Saturday, December 20, 2014

Really Great, Last Minute, Stocking Stuffers, and Small Gifts from the Grocery Store

We are very quickly running out of days before Christmas.  If you still have a few small presents, or stocking stuffers to buy, let me suggest a trip to your local supermarket.  You probably need a few last minute chips, and crackers anyway, so why not maximize your time, and finish up your gift list, too.

The junky little toys that hang on the aisles might, at first glance, appear to be cheaply made, wastes of money - and in truth many of them are very cheaply made - but they can also turn out to be surprisingly entertaining, inexpensive, and sometimes even educational, if not long term, toys.

Searching the grocery store aisles tonight for our favorite, but hard to find, holiday crackers (we really like those butterfly crackers from Pepperidge Farms) I passed a number of such toys, that my own children (ages 8-17) and their friends, have especially enjoyed, and thought maybe I'd share them here, in case anyone is looking for ideas or inspiration.

Ja-Ru Toys' Dino World Fossil Kit.  These are some of the best little dino-digs we have ever done.  The digging material is well formed, and held together, but not rock hard, making it pleasant to excavate the tiny little skeleton pieces.  I have seen reviews elsewhere that speak of missing bones, and disappointed children, but we have always had complete skeletons (except when we lost a piece during a recycle experiment - and that only led to more imaginative play).

Grab-A Bubble 3-D.   Not only are the touchable bubbles weird, and interesting, but the 3-D prism might be handy for all sorts of science experiments, later on.

Tricky Worm/Magic Worm puppets.  You can finger knit your own, but the store bought variety is always a big hit, too.  This one is good for teens, as well as the elementary aged set.

Finger Lights.  Just click the link to see some of the fun and learning these can create.

Fake Mustaches. They don't last long, but they're fun while they stick around.  We gave some as a white elephant gift at a home school Christmas party, last week.  One of the teenage girls there opened the package, and it wasn't long before she, and a group of her buddies, were trouping around the room, proudly sporting them.

Grow Snow.  Add a touch of tonic water, and a UV light, and you can even make it glow.

Or, for small gifts, you might peek at the toy aisle (or Christmas gift shelf) for Singing Tubes...

...or in the produce, or floral section of the store for a Venus Fly Trap.

I'm always amazed at how many stores have them in among the apples, and carnations.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

30 Second Christmas Science - Electric Playdough, Christmas Lights

Remember the burned out finger lights I mentioned earlier? 

They weren't much good for making colored shadow puppets, but I figured as long as we had them out, we might as well tear them apart, and figure out what was wrong with them.

We tested the little LED's against the battery pack...

...from our Leapster, and discovered a number of them still worked.

Most of the little button batteries still worked too, so it must have just been that the plastic casings had become loose, and weren't holding everything together tightly enough.

No matter, because now we had a bunch of LEDs (light emitting diodes) loose, and ready to play with.  We just needed something to decorate...

...and as we just happened to have a can of green Play-doh handy, we formed a quick Christmas tree, cut it in half down the middle (if the two sides touch the lights won't work)...

...added our lights (all running the same polar direction,  + and - wise), and plugged the tree into the battery pack (DC power is safe for this, AC power would not be - I think) with insulated alligator clip leads (we keep a number of these on around...they're so handy), with the positive on one side, and negative on the other.

We also played around a little, adding a strip of plastic wrap to the center of our tree, so we could connect the two sides without turning off our lights (LEDs are very bright, by the way, you don't want to stare directly at them).

Then, the children started working on a Christmas wreath, creating a string of lights, and balls of Play-doh.  Very quickly, though, they ran into a voltage drop problem.  When they tried to string three lights together, the third would not light...

...even though they were able to light four together, when only using two balls of dough.

I imagine there's a lesson in Ohm's law in there somewhere, but I'll need to brush up on my high school physics before we tackle it together. 

However, with my mother flying in for a pre-Christmas visit this evening, and the gnome-bot still refusing to fold laundry, it will probably have to wait until after the holidays.

The really great, and terrible, thing about 30 second science experiments is they tend to lead directly into deeper study, that lasts a lot longer than half a minute.

30 Second Christmas Science - Light And Shadow

After driving around town to view Christmas lights, we came home inspired to explore, and play with light, and shadow.

The first thing we needed was a couple of green and red lights.  We have plenty of colored finger lights, but all of our greens were burned out, or had dead batteries, or a loose wire, or something... we grabbed a flashlight, and colored the lenses with red and green washable markers, instead.  We used a flashlight that had a double light, but you could just as easily use two separate flashlights, one colored red and one colored green.  The washable marker wipes right off, with a dry cloth, when you're done.

When you shine a red, and green light, together, on a white wall (or in our case, the top of a white, washing machine), the light appears to be white, at least in the center.

But, an object held between the lights, and the wall will cast very Christmassy, red and green shadows - perfect for holiday themed shadow puppets.

Shining the red and green lights, together, down into a clear, glass bowl filled with water...

...produces a pattern of concentric circles, in an alternating red and green pattern, that flutes out, and changes when the water is disturbed.

And, shining the lights, together, through the sides of the bowl, creates a moving...


...northern lights kind of effect on the wall, which I'm sure we would have explored further, had I not been alerted by the glowing green light behind the light show...

...that the washing machine was done, and ready for the next load.

Christmastime or not, laundry isn't going to do itself.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Science Craft - Build a Christmas Gnome-Bot

Christmas gnomes seem to be all the rage this year.  With their bushy beards, and hats pulled down over their eyes, they're just too cute to resist.

We had to make one.  But, as soon as we decided to give ours a plastic cup body, we knew we had to add a little surprise (borrowed from our Big Hero6 inspired vi-brot project) under his hat, as well - switching up from a Christmas craft gnome, to a Christmas, science craftgnome-bot.

Now, doesn't that sound like fun?

To make a gnome-bot of your own, you will need:

  • a red plastic cup
  • black, white and red construction, or tissue paper
  • three or four toothpicks 
  • a couple of pompoms (pink for the nose, and white for the hat)
  • two plastic milk caps
  • an offset hobby motor, or a regular hobby motor with a pencil eraser attached to offset it
  • a couple of wires with alligator clips
  • one AA battery (which you can attach to a craft stick and turn into a switch with a tinfoil and clear tape)
  • glue (we used hot glue as well as school glue)
  • clear tape
  • scissors
  • a thumbtack and a couple of nails for making holes in things
  • and possibly a stapler

Use a thumbtack, and then a nail to make a hole in the top of the cup just large enough... fit the hobby motor through, but not so large that it falls through completely.

If you are using a larger motor, you might need to cut slits out from the hole, to push in, to make room for the motor.  The motor below has the pencil eraser stuck on the spiny part to offset it too, by the way.

The wires from the motor should hang down through the inside of the cup... attach to the alligator clip wires.  Or, if there are no wires connected to the motor, you will need to reach up into the cup, with the alligator clips to attach wires to bottom of the motor.

Tape three or four toothpicks into the cup, so they stick out about the same amount from the bottom.  Make sure two are in the front of the cup... you can add milk caps to them (after making a hole in the caps with a thumbtack) for feet.  This would also be a good time to secure the wires to the back of the inside of the cup with tape.

The other end of the wires will attach to either end of a battery.  We used the switches we had made for our vibrots - a battery taped to a craft stick, with each end covered by tinfoil (sticking out enough for the wires to clip on) covered in turn by clear tape (so you can press on it without getting a shock).  You can just hold the metal part of the alligator clips to either side of the battery by hand though, too.

That's all there is for the mechanics.  To complete the craft, cut a thin strip of black paper, and tape it low, around the middle of the cup, as a belt.

Then, freehand cut a beard, long enough to cover the belt, and reach nearly to the bottom of the cup, when taped along the top.

Create a hat, by tracing and cutting out a small dinner plate sized...

...Pac-Man type circle out of red paper...

...and taping, or stapling it into a cone large enough to fit just down over the top...

...of the cup.

Glue a pom-pom to the beard, right below the spot where the hat ends, and one to the top of the hat, if you like.  Wait for the glue to dry (or use hot glue for an instant, and secure, hold)...

...and then tape the hat in place on the cup... it won't fall off when the gnome-bot starts to vibrate its way across the table...

...and into your heart.

Monday, December 15, 2014

30 Second Christmas Science - Viewing Christmas Lights Through a Feather

For a quick, but colorful, Christmas, science demonstration, have children look at the lights on a Christmas tree through a feather (a craft feather will do).

It helps if the room is dim, and they might have to close one eye, but they should see a rainbow type spectrum of color, as the light from the tree is bent and diffracted, passing through the thin slits between the filaments of the feather.

The effect is not quite as dramatic as looking at the lights through a commercially produced diffraction grating...

...but it's still pretty.

For further exploration, have children look at different types, or even different colors of lights through their feathers.  Does the type of light change the type rainbow they see? 

Or, do a little research together into how this effect might relate to the beautiful colors of a peacock's feathers

Or, try out other diffraction gratings you might have sitting around the house.  The Exploratorium  website suggests a metal screen, two pencils held closely together, a piece of cloth, or even one strand of hair.  They also have a nice (almost child friendly) explanation of what is happening to the light.