Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Inclined Planes

I don't know if it is the downhill skier in me or my former math-teacher self that makes such a big deal about young children experimenting with inclined planes. It might just be that I am amazed and inspired by all the ways children play with slides. Children climb up and they slide down, they use sand and rocks and water to create avalanches and waterfalls, they test their toys on the slides. Given the opportunity, young children learn all sorts of relationships (math) and phenomenon (physics) unique to slides.
Free Body Diagram from simple.wikipedia.org

I used to love our trips to the Children's Museum in Missoula, Montana for all the different ramps that were there. They had a classic plastic slide for babies, another one for big kids, and a "tree house" that was just a long series of ramps to toddle up and down. Since crawling babies didn't often choose to actually ride the slide down, the slide set aside for them was often used first as a ramp for rolling balls. As the babies grew into toddlers it seemed that the next use of the slide was to try to climb up. Finally, after doing experiments for months on end and building their core strength, a brave toddler might climb the stairs to the top of the slide and venture down...on their feet. "Ha!" the physical comedy-lover in me chuckled with a smile, which was always followed by "Gotcha."

What is truly amazing to me is that the slide doesn't seem to lose its appeal. As Mikey grows and matures, so too does his slide play. And with some media-support his imagination, tinkering and learning can soar.

Tablet Game

My husband found "Amazing Alex" when he was reading Wired. It was listed as a great app for a "future engineer." The premise is that "Alex" has to clean up his room. The reality of playing is that there are balls that drop and have to roll over stars to collect points and end up in a basket, box or other container. To play, your preschool engineer will have to drag and drop shelves to be inclined plans that support the bouncing/rolling balls. For any child who has experimented with slides, this will be easy and fun. There is a "Classroom" where he or she will learn the basic principles of how the game works (pictured on right) and the levels progress at a pace that is fast for a three year old but about right for a three year old and his mama, ahem.

The mind-boggling fun comes when more and more objects can be introduced to the "obstacle course." There are variations on the size and weight of the balls, balloons float and can be popped with scissors, buttons can be pushed on remotes to start a toy monster truck or helicopter, springs with punching gloves can be set to give a much needed "ka-pow!" Really...your mind will spin.

One of my favorite things about Amazing Alex is that your child can create his or her own level and publish it for others to try! Indeed, in this day and age, creating technology is an important skill for our children to learn.

Here are links to buy the apps or download the free version:
Amazing Alex for iPhone
Amazing Alex Free for iPhone
Amazing Alex HD for iPad
Amazing Alex HD Free for iPad

Make Your Own
For rainy day fun, try making your own ball course. I used a giant piece of cardboard, duct tape, and random pipe-like or shelf-like materials that I found around the house (for example, plastic cups, paper towel rolls). Choose golf ball or ping pong ball to roll down.

Not into DIY?
OK, so you don't want to make your own? There are all sorts of places to find inclined planes for experimentation. The local park is a great place to start. Take your preschool engineer and a bag of balls. Or find your local Children's Museum. The one in Phoenix has an entire room of ramps and balls...some ramps are fixtures, others are meant to be built.

If you need something for a grandparent to buy for your little engineer, consider the Battat's B. Whacky Ball or Melissa and Doug's Pound and Roll. There are also little car ones like Maxim's. And don't forget the classic - Marble Run! There is something for every age!

Curious George
What preschool engineer post would be complete without a nod to Curious George? But seriously! That monkey does some awesome preschool engineering. In "Hundley's Great Escape" George and Gnocchi and Hundley are stuck in a basement and have to build a series of ramps from the floor to a window at the top of the room. Watch, enjoy, and try to remember what your algebra teacher taught you about rise over run.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Cherry Pitter

Photo from amazom.com
The summer solstice is upon us and with it comes thoughts of summer holidays, activities, and super-fun food! In fact, we saw our first bag of cherries just last week and alongside them an aptly-placed display of a new preschool engineering toy.

Never-before-seen, the novelty of the cherry pitter was appealing to Mikey. Upon closer inspection it remained pretty awesome. It looks like a claw that opens and closes. It has a bucket of some sort. There is a funny-looking puncher ready and waiting to do its work. Plus, it is the perfect size for a preschooler's hands. The new kitchen gadget fell right into the cart.

When we got home I put Mikey to work with a bag of cherries and the cherry pitter. He was delighted that it worked as he suspected it would and very quickly decided to test it out on other materials. Play-doh was first, then paper, next a piece of bread, and the list goes on and on and on.

I do not need a cherry pitter. I like to roll the fruit around in my mouth and play with it until the pit is ready to be spit out. Plus, my kitchen and house is already filled to the brim with stuff. If I could rent this kind of thing then I would...until I start my toy library that just won't be an option. But my days are best when Mikey has something interesting to figure out, something new to dissect or take apart, a new tool with which to experiment. So I will make room in my kitchen for the cherry pitter and a dozen other kitchen tools, too.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

An All-in-one Game

Picture from www.fanpop.com
My 3.5 year old really enjoys playing on our iPad. I allow him to "goggle in" when I nurse his sister and I am always excited to see what discoveries he's made. He plays what appear to be conventional "educational games" like "BOB" and "Fish School" along with "play" games like "Toca House" and "Trucks." The most compelling games for him are the ones that give him the chance to build crazy-mechanical inventions that are otherwise impossible to build.

"Bad Piggies" is our current favorite preschool engineering app. Each level of the game is set in a different setting of hills, ramps, holes, and other obstacles. The player must create a vehicle that will transport a Piggie from start to finish.

This game has it all. It has an easy interface for a preschooler to drag and drop to build vehicles. It has awesome features that are available and/or required for the vehicle to succesfully complete the obstacle course. Each level offers increasingly more options to propel the vehicle including motors, propellers, balloons, punching gloves, fizzy shaking soda bottles, rockets, fans, and more!

Here are links to the game in the iTunes store: Bad Piggies HD - Rovio Entertainment Ltd; and Play.google.com. There are free versions and cheap versions of the game to download.

Monday, June 10, 2013


Demolition by Sally Sutton is not my favorite truck book. To me, the rhymes are banal and the noise words make for a raucous read along. Mikey loves it! The rhymes are simple and the noise words make
for a raucous read along! Along with the usual suspects (bulldozer, dump truck, front loader), there are novel machines for helping with demolition of a building. The crane truck has a wrecking ball instead of a hook. There are a crusher and a chipper for breaking down materials. The excavator has claw attachments. For all the reading fun and machine education,  I guess the book is OK overall.

Are You Kidding Me? A Toy Crusher!
Over and over again Mikey has read Demolition with me or with his dad. Over and over again he has requested a toy crusher and we have denied their existence assuming that they are too dangerous for preschoolers...even as a toy. Then one day as we were walking past the Play Doh section at a toy store Mikey exclaimed, "There's a crusher! I want it!" I couldn't believe my eyes. Sure enough, Play Doh has made toy demolition machines for their "Diggin' Rigs" line.

The Brick Mill and the Grinding Gravel Yard both have cranks and moving parts that will likely appeal to a preschool engineer like Mikey. We have the Brick Mill and it works wonderfully with play-doh. If your child is anything like mine then you will have to either stock up on lots and lots of Play-doh or have a great recipe to make your own. Since pouring, mixing and getting dirty in the kitchen is a favorite activity in our house, we make our own using the no-cook recipe from the Imagination Tree:

  • 2 cups plain flour (all purpose)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 2 tablespoons cream of tartar
  • 1.5 cups boiling water (adding more in increments if needed)
  • food colouring (optional)
  • few drops glycerine (optional- adds more shine!)
  • Mix the flour, salt, cream of tartar and oil in a large mixing bowl
  • Add the boiling water
  • Stir continuously until it becomes a sticky, combined dough
  • Add the food colouring and glycerine (both optional)
  • Allow it to cool down then take it out of the bowl and knead it vigorously for a couple of minutes until all of the stickiness has gone. * This is the most important part of the process, so keep at it until it’s the perfect consistency!*
  • (If it remains a little sticky then add a touch more flour until just right)

Together with "Demolition" these toys make for wonderful research into the machines of our world.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Counting Cookies

Photo from numbersbay.com
Counting and number learning are ubiquitous in preschool education because it is a simple achievable way to learn about the world. Along with learning names, shapes and colors, numbers and counting allow preschoolers to communicate their wants and share the delight of their discoveries in more meaningful ways. "I want one, two, three pieces of chocolate," is often heard in my house. Observations made from the back seat of my car approximate this: "I see two backhoe loaders, a dump truck and three excavators."

One of the best things about counting is that preschoolers don't need toys to do it. They can count their fingers and toes, their food, their clothes, anything they can observe - you name it (or let them)! For preschool engineers the pattern of counting is most likely the coolest thing about numbers.

Rote counting began early in our house because of Brent Holmes' song titled "A Moose in a Treehouse." The tune was snappy, easy for me to learn and sing without much difficulty, and the topic was about cookies and counting...two things to which Mikey could easily relate. I was pleased until I overheard Mikey counting by ones to twelve and then continuing by twos to twenty four. He had synthesized two verses, which was awesome, but counting past twelve was just plain wrong. To nip this apparent problem in the bud, I got permission from Brent Holmes to use his song in a YouTube video where I depict numbers and their quantities:

Feel free to watch "Moose Multiplication" as much as you want for free. In fact, you can hear a lot of Brent's songs for free on YouTube. If you want something more portable, say for your car, then check out all his CDs available for sale on Amazon. We have Moose Tunes, Bear Tunes, and Sea Tunes and love them all. If you just want the songs about counting and multiplication then surf over to the Amazon List I made called "Brent Holmes Counts."


If it isn't the pattern that a preschool engineer loves about numbers then it might be the hilarity of counting backwards before a rocket launch. Whether the child swings while holding his parents hands, launches from the top of a slide or rides his bike down a hill, the "5, 4, 3, 2, 1, ignition!" is sure to please. In fact, Curious George does backwards counting and much much more throughout his PBS adventures. He learns how to count past ten, what zero represents when it is by itself "0" as opposed to when it is added to the end of a number like "10" or "100." You can search www.pbs.org/teachers for specific episodes or hit up my List on Amazon: Curious George Learns Counting and Numbers.

No preschooler's education would be complete without some books. Like Curious George Counting and Numbers books offer different ways to see the patterns and relate the symbols "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9..." and words "one, two, three..."

Lastly, this one is for you...the adult in preschool engineering adventures. It is an old article from the NY Times that I just love for preschool math. When I read it the first time I laughed at how it blew my mind. It is "From Fish to Infinity" by Steven Strogatz. Be sure to go to the Times website because there is a Sesame Street video to watch!
The best introduction to numbers I’ve ever seen — the clearest and funniest explanation of what they are and why we need them — appears in a “Sesame Street” video called “123 Count With Me.” Humphrey, an amiable but dim-witted fellow with pink fur and a green nose, is working the lunch shift at The Furry Arms hotel, when he takes a call from a room full of penguins. Humphrey listens carefully and then calls out their order to the kitchen: “Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish, fish.” This prompts Ernie to enlighten him about the virtues of the number six. 

Whether it is the pattern of counting or the utility of numbers, a preschool engineer will undoubtably recognize the importance of math. Find fun ways to see the world and count the world with your little person.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Propeller Review - Another Vane

Photo from emmabradshaw.blogspot.com
The epitome of a joyful summer day with preschoolers is the image of bubbles floating in a gentle breeze. My husband and I just love to blow bubbles but we are purists - we prefer dipping the bubble wand into bubble solution, carefully pulling it out and then blowing with just the right amount of umph to get a lovely stream of bubbles to go sailing through the air. Our one year old is all about the dipping part but she is less agile with bringing the wand to her mouth without licking it. Our three year old is our preschool engineer and likes the bubbles but the process of making the bubbles the old fashioned way just isn't that interesting to him.

Enter the bubble gun. Toys have come a long way in the decades since I was a child...some good ways and some bad. The barrage of bubbles that can be created by bubbles guns and bubble generators gives rise to pure joy. Plus, the propeller that drives the air through the bubble-holder-thingie makes the toy just plain awesome for a preschool engineer.

We had the opportunity to play with a few different bubble guns last week and let me tell you some were better than others. The good ones by Amazing Bubbles were hardy toys, gave great air flow and seemed to be pretty toddler-proof:

The novelty gun was provocative at first. We could see the gears and propellers whirling around inside. The bubble juice had a direct feed to the gun, which would eliminate the need to stop and dip. But the gun failed after minutes of use. The screw for the reservoir broke as did the mechanism inside the gun. Take note and if you're in the market for a bubble gun then avoid buying this one.

Lastly, if you're skipping the battery-operated toys but you are interested in some bubble blowing "wands" that require less dexterity and coordination than the typical ones then check out Melissa and Doug's Chameleon, Butterfly and Alligator. They are on my Amazon List called Duh! Bubble Blowing.