Engineering – Bridges, Tunnels, Complex Structures


In the first week of our Engineering Unit, we studied Towers – stacking one block on top of another block to build something tall. This week, we looked more at other more complex structures. We played with bridges, tunnels, beaver dams and more.

Concept Exploration

Index card bridges: We had a table with blocks, index cards, and glass stones. As children came in, we would demonstrate three types of bridges to them and tested how many “stones” it would hold. (We got this idea from Stay at Home Educator, whose post has lots of good pictures of her process.) We showed them a

  1. Beam bridge – set two blocks up, put an index card spanning the distance between them. That will hold just three stones (unless kids were clever enough to rest the stones on top of the blocks rather than in the middle of the bridge)
  2. Arch bridge – insert one index card BETWEEN the two blocks, to form a support arch, then lay another index card on top of it for the flat bridge deck. That generally would support 7 stones.
  3. Accordion beam: take two index cards – fan fold them. Lay those on the two blocks, then put a flat index card deck on top of them. That would easily hold 20 or so stones.
We would demonstrate these three ideas, then challenge them to test as many other ideas as they could come up with. We walked away and let them tinker, exploring different materials and ways of using them in order to build stronger bridges. Our littler kids just played with the basics of bridges. Our older ones really took in more of the message about testing different methods. I only caught a few pictures of the process, but you can see a variety of methods were explored.
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Tunnels and Bridges in the Sensory Tub. We made a cloud dough with flour, cocoa powder and vegetable oil. It smells good, it’s somewhat moldable (like kinetic sand), it looks like dirt, and it won’t hurt you if you eat it. We placed it in the tub with rocks, dishes, and tongue depressors, so children could build bridges and tunnels. Next time, we’ll do an illustration to hang next to it of how to do a basic cut and cover tunnel – dig a trench, then cover it over with the tongue depressors.
Marshmallow Structures: We put out mini marshmallows, big marshmallows, and toothpicks for kids to build whatever they wanted with. (Note: kids will want to eat marshmallows. For some of my kids, I didn’t bring it up unless they asked. Others, I knew to pre-empt. One I told on the way in that he could eat one marshmallow at the start of class and one marshmallow at the end of class and that was all – I knew if I gave that permission up front, he would absolutely eat those two, but that would be it. A mischievous little girl was eating marshmallows in front of me, as I told her not to, and I told her I would send her away from the table, so she ate one more, and I did. But it wasn’t really a punishment – it was her way of testing and accepting her limits.)
Pipe cleaners and straws: Kids could thread pipe cleaners through cut up straws, and then bend into various structures.
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Arch Bridge. Just as we ask the kids to tinker in class, we are often tinkering ourselves as we plan the class. I made salt dough (1/2 cup salt, 1 cup flour, ~1 cup water), formed an arch, VERY carefully cut it into slices and baked it (250 for 2 hours). I was hoping it might be a stand-up arch bridge. It wasn’t. The pieces expanded just a little when cooking, but it was enough to distort the shapes so the bases would not stand. We did use it in class, but instead of being a cool upright structure, it was a math activity of put the pieces in order by number to make an arch. (We had a picture of a Roman arch bridge next to it so they saw what it related to.)


There are a few kits available of roman arches: Haba Roman Arch,
Our Amazing Bridges Model Building Kit, or the more expensive
Montessori Roman Arch. We generally try to build most of our own materials rather than buying specialty products, but this may be one of those places that’s worth buying a product someone else has engineered.

Igloos. We built igloos with sugar cubes and glue. Here’s the beginning of one. Place a good illustration of igloo building next to this for guidance.


Nature / Imagination

For next year, we’re planning spring semester as a Biology / Inventions unit, where we talk about things from nature and biology and also talk about how that inspires human builders and inventors. This week, we brought in the idea of an animal that builds structures.

Beaver Masks: Teacher Cym designed beaver masks on paper plates, and cut them out. In class, kids could decorate them.


Be a beaver: We built a set of tongs with paint stirrers, and kids could pretend that was their beaver mouth, and move around “sticks” made with newspaper rolls to build a dam.


Build a beaver dam: We put out paste (glue and flour mixed), spaghetti sticks, and “pebbles” for kids to sculpt a beaver lodge or beaver dam. We had an illustration of a beaver dam nearby.


Big Motor Play – Trusses

Months ago, I’d found a blog post on Modern Parents, Messy Kids that showed how to build what they called “Life Size Building Blocks” – triangular trusses made from newspaper. I’ve been looking forward to this ever since. To make the paper tubes, they recommend “Take two sheets of newspaper, lay them out flat and start rolling it from one corner.” The advantage of this method is it’s quick and easy, and you need just one little square of tape to fasten each one. Their 7 and 9 year old were able to roll these by themselves. When I made mine, I made 45 (enough for 15 triangles) in the time it took us to watch Kung Fu Panda. But – the ends of these are very thin – that means they’re easy to staple together, but they also are weak and floppy and can collapse in on themselves. So, my husband developed a new method. Take two pieces of paper, and off-set them a bit. Then lay those two diagonally across a third. Roll from there. This results in ends that are still thin enough to be stapled, but sturdier than the basic method.




This method was a little slower. My husband and I working together probably rolled about 45 in the time it took us to watch Little Mermaid.

In the blog post, they say their 7 and 9 year old did all the assembly. In our class, the parents did the assembly, using duct tape to fasten the joints, then the kids played in the big structure we had built.



In the book Build It: Invent New Structures and Contraptions, there are more detailed instructions on how to build a free-standing geodesic dome with newspaper trusses. It looks to be about 4 feet tall and 8 – 10 feet across.

Big blocks. It’s just fun to build with really big blocks – these are heavy and moving them around feels like an accomplishment. You have to warn the kids not to knock structures over and to be very careful when building up, because these blocks are really heavy and really hurt if a corner of one falls on your toes!

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Note, if you have access to big blocks (wood, foam, or cardboard) I love the idea from Not Just Cute of taping out a pattern of blocks on the wall and having kids match that pattern.

Circle Time

Key concepts: A good place to start would be to ask why people build bridges. Like our discussion of towers last week, we could have a collection of pictures of bridges, from a simple log over a stream on up, to help them think up reasons. Reasons would include: to go across water without having to swim or get wet, to go across a valley without having to go down the hill and up the hill (think railroad trestle), to go over a road. Different obstacles present different challenges. For example, the log across the stream works great, but what if the water you want to bridge is wider than any log you have? Building a bridge on pilings is great, but if the water is REALLY deep, that doesn’t work. (We have floating bridges in Seattle that all our kids are very familiar with.)

So we need to be able to build bridges with a variety of materials and a variety of methods. We reviewed what they had learned with the blocks and the index cards. Then did this demo:

What shape holds the most weight: Take four pieces of paper. Fold one in half to make a tent. Fold one into a triangle tower, one into a squat square, and one into a round column. Ask your child which will hold the most weight, then test them. Watch this video from PBS’ Zoom to see this demo in action, except… they use a heavy book each time which crushes three out of four shapes. I would start with a thin lightweight book, which would crush the tent, but maybe not the triangle or the square. Then test the heavier book on that shape – it will crush it. Then test light book on round column, then heavy book. We did this with newspaper, and then ended by showing them a truss made of newspaper, and pointing at the structure we had made using trusses.

Suspension bridge: We demo’ed a suspension bridge, built with a cardboard deck, string, and paper clips. If you’re working with 10 – 12 year olds, try this suspension bridge project.


Song: Teacher Cym wrote a song to the tune of “Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”

We’re going to build a bridge today, hurray! hurray!
We’re going to build a bridge today, hurray! hurray!
We’re going to build a bridge today,
We’ll make it strong, we’ll make it straight,
We’ll see if it will hold the weight.
And we’ll all be learning together while we play.

Books and more songs: In opening circle, we read Iggy Peck, Architect, which is a delightful story of a boy who likes to build, who is discouraged by his teacher, until he saves the day by guiding his class in building a suspension bridge from shoelaces, fruit roll-ups and things.

At closing circle, we demonstrated the basic idea of a draw bridge (using our suspension bridge model), then read The Bridge Is Up! which is a nice cumulative read-along for three to six year olds about all the vehicles who have to wait while the draw bridge is up. Then we taught them the rhyme Zoom Down the Freeway. (the lyrics on this page and the hand motions are the same we use, but I say it as a rhyme instead of singing it to the tune he uses.) Many of the parents and kids learned this rhyme in our toddler class, and recognized it from there.

We also read London Bridge Is Falling Down which includes all the verses of the song, illustrated, plus music notation, plus (for adults or older kids) a section on the history of London Bridge. We read/sang it – it’s an old nursery rhyme, so the verses are a little odd in places… for example, they’ve put a guard on the bridge they need to keep awake, so the verse is “give him a pipe to smoke all night.”

After reading that, we played London Bridge. I like to bring in classic kids’ games where we can, and this was a nice opportunity. Two children make an arch, the rest of the kids line up and start going under the arch, then circling around to go under again. We sing the song, and whenever we get to “my fair lady”, the bridges drop their arms and capture someone, who then replaces one of the bridge supports and the game begins again.

Other Explorations of the Day

Creation Station: We have an area stocked with tape, glue, and lots of recycled and found materials where kids can always work to create anything they want. The oldest child in our class (who just turned 8) often does fabulous stuff over there. This week’s creation: a U-Scan checkout like you find at the grocery store.


Symmetry Game: One of our 6 year olds was playing with blocks, and I noticed he was setting up a symmetrical arrangement.


I challenged him to a game (that I invented on the spot.) I would place a block, and he had to put one to mirror it to keep the structure symmetrical. Then he would place a block that I had to mirror. At first, I stayed on the vertical or horizontal axis, which is easier. But then I started placing things on the diagonal and he had to figure out the radial symmetry. We had a GREAT time playing the game. It was at the edge of his capabilities. Hard enough to be challenging, and to feel really good about his successes. Great learning in the math and spatial realm. Here’s two of our creations:

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Other Ideas

PVC pipes: At one of our classrooms, we have a collection of PVC pipes and joints that allow kids to build a variety of structures.


Animal Tunnels: You could offer pictures of various animal tunnels and burrows: prairie dogs, rabbits, ants, and so on. You could also create a worm habitat and watch it for several weeks to see the tunnels develop.

More books:

Cross a bridge is a nice age appropriate and engaging non-fiction about bridges.

Bridges: Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test is aimed at much older kids, but has some fun ideas for advanced bridge building projects.

Dig a Tunnel is a engaging preschool read about tunnels. Digging Tunnels and Tunnels are also fine non-fiction choices, but Dig a Tunnel is my favorite of the 3.

Monsters Under Bridges. I wanted to love this book, a guidebook to the bridges of the Pacific Northwest. I only know one of these bridges well, but when I looked at those pages, they were not what I hoped for. In Seattle, under highway 99, we have a statue known as the Fremont troll. Where it appears in the book, it is mentioned as being one of many imaginary monsters here. I’d rather they just talked about the Fremont troll and made it “real” instead of making up others that aren’t here.

Look at That Building!: A First Book of Structures. A nice story that introduces fundamentals of buildings, like foundations, beams and frames. Too long to use in circle time, but worth a read.

Bridges Are to Cross. Very nice artwork depicting famous bridges around the world. Each page has a description of what bridges are for: “some carry llamas loaded with firewood across deep canyons, this bridge lets boats float under the road”. Has more details on each type of bridge in fine print. A fine book for the shelf.

[affiliate links – learn about all these books on Amazon and buy if you choose, but remember most of these can be checked out from your library!]

Videos to Preview or Review the Lesson. For 3 – 5 year olds, Peep and the Big Wide World: Bridge the Gap. For 4 – 6 year olds, What Make Bridges So Strong? (3:44). For 6 and up: Bill Nye’s Structures episode.

Resources for More Info on Bridges

PBS Building Big:

Links to more ideas:

Another idea: Learning Resources has a Dive into Shapes, “Sea” and Build Geometry Set which looks like a fun toy for building structures. We chose not to get it for class because we prefer using materials that anyone can have at home to empower them to tinker at home, rather than purchasing specialty equipment. But you might want to check this out.

Engineering: Towers

We are starting on an Engineering Unit. This week’s theme was Towers. In class, we wanted to explore different materials for tower building, to tinker and figure out how to make a tower more stable, and to have lots of fun knocking down the towers that we built. We also explored reasons why people build towers.

A simple tower is one of the first things that children can build – at 12 – 15 months, they may stack two blocks. By three years, almost all can stack towers of ten blocks, but some children may stack many more than that, if they’ve done a lot of block play at home. And specialty blocks that interlock allow for taller towers. The other day, I worked with a 26 month old as he stacked up a tower of Duplos that was taller than he was. Probably 40 or more blocks. So, stacking blocks is easily doable for the youngest child in our class, but is also a challenge that grows with a child. Our 7 year olds were also challenged by experiencing different materials and learning how to stack them to engineer the highest and sturdiest tower.

Building Experiments

We offered a wide array of tower building materials, and also a number of methods for knocking them down. You’ll notice that knocking them down was an actively planned part of the curriculum. Why? Well, we know kids will do it anyway. May as well make it a fun and completely acceptable part of the day. We’d cheer for great towers and we’d also cheer for great moments of tower destruction. But also, a goal was to emphasize the tinkering mentality or engineering process: build something, test it, refine it, test it again, start over when needed. Some children re-built with the goal of making the structure as solid and stable as they possibly could – trying to make a structure that couldn’t be knocked down. Some went the opposite way, and build structures that would fall apart even more dramatically. Either goal was perfectly acceptable!

Keva blocks and wrecking ball. I ordered and built in advance this KEVA Wrecking Ball. (Quick review: it’s inexpensive, nice quality, and creates a fun and sturdy product. It says it’s for ages 7 and up, but the building process was pretty lengthy with lots of required stops in the middle to let glue dry, and a fair amount of precision required. I don’t think it’s something most kids 7 – 10 would be able to manage, unless they’re unusually patient and precise model builders. If you have a child under age 7, just plan to build it for them and let them play with it. If you have a 7 – 10 year old, build it together.)

You can stack simple towers with the extra planks that come with a set, then enjoy knocking them down.

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We made up a sign about wrecking ball rules (before knocking anything down you need to get the builder’s permission, before knocking them down, ask an adult to be sure it’s safe, and so on) in case we had issues and needed to enforce rules. But we ended up not needing it as kids were managing things well. If you’re working with a group, use your judgment about what rules need to be established before playing to keep it fun and safe.

Jenga blocks and pendulum: We used Jenga blocks as a building tool in this class. (You could, of course, also play a proper game of Jenga as part of this lesson – in the proper game, you stack a very sturdy tower, then as you remove block by block, you reduce its stability until it falls – there’s some great lessons in that experience.)

We built towers with the Jenga, then knocked them down with a home-made pendulum – a tennis ball inside the cut-off leg from a pair of tights, that the kids could grab by one end and swing into their towers. I thought this would engage our big motor learners, but it didn’t as much as I’d hoped. It could be it needed more presentation / support from us as teachers. It could be because its target and its effect was very similar to the wrecking ball and they liked the wrecking ball better. Next time, I think I’ll follow the method from Irresistible Ideas of tying the pendulum to the rafters, and using it to knock down tall towers of cereal boxes.


Toilet paper tubes and cardboard platforms. This is one of those great recycle bin activities. It allows kids to build multi-story buildings with t.p. columns supporting each cardboard floor. They intuitively learn that one or two columns won’t support a floor, but three will if placed just right, and four is easy. You could enhance this project into imaginary play realm by putting out small plastic animals or dolls and they could populate the floors of the tower. Or you could add to the engineering aspect of it by having them put weights on a floor (like pennies) and see how much weight various structures could support. [Tip: when setting up building materials, put the container of supplies on a chair next to the table to free up more table space for the actual building.]

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Plastic cups. Probably our most popular activity of the day was building tall towers with red plastic cups, and then using a pull-back car to crash into them and knock them down. Advantages to this activity: it’s cheap, the cups are almost infinitely re-useable (we only broke 2 out of 60 in four hours of play), children of all ages (and adults) can enjoy, and when the cups come crashing down on your head, they don’t hurt!

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Our usual rules in the class are no standing on chairs, but we made an exception to allow for building the tallest possible towers:

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One of our older kids had built and crashed lots of towers. So we challenged her. We said “Can you build a tower using ALL these cups that the car can’t knock down?” She did it, but in a lateral thinking way I didn’t expect!

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Here’s the video of a crash in action:

You can also stack cups in a variety of ways. Most people start with a two dimensional pyramid, but you can also make a three dimensional pyramid by learning to stack a little differently. (Teachers and parents, this is one of those places where you can use a subtle hint to extend your child’s learning… just show them the basic 2-D pyramid and let them build on that all they want. Then, once they’ve mastered the 2-D pyramid, just show them this basic concept of 3-D, and walk away and see what you come back to!)

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Wooden blocks and the shake table. We brought back our quake simulator from Earthquake week, so kids could build towers and make them crumble.


Magna-tiles. We have a building toy out almost every week, so they’ve seen the Magna-Tiles before, but this was another nice opportunity to play with them. Some kids built houses or traditional 3-D towers. I also liked this two dimensional tower that one of our just-turned-three year olds built.

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Snack – grape and cheese sculptures. We used toothpicks to build towers, and then dismantled them and ate them! In the morning class, I saw lots of building happening. In the afternoon class, there were also cupcakes available, and thus not much attention paid to building with healthy food!

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Big blocks. It’s just fun to build with really big blocks – these are heavy and moving them around feels like an accomplishment. These towers were the one type we told them they were NOT allowed to knock down. We told them that they even had to be very careful when building up, because these blocks really hurt if a corner of one falls on your toes!

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Note, if you have access to big blocks (wood, foam, or cardboard) I love the idea from Not Just Cute of taping out a pattern of blocks on the wall and having kids match that pattern.

Tool of the Week: Our tool of the week was a building crane. We were able to buy a “like new” Hape Crane on Amazon for just $25, which made it a fun addition to the class. We put it out on a table with the book Cranes by Frisch, which is a nice preschool level introduction to the topic, much better for the purpose than Cranes by Becker, which goes into more detail than you need on all the different types of cranes. Kids could wind the crank up and down, bringing up a load… this activity would have been better if we’d placed the crane next to a tower of some sort, so kids could have better grasped the idea that you use a crane to raise material from the ground to the top of a building you’re working on.


There’s a good Bob the Builder video on cranes here, and also ideas for a toothpick building challenge (which has nothing to do with cranes, but is fun anyway!)

Art Projects

Watts Towers. In the Los Angeles area, from the 1920’s to the 1950’s a man named Simon Rodia gathered trash and found objects (rebar, concrete, broken bottles, tiles, pottery shards, and so on) and built an iconic piece of folk art, now a national historic landmark, known as the Watts Towers. (Learn more and see a video at and in this Wikipedia article.) During circle time, we read the story (see below) and then we built our own towers using scrap Styrofoam as a base, pipe cleaners and floral stem wire for the metal structure, plastic pony beads and adhesive foam shapes as the decorations.

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Note: one book says the artist often listened to opera music while working, particularly the singer Enrico Caruso. You could play opera music while kids worked on this project to enhance the experience.

Cityscapes. I wanted to do something with the idea of skylines: bright squares of light on tall skyscrapers. I thought that gluing on lots of little tiny squares of paper would be tiresome and messy, so I bought little post-it flags at the dollar store, and cut them in half so there was mostly sticky post-it, not the unsticky part that flaps up. Kids could cut out black buildings, glue stick them to a blue background, and then use the mini post-its to make the windows. It was good small motor practice for our little ones.

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Another idea I’ve since had, but haven’t tested. You might be able to create an open grid with masking tape on black cardstock, paint it with white or yellow, then remove the tape… where there wasn’t tape would be the “windows” on the building. I don’t think this would work in my class, because my 5 and under kids just don’t have enough tape skills to pull out and lay down a long straight line of tape.

Printing with Duplos. This was a process-based art activity, which we expected would be most popular with our youngest kids, but lots of the older ones also enjoyed it. I like using the table as a canvas with this sort of activity (as we did with the monster truck painting), because it allows a lot more freedom to spread out than small pieces of paper, plus it’s clear we’re doing a collaborative process, not creating individual products to take home.

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Math Activities

We put out some Unifix cubes that they could simply build towers out of, and added some “printables” we found online that gave examples of patterns they could build with the cubes. (To learn more about Unifix and building math skills, check out Measured Mom and this collection of counting activities.)

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We also put out a pattern machine, which allows kids to press buttons to raise or lower the button (making a sea of mini “towers”). This is just a fun manipulable as it lets kids really play with patterns – they might put them all up or all down, or every other row up, or make diagonal rows. It’s fun, but patterns are also a fundamental of math learning.


Circle Time

Observations and Discoveries. We started with a discussion of what they had played with during discovery time, and what they had learned.

We asked them if building towers was challenging, and they said no, it was easy. And we asked if building a REALLY tall tower that doesn’t fall down was challenging, and they agreed that it was. We asked them why it was challenging. No answer. So, we said “I want to build a tower this high. Can I start at the top? Can I put my top block here and then put the other blocks under it? No? Why not?” They figured out the answer was gravity. We then demonstrated with blocks how building a tower is a battle with gravity, and we talked about how we need to have strong materials, and balance them carefully so they support each other. We illustrated that in general, a wider base makes a more stable tower.

Song. I found lyrics for a block building song online at Preschool Express. They say the lyrics were adapted from a poem by Peggy Sloan. There was no music. The first time I saw them, I made up a little tune I liked, but then I forgot what it was. The second time I looked at them, I realized I could make them fit the tune of the Final Jeopardy music. So, I played the tune for my class (which many kids and all parents recognized). Then I taught the words (which I had printed and posted) and we sang it through a few times.

Pick a block to put on top.
Careful now, don’t let it dro-o-o-o-op!
Higher, higher – up you go.
Take your time, just do it slow.
Balance one block, two blocks, three
See how tall your stack can be-e-e.
Pick a block to put on top.
Careful now – don’t let it drop!

Why do people build towers? I had found online, and printed, photos of: fire watch towers, lighthouses, castles with towers, water towers, grain silos, Manhattan, the Eiffel Tower and the Space Needle. I asked the kids why people build towers, and I pointed out the pictures to give them some hints. We came up with these reasons: they let you see a long distance (good for fire watch and other lookouts), they can be seen from a long distance away (lighthouses help ships avoid rocky shores), they are easily defensible from attack, they use gravity to create water pressure, they’re a compact way to store a bulky thing like grains, they allow a lot of people to live in a small geographic area, and they’re pretty / distinctive and are good for landmarks.

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Book: We read Dream Something Big by Aston, which tells the story of the Watts Towers with beautiful collages by Roth.



An alternative would be The Wonderful Towers of Watts by Zelver, illustrated by Lessac. I liked bringing this story in to class, because it brings in history (he started building almost a century ago), social sciences / culture (telling the story of an immigrant), art (the towers themselves AND the book’s illustrations of the towers), the idea of building beauty from other people’s junk, and dreaming big and creating something unique.

Journal: In circle, we introduced the idea of creating written documentation of our work. We told the kids “Build all the towers you want today. When you’ve built your very best tower, whether it’s your tallest, your prettiest, or your sturdiest, call over one of the teachers, and we’ll take a picture of it. We’ll also ask you to draw a picture of it, and write a description. And if you can’t write, just ask any grown-up to help you!”


Only a few of the kids took us up on the idea of the journal, but we plan to bring it back more in future classes, because it helps the kids work on important skills: drawing from a model, writing, and describing their work. Also, keeping a record of a creation helps to imbue it with a little more sense of importance.

Closing Circle. We ended with reading Block City which is a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, written in 1883 about the joys of building with blocks and imagining faraway lands. The version our library had was illustrated by Wolff. Amazon stocks one illustrated by Kirk, and the description says it also includes follow-up activity ideas and a song.

More books

  • Zoe’s Tower by Rogers is a lovely book about a girl leaving home, going for a walk through the woods and the meadow to her special hideaway, then returning home. It is lovely, but really only tangentially about a tower, so we didn’t read it in class.
  • How Tall Is Tall?: Comparing Structures is a fine non-fiction book for ages 6 – 8 about measurement, which includes examples like a house is 6 children tall, an electrical tower is 6 houses tall, Eiffel tower is one Golden Gate bridge plus one wind turbine tall.
  • Changes, Changes by Hutchins is a wordless book which shows two dolls building a block house that ‘catches fire’, then re-building their blocks to be a fire engine to put out the fire, then re-building them to be a boat to sail away on all the water from the hose, etc. Nice for ages 3 – 5 as an illustration of imagination.
  • Meeow and the Big Box by Braun. Good for three year olds. Simple words and simple illustrations about a cat painting a box, cutting a hole in it, adding some props and turning it into a fire engine.
  • When I Build with Blocks. This book has been recommended to me, but I haven’t yet read it.
  • Who Swings the Wrecking Ball by Meinking was disappointing. It was really about its sub-title “working on a construction site” and only had the briefest mention of wrecking balls, when I was really wanting something focused on wrecking balls.

More Ideas

We pretty much always have more ideas than we can fit in, or some we just can’t make work logistically. Here’s a few:

Marshmallow Challenge: Just search for that phrase, and you’ll find LOTS of info on it. This is a team activity where the team is given 20 sticks of raw spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. (See a TED talk about it here and what it reveals about the nature of collaboration and why 6 year olds are better at it than adults.) Their job is to build the tallest possible structure to support the marshmallow on the top, using only those materials. We didn’t use this, simply because our 3 – 4 year olds just don’t have the tape and string skills, or the manual dexterity not to break the noodles. Here are some sample towers from the web.


Stone Towers. If you’re out on the beach and find flat stones, this is a great nature art activity! It can also be brought inside into the classroom, check out the Curious Kindergarten to learn more. We didn’t have a chance to gather flat stones for this activity. Hopefully, in the future, we’ll add this, as I love bringing in natural materials.


If you’re building stone towers, you could add in the book Bring Me a Rock! by Miyares. It is a story of an arrogant insect king who demands that other bugs bring him rocks. They build a tall tower that he reclines upon. But it’s unstable and starts to tip, and the littlest bug (who the king previously derided saves the day by adding a pebble shim to the bottom of the tower to stabilize it.

Cup Towers and Blow Darts: Kid’s Activity blog offers this great idea of loading a q-tip inside a straw for a blow dart gun. Then set up a pyramid of plastic cups. Then the kids blow through the straw to launch the q-tip and knock over the cups. Sounds like great fun. I just didn’t want to deal with germ sharing issues that come up when straws are involved.

Build a House of Cards:  photo credit: House of cards via photopin (license)


Parents’ Role in Class / Learning

We had a new parent in class, and she asked for advice in how to participate / guide her child in class or in general. I gave her a very brief overview of the idea that in order to learn kids need a balance of formal “teaching”, guided learning, free play, and rest. I said that in class, if a child is doing free play and is engaged in an activity and learning and discovering, we can either 1) sit back and watch them 2) “play” on our own – doing an activity next to them, or 3) play along with them, but letting them guide the play.

When they hit the edge of their abilities and are ready to grow, we might 1) teach them a new thing to try (like the new way to stack a cup pyramid) and then sit back and let them explore, 2) make a suggestion for how to extend their activity (“I see you made a pattern with the Unifix cubes of red, green, red, green… could you make a pattern with black and white?”) or 3) ask them a question about what they are doing. I have a list of questions to ask to extend learning, and an article on play-based learning which includes discussion of the parent or teacher’s role in that.

Parents Play Along

I love that in my class, parents play too. Often they play with their kids, but sometimes when their kids are fully engaged in an activity, the parents know to let the kids play on their own and discover on their own. Parents take that as an opportunity to play too. Here are three creations from dads from this week’s class. (FYI, the structure on the right is the Space Needle in big blocks.)

mag  watts  FIL 045

I think it’s fabulous when the parents play. First, because it makes class more fun. Second, it sets some examples for the kids of what things are possible with the materials. (Note, we need to be careful with this… it’s important that the parent is just playing, and NOT hinting to the any child that THEIR creation should look like the parent’s creation… we don’t want to hint that there is one right way of doing something and we don’t want to hint that their work is not as good as ours.)

But, most importantly, it sets an example for the child that even as an adult, you can have fun learning. When I was a kid, my mom was always learning new crafts and working on lots of projects she enjoyed. But my dad “played” more – he had a certain glee in experimenting and testing and discovering. I think that passion for learning in our parents helped keep the passion for learning aflame in me and my siblings. It’s especially good when we’re doing something new and figuring something out for the first time, because then our kids see us go through the same process of trial and error they do all the time.

Video to Preview or Review Lesson: There’s an episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood called “O Builds A Tower.” (Available on Amazon Prime where it says it’s season 2 episode 8 or on Netflix where it’s listed under season 1.) Owl tries to build a tower, it falls down. Daniel encourages him to try again. He builds and it falls again, then they use a book for ideas for how to build it better. Great for kids age 3 – 6. (Also for young ones, there’s a Pingu Builds a Tower.)

The Cardboard and Plastic Lids Aesthetic

In our Inventors Lab, we use a lot of materials from the recycling bin in our projects – cardboard boxes, water bottles, plastic lids, jelly jars, and so on. When we need to buy, we generally try to use common everyday items, instead of specialty supplies, such as using Dixie cups rather than searching online and special ordering some precious little mini wicker baskets.

Why do we choose this?

  • Cost: yes, as a non-profit, we look at keeping our class expenses as low as possible so we can keep the class tuition as low as possible. So, cheap is good.
  • Environment: Re-using rather than buying new is better for the environment. Purchasing items at the neighborhood store means less fuel than having small items delivered to your house in a package.
  • So parents don’t feel guilty throwing it away / breaking it up and recycling: We know that parents of modern children are continually bringing home goodie bags from parties, happy meal toys, and numerous craft projects. It quickly becomes over-whelming. We want the parents in our class to know that what’s important is the child’s PROCESS of creating something, then bringing it home and sharing it with their family. The product isn’t that important – it’s not beautiful because it doesn’t have to be beautiful for them to have learned from doing it. You don’t have to keep it forever, because the memory of learning is more important than the product.
  • Approachable: The most important reason we choose simple materials is that we want both parents and children to feel like this is an approachable project. Building things and creating science projects is something that ANYONE can do, ANY TIME, ANYWHERE. You just run around the house, gather materials and start to build.
  • Child Led: If we had a lot of expensive, fragile equipment and materials, we would tend to hover over the kids, reminding them over and over to be careful. If everything is kid friendly then we can sit back and let them lead the work.
  • Encourages creativity: I saw a post recently on Facebook about someone asking how to manage her child’s requests – she loved that he liked creating and building things all the time, but didn’t like that he was always asking for new props – last week he built a western scene so needed plastic horses, this week he’s asking for plastic whales for an ocean theme. She was frustrated at having to make so many runs for supplies. My thought was – ask him to make the props he wants!! You could have model magic clay or sculpey laying around if you want to, but he could also cut things out from paper or cardboard or find photos in a magazine or many other options. My mother-in-law is the queen of creating from scratch. She grew up poor in Argentina long ago, before you could just run out to the dollar store or Michael’s and spend a couple bucks on a tube of plastic animals imported from China. So, she builds a vast array of toys for my kids out of cardboard, tape, and other available supplies… My favorite was when my son wanted a Yoshi (from Mario Brothers) and she made one out of grocery bags and tape! Check it out….


Here’s some of our low-cost, low environmental impact projects from class:

From Robot week. The foil and balloons were new, but all else came from the recycling.


Jet pack from Space Travel week. The crepe paper and tape are new. The juice bottle is recycled, as is the plastic lid that decorates it. The stuffing and bias tape are from a collection of old sewing supplies that a teacher’s relative had owned for many years.


Levers week, a balance made of popsicle sticks, Dixie cups, and yarn from a thrift store, that will then balance on a pencil.


A dinosaur dig, with dinosaurs buried in materials from the office shredder.


What do you do to try to keep your costs down, environmental impact low, and creative use of available materials high?


Planets and Space Travel

There is an updated version of this post at:


We’ve learned about Gravity, our planet, Earth, and we’ve learned about our sun, and stars and constellations that we observe from Earth. This week we learned about the planets in our solar system and about space travel within our solar system. (Note: if you have enough weeks in your schedule, there’s plenty of great activities to split this topic into two weeks – one on planets and one just on space travel.)

Art / Science Projects

Orbital Models: We used a big paper plate to represent the sun, a small paper plate to represent the earth, and the bottom of a Dixie cup to represent the moon (you could also just cut a circle of paper.) Kids can decorate each, then fasten the earth to the sun with a long cardstock strip and two paper fasteners (brads). Show how the earth orbits the sun. Then fasten the moon to the earth with a popsicle stick and two paper fasteners – demo this independent orbit.

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(Note: I don’t know the original source of this idea – it appears all over Pinterest – just search for “sun moon earth model” to see several samples.)

Martian surface. Kids could trace around a lid from a large tub to make a circle on cardstock, then paint it with Mars goo – paint mixed with flour. They could sculpt mountains and craters in the goo. We placed a photo of Mars (from this book) on the table as inspiration.


Art Project

Jet Packs: A friend of ours recently made a more sophisticated (i.e. prettier) version of these. We simplified it down a bit for class. Take a plastic bottle (we used an OJ bottle). Fill with bits of poly-fill for “smoke”. Put the lid on, then tape crepe paper flames (or felt flames) to the bottom of it. Take bias tape or other strings. Lay them on one side of the bottle in an X shape and tape it on. Decorate, adding buttons and such. Then tie on by putting it on the child’s back, and crossing the ties across the chest.

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You could also make jet packs or walkie talkies or other “space gear” by covering cardboard boxes with foil and decorating.

Solar System Crowns. Cut long strips of black card stock. Measure them to fit around a child’s head with a small gap in the back. Have kids cut out paper suns to glue in the center. Then glue 8 (or so… ) glass “stones” on to represent the planets. After the glue dries, punch holes in the ends of the band, and tie a string between them so the child can wear it as a crown. We used tacky glue for this project, which works but takes a long time to dry. A hot glue gun would be faster. (Read Teacher Tom’s thoughts on allowing young children to use hot glue guns.) Note that we had a poster of the solar system and a diagram of the solar system out for information and inspiration.


Comet Streamers: We put out wooden rings and plastic ribbon so they could tie on streamers and make a fun toy to run and play with.


Spin Art: We loosely tied this into the theme of spinning objects in space and to orbits, but really, we do spin art because it’s fun! Take a salad spinner. Cut a circle of paper or a paper plate to fit in the bottom. Drip on some paint on the paper (use a ketchup squirt bottle to make this easy). Close the lid and spin.

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Creation Station: We always have a collage station available in the corner with lots of fun recycled materials, tape, and glue where kids can build anything they want. At the top of the post, you’ll see one student’s rocket ship that she created on a whim.

Melted Crayon Art: Next year, I’d like to have the kids do space backgrounds using melted crayon art (cover a griddle with foil, lay paper on top of the heated griddle, and draw with crayon – the wax melts on to the paper) and then add some planet art on top. The art inspiration is the book Going Around the Sun: Some Planetary Fun, which I review here.

Snack – Kids make something that looks like planets. You could use English muffins split in half that they spread on whipped cream cheese and swirl in food colors. Or make pizza planets on the English muffin. Or decorate round sugar cookies with frosting.

Or just serve the rocket shaped cheddar crackers and the star shaped yogurt-covered cookies from Trader Joe’s.

Puzzles – We put out multiple solar system jigsaw puzzles.

Opening Circle

Question of the Week: Each week, we post a Question of the Week (or more than one) on the board. I define the question this way: When the youngest child in the class walks out today, they should be able to answer this question in at least a basic way. Our questions this week were: What is a planet? What is a moon? What is a solar system? The very simple answers are: Planets are worlds that orbit (go around) a star, like our Sun. A moon is like a mini planet that orbits around other planets, like our moon orbits the Earth. A solar system is made up of all the planets and other things (moons, asteroids, comets and such) that go around a star.

Tool of the Week – Models: Each week we have a featured tool. This is often something we’re using in activities, such as a screwdriver, a hammer, or a magnifying glass. This week, in circle we wanted to talk about the idea of Models, and how scientists build models to better understand things:

  • If something is too small to see (or to see well), we may make a model of it. (We reminded them of how we used Duplo blocks and our bodies to symbolize molecules in our states of matter lesson a few weeks ago.)
  • If something is very big or very far away it may be hard to conceptualize it and how it relates to other objects. Having a model can help.
  • When we move into our engineering unit (coming up next) and prototypes, we’ll also talk about scale models and how we can build something small and cheap to test an idea and problem-solve before we spend a lot of time and expensive materials on building the full-size version.

Orbits: We used our Orbital Mechanics Wand we made in Gravity week to illustrate the basic idea of orbits, by spinning the small ball on a string around the large ball.


Lunar phases: We used a flashlight, a large Styrofoam ball and a small Styrofoam ball to demonstrate how the sun’s light (the flashlight) shines on the moon and what we can see from Earth. If you do this, here’s some recommendations: one – put a pushpin or something on the Earth to represent “where we’re standing.” First have a child just hold the flashlight shining at the earth. Rotate the Earth around to show whether it’s day or night where we’re standing. Then have another adult hold the moon and move that around the earth, and talk about what the moon looks like from where we’re standing. This is a tricky demo to manage the physical logistics of, so practice it in advance.

Solar System: We showed them an orrery – a 3-D model of the Solar system that shows relative sizes and orbits of the planets. Ours was this inexpensive kit from Amazon – the dime is in the picture to give you a sense of scale (note: if you get one of these, be sure to pay very careful attention to which length of metal pin each planet gets mounted on – if you get it wrong, it’s hard for them to orbit past it each other properly.)  This is for display only, as it tends to fall apart if three year olds pick it up and turn it upside down.


We talked some about the planets of the solar system.

And we talked some about space travel – we’d planned to read a book on space travel, but circle was already too long, and we wanted to get them playing hands-on again!

Pretend Play / Large Motor Activity

Rocket Ship: We set up a climber to be a rocket ship. We covered the mats in fabric to look more like a planet surface and less like blue gym mats. We set next to the climber an assortment of space helmets and a couple space suits (tabards with flattened aluminum pans on them.) They could also wear their jet packs. You could also put out technological looking toys here – like a telephone headset (headphones and mike), or joysticks, or computer keyboards for a “control room.”


Moon Walking: We had large sponges (like you use to wash a car.) Rubber band them onto kids’ feet, then have them walk – it feels odd – maybe like ‘walking on the moon.’

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Closing Circle

Planet Models: I have some model planets I made of Model Magic long ago. I brought them along for hands-on experiences during closing circle. They’re little (notice the dime for scale) and squishable so I had to tell the kids to be careful holding them and modeled how to hold them in their open palms, not squeezing them between fingers.


Book: We read Space Walk by Yoon, a nice simple lift-the-flap overview of the solar system with basic rhymes about each planet. In the morning class, we had some kids missing due to illness, so we happened to have exactly 8 kids. I gave each a clay planet. When it came to “their page” in the book, they showed everyone their clay planet, then gave it to me, then lifted the flap to learn about the planet. (In the afternoon class, we had more kids than planets, so did NOT hand out planets to anyone.)

Planet exploration: We used the orrery and the clay planets to talk about each planet – which is biggest – which is smallest – which is closest to the sun – which would be hottest – or coldest – which have rings. This is just to practice observation and categorization.

Song: I taught Zoom Zoom Zoom. Here are the lyrics (and here’s a video of librarians teaching the song.)

Zoom Zoom Zoom, we’re going to the moon.
Zoom Zoom Zoom, we’re going to the moon.
If you want to take a trip, climb aboard my rocket ship.
Zoom Zoom Zoom, we’re going to the moon.

Verse 2 – Fun Fun Fun we’re going to the sun.

Verse 3 – Far Far Far we’re going to the stars.

Dance Party: We got the comet streamers we’d made out (and we had extras for anyone who didn’t make one. We put on this YouTube video and danced around, singing along and waving our comet streamers.  The video adds in this chorus: We can have a party on the stars with Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Jupiter might just sing a tune, with Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

More Books


As always, I’ll give affiliate links for the books I recommend – the link allows you to easily go to Amazon, learn more and read reviews. (If you buy anything, I receive a small referral fee. But really, I recommend that you get books from your local library whenever possible!)

  • Roaring Rockets by Mitton. A nice circle time book for ages 2 – 5, with simple rhyming text and a very basic intro to space travel.
  • I Want to Be an Astronaut by Barton. Another simple preschool book on space travel – frankly I like Roaring Rockets better because there’s a rhyme and rhythm to that book, which is lacking in Barton’s text. But again, another good illustration of the very basics of space travel.
  • Floating in Space by Branley – of the Hayden Planetarium. If you have a 5 – 8 year old who really wants to learn more about space travel, this is a good book for reading one-on-one, but way too long and detailed for use in class.
  • Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me by Eric Carle is a lovely bedtime book with Carle’s great trademark art style but it’s definitely fantasy not science.
  • Happy Birthday, Moon by Asch. Another gentle “bedtime-style” book where Bear imagines having conversations with the moon (really an echo). I read both these books to my son when he was three and again when he was five. At five he gets that you can’t climb a ladder and reach the moon and that the moon doesn’t talk to you and give you presents. But he still enjoyed these books, partially due to his delight in understanding that he has a more sophisticated understanding of how the universe works than these characters do.
  • Mousetronaut by astronaut Mark Kelly starts with a true story of mice aboard the space shuttle, but then moves into fiction. Fine read.

There are many series of non-fiction books about planets, all of which have 8 books, with titles like “The Moon” or “Jump to Jupiter” or “Ringed Giant – the planet Saturn.” Go to your library and flip through them and see which series is best for your audience.

Take-Home Activity: We sent home a copy of this solar system mobile that kids could decorate, cut out and put together with parents’ help. (Note: making a mobile that balances is kind of an advanced engineering skill… )  It would be best to copy it on 11×17 card stock if that’s possible for you. There’s another solar system mobile here.

Videos and Apps

You would think there would be good planet-themed apps. I haven’t searched recently, but two years ago, when I had a three year old who was wild about the solar system, I searched and searched and didn’t find anything worth bothering with. If you have one you like, add a comment!

Videos are a whole different matter! There’s lots of good ones. My son loved:

And more… these are all toddler / preschool friendly songs about planets:



Bedtime Math


From Bedtime Math app (see below)

Let’s talk about math…

When we talk about academic subjects, or job skills, it’s always up there with reading at the top of the list of “most important things to know about.”

Yet, if you ask parents what they do to teach kids to read, they will say: we do bedtime stories every night, we go to the library, we practice reading signs, menus, and labels – they have a whole list of ideas. Many of those parents, though, if you asked them what they do to teach their child math, might draw a blank or protest that although they can teach the bare basics, they can’t really teach their kid math, and they’re counting on preschool and school to do that.

Can we instead think about easy ways to incorporate math into everyday interactions and play just as easily? Of course we can, here are some opportunities you could use for talking about math and resources to help you do it:

Bedtime Math

Download the Bedtime Math app, designed for kids age 3 – 9. It’s free and it’s available for Apple or Android. Just as you do a bedtime story, why not a bedtime math story problem? This app tells a short story from the news or a bit of trivia, then offers three levels of math questions: Wee Ones, Little Ones, and Big Kids (and sometimes “the sky’s the limit” questions). I think the idea is supposed to be that you do the level right for your child. My five year old likes to do all of them, plus any bonus questions that might pop up. Wee Ones questions tend to be counting or simple addition or subtraction – my son can do many of these on his own, others with hints, Little Kids question may be two number addition / subtraction, my son can do these with hints and help. The Big Kids questions are too hard for him to do, but I talk him through how I solve it. There are lots of other math apps out there with lots of bells and whistles, but this one focuses on parent-child interaction – like a bedtime story, and is a nice way to settle down at bed time or nap time. There are also Bedtime Math books if you prefer the low tech option. In a research study, children who did Bedtime Math with their parents for a school year gained a three month advantage over their peers on math skills. Children of math-phobic parents made even more gains.

Addendum: I share my personal experience with Bedtime Math 5 months later in this post.

If you don’t want to use the Bedtime Math app or books, you can create your own story problems on the fly with ANY book you read at bedtime!

  • Very hungry caterpillar: Wee One question: he ate through one apple on Monday and two pears on Tuesday – how many pieces of fruit is that? Little Kid: How many pieces of fruit did he eat on Wednesday through Friday. Big kids: How many total pieces of food does he eat, including all the things he eats on Saturday?
  • Cat in the Hat: “He’s holding a book, umbrella, and fish bowl – how many things is that? Now he’s holding those plus a cup and a cake, two books, a little toy ship and some milk in a dish – how many things is that?”
  • Madeline – there were twelve little girls in two straight lines – how many kids per line?
  • Good Night Moon – there’s 2 little kittens and a young mouse. Which is there more of?
  • Guess How Much I Love You – who can jump higher – Big Nutbrown Hare or Little?

Asking just one or two math problems per story would go a huge way toward fostering math literacy alongside reading skills.

Turn (almost) any conversation into a math conversation

Check out Talking with Your Kids About Math. This is a fabulous blog, where he gives lots of examples of daily conversations with his kids (currently age 7 and 9, I think, but blog includes tips from when they were younger) and how he brings in math concepts in an engaging, curiosity-inspiring way.

Hands-On Activities

If you have a little one who is learning one-to one correspondence, Wonder Baby offers some fun hands-on activity ideas. I also like the book OLD MACDONALD’S FARM (Poke-A-Dot!). Generally, I’m not a fan of gimmicky books, but I love the way this ties a familiar song in with counting, and the fact that the poke-a-dot mechanism provides feedback that they’ve already counted that one, so they only count each dot once.

How Wee Learn suggests 6 realms of math tasks to work on with preschoolers: counting, recognizing numbers in writing, one-to-one correspondence, shapes, measuring, and patterning. Then goes on to suggest easy, cheap hands-on activities that teach each of these skills. Some examples:

  • Recognizing numbers: using masking tape to make numbers on the floor, hopping from one number to the next, playing with home-made number blocks
  • Patterning: with contact paper, pipe cleaners and beads, and play-dough kebabs

For lots more hands-on ideas, just search pinterest for preschool math activities!

Counting Songs and Books

Play it Again Mummy suggests Math Games for 12 – 30 month olds, which also includes tips for success with number play. Among her suggestions:

  • Counting Songs. Countdown songs like 5 Little Monkeys jumping on a bed, or 10 Little Indians, or 5 Little Ducks are all great teaching tools, especially if you have props. A bath-time game with 5 rubber ducks can teach one-to-one correspondence plus the concept of zero (no little ducks came back…)
  • Counting Books: There are lots of wonderful options. Here are recommendations from What We Do All Day and Children’s Book Guide.

Sports are a fabulous way to practice math skills:

  • I grew up going bowling with my grandparents, and learned lots of math while scoring their games. Sadly, modern bowling alleys all have the scoring machines, but you can make your own bowling game or invent any other game that scores points.
  • When playing catch, or Frisbee, or shooting baskets, or anything, count. Compare scores. Make it complicated by saying: “if you can sink the sock in the laundry basket from here, it’s 1 point, but if you can do it from this line, it’s 3 points.”
  • When watching sports on TV, have your child keep a written score tally

Restaurant Games: When waiting for your food at a restaurant, try out sugar packet math (or jelly packet math if it’s all-day breakfast time)

  • set out anywhere from 2 – 5 packets behind a menu where your child can’t see – raise the menu to show it to them, then hide the packets again – ask your child how many items were there – ask them to put the same number of packets in front of them
  • set up two sets of packets (say, one with three items and one with two) and then ask your child to put together a set of packets equal to the total (five)
  • tell your child to listen as you tap out a number (up to 7 or so) then they put out that same number of packets
  • or say “there are four blackberry jams, two strawberries, and a marmalade – how many total?”
  • In the cup, there were 8 crayons – I took out 3. How many are left?

Board games are probably my favorite math skill builder. They’re so much fun that kids don’t notice the math learning that’s happening.

  • Check out: “In search of the smart preschool board game: What studies reveal about the link between games and math skills” which includes this tidbit: “Geetha Ramani and Robert Siegler (2008) asked preschoolers … to name all the board games they had ever played. The more board games that a kid named, the better his performance in four areas: • Numeral identification • Counting • Number line estimation (in which a child is asked to mark the location of a number on a line) • Numerical magnitude comparison (in which a child is asked to choose the greater of two numbers). The same relationship was found for the number of settings in which kids played board games. Kids who played board games in multiple places performed better on all four math tasks. Similar results were associated with video games and card games, but to a much lesser degree.”
  • There are board games that are explicitly designed to teach math. Some are fun. Some are just flash cards and homework worksheets in disguise and not much fun for kids or parents.
  • You can instead look for any game you have to score… here’s a list of ideas:
  • You can make games:
  • I learned a whole lot of math (and strategy) by playing Hi Hi Cherry O, then Triple Yahtzee and Scrabble (double letter counts and double word counts and so on add up to lots of math challenges.) Another good option is Rack-o.
Learn more about the developmental process of teaching math to preschoolers here:
Have some fun with math today!

Earth and Earthquakes

A more recent version of this post can be found at


Our theme this week was the Earth and earthquakes. As always, we began class with Discovery Time, where we let kids explore all our activities hands-on (activities are described later in this post), before we talk to them about the day’s concept or the scientific theories we’ll be discussing. This raises their curiosity, allows for a-ha moments of independent learning, and raises questions which helps them engage more with the answers we give. Then we have opening circle, then tinkering time to explore more.

Opening Circle

Today’s question: What causes an earthquake?

To answer the question, we have to step back a little and talk about the plates of the earth’s crust. Before we do that, we have to step back and explain what the earth is and what it’s composed of. (When working with young children, it’s important to do this stepping back – don’t assume they already know science basics – be sure to cover them!)

So, the order of ideas we wanted to express were:

  1. Earth is the planet that we live on.
  2. It’s shaped like a ball, but the ball is made up of many layers.
  3. We live on the top layer, the crust.
  4. The crust is made of several big plates that fit together like a puzzle.
  5. When those plates bump up against each other, or rub against each other, they cause earthquakes. Little earthquakes happen all the time, and mostly don’t cause damage.
  6. But, a big earthquake can knock over trees and buildings, so we do need to know what to do to stay safe if we feel an earthquake.

In the morning, we tried leading an interactive discussion of all these topics, with props, and it worked OK, but the kids were kind of squirrelly and un-focused. In the afternoon, we instead used a book to guide the discussion. The familiar routine of settling down around a book helped to settle the class energy and keep them more focused. We read Earthquake! by Bauer, which covered all the ideas we wanted to cover in simple-to-understand terms. It had pictures of buildings that had fallen over or been damaged in earthquakes, but they were not frightening (many kids’ books about earthquakes have pictures or words that could cause a lot of fear and anxiety.) When reading through the book, you can incorporate hands-on visual aids. There was a picture of a globe, and if you have one, you could pause a moment there to explain what a globe is. When it discussed the layers of the Earth, we showed our model magic sphere (see below) – we could have also used the rainbow puzzle (see below). We then passed around the sphere for them to touch. When the book talked about how the crust is broken into pieces that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, we showed our tectonic plate jigsaw (see below). When it talked about plates bumping up against each other, we showed with a cracker what happens. (As described on Mad Sci Network. There’s a more complicated graham cracker demo on Homeschool Den.) The book also showed a picture of a seismograph, so we reminded them to check out our DIY seismograph in the other room.

Tumbling Mat Demo of Tectonic Plates: We had set up the mats on the floor in advance for the kids to sit on during circle. At this time, we had them get off the mats, and told them to imagine that the blue mat and the rainbow mat were two tectonic plates bumping up against each other… we pushed each one toward the other… The rainbow mat buckled up to relieve the pressure – creating a mountain!


Earthquake Drill: We talked about the fact that today we’re playing with the idea of earthquakes, and having fun knocking over Duplo houses and plastic trees with fake earthquakes. But, we said, real earthquakes can be scary when they happen and can be dangerous, and you need to know what to do. We explained that when the ground shakes it can knock you over, and also things can fall on you, and you could get hurt. So, if the ground starts shaking, you need to drop, cover and hold on. We practiced doing this together during circle (in a room with no tables) and then practiced again later in the day while the kids were in a room with tables.

For adult reference, here’s the current recommendations on what to do (source):

  • DROP down onto your hands and knees (before the earthquakes knocks you down). This position protects you from falling but allows you to still move if necessary.
  • COVER your head and neck (and entire body if possible) under a sturdy table or desk. If there is no shelter nearby, only then should you get down near an interior wall (or next to low-lying furniture that won’t fall on you), and cover head and neck with your arms and hands.
  • HOLD ON to your shelter (or to your head and neck) until the shaking stops. Be prepared to move with your shelter if the shaking shifts it around.

What NOT to do: Do NOT stand in doorways. In modern buildings, the doorways are no stronger than other parts of the house. You are safer under a table. Do NOT go outside. Although it is safer to be near an interior wall, away from windows, it’s not a good idea to run to another room during an earthquake. It’s better to drop, cover, and hold.

“Rabbits in the Hole” story. Preschools and parents of little ones can use a story to frame their earthquake drill. You can make up your own story about a mama rabbit that warns its babies of danger and tells them to run into the hole to be safe, and then extend that idea to hiding under a table, or “making your own hole” by covering the back of your neck and head. Then when it comes time for earthquake drills, you could call “bunny in a hole” have the kids practice drop, cover, and hold.

I have written a Bunnies in the Hole book you can download and print. Here’s the PDF.

Weekly Engineering Challenge – Every week, we have a challenge activity which encourages kids to build something, test it, re-build it…

Duplo Shake Tables: I built two shake tables (earthquake simulators). For the first, I took two duplo base plates and rubber-banded together, back to back. Then inserted four rubber bouncy balls in between them, one at each corner. For the second, I cut the cover off an old three ring binder to get two stiff “boards.” Then I placed two dowels between them for them to roll back and forth on, then rubber banded that together, and taped a Duplo base board to it. On both shake tables, if you bump a corner or pull back then let go of one side, it would jiggle and shake.

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We had Duplos out, so they could build Duplo towers. If they built a very tall tower, the “earthquake” would knock it down. Unfortunately, Duplos are pretty sturdy, and it was easy to buid towers that could withstand the shake. We’ll bring the shake tables back in our unit on Engineering: Towers and try other materials on the shake table that are more challenging to make earthquake proof.

For detailed instructions on building shake tables, and related activities / discussions, see or or the video here:

Science Exploration Activities (during Discovery Time and Tinkering Time)

Earthquake on Sand: We filled a large pan with sand, then placed nearby plastic fences and trees and some flat rocks. We also put a back massager tool next to it that could be used to create a vibration. If you held the back massager to the side of the pan just right, the sand would start to jiggle, then shift and move, knocking over the trees and fences, carrying the rocks across the pan – flowing almost like water. Clear evidence for why not to build on loose soil in an earthquake zone!


Seismograph: On the table with the back massager activity, we placed our home-made seismograph which could be used to track the vibration of the “earthquake.”


The seismograph is built with a cereal box, a plastic champagne glass, string, pennies for weights, and a marker. You feed adding machine paper through slots, and the marker tracks the vibration. (A seven year old in the class also built one at class, using a cup from an egg carton as a substitute for the plastic champagne glass.) Here’s the sign I made to go with the seismograph. Find directions to make your own seismograph here:

Understanding Earth’s Layers. We put out 4 ways to illustrate earth’s layers – an illustration, nesting easter eggs, a model of the earth, and a puzzle of nesting rings. The model was made with Model Magic  – on Monday, I made a ball of white clay for the inner core and let it dry overnight. On Tuesday, I covered that with a layer of red for the outer core – you’ll see that my proportions are off – I need less white or more red. On Wednesday I added the yellow “mantle” and let it dry. On Thursday, I painted it – the paint layer is the Earth’s crust. On Friday, I very carefully cut it in half with a bread knife.

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Understanding Tectonic Plates – a jigsaw puzzle. This is easy – just find an illustration online of a world map with the plates shown. Print it, laminate it, cut it along the fault lines.


Make a Tsunami Wave – we filled the water table with water and some glitter. You can create a wave by simultaneously lifting and pushing one end of the table. (The kids can also just splash in the water.)

Rock Sifting: In the sensory table, we put sand, then tossed in some pebbles and bigger rocks, then added scoops and sifters. They could fill the sifter with sand, shake it till all the sand fell out, and see the pebbles and rocks. Optional: You can talk about rock formation with this… here’s a site that discusses erosion, transport, deposition and cementation:


Observation Table – Rocks. One of the key skills we need to build in a young scientist is observation – learning how to look at an object in depth, describe it, and sort it by multiple criteria. Rocks are a great opportunity for this. We put out a collection of rocks, magnifying glasses, and a book to help them learn more: We used Rocks: Hard, Soft, Smooth, and Rough by Rosinsky. The older kids were very actively using the book as a resource for their exploration. Other good resources on rocks are: School Yard Geology and Every Pebble Tells a Story.


Art Activities (Process-focused – not beautiful products!)

Puffy Paint Earth: We mixed shaving cream, Elmer’s glue, and green liquid watercolor to make puffy paint to paint on to blue cardstock circles. We had a photo of the Earth posted next to the table for inspiration. You could do more with this by having cotton balls to pull apart to make clouds, and pebbles to build mountain ranges on your continents.


Coffee Filter Earths: We put out coffee filters, liquid watercolors and pipettes, plus pictures of the Earth for inspiration. Kids could drip on watercolors. With little ones, they tend to use a LOT of watercolor when working with pipettes, and soak the trays, so after they finish with a coffee filter, you need to use paper towels to mop up their extra color. You could reduce this issue by using eye droppers with a slow flow rather than pipettes. If it’s warm out, you can hang coffee filters on a string, and let kids spray them with spray bottles of diluted colors.


Craft: Terrarium

As well as being a fun process, this also produces a nice product – worthy of gift giving, so you could choose to do this project right before a holiday and make them as gifts. (See photo at top of post.)

Students were asked to bring a clean glass jar from home, such as a peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, or applesauce jar. We explained that the earth was made of layers of different kinds of rocks, and this layering activity was a way to experience that. We set it up assembly line style, where kids went down the line, and put in first sand (this is an optional layer – it’s an inexpensive way to fill a little space at the bottom of the jar), then rocks and pebbles (important for drainage), then charcoal (to reduce odors and mold), then soil, then the plant. (We used cacti and succulents.) When you remove the plant from its little pot, you do need to shake off some of the extra soil to expose the roots and make it easier to nest down into your soil. You should pack the soil in a little around the plant, or water it to compress it a bit – otherwise, the first time they water it at home, the soil compresses and leaves the plant poking up out of it a bit.


Note: This project is more expensive to do than most of the projects I discuss on this site. (Especially if you buy all the products at a specialty garden store two days before the class…) As an FYI, here’s the products / quantities we used to make 20 terrariums.

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Horticultural Sand – 1 quart ~ $6. (If you have clean play sand, that may be a cheaper option.) Decorative garden rocks – 2 pounds of pebbles, 1 quart of larger rocks ~ $9. (Again, you could probably “wild gather” your rocks, but you’d want to clean them so the terrarium is a pretty clean system.) Horticultural Charcoal – 1 quart – $10. Cactus Soil – 3 quarts ~ $9. (Note: those are approximate costs you’ll pay in a store – if you buy from Amazon, you may have additional shipping costs.) Succulents – 20 – $30. (The $30 is if you order a week in advance from Amazon – I paid $60 buying them at the garden store just before the event.)  So, it works out to $3 or more per kid. ($5 the way I did it… )


Snack – Layers. You can either do a yogurt parfait where kids layer together yogurt, fruit and granola, or a mud cup where they layer together chocolate pudding, bananas, crumbled graham crackers, and a gummy worm.

Closing Circle – Younger Kids (3 – 4 year olds)

Book: If You Find a Rock by Christian. “If you find a rock – a big rock – by the edge of the water, then you have found a splashing rock. When it hits the surface, the water jumps out of the way… the bigger the rock, the wetter you get. If you find a rock – a great rock – that towers over you, then you have found a climbing rock. Hold on with your toes and fingers, grip hard as  you stretch up and pull until you reach the top, where you feel much grander than you did on the ground.”

If you can’t find this book, a nice alternative is  Everybody Needs a Rock by Baylor. This is a lovely book about finding a very special rock to carry with you. “Don’t get a rock that is too big. It won’t fit your hand right and it won’t fit in your pocket. A rock as big as an apple is too big. A rock as big as a horse is MUCH too big. Don’t choose a rock that is too small. It will only be easy to lost, or a mouse might eat it, thinking that it is a seed…”

(Either book would also be a great read before a hike to somewhere your child could find a special rock. They both do a nice job of making rocks feel special and uniquely important to a child.)

Rock Exploration: We brought in the rocks from the exploration table, and discussed as a group their colors, we found the biggest and smallest ones, we picked out all the rough ones from the smooth ones, and so on. This is great pre-academic skill building. Another activity you could add here is to ask each child to pick out one rock to study in detail and talk over with their parent or another child. Then put all those rocks into a basket of rocks, pour it out on the floor, and ask them to find their own rock again. This is a good test of their observation skills, and teaches visual discernment of details.

Parachute earthquake: Get out a parachute. Throw a soft ball or other object in it. Make an earthquake, shaking and shaking till the object flies out. Repeat endlessly. 🙂

Optional – could also read Round Like a Ball, a nice book about the Earth.

Closing Circle – Older Kids (age 5 – 7)

Book: Either Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth! by Gay – a fun little book about digging a hole to the center of the earth, or Pandas’ Earthquake Escape by Perry, which is about a mama panda and her babies escaping an earthquake. The nice thing about this book is its an engaging story about a mother and her children (the kids really enjoyed listening to it), but I think it’s a bit long for circle, and it also shows animals running away in an earthquake to try to find safety, when we’ve just taught that the best thing is to drop, cover and hold.

Slinky Waves: You can use a slinky to illustrate two kinds of earthquake waves. For a p-wave, you stretch it out, then give a quick push-pull on one end – the wave travels to the other end and back again. For an s-wave, you swing it side to side – this works better if the slinky is laid on a table than if it’s held in the air. Here’s two detailed discussions of this activity: and  (Note: this second link is also just a great overall resource about earthquakes.

The Human Wave: This is good IF the kids have recently studied States of Matter. Have the kids put their arms over each other’s shoulders, chorus line style. (They’re solid matter.) Put one teacher on each end of the line. Push on the shoulder of the kid on the end – they all rock toward the other teacher – she pushes back… this is how a P wave moves through solid. Then have the last person in line bend forward at the waist, then straighten up again – that spreads down the line – this is an S wave moving through solids. Then have kids stand shoulder to shoulder but without linking up – they’re now a liquid. The p-wave will still travel through them, but the S wave will not. Learn more here: