Experiential Science: Flight, Part 1

The kids unanimously agreed that they wanted one of their next unit studies to be about flying.  As I began typing up all of the activities we’ve been doing, I realized that my post was getting super long, so I’ve once again separated our study into parts.  This first part will encompass our study of the four forces of flight and kites.  Our projects with hot air balloons, gliders, airplanes, and more will be coming soon.

I thought it would make the most sense to talk about the history of flight in chronological order.  Thankfully, I stumbled on Explore Flight! by Anita Yasuda.  The book starts with flight in nature–the inspiration for humans who wanted to fly–and ends with rockets.  Included are “25 great projects”–though I had issue with a few, particularly the ornithopter project, which was really just a glider with some added feathers.

Of course, I can’t just use one book and leave well enough alone, so I did quite a bit of supplementing and elaborating by using additional materials.

Introduction to Flight: The Four Forces of Flight

To introduce flight, I started by reading the Introduction to Explore Flight! and doing the two corresponding activities. This section introduces the four forces of flight, but I wanted to talk about them a little more.  NASA happens to have Four Forces of Flight lessons for K-4 and 5-8.  These provide a little more detailed information about the four forces, as well as activities to help kids experience each one.  The Smithsonian also has a website dedicated to flight; the introductory cartoon on their How Things Fly main page (click “Find Out” to start it) is a cute way of helping kids to understand how each of the four forces of flight affect an airplane.  (The “Design an Airplane” feature at the end of that video will come in handy later!)

First Flyers: Kites

After understanding what inspired flight and what forces folks had to learn about, we read the first chapter of Yasuda’s book, “Dreaming of Flight.”  This is followed by an “ornithopter” project which irritated me because it was actually a glider with feathers, which is not at all what DaVinci was proposing and just serves to confuse things.  For a more accurate view, you can watch this 2010 video of a human-powered ornithopter, though obviously this successful effort was way more high-tech than DaVinci had envisioned.  A Google image search turns up a lot of cool images to ponder, and the kids really liked looking at the variety of different ornithopters that folks have crafted or imagined.


Our Conover Eddy kites worked best, though they were still difficult to fly in the inconsistent breeze we had.

The first successful flights–believe it or not–were actually via kite.  Yasuda’s book briefly mentions them and includes instructions for one kite, but that’s it.  Since kites were one of our motivations for learning about flight, I checked out a few books from the library, settling on some projects from Kites for Everyone: How To Make and Fly Them by Margaret Greger.  This book contains a wide variety of kite projects using materials from fabric to garbage bags.  At the end of her introduction, Greger gives a Kite Directory, which ranks the kites on a four-point difficulty scale.  I used that–and the kites’ supply lists–to choose three for us to make.  Definitely try one for yourself before starting it with kids!  Though she does kite-making sessions in schools, her directions and illustrations were occasionally unclear, so it was best for me to figure things out on my own before involving my kids.  Surprisingly, I found both the necessary dowel rods and the recommended string in the craft area of my local Walmart.

We made a Conover Eddy kite (very easy to make and fly, though ours needed tails), a Bag Snake Kite (fun, easy, and reasonably successful), and a Stapled Sled Kite (ours needed a cross-piece to stay open and a tail for steady flight).  After a frustrating first attempt with only intermittent breaths of wind, we had a more successful and enjoyable second round.  We’re pretty sure all three kites would have performed better with a bit steadier breeze, though.

Greger recommends taking some supplies with for emergency modifications and repairs, and I found this to be great advice.  In fact, I’d recommend preemptively adding some reinforcing tape strips around any place that will experience stress–like where strings are attached–because we had a few bridles rip free, causing great distress to the kids.  Have some spare tails, a scissors, tape, and extra string and you’ll be ready for anything!

Experiential Science: Earthquakes and Volcanoes (Earth, Part 3)

This is the third part of our unit on plate tectonics, the rock cycle, earthquakes, and volcanoes.  If you want to look at what we studied prior to this, here’s Earth: Part 1 (earth’s layers and plate tectonics) and Earth: Part 2 (the rock cycle).


So now we were nearly up to the part the kids really wanted in the first place, but thankfully they were having so much fun that they sorta forgot that they’d never asked to learn all this other stuff.  (Besides, it’s foundational to their understanding the topic at hand!)  Since they now knew that earthquakes and volcanoes happen (mostly) at plate boundaries, it was time to study these phenomena in more detail. Continue reading

Experiential Science: Rock Cycle (Earth, Part 2)

This is the second part of a unit on plate tectonics, the rock cycle, earthquakes, and volcanoes.  In case you missed it, here’s my first post, covering the earth’s layers and plate tectonics (Earth, Part 1).

The Rock Cycle (and a quick study of rocks)

Since we were talking about moving plates, this seemed like a good time to add in a brief bit about moving rocks.  To make the rock cycle come alive, I once again pulled out some sweets!  Continue reading

Experiential Science: Earth’s Layers and Plate Tectonics (Earth, Part 1)

My kids all decided that they wanted to learn about volcanoes.  For whatever reason, this choice did not inspire me–perhaps because it left me thinking, “How on earth am I going to take six weeks to talk about volcanoes?!”  But the more I thought about it, the more interesting stuff there was that connected to the topic of volcanoes.  In fact, as I began writing about this unit study, I discovered that we hit so many topics and used so many resources that this post was becoming impossibly long, so I am breaking this into several smaller posts for sanity.  Stay tuned for more as I get it written!

I started by making a list of topics I wanted to hit, as well as the order I thought most logical, and then I went hunting for resources.  I hit the jackpot when I stumbled on the American Red Cross Masters of Disaster materials.  For our purposes, I settled on the Level Two earthquake-themed materials, but the site was so cool that I linked you to the main page (apparently hosted by PBS, despite the differing address listed on the materials) so you could admire all of the topic options.

Earth’s Layers and Plate Tectonics


This was the only aspect of our study I actually remembered to photograph.  It was also delicious.

Using the Masters of Disaster downloadable packet (link in above paragraph), we started by studying the makeup of the earth, reading about its layers and graphing the depth of each.  The packet suggested an Earth’s Layers cake, but I couldn’t settle for their simple setup; I had to go all-out with a DIY Earth’s Layers Cake that I crafted. Continue reading

Hands-On History: Knights and Castles

We just finished an awesome six weeks of studying some really cool topics that my kids wanted to learn more about.  Today I thought I’d share the fun we had studying knights and castles.

Books were a big part of our study, though I tried to include as much hands-on as I possibly could.  (I’ll include a description of how we used the different books below for your perusal, along with a quick-reference list of all our resources at the end.  Our read-aloud stories–featuring King Arthur and Robin Hood–are listed and described at the very bottom of the post, below the reference list.) Continue reading

Family Movie Night for Wimps

For years, already, I’ve seen friends’ cute Movie Night pics posted on Facebook–kids lined up in their sleeping bags with bowls of popcorn, eager for Mom to hit “play”.  Captions noted the movie du jour; at each, I imagined my kids’ response and winced.

You see, I am somewhat of…well, ‘Love would call me a movie wimp.  Let’s put it this way: when I went to see one of the Harry Potter movies in college with my roommate, she had to pry me off her arm in the middle of the movie because she had lost all feeling in that limb.

I’ve always been this way.  As a kid, my Grandpa had to take me out of the theater during Bambi because I just couldn’t take it.  I never did find out what happened in The Wizard of Oz because I couldn’t get past that terrifying tornado.

It didn’t have to be a movie, even.  I remember hiding under the cedar chest when my mom was reading Little House on the Prairie aloud to me and the Indians came when Pa wasn’t home.  Even when I read books on my own, I’d often stuff a bookmark in and flee the room for a few minutes during an intense part, returning a few minutes later to read another paragraph or two before dashing away from my book for another break.

So we’ve established that I’m a little odd.  Well, apparently my kids have inherited this craziness–the older two, in particular–but each in their own way.

My oldest, Peatie, has always been easily upset by any bad behavior, whether real or imagined.  ‘Love had to ease him into the old Donald Duck cartoon shorts because he was distressed by the rivalry between Donald and those lovable chipmunks, Chip and Dale.

Goobie Girl, by contrast, isn’t distressed by bad behavior or even especially by danger–it’s the relational things that get her.  In one episode of the Backyardigans, the characters are planning a surprise party–but for most of the episode all you know is that there’s a message that one of the kids isn’t allowed to know about.  She was so upset by the apparent social exclusion in that episode that she insisted that we turn it off; we didn’t see the happy ending until nearly two years later.

Between the two of them (and me!), we’ve had a doozy of a time figuring out what movies they could handle, so for a long time we simply didn’t watch movies; we stuck to Backyardigans videos passed down from cousins or Magic School Bus episodes checked out from the library–and even those seemed a stretch at times.  But this year we decided to give Movie Night a go, and the kids were so excited that it inspired us to try a few repeats.  Here are the movies we’ve tried and any trouble we faced, for those who might find it helpful.

  • Cinderella – This one seemed like an easy start, since it was a story we had already read.  Sure, the stepsisters and stepmother are mean, but when you know to expect it, it’s not so awful.  The kids were charmed by the mice and enchanted by the fairy godmother, and it was a win for all.
  • Sleeping Beauty – ‘Love absolutely adored this movie as a kid because of the prince fighting the dragon at the end.  Peatie and I found Maleficent to be utterly terrifying, but we managed to survive.
  • Shaun the Sheep Movie – This seemed like a no-brainer, since we own two DVDs of short episodes that the kids love.  Unfortunately, the plot line with the farmer’s amnesia–in which he doesn’t recognize Shaun and shoos him away–was super upsetting to Goober, who burst into tears during the movie and then awoke three times that night with nightmares.  Didn’t see that one coming…
  • The Sword in the Stone – This was another favorite of ‘Love’s from childhood.  Though Peatie was distressed by the treatment of Wart at the beginning of the movie, Merlin’s magic saved the day, and the kids enjoyed it overall.
  • Mary Poppins – This one is super long, so we divided it into a couple showings over the course of a weekend.  There were some short sections that caused distress (the kids getting chased for not wanting to deposit their coins, for one), but the kids LOVED the musical numbers.  In fact, this inspired some choreographed performances at our house for the next week or two, and they asked to repeatedly re-watch favorite songs (“Chim-Chimney” being at the top of that list).  I have to say that I don’t love the plot of this one, but the songs are certainly fun, and it’s a classic.
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – The plot of this one is certainly crazy, but I vaguely remembered it from childhood and thought it would be worth a try.  Once again, the magic and the songs saved the day. Peatie was distressed by the baron chasing them and by the Kid-Catcher (who is, in all honesty, terrifying); the hilarious defeat of the bad guys–mostly by a group of kids–redeemed it in the end, though this one was not as beloved as Mary Poppins.
  • Wall-E – We weren’t sure if this one would give Goober nightmares or not, but our first choice from the library was so badly scratched that we popped this one in.  Thankfully, having robots and a cockroach as main characters with a futuristic setting and a happy ending must have made any emotional distress abstract enough that it worked out for her (though she did hop on my lap a few times when Eve was being taken away).  And while Peatie was disturbed by the conflict with the Co-Pilot, that one resolved soon enough that it wasn’t too intense.  Phew.

Earth’s Layers Cake: The Low-Tech, DIY Version

cakeMy kids wanted to study volcanoes.  I was totally uninspired by volcanoes, but I thought I’d run with it, perhaps expanding the study to include plate tectonics and the rock cycle so we’d have a bit more to talk about.  While I was searching for inspiration, I ran across the idea of having a cake to show Earth’s layers.  “Great!” thought I.  “Sign me up and show me how!”  (I’m a sucker for anything edible–particularly if it’s sweet!)  Unfortunately, everyone doing this project seemed to have round bakeware–cake pop molds of varying sizes, round-bottomed oven-safe mixing bowls.  Not I.  And, since I am disinclined to shell out that kind of money for the props to make one cool snack, I thought I’d look for my own way.

My creation doesn’t have perfectly-nested spheres (in fact, the outer core seems to spike into the mantle in a couple of places!), but it definitely has the layers, and–most important of all–it got the point across and thrilled my kids.  In case you want to try it, here’s what I did:

Supplies: White or yellow cake mix/recipe, chocolate frosting, white frosting, food coloring, multiple bowls for separating/mixing colors, two 8″ or 9″ round cake pans, large spoons, two cookie cutters (round is ideal–I didn’t have round), cake decorating set

1. I used a generic white cake mix (yellow would be fine, too–I use the yolks, so mine isn’t truly white).  After mixing the ingredients, I separated the mix into three bowls: a small one that I colored yellow, a medium one that I colored orange, and a large one that I colored reddish.  Make sure the mix is pretty colorful, since the color will be less concentrated once the cake poofs up during baking.  (Too much food coloring tastes bitter, though, so don’t go overboard.)


2. First, I placed a cookie cutter in the center of each pan.  The first one I filled with a dollop of yellow (inner core).  I spooned pink (mantle) around the edges of that pan and filled the space between with orange (outer core).  In the second pan, I filled the cookie cutter with orange (outer core–to cover the inner core from the first pan) and poured pink (mantle) all around it, reserving a small amount of the pink for the next step.



3. Then I removed the cookie cutters, covered the dollop of outer core in the second pan with a layer of mantle, and popped both pans in the oven.  (The first pan–with all three layers–had less batter, but both seemed to cook fine.)


4. When the cake was out of the oven and cool, I used a small amount of runny white frosting (I warmed mine to make it thinner) to glue the layers together.  The three-colored layer went on the bottom, capped by the layer that’s mostly mantle.  Make sure the little bit of outer core is on the bottom of the top layer–you wouldn’t want to have your mantle and outer core reversed!  Next, I used a very thin layer of chocolate frosting to represent the lithosphere.


5. This gray represented the solid rock of the crust.  I wanted to make it clear that even the oceans have crust beneath them.  Yes, I know the crust is included in the lithosphere, but the Red Cross/PBS material (more on that later) we’re using talks of them separately, so I just followed their lead.  I used really runny frosting so I could make a very thin layer.  (After all, this is already the second frosting layer, and I still had more to go!)  The generic brand frosting I use wins for runniness!  My gray, FYI, is made from a red/green mixture.  If I remember right, it was two red drops and three green.


6. Time to add the thicker continental crust parts and fill the oceans!  This time I thickened the frosting slightly with about a cup of confectioner’s sugar to the tub.  I wanted it just stiff enough to hold some texture, but still soft enough to spread in a thin layer.  Since we’re also studying the Middle Ages right now, I decided to do a rough map of Europe.  (Very rough.)  I rarely use the frosting tips as intended; I used the star tip loosely for a textured water look, but for the land I just did a rough outline with a tip and then spread the green around with my knife.)


The finished product!  Of course, you can’t really tell how many layers of frosting went into this (except when eating it!), but if the kids watch or help, they’ll get every detail of the process.  And the finished result was enough to spark their glee, so I’d consider this one a win!