Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Art History: Make your own pre-historic Cave Painting (using paint and scratch methods)


Flat stones (for writing on)
Pointed stones (for scratching with)
Sidewalk chalk
A little water
Paint brushes
Pictures of cave paintings

Today we looked at the first pages of an Art History book, and read about Cave Paintings. We learned about how four teenagers discovered the Lascaux caves in France in 1940 after chasing their dog, "Robot", into one of the earthly fissures.

My children, ages 3 and 5, thought this was a pretty cool story, and they were pretty engaged in the lesson and activity.

Pictured: two of the four teens who found the cave.
 Next, we discussed why paintings inside caves are better preserved than paintings left outside, which are susceptible to the weather and air pollution.

We looked at some examples of single-figure paintings, like animals, and discussed how that object or animal might have been important to the artist, and why he chose to paint it.

For the horse, might it have been used for transportation? For agriculture? As a pet?

I asked the children to think about their own lives, and objects or animals that are important to them. If they were early humans, what special thing would they chose to draw and share with future humans?

Both children named their favorite toys, and we later used those objects as the subject for our own paintings. 

Next, we looked at pictures of cave paintings found in Libya, Africa, and discovered that the area currently known as the Sahara Desert used to be filled with lush greenery, as illustrated by paintings and drawings by early humans from that area.

 This helped us return to a discussion from earlier in the week about the water cycle, large-scale planetary changes, and the precipitation necessary to create vegetal or barren landscapes.

 Last, we compared two methods of making cave art; painting and scratching.

We wondered how early humans made their paint (something we'd also learned about during our Leonardo da Vinci unit), and imagined how we could grind up certain brightly colored stones or bits of clay to make a powered pigment. We read about how black lines were made by using burnt sticks, charcoal, or wetted soil, and looked at animals that were painted with these methods.

To easily recreate this process, we ground up sidewalk chalk and wetted the powder to make our own "paint".

 We used brushes to paint our animal and toy figures onto flat stones.

Next, we looked at some images of cave paintings made by scratching stone-on-stone.

 We went hunting for a few thin, sharp stones to use as our tools.

 We practiced making marks on different kinds of flat stones...

... and discovered that some stones worked better than others.

We looked at images of some of the more busy cave paintings, and discussed how a lack of alphabet meant that these people told their stories through images. For example, footprints symbolized a long journey.

We arranged our stones to tell a story.

In the end, the kids were really excited that they had effectively created "cave paintings," which if left deep inside a secret cave, could (in theory), survive for hundreds of years and become a message to future humans!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Living (and eating!) like the Boxcar Children

The Boxcar Children is an excellent read-aloud for children as young as four. 

The text is easy to read and understand, but the bigger concepts within the book challenge little listeners and make this story particularly interesting and exciting! Do you remember reading it when you were a child? You probably had this copy:

 So when do you think The Boxcar Children was written? 



You could read this book cover-to-cover without ever realizing that it was first published in 1924! Check it out:

That's probably not the Jessie, Henry, Violet, and Benny you were picturing as you read it, is it? 

Anyway, two features of The Boxcar Children stand out immensely above current children’s literature: 

  • The independence of the four orphan children in searching for and locating their own shelter, food, and dishes.
  • The happiness and appreciation that the children have for well-used and simple things.

      These are qualities which today’s children badly need injected into their lives! 

When the Alden children set up house inside the abandoned boxcar, one of their first happy tasks is to go hunting for a dump, where they locate Benny’s prized pink cracked cup, a tea kettle and cooking kettle, and some dishes. The children are enthusiastic about their treasures, and there isn’t a hint of “woe-is-me” on a single page, despite their hard times and difficult situation. Again and again throughout the book, the children are remarked upon by adults as being a pleasantly happy group, and develop happy friendships and great luck as a result of their good dispositions. 

The Alden children's appreciation for the chipped china and rusty spoons and kettles turn this story into pure magic! As the children carefully wash and arrange their things upon a little shelf inside the boxcar, my children were on the edges of their seats. So engrossed were they in this magic, that when I turned the page to reveal this simple block print, they both gasped with the beauty of it - because every trinket had been gathered by children just like them, had been arranged "just so" upon the shelf. Every piece had value and purpose and meaning - and became awe-inspiring!

 There are a many simple recipes and food sources within The Boxcar Children, which industrious little people will become excited about when they hear of other little children making them without any adult help!

After reading about the delicious brown bread and bottles of milk kept cool in a “waterfall refrigerator”, my usually food-avoiding children requested an unscheduled snack of plain bread and glasses of cold milk to enjoy while I finished reading this chapter aloud. And they savored every bite. 

Other recipes and food sources mentioned within The Boxcar Children include;

  • Blueberries picked fresh from the bush
  • Bread and butter
  • A hunk of yellow cheese and loaves of ripped-apart brown bread
  • Garden toss-aways (undersized carrots, turnips, and onions)
  • A simple beef stew
  • Warm carrots and butter
  • Brown cookies (perhaps molasses)
  • Scrambled eggs straight from the nest
  • Baked potatoes
  • Fresh picked cherries

After reading The Boxcar Children, we made a simple stew like Jessie’s, using 6 long carrots, 6 small, peeled potatoes (instead of turnips), ½ a bag of frozen pearl onions (because they’re small and easy for the children to add), ½ a packet of stew seasoning (in place of Henry’s salt), and $2 worth of thin, bite-sized cubes of steak meat

After I slightly boiled the carrots and potatoes, then rinsed them with cool water, the children were able to easily dice the vegetables themselves with butter knives, and did so with a building sense of accomplishment. 

We added each ingredient to our crockpot, along with 3 cups of water, and cooked it on high for 7 hours

While cooking, we kept our copy of the book nearby, and after getting out the crockpot, we referred back to the illustration where Jessie discovers the cooking kettle at the dump. Then we looked again at the picture of her using the kettle to cook over a fire.  We talked about how the outer shell of the crockpot heats up like Jessie’s fire, and warms the ceramic “kettle” inside our crockpot.

I served bread and butter on the side, and we drank ice cold milk from old ceramic mugs! Replacing the children's regular cutesy plastic drinking cups with real "grown up" ceramic mugs really made the meal feel authentic. I told them to imagine they were drinking from Benny's little pink chipped cup, and they ate and drank with great reverence.

 Construction Activity:

After Jessie made her vegetable stew, she served it up using a ladle she fashioned from a tin cup, a long stick, and some wire. To add a little creativity and construction to our Boxcar Children unit, I laid out a choice of supplies before the children. For the end of the ladle, I provided an assortment of small measuring cups and scoopers. For the handle I provided the choice of a long stick, a wooden ruler, and skinny basting brush. For adhesives, I provided tape, wire, and string. 

From this assortment, my son excitedly fashioned this new ladle-invention:

The handle and cup are attached with tape, and a butter knife slides right through the tiny handle of the cup, so it's "handy" when you want to butter your bread, and also keeps the messy buttery knife off the clean table. 

He was SUPER proud of this invention, and insisted upon dishing up every family member himself, with his fancy ladle. I've been instructed that the ladle MUST remain a functional piece of our kitchen.

Additional Boxcar Children Projects: 

We are continuing this unit throughout the week, and will begin reading the second book in the series shortly. However, here are some other activities we have planned for later in the week;

  • Make a broom out of soft pine branches, a long stick, and some wire. 
  • Make a dam out of river stones in a brook, to recreate the Alden children's swimming pool. 
  • Make an outdoors dinner bell out of a tin can and some string.
    ["When everything was ready, Jessie rang the dinner bell. This bell was only a tin can from the dump. Jessie had hung it on a tree with a string, and she rang it with a spoon."]
  • Fashion a writing instrument by burning the end of a stick and writing Benny's sight words and simple sentences with ash. ["See me. See me run. I can run. Can you run?"]
    ; write with the burnt tips of spent matches. [Insert fire safety and responsibly lecture, here. Obviously you'll want to skip this activity if you have very young or otherwise questionable youths within your group.]
  • Paint a refrigerator box red, cut out a door, and put up a shelf for thrift-store dishes the children have "scavenged" on their own.
One might also consider; 
  • Building an outdoor fireplace using large stones:
["The fireplace was a very good one. The children and Watch had made a hole at the foot of a big rick between two trees. Flat stones were laid on the floor of this hole and around the sides. More big stones were put up to keep out the wind. Jessie had found a heavy wire in the dump and had put the big kettle on it and tied the ends of he wire to the two trees. The kettle hung over the fireplace, and the fire was laid. Beside the fireplace was a big wood-pile."]
Or if you have a large group of children, you could give everyone a paper number to wear and host a short "Free-for-All" footrace, the winner to take home some little trinket reminiscent of Henry's silver trophy - perhaps a simple silver vase or tin cup from the thrift store.

If you already have a garden, you might try the cucumber-inside-of-a-bottle trick on page 131 of the 1977 (standard) version of the book. When the cucumber is very small and still on the vine, just slip it inside of a glass bottle and allow it to finish growing. Then snip the stem and amaze people with the magic of "how it got in there"!

I hope you enjoy these activities and ideas. Please let me know how they worked for your group!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Goldilocks mends her intrusive ways and my children finally retell a story.

This afternoon we worked on reading comprehension using the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Our family reads together frequently, but the children often stubbornly protest recalling a story when I try to draw a retelling from them. They feel it's horribly boring to be forced to retell a story, and would much rather run off and play.

But with props, retelling the story IS play! They had a lot of fun with this program, and requested more like it for tomorrow.

First, we read The Three Bears by Byron Barton.

 I don't love Barton's illustration style and tend to avoid his books for this reason, but the very simple images worked well with this lesson, which required that the children follow the plot points of the story rather than get become absorbed in detailed artwork. Barton's text is equally simple and straight-forward.

After the story, I brought out a small cupboard full of props. I use this miniature cupboard in many of my storytelling programs because it's small enough to seem magical and fascinating (it's straight out of The Indian in the Cupboard!), but large enough to stow away and transport secret little treasures until their "big reveal" later in the storytime.

The back of this cupboard also just happens to be tall enough that I can hide additional objects out of sight until needed. Opening up the little doors is a very exciting moment for the children, because they know there's always something wonderful, inside.

 If you don't have a magic cupboard like this in your home or classroom, you could substitute a small treasure-chest style box from an antiques shop, a picnic basket or other lidded basket. If you're crafty, you might cover a cardboard box with paper scraps and attach via hot glue a mashup of little jewels or treasures like buttons, polished stones, keys, pearls, thimbals, shells, jewelry, and silver spoons. One trip to Goodwill should supply a bag's worth of treasures to cover your box, at minimal expense.

This project would be well worth your time. Again, I find it very helpful to have a place to store supplies and withdraw treasures during storytelling. It really does add to the magic of the show and makes anything you hide inside, extra special!

Our Goldilocks props consisted of miniatures and doll house furniture gathered from play areas around our home. Your Goldilocks could be any yellow-haired doll, and the three bears might be stuffed animals, if you'd like.

Our props included;

A small rug to define the playspace and set the indoor scene.

Three porcelain bowls - small, medium, and large.

Three chairs - hard, soft, and "just right".

Three beds - hard, soft, and "just right", or big, medium, and small.

We used three bears from the movie Brave, because their size was perfect.

Additional to Goldilocks, I also supplied two extra dolls to symbolize Goldilocks' mother and father.

The children caught on right away, and helped me arrange the kitchen, living room, and bedroom of the bear's house, piece by piece, as I retrieved each from the small cupboard. Then I took the Goldilocks figure and walked her towards the house, "knocked" on the door, and let myself in. At this point, I set the figure down on the rug and asked the first child to pick it up and show us what Goldilocks did first after entering the house.

The child brought Goldilocks over to the kitchen and talked her through three bowls of porridge, repeating lines from the story. I explained that porridge was a kind of hot cereal, but in the children's re-telling, they decided to turn it into "hot soup".

When the first child was finished with retelling his part of the story, I asked him to return Goldilocks to the rug in the center of the house and gave the next child to a turn to pick it up. She carried Goldilocks straight over to the chairs, and recreated Goldilocks' experience of trying out each chair. At the part where the baby bear's chair gets broken, she tipped the smallest chair over to demonstrate that it was "broken".

Last, we worked through the beds, and the first child tucked Goldlocks in under the covers to fall asleep.

Then each child and I took one bear and "walked them home" to discover one by one what Goldilocks had done. The kids did a good job acting out how sad Baby Bear would be to discover that his soup was gone, his favorite chair was broken, and his bed was being used!

The story traditionally ends with Goldlocks jumping out of bed and running out of the house, never to be seen again, but we went a little bit further.

Personally, we wanted to focus on (1) identifying "shades of gray" (seemingly bad choices that were perhaps made for an understandable reason) and (2) correcting bad choices, even if they were made for a good reason.

We paused here to discuss what Goldilocks had done, and why each of those things would have been hurtful to the three bears.

Additionally, why might Goldilocks have made these bad decisions? Was she hungry from walking in the woods? Sleepy because she'd been lost and far from home?

After Goldilocks "ran home", I brought out the Mother and Father dolls, so Goldilocks could tell her parents what she had done at the bear family's home. Goldilocks then asked her parents to go back through the woods with her, so she could return to the bear family's house and tell them that she was sorry.

The children were VERY active during this part of the story, and were quite excited to add onto the story with events that weren't in the book. They quickly took over all of the characters, and speaking as the bears, invited Goldilocks and her parents inside. Goldilocks appoligized and promised never to go where she hadn't been invited, and the bear family forgave her. The children also added that Goldilocks had brought along a huge bowl of hot soup for Baby Bear, as well as some sticky glue to fix his broken chair. She then picked up the messy blankets and made his bed!

Supplying a human Mother, Father, and child that directly mirrored the bear family's Mother, Father, and baby helped the children have empathy for both the bear family's situation, and the human family's situation, which touched upon one concept that we've been trying to impress in our home - empathy and understanding for other people's choices (some of which may outwardly seem "bad" before you know the reason why those decisions were made). 

There were no bad guys at the end of this story. The bears were not mean and scary, and Goldilocks did make a mistake but she found a way to fix it and repair her friendship with the bear family. Better choices were made, feelings were reflected upon, and diversity was overcome. And without realizing it, the children did a splendid job of recalling and reciting the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as well as adding some creative story-telling touches of their own.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Scrubbing the Statue of Liberty: cleaning pennies with vinegar

One of my five year old's recent obsessions is the Statue of Liberty and other world landmarks. So this week, we explored science through the Cleaning Pennies with Vinegar experiment, which was recommended to us by Danielle at The Plain Satisfactions, and originally posted by Science Bob.

Before we began, I had the children sort through their piggy bank and set aside the dirtiest of our pennies.


Dirty pennies                      
1/4 c. white vinegar            
1 teaspoon salt                
Glass bowl
Wooden spoon                    
Paper plates + Sharpie
A small handful of metal screws
A small bowl of water
A small bowl for vinegar

Optional: additional citrus acids to test
(orange, lemon, lime juice, etc)
Optional: glass bowls for additional acids
Optional: a sharp knife to slice fruit

Introduction and Discussion: 

Pennies are made out of a metal called copper. The Statue of Liberty is also made out of copper. What color is the Statue of Liberty? Can we find any pennies in our collection that are the same color as the Statue of Liberty? 

When copper is new, it's a shiny brownish-red color, like THIS (display a bright new penny), and briefly, when it was new, the Statue of Liberty was also shiny and red. But when copper is around water for a long time, it starts to take on a tarnished green color. How do you think the Statue of Liberty got wet? [Rain / Using a photograph, point out that the statue is on an island surrounded by water]

As we clean off our pennies today, you can imagine that you're cleaning off the Statue of Liberty to discover the brilliant copper color beneath her green robes, and you might imagine how her appearance would change if we could dunk her in a giant sea of vinegar. 


Round One

1. Pour the vinegar into the bowl and add the salt. Stir it up until the salt dissolves.
2. Drop about 5 pennies into the bowl and wait about 2 minutes (although we found that sometimes the tarnish came off immediately). Keep the kids busy by allowing them to gently stir the pennies and solution.
3. Remove the pennies and dunk them in fresh water to rinse.
4. Set out on paper plate #1 and label this batch "Vinegar + Water".

Round Two

1. Drop another five pennies into the bowl of vinegar + salt and wait two minutes.
2. DO NOT rinse these pennies. Put them immediatly on paper plate #2 and label this batch "Vinegar + no rinse".

Round Three

1. Drop some metal screws, nuts, or bolts into the vinegar + salt solution and watch as the copper oxide which fell off the "dirty" pennies (but seemed invisible in the water) attaches almost immediately to the new metal object. WOW!

Put your nuts and bolts on paper plate #3 and label it, "Vinegar after Pennies".

Round Four

Explain that vinegar is a liquid called acid, and acids can remove chemical build-ups on certain metals. The acid in our vinegar was able to remove the copper oxide which tarnished our pennies, and other acids might be able to do that, as well.

All citrus fruits contain acid, including clementines, mandarin oranges, tangerines, grapefruits lemons, limes, and navel oranges. You might point out the "low acid" label on some bottles of orange juice or grapefruit juice at the supermarket, and mention that acidic juices are powerful, and can sometimes upset the stomach. 

Continue the experiment by allowing the children to squeeze an assortment of these fruit juices into small bowls and submerge some pennies to see if citrus acids work as well at dissolving copper oxide as the vinegar did. Don't forget to put your pennies on another paper plate and label your results.

Round Five

Will the vinegar or citrus juices clean nickles, dimes, or quarters, or only coins made out of copper?

Round Six

Compare and contrast the results upon your collection of plates. Which method worked the best? Has anything interesting happened on paper plate #2? (Un-rinsed vinegar pennies will begin to turn greenish-blue as a chemical called malachite forms on them.)

Our results:

This experiment was a bit slow-moving for my 3.5 and 5.5 year old children.

They enjoyed adding ingredients to the bowl and stiring to dissolve the salt and jostle the pennies, and my son appreciated my references to the Statue of Liberty, but they simply were not as interested in the results of the experiment as I thought they might be.

They did request further ingredients from the pantry to "test" on our dirty pennies, but more fun was had in the mixing and splashing than in the observing process.

But they did have fun, and a small scientific event was explored, and that's as much as I can hope for!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Book + Literacy and Measurement Activity)

This week, we've been enjoying the stories in Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon series. This book and activity are perfect for the children, who are now nearly four and five-and-a-half.

Before reading the original Harold and the Purple Crayon, we put the following words up on our Word Wall, and practiced spelling them, sounding them out, and reading them:



I put one child in charge of each word, and as we read the story, I paused each time we came to these particular words, and let the child in charge of it, read it aloud.

A day or two later during our second reading of the story, I added these words to the Word Wall, and we followed a similar procedure: 



A third reading of the story highlighted these words: 




I pointed out the difference between the appearance of the singular word WINDOW and plural word WINDOWS, and we talked about how adding an "s" to the end of a word can add quantity. 

After our first reading of Harold and the Purple Crayon, I set up a work space for the kids so they could make up their own Harold story. 

I taped together five sheets of computer paper for each child and drew a Harold in a different position on each page. This could also have been easily accomplished by photocopying a picture of Harold and printing out a sheet full of Harolds, which the children could cut out and glue down in whatever position or direction they wished.

I filled a bowl with purple crayons, and the kids each picked one and started drawing. They remembered to connect each page of their story with a line, so Harold's journey was continuous across all five pages. The kids were pretty creative, adding dinosaurs to slide down, holes Harold had to climb out of, and water he had to swim through. 

In following the format of the book, we were sure to include two things;

1. The moon was on every page.

2. On the last page, Harold somehow found his bed and went to sleep.

My children usually protest "craft" activities as if they sense that it's busywork, but since this art activity was made with the purpose of making their own book, they were excited and happy to do it. We've added the accordian-folded pages to our Literacy Corner, and they can re-read them whenever they wish. 

When we read Harold's Fairy Tale, we focused on reading the following words;



We talked again about how adding an "S" to the end of a word - specifically, "King" could make a group of more than one thing (Kings). I also introduced the concept of adding an "S" to signify possession, such as something the King owns. 

The following two sentences appear on the same page of the Fairy Tale book, and provided a chance for us to see the letter "S" in action:

"Kings live in large castles."

"Harold had to make sure the castle was big enough to be the King's."

At a fun point in the Fairy Tale book, Harold draws a staircase and remembers that he is exactly four-and-a-half stairs high. We wondered if that was taller or shorter than we were? So after reading the story, we stood at the foot of our stairs used a yard stick upon each child's head to make a level line across to the stairs. 

Peggy discovered that she is nearly five stairs tall, which is taller than Harold. 

Patrick discovered that he is five-and-a-half stairs tall, which is a full stair taller than Harold. 

I discovered that I'm eight stairs tall, which is almost twice as tall as Harold.

Drawing the stairs on paper and marking our heights in different colors helped us to visualize, understand, and be able to compare these nonstandard measurements. Nonstandard forms of measurement are an awesome pre-math skill for children of this age. 

 This lesson could have been expanded for older children by using the yardstick to;

1. Measure the height in inches of each stair (times) how many stairs tall each child was. This would give them a figure close to their own height in inches.

2. Use the yard stick (or two) to measure their height, laying flat on he ground or flush against a wall. 

3. Compare the results from measurements taken during Step 1 and Step 2 to see how accurate their first measurement was to the actual measurement of each child's height in inches. 

4. Estimate how tall Harold is in inches, if he stands only four-and-a-half stairs high.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Cemetery Science: examining lichen to learn about air pollution

Today we used Angela Wilkes' My First Green Book to learn about lichen - the fungi-related, moss-like substance often found on tree branches, stone buildings, and gravestones.

Wilkes explains that the color and formation of each set of lichen can help us understand the level of air pollution in our surrounding area.  

Green, "leafy" lichen indicate that healthy clean air is supporting the organism's growth.

Meanwhile, tightly packed, crusty, or "dusty" lichen indicates that the fungi is failing to thrive and had some difficulty growing.

The children and I took a walk to a nearby cemetery and gathered samples of lichen from fallen sticks and old stones, and then examined them. 

We were surprised to find samples of both polluted and non-polluted lichen in the same cemetery; the healthy lichen was at a high altitude atop a large hill that towers over our city, while the polluted lichen abounded in low-lying areas near street access points.

We also discovered crusty lichen in a yellow-approaching-orange hue, indicating even higher levels of air pollution in that particular area.

We hypothesized as to why three different areas of the cemetery contained three different levels of air pollution (proximity to factories, vehicle emissions), and how we might be able to lessen the amount of air pollution expelled into our city (be frugal with electricity so power plants expel less pollution, travel via bus, don't use aresol containers, etc).

We laid out an all-weather blanket and emptied out our satchel with all of our "naturalist essentials" - field guides, magnifying glasses, nature sketchbooks, and colored pencils.

The children sketched some of the interesting objects we'd found in the cemetery, including the lichen, but also tattered flags, seed pods, and some polished stones that someone had scattered lovingly around a grave.

At five and three-and-a-half years old, their sketches are rough, but they're becoming accustomed to the procedure of documenting their discoveries, and it's the process, not the product that counts.

After we'd documented our findings, we ran about and explored until we were thoroughly exhausted, filling nearly two and a half hours with hiking up steep hillsides and good physical activity.

We discussed American flag etiquette, respect for gravestones and those they represent, and touched upon religious topics after the children noticed the letter "X" was repeated upon many stones (the Christian cross). We talked about what each member of our family believed, from Atheism to Christianity, to Buddhism, and mentioned that there were even more options than these - pointing out the Star of David upon an entire neighborhood of gravestones.

 In a focused attempt at cultivating empathy and humanitarian interests in the children, we read many of the epitaphs upon the stones - noting the ages of each person (especially the young) and wondering how they died and who they left behind. We left "thinking of you" stones upon a sad monument marked, "Who is there to mourn for Logan?" (Another blogger has explained the interesting and terrible story behind those words, here.)

Finally, we decided which of our gathered items to return to nature, and which to preserve upon our Nature Table at home. We returned with three new lichen samples, a seed pod, a small pinecone, some deer-nibbled Indian corn, and a tattered American flag rescued from the mud.

Our nature table is becoming quite abundantly filled with treasure.

We plan to return to the cemetery to sketch further natural items of interest, and to conduct more experiments from Andrea Wilkes' environment and nature book. Our interest in nature is instinctual, but supported by the Charlotte Mason method of homeschooling, which you can read about, here. We follow a loose, secular form of the Charlotte Mason method.