today, a friend of K’s came over and taught my children how to make a crossbow.

Had you asked me when I was 12 or 13 if I thought teaching children to make crossbows was a good idea, I would probably have said no. I was a cautious child, after all, and a conscientious babysitter, and the idea of intentionally arming my charges would have been more than a little scary. Someone could shoot an eye out, after all.

Had you asked me later, when I was 19 or so and had been working for the museum for a while, I’d have given a knee-jerk “No!” followed by a curious inward smile as I started to ponder whether it could be done easily, what materials could be used, and if Richard (a co-worker who was also a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and worked at making himself chainmail armour during breaks) might happen to have a real crossbow floating around his apartment, perhaps sharing a wall with his sword. Or at least a working reproduction.

And if he’d teach me how to make one.

Just out of curiosity, of course.

Had you asked me when my kids were infants, I’d have said “Heck no!” and probably never have let you babysit. Ever. Not that I was overprotective of my babies or anything.

But today… today, when S showed up on our doorstep with a tiny catapult he built with the help of this book (which has been on my Amazon wishlist for a few months):

wearing a very big grin (and I do mean collosally big – I swear his smile went beyond ear to ear!)…

When he said “I got a new book and it is so cool!  I made a crossbow! Can I show K how to built a crossbow like this one?”

I said yes.

You see, somewhere between the birth of my babes and now, I’ve been corrupted. Corrupted in part by Ken Robinson and his thoughts on creativity

And his thoughts on revamping education

And also by this Gever Tulley and his Tinkering School, and his book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) (which is also on my Amazon wishlist)

So when a charming 10 year old boy showed up at our door, the proud builder of a crossbow of his very own,  and he offered to share his newfound knowledge with K and B… of course I said yes.

And I was only a little bit jealous.

Besides, I can always get K to teach me how to make one tomorrow.