catapult, homeschool, Olympics, project based homeschooling, projects

Olympic Catapult

We are seriously inspired by the Olympics around here.

Since SuperSam is also going through a fascination with all things Viking and Middle Ages, he has been wanting to build a catapult. I saw this great post last week with a number of different designs. After looking through them, we decided together that this one would be the simplest for our first attempt.

SuperSam gathered the materials, read the instructions, and put the pieces together with some help. I did the rubber banding- it seemed a little beyond his fine motor capability that day, and he was impatient to get to the “shooting.”

He loaded up the catapult with a variety of plastic barnyard animals, dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. He shot them across the kitchen for several minutes before deciding to go Olympic with it.

“We need trials!” he proclaimed. “We need to measure who goes the furthest and give the winner a medal. They get two attempts, but we throw out the low score and keep the furthest one.” Walking in frenetic circles around the kitchen, he stopped suddenly and said, “I need the tape measure.”

We duct-taped the tape measure from my sewing box to the floor and lined up the catapult. SuperSam wanted to make a chart to track the results, so I helped by writing the names of the four competitors in his notebook. After the first few trials, he took over writing down the results in the appropriate column.

Once everyone had two turns, we examined the results. SuperSam circled the highest score for each participant. He struggled slightly with figuring out which numbers were bigger- he was fine as long as he only compared two numbers to each other, but trying to decide how to work in all four numbers was confusing him. I had to strongly resist the urge to tell him how to figure it out.

Finally, he decided to just place each animal on the measuring tape at the point of its furthest distance traveled. “That way, I can just see who went the furthest,” he said.

He laid the animals out on the tape measure and was able to easily tell who had flown the furthest.

What a great idea that was! I’m not sure my “help” would have given him any greater understanding of the distances he was trying to compare. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut.

In true Olympic fashion, he made “medals” out of colored twist ties (one of those things I always save without any real idea of what we’ll do with them). Once the animals were wearing their medals, he arranged them on a podium and asked me to sing the national anthem. (All three medalists happened to be from the United States.)

Finally, he made a pair of glasses out of some twist ties, put them on my cactus plant and had “Bob Cactus” interview the winner. I wish I had video of this part, but sometimes being present in the moment is more important than recording it. The iguana had a really squeaky voice and kept saying, “Well, I really just decided to try my best.”

All in all, this was a really simple activity with lots of really practical, hands-on math built right in. Having plans to follow for the catapult design made it possible to do the whole thing in one morning. Although it might be a better engineering experience for SuperSam to design his own catapult, I think having the plans this time helped him understand the mechanics behind the catapult better than pure experimentation would have. I think he’s actually more likely to experiment with making his own design now that he’s built one using someone else’s plan.

My favorite part was definitely the Bob Cactus interview…but I’m guessing everyone’s catapult experience has a different kind of ending.

Let us know if you try making one!

projects, surviving, treading water

No more treading water (getting over Perfect and making Good Enough happen)

File:Tooting Bec Lido 20080724.JPG
Image credit: Nick Cooper at en.wikipedia via CC


I remember clearly the summer I learned to tread water. 

It was supposed to be easy, a way to rest and conserve energy. To my nine-year-old arms and legs, it was a special kind of torture. To pass the test, I was required to keep my head above water for ten minutes by the clock while staying still in the middle of the ten-foot-deep end of the pool. It seemed like the hardest thing I would ever have to do.

I wasn’t good at it. I hated it. But it turned out I was worse at the dead man’s float (because for that one, my face had to be in the water, and that just felt like drowning).

Image:Swim Under Water Without Holding Your Nose Step 4.jpg
Image credit: Wikiphoto on wikiHow via CC

Treading water is definitely better than drowning.

I’ve been treading water lately. I’ve been doing enough laundry that we have clean clothes in baskets but not in our drawers. I’ve been making sure my family has adequate meals but haven’t always included vegetables. I’ve been loading and unloading the dishwasher but also leaving dishes on the dish drainer and in the sink. I’ve been keeping the porch clear of toys but not pulling the weeds out front, and our whole flowerbed has been overgrown for weeks now. (Yeah, I know, it was a rainy summer and everyone’s yard is overgrown…but ours is special. It’s gotten to the point that when my friend’s son jumped into middle of the front flowerbed and she said “Please don’t jump in the flowerbed,” he said, “What, you mean these weed piles?”)

Sigh. Yes. These weed piles. The piles that are not at all symbolic of how I feel about absolutely everything else around me…right? Am I convincing you?

It might be the cooler weather or the changing leaves, but something’s made me decide it is time to start taking care of some of this stuff. Not all at once. A little at a time. I’m sensing a season ahead in which I might be able to do more, where I might be able to move forward just a little bit.

Maybe it’s time to stop treading water and try actually swimming for a little while.

Some of the jobs are Big Things. Some of them keep me up at night with their Overwhelmingness and their Complicatedness and their I-Just-Can’t-Possibly-ness. The thing is, they aren’t going away. They aren’t going to get smaller or less challenging to tackle. At some point, I have to just decide to start doing them.

I’m tired of their Bigness and Impossibleness looming over me all hours of the day and night. It is time to take action.

I have decided to do Just One Little Thing. One tiny thing each day, for ten or fifteen minutes. I’m making a list of the Big Things that are bugging me, and I’m going to work on one of them for a few minutes at a time until it is better. Not perfect. Just better.

Perfect is often the root of my problem. I like Perfect. I want as many things as possible to be as perfect as possible. Sometimes I think God gave me all of my little people so they could swarm around me in a frenzy and remind me that Perfect just Ain’t Gonna Happen around here and I might as well get over it and learn to live with Pretty Much Good Enough.

Sometimes I think I want Perfect so badly that I can’t even see how to get started on Pretty Much Good Enough. So I tread water for a while and say I’m thinking about how to get started but never really get started and end up just wearing myself out with the effort it takes to make no progress.

Enough of that for now. It’s time to start moving forward.

Want to know some of the things?

  • The giant tangle of weeds in the front flowerbed is so high, you can’t see the actual plants any more. (I can’t fix that all at once, but I can weed for 15 minutes.)

  • I have an overdue library book that I’m not finished with and I’m out of renewals and the fine is getting bigger every day and I feel paralyzed about it. (If I read for 15 minutes, I might just about finish the book.)

  • The girls need new sweaters for the fall. I have the yarn and the pattern but not the right size needles to do the project. I could definitely order the needles online in 15 minutes (and when they get here, I can knit for 15 minutes at a time).

  • I haven’t written here nearly enough lately. I have all these ideas in my head and no time to put them down and make them coherent and share them with you.

(This might be my biggest problem, actually. When my head gets full of backed-up words, my life seems full of chaos. I’m not sure that 15 minutes of writing is going to fix anything, but it’s a place to start.)

What are some other places I can start?

  • Setting up the sewing machine with the right thread and bobbin and laying out the pieces of fabric for those kitchen curtains
  • Cleaning out just the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator
  • Bringing in the bins of fall clothes from the shed (so I can eventually change out the summer stuff)
  • Throwing away the trash that has collected under the back seat in the van
  • Picking up the shoes and confiscated toys out of the floor of our closet so we can walk inside it again
  • Setting the timer for ten minutes and filing papers from the Giant Pile until the timer goes off

A tiny bit at a time. Reach out an arm into the water, take a stroke and move forward a little, then reach out again for another stroke.

It is time to make some things happen. Just not all at once.

Do you have something you need or want to tackle that has been overwhelming you? Want to do a little project with me? I’m thinking I’ll pick one thing and work on it for a week, then report back on how it’s going. Do you have a Big Thing, something like cleaning out your pantry or unpacking some boxes that have been sitting around or tackling a pile of mending or organizing your garage?  

Would you share it with me? We can support each other.

If you want to join in, leave a comment with what project you’re going to tackle. Work on it at least once for 15 minutes between now and next Tuesday. Then, check back in next Tuesday to see how we have all done. (I’d like to call it a cutesy name, but I don’t have one in mind just yet.)

I bet at least a few of us will make more progress than we would have otherwise.

Every little bit counts. The best way to get nothing done at all is to keep treading water. Even if we take just one stroke, we’ll be further along than we are right now.

So what do you say? Ready to swim a little bit?

homeschool, making, preschool science, project based homeschooling, projects

The Balloon Car Failure

In project-based learning, as in life, sometimes things don’t go as expected.

And sometimes, things just fall apart.
This is the story of one of those times.
SuperSam recently received a set of children’s encyclopedia-type books with answers to all kinds of interesting questions. One of the books had an activity outline for making a balloon car, and he really wanted to try it. He asked for several days in a row if we could do it. Finally, one morning when The Sisters took an extra nap, he got his wish.
In the book, the instructions seemed simple. Make a rectangle from construction paper. Tape sections of a plastic drinking straw under the card. Cut circle wheels from cardboard. Put a toothpick through the center of each wheel. Put the toothpick “axles” into the open ends of the drinking straw to attach wheels to the car. Tape a balloon on the back of the car. Inflate the balloon, let it go, and watch the car roll away on its wheels.
It didn’t quite go like that.
We modified the materials up front. Even SuperSam knew that construction paper wasn’t stiff enough to support two drinking straws, four toothpicks and four circles of cardboard. (Maybe that should have been our first clue that something was awry with these instructions.)
We substituted an index card.  
The wheels all fell off. There was too much space inside the straw to hold the toothpicks straight. 
Car, nicely decorated, on wheels that fell off. Repeatedly.
SuperSam covered the ends of the straws with masking tape and tried again. His fix held until we attached the balloon.
Wheels fell off again when the balloon was inflated.
Persistent boy with car that was constantly falling apart.
We made a series of videos to record our process for posterity. Watched one after the other, they give an idea of the kind of persistence my son has…and they remind me of the utter frustration of trying a project that just seemed doomed.
By my usual definition of success, this was a total bust. We never even got it to do anything but spin in a circle! I was annoyed both at our lack of success and at the stupid book, which led me to believe this would be an easy activity with predictable results. Did the book people ever even try it? Did they just take carefully arranged photos that made it look like it worked? Or did they have special drinking straws and construction paper and balloons that we in the non-book world cannot access? 
To me, this was a complete balloon car fail.
SuperSam didn’t see it that way. He wanted to try it over and over and over again. “Don’t give up, Mama!” was his refrain. He got to mess around with the design of the car quite a bit. He got to spend time one-on-one with me. He got to be on video, which he loves. And he got to crack up laughing every time the wheels fell off or the car spun out.
That’s better than getting frustrated.
I should probably keep hanging out with him and hope he rubs off on me.
If we believe that learning happens in the process of making/doing/watching/trying things, then we have to acknowledge these sorts of projects-gone-wrong as times when great learning could be taking place. What could be better for learning than having to repeat something, trial after trial, continually reevaluating and making changes as we go? This is science, engineering, and Real Life all rolled into one terribly-thought-out activity. As frustrating as it was, I know SuperSam learned some things from tinkering with the car. At the very least, he learned to keep on trying in the face of adversity.
I just wish (still) that we had gotten one successful result from all our work. I like things to work out in the end.
Ever had a project go totally wrong with your kids? How did you handle it? 
aqueducts, homeschool, learning, PBH, projects, water beads

Water Beads, II: Ancient Roman Aqueducts and project-based learning

Sometimes I try a little too hard to control things. I have a lot of faith in my own ways. Mostly, that’s because they work well. I’m a good manager, and I have lots of good ideas. It’s hard not to share them enthusiastically. (Maybe overenthusiastically?)

Sometimes, though, I manage to let someone else be in charge…and sometimes, cool things happen as a result.

I’ve been inspired lately by Lori Pickert’s book Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learnersand her blog, Camp Creek. As we consider how best to support SuperSam’s strong interests and voracious appetite for information, I have been reading Lori’s work and the strong contributions of the other parents who contribute to the project-based learning community at the Camp Creek blog space. A big part of the concept of project-based learning is for parents to act as resources…to get out of the way and let children develop skills to problem-solve and think for themselves.

The comments on Lori’s blog are amazing- there are thoughtful, interesting discussions happening there all the time. I recently read a post where a commenter had asked whether project-based learning creates self-centered children who think the world should revolve around them. This was (part of) Lori’s response:

I believe children embrace learning and become enthusiastic, passion-driven learners only when they see how it connects to themselves .. how it helps them connect with their interests and their purpose. What is education for, if not this? And the rote learning, six hours at a desk a day .. what is that kind of education for? Not, I think, connecting you with your deepest passions and your purpose.
It is a shared relationship, a negotiated curriculum.
That message — that learning is for the child — comes with work, responsibility, trial and error, experimentation, work. The message doesn’t erase the work — it just puts the work into its proper context. Why should a child put his all into something that he cares nothing about, that is designed to please someone else in some inexplicable way? Project learning says this is about you .. then expects the child to give his all for something he cares deeply about.
Many adults are unwilling — or afraid — to share the power. They are unwilling to do the  work of helping children learn to be responsible for their power in the learning relationship.
Freedom and accountability come hand in hand. The critics think that children in this type of learning environment will be catered to — missing the fact that they have shouldered real responsibility for their own learning in exchange for real freedom. The critics see only what the child is given — and fail to see what the child gives in return.

–Lori Pickert, from the post Sharing the power at Camp Creek blog

Good point.

Want to know what happens if I manage to share the power and let SuperSam be in charge of his own project?

(I bet you do.)

Inspired by SuperSam’s recent desire to swim in water beads, a friend presented us with some brightly colored Orbeez. We couldn’t wait to use them!
We put them in a big bowl, added water, and waited. And waited. And waited.
(It takes 3 hours for them to get up to size.)

While we were waiting, SuperSam announced that he wanted to know what aqueducts looked like. (Where do these questions originate?) I gave my typical answer (“Let’s Google it!”), and we turned to the internet. Our travels through web site after web site led us to a site about Rome for kids, and then SuperSam declared that he wanted to build his own aqueducts and run the water beads through them.
Although I started thinking right away of ways we could accomplish this task, I decided to just let him go for it.
For the next hour and a half, “What do you need?” became my refrain.
I got out a basket of recycled materials and prepared to follow his lead. He asked for toilet paper rolls and started trying to connect them. He asked for tape…and he used way too much.
I normally would have said, “Oh! You don’t need that much tape! Don’t waste the tape!” or something like that. (I have a thing about not wasting supplies.) Since this was an experiment in SuperSam-as-the-in-charge-decision-maker, I kept my mouth shut. An amazing thing happened…he realized that too much tape would stick to itself and mess up his project, and he started using less. All by himself. I can almost guarantee (from experience) that if I had told him to use less tape, he would have gotten mad or decided to quit.

Each time a problem arose, he looked at me for help, and I said something like, “Well, what do you think you could try? What else do you need?” Each time, he tried something new, and eventually he figured it out on his own. Imagine that! I didn’t have to do much of anything except run and fetch materials.

He tried other things that didn’t work:

  • He put the tubes together with gaps in the middle, and the water beads fell out. (He changed his design so the tubes were connected end to end with no spaces.) 
  • He tried running bigger balls through the tubes, and they got stuck. (He asked me to cut the tubes open at the top. Then he pulled the sides further apart so they would be wider.) 
  • He used heavy balls that made the toilet paper tubes pull apart despite the tape, which wasn’t strong enough to hold them with the added weight. (He used more tape. It didn’t hold.) He got frustrated.

This frustration led to the most stunning moment of all, when he decided to build supports for the lower end of the aqueduct. This was the section that was collapsing when the heavier balls rolled down. My plan (which I kept to myself) was to use popsicle sticks to construct supports under the trough. SuperSam used pipecleaners instead, twisting two of them together and making a “C” shape at the top that supported his aqueduct like a sling. He pushed the ends of the pipecleaners into a styrofoam egg carton to use as a base.

I was sure this wouldn’t work. The pipecleaners were bendy…how were they going to support the weight of the wooden balls? When he tried it, though, I was surprised to see that although the pipecleaners buckled under the weight as the balls rolled down the chute, they popped back up again. The bendy pipecleaners made his design flexible where mine would have been rigid. His idea worked better than mine would have.

I can’t remember another time recently when I’ve been so glad to have someone else be right about something I thought I had figured out on my own. 

Here is the design SuperSam created:

And here’s how the action went down:

His whoops of joy as he bounced around the kitchen were amazing. The pride he felt in his design and its success was all over his face. Our mutual satisfaction grew as we watched it work, over and over again, and I started to feel like I might be the right person to keep up with this boy’s learning style, after all.

*This post contains an Amazon affiliate link…which just means that if you click the link to Lori’s book, Project-Based Homeschooling from this post and then end up buying the book from Amazon, they will send me a few cents in commission.

activities, Best Idea Ever, dramatic play, projects, rainy days, recycled materials, SuperSam

Best Idea Ever, Vol. 3: Build a rocket out of boxes.

On a truly cold day, outside play is not practical for our family. Lucy isn’t walking yet, so she gets really cold if she’s just sitting in the swing or being pushed in a ride-on vehicle. SuperSam dislikes wearing coats or anything with long sleeves, so clothing ends up being a battle on particularly cold days. And Nora won’t leave on her mittens, so her hands get cold quickly. I’ve heard it said that there is no bad weather for playing outdoors, just bad clothing, and I generally agree…but if the children in question won’t wear the appropriate clothing, it’s hard to make it work.

So, on a recent bitterly cold day (when everyone was cranky and bouncing off the walls), I pulled out the giant cardboard packing boxes I’d been saving since Christmas. Add a box cutter, a roll of duct tape, and some crayons, and we had a morning activity waiting to happen.

I assumed we’d build a fort or a playhouse of some type, and I started putting the boxes together with that in mind. End to end, we had about a refrigerator box and a half’s worth of cardboard real estate with which to work. The Sisters set to crawling in and out of the boxes immediately. SuperSam grabbed some bubble wrap, held it up to one end of the boxes, and said, “This can be the windshield. It is thick enough to withstand the rays of the Sun when we do a flyby.”

That’s when I realized we were actually building a rocket. (Silly me.)

SuperSam got out his tool box and passed out hammers and screwdrivers to The Sisters, and they all started happily banging away. I cut some windows in the boxes and taped everything together while SuperSam added some coloring and numbers (“like NASA has on their rockets”) to the sides of the structure. Then Captain SuperSam and I made a seat out of a smaller box so he would have a place to sit in the cockpit. He insisted that Navigator Nora have a seat, as well, and I persuaded him that making one for Lucy would be the kind thing to do. (I don’t know why Nora gets all the best gigs in these situations.)

Finally, we made a control panel by gluing buttons and knobs (caps from gallon milk jugs and various bottles) on the bottom of a little box. The spacecraft was ready for flight.

The children played in it all week, first in the kitchen, where we had built it, and then later in the living room, where it took up almost all the floor space. It is currently stationed in SuperSam’s bedroom, where it will remain until he gets tired of playing in it. He tried to fit his bed inside, but the box wasn’t quite big enough for that. He did take a nap earlier this week just inside the opening of the rocket on the floor. “I’m training to be an astronaut,” he said, “so I might as well learn how to sleep in a rocket.”

activities, celestial buddies, mail, planets, post office, projects, rainy days, SuperSam

Interplanetary Mail…SuperSam goes "postal"

Given my history with the post office, one might think I’d be reluctant to recreate it here in my house. SuperSam and his planets need to send Valentines to each other, though, and he has decided to be their postman. “I need a postman bag,” he said, “and a postman hat and outfit.”

I think we have this dapper postman guy to thank for that. Our local mail delivery lady looks nothing like this.

Postman from Clifford Barks by Norman Bridwell

With no mailman hat, I am improvising. We created some mailboxes out of coffee cans from Trader Joe’s. We covered them in bright paper, decorated with markers and stickers, and nailed the bottoms to some scrap wood to make them stand up. I stuck the ends of the pieces of wood into an upturned cardboard box (just cut x’s with a box cutter and pushed them in). We covered the box with green construction paper “grass.” and voila! Mailboxes.

I didn’t look on Pinterest. There is bound to be someone who has made cuter, easier, snazzier mailboxes. There is probably a step-by-step tutorial about how you can do it, too. I am not that woman, as usual…but I am happy to report that the boxes are sturdy enough so far to withstand the forceful play of my three small people. (The Sisters have found their boxes and like to hide items in them and find them again later.) Besides, there’s a lot to be said for using what you have on hand when you need to do something like this.

SuperSam: Mama! Let’s make a post office!

Mama: Great idea! First, we need to drive an hour to the nearest craft store to get cute Valentine-themed contact paper and brads that are heart-shaped!

Yeah, that’s not my life. I think if Macgyver’s mother had been a preschool teacher, she would have been kind of like me: resourceful, creative, able to make something functional out of almost nothing. Pretty, color-coordinated Valentine contact paper? Meh.

Continuing with my “function is more important than form” theme, we also made a mailbox out of an empty Tide detergent box by covering it in blue paper and cutting a slot in the lid with a box cutter. (SuperSam added the planetary graffiti. I guess he thought it needed some cutening up.) The little postman gleefully retrieves the mail from the box, puts it into his mailbag, and delivers it to the appropriate post office box. We added some “window” envelopes that had been headed for the recycling bin and some catalogs.

SuperSam gets up really early (well before 6:00 AM every day), so we sometimes leave out “invitations” for him in case he needs something new and different to work on in the mornings before everyone else is ready to go. I have come to really enjoy being awakened by the sound of his voice down the hall, talking excitedly about what he’s doing with the materials I left for him. Before going to bed, I set out a tray with paper, envelopes, colored pencils, markers, and labels for him.  I also left some “mail” in his box, including a note from the newest Celestial Buddy, Earth. The next morning, SuperSam played with this stuff for about 40 minutes, chatting animatedly with Earth about writing letters to all the other planets. By the time I came to the kitchen, they had covered the floor with mail. Exciting!

The postal serivce here has been in high demand as all the Celestial Buddies write each other letters on personalized stationery created by SuperSam. He even made stamps out of the labels (with pictures of planets and constellations on them, of course). Apparently the cost of sending a letter from one planet to another has not been affected by the economy…and if the volume of mail is any indication, these planets prefer to stay in touch the old fashioned way.

activities, feasts and seasons, little holydays, liturgical year, projects, recipe, saint celebrations

Feast of St. Brigid

St. Brigid was a 5th century nun who founded the monastery at Kildare in Ireland. Born to a mother who was a slave in a Druid household, she was named for the Celtic goddess of fire and is the patron of the hearth and the domestic arts. (She is also the patron of County Kildare, for obvious reasons.) Many of the stories about her are about her bringing warmth and light, so it is fitting that February 1st is her feast day…the first day of spring in the old Celtic calendar.

When we visited Ireland, George and I picked up a St. Brigid’s cross to bring back with us for our Christmas tree. It has been our tradition to find Christmas ornaments everywhere we travel and reminisce about our trips as we decorate the tree each year. I learned today that many people in Ireland make St. Brigid’s crosses on her feast day and place them near the hearth or stove (or sometimes, on the front door of the house).

Since we had already put away our St. Brigid’s cross with the other ornaments (are you impressed that our tree and ornaments are put away?), SuperSam and I decided to make our own St. Brigid’s cross to celebrate her feast today. They are traditionally made from straw or reeds. We followed this great tutorial from Catholic Icing and made ours from pipe cleaners. It was very kid-friendly, even for a preschool-aged boy with a short attention span for such things. (He pretended the pipe cleaners were eating each other, complete with “nom nom nom” sound effects.) It only took us about 20 minutes, and we ended up with two very colorful crosses to show for our efforts.

For dinner, we used this recipe for a chickpea soup from Carrots for Michaelmas. It was simple and tasty. Best of all, it was ready in an hour…the same amount of time it took to make this easy Irish Soda Bread. For dessert, I cut up some apples and topped them with oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and walnuts and baked them at the same time as the soda bread. It was simple, quick food, but it felt totally worthy of a feast.

The way this week has gone, I feel in serious need of a patron of the domestic arts, so I put my St. Brigid’s cross in the kitchen window. At the very least, the bright colors will perk me up first thing in the morning before the day gets going while I’m waiting on the coffee to finish brewing.

For another make-your-own-St. Brigid’s cross tutorial, try here. And check out Sarah’s post on how her family celebrated St. Brigid’s Day at two Os plus more. For a devotional resource on the saints (neither strictly Catholic nor strictly biographical, but with some ideas for prayer practices included), try Tom Cowan’s The Way of the Saints: Prayers, Practices, and Meditations. It’s not comprehensive, by far, but he writes about ways to honor some of the saints and apply their lessons in daily life. We enjoy having it as one resource in our library. (Yes, that is an Amazon affiliate link back there, just to be clear.)