Tag Archives: creativity

The Brick Chronicles :: Trolley

The Brick Chronicles feature unique creations made with Lego® bricks. Hopefully you, and the children in your life, will find them as inspiring as I do!

Lego® Trolley

An electric trolley, made by R, age 9 1/2.

On most days, there are two nine-year-olds playing and working at my house. My son…and his friend. Currently, they are caught up in maps, city layouts and utilities. What started out as a paper project has now morphed into a 3-D Lego® world – and I am enjoying the creativity that is happening all around. This trolley is part of a larger city  – one that includes an articulated truck – complete with yarn for electric wires, O-trains and suburbs.

The Brick Chronicles :: Articulated Lego®Truck

The Brick Chronicles feature unique creations made with Lego® bricks. Hopefully you, and the children in your life, will find them as inspiring as I do!

An articulated truck with a wheelchair ramp (in use). Made by R, age 9.5.

An tiny articulated truck with a wheelchair ramp (in use). Made by R, age 9.5.

The blue brick with the orange "dot" is the person in the wheelchair. The red brick with the yellow "dot" on top is the person pushing the wheelchair.

The blue brick with the orange “dot” is the person in the wheelchair. The red brick with the yellow “dot” on top is the person pushing the wheelchair.

Once everyone is on board, the ramp lifts up so the truck can drive.

Once everyone is on board, the ramp lifts up so the truck can drive.


Physics – Windmills – Week 5

We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Week 1, Week 2, Week 3 and Week 4.

N made this book about windmills and how they work.

N made this book about windmills and how they work.

During our last meeting, two of the groups were in the process of finishing up the “main” part of their project – the build. One of the groups was in the process of finishing their display poster, while the other was ready to present his project to the everyone.

As noted previously, a lot of the work is being done at home, which is great for individual projects, but more difficult for group projects. It’s hard to be motivated on your project when your partner(s) are not there. I think this is definitely something we all need to sit down and discuss as a group – should we assign everyone to work on one great, big project? Or should all of the projects be individual, unless you can meet with your partner during the week as well?

Since most of the projects were being “perfected” this past week, I wanted to show off N’s windmill project that he presented to the group. N’s project was an individual project and he did most of the work at home, without much help. He was genuinely interested and excited about his project and you could tell he put forth a lot of effort and creativity.

N created an elaborate farm (with a real working tractor) out of popsicle sticks.

N created an elaborate farm (with a real working tractor) out of popsicle sticks. The door to the barn opens and his windmill also turns.

A written report that he read to the group.

A written report that he read to the group alongside a poster of different types of windmills.

Cover for his homemade book on windmills.

The cover for his homemade book on windmills.

The kids were very attentive and appreciative of all the hard work that he had done. It was really amazing to watch them give him their full attention and for him to present his findings and his accompanying artistic work. Since we are homeschoolers, we have less need to formally evaluate the kids’ learning, but you could show off this book and poster and listen to him talk about windmills and know that he picked up a lot of new information.

Although, it’s not “true” project-based homeschooling, the parent (or teacher) could then suggest this challenge as a way to deepen the learning. You may even want to show them this video after they’ve tried it on their own.  Or, perhaps your child might decide that they would like this set for a birthday gift.

Often, I have found that kids aren’t quite sure how to deepen their learning and that’s where an adult facilitator comes into play. It can still be their choice, but you can help to provide some suggestions. Once they are ready, do the above research with them, so they can learn how to find it themselves.

To continue reading about physics and self-directed learning, go to Week Six – Catapult Presentations.



Book Review :: Tinkering – Kids Learn by Making Stuff

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published every Friday. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

Tinkering by Curt Gabrielson“It is sad to think that perhaps it is not the norm but rather something rare and special to see joyful kids learning.” -Curt Gabrielson

I am fresh off of the completion of my Coursera course on tinkering and feeling rather fired about this topic. Recently, a friend gave me Curt Gabrielson’s book, Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff. It’s part of the Make Magazine series of books and I happily dived in to see what he had to say.

As with many of the books on tinkering that I have come across, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that making, tinkering and building provides educational value. I don’t doubt it and I think observation is an important scientific tool. But, if you are looking for research studies that equate tinkering with learning, check out a different book. This book is FULL of projects. Stuff you can build and then lay out the supplies for the kids to build too. Pages after pages of projects that Gabrielson and others have done with the Community Science Workshop network (out in California).

Picture from Tinkering by Curt GabrielsonYou won’t find any step by step instructions here, but there are a lot of pictures and some great advice about what you, as a facilitator, will need to help kids begin tinkering. They even offer some really great ideas on how to store and organize all of those things that crop up for a productive afternoon of tinkering. Although the pictures are grainy and only in black and white, the ideas are enough to get you started. With chapters on sound, magnetism, mechanics, electric circuits, chemistry, biology, and engineering (with a special emphasis on motors), the children in your life will be bugging you to try out some of these projects.

Parents – hand the book to your kids and let them choose a project each month or do some focused project-based tinkering. This is problem-solving at it’s core and they aren’t getting a lot of that in school.  Although, the environmental-minimalist in me is cringing at the thought of what to do with those finished projects, I know they are important. So we do them anyway. And, take many of them apart when we are finished.

boys tinkering in the workshop


Making Stuff :: A French Board Game for Youngsters

As the “maker” movement becomes more and more popular, I think it’s important to step back and think about how people have been creating…well, for forever, really. That first spark of fire had to be something pretty amazing and that first lobster dinner? Yum.

I love that being a “maker” is becoming hip. It’s not just something the poor families do because they don’t have any money to buy that (fill in the blank). I love the empowerment that comes from being able to fix things and from choosing to make it – or spend that time elsewhere and purchase it. I love the push back against rampant consumerism and the ultimate care for the precious resources that we have on Earth. While I love exploring electronics, sewing, knitting, and helping my sons tinker with robots and programming, I really like being able to solve a problem by making something myself – in the most inexpensive, environmentally-friendly way possible. I think making is more than knowing electronics, computer programming or doing art. It’s about seeing everything as changeable – the possibility that it can become something else. And, sometimes stealing that idea from others and making it your own.

Homemade French board game with pictures, less words.

Homemade French board game with pictures, less words.

In the spring, I made this board game for my kiddos. We are a French-learning family and I am determined to conquer this language – despite the multi-year breaks that I take in between. (Yeah, that might be part of my problem). We are lucky enough to have a fabulous French-speaking teacher near where we live and my youngest son has taken classes with her for a couple of years. I had the privilege of sitting in on one of the classes and noticed she played a homemade board game that helped the kids with correctly interpreting questions asked in French. It was fun, the kids liked it and it reinforced the lesson without boring copy work.

I immediately went home and made my own. It was great French practice for me and a fun way for the kids to reinforce their learning.*  It’s been sitting on our shelves since the summer (our work schedules are quite hectic), but I am looking forward to bringing it out again soon. A homemade solution to a real-life problem that was done in one of the most environmentally-friendly way possible. I’m a maker. How about you?



*For those interested in recreating the game – the kids roll a die and have to name the picture in French or else they can’t move to that space. The pile of questions are at various levels of understanding and are pulled out when a child lands on a question space.

The Brick Chronicles :: Hinged Lego® Box

The Brick Chronicles feature unique creations made with Lego® bricks. Hopefully you, and the children in your life, will find them as inspiring as I do!

Inspired by the Lego Ideas Book, made by R, age 9.5

Inspired by the Lego Ideas Book, made by R, age 9.5

My children love to build on their own and will often create new and unique things. But, they also like to be inspired (and grow their skills) by copying something that someone else has done. Often, I will see variations and modifications of a suggested project. We really are social beings.

From The Lego Ideas Book

From The Lego Ideas Book

The closed box - with hinges!

The closed box – with hinges and no instructions.




Marker Bots :: How We Did It

In case the “how to” guide from The Exploratorium (PDF or Instructables)  isn’t detailed enough, I thought I would share how I facilitated our scribble bot experience. Don’t mistake this as the only way to present this activity…just our way.

Scribble Bots - Take 2.

Scribble Bots – Take 2.

1.Gather your materials.
You want to encourage as much self-discovery and creativity as possible, so gather as many craft/office supply items as you have around the house. It doesn’t matter if you can’t figure out how they might be used, your children will surprise you.

Supplies needed:
– markers
– single AA batteries
1.5-3 V battery with wires attached*
hot glue stick, cut into various lengths**
– masking tape (or painters tape)
– thick rubber bands (that hold together broccoli)
alligator clips (in case your wires break) or for extra reach
– recycled containers, plastic cups, strawberry baskets, etc.
– twist ties, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, paper clips, clothespins, mini-cocktail umbrellas, etc.
– newspaper (or big paper, old cardboard boxes) to scribble on

* There might be other places to buy these from, but many of the electronic places (Radio Shack) sell them without the attached wires. You have to solder them on yourselves. If you aren’t up for that, order a bunch of these from Kelvin since they are so cheap, but the shipping is expensive. Plus, the wires pop off pretty easily and you might want some backups.

**We made our counterweight with a hot glue stick, but other suggestions includes balsa wood and playdough. All of these things can be stuck to the motor pretty easily by hand.

marker_bot_suppliesAt this point, you may want to make a few examples (see how to below) for the kids to understand the concept of a scribble bot. Be sure and make all sorts of different examples since the kids will often try and mimic your creations before moving onto their own designs.

Some supplies - paper cups, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, etc.

Some supplies – paper cups, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, etc.

2. Prepare your environment.
In this case, our environment was the dining room table. While the kids were playing after lunch, I cleaned off the table, laid down newspapers and butcher roll paper and brought out all of the markers, odd bits and clean recycled containers I could find. I’m not sure if this means we have a crafty household or are leaning toward pack-ratishness, but I had all of these materials on hand.

I put the smaller supplies into baskets (or bowls) that were easy for us to access. Each had a space to test their creations. There were two rolls of masking tape between the four of us. You need at least one roll for every two students.

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.

3. Place a battery, motor and thick rubber band in front of each chair. Call the kids.

The first thing that you want the kids to discover is how to make the motor work with the battery. See if they can figure it out. Be patient. Very patient. Ask questions until they get it.

If they are getting frustrated, show them how to hold the wires on either side of the battery to make a compete circuit. Add the rubberband around the battery to hold the wires in place. You now have an easy way to turn your motor on and off.

Save the bands that are wrapped around fresh broccoli

Save the bands that are wrapped around fresh broccoli

The wires on the battery are a bit flimsy and can easily break off from the kids pulling too much or from the vibration of the motor. One option was to purchase small heat-shrink tubes (for electronics) that can be found at hardware stores and use a hair dryer or lighter to shrink them onto your wires. I used a lighter and didn’t get as close to the motor as I should so they still popped off, but a hair dryer (or heat gun) should do quite nicely. Or, get yourself some alligator clips/leads and use those when the wires snap off.

4. Show them the examples or watch a video. Or don’t.
There’s a lot of debate about whether to show examples or just hand them a motor and some markers and just suggest that they make a bot that scribbles. You decide.

My kids and I watched a video from my course and they started out copying the design of some of the kids from the Exploratorium, but then moved on and modified or made their own creations as they gained confidence. You can see what we made here and here. You can always do a web search to find more examples.

5. Add your counterweight.
The hot glue stick is meant to be the counterweight to propel the motor and thus create a scribbling bot. The kids will need to experiment with many different sizes of weights, angles of markers, etc.

Let the child decide which way to add the glue stick to the motor. Push the hot glue stick onto the motor (while it’s off). An adult’s muscle may be needed for this part.


If the wires break off, use wired alligator clips to connect to the battery.

6. Design the bot.
Let them go and design away. Resist the urge to help them or fix it for them. If you see that something is obviously not going to work – that’s okay. Let them do it anyway. As long as they aren’t harming themselves (or the furniture), it will be a fabulous lesson in testing and re-testing…not to mention a good dose of growth mindset with regards to trial and error. Feel free to step in if you see tears on the horizon. You don’t want them to be frustrated, but you do want it to be their experience.

7. Listen.
Listen as your child describes their bot. Ask them about their design and their thought process. “Why did you decide to add the tape there? Your marker color choices are very interesting…how did you decide on those colors?”

8. Reflect. Later.
A few days later…or the following week, casually bring up the activity and discuss ways that you might do things differently. Are there any other things in your house that you could turn into a scribble bot? How else might you use a motor and battery? How is your fan powered? Your alarm clock powered? etc. What other everyday items use batteries?

Want to try again? Do you think we could work with watercolors or oil pastels? Do you think we could make a special type of pattern? The possibilities are endless.

Daddy's scribble bot made a pretty design.

Daddy’s scribble bot made a pretty design.

The end of our second time making scribble bots - this time we experimented with crazy designs...that didn't always work.

The end of our second time making scribble bots – this time we experimented with crazy designs…that didn’t always work.

Update: For those teachers that want to incorporate more free-form activities, but aren’t sure they can justify the time, check out this middle school science teacher’s post. He has some ideas on how to encourage scientific inquiry – with a purpose.

Good luck and happy creating! If you make a bot, post a link in the comments for everyone to see…


Tinkering, Creativity & New Ideas

I’m a bit behind in my Tinkering class. First, we were at the beach. The waves, boogie boarding and sand castles took up all of my attention. And, rightly so!

Second, the circuit board components took me a lot longer to craft. As in — many, many days of testing, stripping wires, running out to the hardware store, sanding blocks of wood, stripping more wires, being patient as the youngest child was too rough with the delicate wires, running back to the hardware store for another hot glue gun since ours chose that moment to break…and on and on and on. It was quite a process that I had to go through to end up with a small offering of circuitry. And, the silly part is that there’s so much more we want to add to our collection. We definitely aren’t finished with parts yet, but in the meantime, we’ve (mostly) figured out how everything works.

There's a large part of me that wants to scream at how long it took to complete these! But, the process and the experience was well worth it.

There’s a large part of me that wants to scream at how long it took to complete these!

There was also no “one-way” set of instructions for each component…and that was done on purpose by the course designers…I think. The short “how to” video from the course made everything look so easy, and while it wasn’t hard, it was time consuming. It was tinkering.

It’s not easy to create an online class that encompasses the very type of learning that they are discussing – constructivist. An impressive, yet frustrating feat. The value of having a hands-on facilitator nearby is fairly obvious.

But, rather than dwell on how long the process took, I would rather think about how much I’ve grown – not as a competent wire stripper or soldering iron expert. Most definitely not…I still need to practice and once the soldering iron did come out, the husband suddenly became very interested in “my” tinkering work!

My goal with this course was to become more comfortable with electricity – to allow my children and my summer camp students a chance to learn about circuits and batteries and bulbs with a hands-on approach. As a Montessori-trained educator and project-based homeschool user, I am quite used to being a facilitator rather than a director. There is a lot of time devoted to tinkering and exploring in my camps (and definitely at home).

Even so, I am still impressed with how much more I am able to look at things in a new way. As we were making room in the garage for the soldering iron set-up, I found the ceiling fan that my husband replaced last month. Rather than look at it and push it back into the corner, I gleefully grabbed it and wondered what sort of wires I could harvest from it. The boys were so excited that they could dismantle it, they grabbed their tool boxes and got to work.

The kids (ages 9 and 6) as they dismantle an old fan.

The kids (ages 9 and 6) as they dismantle an old fan.

I think a key part of tinkering is that it has the potential to lead to creativity. I like the idea that you are looking at something differently. That’s being creative – thinking about using something in a new way. It doesn’t have to be a brand new idea…just new to you.


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!