Category Archives: Work is Play

Marker Bots

After working with the more “traditional” circuits, the good folks at The Exploratorium gave us our next assignment – make your own scribble bot.

Prepared table, a short video of other kids' bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

A prepared table, a short video of other kids’ bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

The kids and I ended up christening them “marker bots” as we felt that described our own creations a bit better. There’s some truth to that as many of the examples we saw used markers (since they scribble more easily), but as they tinkered, the kids began breaking out of the traditional “sample” bot and into new and uncharted territory.

My six-year-old had the most physical limitations as his dexterity isn’t nearly as well-developed as the two nine-year-olds. He had trouble getting the markers to stay and needed more help with setting up the battery. If I were to do this with lots of young students, I would do what many others have suggested and try soldering small washers onto the ends of the battery wires to make it easier to connect and disconnect in the broccoli band.

Six-year-old's beginnings

Six-year-old’s beginnings…yes, that’s a partial hot glue stick sticking out of the motor…used to propel the bot.

My sons’ friend was at our house and participated in our “maker” afternoon. I think he enjoyed himself and really learned to apply some growth mindset to his creation. Initially, he had a tough time deciding how to design his bot, but he eventually modified his design and took away the markers and created a moving robot. Success!

My nine-year-old jumped right in and loved that he could make a bot almost exactly like the same one we saw in the course video (strawberry baskets). After figuring that out, he went on to modify his creation and created a ledge for his bot to hold the marker caps.

All told, we spent a good hour and a half tinkering with our creations. A few days later, we revisited the single battery and motor combination and I tried to make a Lego car move (unsuccessfully) and my six-year-old, inspired by his friend’s creation, decided to make an airplane. Although his plane didn’t move he made multiple modifications and we did all sorts of battery and motor tests. Funny enough, everyone single boy who has come over has glanced at it with a “whoa…cool, dude” sort of look.  Needless to say, he is quite happy with it.

Yes, those are wheels from a rolling cabinet. It took the biggest stapler in the world to keep my mouth from suggesting smaller wheels.

Yes, those are wheels from a rolling cabinet. It took the biggest stapler in the world to keep my mouth from suggesting smaller wheels.

This assignment was one of the easiest to attempt and to complete. The entry materials are low — a 3V motor, a single AA battery and whatever craft supplies you have in the house. And, if you need more assistance, check out the Exploratorium’s online guide.

The end of our first work session.

The end of our first work session.


Tinkering – more than trial and error

As part of my Tinkering Class, the facilitators host a Google Hangout each week. Today, I finally had a chance to watch last week’s video. Wow.

This week’s guest was Edith Ackermann and I thoroughly enjoyed her insights and her enthusiasm for one of her topics of expertise – play. Ackermann* works at MIT and has studied under Piaget and Seymour Papert. Although this is a poor explanation, one could say that both of these theorists place a lot of value on hands-on activities and self-exploration.

Anyone who has studied the field of education has heard of Piaget, although it is much lesser known that he was first a follower of Dr. Montessori’s. (As a Montessorian…it has to be said)!  I have read a few of Papert’s papers on computers and children because of the work I do with Scratch. In fact, I was heavily influenced by this paper during the initial development of Code Camp’s structure and activity design (though I really need to read it again and tweak the class a bit more).

Regardless, I came away from the video reaffirming my idea that a “growth mindset” is important to success, but realized that I strongly agreed with Ackermann’s vision that tinkering should be more than just trial and error. Her point being that tinkering should encourage a person to view the problem and/or the solution from a different perspective.

Talk about an abstract concept to quantify and pin down. It reminded me of something I was told by a local French teacher. She was talking about the value of watching French Disney movies  – and obviously from the look on my face I wasn’t buying the initial educational usefulness.  Instead, she mentioned that it was another way to for them to “get it in their fingertips.”

As my educator husband and I have used that phrase many times over the years to describe really knowing something, I have just realized that this is probably what Ackermann is referring to when she mentions being able to see something from a different perspective. Only by being able to use/hear/encounter the French word in a different context are you truly going to be able to understand the problem and secure it in your long-term memory. Only by being able to see the problem/solution/object from a different perspective will you truly be able to understand it and then be able to change it and use it for something else entirely.


Or, maybe that’s what I “thought” I saw. Within psychology there doesn’t always seem to be a clear answer – most likely it’s purposely vague! Either way, it has me thinking and making small changes in the way I approach learning with my students. And, that’s a good thing.


* I can’t even begin to tell you how many papers and books that I have marked to read, suggestions from this course. Ackermann’s paper on “teachers as designers” is next on my list. As a Montessori-trained educator, I firmly believe in a prepared environment and I’m looking forward to seeing how she defines lesson design.

Tinkering, Making and Being Inspired

Tinkering with alligator clips, a battery pack and a 3 V motor.

Tinkering with alligator clips, a battery pack and a 3 V motor.

As we continue with our second week of Tinkering Class, the boys and I dived head first into circuits. We watched the explanatory videos and then my kids ran and pulled out all of the components and started to try and make things work.

The 9-year-old decides to see how many items he can successfully connect at once.

The 9-year-old decides to see how many items he can successfully connect at once.

I love having this time with them and watching them get excited about learning. It was so much fun! The “old” me would have wanted to build every component just the way it was in the introductory video before bringing it out to them. Instead, we tested it out together and realized we needed a few more pieces to make it as easy-going as in the videos.  We’ll be building more parts as a team, thus deepening the learning and exploring.

Apparently, we had a “maker” kind of day going on. Once the boys realized we needed a few more parts before we could continue with the circuit boards, they decided to finally get down to making a tin-can telephone. This is something my oldest had read about and wanted to try, but hadn’t quite found the concentration to put it into action.

Six years-old and hammering...with sandals on. Eek!

Six years-old and hammering…with sandals on. Eek!

The 9-year-old has cut his toe on a saw (while wearing sandals). You'll notice he is wearing his sneakers.

The 9-year-old has cut his toe on a saw (while wearing sandals). You’ll notice he is wearing his sneakers.

They found a web site on how to construct a tin-can telephone and other than some assistance with reaching the tools (oh, the garage) and some knot tying…this was a project that they completed all on their own.

They even experimented (and became frustrated) as they figured out how to make it work the best. Tight string and in the same room?  Yes. Around a corner or with closed doors? Not so much.


A great day for learning, doing and exploring. We don’t always have those sorts of days, so it’s nice to be able to look back on them and remember!




Scaffolding Learning Meets Creativity

Creative problem-solving with Lego® WeDO software and bricksOr, perhaps I should title this post, “Why I love Montessori materials, Lego® Education, the programming language Scratch, and hands-on learning.”

For the past two years, I have been using Lego® WeDo software, Lego® bricks and the educational programming language, Scratch, to help young students learn to create with computers, rather than to consume.  I have realized that these materials work well because they are almost immediately accessible and they allow for a lot of creativity, which fuels motivation.

And, unfortunately for most schools, the creativity part is key. According to Daniel Pink, the key to motivation is three things: autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose. In his book, Drive, Pink relies on current research to show what motivates adults in the workplace, but I think we can look at his work and apply that to learning and education. After all, Dr. Montessori did that over 100 years ago by carefully observing the children in her care.

She found that they have an overwhelming desire to learn new things and that the only detriment to their progress was a lack of helpful materials. She remedied this by providing self-correcting materials that taught the children – without having to have an adult intervene. Once they mastered the concept, they were free to use these materials in a different way. They were encouraged to be creative with the materials and discover new things. Could you build a pink tower upside down – starting with the smallest block on the bottom? Why not?

It’s my professional opinion that the Lego® WeDo software provides the same sort of scaffolding. They provide lots of mini-lessons on how the software works, as well as instructional builds for those kids who want to make something “real” – at least in the beginning. I have found that once they know how to use the software, all of my students are itching to make their own robots. And, quite frankly, 99% of them want to do this at the very beginning!

And, so I try and accommodate their natural desire to learn. I give them choices – and try to adapt so that each child feels comfortable with their learning path. I feel technological advances – online courses and affordable entry materials – can offer the same paths to autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose. Scratch, created by MIT, has always encouraged teachers and students to use it in a creative way. The designers purposely created a “teaching” curriculum that was open-ended. I have tried to honor this vision of creativity by creating online videos that teach scaffolding skills, but suggest problems to be solved – in a creative way.

I am not endorsed by the Lego® Corporation, nor do I believe this is the only way kids can (or should) learn. Nonetheless, I value the creative problem-solving that comes as result of these learning tools. And, that’s a transferable skill that I can endorse.

For the young five-year-old

For a young five-year-old, following the instructions to create a “perfect” build is very empowering. It can be a gateway into learning how to create with and manipulate computers.

The LEGO Chronicles

Ronan is my builder. He prefers to work out his ideas with sculptures, cut-up paper pieces, wood blocks, and LEGOs. He is learning the process and realizing how to connect a set of pieces to make a particular object. (And, he is reading the instructions completely on his own…)

The helicopter below is a treasured gift from Aunt Randi. And, this one also came with instructions and a lot of tiny LEGOs. It required a bit of help from Joey. Also, it lives on top of the stereo so that baby brother doesn't smash it to pieces in his playing.


I didn't realize that this little helicopter was in the general LEGO instruction booklet because he just showed it to me one day. I was still duly impressed with his ability to look at the instructions and make it. I think it helped that we started him with these blocks. (In Montessori, you work from large and concrete to small and abstract).


And, of course, his own creations – complete with a covered truck bed to house all of the impossibly small tools his tiny LEGO man might need.



And, finally, the Duplos are still finding a lot of love here. We have gotten more each year since Calum's birth and it is the perfect "toy" for all of us to work together. Calum enjoys building very high towers while the rest of us work on some specific structure or object. This time, Ronan and Daddy created a zoo. Ronan's idea.


To your left is the largest snake in the world…blue and yellow stripes. No, it's not an anaconda (I asked), but there are two babies next to it. One has already gotten a blue stripe, the other is still awaiting his (or hers). Joey made those.


But, Ronan made these two animals. And, no zoo is complete without a zebra and a camel. Um, at least in the zoos we've been to…


a new appreciation for falling leaves

In our previous homes, we were surrounded by lots of trees…live oaks, mostly. The kind that shed their leaves in the Spring when the new growth shoots through and pushes them out. (We do things a bit backwards here in Florida). Our tiny patch of shared greenery has always been maintained by others, such is the life of a townhouse resident.

This year…we are once again surrounded by trees. But, these trees...these are our trees. We cannot claim to "own" them, but we are responsible for their care. They sit on our land, next to our house. They are numerous and we think they are mostly laurel oaks. They have (mostly) dropped their leaves and we are discovering the joys of being homeowners as we tend to these trees and our outdoor living space.





As soon as Joey or I get a pile together, the kids come along and the pile is flattened. But, the joyful squeals we hear, and the time spent outdoors working together, reminds me of why we chose to make this place our home.

our work

this morning…


…an impulse purchase from IKEA. Perhaps you noticed that they're plastic? The very thing I'm trying to avoid. But, the justification?  Oh, it's good.  We've come across this activity twice in the last few weeks. A number of friends have remarked on the hand strengthening that it produces, not to mention the concentration required to create a piece. It's quite in-line with Montessori principles and I have been looking for additional fine motor activities to help Ronan strengthen his hands in preparation for writing. This is a fun start. And, I figured that if we don't melt too many "masterpieces" then we can pass them along and they'll get reused. Right?

…and my curious wee one…


…in motion and into everything. He's been mobile for a long time, but his balance and reach are getting quite high. He still prefers to crawl most places, but he's mastering the art of stopping while walking to regain his balance in order to continue in an upright position. He'll walk across the room now – if he wants to. Of course, he'll walk anywhere in order to get that piece of paper that was just out of reach only a few weeks ago. 

…and a Montessori wrap-up (hopefully)…


…I'm finishing up my geography/history/science albums and the language portfolio. It's been fun to work on these "loose" ends of mine. And, I've thoroughly enjoyed using my teaching brain and getting excited about some new activities and materials to show Ronan. Though, if I see one more phonogram booklet, I really might scream. 

In the end, we're quite happy to be able to do our work on this day. A happy and productive way to boost our brainpower and increase our knowledge. Beautiful.

Blockbuilding Today, Architect Tomorrow?

Or maybe an engineer? Or a career in home renovation? He definitely likes the demolition part – a lot. Hmm…now that I think about it, he and his dad have that in common.

Regardless, there's always a lot of building (and demolishing) going on around here. Always. Sometimes it's the easy to clean up kind, and sometimes, well, let's just say that sometimes, I bite my tongue and realize that he is getting something out of his work and it will eventually get put away.

A few months ago, I stumbled across the book, Block Building for Children. It was literally a browsing accident and I am ever so thankful that I found it. Almost immediately, I had ordered it and stashed it away for Christmas. And, then, right before Christmas, I opened up the book and noticed that a particular set of blocks was needed to complete most of the structures. A little searching and my boys have been building (or chewing and destroying, in Calum's case) with this set ever since.


And, the best part…Joe and I really love building these structures as well. Many of them are a bit sophisticated for four-year-old Ronan to do on his own, but it's a great family activity and if the structures don't look exactly like the picture, well, we like that just fine too. In fact, our foreman will often call for some last minute changes and since he's the boss of these projects, we adjust the building plans.

Besides, there are lots of other buildings to be made…infinite, one could say. These are heavy blocks (and will leave marks on your younger brother if you accidently hit him with one) which makes them perfect for intricate structures. Or, maybe it's just another way to play with the other toys.


And now that the tiger has a cage, he needs a zookeeper…and some food, of course.


leading the way

(Photo take by Natalie's dad )

This kid's got confidence. There is no doubt about that. After watching the adults figure out the map, he asked for it and began plotting our way. (Of course, his friend Natalie helped too).

One of the many things I love about this parenting journey is being able to sit back and watch the thought process unfold. Ronan is an observer. Give him a room full of children and he will sit and watch their actions for a long time. It takes him many, many sessions to decide to participate in any organized type of event. 

He is the child who, when given three choices, will suggest a fourth (much to the occasional frustration of his parents). If it involves building/fixing/demolition, he is the guy for you. He will jump right in and help you install a sprinkler system or put together a cabinet. He has a confidence about these activities – he's not afraid to jump in and try and fail.

With other activities, he needs that time to figure out how it works. Thankfully, we are able to give him that time. He can follow his own map for his life journey. Its path has yet to be determined and right now there is only a pencil to use – easy to erase and make a new mark, a new a path.

We will continue to offer choices and make suggestions. We will be his guide on this journey – helping him to recognize that we are one big community – responsible to each other in the choices we make. But, as the same time, he is already leading the way. 


(A car he made from his building supplies. He designed it to work on the carpet.)

Work is Play

We each have our own work that we need to concentrate on…sometimes it is for outside pay, sometimes there is a handmade present that needs to be finished, and sometimes it is learning how to share. But, yesterday, we all went to our respective corners and went to work.  I reveled in the return of my sewing machine (it has been at the day spa being pampered for the last 2 weeks), and got to work on my long list of projects. So, while I was working on this…

Yes, that would be some bias tape that I need to bind a quilt that should have been finished, um, two months ago. But, I digress.

My boys, on the other hand, were working on a completely different project. But, having a wonderful, bonding experience.


There are so many days when this is an impossible activity (Mommy has to go to the store, Daddy has a call and we need to work on our inside voice, or quite frankly, I just don't want to deal with the mess). So, this is so exciting when they both get to let loose and enjoy the day.