March 2011 - momgineer

Create Homemade Tree Blocks - Natural STEM Toy

Make your own DIY Tree Blocks 

Spring is a great time to make tree blocks. The bark is easy to get off of the branches in spring, and since this is the most time consuming part otherwise, it really makes sense to pencil this into your sprint calendar. If you have any trees that need trimming or can get a few branches off your local freecycle/craigslist/Facebook group, and you don't mind putting in some time and effort, you will end up with a beautiful set of tree blocks your children can play with for many years, and maybe even pass on to their own children!

We had an abundance of ash trees on our property, which were too crowded and not very happy. They worked well for this project, and we get much more enjoyment out of them as blocks than we did when they were trees.

Get started making your own tree blocks

  • tree branches
  • a saw
  • an oven or a warm spot in the sun
  • a putty knife or box cutter
  • ample time and patience
Select your branches. I chose a mixture of thin and thick. You will want to cut them to various lengths, but I tried to cut several the same length so they would work well for building structures. You will probably want to keep them as flat as possible, too, so that if you are building towers they aren't topsy turvy. I used a miter saw, but you can use whatever you have and are comfortable with.

Before de-barking the tree blocks
After you cut them you will want them to dry out a bit; this should help get the bark off. I sun dried mine but you can put them in the oven on the lowest setting for a few hours instead. If you are really lucky, you might get a branch where the bark just falls right off. One of our maple trees just lost a branch and I thought it would be nice to make some more tree blocks to add to our ash ones. The whole bark-removing step, which was the most time consuming of our ash tree blocks last year, took me all of 2 minutes to de-bark an 8 foot long branch. It probably took me about 2 minutes per block last spring to de-bark the ash tree blocks. The other option is to leave the bark on, for a more natural look, and then all you need to do is cut them and sand the exposed surfaces!

drying in the sun
A year later, they still look great!
These blocks have so many uses and if you can find the wood for free and have the tools (or can borrow them), this is such an inexpensive project. Sets like this you can buy can run $40! Eek! To de-bark, I cut into the bark with a blade and then peeled it back with a putty knife or my fingernails. It was fairly time consuming, but I'm really happy with the result. After all of the bark was removed, I sanded all of the block first with coarse sandpaper, and then with fine sandpaper.

Why I think you'll LOVE these 

Not only are these blocks fun to play with, they are a wonderful natural building toy! The smooth wood and weight of them is really amazingly satisfying. Please note that because they are solid wood, they can be quite heavy, so take care with little toes and fingers.

momgineer Meredith Anderson

STEM education is my passion!

custom t-shirts

I have made custom t-shirts for myself in the past, as well as custom onesies for a new baby, but I hadn't made any with the kids. I thought it would be fun for them to decide what kind of shirt design they wanted, and go to the craft store and pick out the color they liked. Generally they are on sale for either 2 for $4 or 2 for $5, or if they aren't on sale, there are usually coupons you can print for 40% off an item so it's a pretty low cost activity, especially considering you are getting usable clothing out of it. The other thing you need is t-shirt iron on transfer paper (get the dark transfer paper if you are using dark colored shirts) and a printer. I had some paper left over from years ago; you can put several transfers on the same sheet to make it last awhile.

What you need:
  • t-shirt, wash and dry first if new!
  • printer (remember to flip your image left to right, especially if it has lettering!)
  • design (you could draw one of your own, or use a picture, or find some free clip art)
  • iron
The instructions for how to do this will be with whatever iron on transfer paper you use, so I'll just show how we did it but make sure you follow the instructions for your own paper.

Pick out the t-shirts you want to use.
Pick out and print your design, trim around the edges.
Heat up your iron and iron the shirt so it is flat and dry.
Place the transfer where you'd like it and iron it according to your transfer sheet instructions.
Wait for it to cool and then peel off the backing.
momgineer Meredith Anderson

STEM education is my passion!

i-spy bottle

I saw this post recently and it reminded me how I've been wanting to make one of these for awhile with the kids. They have been having fun playing with it and I think we'll make another one so they each have one for car rides.

i-spy bottle
What you need:
  • a cleaned out, dry, transparent container with a lid
  • rice, beans, lentils, bird seed (good idea to freeze overnight first)          
  • objects to spy - you could do a theme or just random items
  • glue
Basically you just fill the bottle with the filler and your objects, making sure to only fill it about 75% of the way so that you are able to shift it around to find things. I decided we would put two of each item in to increase the likelihood of finding at least one of them. I'm glad we went with a variety of shapes/sizes/colors because some of them are very easy to spot for F, and others are much more difficult (like the coins, even I have a hard time finding them!). I added a little bit of glue to the threads on the bottle to help keep the lid on.
    objects in our i-spy container
    filling the bottle

    leaving space makes it easier to manipulate
    momgineer Meredith Anderson

    STEM education is my passion!

    counting and sorting apples

    I purchased these little wooden apples from this store while I was making other purchases and knew we would put them to good use. They are super cute and are just the right size for counting and transferring activities, though too small for wee ones that are still mouthing things.

    I had the kids divide them into 5 sets of 20 for dyeing, and then processed them the same way I did the pasta here (use food coloring and rubbing alcohol). I decided to dye some wooden people and rings I'd gotten while I was at it.

    Apples, rings, and people sorted by color.
    Apples before dyeing.
    I'm going to lose my head for dyeing the apples red.
    Some people dyed (ha). The purple came out so deep and brilliant.
    Seriously, it is like a rainbow spewed them out.
    Sorting game.
    H sorts.
    F sorts.
    In addition to the sorting game, we have played UNO with these pieces - each player gets 7 pieces to start with and then one piece starts off the pot. Each player takes turns matching either the shape or color until someone wins by using all their pieces. If they can't match either color or shape, they have to keep drawing pieces from the bag until they get a match.
    momgineer Meredith Anderson

    STEM education is my passion!

    bar graphs

    Bar graphs are a useful tool for visualizing discretely measurable data. H & F love to sort objects by color, size, type, etc. and we started making bar graphs a few months ago because I thought they would be a fun teaching tool.

    What you need:
    • paper
    • crayons, markers, or pencils
    • objects to sort
    We made a bar graph for trains this time. F routinely sorts them by color, so I thought it would be fun to see what our train collection looked like in graph form. I drew the axes and labeled them (the child can also do this part), H & F sorted the trains, counted them up, and H colored in the squares on graph paper corresponding to the number of trains we have.

    Bar graph of our toy trains
    1. Set up your graph with labeled axes
    2. Sort your objects.
    F did most of the sorting.
    We decided to include tenders as well.
    3. Fill in the graph (H used colored pencils).
    This is an activity they really enjoy and I hope you do too! You can ask your child which color has the least, most, which have the same number, etc. If you are looking for another math tool you can ask how many more of X colored trains would you need to have the same number as Y colored trains, and so on.
    momgineer Meredith Anderson

    STEM education is my passion!

    Simple Transferring Activites for Kids

    Practice Fine Motor Skills with Transferring Activities

    This is a favorite busy activity for younger kids. I suggest varying the objects that are getting transferred to keep this task interesting. It is a great fine-motor activity, and a calming one that can help bring focus as well as develop hand coordination and strength for writing. It doesn't generally hold interest for very long, but can help transition from a hectic atmosphere to a more peaceful one.

    Materials needed:
    • Tweezers (like these for perler beads, cheaper at Michaels) or learning chopsticks
    • Ice cube trays, egg cartons, or other compartmentalized tray
    • Transferring objects:
      • pompoms (easy)
      • cut up sponges (easy)
      • miniature animals (medium)
      • wooden cubes (medium)
      • perler beads (difficult)
      • marbles (difficult)
      • anything else you can think of - perhaps items from a nature walk
    Transfer randomly, or ask your child to try creating a pattern. You could also use color resemblance sorting cubes for this task to make it even more challenging. My big kid decided to make up a pattern (below), while the little one just focused on getting the objects into the ice cube tray. For younger children, try using larger objects, like smooth decorative stones, and have them grasp them with their hands to help develop a tripod grip.

    2. Transfer!
     He did the same pattern in each row, reversed.

    I hope your kiddos enjoy this activity! Sort on!
    momgineer Meredith Anderson

    STEM education is my passion!

    toddler dump and fill

    Though this isn't something that holds either H's or F's attention for long these days, it kept them busy for long stretches when they were toddlers. I thought I'd share some of our favorites.

    What you need:
    • Containers
      • Cheese shaker
      • Sugar container
      • Empty coffee cans or other cylinders with plastic tops
      • Empty milk or other jug
    • Fillers
      • Pompoms
      • Chenille sticks
      • Large play coins
      • Straws in different colors/lengths
      • Stretchy snakes
      • Craft sticks
    Some of our favorite containers
    This one is nice because it is only semi-transparent
    Closeup of the slot I cut in the lid.
    Just fill and dump! You can make a sorting game out of it (sort the pompoms by color, or straws by length, etc) or give your child a variety of objects and ask them to sort by which items fit and which are too big.
    momgineer Meredith Anderson

    STEM education is my passion!

    painting tracks

    After reading through this post (same blog where I found the instructions to dye the pasta used in wagon wheel gear trains and pi day necklaces) I thought about expanding the idea a little further with my older kids to use miniature animals, pasta, and hardware to make more tracks.

    What you need:
    • paint
    • paper
    • objects to make tracks
    • small container of water to rinse objects in between making tracks (optional)
    • towel to dry off the objects after rinsing (optional)
    Paint in trays, animals, paints, paper
    The octopus made great tracks!
    Closeup of rolled pasta, truck tracks, animal tracks
    They came out really pretty!
    Have your child try to identify the source of the tracks after the paint has dried. Some of them are easier than others!
    momgineer Meredith Anderson

    STEM education is my passion!

    roughhousing games

    We were fortunate enough to attend a workshop last week led by Larry Cohen (of Playful Parenting). When he released his book The Art of Roughhousing, he did a series of workshops to explore this fun topic. It is definitely worth a read! Some kids need to connect physically in order to connect emotionally. If your child is sensory-seeking, he may respond to some of these ideas. You may find you enjoy the games as much as your child does, and you will be sure to have lots of belly laughs and smiles. Sometimes a child that may seem defiant, just needs to feel like their voice is meaningful and is being heard. When a child is occasionally given a "powerful" role, they may become more cooperative at other times. Why not give it a try?

    Some fun roughhousing games we have played in the past:

    The wriggle game:
    This is also called "You can't get away from me!" but I like the term wriggling. Basically you encircle your child with your arms (but don't hold them tightly) and say something like "I bet you can't wriggle out of here!" If it is their first time, make sure you don't make it too difficult to get out. It will help build up their confidence. As they get better at it, try moving all around with them as they are wriggling to make it more difficult for them to get out from your arms.

    The push down game:
    This game is fun from the toddler years on. For a toddler, squat down to their level and tell them to try to push you over. If you're squatting, it will probably not take much effort for them to throw you off balance. Fall back and elaborately groan about how they pushed you over, and then ask if they want to do it again. They will most likely get a big kick out of seeing an adult fall over for a change, instead of themselves. For older kids, kneel but keep your body tall so you are close to their height and tell them to push your shoulders, or hold up your hands like you are going to high-ten them and tell them to push your hands.

    The bridge game:
    This is best played with another adult around, though it can be done solo as well. Lie down on your back with your feet and the other person's feet touching sole to sole. Lift your legs up (while keeping your feet touching) to make an inverted V. Tell the child(ren) to run under the bridge without getting crushed (legs lowered). For older kids, you can open your legs to "catch" them in the bridge and dare them to escape. They will most likely delight in running and crawling under the bridge over and over.

    Feats of strength:
    It's a far cry from the Festivus feats of strength, but this is a lower-energy way to encourage body awareness and strength. If you've had a long day and need to sit on furniture instead of the floor, or you're nursing your little one and the older one needs attention, this can work for that.  Put your arms up like you are going to clap them, but spread them a little further apart. Ask if they can push your hands together. Resist. Repeat!

    These never seem to get old with H&F. A few things to be mindful of:
    • Check in with your child periodically to make sure they are still having fun.
    • If your child tends to get riled up easily and has a hard time re-centering, take breaks every so often to make sure they don't feel out of control of themselves. One way we do this is by slow deep breathing and counting slowly backwards from 10.
    • Try to reserve time for roughhousing as a parent-child activity and you may spare yourself issues that arise from child-child roughhousing. If there is an outlet for this kind of energy, children will be less likely to unleash on their sibling or friend.
    We played some other fun physical games at the workshop, including pillow fighting, which I'm sure will be detailed in the book. Do you have favorite roughhousing games you play with your kids?

    The Art of Roughhousing

    This is a physical extension of playful parenting. It takes conscious action to not immediately react in times of frustration with your child, especially if you are tired yourself. However, being goofy and playful is one of my best parenting tools, even as my children grow older.
    momgineer Meredith Anderson

    STEM education is my passion!