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Science Kids on the Loose

Science Kids on the Loose

Category: Engineering

Sometimes I just need to get stuff done. You know…I desperately need to clean, or write, or read, or just sit and look at the ceiling. Henry and Leo seem to have inner superboy powers that signal to them when I need this time, and in turn, they strive to thwart my efforts. Thwarting usually involves the phrases, I am bored, I am hungry, or He is bothering me! At these desperate moments, I often talk to the ceiling asking for patience, a little time to myself, and sanity. But when I am clever, I can distract the thwarters and let them think I am leaving them to their own devices.
One clever route is to blithely suggest: Why don’t you make a train town?
Henry and Leo have a wonderful battery-run, chunky, plastic train set that we have been adding to for about 4 years. Sadly, the train set does not come out very often, even though I have created brilliant organizing bins for the components. (Thanks IKEA!) But when I put the suggestion in their little brains, their inner town planners and engineers come out. Train Town can keep them busy for at least an hour. I am around, and sometimes have to intervene or help solve problems, but for the most part the boys play on their own.
I am always impressed by what they come up with. Great feats of engineering come out of these train sessions. I could never, in a million years, solve the problems they do in terms of physics, force, and sheer ingenuity. Henry is usually the main designer with Leo acting as client. Leo asks for high hills, low bridges, and a place for his trains to sleep. Henry delivers that and more. They even have simple machines in form of loading bays and drop off centers. Sometimes, they even make a spot for the cat. And guess what? They don’t even know that they are employing science skills while I sort through papers on my messy desk!
Another tough time for me is the 90 minutes before dinner. Inevitably, they BEG me to watch TV and they are always STARVING. Which to me translates to bored and cranky. Most of the time we all end up cranky and I either send them outside or turn on a baseball game. But sometimes, when I think they will fall for it, I make a fort suggestion. Just like Train Town, forts are not a regular activity and seem to retain novelty over long periods of time. Once I plant the seed, I am free to go off into the kitchen in peace while they create on their own. They always have set criteria: a covered structure with two separate rooms. I love listening to them negotiate materials and size. And the living room gets turned upside down. They bring pillows, stuffed animals, blankets, and towels from all over the house. The boys go through a lot of trial and error in their construction and no two forts are ever alike.
I know we have talked a lot about forts with Sid, mostly in reference to light/darkness. And that definitely comes up – the darker the better. But what I have noticed more is their problem solving and engineering skills. Leo seems to have more confidence with the fort building, which can cause more conflict, but I think its good for them. Henry can’t always be in charge and Leo needs to assert himself. What they come up with is amazing. I marvel at their clever solutions and the structural integrity of their designs. And like Train Town, the boys have something to actually play with once the creating is finished.
The boys are always sad when it is time to tear down the forts or put the trains away. But there is always another design or another idea to explore. And I get the change to cross some items off my To Do list.
How do you get your kids to play independently? How often to you leave them to their own devices? I would love to hear your ideas!

Sometimes life with little scientists offers up treasures I don’t expect. Some of my favorite treasures are learning opportunities. I get giddy when presented with a real-life situation that illustrates a concept they are learning about in school or on Sid the Science Kid! Last Friday night I was handed such an opportunity by a group of budding engineers.
After school on Friday we went to the park with a group of friends. It was a fun time; so fun in fact that we decided to move the party over to a pizza parlor for dinner. I love spontaneous Friday night pizza parties. We were four moms and eight kids. The restaurant is loud, kid friendly, and lined with arcade games and toy dispensers. We settled in and let the kids explore and play. I was prepared to give up a lot of quarters.
After we ate pizza, I noticed that the kids were congregated around a certain candy machine. They were deep in conversation and obviously up to something. I went over to investigate. Apparently there was a piece of candy stuck between the front window and the machine, way in the back. The two leaders, Sammy and Sierra, were animated as they showed me the problem and the possible solution they had engineered. The girls had rigged straws in an effort to make a pole long enough to reach the candy. Although the pole was long enough, the girls were frustrated because the pole wasn’t stable enough to pull the candy out.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Sid the Science Kid in action! And I didn’t even set it up. By now the boys had joined in too. I had an impromptu science class assembled! I tried to hide my growing excitement and asked the girls some simple questions.
“So, do you know what you are doing right now? You are solving a problem by making a tool! Do you know what you are?” I asked.
Henry jumped right up, bless his little science heart, and said, “Engineers!”
“Right,” I said. “Let’s not get frustrated girls. What do you need to do with the pole to help make it work?”
The girls started to brainstorm solutions. They asked for tape. I went to register and got some. They also wanted something to use as a grabber. Sierra asked for a fork. Smart girl! We went over to the counter and decided a spoon would be better. Then they got to work.
And the Candy Grabber was born!
They were all so engaged and excited about the project. And it was mostly girl-powered! My boys were particularly interested in how the candy would be distributed. As the girls tried again to reach the candy with their tool, the level of cooperation struck me. All the kids spoke to each other respectfully and listened to all ideas. They were all business as the grabber was extended into the crevice and each of them tried to make the Candy Grabber work.
Unfortunately, the Candy Grabber was not the right tool for the job. The pesky straws were not stable enough to give the spoon any leverage and they were unable to pull it out. We talked about what kind of tool would do the job.
“A hook!” said Sammy.
“Well, let’s go find one!” I replied.
So our small band of engineers trooped back to the pizza counter. The very kind and tolerant restaurant owner listened to the children’s plight.
He nodded as they spoke and said, “Wait for me!”
The kids ran back to the candy machine with the owner following. In his hand he had a long hook, used for taking pizzas out of the oven. The kids cheered as he reached in with the hook and pulled out the candy prize. And in the final twist of fate, the candy box was filled with enough treats for all the children. It was magical.
It shouldn’t have surprised me that the kids were so creative and ingenious. I was swept up in the adventure of the project and the creative spirit that emerged. The kids had a blast and were rewarded for their hard work. I felt like I got to take part in a childhood adventure. It was fun and it was science.
On a Sid the Science Kid note, you will find an activity HERE that mirrors the real life activity from the pizza parlor. I had planned to do the activity with the boys and write about it here. But the kids got to it first. Brilliant!

I was still in my pjs one morning last week when my cell phone rang. I saw that is was my friend Joy from around the corner, and decided to call her later. I was busy washing the kitchen floors while the boys were quietly watching TV. I went back to work and the phone rang again. It was Joy calling for a second time. Strange, I thought. I realized I should answer, but needed to run out to the garage to put away the mop first. From the garage I could hear kids running around and calling out to each other excitedly from the street. On my way back in, the doorbell rang. What the heck was going on? This morning started to feel far from normal.
I opened the door to a tall blond woman with enormous white dog on a leash.
“Hi,” she said breathlessly. “Do you have Bob’s phone number? I am Kate. I used to live across the street. Sherman is loose and walking into the road. My kids are keeping and eye on him. And this is Scooby, my dog.”
Sherman loose and in the road? Then it all started to make sense. Joy calling from around the corner and the kids in the front yard. Sherman, the tortoise next door had somehow escaped from his yard and was roaming the neighborhood. This required immediate attention.
“Henry and Leo!” I yelled. “Put your shoes on! We need to rescue Sherman!” And we all sprinted out the door in our pjs.
The boys know exactly who Sherman is. Sherman is a celebrity in our neighborhood. Sherman is a teenage tortoise who lives next door with his owner Bob. When we first moved in, the boys were delighted. Bob often walks Sherman around the neighborhood and everyone comes out to watch. People stop their cars and take photos. On July 4th, Sherman paraded around the neighborhood with an American flag taped to his shell. Sherman is cool and the kids love him.
And today Sherman needed out help. We raced up the street where we found Joy, her son Brayden, Kathy, and her three kids trying to corral Sherman. And Sherman wasn’t having it. He wanted to walk into the street it was hard to keep him on the sidewalk. Size wise, Sherman is quite large and very heavy. We were all afraid of hurting him. And none of us could pick him up. What were we going to do? The kids had all sorts of ideas involving ropes, muscles, coaxing Sherman with food, and even calling a zoo.
While we pondered this dilemma, I called Bob and explained the situation. Needless to say, he was distressed about Sherman. He explained that his son had been by house earlier and must have left the gate open.
“Trina, go get the scooter in my side yard,” Bob implored. “You can use that to wheel Sherman home.”
Wheel Sherman home! Of course! A SIMPLE MACHINE was what we needed. I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of that. Bob always had the scooter when he took Sherman out for a walk. I sent Henry and one of the other boys running back to the house to get the scooter. From then on it was pretty easy. Joy’s neighbor Steve came out to lift Sherman on to the scooter. Then the kids carefully rolled him home. Within 10 minutes Sherman was back home, safe and sound.
The kids all knew that the scooter was the right tool for the job. Wheels made our impossible task a success. I, of course, took the opportunity to point that fact out and basically got the equivalent of “DUH” from the participants. I was just glad to get the tortoise back into the yard. It was quite an adventure and something the whole neighborhood will talk about for a while.
After the commotion died down and we were all just chatting in our pjs my cell phone rang again. It was Bob.
“Thanks for all of your help Trina. But one question: Is the dog still in the backyard too?”
Uh oh…this one might take more than a scooter! Off to the rescue gang!

I love a fair. I have been telling anyone who will listen just how excited I was about heading to the county fair this weekend. I love the animals, the rides, the games, the lights, and of course, the food. Ah…the food. It is one of those days in the year when we let the boys have and do whatever they like, as long as it isn’t too dangerous. Cotton candy? Yes! Humungous scary slide? Yes, yes, and yes! It is wonderful to see their little faces light up when they ask for treats and actually get what they want.
This year, I decided to put on my Sid the Science Kid filter while at the fair. Would I be able to tie some our learning from Sid to a day at the county fair? I wanted to try.
For starters, I dragged all three of my boys (Dad included) through all of the animal exhibits. It is my favorite part. Not so much for them, because they were chomping at the bit to get into the Hall of Mirrors. Natural science abounds in the livestock exhibits! We saw baby pigs and a big mama pig. We learned about their weight, age, and even got to vote on names. (Lots of data!) We examined chickens and saw more varieties than I even knew existed. We used our senses as we walked among smelly cows, sheep, and goats. Leo had his nose pinched all the time. It was fun to see the prize animals and learn more about the farm. I wanted to look more, but the Hall of Mirrors beckoned.
The rides were a wonder of engineering and physics principles. If I thought about it too hard, I got butterflies in my stomach. My boys are brave, and no ride was too scary. Thank goodness for some of those height restrictions. It was so great to see science in motion, so to speak. The best example was the long slide. Both boys climbed the tall stairs, carrying a sack, and came speeding down with smiles of glee. The immediately wanted to do it again, and we said Yes! This time, the boys came sliding down flat on their backs, laughing even harder. When I questioned Henry about it later he explained that lying down was faster because there was less wind than when they sat up. Science Kids at work!
I thought a lot about lights as the afternoon turned to evening. This week on Sid the Science Kid, the children explore light and it’s sources. There was no lack for light sources at the county fair. As we went up on the Ferris wheel, I pointed out that it was twilight. Henry had asked me the meaning of the word, earlier in the week. It is the time when day turns into night…not dark but not sunny. The fair was the perfect place to see that: it wasn’t dark, but the carnival lights were wondrous to see from above.
We played a game where the force of water caused a balloon to fill up and POP we had a winner! Henry and I watched a man use all his strength to hit a hammer and make the lights go on for a prize. Both boys learned about measurement as they stood tall to see if their height would allow them on a ride. We think that Leo is about 41″, because he had to stretch to follow Henry onto rides that required 42″. And Leo learned that a corn dog is a delicious Sometimes Food.
The last stop of the night was on the bouncy trampoline. Henry and Leo were outfitted in harnesses, attached to long elastic ropes, and jumped on a big trampoline. Gerry and I observed as the instructors adjusted the length and tension of the ropes to help the boys jump higher and higher. To be honest, I don’t know how to explain the physics of how the whole thing worked, but boy, did I have to trust the science! Henry and Leo were gleeful, so I am thankful for science that made it all work.
As you may know by now, I really like the way Sid teaches my family how to find science in our everyday life. I thought that the fair would be a tough science challenge, but I was wrong. Science is everywhere, even at the county fair.
Happy summer to everyone! What kind of science do you find at the fair, or on other unexpected adventures?

In the Sid the Science Kid cycle called Simple Machines, all the activities are fun and they really get the boys involved. I get excited to do these investigations, mostly because I find myself saying things like “Let’s do that again!” or “Really cool, huh?” I think the boys like them too. What really matters is that we all get a kick out of simple machines.
This week we learned about inclined planes or slides in preschool language. The concept for the investigation was easy: fill a bucket with something heavy, ask the kids to lift the bucket to the top of a play structure, give them rope…supervised hilarity ensues. The boys and I enlisted the help of our neighbor and friend, Brayden. We had the rope and the bucket; Brayden had the rocks and climbing structure.
The boys would have been happy just playing with a bucket of rocks (what preschooler wouldn’t be?) but when I started explaining the task they jumped right in. I posed the question: How can you work together to get the bucket to the top of the play set? The first thing I had them do was try and lift the bucket up to top. No luck there!
Next, Brayden suggested that he could push the bucket up the slide to Henry, who was waiting at the top. As you can see below, it was quite a challenge!
Then, I gave the boys the rope. The rope was a bit too long and tended to get tangled, so if you are trying this at home you may want to measure it out first. Once the boys had the rope they talked about how to attach it to the bucket and how it could be used to pull the bucket. Brayden wanted to try pulling the bucket up the climbing wall. All three boys sat up at the top, I passed them the rope, and they tried to heave it up together. Great teamwork!
It was wonderful to watch Henry, Brayden, and Leo adjust their plans. Once they realized their collective strength couldn’t life the bucket to the top, the boys turned to the slide. We talked about the properties of the slide: smooth, high, slippery, and curved. The boys made a connection to how fast they can get down from the top via the slide…could it help them get the bucket up?
They gave it a try!
Success! All three friends were really proud of themselves. They were astonished at how much easier the task became when they used the slide. The bucket easily slid up while they worked together above to pull. I explained that the slide was an inclined plane and that the slide could be used a simple machine. A great concept that I am sure will be put to good use, as evidenced later on when Henry and Brayden tried to put Leo in the bucket and pull him up. Too bad Leo didn’t fit!
Although I am happy about the science concepts that the boys learned, I am even more excited about the collaboration that took place. I asked questions; all three friends listened and participated. They encouraged each other’s ideas and laughed through the successes and failures. It was nice to see.
As Henry and Leo moved on to a game of baseball, I noticed Brayden wasn’t done with his investigating. I think he’s ready to move on to the investigation about pulleys!
How do you little ones exhibit good collaboration skills? Do you think this activity would be a hit at your house?

Have you ever stepped out of your bedroom and into a spider web made out of pot holder loops? Or realized that the jar of cookies you thought was out of reach, up in a cupboard is now on the counter, and empty?
I have. These things happen when you introduce little girls like my daughter India to engineering – to solving problems using science. India wants to know how structures work, or how to make up for being a very short person in a world built for big people. And I love helping her discover the answers to these questions.
India wanted to build her own spider web after hearing Charlotte the spider from the book Charlotte’s Web declare, “Not many creatures can spin webs.” (Not all the kids in our family can read, so we sometimes listen to audio books in our car.) India wanted to know: Could she build a spider web even though she wasn’t a spider and didn’t have spinnerets or “know-how”? Could she catch things in a web, too?
So we brainstormed. I asked her what materials might make a good web since she couldn’t use spider silk. She came up with several hypotheses or educated guesses. First she tried rope, but it was too thick. Then she tried sewing thread, but it was too thin. Ribbons were too slippery and wiki sticks were too stiff and sticky. Finally, India discovered a stash of potholder loops in her big sister’s closet – and found that they are stretchy and pliable and strong, perfect for tying together.
Now that she had her “spider silk,” India had to figure out how to build a web that could catch something. She realized that tying a string of potholder loops from one point to another just made … a line. So I told her my hypothesis – that adding a third point might help. It worked! Once India’s first two-point string was tied to a second string that came from another direction, she had herself a frame and could weave a bigger web, which was so exciting that she started weaving webs all over our house, and our family quickly learned to look down before we entered a room so we didn’t get “caught.”
India doesn’t like being the shortest person in our house. We can all do things – can all reach things – that she cannot. She asked me if she could please grow faster, and I told her that I was so sorry but she’d have to grow the regular way like all the bigger people around her did. But, I reassured her, that didn’t mean she couldn’t do a lot of the things the big people around her do, using simple machines like the pulleys and levers she’d seen on Sid the Science Kid. And I asked if maybe she could think about other ideas for overcoming her height challenges?
She said she would. And she did. Behold India’s Super Hands! Her hypothesis was that if she had longer arms, then she could reach the things she wanted even if her actual height did not change. She built her Super Hands out of Tinker Toys, and they extend her reach by a good foot or two. Working together, they are grabbers. She uses them to reach things previously beyond her fingertips – jars full of cookies, stuffed animals, books, DVDs. She can also turn off light switches designed for taller people. Even better — she is proud of herself each time she gets to be more independent. Thank you, engineering!
Because India sees engineering as a way to get minor superpowers, she is excited about engineering week on Sid the Science Kid. I suspect she’ll also want to celebrate engineering week with silly activities like figuring out how to make a fake bee buzzer. We’ll make an effort as a family to observe how engineering makes our life easier in lots of little ways, using Sid’s Another Way to Slide investigation. Like most things that involve exploring science with my kids, it will be fun and I’m looking forward to it.
Have your kids ever approached an engineering problem in a way that really surprised you? How are you going to celebrate Engineering Week with your kids?
Shannon Des Roches Rosa’s writings and opinions on parenting have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, SF Weekly, Autism Speaks, SF Gate, and Shot of Prevention. She has been blogging about parenting and autism since 2003 at, is’s contributing editor for parenting kids with special needs, and is a co-founder and editor at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. She, her handsome husband, and their three capricious children live near San Francisco.

Engineer and Dad Mitchell Nathan joins Trina and Kim to answer various questions on how engineering can be encouraged in the lives of preschoolers. Nathan provides real-world examples and helps us understand exactly what engineering is, what it means to a preschooler, and how we can encourage girls in engineering.
Listen to the podcast
About Mitchell Nathan
Mitchell J. Nathan, BSEE, PhD, is professor of Educational Psychology, with affiliate appointments in Curriculum & Instruction and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and a faculty fellow at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) and the Center on Education and Work. Dr. Nathan studies the cognitive, embodied, and social processes involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) reasoning, learning and teaching, especially in mathematics and engineering classrooms and in laboratory settings, using both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Produced by: Funding is provided by:
Jim Hensen Corporation logo CPB ViNCi MetLife The Rosehills Foundation S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation logo The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations logo

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