Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Columbus Day lesson with ship-building and role-playing

This afternoon, the children (ages 4 and 5) and I discussed Columbus Day and what it must have been like for the ninety sailors who accompanied Columbus across the Atlantic, as well as how the Native Americans may have felt after their encounter with the European explorers.

We constructed a cardboard Santa Maria, dressed up as Christopher Columbus, made a telescope and compass, consulted the globe and other maps, and discussed the Columbus story and explored MANY little tangents along the way!

To see the tutorial of our Santa Maria ship and our petri dish compass, just skip past the Lesson portion of this post. 

The Lesson:

We began this lesson by talking about "the olden days" before cars and trucks, electricity, and indoor pluming. We talked about chamber pots, outhouses, candles, and wash basins to set context. 

We looked at a picture of Christopher Columbus and discussed some of his characteristics and attributes, as explained by various sources. They were not all pleasant. He was known to be an angry and bossy Captain, who beat his sailors.

Next, we consulted a print-out of a map of the known world in 1492, and compared that to a modern world map. The children noticed differences in the accuracy of each map, the shapes and sizes of the continents, and that some land masses were missing from the older map. We discussed how difficult map-making would have been before satellite images and safer forms of transportation were invented.

We discussed how many people at that time still believed that the earth was flat, and imagined sailing a ship from Spain across the Atlantic, and falling off the edge of the Earth. Then I introduced Columbus's theory of a spherical earth. We rolled up our 1492 map to show how short the passage to India would be, if Columbus's theory was correct. The children agreed that his route was a much shorter and safer one, and supported his exploration.

We discussed how challenging and difficult such a trip must have been for sailors who were unaccustomed to sailing straight across such a large body of water.

Concerns included; 

  • falling off the edge of the earth
  • giant sea monsters
  • not enough food or fresh water (we recalled that salt water is not drinkable)
  • terrible storms
  • sunburn
  • boredom

While I spoke, I held a globe and positioned a little laminated fleet of ships over Spain, and slowly moved them across the Atlantic until they arrived at the Caribbean. With my storytelling, I painted a picture of the sailor's relief at after 60 days, finally spotting those first tangles of seaweed, at spotting those first land birds which must belong to some country, and at noticing those clouds which turned into real mountains and trees.

The children were fairly well captivated, and I was glad I chose a story-telling method rather than simply reading from a book.

When Columbus and his sailors landed, they saw people who looked and dressed very differently from themselves. I presented a few select images from a Non-fiction Native American book to show how the people looked and what their dwellings looked like. I reiteratd that these events took place a very long time ago, and there were no cities, tall buildings, or vehicles, because they hadn't been invented, yet.

The children wanted to know where the native people got their clothes and food, since there were no stores, so we read a brief passage about the wild foods that the Native Americans gathered and prepared, and how they made their clothing from tanned animal hides.

I made a rather brief conclusion to the story, but did touch briefly upon Columbus's unpleasant interactions with the Native Americans along the eastern coast, as well as his requests for ever more gold, and dissatisfaction with the "treasures" which the Native Americans shared with him. We imagined what it would have felt like to be a Native American who gave away many of their special possessions to someone who seemed ungrateful and kept asking for more. We also imagined how frustrating it would have been for Columbus to think that the "Indians" were holding out on sharing the gold, pearls, and spices which he "knew" they possessed!

From a Humanistic perspective, we believe that it's very important to discuss opinions that seem in opposition to each other, but are equally valid in their own contexts.

Making our Santa Maria
I threw together this cardboard ship with supplies we had handy and cobbled it all together with packing tape and pipe cleaners. It withstood a very active afternoon of role-playing, and is awaiting further adventures. 


1 curtain with tabs
2 light-weight curtain rods
packing tape
4-6 pipe cleaners, wire, or good strong string
1 large cardboard box - as sturdy as possible
1 pizza box
Boxcutter and scissors
1 sheet red scrapbooking paper
1 paperclip

I made a house/roof type of structure by attaching the pizza box to one end of the large box. The pointed end would be the bow of our ship.

I filled in the "floor" of the triangle bow with a scrap piece of cardboard, cut into a triangle shape, and held in place with packing tape. This helped reinforce the bow.

Our ship begun taking shape, and from here after, I was working around the kids, who were already inside, recreating the Columbus story, while I worked.

Next, I stood up one curtain rod against the wall of box, towards the front of the ship. Patrick held it in place while I used the box cutter to poke a small hole on either side of the rod, in three locations down the length of the rod. I was able to thread a pipe-cleaner through each of these holes and twist it good and tight to hold the rod upright. This would be our Mast.

I threaded our tabbed curtain onto the second curtain rod, and at the top of the mast we just attached to the box, I balanced the second curtain rod in a "T" shape. I used packing tape to hold the two rods together, and reinforced that with twisted pipe-cleaners. It isn't pretty, but it did turn out very sturdy.

On the front of our sail, I attached a red scrapbook paper cross, Columbus-style, with a paperclip.

We used some scrap fabric for a Columbus cape, and dug out our under-used tri-corner hat.

Columbus didn't have the luxury of using a telescope, but we made one anyway, for the sake of play.

Columbus DID use a compass, and we made a very pretty  "play" compass by setting a circle of construction paper into the bottom of a petri dish. We labeled the circle with North, South, East, and West. Inside the lid of the petri dish, we attached an arrow. By spinning the lid, the children can adjust their direction, and decide which way they must travel to find the New World.

Another good option: use the petri dish to make a real, working Water Compass.

Finally, the original Santa Maria had four cannons, two on each side, so we cut a little hole in our box and installed a hefty piece of driftwood to serve as our makeshift cannon. The children used it to fight dragons and sea monsters, of course.

Construction of our Santa Maria took less than an hour, and it was a leisurely and fun build. The children were active helpers when they weren't already re-creating and expanding upon the story of great adventure upon the high-seas!

Additional Columbus lesson ideas:

  • Discuss navigation by using the sun and stars. 
  • Draw some play maps of your own to roll up into scrolls, tie with string, and consult as the "Captain" sees fit. 
  • Trade with the Native Americans. (Prop-supported role play) Sailors should offer sheets, blankets, cookware, or other interesting things, and the Native Americans can offer necklaces, bracelets, vegetables, shells, baskets, or "weapons". 
  • Use hand gestures to try to communicate with each other, due to the language barrier. Try making stick and dirt drawings of the things you want to trade, and what you want to eat. 
  • Read In 1492 by Jean Marzollo for a simple rhyming poem and pretty illustrations suitable for ages 4-6. 
  • Cut and paste construction paper to create the Santa Maria and attach the text, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Point out that two and blue rhyme, and that helps us remember the year. 
  • Discuss how it would feel to be a Native American seeing the European ships for the first time. And who were those strange-colored people on board the ship? Why were they dressed in heavy robes and fabrics when it's so hot, out? 
  • Make a list of what you would bring on a long sea voyage. Label one side of the list "WANTS" and the other side, "NEEDS". 
  • Weave a mat. Christopher Columbus's father was a weaver - a very important job in the 1400's. What things are woven? (A: Clothes, blankets, table cloths, curtains, rugs). Weave a paper mat using one piece of paper cut into slices and separate stripes of paper. Demonstrate the over-under technique. Show a real woven piece of fabric,and discuss how much harder it would be to weave so many small pieces of fabric. 

Have fun with your upcoming Columbus Day history lesson!

Happy Columbus Day to you, and Happy 100th post, to me! 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Host an Alphabetic Car Show

This week, we were gifted with a large collection of petri dishes, so I've been looking for creative ways of using them. This morning, we discovered that they make excellent "rotating floors" in an alphabetical order car show!

For my transportation-loving kids, this was an awesome project!

The ABC element helped improve my (almost 4-year old) daughter's letter recognition, and my 5-year-old son loved that we looked up and used the proper Make and Model names for each Matchbox vehicle.

Our supplies:

26 petri dishes
Set of uppercase alphabet letters 
Assortment of diecast cars

We used letter tiles for this project, but flash cards or hand drawn letters on a long strip of paper would work just as well.

First, the children lined up the 26 petri dishes like a showroom floor.

Next, I told them that we'd be working with UPPERCASE letters today, and handed out their letters one at a time. The children ran to a petri dish, put their letter inside, and replaced the lid.

Time-saver tip: DON'T hunt through your letter tiles or flashcards for a complete uppercase or lowercase alphabet while the program is in swing. The children may become impatient and lose interest. BETTER: sort out your 26 letter tiles while the kids set up their showroom floor (in our case, the petri dishes), and be ready to hand out the letters when they're done.

Last, the children took turns picking diecast cars out of their basket, while I read the Make and Model, which is written on the underside of most vehicles. We said the name of each vehicle together, and sounded out the first letter. Then the children had to hunt for the petri dish that contained their special letter, and place the car on top, on "display".

Volkswagon Beetle ..................... V or B
Chevy Impala ............................. C or I
1966 Dodge Pickup ................... D or P

As most of the letters became taken, we took more liberties with our vehicle names, and sometimes used more general terms, like Ice Cream Truck (I), Tractor (T), Convertible (C), or even Goodyear (G).

In the end, we filled up most of our display floors, except for K, Q, X, Y, and Z.

This program took about 20 minutes from start to finish, and was improved by cooperation between the children. My daughter can say her alphabet, but has difficulty identifying letters out of order, so her brother kindly helped her find the letters she was searching for. And using vechicles to mask our ABC practice kept them focused on a lesson they otherwise would not have tolerated.

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.