Nonfiction Friday: “You’d Never Believe It But…the Sun Was the First Clock”

Telling time

Cooper’s had a digital clock in his room for a year and a half now. He went through a couple of years when he wanted to wake up as soon as the sun peeked over the horizon in the summer…at about 5 a.m. Also, he refused to stay in his room during mommy-imposed rest time in the afternoon. Thus, we taught him how to look for 6-0-0, when he could wake up in the morning, and 2-3-0 when he can get up from rest time. He normally runs out of his room yelling,”It’s 6-0-0! Time to wake up!”

Now that he’s five, it’s time to learn to tell time. Santa brought him an analog watch for Christmas, and we’ve been showing him how to read it. A nice companion to this effort is Helen Taylor’s, “You’d Never Believe It But…the Sun Was the First Clock” (Aladdin Books, 1999), which we borrowed it from the library.

“The Sun Was the First Clock” shows children how the earth’s rotation creates daytime and nighttime, how people kept time long ago, and defines hours, minutes, seconds, years and more.

The best part of this book is the hands-on activities. I’ve already shown Cooper and Finely how the earth’s rotation creates day and night by shining a flashlight (the sun) on our globe (you could also use an orange). We also plan to make a sun dial out of some sturdy cardboard, a pencil and some clay. Finally, we’ll make a clock so we can practice telling time using cardboard, some construction paper and a brad (stay tuned for these projects!). This should also serve as a good introduction to fractions.

There are many good books out there about telling time. You might also enjoy, “Clockwise: A Time-Telling Tale” by Sara Pinto (Bloomsbury, 2006), which is more fiction than nonfiction, but helps children understand time concepts.


What do paleontologists do all day?

At the La Brea Tar Pits

Imagine a dig that discovered an 80%-complete skeleton of a Columbian mammoth, the Ice Age giant. Now picture that dig taking place right in the middle of Los Angeles’s Hancock Park, home to the La Brea Tar Pits.

In 2006 workers excavating a new parking garage at the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Art discovered a Columbian mammoth skull. Work halted immediately and paleontologists from The Page Museum a few yards away were called in to box up the  fossils until they could be explored. Now young and old alike can watch paleontologists and volunteers as they work seven days a week on “Project 23” as it’s known. Yesterday, when our family visited, workers had opened boxes 1 and 14. Recent discoveries included jaw fragments of a baby bison, bones from a juvenile mastodon, sloth and turtle fossils. A paleontologist patiently answered our question about her work, her tools, etc.

Project 23 is taking place right in the middle of Hancock Park, just behind the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. While you are there check out Pit 91. Though digging at Pit 91 has halted while Project 23 is ongoing, you’ll find exhibits detailing findings from the pit as well as tools and techniques that paleontologists use there.

Access to Project 23, Pit 91  and the famous La Brea Tar Pits is absolutely free! You can park for $9 in The Page Museum lot or use metered parking on Wilshire (I believe there is a two hour maximum). If you want to see complete skeletons after they’ve been cleaned and reconstructed, you can pay admission to The Page Museum. It’s kind of pricey. However, if you complete the children’s worksheet available at the desk near the gift shop, you can get a gift from the store. We got a “Dino Picture Projector.” The best part of the museum is the “fishbowl” laboratory where you can see paleontologists and volunteers hard at work sorting microfossils, cleaning fossils, etc.

If you’ve never been to Hancock Park, bring a picnic lunch and check out the digs. The La Brea Tar Pits and surrounding sites are by far some of the best free entertainment in Los Angeles.

Short circuiting boredom

Building a circuit

For Christmas, Cooper got a Snap Circuits Jr. kit, which is providing a lot of cause and effect fun. In fact, I’m not sure who is enjoying building the circuits more, Cooper or me. So far, we’ve built a light switch, a fan, a sound-activated speaker (it’s just like The Clapper!) and a station for testing the conductivity of various materials. With the latter we discovered that metal rings, pennies, paperclips and aluminum foil all conduct electricity, while drinking straws, plastic spatulas, cloth and paper don’t. They’re insulators.

Circuits are an area where I am definitely out of my element. A little Web research turned up a fantastic, visual explanation from San Jose’s Tech Museum…  Here’s what I learned: electricity is essentially moving electrons. Remember the atomic particles that orbit an atom’s nucleus like tiny moons circle a planet? That’s an electron. Good conductors have free electrons. When you apply energy, using a battery, for example, these negatively charged electrons move from positive nucleus to positive nucleus. Thus the electricity flows along the wires and into the lightbulb, where it turns the lightbulb on. The Tech Museum site also includes instructions for building your own series and parallel circuits at home without a Snap Circuits Jr. kit, though I think Snap Circuits Jr. is a safer way to play with electrical concepts.

While the circuits kit is labeled ages 8 and up, I  a 5-year-old could easily play with this toy with some assistance. It’s very sturdy and will definitely stand up to some boy handling.

New Year’s resolutions

Turkey trot with Lourdes

It’s New Year’s resolution time! While I’m a very goal-oriented person, I typically don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Generally, I set new goals, both formally and informally, throughout the year rather than confining them to the first day of the year.

Last year, getting on a regular house cleaning schedule was a major goal. While cleaning for our 2010 Holiday Open House, dusting amounted to scraping sheets of dust off of our living and dining room furniture. I was sneezing so hard, my eyes were tearing, and  I could barely see. Thus, I decided that more regular dusting and cleaning in general would make the chores –especially dusting — less onerous. Plus I wanted a house that was ready for last-minute play dates and drop-in visitors at a moment’s notice.

To help me accomplish this goal, I turned to the Queen of Clean, Linda Cobb, who is my cleaning idol. She espoused “green” cleaning before green was cool. Cleaning your mirrors? Try vinegar. Need to clean a drain? Try a vinegar/baking soda volcano! Want to clean a cutting board? Look for lemons. In her book, How the Queen Cleans Everything (Atria 2002) she offers dozens of tips and, in one chapter, sets out a schedule for a year of cleaning. I used her schedule and turned them into checklists that I’ve tried to abide by for the past year. (Tried is the key word here. Will I dust my walls? Likely never.)

For weekly jobs like dusting and vacuuming, I assign each task to a day. Monday I do bathrooms and some kitchen cleaning, since the two chores require the same cleaners (vinegar and Bon Ami); Tuesday I dust; Wednesday I vacuum. Normally I start these jobs while the kids are watching their half-hour morning cartoons. I can get at least the bedrooms vacuumed or dusted, so I can wrap up the remainder of the job at nap time, or, better yet, during the kids’ afternoon cartoons. In January I typically make a big push on some annual jobs like cleaning leather or polishing baseboards. The first month of the year, I do clean on Thursdays or Fridays, but only if I’m watching something fun on Netflix instant or DVD.

As much as possible, I try not to clean during nap time (except for my January kickoff). I once read there was nothing more demoralizing than cleaning during those few precious moments of peace and quiet. I normally use nap time to grade papers or work towards other goals I’ve set.

Speaking of other goals, last summer, I decided I was going to start writing again, and I aspired to get at least one manuscript published in a magazine by the end of the boys’ school year. While, I haven’t had success yet, I keep telling myself I’m taking baby steps. I’ve submitted manuscripts, and learned to love (ok, tolerate) rejection. I also endeavored to build my platform as a writer by launching this blog and committing to blogging Monday through Friday. My writing goals have been a mixed bag, but I’m hoping the relaxed pace of the new year will help me get back in the groove.

Finally, my dear friend Lourdes has foisted a final goal upon me: running a 10K in February. All I can say is, “stay tuned.” However, being able to run down an escaping 3-year-old is a valuable skill (those little legs are fast!), and races do keep me motivated.

For me, staying in shape, having a reasonably clean home and blogging are essential elements for raising curious kids. Do you make New Year’s resolutions? If so, what are some of yours?

The day after…thoughts on toys and storage

If your house it anything like mine, it is still strewn with wrapping paper and cardboard boxes and littered with new toys that haven’t yet found a home. I now see why we were required to display our Christmas presents under the tree for a few days after the holiday; it probably took my mom that long to figure out where to put our loot!

Here are a few thoughts about keeping and storing toys:

  • This is the time of year that storage goes on sale. If you have any storage needs, now is the time to buy. For small children, clear storage is generally easiest, because they can see inside without dumping everything on the floor. If you use opaque bins or drawers, try attaching a picture to the outside so children who can’t read know what goes inside. This makes getting children to clean up a lot easier.
  • We are so overcome with LEGOS! I am planning on building this LEGO storage/building station I saw in FamilyFun. Heck I may even build two….one for the Duplos in Finley’s room and the other for the larger LEGOS in Cooper’s room.
  • Less is more. Now is the time to purge those toys your children haven’t played with in a while. Box them up and move them to the garage or attic. You can make a decision to keep them or sell/donate them in a few weeks. I know some people who regularly cycle toys in and out of the house. When a toy’s been out of sight for a while and returns it often seems new and exciting.
  • Did you get a train for Christmas? I love our Gadget Masters train table with trundle. It has a lid (with a chalkboard on the other side) to keep creations out of sight. The trundle serves as a second play space or could be used for additional track and train storage.
  • The boys love to play dress up. I bought a couple of Halloween costumes on clearance as Christmas presents. Right now all their costumes are stuffed in a drawer, which is not conducive to playing dress up. I don’t have room for a clothes rack, so Grandpa, the woodworker, is going to build a petite version of this coat rack.

Enjoy playing with all your new toys!

Nonfiction Friday: When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm

Here’s the highest compliment I can pay a children’s nonfiction author: when we didn’t finish Hannah Bonner’s When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth and Bugs Began to Swarm: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Long Before Dinosaurs before nap time, I finished it myself — sans children — while the babes slept. Here’s the second highest compliment I can pay an author: We love this book so much, I bought a Hannah Bonner book for my fossil-loving 10-year-old niece for Christmas months ago.

Bonner mixes her clever and humorous cartoons with complex evolutionary concepts to discuss life WAY before the dinosaurs roamed the earth (specifically the Silurian and Devonian). She begins the book with a look at Pennsylvania 430 million years ago, a land covered with algae, lichen and moss. This land had little life compared with the vast ocean, which was teeming with living things. How did we get from this to life swarming on terra firma? Bonner deftly explains in the first of three books covering time leading up to and including the dinosaurs. (Her most recent book covering dinosaurs is forthcoming in 2012).

Perhaps my favorite appendix is the first, which shows an illustrated timeline of earth beginning with the Big Bang. This resulted in me having to explain Big Bang Theory to a four-year-old, but no matter. It was wonderful to be able to place the creatures in the book in relative context visually.

While Bonner’s books are probably most appropriate for upper elementary school students, anyone can enjoy them from preschoolers to adults. I found it to be a fantastic refresher of the natural science I studied in eighth grade. If you have a budding paleontologist, you’ll probably want to buy all three of Hannah Bonner’s books.

Field Trip Ideas: National Parks

Inside a Coastal Redwood

The National Parks are some of our greatest national treasures. From Ellis Island to Yosemite these places of natural beauty and historic significance hold a special place in our hearts. Our family recently visited Muir Woods National Monument, a beautiful coastal redwood forest named for conservationist John Muir featuring trees two hundred feet high. It was a magical experience for our two children.

The walk to Cathedral Grove, with some of the most magnificent trees, is only a mile round trip, and the paths are stroller friendly. We transformed our visit into a learning experience by requesting a Junior Ranger Activity Book at the entry gate.  The Park Service has these guides for many (and I mean many) of their parks. The Muir Woods Book encouraged us to listen to the sounds of the forest and observe our surroundings to appreciate their beauty. We learned about tree rings, how redwoods reproduce (via burls and cones), how these trees drink 500 gallons of water a day, and how tannins in the trees’ bark protects them from fires, insects and rot.  The book also helped us identify plants and animals of Muir Woods.

At the end of the trip, we answered a few short question. I emailed them to Muir Woods, though you could leave them with a Park Ranger or mail them in, and we are now expecting a Junior Ranger Certificate. A Junior Ranger sticker badge was included with the book, which Cooper proudly wore on his shirt.

The National Park Service has a number of other resources for teachers and children:

  • WebRangers contains more than 50 games that help children learn about the National Parks.
  • Online Park Fun helps you explore the parks  in person or online.
  • Many of the parks also have curricular resources for teachers planning field trips. These are perfect for serious homeschoolers.

Traveling with Curious Kids

Road trip

This time of year many of us travel by planes, trains and automobiles to be with family. Let’s face it, traveling with small children can be tough. When you have small babies, they require so much equipment: strollers, car seats, pack n plays, bottles, etc. Toddlers and preschoolers are tough to keep occupied on long road trips or plane rides. To make travel a little bit easier, here are a few travel trips I’ve collected over the years in no particular order.

  • I live and die by lists. I have lists of what to pack in the suitcase and the carry on bag. It makes it so much easier when I don’t have to try to remember everything each time. Over the years, I’ve modified the lists as the boys have outgrown the Baby Bjorns, sippy cups, and bibs and have required toys and books. You can find packing lists online, for example, FamilyFun has a weekend getaway list….here.
  • I keep a box of travel toys stashed where the boys can’t play with them, so they are new and exciting when I pull them out. Generally it includes some favorite McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, Hot Wheels cars, die-cast airplanes, felt books and a few LEGOs (I like the DK Brickmaster kits, which boxed in an 8 1/2 x 11 format and are perfect for travel). I also pack small puzzles, magazines that include activities (like Highlights or Wild Animal Baby), sticker books, and Color Wonder coloring pads (so they can’t write on the airplane seats or hotel room furniture), as well as a few favorite books and toys.
  • I keep a copy of the packing list in my suitcase, along with a nightlight, flashlight, clothespin (for keeping curtains closed) and a pack of outlet covers. When I pull my suitcase out, I’m ready to go.
  • If you are traveling with a lap baby, always bring your car seat with you to the gate. If there is an extra seat, flight attendants are often willing to accommodate you, and you won’t have to hold the baby the whole flight. Plus, you’d hate to check your car seat and have the airline lose it in route.
  • If you have room, bring a change of clothes for the kids, toothbrushes, and a clean shirt and underwear for yourself, in your carry on bag. I have at least two friends who have had toddlers throw up on them during a flight, so the extra shirt is a must. Plus, if you get bumped from a flight and have to stay in a hotel, it’s nice to have something clean to put on in the morning.
  • We always try to book two adjoining hotel rooms or a suite. Sometimes, this is cost prohibitive, but when possible, it pays dividends in extra sleep. It also ensures that no adult (me) has to hunker down in the bathroom or near the nightlight to read a book after the kiddos are in bed.
  • One of the hardest parts of staying in a hotel room is trying to keep the kids entertained first thing in the morning, since we have early risers and a lot of attractions don’t open until 10 a.m. We try to choose hotels that include a breakfast, so one adult can take the children down to eat while the other gets a few extra minutes of sleep. It’s also helpful to locate a nearby park to burn off some energy if the children are getting antsy in the hotel room.
  • If we are going on a road trip, we try to pick a hotel with a mini fridge (or kitchenette) and pack some food. Eating out can get really expensive, and let’s just say sitting down in a restaurant is not always a fun experience with a cranky toddler. Sometimes it’s easier to eat out for lunch and enjoy a PB&J in the hotel room. I pack things like instant oatmeal; bagels and cream cheese; juice boxes and milk; fruit like apples, bananas, oranges; coffee; bread; peanut butter and jelly; Goldfish crackers; cereal bars; granola bars; dried fruit; yogurt tubes. I also pack a thermal lunch bag, sturdy plastic knife; ziplock bags; a travel bottle of dish detergent and a couple of plastic plates for eating in the hotel room.
  • Since our three-year-old still naps, we try to plan our longest drives around nap time, so he can do some sleeping in a car. So, for example, we might plan a side trip that’s an hour or 90 minutes away for first thing in the morning. Then we eat lunch there and drive back to the city at nap time, hoping for a nap in the car.
  • Give the kids a camera and let them snap some shots of things they find interesting on your travels.
  • Don’t forget to learn a few good road trip games.
  • Also, scavenger hunts can make sightseeing more fun and educational.
  • Have fun and enjoy the holiday season!

Christmas Charity

The holiday season serves as a wonderful opportunity to teach children lessons about charity and helping others. Whether you buy and donate toys, serve food at a homeless shelter or collect coats for a cold-weather project, even the littlest children can get into the act. An encounter with the Salvation Army’s red kettle can start a discussion about how to help people who don’t have as much as you do.

Our church has an angel tree every year; each ornament on the tree lists a toy to buy for a homeless child or some food items to buy for a family who needs it. We pick a couple of ornaments off the tree each year. For the toy, I try to select a child close in age to the boys so they can help buy a present. This year, we bought a nine-year-old boy some LEGOs. Then the boys help me wrap the gift. Again, we use the opportunity to talk about the fact that not all children have homes full of toys, or even homes for that matter.

Opportunities for donating toys abound this time of year. My friend Lourdes and her three kids took toys to a local firehouse for the Spark of Love Toy Drive. Until Dec. 17th, your local Walgreens will take new, unwrapped toys. Toys R Us’s Toys for Tots drive has ended for this year, but keep it in mind for next Christmas.

My sister-in-law, Vicki,  and my nieces have put an international spin on their charity projects. Each year they would stuff a shoebox full of toys, hygiene items and school supplies for a needy child overseas though Samaritan Purse’s “Operation Christmas Child.”  Vicki would even make up a mini-profile for the child the girls were buying for, so they could create a connection with the child.  The collection week for this project is right around Thanksgiving, so I think we’ll try this one next year.

I’m always looking for new ideas. How do you give back during the holiday season?