Much to our parents’ chagrin, my husband and I still have “stuff” stashed in their attics on the other side of the country. My Mom and Dad boast my Barbie dolls. My in-laws house lots of LEGOs. Occasionally, our parents bring an extra suitcase brimming with childhood treasures: Fisher-Price campers, American Girl Dolls and the like.
My husband’s latest endeavor is convincing his mom to bring his childhood microscope, especially since our boys are budding scientists. For some investigations, our assortment of magnifying glasses just won’t do, and purchasing a new microscope is a big investment. Recognizing a microscope migration may not happen immediately, I discovered a near-term substitute on Colleen Kessler’s Raising Lifelong Learners blog: the Carson Microbrite Pocket Microscope.
The Carson Microbrite arrived yesterday ready to go. It included the required batteries, and the instructions were easy to follow. You can adjust the magnification from 20 times to 40 times with a wheel, then focus with the lever. Press and hold a button, allowing the LED light to illuminate your specimen. The kit includes two slides with covers and a detachable slide “stage.”
We took it outside for a test drive yesterday morning. A roly-poly (aka pill bug) provided the most amusement. Magnifying him 40 times, we could watch his legs wriggle and his mouth parts move. Observing a flower, we could see the presence of pollen. We also looked at rocks, dirt, pine tree parts. This microscope’s portability makes it perfect for outdoor play or hikes: no need to wait until you are home to look at your specimens.
I found our Microbrite for under $10 on Amazon. At that price, it’s a perfect addition to your science tools.
Readers of this blog know how much I LOVE LEGOs. Cooper had a LEGO birthday party for which I laboriously made LEGO minifigure cake pops. I typically give LEGO building sets solid reviews. With that said, LEGO’s new effort to appeal to girls has ignited controversy. After an initial negative reaction, here’s a letter I wrote to the LEGO Corporation with my two cents on the new play sets. NOTE: I did actually buy, build and play with one of these sets before offering my final analysis, and I let the boys play with it too. The boys are currently fighting over the Olivia minifigure.
Dear Mr. Jorgen Vig Knudstorp,
Let me begin by saying I love LEGOs. As a mother to two boys, ages 3 and 5, my living room floor is littered with bricks and minifigures. My boys spend hours poring over the LEGO catalog and reenacting scenes from building sets. I think your products are a good value and offer opportunities for imaginative play, spatial awareness and development of fine motor skills.
Still, I am one of 45,000+ people who hastily signed a petition on Change.org against your new LEGO Friends line. I say “hastily” because I’ve decided I want to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. I want you to succeed because I think you are the best toy maker out there, and I think it’s important the LEGOs appeal to both boys and girls. I know some sets, like the Harry Potter series and Duplos, already appeal to both genders.
Before you dismiss my letter because I’m a mom of boys, let me tell you that I buy lots of birthday and Christmas gifts for girls. I would love to be able to buy a LEGO Friends set for my nieces in good conscience in lieu of Polly Pockets or My Little Ponies. Your Friends sets may appeal to girls, but if they don’t appeal to parents too, they may not sell as well.
As a parent, here’s what appeals to me about your Friends sets: the minifigures represent the diversity of our world in terms of hair and eye color (though not a diversity of body types); the minifigures have back stories encouraging imaginative play (though I find the back stories themselves awfully stereotypical except for token “geek” Olivia); you’ve introduced new, feminine colors; you’ve integrated some themes that appeal to girls: playing house, playing with animals (vet hospital), etc. You’ve gone beyond traditional “girl” themes to include an invention workshop and a design school.
With that said, here are my key complaints:
A few offensive themes: Why do girl’s sets always have to depict girls getting their hair done, lounging by the pool (with a boat drink?), shopping and singing on stage a-la Hannah Montana? Can’t girls be interested in other things?
Too much pink, purple and pastels. Yes, the pastels will appeal to girls, but must EVERYTHING be pastel? Let’s mix in some other colors that might serve as a bridge to other, gender neutral or, dare I say, “boy” sets. Honestly, many boys would love the design studio and invention workshop. My boys are playing with the latter as I write. However, the overabundance of pink and purple might be off-putting for older boys who have realized that pink and purple are girl colors. And did you really have to put heart and flower doodles on the chalkboard in the lab? That might limit it to “girl-only.”
Lack of integration: I bought Olivia’s Invention Workshop so I could test how well the new “ladyfigs” would integrate with existing sets. Olivia can stand in the bucket of our electrical truck. Cool! However, her legs are too long for her to sit in the cab or the cab of any other LEGO vehicle. Plus she lacks holes in the back of her legs to lock her into place. Finally, because her legs aren’t fully moveable, she can’t ride our police motorcycle or the bikes.
As a girl growing up in the 1970s, I played with my doll house, my Barbies (controversial herself), paper dolls and Cabbage Patch kids. My sister and I played dress up and Wonder Woman. Based on my own experience as a girl, and watching my nieces and friends’ daughters play, here are some thoughts.
You’ve designed Olivia’s house. What if you created a doll house with modular components that could be put together like your LEGO Creator Grand Emporium, Pet Shop and Fire Brigade? Parents could buy the Kitchen set, the Bedroom set, the Living Room set, etc. individually and then the girls could put them all together. My sister and I spent hours playing with the multi-room doll house and doll furniture my father built. Olivia’s house is a little one-dimensional.
Let’s add some themes that a child might reasonably encounter in a town: a school (lots of kids play school), a bank (with a female loan officer) to teach girls about money, an airport (with a female pilot and male flight attendant), grocery store, etc. Or better yet, create a girl-friendly minifigure that provides full integration with LEGO City and other LEGO sets. Shorten their legs and make them fully moveable. Add some holes in the back of the legs so a child can attach them to a vehicle seat. It would be great if the Friends and girl LEGO lovers weren’t pigeonholed to pastel Heartlake City.
I wish you all the best with your LEGO Friends effort. I think with a few modifications, it will be a great gateway for girls into the wonderful world of LEGOs.
Our second mind-blowing science experiment was dubbed “Color Changing Liquids,” an experiment you can easily do at home without special equipment. Our science kit included red cabbage juice powder, which we added to two separate cups of water to create a purplish-colored indicator (a substance that changes color when mixed with an acid or base). To make your own indicator, simply shred some red cabbage and soak it in water overnight. Strain it the next morning, and you are ready to test!
To our first cup, we added citric acid (you could use vinegar), which turned the liquid red. To the second liquid, we added baking soda, which turned the liquid blue, indicating a base. Then, we mixed the two liquids together. The acid and base neutralized each other, creating a purple liquid and released carbon dioxide just like in the “dancing powders” experiment.
Steve Spangler Science has some variations on this experiment. These include ideas for other acids and bases to test and how to create your own pH test strips from red cabbage juice. Enjoy!
My sister bought Cooper and Finley the My First Mind Blowing Science Kit for Christmas. The kit has been calling to the boys for a week now: “Mix magic fizzing powders! Create a crystal sunset in a test tube. Make an underwater volcano!” We opened it Saturday and tried our first two chemistry experiments.
Unlike the primary science set we own (which I highly recommend), this one includes chemicals you may not have at home. The first experiment we did was called “Dancing Powders.” Essentially, Cooper combined baking soda (a base) and citric acid powder in water. The acid and base neutralized each other and produced fizzy carbon dioxide gas bubbles as a by-product. As you may recall from school, carbon dioxide is the gas we exhale. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale the oxygen we inhale.
If you don’t have citric acid on hand (and who does), you can still replicate this experiment at home. This same fizzing process is created when you mix baking soda with any other acid, like vinegar. In fact, baking soda and vinegar are the chemicals commonly used to create exploding volcanoes in elementary school. Just make sure to put a cookie sheet or tray under the container you are using to mix the two, as your concoction might fizz over. And never combine acids and bases in a closed container or they might actually explode.
As a side note: The Queen of Clean recommends pouring vinegar and baking soda down drains to clean them. When you are done experimenting, pour your chemicals down the drain. Two birds, one stone.
You can also replicate this experiment with Alka-Seltzer. Remember “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is?” That “fizz, fizz” is carbon dioxide escaping as part of the chemical reaction. The Web site Fun Science Project Ideas discusses how you can control factors that might affect how quickly the Alka-Seltzer dissolves in water and stops fizzing. These factors include how much acid you use, how hot or cold the water is and how big or small the Alka-Seltzer tablet is.
Tomorrow, I’ll recount our “color changing liquids” experiment from the same kit and how you can reproduce it at home.
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. 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.
You’re probably well into your holiday shopping by now. However, if you are still searching for gift ideas for a few curious kids, here are some toddler and preschool-tested ideas.
Pacific Play Tents Super Duper 4 Kid Tent: Santa left us this play tent (retail $30) last year. It’s very durable and super easy to set up and take down. There are multiple ways for the kids to get in and out, and it is large enough to fit a grown up or two. My husband and I frequently get roped into a game of Apollo 11 in which one of us gets to play Michael Collins to the boys’ Aldrin/Armstrong. This tent also works well for indoor picnics in the winter. Play tents are great for all sorts of imaginative play!
Very Silly Sentences (by DK Publishing): We received this game for Cooper’s 4th birthday. He wasn’t reading quite yet, so I put it away for several months. However, when he started to read, this game proved to be a fun way to practice. What preschooler doesn’t love silly jokes and ridiculous sentences? “The shiny teacher stands under the grumpy zebra?” Hilarious! Through this game, children can practice reading skills. However, they also learn basic sentence structure, as well as parts of speech. My five-year-old already knows his way around articles and a prepositions. We give this game two thumbs up!
Giant Melissa and Doug Floor Puzzles: Melissa and Doug make the best puzzles, hands down. One of my all-time favorites is the 4-foot fire truck floor puzzle ($12). This was a present for Cooper’s 3rd birthday, and he was able to put it together with a little help. It has 24 large pieces, so it’s pretty easy. We also have the 10-foot Alphabet Train (28 pieces) and Dinosaurs puzzles (48 pieces). I would recommend Dinosaurs for 4+ years, since it has nearly twice as many pieces as the other two.
With Black Friday rapidly approaching, I figured it was time for a second installment of toddler and preschool gift ideas that stimulate the imagination. These toys have all been “tested” by my boys, ages 5 and 3. I’ve only selected the toys they go back to time and time again to ensure maximum play value.
Lillabo Train Sets from Ikea: Shhhh, don’t tell the folks from Thomas the Tank Engine that I told you about this one. Ikea offers its own wooden train sets of 3 to 20 pieces ranging in price from $3.99 to $9.99, far less expensive than branded wooden sets. However, the best part is that these trains work with wooden Thomas the Tank Engine and Imaginarium sets, both of which we have and use interchangeably with the Ikea track. Now you can save money on your wooden track and invest in fun engines, cars and add-ons.
Fisher Price Play My Way Doctor Kit: We received this gift when our youngest was two, and he and his five-year-old brother still play with this doctor’s kit. The pieces come in their own plastic storage tub, which is perfect for keeping the playroom clean. This set is much more durable than some other doctor’s kits we’ve had. After a full year of play, everything is still intact. This retails for $21 on the Fisher Price Web site, however you can also find these at other retailers for a few dollars less. We bought ours at Target, and I’ve seen this advertised at Kohl’s. Fisher Price also offers a Workshop and Kitchen in this same line. I’m sure they’d be equally as big a hit.
Magneatos: We first stumbled upon Magneatos at a children’s museum. Grandparents and children alike enjoyed building with these cool magnetic tubes, so, when birthday time rolled around, guess what we bought? We have two different sets: a curved set and a straight set, both of which come with the balls. I think the allure is that these are easy enough for toddlers to build with, since they don’t have to snap any pieces into place, yet building a 3-D construction is fun and challenging even for grown ups. Depending upon the size you purchase, these can range in price from approximately $30 to over $50.
Growing up, I used to joke that my future children would only play with wooden blocks. I’ve evolved a little bit since then, but not much. I still favor toys that stimulate imagination, curiosity and creativity. So, with that in mind, here are a few of my current favorites.
1) Anything Lego. Have I mentioned how much I adore this company? It’s pretty easy to find a good, mid-priced set for about $25. Every brick set works with every other brick set; I can tell you my mother-in-law still has my husband’s Legos from 30+ years ago, and they work with today’s sets. Plus, if you lose the directions, Lego has instructions available online for every kit it’s made in the last 10 years. This is a great toy for stimulating creativity and building fine motor skills.
2) Learning Resources’ Primary Science Set. I bought this preschool science kit for Christmas last year, and it’s a hit. Everything is made of sturdy plastic. It includes 10 large, water-resistant cards with experiments like making volcanoes or dancing raisins. The kit includes goggles, magnifying glass, eye dropper, test tubes, beaker, funnel, tweezers and more. This kit has helped us learn about science in a hands-on way.
3) Gears! Gears! Gears! We got our first set of gears last year after playing with them at “Grandmommy’s” house. This year we added the Gears Lights and Action Building Set. The set has glow-in-the-dark and LED pieces, as well as a remote control, so children can make their constructions come to life. I think it’s a great way to learn about cause and effect. We found our set at Costco for about $25, but Amazon sells it online as well.
I’ll have more ideas as Christmas approaches. Happy shopping!