Model Magic Clay

If you’re not familiar with Model Magic air dry clay, I have to say it’s one of my favorite materials to work with. Not unpleasant to touch (like Sculpey) or to smell (like Play-Doh), and extremely malleable. It’s a very forgiving material when you’re working with it. It doesn’t start getting dry and crumbly while you work, it doesn’t stick to or stain your hands. It takes about 24 hours for creations to dry, and has to be handled carefully during this time so it doesn’t get squished flat, but after that, it’s pretty durable. Really easy to mix colors – I find them one of the most effective ways to illustrate color mixing for kids… you’ll see in the picture below that the blue and yellow blend together completely to make a nice pure green. (Color mixing tip: put two colors together then twist then fold. Repeat till mixed. The twisting really mixes them well).

IMG_20160515_080320608  IMG_20160515_080410543  IMG_20160515_080430454  IMG_20160515_080538676

Examples: I used Model Magic to make a model of the Earth’s layers and a model of the solar system to use in class demos. We use them for fossil impression in Dinosaur week or shell impressions in Sink or Float week, and to make insects in Bug week.


It is much cheaper in bulk. If you buy a small package with 6 half-ounce packets, it’s $6 – that’s $2 an ounce. I bought 75 one-ounce packs 75 one-ounce packs for $39. That’s 52 cents an ounce. (It also comes in several other sizes.)

You need to make your items pretty small for them to dry effectively. This is not a good product for big sculptures, but fine for little things – like bugs. The balls for the spider were about the size of shooter marbles, the balls on the caterpillars were smaller than marbles, but bigger than peas. I didn’t keep track of how many bugs we could make with one ounce of clay, but I’d guess four?

Balloons – A collection of STEM activities for kids

You could use these ideas as their own theme, or you could use them in Wind and Flight week, or in States of Matter when you discuss gas / air.

Question: How can you hold air? (One answer will be balloons, but we’ll also talk about all the containers that hold air inside them.)

Balloon Pump and Let Go: A really simple and cheap activity that can keep kids entertained for hours: give them a balloon pump and a pile of balloons. (Note: Kids age 4 and up can do this alone. The 2 and 3-year-olds needed help getting the balloon on and off the pump, but could pump by themselves.) They pump it up, then pull the balloon off, and let it go – it flies around the room as the air flows out. Hilarious! You can also talk about thrust if you want to and how the wind flowing out pushes the balloon forward. (This post does a great job of describing how to talk about the science of this with your child.)

Balloon Rocket Races: Make a track – thread a string through a straw. Tie the string from one side of the room to the other. Blow up a balloon, but don’t tie the end, just hold it carefully closed. Tape the balloon to the string, let go of the balloon, watch it fly (See pictures here). Another way to do this is to make a rocket out of an empty water bottle – mount the rocket on the straw. Then blow up the balloon and tape it to the bottom of the rocket.

Can air pressure hold up a cup: Watch the video. Basically, you put an uninflated balloon inside a plastic cup. Blow it up till it fills the cup – lift it up, it lifts the cup.

Balloon Face with Ears: Child can draw a face on an uninflated balloon. Then you blow up the balloon slightly. Have them hold two plastic cups – one on each side of the balloon – they need to apply pressure. Then you blow up the balloon – the air pressure should hold cups there. Apparently this is easier if you wet the cups first.

Helium Balloon vs. Balloon I blow up. Compare a helium balloon with a balloon your child has blown up. How are they the same? How are they different? Why?

How many balloons does it take to lift… Get some helium balloons. Find a basket or bag to tie on – try filling the bag with a variety of items (dominoes? coins? plastic dinosaurs?) How many objects can one balloon lift? If you add a second balloon, how many can you lift? You can also choose a heavy object and guess how many balloons you’ll need to lift it (Source). Just for fun, you could show a clip from the movie Up, with the house being carried away by balloons.

DIY Hot Air Balloon. We built a hot air balloon shape from tissue paper and blew a hair dryer into it to create the hot air to make it rise. It was moderately successful, but the balloon kept leaking air. You might have better luck with paper lanterns, using a hair dryer instead of candle/fuel burner. Or you can use a plastic trash bag or dry cleaner’s bag.

Hovercraft: Build a hovercraft with a balloon and CD. (I haven’t tried this one yet.)

Books to Read: Curious George and the Hot Air Balloon or Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Sweet.

Specialized Toys for STEM classes

In our Inventors’ Lab (a STEM enrichment class for age 3 – 7), most of the time, we try to plan projects using common everyday items like straws, pipe cleaners, Duplos, cardboard boxes, toilet paper tubes and other items from the recycling bin. (Read more about our “Cardboard and Plastic Lids” philosophy here.) We want our projects to feel accessible, affordable, and like something that parents could easily replicate and extend with materials they have at home.

However, we do also bring in some specialty toys that are fun, unique, and illustrate concepts well that we can’t illustrate otherwise. For example, though it would be possible to build a conveyor belt, it would be tricky! So, we bought a toy one to illustrate how they work. In this post, I will collect a list of all these specialty items, and Amazon affiliate links to each one. Most of them are probably not toys I’d buy for one child to use at home (I prefer open-ended flexible toys to closed-ended single purpose toys.) But, they can be great supplements in a STEM classroom.

Simple Machines Toys

Pulleys. I think having a set of basic pulleys enables lots of fun science play – you can buy them from a hardware store or sporting goods store, or you can rig your own from an empty spool. Here’s a link to the ones we use in class: Block & Tackle Pulley Kit

Inclined Planes. When we study inclined planes, we bring in a toy Conveyor Belt, although technically it’s closer to a pulley in function than to an inclined plane. This is a great toy for the sensory table, though rice did clog it up from time to time. You shake it and rattle it around for a bit to clear it out.

Wheels and axles. We used these fun Rolobox Wheels that can be easily attached to any cardboard box. At the moment (October 2016), for some reason, there are none available for a reasonable price on Amazon, but hopefully they reappear.

Levers. For both this class, and our Build a House class, I want the kids to have a good quality sturdy toy hammer to play with. We’ve been happy with the one that comes with the Black & Decker Jr. Set. It’s stood up to LOTS of use with kids pounding wood golf tees into Styrofoam, and using the hammer’s claw to pull them back out again. Note: if you’re working with kids age 5 and up, just get real hammers! (Small ones.)

Wedges. Gosh, I really want there to be some kind of fun toy axe with fake wood that it splits apart, kind of like the toy food toy food where you cut the Velcro apart with a toy knife. But sadly, such a product does not exist…

Screws. We just found this toy Grain Auger, which functions like an Archimedes’ screw, and we look forward to adding it to the sensory table this year.

I also like this toy drill which allows you to drill plastic bolts into a plastic plate, and then reverse them out again. I bought it for my child. He didn’t use it enough to justify the cost. But with the kids in my class, it definitely gets used enough to be worth it. It’s quite popular in a class setting!

Simple Machines sets

The Learning Resources Simple Machines Set is not a toy that your child will play with on their own for hours on end. But, what it’s good for is demos to a class – it’s quick, clean and easy demo of each machine. Caution, the activity cards that come with the set are not always clearly written, and not always scientifically reliable. For example, they ask: between the lightweight barrel and the heavy barrel, which one takes more rope to lift? This, of course, totally misses the point… they take the same amount of rope (i.e. distance pulled) to lift up to the same height. It’s the amount of effort that is different.

b20a037b-14c1-4e49-a23c-a40600e69049 Duplo Early Simple Machines III. I have a full review of this kit here. Quick summary is that it’s a great kit, with some really fun projects (some not as exciting), and some specialized pieces that I’m not sure you could find elsewhere. But it’s not really that specific to the simple machines concept, and it’s really pricey!  ($150)

Other Engineering Related Toys

The KEVA Wrecking Ball was a lot of fun in our week where we built towers. (Part of our engineering curriculum is about the idea of building something, testing it, then re-building it better… in the case of towers, that means trying to build the most stable one you can. How do you test if it’s stable? You try knocking it down!) You can, of course, build your own wrecking ball / pendulum in many different ways, but this is a fun specialty toy that’s pretty cheap.

I absolutely LOVE marble runs (or ball runs, or marble mazes, whatever you want to call them – those things where you line up the tracks in a wide variety of ways and run a ball down them, then adjust the tracks and run it again to get the longest run, fastest run, most dramatic run, or whatever. We built a magnetic wall with PVC pipes, and I have the instructions plus lots of other ideas for simpler ways to build marble runs here. There’s tons and tons of pipe style marble runs on Amazon, lots for pretty low prices. Just search for marble run. One of my favorite sets is the Learning Resources Tumble Trax. You could use it on a refrigerator or other metal surface. We use an oil drip pan.

Contraptions week. Near the end of our Engineering unit, we study Rube Goldbergs. An essential item is domino chains. Although you can, of course, set them up manually, it’s also really fun to have something that sets them up automatically, like this Domino Train Toy Set. To be totally honest, re-loading the dominos into their cartridge is time-consuming, so as an adult, I could set my own domino chain faster than the train can do it, but it’s still fun.

Science-related Toys

Solar System Model. I don’t know if this counts as a toy, because it’s not really up to a lot of hands-on play from children, but, when teaching the solar system, I find that having an orrery is a very effective teaching tool. A cheap DIY one is this Solar System Planetarium.


Wind Tube. Although you can buy wind tubes, they tend to be quite expensive, so we built our own Wind Tube, based on directions from the Exploratorium. It’s a clear tube mounted above a fan. When you place really lightweight things in the tube, like a scarf, they blow right out the top. If you place a heavy thing, it sits on the fan. The most fun are the mid-weight items – the plastic ball that’s too heavy to float, but will roll round and round in circles on the fan, or the paper cup that will float a few feet up but never quite escape the tube. It’s a great deal of fun to play with for everyone from toddlers to adults. See videos of the tube in action:

Electricity: I really like littleBits, and they are easy for children as young as 4 to click together and explore different configurations. But, they are stupidly expensive! (Learn more about them in my Electricity post.)

I also have a set of Snap Circuits Kit, which are much more affordable. My husband also thinks they do a better idea of really illustrating how circuits work. However, they take a lot more fine motor skill and finger strength than a 3 or 4 year old child has, so they’re not as good of a fit for my class.

I have a more detailed review of Snap Circuits and littleBits here. That post includes some simplified instructions I created for  Snap Circuits – I thought their instructions were hard for young children to follow, so I re-designed my own.

Periscopes – I think binoculars and magnifying glasses should be a part of every child’s resources at home. Telescopes are fun, but since I live in the Seattle metro area, with all its clouds and ambient light, I’ve never felt the need to invest in one. For our class on submarines, we put out two different periscopes for kids: the Backyard Safari Periscope and the Elenco Adjustable Periscope. The Elenco is much cooler because it’s much bigger, but the Backyard is more manageable for the three to five year old’s motor skills.

periscope1 periscope2

Useful, fun, not really educational, but cheap toy

A Balloon Pump is terribly useful if you have lots of balloons to blow up – much easier on your lungs. But, it’s also tons of fun for small children – so easy to blow up a balloon, let it go and fly/splutter across the room. And repeat. For hours.

What are your favorite unique specialty toys that you use in a STEM context? Please share ideas in the comments!

Science Themed Snacks

I teach a STEM enrichment class for children age 2.5 – 7, called Family Inventors’ Lab. We’re a cooperative program, which relies on parent volunteers in the classroom. Once each quarter, a parent is responsible for bringing and serving snacks for the whole class.

As a working parent of a small child, I understand that life is busy, so I always say it’s totally fine if they just bring in anything they happen to have handy in the cabinet.

But… if they WANT to tie into the theme of the week, they can. If they WANT to lead a “cooking” activity, they can. This post is my collection of ideas to match each of the themes this year.  They’re only suggestions – almost anything the parent wants to do is OK. (Parents, see more tips at the bottom of this post.)

10-Sep         CDL        What is an Inventor?

Provide some kind of “invented food.” For example, instead of fresh blueberries, a natural whole food, provide freeze-dried blueberries – where a scientific process has changed and prolonged the edible life of the blueberries. We also had microwave popcorn – a natural whole grain has other ingredients added to it, and then a modern technology is used to cook it.

17-Sep         RW        Engineering: Towers

Build a tower of food, also known as a fruit kebab: bring long bamboo skewers, and fruit, cut into cubes or other small shapes… bananas, melon, blueberries (whole), strawberries, pineapple all work well. Kids build their tower on a skewer, then eat it.

24-Sep         CDL       Simple machines: pulley & inclined plane

Inclined planes snack: graham crackers and grapes (they can roll the grape down the cracker ramp).

1-Oct           CDL       Engineering: Tunnels and bridges

Build structures with food: provide toothpicks and cheese cubes and/or grapes and/or cubes of French bread, let children build their towers, then dismantle and eat. (You could use other foods, like cubes of apple or melon, or peas, or marshmallow, or gum drops. But, grapes, bread and cheese are easy and healthy. Tip for making cheese cubes… it’s easier when you start with cheese sticks than a big fat block of cheese. Just cut off slices and you have cubes.)

8-Oct           CDL       Simple machines: wedge & lever

Make your own fruit salad. The littlest kids can slice bananas or seedless watermelon with table knives or plastic knives. Middle-size kids could use scissors to snip marshmallows (or maybe grapes) into smaller pieces. Older kids could cut apples, or oranges with a sharper knife. You could also use a melon baller (a variant on a wedge) to cut the melon.

(Hint for why this snack applies to the theme: Knives and scissor blades are wedges.)

15-Oct         RW        If I Built a House

Simplified (and healthier) gingerbread houses: graham crackers for walls, cream cheese or sunflower seed butter to be the “cement” to stick walls together. and dried fruits for decorations.

22-Oct         CDL       Simple machines: axles & screw

Refrigerated make-your-own crescent rolls – you’re rolling an inclined plane up to make a screw shape. Plus apples to use with the Apple Peeler and Slicer that we have in the classroom. OR Rotini noodles and wagon wheel shaped noodles with red sauce. Cook them before class, so when kids want a serving, you can heat up just enough for that child.

29-Oct         CDL       Not Simple Machines: If I Built a Car

Cheese sticks and mini bagels for wheel and axle:, or, since we’ll do a “drive-in movie” that day, could do popcorn.

5-Nov          CDL       Electricity

Something that you need electricity to prepare. 🙂   Something you mix with a hand mixer or a blender. (You’d need to bring one in, as I don’t think we have these in the classroom.) Or something you cook in a toaster oven or in a microwave. One option would be making fruit and yogurt smoothies in a blender… you could have them practice mashing up a little food by hand to see what hard work that is, and then putting food in the blender and whirring it quickly.

12-Nov        CDL       Engineering: Rube Goldbergs & Take Aparts

My only idea is wedges of cheese… we’ll be playing Mousetrap. If you have any other ideas, suggest them in comments!

19-Nov        RW        Wind and Flight

Some kind of “puffs” (Pirate booty, puffed Cheetos, puffed cereal) and straws. They can use a straw to blow around ONE puff while they eat the rest.

3-Dec           CDL       Chemistry – States of Matter

Make your own ice cream. You’d bring all the supplies… recipe here:

Or, if that’s overwhelming, then bring pre-made ice cream and that ice cream topping that’s liquid when you pour it and then hardens when it hits the ice cream. (Note: ask us where the freezer is so we can store the ice cream for the first half hour of class)

Or make popcorn. (When you cook it, the liquid in the kernel turns into a gas, which expands, and causes the “explosion” which turns the kernel into popped corn.)

10-Dec         CDL       Chemistry – Mixtures, solutions, reactions

We’d love to do pancakes, to go with a book we’ll be reading. Coordinate with the teachers to find out what ingredients we would need you to bring.

Beverage: usually, we do only water at snack. But, this week only, we like to do Kool-Aid, or some powdered drink (solid) that they mix with water (liquid) and it dissolves/mixes.

17-Dec         RW        Chemistry – More reactions

Make your own ice cream. (If we didn’t make it two weeks ago.)

Or, if you’re up to it, we could do a yeast bread recipe… we’d need to work together to coordinate this, because we’d need to make the dough at the very beginning of class so it could get a (SHORT) rising time, then shape the rolls at the very end of tinkering time, to eat between outdoor times… timing would be a bit tricky.

7-Jan            CDL       Light and Shadow

Oreos? (And milk to dip them in.) Or something with distinctive silhouettes (like animal crackers) that they could shine a bright flashlight at and see its shadow on the table before eating it.

14-Jan          CDL       Weather and Rainbows

Colorful food: Could do rainbow goldfish, or graham crackers with rainbow chip frosting, or could do fruit skewers where they’d put colorful fruit on a bamboo skewer in rainbow order (red watermelon, orange orange, yellow pineapple, green kiwi or honeydew, blueberries, purple plum or blackberries.)

21-Jan          RW        Dinosaurs

PCC and Whole foods have a dinosaur shaped cheese puff snack. Or there’s Dinosaur Egg oatmeal. There’s probably other dinosaur shaped snack foods. Make jello eggs with a dinosaur shaped gummy or fruit snack inside.

28-Jan          CDL       Geology: Earth & Earthquakes

We’ll be talking about the layers of the earth, and making a layered terrarium, so snack could be either 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 (or oreos), and a gummy worm.

4-Feb           CDL       Gravity & Magnets

Cereal with milk. Must be iron-fortified cereal if you also want to try this experiment… I haven’t tested it yet, so you’d need to test it first at home… but it sounds cool:

11-Feb         CDL       Planets & Astronauts

Trader Joe’s sells rocket shaped cheddar crackers. Horizon makes a graham cracker that’s cows jumping over moons. There’s astronaut ice cream. Or you could do some kind of food in a tube or a packet like the astronauts eat. (like an applesauce packet)  You could also make something that looks like a planet.. like make Jupiter pizzas: English muffins spread with tomato sauce and cheese and heated in toaster oven.

25-Feb         CDL       Stars & Constellations

Trader Joe’s has star shaped yogurt covered cookies. Campbell’s makes chicken and stars soup. Or you could bring star shaped cookie cutters and slices of American cheese to cut.

11-Mar        CDL       5 Senses / Observation skills

Several ideas in this post:

18-Mar        RW        Categorizing Animals / Describing

Animal crackers. Encourage them to sort them, count how many they have of each kind, describe them, etc.

25-Mar        CDL       Habitats

Make blue jello with Swedish fish floating in it? Bring animal crackers, give kids a paper plate labelled with place they might find the animals (desert for camel, jungle for monkey, etc.) When they get their crackers, they first sort them into where they belong, then eat them. Or get cheddar bunnies and goldfish to mix together, and kids have to sort into which lives in water, and which lives on land.

1-Apr           CDL       Adaptations to Environment

We’re doing an activity called Bird Beak Adaptations (described here). You could tie into that, by providing some snack with a utensil that makes it harder to eat… Can they eat spaghetti noodles with chopsticks? How about raisins? Or diced canned peaches? Or can they eat yogurt with a fork? Or drink yogurt with a straw? Or some similar challenge… Let them use tongs (like bird beaks) to serve the food.

15-Apr         RW        Eggs and Seeds

Seeds: Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, peas, edamame / soybeans. (No nuts please!) Or fruit with obvious seeds (cherries, seeded watermelon, peach, etc.) Or hard-boiled eggs. (Note, not all kids like eggs, so bring another item in addition to this.) Could do scrambled eggs, if desired… we have a stove at Robinswood.

22-Apr         CDL       Flowers and Plants

American cheese slices, and flower shaped cookie cutters. Or could bring something flavored with lavender or rosewater, but many kids don’t like these flavors. Or bring any fruit or vegetable!

29-Apr         CDL       Bugs, Skeletons & Exo-Skeletons

You could do a dirt cup (chocolate pudding, crushed oreos, and gummy worms) or bugs on a log (use pretzels or celery as the log, spread on cream cheese  or sunflower butter, then sprinkle on chocolate chips or raisins or dried cranberries to be the bugs.) Or do the butterfly life cycle in pasta… orzo or acine di pepe for the egg, rotini or penne for the caterpillar, conchiglie (shell pasta) for the chrysalis, and bowtie for the butterfly. You could cook these all together in advance, then heat up portions as kids want them. (you’ll need to point out how they represent butterfly life cycle, otherwise kids won’t make the connection.)

6-May          CDL       Birds & Flight

There are recipes for “bird’s nests” made with chow mein noodles and butterscotch chips. Could make those, or use some other combination of items for bird’s nests: maybe pretzel sticks and sunflower seed butter? (no peanut butter, please). Or something egg shaped…

13-May        CDL       Fish / Sink & Float; Boats

Goldfish crackers! Or take bagel (or rice cake), spread on blue cream cheese (take whipped cream cheese and mix in a little blue gel food coloring), and put goldfish crackers in the “fish bowl.” Make your own goldfish crackers (I have a fish shaped cookie cutter. Here’s one recipe for the crackers… I haven’t tested it, so you’d want to test it in advance to see if it’s any good.)

20-May        RW        Robots & Machines

A bowl of snack mix… pretzel rods, cheerios, and Chex with a sign saying “nuts and bolts” and string cheese or licorice ropes with a sign saying “wires” and maybe some candy shapes for “buttons”.


(RW means the class happens at Robinswood Park, CDL means it happens in our Creative Development lab on campus.


Drinks: We always have water for drinks, so no need to bring juice or other beverages.

Could use for any theme:

For almost any theme, you could find cookie cutters that relate to the theme, and you could use them to make sugar cookies or biscuits or other recipes, or you could use them to cut American cheese slices, or bread, or many other things.

Also, if a parent doesn’t want to bring the theme related snack, then any of the following are always winning combinations: apples and cheese; graham crackers and bananas, pita and hummus, goldfish crackers and grapes, and so on.

We do have a nut free, peanut-free policy in our classrooms.

Tips for snack quantities: Snack is an optional activity in class, so not all kids will eat it. And of those who do, they often don’t eat much. So, when you’re planning quantities, if a box of something says it has “8 servings” in it, that’s plenty for 12 – 15 kids. Also, bring something you like to eat, because we’ll ask you to take home the leftovers. 🙂

Always bring two items (two kinds of food). If you only bring one item and a hungry child either doesn’t like that food or is not able to eat it due to allergies, then we have a hungry and unhappy child in class! Providing two types of food means that’s less likely to occur. So, for example, if you’re bringing cheese crackers, you could bring fruit to go with them. Or if you’re bringing cookies, maybe also provide yogurt tubes.

* Facilities and Supplies at Classrooms:

At CDL, we have for serving: disposable cups for water, and disposable plates (snack boats). We have spoons and forks. For preparing: we have mixing bowls, measuring cups, typical kitchen utensils, a microwave and a toaster oven. If you need something specific, ask if we have it, or just check yourself the week before.

At Robinswood, for serving, we have: re-useable cups, plates, and silverware. (Part of the snack parent’s job is to load these in the dishwasher at the end of class.) For preparing, we have mixing bowls, measuring cups, kitchen utensils, pots and pans, a microwave, stove, and oven. Again, if you need something specific, ask us.

Shrinky Dinks from recycled plastic

I’ve heard that it works to do “Shrinky Dinks” from recycled plastic.

We’ve just made one attempt so far, but I thought I’d share my results.

Gather plastics labelled #1 or #6. Cut into desired shapes, decorate with sharpies as desired. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Set them in and watch them. In a minute or so, they’ll suddenly curl up tight and then they’ll gradually uncurl. In another minute or so, they’re done.  (Note: I wondered if off-gassing would be a problem. I personally didn’t get any chemical smell in this process, and I tend to be quite sensitive to it.)

It’s actually a little hard to find #1 and #6 in flat trays that are easy to use for this craft. I’ve been collecting for a while, and the main thing I’ve found is take-out sushi trays. The three plastics I used looked and felt very similar before cooking, so my son expected them to behave in the same way, but they didn’t!

I made scuba divers (I was thinking about using them in a Cartesian diver bottle.) On the top, you see the drawing. The first batch, I didn’t note whether it was #1 or #6. They shrunk a little and thickened a little. I cooked them in a corrugated pie tin (I don’t know if cooking surface affected my results,)

The second batch was #1 plastics cooked on a silicone sheet on a metal pan. Disappointing. They barely shrunk, barely thickened, and several never uncurled.

Batch #3 was the best shrinky dink, in that they shrunk well, thickened well, and stayed flat. But they shrunk way more than the others and the end result was much smaller than I wanted. I plan to experiment more with time, but let me know what your results are!

This is a fun discovery of various results from similar products. If you really want reliable, consistent results, you’re best off using commercial Shrinky Dinks. At $6 for 10 sheets, they’re a cheap option.


Addendum: My son is really into Shopkins, and his new display case came with this packaging. It was #1 plastic, and I had high hopes that we could cut it apart into all the separate Shopkins, punch a hole in each one, shrink it and have small, hard plastic charms.


So, we decided to test it. We cut out the “60+ Shopkins” starburst, and the recycling symbol, and we also traced 4 pictures with a Sharpie, cut them apart, and used a hole punch to punch a hole in each hypothetical charm.


We heated the oven to 350. Popped them in for a few minutes, They curled up tightly (except the starburst, which just got all rumpled) and turned white and didn’t shrink. We ended up with 6 useless bits of curled plastic. Oh well, back to the drawing board….



Our Ten Favorite Activities

For our last session of Family Inventor’s Lab for this year, we brought back several of our favorite activities from the year.

I have starred the ones that you can easily re-create at home or in a preschool or elementary classroom. The others are more complicated, but I’ve given links to how to do them as well.

1. A Jar of Bubbling Goo* – originally seen in Chemical Reactions week. A simple experiment with mesmerizing results! Take a jar, pour in some vinegar and color it, then pour in some oil, then add a baking soda ice cube, and sit back and watch the seething, roiling bubbles! See more here.

2. Kites* – originally seen in Flight week. We made kites with paper and straws (you can also use bamboo skewers), and flew them outside. Here the directions for the Kite, from the Interactive History Company, which is run by my co-teacher Cym.

3. Catapults*. Originally seen in Levers week. We offered the materials to make several types of popsicle stick catapults. We encouraged kids to design one that launches farthest and with the most accuracy. You can find directions here:  Teacher Cym also brought along a medieval pavilion for them to launch pompoms at (and play inside of.)

catapult IMG_20160611_103204935

4. Marble maze – originally seen in gravity and contraptions weeks. We have our own marble maze / ball run that we built. (Directions here.) This week in class, we used a store-bought maze. Both inspire playful tinkering: set something up, test it, adjust it, test it again, aiming for the coolest possible sequence of events. The fine-tuning needed for this teaches attention to detail.

IMG_20160312_133247981 IMG_20160312_133207102

5, Salad Spinner Art* – originally seen in Planets week. So easy – if you have a salad spinner you’re willing to use paint in. Take a paper plate – cut it to the right size to fit in your salad spinner. Have your child add paint to it. (We use mustard and ketchup squeeze bottles full of paint for this job.) Put it in the spinner and spin!


6. Balloon Inflate and Let Go*, seen in States of Matter week. Cheap and easy kid entertainment! Get a couple Balloon Pumps and a bag of balloons at the drug store. Even kids as young as three can do this if you help them mount the balloon on the pump. They pump up the balloon, let it go, and it flies wildly around the room, eliciting lots of giggles!

We also made a new project this week: Balloon Poppers / Marshmallow Shooters*. On Coffee Cups and Crayons, she describes doing this with a cake pop container, but it works just fine using a toilet paper tube or a plastic cup with the bottom cut off. Just tie a balloon (no need to inflate it), then cut off the rounded end and stretch that opening over your tube. Load it with a marshmallow, pompom or whatever, then pull back on the balloon knot and release to launch it. Optional: if you find your balloon is pulling off of the tube when you pull on it, just tape it in place.


7. Ice Melting* originally seen in Rainbows Week. We froze ice in a bundt pan, and placed it in the water tub with salt and small spoons, and diluted liquid watercolor with pipettes and a syringe. Easy, colorful, intriguing to kids, and good fine motor practice – especially learning to use the syringe.

8. Magnetic Sensory Bin* from Magnets week. We buried a bunch of metal washers, clothespins with metal springs, and magnetic balls in black beans and rice, and gave kids magnetic wands to sift them out with.

9. Plastic cup towers.* We brought back the red cups and the wrecking ball from Towers week. Stacking towers and knocking them down is always irresistible.

10. The Wind Tube – originally seen in Flight week: A fan powered wind tube where kids can put objects into the airstream (balloons, scarves, plastic lids, and so on) and see what flies. This is an activity that appeals to any age – from toddler to adult. It encourages playful exploration… “hey, what else can we try? What do you think this will do?” One dad in my class said that when he saw just this one activity, “I was sold on the whole idea of this class.” Learn how to make your own tube: or buy your own (lovely but pricey) one at

Bonus 11th activity: We weren’t able to include the activity at this session. But another absolute favorite activity was light and shadows play with an old-school overhead projector. Be sure to check out the post here.


Circle Time: We sang some of our favorite songs from the year (including When I Build My House), did the States of Matter dance party – pretending to be solid, liquid and gas, and blew some bubbles. We had lots of the books from our list of Recommended Books about Inventors and Makers on the shelf. We read aloud: Going Places and the Most Magnificent Thing.

Next Year: We’re taking the summer off, but if you’re in the Seattle area, and would like to join us next year, you can sign up now at

In the meantime, have a happy summer of inventing, free play, and outdoor time!

Kids’ Books about Inventors and Makers


On this site, you’ll find LOTS of recommended children’s books for kids age 3 – 7 (preschool to second grade). In each weekly blog post, I cover one particular STEM topic and all the activities we did to teach it, including books specific to that theme. So, be sure to check those out. On this page, I’ve collected some of my favorite books about people who dream, invent and build. Our Inventors class strives to inspire kids to explore and to “make things”, and the stories we tell are definitely an important part of that.

Most Highly Recommended Stories (Fiction)

ifhouseIf I Built a House by Van Dusen. A boy designs a house (we see his drawing, and the model he’s built with Legos, Tinker Toys and cardboard). Then we get to tour the inside of  the house he imagines. The Kitchen-o-Mat cooks and cleans, there’s trampolines and ball pits in the living room, and more. Groovy retro art, fun text for reading aloud, great flights of imagination, and great modeling of a kid with maker dreams. This is probably my favorite book for my kids’ inventors class! We read it on Build a House week. (Also  check out If I Built a Car by Van Dusen. The boy imagines then builds a fabulous car, with a swimming pool, fireplace, and instant snack bar. We read it in Build a Car week, along with Galimoto, another great maker book about a boy in Malawi who collects scraps of wire to build a toy car.)

rosierevereRosie Revere, Engineer by Beaty. Rosie dreams of being an engineer, and builds cool stuff out of trash, but then her uncle laughs at her and she stops inventing till Aunt Rose (Rosie the Riveter in her later years) comes to visit. They build a heli-o-cheese-copter. It only flies for a moment and Rosie is discouraged, till Aunt Rose says “it’s the perfect first try! This great flop is over, it’s time for the next”. They keep building together. (Great read for any of our Engineering classes or for Flight week, although there’s lots of other great flight books to choose from, like Violet the Pilot.) You might also enjoy two other books by Beaty:  Iggy Peck, Architect – we read it in Bridges week and Ada Twist, Scientist.

going-places-9781442466081_hrGoing Places by Reynolds. A class is challenged to a “Going Places” contest, then all given identical go kart kits. Rafael is very excited about the project, and assembles the kit PERFECTLY, according to the directions. Then he discovers his neighbor Maya is dreamily watching birds and not building her kit. She builds a fabulous contraption, but it’s not a go-kart. She and Rafael team up to build an amazing and unique go-kart… that FLIES! At the end, they get an even wilder idea for what to build next! This is a very engaging story, not just about building but also about inventing. Bonus points for ethnically diverse characters and gender balance. Age 4 – 7. A good option for Build a Car theme, or Contraptions or Flight.

papaPapa’s Mechanical Fish by Fleming and Kulikoff. A really well-written and enjoyable book that shares the adventures of a family where the father is an tinkerer. His inventions are never quite successful – they “almost work”. He is inspired to make a mechanical fish, and after several failed attempts makes a submarine the whole family can ride in. We read it when studying Sink or Float or Submarines.

Most-Magnificent-Thing-coverThe Most Magnificent Thing  by Spires. A little girl wants to make the most MAGNIFICENT thing. She draws it out, and knows exactly how it will work. But when she tries to make it she fails again and again and gets very discouraged. But then she looks at all the things she made, finds the best thing about each, tries again and succeeds. People love all her “failed” experiments and take them home to use. Great read-aloud for ages 3 – 7. I appreciate that it really shows her emotions and how she deals with them, and lets kids know it’s OK to make mistakes. (This could be a good read for Contraptions week, which also included some other great books, like Mechanimals.)

moatWhat Floats in a Moat? by Berry & Cordell. Very silly and entertaining, great read-aloud that tells about Archie the Goat (named for Archimedes) and teaches about the science of Sink and Float. “Archie the Goat stopped short at a moat. He measured and mapped. He doodled and drew. He sketched and scribbled and scrawled. ‘Aha. To cross the moat,’ announced the goat, “we build a contraption to float!” When Skinny Hen suggests they could take the drawbridge, Archie says “Bah… This is no time for a drawbridge. This is a time for science!” He proceeds through 3 attempts (“he hammered and nailed, clanged and banged”) till he successfully gets across the moat on a half full barrel of buttermilk.

fraidyzooFraidyzoo by Heder. Little T is feeling afraid of going to the zoo, but she can’t remember which animal she is afraid of. Her family says they won’t go to the zoo till they figure it out. They then spend THE REST of the day going through the alphabet, asking “does it start with an A (miming an alligator) or B (holding a red scarf for a bull) or C (using a blanket and three people to form a two humped camel). It gets more and more complex, as they build animals from bubble wrap, cardboard, oven mitts, mops, umbrellas, empty water bottles and more. By the end of it all, little T is excited to plan a zoo trip for the next day. But then at the zoo, her big sister is frightened away by the ticket sales lady. So, they go home and role play that out too! Nice book about a family playing together, building together and empathizing with each other’s fears. Age 3 – 7. May be a good read for Adaptations week, when we’ll be talking about various animals. Could be fun to try to build some animal costumes from our recycled materials supplies!

Also, check out the books from Robots week, like Awesome Dawson and Clink.

Other Good Stories That Didn’t Quite Make “Highest Recommendation”

Inventor McGregor by Pelley and Chesworth. A story of a man who lived in a higgledy-piggledy house with a cheery wife, five children, and a hen called Hattie.
They call him Mend-It McGregor because he fixes everything that breaks in his village. He also invents new things to fix his neighbor’s challenges. He is a very happy man. But then he’s recruited by the Royal Society of Inventors and taken to work in a lovely, quiet, well-furnished lab. Away from the chaos of his community’s life, he is lonely and sad, and also can’t come up with any ideas for what to invent, and returns to his village. Ages 4 – 8, but too long for circle in a group setting.

Anything Is Possible by Belloni and Trevisan. Age 4 – 6. A sheep watches birds flying. She runs to her friend wolf who is a scientist / inventor and asks him to build a flying machine. After initial reluctance, he gets out his triangle and protractor and they starts to sketch (cool DaVinci style sketches of gears, screws, wheels….) They gather materials and build. They launch and fail, rebuild, launch and fail, rebuild, launch… and fly! It’s a fun read, great illustrations (though I find adults like them better than kids do), and good modelling of trying again. Not much explanation of any science of how the thing is supposed to actually fly…. kids won’t care, but some adults prefer more practical books.

11exp11 Experiments That Failed by Offill and Carpenter. Here is a sample experiment: “Experiments with Perfume. Question: Will seedlings grow if given Eau La La instead of water? Hypothesis: Seedlings will like Eau La La better than water. What you need: pots, dirt, seedlings, water, fancy perfume. What to Do: Place dirt in pots. Plant seedlings in dirt. Water one pot with water. Water other pot with perfume. Watch. What happened: Mom cried. Seedlings died.” This is fun and silly and would be my recommended book to read on a week when you discuss the scientific method. We read it when talking about Chemical Reactions.

Henry’s Amazing Machine by Dodds and Brooker. About a boy who invents from the day he is born till his house is filled beyond overflowing with an “amazing machine” with “dripping things, dropping things, pushing, pulling, stopping things… you sure know ho to build things. But Henry, what does it do?” Henry hasn’t a clue until the local carnival announces it is closing down and he moves his machine there. This is a fun read that kids will engage in. Age 4 – 8. Could read for Contraptions week.

The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles by Wasson. A child is full of big ideas and invents crazy stuff. He takes it to show and tell and kids laugh at him. But then his Uncle Roswell has invented the “What If Machine” that can make any idea into reality, but Uncle can’t come up with any big ideas. So Buster shares plenty of his. Great read-aloud for ages 3 – 6.

The Dumpster Diver by Wong and Roberts. Tells the story of Steve the Electrician the dumpster diver, and his assistants: Hose Handler, Hose Handler 2 and Fauceteer. After he dives, they help hose him off. Then they build: they first draw, then measure, drill, and saw and build fabulous things. They turn a blender into a lamp, an old lamp into a table and so on. Pros of this book: encourages building and inventiveness, encourages re-use of used materials instead of sending to landfill. Possible concerns for some children / families: When Steve dives in a dumpster, LOTS of beetles, roaches, and spiders splash out. There may be some people who are troubled by this illustration. In the end, Steve gets cut up by broken glass and rusted metal in a dumpster. One Amazon reviewer liked that this was a cautionary tale that told kids that it wasn’t maybe such a good idea to dumpster dive. Another Amazon reviewer said her children found it very frightening. My 5 year old loved it – no worries for him. Would be a good addition to Contraptions week.

Ziggy’s Big Idea by Long and Joni. About a boy on a shtetl who loves to invent things – though they don’t always work, His father sells rolls for the baker, and Ziggy comes up with the idea of putting a hole in the middle of the boiled and baked rolls to help them cook evenly – inventing the bagel. It’s a fine story which highlights Jewish culture.

Marveltown by McCall. I LOVE how this book starts out: “In Marveltown… we were born to brainstorm: in a city created by inventors, we saw man-made wonders wherever we looked… from rocket-jumping by moonlight to fishing from a mile-high tower, Marveltown kids thought fun without a challenge was no fun at all.” Then it tells of the cool things it invents. So far – fabulous… but then it becomes another story about rampaging robots and how the kids defeat them with their inventions. If I read this in class, I might just read the first half, as there’s only so many rampaging robots stories you want to read in a year.

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Pett and Rubinstein. This tells of Beatrice Bottomwell who is famed far and wide for never making mistakes. One day she slips and almost makes a mistake, but in the end catches four falling eggs before they hit the ground. She worries all that day about her “Almost Mistake.” She watches friends ice skating but is afraid to join them because she doesn’t want to risk falling. Then at the talent show: “for the first time in as long as anyone could remember, Beatrice made a mistake. And it was a big one!” She ends up laughing about it, then after that starts taking more risks, and trying things like ice skating – where yes, she falls down a lot, but she also has lots of fun. Great read-aloud for age 5 – 8. Good for a day when I discuss Willingness to Fail or the Growth Based Mindset in parent education. (The only reason this one is not in my top category of “highest recommendation” is that it’s not about an inventor / maker.)

Non-Fiction Biographies of Inventors

The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Yaccarino. I love this book! The illustrations are fabulous, there are quotes from Cousteau mixed in that capture the magic of his work (“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever”), it starts with Jacques as a young boy who likes to tinker and then moves us through the history of all of his inventions and research in a way that engages us in his dreams and his motivation to keep pushing science forward in pursuit of his dreams. Best for age 4 – 7.

Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Sweet. A Caldecott Honor winner. Great story that starts with a child who “loved to figure out how to make things move….” As an adult, he becomes a marionette and makes his way to New York City, where he then makes window displays for Macy’s, and eventually invents the giant helium balloons that first appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1928. Engaging story-telling, nice illustrations and graphic design, and a celebration of both imagination and hard work. Plus, some American cultural history. Best for ages 6 – 8.

The Great Idea Series, includes books such as In the Bag!: Margaret Knight Wraps It Up and All Aboard!: Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine by Kulling. Very nice biographies, that start with the inventor as a child, which helps students to relate to them, focus on one early invention, and then briefly address the inventor’s longer career. They’re pretty wordy. Best for 6 – 8 year olds. With my class of 3 – 7 year olds, I write my own abridged version of the story that’s only about 30 – 40% as long as the original, I print it up, and I tape it to the back of the book so I can hold up the book to show the pictures, but read a much shorter and simpler language story. Bonus: includes female and African-American inventors.

Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Barretta. (And his other books, Neo Leo: the ageless ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison changed our lives.) These books are well written, with nice illustrations and an engaging style. They’re best for ages 6 – 9, and a bit long, so I don’t use them as read-alouds in my class for 3 – 7 year olds.  Now and Ben has a fun approach where the left page in each spread talks about “Now” – something we do or use now, and the right page talks about “Ben” – what Ben had to do with the invention or implementation of that idea.

Great Imagination Books

These are great books! They’re more about imagination than they are about actually building and inventing real physical objects, so they don’t make my cut of books for inventors and makers, but are well worth the read.

Not a Box and Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis. These two books have an unseen adult asking questions like “What are you doing on top of that box?” “Are you still standing around in that box?” “Hey be careful with that stick.” “Look where you’re going with that stick.” And our protagonist (bunny in Box, piglet in Stick) repeatedly responds “It’s not a box / stick.” And we then get to see what they are imagining it is. (A pirate ship, hot air balloon basket, drum major’s baton, caveman’s spear). Very fun books about imagination, and about the idea that a simple toy can inspire all sorts of imaginative play.  If you like these books, read 5 Best Toys of All Time.

Roxaboxen by McLerran and Cooney. A story of a place that to adults might appear to be a rocky hill in the desert with some trash in it. But to the children, it’s a magical village. “A town of Roxaboxen began to grow, traced in lines of stone… the old wooden boxes could be shelves or tables or anything you wanted…. Frances built herself a new house outlined in desert glass… Later on, there was a town hall. Marian was mayor, of course, that was just the way she was. Nobody minded.” A celebration of imagination and children’s creations when left to unsupervised play. Ages 4 – 8.

The Tin Forest by Ward and Anderson. The books on this list tend to be energetic and rollicking adventure stories. The Tin Forest is something very different. It’s a quiet, gentle parable of an isolated man who lives alone by a junkyard who dreams of forests, then builds a forest from junk, then the real animals and plants come to live there. Lovely. Ages 4 – 8. Great read-aloud. Could perhaps read in Plants and Seeds week?

Another classic is Harold and the Purple Crayon (Purple Crayon Books)

Non-Fiction Biographies of Inventors


Inventor / Maker Books I’m Not a Fan Of:

    • The Greatest Inventor of All Time: Flint Lockwood is based on The Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movie, and just isn’t that great a book.
    • The Extraordinary Mr. Qwerty. I want to love this book. But it’s just too metaphorical, and although kids are fine with reading the book, I just don’t think they grasp the meaning it or really engage with the story.
    • Sydney’s Star by Reynolds. Another one I want to love. It starts so delightfully: “Sydney loved to build things. She made brilliant birdhouses, charming cheesecakes, and all sorts of wonderful inventions. Sydney was inspired by the world around her.” Sydney invents a great mechanical star that floats and blinks and spins. She takes it to the science fair. Great book up to here. But then somehow, the star hears a distress call out at sea, flies out, communicates with the captain using Morse code and leads him safely to shore. There’s absolutely no reason for us to think the star she invented could do any of these things, so the lack of logic means the book doesn’t work for me.
    • What You Do With An Idea. Some people love it. It feels to me like a book that’s trying to inspire discouraged youth / adults to follow their dreams, not something that resonates with small kids.

Note: I’ve included Amazon Affiliate links for all the books I recommend, so you can learn more about them, and either purchase them (I get a small referral fee) or check them out from your local library.