Thursday, April 28, 2016

An Experience Gift - Party Favors

Have you read "Too Many Toys" by David Shannon. If not, I highly recommend it. It tells the story of a child who has too many toys, where the toys came from, and the process of choosing which toys stay and which ones go. It is a treatment of a parent's efforts to clean out their children's stuff and perhaps even strive toward minimalism. Most recently, the part of the book that describes the child getting toys just for attending a friend's birthday party really started to resonate with me.

Don't get me wrong. We have a generous spirit in our house. We like to give things to our friends. I've made engineer stashes to give away to party guests and miniature art carts. But this past season I had an idea to give an experience gift as a party favor instead of a bucket of consumables.

How do you give an experience gift to a party's worth of guests? (Besides throwing the party itself.) Well, in our case it was a princess party and the theme lent itself well to giving something small and sparkly to each guest...and that is just what we did.

I used tiny birthstone rings on Etsy for inspiration. I'm crafty and thrifty so I didn't buy any, instead I made them. With some wire, a dowling rod for wrapping the wire around, and a stash of shiny beads, I could make a few dozen of the rings in two different sizes (based on which dowling rod I used) while I watched TV at night.

Then I made a makeshift velvet ring box and placed the rings inside. The experience gift I gave to my daughter's friends was to choose one or two of their very own rings. It was wonderful. Everyone reveled in the experience when I bent down (donning my wedding gown as queen) and offered each child a chance to choose something beautiful for himself or herself.

The children left with a single, small treasure and the memory of choosing it for herself.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hall of Fame

Welcome to the Preschool Engineering Hall of Fame! Below are pictures, links and descriptions of the characters we have discovered in books and film that have the creative spirit and think-outside-the-box mentality it takes to be a successful engineer.

(Please note that the descriptions are taken from each character's webpage.)

Curious George
Curious George was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1941 and for almost seventy-five years he has been capturing the hearts and minds of readers young and old throughout the world. Books about Curious George, including the seven original stories by Margret and Hans Rey, have sold over 75 million copies. So popular that his original story has never been out of print, George has become one of the most beloved and most recognizable characters from children’s literature. He has been featured in a Public Service Advertising literacy campaign in partnership with the Ad Council and the Library of Congress, and in 2012 Curious George was inducted into the Indie Choice Book Awards Picture Book Hall of Fame. In addition to the numerous books about his mischievous adventures, Curious George stars in the Emmy-award winning PBS television series Curious George and has also starred in three full-length movies.

Mary Lou Mellon

Molly Lou Melon's grandma taught her to be happy with herself no matter what, but  that's not all she learned. Molly Lou heard all about how her grandma didn't have fancy store-bought toys when she was little. She made dolls out of twigs and flowers and created her own fun in her backyard.

So Molly Lou does just that, proving that the best thing to play with is a huge imagination!

Rosie Revere

Where some people see rubbish, Rosie Revere sees inspiration. Alone in her room at night, shy Rosie constructs great inventions from odds and ends. Hot dog dispensers, helium pants, python-repelling cheese hats. Rosie’s gizmos would astound—if she ever let anyone see them.

Afraid of failure, she hides them away under her bed. Until a fateful visit from her great-great-aunt Rose, who shows her that a first flop isn’t something to fear—it’s something to celebrate.


Tinkering, fixing things, adventures!

Iggy Peck
Iggy has one passion: architecture. His parents are proud of his fabulous creations, though they’re sometimes surprised by his materials. But hey! What’s wrong with a tower built of diapers? (Even dirty ones!)
Dear Ig has it made until second grade. That’s when he meets his match. His teacher, Miss Lila Greer, frons upon architecture. Banned from building in school, second grade becomes a bore until one day a fateful field trip lets Iggy Peck show the world his true talents!

The author/illustrator describes him: Meeow is a creative little cat.

JoJo is so worried that he'll say something to disappoint his father that he finds it best not to speak- ever. But he's anything but silent. He hears music in the tapping of an old keyboard, feels the beat in the rhythmic bounce of a basketball and finds harmony in wind whistling over a comb.
It is later revealed that JoJo takes nightly excursions to the Abandoned Star-Study Tower, and the one time we see him about to leave, his arms are filled with various odds and ends (including an umbrella that looks remarkably like that of the Cat in the Hat's), are to work on what is rather literally a giant instrument (called "the Symphonophone" on the soundtrack): he had filled the observatory with these castaway items and set up an elaborate system to produce music. JoJo uses his Symphonophone to add to the ruckus needed to alert the citizens of Nool to their existence, in addition to his signature cry: "YOPP!"



Jay is an inventive, fast-talking and fun ninja. He loves to build and fly hang-gliders, so the chance to learn to fly himself using Airjitzu is an exciting one. Jay is always ready with a joke when things get too tense. He wields the power of lightning.

Fancy Nancy is a young girl with a larger than life personality, who adores all things fancy. She always dresses extravagantly, wearing boastutus,ruby slippers, fairy wings, and fuzzy slippers. Nancy loves using big fancy words such as "iridescent", "ecstatic", and "extraordinary" and anything in French.[1][3] She has redecorated her bedroom with everyday items, such as feather boas, Christmas lights, paper flowers, and hats. Her favorite doll is named Marabelle Lavinia Chandelier.[4]
Nancy captures hearts by nearly getting caught up in the glitter, but, in the end, always discovering what's truly important.
Teri Sforza[1]
In Nancy's opinion, her family is ordinary and dresses rather plainly, so Nancy decides to hold a class in the art of fanciness for her family. They oblige, and Nancy helps to dress them in bows, ornaments, top hats, and gaudy scarves. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bike Bell with Gears

The kids are on the move. Now that they are more confident on their bicycles they want to ride them everywhere. We ride trails nearby. We ride the crowded sidewalks to school. We ride rambling around the neighborhood on the weekends. In all that time on the bikes, my children are learning rules of the road, including how to share the road.

We talk about yielding to pedestrians and animals (and why). We talk about riding on the proper side of the street (and why). In all those conversations, most of what we talk about is being aware of one's body and knowing how to be safe in and around other people.

One way to be safe on the bike is being observable. We have reflective vests for when we ride at dawn or at dusk. That way it is easier to be seen. We also have newly-acquired bike bells so that we can be heard. And it is no surprise the criteria used when each of my children chose their bell.

Anna chose hers based on the quality of the sound. She chose the Mirrycle Omnibell and she was right. The ring is a beautiful musical sound, easy to create with a flick of the button, and loud enough to be heard. (So loud and long, in fact, that it drives my autistic son crazy because he is highly sensitive to sound.)

Mikey chose his based on cool factor. He wanted to Mirrycle Jellibell. The sound is fine and doesn't persist the way the Omnibell's sound does. But the way it works is too cool for school. As you can see in the picture, it has gears! Mikey's heart must have skipped a beat when he saw it. I imagine he felt so satisfied when he reached out and grabbed the blue outer ring and turned it. Turning it made the gears move and rotate the bearings that made the bell sound. And, of course, any time we get to watch gears work is a big BIG draw.

Between my two kids I am learning so many ways to be in the world. That doesn't end at music and sound. Where one child is interested in creating music and the aesthetic of it, the other is interested in the technology of sound. Again, I see the world in new ways.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Creating a Culture of Joyful and Knowledgeable Young Outdoor Enthusiasts

When we arrived at our first Jeff & Paige concert it felt too good to be true. The musicians were setting up their stage in a grassy meadow of Chautauqua Park. The backdrop of Boulder’s flatirons framed towering trees that provided shade from the afternoon summer sun for the performers and their audience. The scenery alone was worth the time and energy it took to wrangle two young children and schlep our picnic dinner from the parking spot on the street to a patch of grass in the crowd.

Babies sprawled on blankets with their parents while toddlers and preschoolers swarmed the field. Some young children gathered near the stage, star-struck by these small town celebrities. Others ran wild in the grassy field, spinning in circles, or wrestling. Frisbees were being tossed and dropped, soccer balls kicked. It felt like a quintessential Boulder scene.

I felt tentative but optimistic. My high functioning autistic son is sometimes unmanageable in a crowd like this and music had proved to be tricky for him. He has a distinct preference for informational music over expressive music. My daughter was less picky about her music but an observer first. The more people in a situation, the longer it took her to enter into it on her own. So while my son was spinning in circles in the field, my daughter sat with me and tried to take it all in from the comfort of my lap. Little did I know that Jeff & Paige would open our world in so many ways because their music appealed to all of us.

It was thirty minutes to showtime and Paige and Jeff came down from the stage. The event was beginning and the first item on the agenda was a toddler-friendly hike. Together with staff from Open Space and Mountain Parks, who sponsor the show, Jeff and Paige led the group of approximately 400 people away from the grassy meadow to the trailhead of a 0.4-mile loop. Clad in rainbow socks and hiking boots, Jeff and Paige climbed on top of a picnic table and announced the color of the day. They invited everyone to look for the color red while we were hiking. Then one by one we traipsed down a sun-drenched single track, our arms brushing against tall grasses, toward a lush streamside forest. When we were under the cover of forest canopy, the path widened and families walked side by side. My five year old son skipped ahead of me, bouncing around other people while my three and a half year old daughter held fast to my hand.

We reached the turning point of our hike and a fork in the trail. A single rocky path ascended away from us and our path widened even more into a gravel fire road that would lead us back to the concert venue. The crowd stopped and gathered on a wide land bridge. Jeff and Paige and their veteran audience members started clapping and singing a cappella:
“Which animal is up there?
Which animal is up there?
Which animal is up there?
Is it the coyote, the deer, or the black bear?”
Uphill from us and along the narrow trail not chosen, a parent-volunteer dressed in an mascot costume descended the trail. Children shouted, “It’s a coyote!” This larger than life coyote gently entered the crowd where young children could pet it and exchange high-fives. Then we all descended the fire road and returned to our blankets to wait for the show to begin.

It was like Woodstock for toddlers. It seemed like everyone there shared a love of music and nature. Toddlers and preschoolers gathered at the stage in what can only be described as a mosh pit. Other children ran and danced in the wide open meadow. And still others sat on picnic blankets with friends and family.

When the show began I was pleasantly surprised. It was more than a simple musical concert. Jeff & Paige taught about science and nature through stories and song. The story they told was about two people who go for a hike, not unlike the hike we shared just moments before the show began. Over the course of their outdoor adventure, Jeff and Paige took turns play-acting as bugs, birds, and other creatures. The audience learned answers to questions like: “Why do birds sing?” “What is a decomposer?” And “What is mother nature’s favorite color? (And why?)”

As the event went on, I became more and more amazed. Not only had hundreds of children and their families enjoyed a hike together, they were listening, rapt, to music about science.

It is when they sang “The Opera of Giardia” that I was hooked. In the song, Paige and Jeff educated the audience about the hazards of drinking unfiltered stream water. Like all their songs, the opera had great musical hooks that I knew would have staying power. But it also demonstrated the same kind of finesse Pixar uses to engage adults with child-friendly humor.

Jeff, as Rigatoni Spumante, sang: “Do you want giardia to make you sick?”
Paige led the children to respond: “No no no!”

Rigatoni Spumante sang: “So will you drink straight from the crick?”
Paige led the children to respond again: “No no no!”

The song continued with more call and response between Rigatoni Spumante and the audience. Then he brought out the technology to demonstrate how to filter water with a pump. As he sang, he taught the children (and their parents) the process.

“Here is how I do it: I take this cap and I unscrew it.
I stick the filter on the bottle and prepare to go full throttle.
I drop the tube into the water like a good son or daughter.”

What made it wonderful is that he included description of more than just the mechanics of filtering water. Playfully and entertainingly, he captured the time-consuming and laborious task of pumping water by singing:

“I pump exuberantly. I listen to the chickadee.
Pretty soon I will have some water that’s giaaardia-free.”

And then he pumped like a madman to demonstrate the work it takes to filter stream water in the backcountry.

Everyone in the audience laughed at the spectacle. Children laughed at the physical humor. Adults chuckled at their own memories of filtering water from a stream. Then there was a cherry on top. At the end of the opera, Jeff and Paige used a giant slingshot to launch a stuffed giardia into the audience for the children to chase and fetch. In every sense of the word, our first Jeff & Paige show was spectacular.

A few weeks later we were camping next to a stream in the Mount Evans wilderness. We were setting up our tent and exploring the space when I heard my children singing, “Do you waaant giardia to make you sick? No, no, no! So will you drink straight from the crick? No, no, no!” I was stunned. Not only did they remember the tune and the lyrics to “The Opera of Giardia” they seemed to understand the lesson: Don’t drink the water!

That was the first of many lessons we learned from Jeff & Paige. Since then we have learned about safety when exploring outdoors from songs called “Poison Ivy (Don’t Touch)” and “Other Side of the Road.” We have learned science lessons including topics in ecology (“Bats (Oh Baby!)”), ornithology (“Meadowlark”), and entomology (“A Conversation between an Entomologist and an Insect”). We have studied their comprehensive and solutions-focused environmental science lesson featured on the 21st Century Energy Superheroes album. These lessons are important in and of themselves but what makes the music and what we learn from it really special is how it connects people, especially families with young children, with nature.

Each person in my family loves Jeff & Paige for a different reason. My husband, a huge fan of Pixar and former member of the University of Michigan Marching Band, loves how entertaining the music is. He said, “They are obviously talented musicians but what makes them great is that they are fun to listen to.” I love the science, technology, engineering, and math learning that the music supports. The spontaneous curriculum I have put together for my children that is based on Jeff & Paige songs has had depth and breadth that is required to differentiate to each child’s interests and abilities. My six year old autistic son loves the science he has learned as well as the ethics regarding environmental science. My four year old daughter? Well, she eloquently pointed out to me that we learn more than science from these songs. We learn music.

Indeed. The music. The music makes our life as a family more fun. The music is a tool for understanding and being in nature. The music speaks to each of us differently but it speaks each of us. It is, after all, great music.

Spring is here. Our days are getting longer and warmer. Soon we will be digging into our small gardens in the backyard filling our fingernails with soil and our noses with the smell of earth. Our bike rides will become longer, taking us to places yet to be explored. Hiking trails are steadily becoming less muddy and more crowded. They are places where we encounter more and more people who might join us at Chautauqua...because it is almost time for the Meadow Music Concert Series to begin again.

This summer my family will be among the veterans leading the way on the pre-concert hike. We know and love the songs. We know and love the dance moves. We know and love nature...all the more because of Jeff & Paige.

Meadow Music 2016 Schedule

June 6th (opener), June 13th, June 20th, June 27th
July 18th, July 25th
Aug 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd (finale)
All in Chautauqua Park 5:30 – 7  pm

Friday, April 15, 2016

Small, Compared to All that Work

Small, Compared to All that Work
I spend a lot of my time as a stay-at-home-mom as a chauffeur, shuttling my kids between school, playdates, and activities like art class, karate and ballet. All that time in the car makes for a wonderful opportunity to listen to books on tape. Most recently we have been listening to the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and I was particularly struck by a story about work in Farmer Boy.

Farmer Boy tells the story of a nine year old boy named Almanzo. The child lives and works on a farm with his family in New York in 1866. At the independence day celebration in the small town near the family farm, Almanzo watches his cousin Frank, a city boy, buy a glass of lemonade for a nickel. Frank brags that his father gives him money any time he asks and dares Almanzo to ask his father for money. When Almanzo asks his father for money, the answer is not simple but it is powerful.
“Almanzo, do you know what this is?’
‘Half a dollar,” Almanzo answered.
‘Yes. But do you know what a half a dollar is?’
Almanzo didn’t know if was anything but half a dollar.
‘It’s work, son,’ Father said. ‘That’s what money is; it’s hard work.’”
Almanzo’s father asks him to describe the long hard process of raising potatoes to sell, which he does. Then his father asks,
“‘How much do you get for a half a bushel of potatoes?’
‘Half a dollar,’ Almanzo said.
‘Yes,’ said Father. ‘That’s what’s in this half-dollar, Almanzo. The work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it.’
Almanzo looked at the round piece of money that Father held up. It looked small, compared with all that work.”
That last point, “It looked small, compared to all that work,” stuck with me. In the days that followed hearing it for the first time, my mind tumbled it around and settled on a tangentially-related experience I had as a math teacher at a small university in the Pacific northwest. It was an argument I had with another teacher about whether or not students should learn to do arithmetic with pencil and paper when calculators could do it for them.

It should be known that I love math. I love the patterns, the logic, the comfort of answers that can be right or wrong. When I complete a calculation or other problem and it doesn’t feel right or I otherwise know that it is wrong, I like hunting for and finding my errors. I enjoy the mental work of it. In fact, I believe in the value of that mental work. I think it makes people better, more confident, smarter than they were before learning math. I also believe that wrestling with the math develops an intuition about number, quantity and space that can only happen through experience.

As you might imagine, when I taught math I did it “old school.” I insisted that they write numbers and letters and symbols on paper, demonstrating the mental work they did to make calculations, simplify algebraic expressions, or solve equations. I considered it my responsibility to empower my students to do math and demonstrate their knowledge this way. I believed that they became more confident, smarter, and better people for making that time-honored journey through the material. Plus, that is why they were enrolled in college, right? To practice and perfect a better way of thinking.

So when my colleague told me that he does not bother teaching his students how to compute fractions by hand, only to calculate them with a machine, I thought he was robbing them of learning they deserved. By limiting the students’ math lessons to punching keys on a calculator, he deprived them of the opportunity to work, to become smarter. Which is the entire point of being a student.

Not only that, but as an algebra teacher, I thought he was handicapping their future math learning. If they could not compute numerical fractions like ½+⅓ then they would be at a huge disadvantage when I asked them to simplify the expression x/2 + x/3. And the inability to perform such a small task has huge ramifications when you consider that x/2 could represent half of anything - half of your grade, half of the milk in your refrigerator, half of your salary, half of your time, half of your tank of gas, half of the votes for president.

Making math students dependent on a calculator to add fractions is like making babies dependent on walkers. It may seem like a good idea immediately - a fun technology to mess around with - but it is in fact detrimental to natural development, natural learning.

Don’t get me wrong. I realize that in order to thrive in modern life, people need to learn to use calculators (and the computer counterparts). However, I also believe that we have right and responsibility to understand technology and the work it does for us. If we do then we can make informed choices about when and how to do our work: When is it appropriate to “goggle in” (a phrase I found in the book Snow Crash) to a computer screen and when is it time to wrestle with mental work of the day? Should we drive a car when walking would suffice?

If, like Almanzo recognized that a half dollar is small compared to the work it took to earn it, we recognize that punching keys on a calculator to compute numbers is small compared to all the mental work of adding fractions then we will realize the true value of the technologies we have at hand.

We will be less dependent on technology, less likely to be crippled without it, and more likely to be unafraid of work.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Nature's Alphabet Art

Laila Kujala is a hard artist to track down. I only know her because my mother-in-law is resourceful, has great taste and stumbled upon Kujala's "Alphabet Art" in her local Michigan travels. A quick peek at Kujala's blog shows a few pictures of her Alphabet Art and with some digging one can find her artist page on But her work is so cool and right up our alley so I have to share it with you.

Among other things, Kujala makes "Alphabet Art." Seeing shapes in the world is just what our preschoolers need to be doing in order to develop pre-literacy, pre-science and pre-math skills. Kujala's art shows us a new way of finding shapes, particularly letters, in nature. 

She has three series of nature alphabet art: one alphabet made of flowers, one made of forest trees, and one made of sand

This art is something special for families of preschool engineers. Not only do we get to enjoy some beautiful art but we can draw inspiration from it. Just imagine going on a letter scavenger hunt! With a camera in tow, look to find each of the letters of the alphabet in nature. It will certainly be a game to play this summer!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Planning Meals

I realized the other day that I could use technology in a new way to simplify my life. Like many people, planning and cooking meals is a challenge for me. Not only do I worry about providing nutritious meals, but I think about our family's budget and how to get the most out of my time and our money when it comes to food.

My husband and I agreed on a target budget that was based on our (ahem, his) income. Feeding our family of four for $600 a month was aggressive but necessary if we wanted to maintain our current lifestyle. (We had chosen to live in Boulder County, Colorado, which has pretty expensive homes, AND for me to remain a stay-at-home-mom until the kids were both in public school full time.

I came up with a method for meeting the budget:
- make a menu for the week;
- purchase food once per week, only buying what we would need*; and
- stick to the plan.
I had already started several Google Calendars to coordinate our family life including who went to school on what days and at what times, where and when extracurricular activities happen, etc. So it made perfect sense to me to have a new electronic calendar for our menu.

The hardest part of this plan is making a menu for the week that is varied, nutritious, and meets dietary preferences of the family. (I consider it good enough if 3 out of 4 of us enjoy the meal. So on lentil night I know my daughter won't eat much but my son will be licking the bottom of his bowl and my son will shun the asparagus on risotto night but my daughter will gobble it up.) Once a week, every week, I sit and wonder what I should make for dinners.

Yesterday I realized a solution to the hardest part of my plan. Since I already type my menus into a calendar, it would be trivial to make the meals "repeat" themselves. I know better than to have identical meals too frequently but once per year should be fine...right? Excited to use the technology available to me, I sat down with the computer last night and started making things repeat once per year.

By the end of the year I will have a massive cooking/eating plan for the family. I will have made the hardest part of this job much easier and have the flexibility to add or change plans as need be in the future.

I realize that this post is not at all about preschoolers, really. But it is about technology and family and parenting. And so I share it with you to use as you see fit.

*Not to say I don't buy in bulk. If we need chicken for one of the recipes of the week I buy five pounds of it at Costco and freeze what I don't use.