Sunday, April 28, 2013

Empty Box

When I look around at the piles of toys and books all over the house I usually have one of two reactions. I either feel happy to see evidence of all the fun my kids have had or I feel frustrated by the clutter and wonder, "what ever happened to playing with an empty box?"

Sure, lots of parents and caregivers remark at the possibilities for using an empty box as a chassis for building trains, trucks, or rocket ships, or as the skeleton of a fabulous and customizable toddler-sized house. But for a preschool engineer the opportunity for pretend play isn't nearly as interesting as the opportunity for learning mechanics.

The empty box can be broken down into its two-dimensional form and then reconstructed as a three-dimensional container. For toddlers and preschoolers this project may seem nothing short of parental magic and it needn't be anything more. Inviting them to observe and pull and push the pieces on their own might just be enough.

Investigating the actual container is not the only way a preschool engineer will delight in an empty box. It is also a wonderful tool with which to work. It can be filled, dumped, filled again and pushed or pulled around the house. Doing these types of experiments the preschool engineer will learn pre-physics lessons about density, friction and work and pre-math lessons about weight and volume.

A Simple Book
As always, I would like to give a nod to a book that I find inspiring. Thank You Bear by Greg Foley is a story about giving. I include it here because the gift is an empty box. I love this book because of the message about giving and receiving gifts but also because, in between the lines, there are opportunities for discussing the qualities of an empty box.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Magnetic Rubble

"That truck hauled toys and tools and rocks, banana peels and dirty socks..." ~ from "Where's My TRUCK?" by Karen Beaumont.

I'm a pretty laid back Mama but even I don't want banana peels and dirty laundry all over the house because of its role as rubble. I prefer blocks, duplos, and other "clean" options. My favorite rubble is letters and Mikey and I discovered it as rubble in the most unlikely of ways. We didn't find this new fabulous rubble because we were looking for something new to do with existing toys. Instead, we were inspired by Curious George.

A Video
In "Animal Magnetism" Curious George learns about magnets. His adventure begins at the science museum where he gets to play with all sorts of magnets and it ends at a garbage dump where he sees a crane truck with a magnet instead of a hook. Behold, a new kind of truck!

A Magnet Crane Truck Toy
Excited about a new learning experience, I dusted off the MULA Crane Truck with Blocks from Ikea, which had heretofore been ignored. Then Mikey and I went in search of things that were magnetic. Of course, I knew where to look first - on the refrigerator door.

Magnetic Rubble
As in many households, the LeapFrog letters had taken their place on the refrigerator door. I used them the most, spelling "MIKEY" or "DOG" or one of the words "Fireese" reads or spells in the YouTube video, below. (One of Mikey's favorite videos.) But now, with the magnet crane truck in hand, Mikey claimed them as his own. Here it was...the unexpected consequence of watching videos with Mikey was his new way to play with letters. Letters had become the new rubble.

I like the ones by Leapfrog because they are chunky with a great sticking factor...

Monday, April 22, 2013

Righty Tighty

Tools are probably at the top of every preschool engineer's "list." There are lots of tools out there for pretend play. Mikey loves getting his hands on our neighbor's bag of home depot lawn toys, complete with a chainsaw. However, I'm going to offer these screw-based toys for two reasons. First, I have great success with Mikey when I stick with circular motion as a theme. Second, these toys come with purposeful activities so your child doesn't go off inventing things to work trying to actually hack down a tree with a toy saw.

Battat makes some great take-apart toys for your preschool engineer to practice righty tighty and lefty loosey. The Take Apart Crane listed below was a huge hit because of the claw attached to the boom. It is sturdy enough for simple play - Mikey likes to put his "treasures" in the claw for safe keeping. However, it took him some time to keep from getting frustrated that the truck kept coming apart. He didn't want to have to keep fixing it!

The Design and Drill toy by Educational Insights give your preschool engineer hands-on time to figure out righty tighty and lefty loosey. What I like about this toy is the variety of ways the child can work with the screws. They can use their fingers to develop their fine motor coordination or they can use a hand-driven screw driver. There is also an electric screw driver just like the one in the garage, except safer, that Mikey loves to use for the power of it (just like Tim Taylor in "Home Improvement").

A Video
"Grease Monkeys in Space " is a great episode of Curious George for a preschool engineer to see a screw driver in action. Indeed, George uses "righty tighty" and "lefty loosey" to do his work in outer space.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Building Bridges

Building bridges is the quintessential experience for aspiring engineers. In fact, when I taught an "Introduction to Engineering" class at a northwest university, building a bridge with toothpicks and glue was the project around which our reading and writing revolved. And if you search the internet you will see that the activity is popular in every age group from middle school to post-secondary school.

For Mikey, building things for the sake of building them was never interesting. He liked to demolish things that I built. But two things have recently inspired him - Curious George and an iPad game.

Curious George

Curious George gets to do a lot of cool science and engineering. In his adventure titled, "A Bridge Too Farm," George builds a bridge made out of toothpicks, marshmallows, and playing cards. After some trial and error, making observations and revisions, George creates a bridge to save stranded chicks from an island.

After watching Curious George, Mikey was ready to build. I took out some toothpicks and small marshmallows and together we built a bridge. He worked on making dumbbell-looking pieces that I then attached to the ends of triangles.

The fun of using marshmallows is that you get to have a little treat while you work. I couldn't help but to remember my days playing with wooden tinker toys as a child. For those little preschool engineers who can't indulge in a marshmallow, or 25 marshmallows, here is a link to some classic wooden tinker toy-like things called "Fiddlestix."

An iOS App 
Mikey's second inspiration for constructing bridges comes from World of Goo.  It is an awesome iOS game. The "goo balls" act as your marshmallows would. As the player drags and drops goo balls, the "toothpicks" appear. It is a wildly entertaining game and I have to warn you that if your preschool engineer asks for help - beware. When I sit down to tackle a particularly tough one I usually get sucked in to figuring out how to build the right bridge. And right when I think I have it figured out Mikey sticks his finger on the screen to look at something and it all goes out the window. LOL.
Here's the link to the Android version:

Friday, April 12, 2013

Egg Beater

Who still uses a hand-powered egg beater any more? For most at-home cooks, it is likely considered an obsolete tool and just another thing to clutter a kitchen drawer. In the eyes of a preschool engineer it is a fabulous set of gears and a crank and spinning whisks! What an amazing toy!

The Kitchen Toy
I haven't seen a hand-powered egg beater in Bed, Bath and Beyond or Target. I was inspired when I visited my parents and saw an antique one hanging as decoration in their kitchen. As usual, I started at and found several options but went for the Norpro Rotary Egg Beater.

The Book
No learning experience is complete in our house without doing a little reading in books. I haven't found a book all about egg beaters but on page 40 in Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever (Golden Bestsellers Series) there is a little piggy using an egg beater just like Mikey's. What a delight.

An Inspiring Video
I handed the egg beater to Mikey. I knew he would help in the kitchen with it but I was interested to know how Mikey viewed this fabulous piece of engineering. He took it to his rice box to see how the rice would react to the egg beater. Sure enough, the egg beater became a truck - a disc trencher. Just for fun, here is a YouTube video of a disc trencher.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

New Lessons in Fluid Dynamics

Mikey has been interested in fluid dynamics for a long time. I remember when he was just turning one year old a friend asking what was his favorite bath toy. My reply was, "a cup." Mikey is three and a half now and I didn't think there was any more fluid dynamics that he could really learn. Last night he proved me wrong. The bubble bath bottle was empty and it was unlike any other container he had every had in the tub. The bottle was clear and it had a long neck. When Mikey put it under water he heard the glug glug glug of the water filling and watched big bubbles float up to the bath water surface. Then he showed me the best part of his discovery - not only did the vessel fill differently than a cup, it poured differently, too. The water glug glug glugged out as Mikey watched the large air bubbles explode inside the bottle.

Here is a link to a bubble bath that has a bottle similar to the one in my story. (But it is glass...)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Hose Reel

This is another instance of looking around your home to find interesting things for your Preschool Engineer to discover. The Hose Reel in the back yard is no longer just a modern day convenience. It is now a toy for learning about cranks and gears and circumference!

There are lots of hose reels out there but the one Mikey enjoyed at Uncle Joe's house was one with a "Hose Guide." The crank is big but the right size for a Preschool Engineer to turn for a little gross motor exercise. As the crank goes around, the hose winds up inside the box. If it is a hose reel with a guide, like Uncle Joe's, there is a worm gear across which a guide traverses so the hose doesn't bundle up in one big clump. The hose is distributed across the entire interior of the cavity.

As a former math teacher I like the potential geometry lesson that the hose reel invites. Simplifying the action of a hose reel to simply winding a string around a cylinder can illustrate circumference. Winding a rectangular piece of paper around a cylinder can help anyone see surface area in a new way...