Friday, April 29, 2011

Into the Woods

We live smack in the middle of metropolitan Philadelphia. Our home is surrounded by concrete and pavement. And yet, we have seen some of the most fascinating bits of nature within our city limits. We were once awed by a pair of bald eagles we spied on a hike at John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, and also amazed by the raccoon and Peregrine falcon we spotted in our own backyard. But what we discovered last week at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education took the cake for me: the remnants of a turtle.

The turtle was mostly gone, except for a leg and of course, the shell--though when we flipped it over, we discovered most of the famous box pattern falling off in sheets. Fifi had lots of questions about the turtle, which she entertained on the ride home. It was sort of convenient to have this unknown turtle be the symbol of death, so we could talk about the circle of life without the usual emotional component.

The woods are a good place to enjoy the life part of that circle. But while I love, love, love a good hike, my kids are less zealous about the activity. Having friends along--especially pals they adore as much as their good friends Vladimir and Olaf--significantly increases their enthusiasm. Trail mix also helps.

But then, once the snacks have been eaten and the woods start becoming mundane, it's always good to have an activity to re-engage them. I brought along some paper bags and a scavenger hunt sheet. I thought I was being pretty simple with my list of things sought: bark, rock, seed pod, etc. I knew the feather would be elusive. But I didn't realize pine needles and pine cones would be impossible to find. It's probably helpful to know in advance if you're hiking in a deciduous forest. No conifers, no cones.

Bark, on the other hand, was a much easier matter.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Oil and Water DO Mix

Mixed media, that is.

We drew on white watercolor paper with a white oil pastel. It was a little tricky for the kids to draw since they couldn't see too well what they had drawn. But it was a fun challenge.

The key to a successful painting is a bold, heavy application of oil crayon. Fifi drew a house. I drew circles on top of Vance's scrawls.

Then, like magic, the watercolor paint unveiled the white drawings.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Spring Cleaning

Every once in a while I find myself doing something smart. And then I write about that moment so that it can be preserved forever on the internet and I can casually refer to it when asked to defend my intelligence.

This weekend, I had such a moment. On an average-intelligence day, I might partake in a conversation like this:
Me: Hey Fifi, come help me clean.
Fifi: No thank you.
Me: I wasn't actually asking you, I was telling you. You need to help me clean.
Fifi: But I don't waaaaaant to.
Me: [Conversation quickly devolves into pathetic diatribe. Crying ensues. Cleaning may eventually happen, but not very well, and certainly not happily.]

But, the other day I had a burst of cleverness and had the following conversation with my daughter.
Me: Hey Fifi, want to wear special cleaning clothes and help me clean?
Fifi: Special cleaning clothes?! Like what?
Me: Like a kerchief on your head.
Fifi: Oh, wow. And I can help you clean?!
Me: You sure can.
Fifi: Hey Daddy, I'm going to wear special cleaning clothes and go help Mommy clean!


Friday, April 22, 2011

Crime Scene Chalk Outlines for Tots

The rain finally stopped and the sun finally came out and we couldn't wait to bask in the glory of springtime. But, ugh!, the plumber was coming. We would have to wait for him either inside, or on the narrow sidewalk in front of our house. We opted for whatever sliver of sunshine we could get. But, how to keep two small kids safely occupied on a city sidewalk for an hour or so? Chalk.

We started with general free drawing. Vance made scribbles, Fifi made a flowery scene. It was all lovely and fun, but grew tiresome after a short while. To rev up the engagement level, we made crime scene chalk outlines. Only, instead of pretending the kids had been murdered, we just traced their living bodies and colored them in.

The children had fun dressing themselves and adding props, and the plumber was delighted to be greeted by the bright mix of flat and three-dimensional kids.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

All Aboard...All Not Bored!

As car-less city dwellers, we use our share of public transportation. Buses and subways have their perks. But there's something about the train that is just really cool. It might be the cushioned seats or the conductor that stamps your ticket or perhaps, the view. Riding the train is fun; but it's also long. So, we need to bring something to help pass the time.

I created these Train Bingo sheets using free clip-art. I made a five-by-five square with a free space in the middle. I then filled the other twenty-four squares with pictures of a newspaper, a train, a stop sign, a dog, a train conductor, a blue car, a suitcase and a bunch of other things I thought were likely to be spotted from our seats on the train.

The Bingo boards were a big hit--at least for the first fifteen minutes or so. They were a nice way to really observe our surroundings and keep little behinds planted in their seats. They can easily be converted to Road Trip Bingo as well. Suddenly, long trips don't seem so dreadful.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Draw the Circus Like You Wanted to, When You Were a Kid

Collaboration is my favorite word of late. Each of us seems to make our best artwork when we work together. I might think I have a couple of good ideas. But when Fifi pitches in her two cents, we get something really great. Vance is a bit young to fully think through his artistic vision. But he's had plenty of fun making his contributions. And the teamwork that results is heart-melting!

Fifi wanted to draw a circus. I drew a simple big-top set and she and Vance went from there. Fifi added a tightrope and some trapezes. Vance drew an elephant and lots and lots of snakes. The kids then asked me to expand upon their initial drawings by adding trapeze artists and a dancer atop the elephant. Soon, we had a popcorn cart and a lion, a bunch of acrobats and a man being shot from a cannon.

The drawing itself was super fun. But what was even better was how the kids interacted with the artwork. Fifi became a ring-master and Vance did a bunch of acrobatic tricks. The whole morning became a circus (and I don't mean that in the crazy way I might ordinarily describe our mornings). It was fun! And it was a whole lot of working together.

Friday, April 15, 2011

April Showers Bring Homemade Flowers

I went a little crazy recently. Well, crazier than usual. I wanted to put our beautiful coffee filter flowers to use. And with this horrid weather we've been having, I couldn't get the notion of "April Showers Bring May Flowers" out of my head. One thing led to another and I got the kids to help me turn some cereal boxes into happy spring window boxes.

The flowers pop up when you open the window! There were many steps to making these. But I hate blemishing my signature narrative paragraph format with a numbered list. So, step-by-step instructions can me found here. It's a perfect rainy day project.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Balloons! (Part 2)

We also used balloons to learn about force. But instead of just learning, we made it a competitive game. Whoever learned the most, won.

We held balloon races by taping inflated (but not tied) balloons to a straw threaded on a piece of yarn tied between two chairs. Just in case any of you face the mental challenges I myself suffer when faced with elementary-school level directions, I'll lay it out step by step. As I learned the hard way, order is sort of important. First, tie the string onto one chair. Then thread the string through the straw. After that, you can tie the string to the other chair. Once the strings are in place, you can dangle some tape from the straw to adhere a balloon. We released the balloons multiple times, so I determined it was possible to inflate them once they were already attached.

I tried to inflate them equally and use a clear countdown for their release. Nonetheless, orange was clearly the better athlete.

I was careful to have the kids root for color and not for the balloon owner. But, it didn't matter. Whichever balloon Fifi was not in command of, was invariably the winner; and much whining did ensue. But I put her in charge of the keeping-track-of-winners graph and so, in that small way, she got to win every time.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Balloons! (Part 1)

We had some fun with balloons the other day. Sure, there was the run-of-the-mill kids-with-balloons sort of fun. The children threw them, bounced them, chased them, tried to sit on them. But there was also some watch-out-you-might-learn-something kind of fun as well. All of the brainy stuff was inspired by My Big Science Book.

First, we blew up balloons without using our mouths. Remember how I said the volcano project had very little to do with volcanoes and that you could do it using any old container? Well, how about a knock-off Pepto-Bismol bottle? Use the same exact ingredients as the volcano, except you can skip the soap and food coloring. With the help of a funnel, pour some baking soda into a balloon. Then pour the vinegar into the bottle. Carefully wrap the end of the balloon around the opening of the bottle. Once the balloon is securely in place, dump the contents into the bottle and watch the eruption. The gas created by the chemical reaction fills up the balloon. Pretty sneaky, sis.

We also filled some balloons the old-fashioned way and charged them by rubbing them on our shirts. Static electricity is a party favorite. We made our hair stand up and watched tissue paper bits dance.

If only I could get balloons to pick up bigger things like toy train tracks and Legos, I'd be all set.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Mommy Relaxation Time

It's kind of hard to take a picture
involving your own head.
(And those are golden highlights,
not gray hairs.)

At the end of some days, I insist that if the kids want to play with me, they must play a game that falls under the "Mommy Relaxation Time" umbrella. The primary rule of any game in this category is that Mommy remains seated (or, supine, if she's so lucky) for the entire game. Variations on the theme include: doctor (aka "Mommy's in a coma"), Mommy back rub, restaurant (aka "Serve Mommy") or, the least deceptive-seeming choice of hairdresser.

I love having my hair brushed. When I was in labor the second time and Vance had gotten himself so thoroughly wedged in the birth canal that I was stuck in the transition part of labor an exhausting five hours, I asked my husband to brush my hair between contractions. By no means did it dull the pain, but it did make the rest times that much more restful.

Likewise, when the five o'clock hour hits and my kids turn into demons and my patience spontaneously disappears, having the kids pamper me does not actually increase my energy or my tolerance; but it does make the time much more pleasant.

Fifi particularly loves when my visit to the beauty parlor coincides with some outlandish event I am supposedly attending. Last time, I was off to meet the president. As she combed my mane with a comfortable wide-toothed comb and clipped away with non-cutting Play-Doh scissors, she talked on and on about her own experiences visiting the White House where all the presidents still live including George Bush, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. She makes conversation just like a professional and pampers me to no end. And at that price, the 'do is not that bad, either.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Say It with Coffee Filter Flowers

Today I want to share my lovely experience making beautiful, beautiful flowers. Aren't they just gorgeous?

My kids and I made them with coffee filters, markers and food coloring. I am quite sure if you do a search for coffee filter flowers, there are probably scores of sites that show how to make them. But I didn't do that. I just sat and looked at the plain empty coffee filters and dreamed this up. So, their beauty is multiplied by my satisfaction over creating my own project. (Even though I'm sure I'm not the first. Please don't ruin it for me. Just let me have my fantasy.)

We flattened filters one at a time and then colored a band about 1/4 inch thick around the outside. At first we just started with solid colors, but before long, we were experimenting with color combinations and line forms.

Once the filters were colored, we folded them in half and then half again, and then a couple more times until they were skinny little wedges. Then we twisted the bottom portion to form a sort of stem, and lastly spread out the top part to resemble a flower's bloom.

I set out bowls of water with a drop or two of food coloring. We were limited to green, red and yellow because I ran out of blue working on a certain volcano project. With a quick and gentle dip, we submerged the colored edge of the coffee filter into the color bath. The water passed quickly through the marker, creating a luscious bleed towards the stem. We set them to dry on a wire cooling rack atop a plastic placemat.

I am utterly delighted by the richness of the colors. There was an interesting role reversal wherein my daughter hogged the black marker and I gravitated towards the pinks and purples. But I have to say, they all came out splendidly. This is definitely not the last time we'll be making a coffee-filter flower bouquet.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Baby Bureaucrats

Fifi set up an information booth. I have no idea how she even thought of this, but she flipped a box upside down as a table, put a clipboard and some blank paper on top and asked if she could help me find some information. My first question was, "How do you find a job?" She drew three buildings and pointed to each as she answered: first you go to school, then you go to college, then you get a job. Not bad.

After I'd exhausted all my informational needs, I thought it would be fun to let her fill in some information on a form. So, I created an interview sheet that's simple enough for pre-readers.

Am I the only one among us who will admit actually liking paperwork sometimes? I remember as a kid, playing in my dad's office and having a gay ol' time pretending to fill in forms and be an office worker. Undoubtedly, using the phones was the most fun part; but filling in a piece of paper full of lined spaces and check boxes--especially when attached to a clipboard!--was no small thrill. Clearly, I led a dull life.

At any rate, the interview sheet was a hit with Fifi. She interviewed her brother and me and then asked to be interviewed herself. We killed enjoyed close to an hour just sitting around a box, spelling each other's names, determining favorite colors, and drawing portraits. Over the next few days, as people came to our house, Fifi interviewed them as well. I hope the job market is strong in 2031 because this girl has "mid-level management" written all over her!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Mount Saint Children's

I always considered a homemade volcano to be a big kid project. But, after making one with my pipsqueaks, I've decided it's actually a perfect pre-school project. If you haven't tried this already with your kids--whatever their ages--go make one today!

When we set out to make ours, we first watched a kid-friendly video about volcanoes since my kids didn't really know too much about them. (It turns out a homemade volcano actually has very little to do with a real volcano; it's really about the chemical reaction between baking soda and vinegar. So you could just as easily skip this step and just say, "Hey kids, we're going to make liquid ooze out of this random container, okay?")

Next, we made a volcano. All of the kids' play-dough had been mixed to mauve anyway, so it seemed like a good excuse to use it all up and introduce new colors to play-dough time. I cut the bottom out of a large plastic soup container and flipped it upside down. I then put an empty jelly jar inside. This was smart on my part. It was very easy to peel away some play-dough to remove the jar in order to clean it out for future eruptions.

Once the volcano was crafted, I found a lava recipe I was comfortable with and then had the kids help me measure out baking soda and vinegar, plus some dish detergent and food coloring. Our first eruption was red and bubbly. With subsequent eruptions, we decreased the amount of dish detergent, until finally omitting it entirely. The last eruption was blue, a little less frothy, and what I considered our best one.

This is a great activity for pre-schoolers because it introduces them to chemical reactions. It also shows them that if you repeat the same experiment, you will get the same results. And if you change the experiment--say, by diminishing the amount of detergent you add--your results will be different. It also gets them measuring, pouring and constructing. Oh, and it's pretty darn cool to watch. All in all, a pretty fun way to spend a rainy afternoon!