Summer Science Fun: Playing With Water Phases

Screen capture from google images

Phases of water are constantly changing in the summer: dew on grass in the morning that is gone by lunch, water droplets forming on the outside of a cup, “clouds” appearing in covered dishes left in the sun. We see these things all the time, and kids are always noticing as well. Here are some fun activities, and explanations, for your kids to learn the science behind what they are observing.

Water Evaporation and Condensation: Cloud in a Cup

Have your kids grab two clear plastic containers. Fill them about half way full, and mark the water level. Cover one container with a clear lid, or plastic wrap. Leave the other container open. Place both containers outside in a sunny spot. Leave for a few hours.

Go back and notice what is developing on the inside of the lid. Wait two days and look again. When you go back to observe the containers, the open container will have lost water. The water was heated by the sun, turned into water vapor and evaporated. The container with the lid will also have a lower water level, but there should also be visible water droplets on the lid, or plastic wrap. The air in the covered container can only hold so much water vapor, without a way for the vapor to escape, it condenses back to water and forms droplets. The droplets will fall off the lid and back into the container.

This is a great example of how water from the earth evaporates, cools, forms clouds, condenses, and falls back to earth as rain. Your kids can think of the open container as an ocean, river, or lake. Heat from the sun turns liquid water into its gas phase, water vapor. The water vapor then evaporates and is cools back into liquid water and eventually becomes part of a cloud. The plastic wrap of the covered cup acts like the atmosphere, and traps the water vapor. In a real cloud, the water vapor cools back into liquid water. In the covered cup, the air can only hold so much vapor, and the vapor condenses back to liquid water forming a “rain cloud” on the plastic wrap.

You can change this up by doing some variations. Put a set of covered and uncovered cups out in the sun, and another set in a shady spot. Also, put one set in the refrigerator. See the differences in evaporation, and condensation over time.

http://water.usgs.gov

Change the Phase of Water With a Cold Drink

All kids have held cups of ice water in the summer and felt, or even played with, the condensation that develops on the outside of the cup. We all do this, but we may not always think of the science that is behind the condensation. Telling your kids that the cool cup is changing the phase of water in the air, making it go from a gas to a liquid will get them thinking about the fun science that is happening right in their hands.

Grab a cup of water, add some ice cubes, and go outside on a warm sunny day. Within a minute or so, there will be drops of liquid water on the outside of the glass or cup. The temperature of the ice water in the cup is cooler than the temperature of the air. The cup cools the surrounding air, and the temperature change causes the water vapor surrounding the cup to turn back into liquid water. Now, make another drink with ice and put it into the refrigerator. Did the same thing happen?

This is a fun experiment, because let’s face it, we all love drawing things in water condensation. Grab a bunch of cups, add water and ice and have fun creating art with the beauty of science!

Earth Day Activities for Kids

Our home. www.nasa.gov
Our home. Image: www.nasa.gov.

Earth Day is just a few days away. Here are some hands-on activities to do with young kids to help them gain a better understanding of the environment, and help them have a more genuine Earth Day celebration.

Plant a Seed

Somewhat cliche, but planting a seed indoors can be a great way for kids to connect with the environment. The fact that a plant, flower, or tree can grow from a single seed is truly amazing. The sight of a sprouting plant never gets old for kids and adults, alike. Ask your child what kind of seeds they would like to plant, or try following these steps to sprout an apple seed from a finished apple.

Make a Terrarium and Learn About the Water Cycle

What goes up, must come down—and the same goes for our planet’s water. Water from rivers, lakes, oceans, and streams evaporates, condenses into clouds, cools, and falls back to earth as rain. Human industrial activity can produce pollution that changes the acidity of rainwater. Rainwater that is too acidic can kill freshwater fish, and even erode mountains. Making a terrarium and observing the water cycle is a great way to exemplify that pollution in our air can come back down to land trapped in rain, and cause secondary damage to the earth’s landscape and its ecosystems.

Kids will enjoy making and observing a terrarium. Image: www.nasa.gov.

Grab a jar and send your child outside to collect a layer of pebbles, sand, and some dirt, then moss, grasses, and leaves. Add water, cover the jar, and place it in a sunny spot. Observe condensation forming over the next few days; you can even take the lid off and see droplets on the lid. These droplets will fall back down and water the plants, and the cycle will repeat. Watch the plants inside the terrarium thrive. Talk with your child about what would happen if the water was toxic. Would the plants survive? To observe this, make another terrarium, and this time add a water and vinegar solution. The acidic vinegar dissolved in the water will have a lower pH and can mimic acid rain.

Take a Walk and Make a Journal 

Whether you live in a city, the suburbs, or the country, plants and trees are blooming this time of year. Take a walk and try to see how many different types of plants you can identify. Take pictures of ones that are unfamiliar, and try to identify them later with the help of books and the internet. When you get home, make a drawing, painting, or clay sculpture of some of the plants you saw on your walk.

Make a Worm House

Kids probably hear the word “compost” thrown around a lot this time a year, and at Earth Day celebrations. Observe a homemade worm house for a few weeks, and your kids can gain a greater appreciation for why composting is so important and how it works.

Making a worm house can be a great way for kids to observe how composting works. Photo by Cristen Pantano
Making a worm house can be a great way for kids to observe how composting works. Photo by Cristen Pantano.

When we throw our food scraps into the garbage, it ends up in the landfill. Americans produce 34 million tons of food waste each year. Landfills are airtight, so while the food will rot, it will be anaerobic bacteria that will break the food down. This process gives off methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Alternatively, no methane is produced when food scraps are broken down by aerobic bacteria and invertebrates in soil.

Take a jar or clear plastic container and fill with layers of sand, dirt, and soil. Dig for worms and add them to the dirt. Spray the top soil layer with water, then add dying grass, leaves, carrot peels, or even cornmeal. Cover with tin foil, poke holes in the tin foil, and place in a cool, dark area of your home. Watch over the week as worms mix the layers and eat the organic matter. Eventually, all the matter will be broken down by the worms and bacteria in the soil, resulting in a rich soil. You can continue to add food for the worms or set them free. If you keep your worm house for over a week, make sure to spray with more water.

Once your child observes how worms break down organic matter, add a piece of plastic to the top layer. Can the worms and bacteria break down plastic? Could anaerobic bacteria in a landfill break down plastic? If not, what happens to non-recycled plastic?

Draw a Food Web

Drawing out a food chain, or food web, is a great way for kids to see how plants, animals, and human activity are all connected. Photo by Cristen Pantano.

Have your child pick their favorite animal, find out what it eats, and then draw a food web together. All food webs start with a green plant and end with a top predator. Any disruption to the growth of the original green plant can affect the whole chain. Additionally, any negative affects on the habitat or well being of one of the animals in the chain can also disrupt the chain. After you have drawn the chain, talk about how human activity can affect each step in the chain. What if chemicals kill the plant? What happens if some of the animals live in trees and the trees are all cut down? How does urban sprawl affect animal habitats? How can global warming and pollution affect these food chains?

Do a Little Garbage Day Math

Americans produce 251 million tons of garbage each year. Screen capture from www.google.com
Americans produce 251 million tons of garbage each year. Screen capture from Google.

On garbage day, go outside with your child and count how many garbage cans are on your block waiting to be emptied. How many gallons of garbage does each can hold? How many gallons of garbage were taken from your block that day? How many gallons of trash does your street produce in a month? In a year? This exercise can be a great way for kids to visualize exactly how much waste we as a society produce. The importance of reduce, reuse, recycle might have more meaning after this exercise.

Write an Earth Day To-Do List

Ask your child what Earth Day means to them. What do they want to do to help the earth?

Have fun, and happy Earth Day!

You Are Not Alone: Kids Overcoming Obstacles

Used with permission from GrayHaven Comics

After the Sandy Hook tragedy in December of 2012, many of us were left wondering, “Why? How?”

The same questions were being discussed among the editors of GrayHaven Comics, a small independent publisher that strives to give new writers a voice and forum. Many of their editors are parents of young children themselves, and while discussing the tragic events with their colleagues they realized that two issues were “at the core” of the trend of violent tragedies in this country; bullying and violence.

Rather than sit idly, the group decided to reach out to kids that are victims of abuse, bullying, racism, homophobia, mental illness, and poverty. The editors and staff at GrayHaven wanted to create a way to let kids struggling with these issues to know that they are not alone, and more importantly, that violence is not the answer.

GrayHaven has created an almost 200 page book with vivid and intense stories covering difficult topics such as depression, bullying, and gun violence. The art work of the stories highlights the emotions and struggles of victims, and depicts how kids can help each other. Interspersed between chapters are resource pages with links and numbers for victims to find help. The message that kids are not alone no matter what they are going through is powerfully woven into each story. While the topics are intense and powerful, over all the book is hopeful. The books are available for free to school and organizations nationwide and The goal is to get it into the hands of as many kids as possible.

The response to You Are Not Alone has been so positive, that the editors are working on expanding the project and opening it to new stories and topics. To help them, check out their KickStarter, also to request a copy of the book for your school, youth group, or homeschool co-op, you can email Andrew Goletz : GrayHaven Publisher & Editor in Chief – gatheringanthology@hotmail.com. Get one, the kids in your community will thank you.

I had the opportunity to see a preview copy of the book, and to speak with one of the editors, Marc Lombardi, about the project. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

GeekMom: In all honesty, this book is the one of the most intense and realistic looks at abuse, bullying, and homophobia that I have ever seen. Did you all know that the use of comics would be such an effective means of communicating these issues to young people?

GrayHaven: That was our hope. We all grew up in the age of after school specials and those horrible videos you would watch in Health Ed class. The subject matter was always important and the intent was always genuine, but the result was quite often off the mark. We realized that comics were a much more accessible way for getting a message out to people of all ages, but especially younger readers. Even though some of the topics are a little more mature in nature, the ideas that people who are suffering through these issues can find hope is something that is more universal across all age groups.

We knew that doing something like this book would make the message more available, make it easier to understand, and hopefully something that is more sustainable.

GM:The thing that really strikes me, along with the text, is the art. The art really conveys the pain that victims of abuse and bullying feel. I think that it is easy to read an article online, or listen to a talk in an assembly about these topics but not really internalize the issues. The pictures in these stories draw you in and don’t give any option to run away from the issue. Can you comment on the process of matching the art to these stories?

GH: Matching artists to the stories is something I always loved doing, but for this book it was fellow editor Glenn Matchett who took those reigns and he did a really masterful job.  Some of the stories, when they were pitched, already had artists attached to them that the writers brought into the projects.  Others, as the editors read them, just yelled out certain artists who were already in our stable of regulars. You know how when you read a book and you can picture a particular actor or actress being perfect for the role of one of the characters? That’s how it is sometimes. The wrong art for the story can really take you out of it, so it was very important that we put a lot of care into the pairings that were made, and I think Glenn was really amazing in what he did.

Used with permission from GrayHaven Comics.

GM: I really loved the Silent Story by Ken Godberson III and Brent Peeples. As I was reading it, I thought, “Here we go, his best friend is going to turn on him.” But that isn’t what happened. Do you think we are reaching a place where this will be more common? Kids sticking with their friends through the “coming out” years of high school and college?

GH: I sure hope so. I mean, in this day and age so many things that were previously taboo are almost commonplace, but society just hasn’t caught up with this yet. Kids are going to be cruel — that’s just something that doesn’t seem to change over time — but I think that kids are also more likely to be the ones who change their minds about what to be cruel about. They’re less likely to have a problem with people that are gay than our parents did. You would hope that as the years go on and the laws change and everyone is given the same sort of rights regardless of who they are sexually attracted to that you will see less and less of a big deal made about it.

Used with permission from GrayHaven Comics.

GM: The bullying section was intense and I have read it multiple times. Back to an earlier comment, the art work was spot on. It showed that bullying really and truly hurts it’s victims. In the story “Letting It Go” by Thacher Cleveland, the Dad tells his son in great detail how much the bullying affected him. In “Your Secret, My Secret” the bullying victim is clearly distressed. I think a lot of folks in our society brush bullying off as “just part of life”, almost as necessary for development. From this book, and the accompanying art, is it safe to say that you and GrayHaven Comics disagree with that adage?

Used with permission from GrayHaven Comics.

GH: We absolutely disagree with it, and it’s really the main reason we created this book. Bullying, no matter the reason, is unacceptable. It shouldn’t be “just a part of growing up” any more than physical abuse should be tolerated. Mental abuse has a long-lasting affect for people on both sides; those who are bullied and the bullies themselves.  And that’s something else we considered. We were hoping to not only reach out and give a little bit of solace to people who read these stories with the experience of being in those same situations, but we also wanted to maybe catch the eye of some of the people who are bullying others and give them the perspective from the other side. I think — hope — that someone who is bullying someone else could pick up this book, read it, and realize that what they are doing is wrong. So if this book gives one bully a different outlook on what they’re doing then I think we did something good.

GM:I like that your stories show kids helping other kids. That’s a great message. Care to elaborate on that part of the stories?

GH: That was another big message for us to get through to people in the book…that help and hope can come from anyone. The earlier that you realize that you can make a difference the better it is. I mentioned earlier that kids can be cruel, and while that can be true, kids can also be resilient and remarkable in the way that they reach out to others in need. We wanted to reach out to the target audience, give them hope, give them the resources they need to get help if that’s the case, and educate them in (hopefully) an entertaining way to being a better person.

I think the reason that so many different writers all had the same idea to make the kids the heroes just as often as we make them the victims is because, in reality, that’s often the case. In my own struggles with bullying it was more often my friends, not teachers or other adults, who came to my aid.

 

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Sipping the Khan Academy Kool Aid

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 5.14.25 PM
Screen shot from Khan Academy

In today’s digital age everyone has an app, or website, to suggest whenever any educational conversation comes up. I always knew that we would eventually take advantage of the digital world to help educate our kids, but for the early years, we decided to go the traditional route and use paper, pencil, and a good textbook.

Our kids are still really young, last year was first grade for our son. I sat with our son, and we discussed arithmetic basics as I scribbled drawings and diagrams in the margins of his textbook while he used some basic block manipulatives. The textbook was bright, cheery, and had a good balance of words and numbers. Topics were explained fairly well and our son liked the book as well as the companion workbook.

Flash forward to the start of second grade: Opening the new math textbook set off stress and angst in our son. He pressed his pencil point so hard on the shiny paper that I had to give him a pen after the fifth point had been broken. Our son had a hard time focusing on numbers when cartoons, bold faced typing, and superimposed photos of real kids with quotes coming out of their mouths cluttered the page. I was spending too much time saying, “focus, sit still, stop turning the page” and pretty much sounding like my worst nightmare.

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 5.05.27 PM
Image captured from Saxonhomeschool.

Math time was becoming stressful, but we trudged on. I resorted to covering parts of the text while we focused on a particular section. While I was okay with how the text was introducing topics, our son was not. He said the book was boring, confusing, and made things too complicated. We trudged on then one day he said these dreaded words, “I hate this book. Math is boring.”

I froze.

A few days later I looked at our son and he truly looked glazed over and bored as he did his math from his textbook and workbook. Much energy was being spent trying to focus on the numbers amongst the text. I refused to allow our son to begin to hate math in the second grade. This was a road that I did not want to go down.

Second grade math in America now focuses on the introduction of multiplication, division, and fractions as well as applying these topics in work problems. I put the textbook away, got some Montessori materials and decided that we could cover these basic concepts without the aid of the textbook.

The Montessori materials were great for introducing multiplication and division, but they are also sort of limiting. We used all sorts of things for arrays including Lego, but it was clear that we needed something more. Something to aid in going to the next level, providing examples, and another voice in the learning process.

I had heard many friends talk about Khan Academy in the past, and I always half listened. Some friends used it to aid in homework help, others for summer vacation tune ups, and some for the basis of a homeschooling curriculum. Recently, two friends with children the same age as our son told me that they were using it and their kids loved the program. I decided to check it out in earnest.

Image captured from Khan Academy

Khan Academy is a free, online, non-profit learning center with over four thousand videos covering topics ranging from basic multiplication to calculus. They also have a section of videos for science and the humanities. The videos are narrated by the organization’s founder, Salman Khan, while he draws on a Walcom tablet using Smooth Draw.

The history of the site is well documented and quite interesting. Salman Khan began tutoring his middle school aged cousin using Yahoo’s Doodle Notepad, this progressed to making videos for additional cousins, and eventually he uploaded the videos to YouTube. Once on YouTube, he began to get quite a large following. In 2009, he decided to quit his full time job as a hedge fund analyst to focus full time on making free, publicly available, tutorial videos. The project is still a non-profit and now has the backing of big names such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google.

Salman Khan of Khan Academy.
Image captured from Google Images

When I started researching the program, I could not believe how many people either really love or really hate Khan Academy.

Folks like Bill Gates call Salman Khan, “the world’s teacher” and are very excited by the notion that anyone with internet access can become educated in math, science, history, and much more. Many call his site “revolutionary” and state that it can change education as we know it.

Khan and his Academy also have many, many critics. A lot of his critics say that there is absolutely nothing revolutionary about teaching through lecture, and the reality is that his videos are indeed ten minute lectures. He has been called boring and incompetent.

The internet allows many tools to become available to a wide audience, and it allows for great debate about these tools. The internet debate over Khan Academy is intense and littered with extremism. The extreme views are on both sides. Some feel that Khan Academy is all that is needed for math education and that the site can help reform American education. Others feel that there is nothing revolutionary about the Khan Academy, that it is not a cohesive curriculum and shouldn’t be used in classrooms.

Khan himself has stated that he thinks his Academy can be used as a tool for classrooms and education, not as a replacement for traditional paths. Part of his vision is that students can watch his lecture videos at home, try some problems, and then when class meets, students and teachers can discuss, engage, and try some hands on projects. This takes the lecture out of the equation and sets things up for a discussion among students and teachers. This idea has been coined “flipping the classroom.”

Many love, and many hate, this idea. Critics of Khan have been called bitter and threatened, and his “followers” have been accused of being in a cult.

Well, if Khan Academy is a cult, then I’m sipping the Kool-Aid. Slowly, just a few sips at a time, but nonetheless enjoying the refreshing drink.

The thing about Khan that works for our family happens to be something that many criticize Khan for. The videos are very basic. Black background, no music, no cartoons, and Khan doesn’t appear on screen. While many deem this basic platform as boring, it also leaves little room for distraction. Our son went from fidgeting, flipping pages, and being over stimulated by a busy text, to sitting absolutely still while watching Khan’s videos.

Khan’s voice is soothing and his simple drawings are great visuals for mathematical processes. He draws as he talks and everything that is written is explained in a clear and concise manner. Many parents that I talk to tell me that their child is drawn into the videos and absorb the information quickly since they are so zeroed in. Let’s face it, kids are easily distracted in the classroom and at home. There is something about these videos that draws some kids in and really helps them to focus.

The videos always explain why things are done the way the are done. Obviously, this isn’t completely ground breaking. Plenty of teachers and parents explain mathematical processes quite well.  What is ground breaking about Khan Academy is that since these videos can be watched on the students’ own time, they can listen to the explanation as many times as they want and need to.

A Khan Academy video introduces fractions on a number line.
Image captured from Khan Academy

Khan does not water down topics with cute cartoons, songs, or fancy tricks. In Khan’s world, math is math. I like this approach and feel that it gives kids a more holistic view of the subject.

For example, in one of the first videos on fractions, the fraction 1/5 is not only introduced as a part of a whole circle, but it is shown on the number line as well.  The reality is that while a circle and rectangles are great examples of a whole, when we talk about fractions, we are talking about numbers. Seeing the fraction visually on number line from the get go, I think, is a great way to get kids to think about fractions as numbers from the beginning.

The “math is math” approach doesn’t have to mean boring. Each video lecture series is followed by practice sets, and Master Challenges, that kids seem to love. I can hand my kid a worksheet and he’ll do it, eventually. However, he is motivated by the practice sets, challenges, and badges. Of course the “points” tallied for completing these tasks don’t amount to a “prize” but it is somehow motivating and fun. Our son, and many others I know, ask for Master Challenges. He asks for more problems, almost as a game.

The problems come in sets of five and if the student gets five in a row, that challenge is complete. The problems start out basic, but really enforce what topic the proceeding video introduced. There are an almost infinite amount of problem sets for any given topic. If the student gets stuck she can ask for a hint, and she will be helped step by step with effective prompts.

A student can work through a particular grade level that is laid out by topic, or a student can choose any topic that they need help with. If you go the latter route, the software will suggest new topics, and areas where the student needs to work more before moving on. This path also allows students to choose whatever topic interests them, regardless if it is considered “grade level” or not.

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 5.19.41 PM
Screen shot from Khan Academy

For parents, Khan Academy is great because it tracks all that your kids do, suggests areas where they need more work, and suggests new topics to tackle. If math homework seems confusing, or if your child can’t remember how the teacher explained reducing fractions and you’re rusty, search for that topic and in ten minutes, you’ll be refreshed. Perhaps Khan’s explanations resonate with your child and they can even preview a topic and have a base understanding before hearing in the classroom.

The independence that kids can gain using Khan is great. No topic is off limits, no topic too hard for them to at least be introduced to. If an eight year old is curious about square roots or algebra, why not let them go for it? A friend told me that she and her son have spent hours surfing the “world of math” on the site, just looking at random topics that interested them. Perhaps students that see these topics introduced for the first time while sitting comfortably on their couch will have a less stressful transition to advanced math as they get older.

There are stories of classrooms using Khan as a starting prompt for topics, followed by the students being able to move through practice sets and related topics at their won pace. Kids that catch on quickly can quell boredom and move on, while students who need more practice can do so without feeling stressed. Additionally, teachers can track what each child is doing to monitor progress in real time, without the pressure and stress of exams. Many kids that are interested, will use Khan at home as well and move beyond what is being taught in the classroom at that time.

Our son really likes using Khan Academy and his use of the site has breathed much needed fresh air into his math curriculum. I wouldn’t say that Khan Academy is all that is needed to effectively teach math, because while it works for many, it will obviously not work for others. I also think that one view is never enough with education, including math education. While our son doesn’t prefer the methods used in the textbook, a different perspective and alternate approach to tackling problems is always good to see.

Khan Academy is  great for homeschooling families as every topic is available, the content is arranged by grade level, and there are almost infinite practice problems. College students can also use his calculus tutorials for extra explanation and practice sets. Using Khan as a tool in the classroom or at home does not have to mean that teachers, parents, and textbooks are obsolete. Khan himself does not advocate for that scenario.

We are currently using Khan to introduce topics and for practice sets while still using the textbook for an additional perspective and practice problems. The great thing about Khan is that it is an option, and in education as in life, options are great things to have.

The Kid Who Named Pluto & the Stories of Other Extraordinary Young People in Science

Photo courtesy of www.NASA.gov
Photo courtesy of www.NASA.gov

A few weeks back I was scanning the shelves of the juvenile non-fiction section at the local library when a book caught my eye: The Kid Who Named Pluto, and the Stories of Other Extraordinary Young People in Science. I had never heard that a kid named Pluto, could that be true? I tossed the book in my bag.

Our son picked the book up a few days later and then asked me to read him one of the chapters titled, “The Curious Girl Who Discovered Sea-Monster Skeletons.” The chapter told the story of Mary Anning, a young girl who grew up in Lyme Regis, England, in the early 1800s. The cliffs of Lyme Regis were filled with fossils. At the time of her childhood, scientists were just figuring out that fossils were the remains of prehistoric animals, and not left behind by supernatural creatures such as dragons.

431px-Mary_Anning_Plaque
At age twelve Mary Anning discovered the first ichthyosaur skeleton. Photo by Gaius Cornelius.

When Mary was eleven, her father died and she started to fossil hunt as a way to help the family make ends meet. She was a skilled excavator, and at twelve years old she and her brother discovered the world’s first ichthyosaur skeleton. A few years later she discovered the first skeletal remains of a strange creature that scientists named “plesiosaur.” She went on to discover the remains of a flying reptile, the pterodactyl.

I was blown away. We have no fewer than ten dinosaur encyclopedias in our house, have been to many dinosaur exhibits at well known natural history museums, and we have never stumbled across Mary’s story. I was fascinated and hooked.

There is the chapter about young Robert Goddard. Too sick with tuberculosis to go to school, he stays home for months at a time devouring science books. One day he reads From Earth to Mars by Jules Verne, and dreams of creating a rocket. His father is impressed with his son’s ambition and gets him more books, a microscope, a telescope, and subscriptions to science magazines. Despite being more than two years behind in school, he manages to eventually get his Ph.D. in physics and is now know as the “father of space flight.”

Dr. Robert Goddard, seen here lecturing at Clark University, was a sickly child. He spent months at home teaching himself physics and dreaming of space flight. Photo courtesy of www.nasa.gov
Dr. Robert Goddard, seen here lecturing at Clark University, was a sickly child. He spent months at home teaching himself physics and dreaming of space flight. Photo courtesy of www.nasa.gov

The chapter that lends the book its title is full of great astronomy history. In 1929 a ninth planet was discovered in our solar system. The official announcement of “Planet X” to the public was made in 1930, and a wave of global excitement to find a proper name for the planet immediately followed. An eleven-year-old English girl delved into her knowledge of Greek Mythology and decided on Pluto. She told her father her reasons, and he thought they were brilliant. He telegraphed the observatory, and the rest is history.

Each chapter is filled with history and fascinating science facts. Ever hear about the twelve-year-old Midwestern farm boy that found a stack of books about electricity in the attic of the new family home? He became obsessed on the topic of electric currents, and one day while plowing his father’s fields he devised the electrical configuration that eventually led to the invention of television. There is also the story of a twelve-year-old girl’s science fair project that led to her creating a new encrypting code that rivaled the existing system for encoding data. The nine chapters that round out the book include one on Isaac Asimov, and another about Louis Braille.

Image:Amazon.com
Image:Amazon.com

I was inspired by this children’s book for many reasons. I am a science geek, and I just loved reading about the kids that delved head first into their passions and changed the world. The book is also a great reminder for us as parents to encourage our kids to follow their passions, and the book can inspire kids to follow their dreams. The book is great for kids and adults interested in the history of science. My kids really enjoyed hearing the stories of Louis Braille and Isaac Asimov. They also loved the story of Mary Anning.

In the book’s introduction, the author says that the kids featured in the book, “…had two things in common. They believed in themselves and they worked hard.” I definitely agree. However, there seems to be one additional commonality. The kids featured in the book were encouraged to follow their passions by the adults around them. Isaac Asimov’s parents were poor, but encouraged him to read everything and anything that he wanted to from the library. Many of the kids were also self-taught. Philo Taylor Farnsworth’s family allowed him to tinker and motorize every farm tool. They even lined up, held hands, and let him shock them to demonstrate how a circuit works. While home sick from school for months, Robert Goddard’s parents allowed him to build a lab in the house.

Many of the kids featured in the book worked mostly on their own, guided and encouraged from a distance by the adults around them. They learned complex science and math because they wanted to. They delved deep because their parents and teachers gave them the time, space, and encouragement that the they needed and wanted. They weren’t led to believe that they were “just a kid.” Working hard and believing in yourself is vital, but sometimes for kids to reach their full potential, they need us adults to encourage them, and then just get out of their way.

Easy, Fun, Science Experiments for Kids

Fun with density. Photo by Cristen Pantano
Fun with density. Photo by Cristen Pantano

As we all know, kids are natural scientists. They are constantly observing and asking questions about the world around them. It truly is never too early to get kids exploring with hands-on science activities. Here are some fun, easy, and interesting experiments that I recently found online and tried out at home.

Water Splashes

Kids love throwing rocks in water, looking at the splash, listening to the plop as the rock hits, and staring at the ripples. This is a fun experiment that demonstrates that any object, regardless of the shape, will produce a circular pattern of ripples when thrown into water.

A good exercise to give gives a mental image of what will happen when an object hits water. Photo by Cristen Pantano
A good exercise to give a mental image of what will happen when an object hits water. Photo by Cristen Pantano

The experiment calls for wooden objects of various shape, such as a circle, a square and a triangle. The premise is to throw the different shaped objects in the water, and observe that regardless of the object’s shape, a circular patter of water is displaced.  This happens because as the object hits the water, energy is released from the center of the object, equally in every direction. When a square block hits water, an infinite amount of straight lines of energy are released from the center. A circle is the only shape that has an equal distance from the center to any other place on the circle. This is why regardless of shape when a rock or block hits water, the water is displaced in a circular pattern.

To give the kids a visual of this before we went throwing and splashing, we traced blocks of various shapes, made a dot in the center and drew lines going out of the shape in every direction. If you do this step, make sure that the kids make lines bisecting all the angles. While doing this, a circular pattern of lines will appear.

When we tried observing splashes and ripples with our wooden blocks, they just were not heavy enough to produce a good splash. I opened the bathroom cabinet and we starting throwing random items in the tub. A rectangular bar of soap in its cardboard container made a large circular splash, as did a bottle of rubbing alcohol. The kids had the best time repeatedly throwing in a heavy ring box. This box provided a great circular splash and ripples despite it’s cubic shape.

You can ditch the tub and discuss this idea the next time your kids are throwing rocks in water. Simply collect a pile of different shaped rocks, talk about whether they think the splashes and ripples will be similar or different and let them have at it! It’s a great way to get the kids thinking about how the beautiful and amazing things that they observe on a daily basis can be explained by science.

Floating Egg

This is a really easy experiment with fantastic visuals. It will introduce kids to density and mixtures in a very fun way.

Simply fill two glasses with water, grab two eggs, and some salt. Make sure that both glasses have the same amount of water. Leave one glass of water alone and then make salt water in the second glass.  After the kids make the salt water mixture, have them carefully add a raw egg to the glass with just water. The egg will sink to the bottom. Then add the egg to the saltwater.  The salt water is more dense than the egg, so the egg will now float!

An egg added to salt water will float. Photo by Cristen Pantano.
An egg added to salt water will float. Photo by Cristen Pantano.

The next day, we took the egg out of the glass with salt water and carefully added a few inches of tap water on top of the salt water. Do this step and then have the kids slowly add the egg back. Watch what happens now! (Hint, see top photo)

Kids are innately curious and will probably ask, “Why does the egg float?”  When salt is added to water, the salt dissolves and you now have a mixture. When salt is added to water, it dissolves and sodium and chloride bond with the water’s hydrogen and oxygen. There is now more matter in the same amount of volume, therefore the water is more dense.

With young kids, it’s more about getting them to have fun while making cool observations rather than nailing down the concepts. My kids are young, so I kept the explanation a bit simpler. I told them that once we added the salt to water, we made a mixture. The mixture has more molecules in the same amount of space, and is therefore more crowded, stronger, and dense than water.  Not exactly a perfect definition of density, but enough to get young kids understanding what they see.

If your kids want to play more with density, a great way to visualize density is to layer different liquids on top of each other. Take a glass and pour in the same volume of corn syrup, oil, and water. The heavier (more molecules per volume), more dense, liquids will sink to the bottom, and layers will form. If you have food coloring on hand, let the kids color the water first. It creates a fantastic visual.

Have fun! After all, that’s what learning about science should be about!

Hacker Scouts: Encouraging Kids to Hack!

Hacker Scout Badge Circuit encourages kids to seek out projects based on their own interests.

Samantha Cook* is an artist, an educator, a hacker, a Maker, a mother, and the Founder of Hacker Scouts. Hacker Scouts began a year ago in Oakland, CA, and is now a national non-profit that encourages children to build, hack, and create on their own terms. The program’s main goal is to give children the necessary skill set to be able to follow through on projects of their own interest and design.

I learned about Hacker Scouts a few weeks ago after the launch of its current KickStarter, which is to raise money to develop a national hacker scouts headquarter in Oakland, California. The kickstarter has 12 days to go, with having earned, as of this writing, $19, 921 of their $35,000 goal.

The thing about Hacker Scouts that stands out, and resonates with children, is that while there are many STEM kits, online classes, and school programs for children, most focus on a particular finished product. Many kits and classes have children follow a set of directions to complete a particular project, not allowing for innovation or freedom. Hacker Scouts focuses on giving children a set of skills in the STEAM areas, and then letting the children decide what they want to do with that skill set.

While that may sound like complete mayhem, there is a successful method to this Making madness. Children are first guided through the building of an Arduino circuit. This gives the kids a base set of skills including soldering, coding, and even sewing. Once this skill set is achieved, kids are free to move on. They can come to Open Lab, where mentors and experts are ready to help them with any project that they bring in. They can also chose from available kits or organized projects. The outcome of the kits and projects is up to the child. No finished product is “wrong.” The emphasis is skill and confidence building.

Young Hacker Scouts working on their Arduino circuits. Used with permission from Hacker Scouts.

I wanted to learn more about the program, and its evolution, so I talked with Founder Samantha Cook this past weekend. Here are some highlights from our chat.

GeekMom: Could you describe HackerScouts for those unfamiliar with Hacker Spaces, the Hacker Movement, and your organization?

Samantha Cook: Hacker Scouts is a nonprofit organization focused on STEAM education and skill building for kids and families. Hacking is a form of modification—it is taking something and changing it to fit your needs. My husband and I are part of the Maker community in Oakland, and I have a background in education. We saw a need for a new approach to introduce, and support, making and hacking, especially with children. We believe that the next generation needs to go beyond making, and hack their own education. They need to be able to adapt to new technology, think in creative and innovative ways, and value collaboration and sustainability.

We accomplish this through programs that are designed to support intellectual and social development, while allowing kids to build confidence and control their education. Currently we have three programs: Open Lab (all ages, open to the public), Guild (weekly group, ages 8-teen), and Sparks (weekly group, ages 4-7). We are also starting to add modifications to our programs, new programs, and workshops that will support teachers in integrating STEAM and making into the classroom. In a year, we have gone from one location (Oakland) to over 30 nationally and we are growing! We also publish all of our programs open source online.

“We believe that the next generation needs to go beyond making, and hack their own education.”
Image used with permission from Hacker Scouts.

GM: Your formal educational background is in Art History. Tell me a bit about your journey to becoming a Hacker.

SC: I studied Humanities, Art History, and Archaeology as an undergraduate, and then went on to get a Masters in Museum Education. I started teaching when I was 16 and I have always been interested in how people learn. Museums ended up being a wonderful vehicle through which I could really explore informal learning. I was not really interested in technology before I met my husband, but, I married a geek and it was inevitable. I am now learning new skills and concepts. It is empowering and exciting. I think that is how many of the families who come to us feel when they learn something new. So I understand, and it is my pleasure to be a catalyst to that experience for them.

GM: What prompted you to start Hacker Scouts?

SC: After my second son was born, I decided to work freelance for a while in Washington, DC, with a variety of museums until we moved back to California. While freelancing, I taught in schools. I saw how the children loved the hands on learning that I brought into the schools, and I saw that schools were not encouraging enough self-directed learning for kids. I now have three kids and we have been involved in a variety of programs and classes that touched on STEM concepts and skills. However, they never gave a thorough education, they never built community, and they never focused on what each of my kids wanted out of the experience. So, I decided it was time there was a program available to all kids that did.

GM: What do you think it is about HackerScouts that has gotten kids so excited?

SC: It is not hard to get kids excited about making. What is different about us is our emphasis on mentoring (both adult to kid mentorship and peer to peer mentorship) and the ability to individualize our program to each kid’s personal goals. We provide a clear structure with activities meant to teach real, relevant skills that kids can use for their own ideas, their own dream projects. We don’t ever ask if it’s possible, we figure out how to get them there and support them, empower them. We don’t want them to simply follow directions or to only understand a concept or skill in a specific context, so we built an approach that would allow them to control their learning and make each decision connected to their personal vision. That is not an experience most kids get on a regular basis.

GM: Tell us a bit about the current Kickstarter.

SC: Our Kickstarter is so important. We have been partnered with a space in Oakland for a year but we have outgrown it, it is not ideal for kids and families, and our access to it is extremely limited. This Kickstarter will not only help us to be able to expand our programs locally, but it will give us the equipment and materials to build more programs, activities, and badges that we then release open source to everyone else. So, while it is located in Oakland, it benefits anyone who is a part of our program anywhere, or who uses any of our online resources. We offer everything we do for free or low cost. In order to keep doing that, we now need the support of our community, or anyone who thinks this kind of education is relevant and important. We are also documenting the process of building a hackerspace for kids and families, which is a unique kind of space, so that we can help others who want to do the same.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Samantha how she balances homeschooling her three young children and working full time for Hacker Scouts. She told me that mornings are family time. No phone calls, no email. She focuses completely on her kids as they learn together. The afternoons are open for work. If her kids are playing and occupied, she will open her laptop. She will also tell her children when she needs time to work from home. There are two other factors that really helped her success: her community, and the fact that she has created a family-friendly work space. Her friends will drive her kids to afternoon classes, park meet-ups, or field trips if she needs a few hours of uninterrupted work time. Additionally, her children come with her to work and are very involved in Hacker Scouts. Her eldest is a mentor, her middle child helps the youngest Hacker Scouts build paper rockets, and her four-year-old has even found ways to help out. The kids can also hack or create art while she is working and they get to test out project prototypes.

If you are interested in the program, check out their website to see if one of the now 30 branches is local to you. If you yourself are inspired, you can contact Samantha and her colleagues to find out how to start a local chapter yourself.

*Note: Samantha Cook is an Occasional Contributor to GeekMom.

On Breaking, or Not Breaking, the Harry Potter Spell

One of the many dog eared copies of Harry Potter strewn about our home. Photo: Cristen Pantano

“Oh Potter, you rotter, what have you done?”

Last November my husband began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to our son. After a few chapters, they were both hooked.  Within a few weeks, they were on to book two.

One weekend our son told us that he had been thinking about some things from the first book and wanted to know if he could reread it to himself. This is where it all began.

He reread the first two books, and was then frustrated with the pace at which my husband was reading book three aloud to him. We told him that he could go on and read it to himself.  He was enchanted by Harry and Hogwarts, and there was no stopping him.

When it was time for book seven he dove right in, but,  he put the book down after about three chapters. He has been elusive in his reasons for not finishing, so we haven’t pressed. I’m thinking he was scared; others have suggested that he probably doesn’t want it to end.

When he put book seven down, we thought that after almost eight months of nonstop Harry Potter, he would read something else. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Each day he picked one of the Harry Potter books and carried it around all day long. He would read various chapters and passages at random, then decided to start at book one again. The books have become an additional appendage on his body. They are dog-eared, stained, tattered, and strewn about the house.

At first I thought this was great, he was reading and loving what he was reading. But then, as the calendar moved toward September it hit me that he hasn’t read much other than Harry Potter for almost a year. I asked friends for suggestions: What did their kids read after Harry Potter?

Percy Jackson was a fail, but children’s Greek mythology books were a hit. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, score! Meanwhile, Encyclopedia Brown and The Hardy Boys are collecting dust as Harry Potter continues to log many miles.

I decided to ask my fellow GeekMoms if their children had done this with Harry Potter, and whether I should just let it go, or encourage other books. Many responded that their kids had a similar experience with Harry Potter. Some let it go, and some encouraged one other book in between each Harry Potter book. Many also shared with me their own book obsessions. There were also a few responses that stopped me in my tracks.

GeekMom Samantha had this to say, “…there is clearly something he is working out, something he is grappling with that the books are providing for him. Something that only reading them over and over will give him. Eventually, he will move on when he comes to his moment of clarity or closure.”

GeekMom Ariane posed this succinct question, “What’s your concern with this behavior?”

What was my concern?  Honestly, I still can’t  completely answer that question. I guess I would prefer that he read a variety of books.  Maybe I feel that that is what he is “supposed” to do? Maybe I fear an unhealthy obsession? I seriously don’t know. I don’t even know if I am that concerned, or if it’s just that I think that maybe I should be. Ariane stumped me.

With all of the GeekMom responses in mind, and my inability to pinpoint what my concerns were, we decided to let it go but keep other new books available to him.

Last weekend we visited our favorite local bookstore. The owners chatted with our son and helped him pick out some great new books for us to read to him, and for him to read on his own. He has read one and the others are sitting on the coffee table, waiting…

I have asked him many times why he keeps reading the books. He usually just shrugs and keeps on reading. Today I told him that I was going to write about his love for Harry Potter. This time he looked up and said, “I just don’t want it to end.”  With GeekMom Sam’s words in my head, I told him that as long as he keeps reading them, the adventure will continue.

If You Make, They Will Come

Flywheel generator.
Flywheel generator instructions, photo by Cristen Pantano

For the second year in a row, Make Magazine held its virtual Maker Camp this summer. The camp is geared toward 13 to 18-year-olds and encourages kids to participate in thirty DIY building projects. Campers were virtually guided in building robots, musical instruments, circuits, movie props, and, of course, a few awesome Lego projects.

While Maker Camp was intended to be an online virtual camp, the DIY phenomenon has caught on and maker camps have been popping up everywhere. Libraries have been offering rooms as “maker space” and day camps are now offering “maker week” themes. A good friend of mine even hosted a dozen teenagers in her living room to work on a bike-powered cell phone charger.

Inspired by Maker Camp and my friend, I decided to hold a mini-maker camp for the younger builders in our community.

Our kids are young, so I wasn’t sure if the actual Maker Camp projects would be a good fit for them. While trying to figure out an appropriate project for the day, our son received the Science Wiz: Energy kit for his birthday. The kit includes a 48 page booklet discussing the scientific definition of energy, along with 22 activities. The activities include transferring chemical energy from a battery to a motor and building a solar powered car. I thought that the kit would be a great way to introduce the kids to building.

We invited twelve kids ranging in age from seven to twelve, as well an experienced 13-year-old builder who would assist with the projects. When the kids arrived we discussed what energy meant to them, the scientific definition of energy, as well as different energy sources. Since many of the kit activities focused on electricity, we spent a good amount of time discussing what electricity is, how it is generated, and how it works. Once we got the basics down, it was time to build!

The kids were very enthusiastic and worked great in groups of four led by one of the 12-year-old makers. We started with some hands-on activities to get the kids thinking about the scientific definition of energy, then we got the kits out.

Building a solar racer.

First up was changing chemical energy from a battery into electrical, and finally, kinetic energy. This involved simply attaching wires to a battery and then the other end of the wires to a motor. The kit instructions were great and all the groups figured it out rather quickly.

Next, we generated electricity using a fly wheel and used the generated electricity to run an additional motor. This activity was a huge hit and the kids spent a good fifteen minutes taking turns with the bike.

After a snack and some play, we tackled the super capacitor car. I had originally planned for the kids to build a solar racer, but mother nature had different plans. The super capacitor car was a bit trickier, but with the help of my Maker Mom friend, and my experienced 13-year-old builder, each group got their cars up and running. The kids ran out in the rain to try their cars, and their excitement and pride was infectious.

At this point, we were almost three hours in, and we called it a day. Once I left the kids alone, the real magic happened.

The sun came out so myself and about half the kids went out to play. The other half stayed inside and continued building. Most decided to take the super capacitor off of the car and add the solar panel. One camper then added back the super capacitor, but this time added a battery to the car. The ideas just exploded: kids were adding wheels, additional motors, reflectors, more batteries, and sound boxes. This continued building and creativity was a sign that the day was a success. For some kids the building continued at home. One 9-year-old girl added an on/off switch to her super capacitor car.

Two mini-Makers hard at work.

I really enjoyed the day and my kids did as well. I learned a lot during the process of preparing for the day, and I think the kids learned new things as well. We will definitely be hosting more mini-maker camps. Seeing how capable all the kids are, I think I will eventually try to modify an actual Maker Camp project.

In the meantime, I discovered Maker Kids and couldn’t be more excited to try their projects with our friends! I will also likely use another Science Wiz kit. I like the kits for the organized layout of the building projects, but do feel that they lack in sufficient background content.

I refreshed my cobwebbed brain with old textbooks, and used illustrations from The Magic School Bus: The Electric Field Trip for the kids.

What about you? Did your family participate in Maker Camp this summer? What projects did you do? Any suggestions for our next mini-maker camp?

Building on Her Own Terms: From Lego Foe to Lego Friends

Used with permission from www.fbtb.net

In 2012, after four years of research, Lego launched their Friends line. The line was marketed to girls five and older and featured kits that encouraged not only construction but storyline based play. The line was very controversial and there were numerous petitions asking Lego to stop pandering to gender stereotypes. Protesters felt that Lego was going back on its years of gender neutral claims by making girls feel like the only toys that they could play with should be pink and involve pampering.

Never missing the opportunity to rant over gender stereotypes in toys, I was one of those protesters. The petitions were all over my Facebook feed.  They showed beauty shops adorned with pink bricks, and said that the line simplified construction for the girls. Well, if I read it on Facebook it had to be true, so I eagerly signed and shared every petition. If my daughter was to become interested in building, I was certain that she would be perfectly content building a firetruck or a dragon castle. The Friends line had me in a tizzy.

Well, as we all know glass houses shatter easily and within good time mine was going to shatter into hundreds of pastel Lego bricks.

When the Lego Friends line was launched, our family was knee deep in a love affair with all things Lego. Our son had always loved playing with Duplo blocks as a toddler and has since spent countless hours building with Lego bricks. We even used his Lego play as his first introduction to math. There were no preschool or kindergarten math worksheets or workbooks. Just Lego bricks.

Kids that spend time involved in complex block and Lego play in their preschool and kindergarten years develop high levels of spatial perception and have a much easier transition to advanced math topics in their teen years. Spatial skills are the ability to visualize and manipulate two and three dimensional objects, and are essential for reading a map and merging into traffic. They are also the foundation for success in fields such as math, engineering, science, architecture, and even meteorology.

I had seen how our son benefited from Lego play and I wanted our daughter to gain the same skill set through play. There was only one issue, she did not have any interest in Lego bricks.

As a toddler, her favorite Duplo activity was to suck on them, and as she continued to grow, her use for Lego bricks didn’t progress much past eating or throwing them. She seemed downright bored by all things Lego. After a while, the thought crept in my head that maybe girls really don’t like building. Could all of my Facebook rants about gender stereotypes in toys be wrong? The thought of deleting all those posts was overwhelming, so I settled on assuming our daughter just had different interests from her brother.

Not because she is a different gender, but because she is a different person.

While I accepted that my daughter didn’t seem interested, I must admit that I hoped that one day she would enjoy building with Lego bricks. I wanted to see the excitement on her face after she created a structure that first appeared in her mind. Kids that sit down and build learn how to turn an idea in their head into a tangible object. They figure out how things around them work and gain the confidence in executing and completing difficult projects. I wanted her to have the confidence that she could engineer, build, and execute a project just as well as her brother or any other boy.

Apparently our daughter wasn’t the only preschool girl overlooking Lego play as the go-to entertainment. In 2011, 91% of Lego products were sold for use by boys. Were girls building at all? Were they missing out on the opportunity to learn all that such play offers? It’s no secret that in our country males are cited as having better spatial skills than women, and gender differences in spatial and pattern recognition skills appear as early as four years old (1). It is becoming clear that nurture, and not nature, has a lot to do with these differences.

Girls with older brothers are much more likely to be exposed to, and have interest in, building toys such as blocks and Lego bricks. These girls also have higher spatial and math skills than other girls. While this gender gap begins early on and extends through adolescence and adulthood, it can be reversed. Israeli researches demonstrated that the gender gap in spatial skills among first graders could be closed by getting the girls to engage in activities, such as building, just once a week.

All this research is fascinating, but how could we get girls interested in building?

Companies are trying to figure this out and new start up companies such as Goldiblox are developing toys whose main goal is to get girls to build and engineer. We bought Goldiblox a few months back, and while our kids enjoyed playing with it, it didn’t seem to spark an interest to build in our daughter. Unbeknownst to me, that missing spark was about to burst into a flame.

Two weeks ago our daughter yelled that she needed help. I went upstairs and found her on the floor building her brother’s Lego Dino HQ Defense kit. She had the directions out and needed help finding a piece. I tried to contain my excitement as I sat down with her. We sorted, we counted, we added, and we discussed details of the directions. She was incredibly capable, confident, and animated in her building. I was so happy that she was enjoying building and I was shaking my head and saying a rhetorical “I told you so” to Lego.

The next day she asked for her own Lego bricks. We told her that there were already approximately 5,000 bricks for us to step on each day and that we certainly didn’t need anymore. She said that wanted her own kit to build. She was so excited that we relented despite knowing that our feet would never forgive us.

I sat her on my lap and went to the official Lego website. She dismissed every Lego City kit that I pointed to. She had her eyes set on a kit that I was pretending not to see. I showed her at least ten different sets and her response was always the same. She told me that she “would” build those but she really wanted to build and play with the other kit. She wanted Olivia’s Tree House, the number one selling kit from the Friends line. Rolling my eyes and sighing loudly I clicked on the kit. Then I heard myself saying, “This set is really cool.”  Yes, the Friends line has a beauty shop. However, it also has a vet clinic, a horse farm, and kits that include cars and airplanes. I could fight and resist, but the reality was the our daughter did not want to build a police car. She wanted to build a tree house and a beach buggy with purple seats.  I swallowed my pride and added two Friends kits to our cart.

The next few days were long. All our daughter thought about was the arrival of her kits. When the FedEx truck arrived she literally jumped up and down holding her purple Lego boxes. Her brother was jumping with her and they ran to their room and began to build. She loved every aspect of the kits and they built one construction after another. I watched and quietly swallowed my pride. These kits made my daughter incredibly happy and for that I am grateful.

It has been nonstop building here ever since. Our daughter wakes each day and is excited to build. There is a lot of complex storyline-based play with the kits, and a new kit has been added to the mix. Her mini-figs have found their way out of the horse shows and into dragon castles. However, they always go home. She prides herself in setting up her “Lego Village” each night based on whatever storyline she created during the day. She is enamored by the animals in each set and has even used random bricks to build them a mini-barn. She is happy and incredibly proud.

In the end, despite the protests of myself and others, Lego Friends has become one of the biggest selling lines in Lego history and Lego sales to girls has tripled since 2011. Apparently, either parents feel more comfortable buying their daughters the Friends line, or girls want to build with the Friends line. I’m not sure which scenario is true for each family, and in the end does it matter? The most important thing is that girls are now building. They are gaining confidence, developing spatial and math skills, figuring out how things work, and having fun. There are aspects of the line that I do not agree with. I think that the animated characters on the web page are too old and sexualized for the target audience and our daughter is a bit confused why all of her boxes and instructions are purple. Maybe this line could have been sold with boy and girl mini-figs, since boys like my son and his friends love her kits too.

I will let Lego know my feelings on these points, right when I finish sweeping up my glass house.

 

  1. Levine, Susan, et al. “Early Sex Differences in Spatial Skill.” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 35. No.4 (1999), 940-949.