Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Tale of Two Vanes - Part Two

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The vanes attached to vehicles in my post, "A Tale of Two Vanes - Part One" are driven by a motor. In turn, the vanes create the dynamics needed to lift a helicopter, push a boat, or propel an airplane. Other vanes are designed to harness energy - as in windmills.

I think a wonderful field trip for any child, especially preschool engineers, would be to a working windmill that uses the vane to turn a mechanism inside that crushes grain into flour, apples into cider, etc. Not all of us get to live in Holland or another place where wind is treated as a wonderful commodity. Instead, we might have to build a windmill ourselves.

A Little Help from Our Friend, Curious George
Need help getting started? In "Windmill Monkey," Curious George builds his own scarecrow using a windmill to make his creation wiggle. Over the course of 12 minutes that curious little monkey does classic preschool engineering. He does research (visiting a working windmill) and development (including lots of trial and error and experimentation) of a tool that solves an everyday problem.

Take a look and follow along with George to make your own windmill. You will probably need a trip to the craft store to stock up on an old wooden paper towel holder, dowel rods, wooden spoons, tape, paper or towels. Use your imagination and make this a fun project to do together!

Or Simply Observe
If you don't have an entire day to dedicate to a monkey-inspired build, consider enjoying the simple
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pleasure of a pinwheel. We just bought some from Target's dollar bin and they have provided little novel joys every day for a week. If the children aren't dipping them in water, running with them, blowing on them, or otherwise played with them, I stick them in the ground and just let the wind run its course.

This morning the pinwheels remained in the ground while the kids played with other more interesting things - like mud puddles. In a moment of rest we all looked up from the mud pies we had been baking, frosting and tasting and saw light reflecting from the pinwheels onto the walls of the house. As the pinwheel turned, so did the pinwheel of light. I watched Mikey discover the light, point out the spinning pinwheel, and marvel at it. He said, "Wow, I didn't know it could do cool!" Then he turned his back and went back to work in a puddle. It was short-lived but new...something to learn.

If you don't want to run to your local store, then find your choice of color, quantity, and material online. Here is a link to a list of Pinwheels for sale at Amazon.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Tale of Two Vanes - Part One

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Motorboats have 'em. Helicopters have 'em. Airplanes have 'em. Even some sea creatures seem to have 'em. Propellers exist in an astonishing array of shapes and corresponding purposes. For preschool engineers, the vehicles to which the propeller is attached might be the initial draw. Upon closer inspection, how a vane works to make something move is amazing. Instead of rotational translational motion of a rolling wheel (another thing that moves circularly), spinning propellers create aerodynamics, or hydrodynamics, that cause lift, push or pull.

Your preschool engineer does not have to wait to make his or her first model helicopter to enjoy propellers during play time. The "Super Subbie" toys are battery-operated animals that swim around in water by propeller motion. On Mikey's purple squid the propeller seemed easy to chip but only because he took it in the rice box to play. It otherwise has proven to be a pretty beat-up-able water toy and one that delights over and over again.

Disney movies are too scary for Mikey. He just doesn't like them. "Finding Nemo" was no exception...except for the single scene when Nemo is captured by the scuba diver. There is a propeller! The propeller makes bubbles in the water as the boat speeds away and, once he starts, Mikey just doesn't stop talking about it.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Nut Wizard

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Summer is right around the corner and with it comes yard work. I used to think that yard work was rather dull. Now that I have a preschooler and a toddler I think it is a fabulous way to occupy young people.

In the right place there is all sorts of dirt digging, rock hauling, and weed picking that little tykes can do. And if they're lucky they might even score a ride in a wheel barrow or atop a tractor mower. For a preschool engineer the tools associated with yard work will probably be the best part of the job. And the coolest tool we have found so far is the Nut Wizard.

The Nut Wizard
The Nut Wizard occupied Mikey for hours and hours. He rolled over grass and sand, using it to pick up nuts, rocks, small toys, and anything else that he deemed suitable for backyard-nut-wizard-fun. The appeal seemed multifaceted. It was novel - he had never seen a "whisk" do that kind of work. It was maneuverable - it was light enough for a 2.5 year old to push and pull over all sorts of terrain. It was useful, mechanical, and simple - he could understand and appreciate the appeal of this tool.

For more, visit or watch the video embedded below.

The Nut Wizard is available through their website. If you're an Amazon junkie then you might be able to find it there, too, but you might be more likely to find the "Garden Weasel," which appears to be the same tool.

Monday, May 20, 2013


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What little kid doesn't like to blow on whistles, shake maracas or beat on pots and pans to make a ton of racket? The musical mayhem of preschoolers is silly at best and migrane-inducing at worst. For preschool engineers the smashing and crashing might be OK for a bit but they are soon turning away from the instruments in search of something more "interesting."

I'm not sure if it is just because video games suck you in or if this particular one has so many things to figure out but Toca Boca's iOS game called Toca Band has intrigued my preschool engineers in surprising ways.

Each "instrument" is located along the bottom of the screen. The player drags and drops the instrument to a circle. If the instrument is placed on one of the circle pads on the bottom row then it will have a slow tempo. The middle row has faster tempo and the top row is the fastest tempo. So the banjo plays slowly on the bottom, faster in the middle, and fastest on the top. The yellow pad that has a star is actually a lift so your child can investigate the nuances of each instrument in turn. She can pluck the strings of the harp or make the percussionist shake, rattle, and roll.

Your child can create ensemble music and it is almost fool-proof. Some ensembles sound better than others and I think that is the interesting thing for a preschool engineer.

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Toca Band for iPhone
Toca Band for iPad
Not available on Android. If you have a favorite music app for kids to recommend then please share it in the comments!

Curious George
More inspiration from PBS's "Curious George!" There are three things I like about "The All-Animal Recycled Band." First, Curious George make his own instruments from containers and other stuff he finds in his house. It is yet another source from which your child can learn to "reduce, reuse, recycle." Second, the band members are his friends (two dogs, a cat, and a bird) who have varying levels of cooperation...another "truth" for Curious George to investigate.

Preschool Engineers as In-House Musicians
Between his work with Toca Band and his research watching Curious George's All-Animal Recycled Band, Mikey has become more and more inspired to create his own instruments and his own music. He tries to direct everyone in the family. He tests new materials for sound. His success rate seems to land somewhere in between Toca Band and Curious George.

When I think about what exactly is so interesting for a preschool engineer trying to make music I look to my son for hints. I think it is about balancing order with disorder, learning scales on a xylophone or in progressively larger and larger bowls versus playing harmonies, playing on the beat or in syncopation. I guess whatever the explanation is for why a preschool engineer likes to figure out complex music probably isn't as important providing the time and space for them to figure it out.
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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Backhoe Loader

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I am that mom - the one who let's her kid bring his truck(s) to the park to play in the sand, the rocks, and the wood chips. About a week ago I sat on the edge of the sand pit and watched as yet another child approached Mikey to inquire about his truck. That day he had brought along "Scoop," the backhoe loader. Scoop has been in our family for two years, since before it was age appropriate, and shows all the signs of a well-loved toy. The buttons do not induce noise or motion as they were designed to do. The front boom lost the ability to hold itself upright a long time ago. The tires have been stripped from the wheels.

Mikey's new playmate toddled up and asked, "what does your truck do?" Mikey replied, "It is a backhoe." Surely that would be enough explanation, right? The child bent over and pushed on the bright red buttons and said, "it is broken," and walked away. Mikey watched the little boy walk away. Then he looked down at Scoop and proceeded to use the front loader bucket and the backhoe to scoop and move sand around. I imagined Mikey thinking, "broken? Nope, Scoop still works. See him scoop and lift and dump."

That little incident brought up a lot of feelings for me. I felt proud that Mikey doesn't depend on lights and buttons to enjoy a toy. It reinforced my inclination to toys without buttons or lights. And unexpectedly it made me feel comfortable in the media that supports Mikey's preschool engineering education.

Books are a well-accepted form of media. Not many people dispute that if you enjoy to read and you read with your child then you are both better for it. Our favorite books about backhoe loaders are "Scoop " from the Bob the Builder series, "Dig Dig Digging " which includes many other trucks, too, and "Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night? "

Screen Time
Screen time is more controversial. Experts agree that too much screen time too early can cause delays in speech. It also disorganizes the person playing/enjoying the screen. Maybe you've noticed that feeling of being "goggled in" to a computer or TV while you are surfing, creating, or playing. I certainly have. But I also know that there is learning to be done that only a computer/TV/tablet can support. To this end, I allow my preschooler and my toddler limited screen time and you should see them surf YouTube!

Mikey likes to looks for new videos of trucks, dominos, marble run, and par kour. Anna loves to see dogs performing agility tricks. When they surf the internet with me, each of my children sees things they would otherwise not get a chance to see. Case in point - a backhoe loader. Perhaps Mikey's little playground "friend" wouldn't have thought that Scoop was broken if he knew what jobs backhoes have to do.

Here is a link to the Twenty Trucks song about a backhoe. Take a look, learn something new, and share the video and the song with a preschool engineer near you!

Shop around and see what you find. But don't be afraid to let an expensive toy "break."

Monday, May 13, 2013

Toilet Paper

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We all know that toddlers are interested in toilet paper. Their interest most likely stems from their perpetual interest in figuring out our daily routines. However, when a preschool engineer looks more closely at the toilet paper roll they discover interesting changes in shape, material behavior, and density.

There are a lot of uses for the toilet paper roll once the paper has been used - an internet search for "toilet paper craft" will spring up more pages than you will ever need. Preschoolers make butterflies, race cars, egg holders, napkin rings, and so many more that they've been alphabetized at DLTK. It is a rare occasion that someone will allow their preschooler to experiment with the toilet paper itself. But at Marvelously Made Preschool they had an event worthy of the creativity and inquisitive nature of preschool engineers. They called it "Toilet Paper Palooza" and the children used the toilet paper in all its forms to wrap, paint on, squish, and cook.

As a mom who likes to get my hands dirty and make a mess, I think Toilet Paper Palooza was a brilliant way to play with an everyday household item. When I consider it through a STEM Education lens I chuckle at how amazingly STEM-literate preschoolers can be. For instance, the American Association for the Advancement of Science have outlined goals for children learning about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in their Benchmarks as part of "Project 2061 - A longterm initiative to advance literacy in STEM." When it comes to toilet paper education let's consider what our preschool engineers know without knowing they know it.:

"People can often learn about things around them by just observing those things carefully, but sometimes they can learn more by doing something to the things and noting what happens." From The Nature of Science - Scientific Inquiry

"Students should examine and use a wide variety of objects, categorizing them according to their various observable properties. They should subject materials to such treatments as mixing, heating, freezing, cutting, wetting, dissolving, bending, and exposing to light to see how they change. Even though it is too early to expect precise reports or even consistent results from the students, they should be encouraged to describe what they did and how materials responded." From The Physical Setting - The Structure of Matter 

These are goals for K-2 but when I look at pictures from Marvelously Made Preschool's Toilet Paper Palooza I think that those kids had a fabulous time becoming scientifically literate. Plus, parents and educators might take comfort knowing that allowing their preschooler to play with toilet paper (at a convenient time) might be letting them build a foundation for success in STEM learning. So go ahead and unrolllllll...

p.s. Mikey inspired this post when he unrolled toilet paper and said, "Look! I poured cement to make a road." Of course, this sparked the creation of a mass transit system made entirely of toilet paper.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


No, I didn't mean Caterpillar the truck manufacturer. These little wind-up toys by Toysmith are interesting to watch wiggle upside-down in your hand. The little boom circles around and around making the bug try to crawl. It is quite simply a marvelous toy for a preschool engineer. These caterpillars give your child practice with fine motor development when they wind them up. They are also along the lines of "baby's first robot" and your preschool engineer can see what automation looks like in its simplest form. I like that it offers an opportunity to step outside machines and look at living creatures.

Two Books
"The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle is likely not a new discovery for most of my audience. "The Very Hungry Caterpillar's Favorite Words" might be. Mikey and I discovered "The Very Hungry Caterpillar's Favorite Words" when we stopped at Barnes and Noble in Grand Junction, CO. We were in the middle of a road trip and needed to stretch our legs in a familiar place. As book junkies, a book store was a perfect place for us.

Mikey chose "The Very Hungry Caterpillar's Favorite Words"  because it is a funny shape. A small 2"x2"x2" cube, this is the first book of its kind on our shelf. Each page spread has a single word and single picture. Mikey and his one year old sister are too young to do "real" reading but this is a wonderful little book to learn about symbols. They take turns flipping the pages and reading, "strawberry," "apple," and so on all the way to "butterfly."

Fun Food
This is a silly little compliment to the world of caterpillars for preschool engineers. I found the picture of grape caterpillars on Pinterest and made them for a playdate. They were a huge success! The children gobbled them down. Depending on the age of your child and their eating skills you may have to do some cutting. I cut each grape in half, then skewered them onto six-inch sticks. The eyes are miniature chocolate chips held in place by frosting. Instead of buying a giant container of yucky frosting at the grocery store, I just mixed powered sugar into plain yogurt until it had a nice thick consistency. Then I dipped the chocolate chips into the frosting and smooshed them onto the end grape of each skewer. Admittedly, glueing the eyes on was the hardest part...there was a lot of frosting all over my fingers at the end. Mm mm good.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Salad Spinner

The salad spinner might be one of those everyday engineered items that is worth revisiting with your child over and over again.

Preschool Engineering
During the preschool years, when their brains are simply working to identify patterns, the salad spinner is yet another mechanical marvel that goes in a circle. Unlike a wheel on a car (or bike or truck...), which traverses, the center of the salad spinner stays put. That will make it interesting in and of itself. Let your preschooler experiment with things that can go into the spinner and be amazed at the discoveries he or she will make!

If you're ready for a mess then use the salad spinner to make art. The Imagination Tree gives some step-by-step instructions complete with pictures. The splatter patterns will give you and your preschool engineer some ideas to ponder about centripetal force and make for some great kid-art.
Salad Spinner Art from

Elementary School Engineering
When your little engineer goes to grade school, you can revisit the engineering of the salad spinner. Was it a solution to an important problem? (In fact, the salad spinner was met with a lot of criticism (see Wiki).) What makes it cool? What might be not-so-cool about it? What could it be used for besides drying wet leaves? High schoolers could investigate the physics and mathematics of centripetal force. And they could consider the salad spinner from a design might it be improved or changed?

The "Toy"
There are different types of salad spinners - a big one and a little one that begin to spin when you push a button and one that has a crank. If you want a true toy then check out Chicco's Butterfly Spinner.

Pretend you are a preschool engineer and look around your kitchen. There are many wonderful tools for them to discover...!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Front End Loader

I can't believe I have written over a dozen posts for this blogging project and haven't yet made a post exclusively about a truck! Cars and trucks and things that go are what got me started down this road with Mikey (see "The Wheel") and we have added gears and robots and various other mechanical what-have-you into our repertoire but the power and utility of working trucks remains the crux of our preschool engineering education.

A Toy
"Front end loader, you're as good as gold!" ~ "Front End Loader" by Rob Gardner.

Indeed, the front end loader is the perfect partner to your truck-lover's dump truck. Together these two trucks can move sand, dirt, or any other rubble deemed suitable for dumping by your child. And while it seems like there is no end of dependable dump truck toys, good front loader toys are harder to come by. Many loader toys are built in a way that they can't actually dig AND drive AND dump. However, Mikey has had a LOT of good play time with the Battat Front End Loader. The boom is articulated enough so that a toddler can scoop, lift, drive and dump a load of dirt. My only complaint is that the screws that hold the hinges together occasionally get lost in the debris but they are easy to replace at the local hardware store.

A Song
Music always seemed to be a nuisance to Mikey. His interests are so deeply rooted in things he can experience and understand that lyrics cannot be notional. Luckily, we discovered the musical talents of Robert Gardner via this YouTube video.

You can buy a DVD with music videos for ten working trucks including this front end loader video but most of the videos are available on YouTube. Unless you want to bundle the whole Twenty Trucks package (two DVDS, a CD and a t-shirt available at, then I would just skip the additional screen time stuff and go for the CD. Music is more mobile.

For us, Truck Tunes was a stepping stone into music. Now that he has warmed up to music and I understand his requirements for "good" music, I have been able to introduce him to a bigger variety of musicians. My most recent accomplishments are "I Like Dirt" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles.