Friday, July 31, 2015

STEM Series: Exploding SG50 Fireworks and Wobbly Jellyfish

STEM activities are all the rage now. Stemming (excuse the pun) from an interagency meeting at the National Science Foundation, the term has implications for how the subjects which the acronym stands for (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are taught in school and what this means for technological advancement and the jobs of the future.

We've been dabbling in some Science activities on the homeschool front. First of all, because it adds a good mix to the daily Literacy and Numeracy activities that we do. Secondly, because I have two Science-loving boys who love to see the cause and effect that happens in a Science experiment - they are always asking "why" and seeking to understand the reasons for how things work. And lastly, because we all think that they're super fun!
Our jellyfish in an ocean!
Oh, yes, how we love Science experiments!
Today, we tried out some exploding fireworks in a jar. Singapore's 50th Jubilee celebration is happening next week, and I thought we should launch our celebratory week in anticipation of the fireworks that will happen in the special SG5o parade. However, I also saw a jellyfish in a jar craft activity which looked like something our ocean-loving 3-year-old might appreciate, so I decided to combine the two activities this morning.

The Science concept behind the exploding fireworks is simple - the denser liquid tends to sink, and the less dense liquid will float. We observed a few teaspoonfuls of vegetable oil before adding a few drops of food colouring to it. The boys got to hypothesise whether the oil or the food colouring would float when we poured the mixture into some warm water in a jar. They looked at the tiny droplets of oil forming on the surface of the liquid in the bowl. 
Mixing the vegetable oil and food colouring
Lastly, we poured the mixture into a bowl filled with two-thirds of warm water, and they watched with fascination as the "fireworks" of food colouring began to dissolve in the water while a layer of oil formed at the surface. Voila! Our very own National Day fireworks, without having to go to the parade.
SG50 fireworks in a bottle!
Observing the layer of oil settling on top of the surface of the water.
For the jellyfish jar, we used some of the same oil and food colouring mixture we had gotten once the fireworks subsided, thinning it so that the water in the jar would be more translucent than opaque. 

We made the wobbly jellyfish by taking an old plastic bag and drawing concentric circles on it with Sharpie markers (you can use any permanent marker for this). Arrange the circle part of the bag over a small cup, pour a bit of water into the cavity and quickly pull it up to form a small pocket of water. Tie this up and you get your jellyfish head. Use a pair of scissors to trim the rest of the bag into long tentacles.
Draw layers of concentric circles in the centre of the plastic bag. These form the head of the jellyfish.
Fill it with water and tie it with some string to make a little water balloon.
Cutting the tentacles of the jellyfish
Place your jellyfish, some shells, and plastic sea creatures of your choice into the jar with the coloured water, seal it with some tape, and enjoy the smiles your children will give you when they see their tiny ocean in a jar! The jellyfish bobbing around actually is a really calming and soothing one. I would use this as a sensory tube as well.

Our ocean in a bottle! E had fun turning it upside down and watching the shells and jellyfish float.
This makes for a perfect sensory bottle. You can use it to help your kids calm down and relax! 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Where the River Meets the Ocean

I recall my Geography lessons when I learnt all about the hydrological cycle - that water flows from its source up high in the mountains all the way down luscious valleys; first via streams and then rivers. Then there is the climatic moment when the water bursts through its river mouth and enters the sea. All of that came alive to us during our recent trip to Perth, Australia. (This is the reflective post. The travelogue will come later.) 

On one of the final days of the trip, we went on a short trek along the famed Cape to Cape Walk, guided by the capable Saul Cresswell from Cape to Cape Tours. The walk was truly memorable and we learnt much from Saul, who not only took us by canoe across the Margaret River, but also shared with us much of the history and geography of the area. For instance, we learnt that for most of the year, a small sandbar separates the Margaret River from its end point, the Indian Ocean, and that you can literally walk across the river at its mouth. However, there is always a time in the winter when sufficient pressure builds up along the river, and it literally bursts through to the ocean. We happened to be there at that precise moment.
The Mouth of the Margaret River.

The mouth of the river is the point where it is the most fertile. It was there that we marvelled at the abundance of life - ducks were paddling happily on the water surface; small birds of various species were gliding peacefully near the shoreline; and schools of fish were swimming in blissful abundance under the waters - our two boys took their turns standing alongside their grandparents, and we can still remember the little voices excitedly recounting their fishing experiences.
Our younger son excitedly showing off the fish that he had caught with his Mama.
I spent many moments staring into the large expense that was the ocean. At that particular moment in the winter, the waves were building in their magnitude - to the point that they could be considered as a swell (in fact one of the largest swells in a decade was experienced just down the beach at a popular spot known as Surfers' Point).

I still remember that moment vividly. To my left, the swell of the ocean was beating mercilessly against the helpless shoreline. To my right, the flowing river was building up its pressure, and had just burst through at the river mouth. Yet in the centre of it all was a special area which emanated a strong sense of serenity and calm; as if oblivious to the huge forces of nature at either end.
The swell of the Indian Ocean.
These 1/1/2 years have not been the easiest for me - I had left a comfortable full-time job to seek out more flexible work arrangements to give me more time with the family; the training company which Sue and I started is only just beginning to stabilise; and we also recently just started an online games store. 

At home, our parenting journey has been trying - especially with two extremely active boys of ages so close to each other. We have had to grapple with numerous issues such as sibling rivalry, obedience, attention etc. Throw in the education aspect: How do we teach two completely different personalities who are concurrently trying to assert their own desires for independence?
Sometimes the things that matter most to us are right at our side!
As I looked at that picture of perfect peace - that special place where the river meets the ocean, I was reminded that I have a powerful God who can protect me from the largest of swells and the highest pressures that a river can exert. Only God can be my refuge in times of crisis. I beamed the largest smile I could muster - for I know that He is the peace in my career and in my parenting; my refuge when all other forces of nature seem too oppressive.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Value of Unstructured Play in Learning

We have just returned from a glorious trip to Western Australia. Wide open spaces. So much to do and explore. Our boys' endless supply of energy channelled to good use with fresh air and plenty of exercise. 

I remember a particularly languid wintry afternoon at the Yallingup Maze. The two of them had already done their playground rounds a few times, played their excellent range of Smart Games (yes, we now have an online store Sensational Play selling these too - do check it out!) in the cafe over crispy bacon and egg sandwiches, and spent some time rolling down the slope to the wooded area where there is a most amazing play area consisting mostly of tree stumps and an old fallen elevated tree with regrowth.
Playing at the lovely Yallingup Maze
You'd think they'd had enough and been tired by then.

Just as we were making plans to leave, our older son ran towards an open field, saying, "Mummy, may I just run all the way to the end and back again?" 

It seemed like a reasonable request, so I said yes. The field was a sizeable one, with what looked like a farmhouse on one end of it and a quiet road on the other. Z began sprinting with wild abandon across it, arms akimbo like an aeroplane upon take off.

His brother, realising that their fun had not ended there, came zooming down the slope and came to an abrupt halt when he was enticed by a long stick at the end of the incline. At almost 3, our little E cannot resist a good stick. His latest exclamation has been, "Thank you, God, I found a stick!", which he says after finding a particularly satisfying tool of choice. His sticks become swords, spears, weapons of utter destruction against bad guys, when wielded in his little hands. 
"Speak softly and carry a big stick!"
"Come on, Mummy, let's go fight the bad guys!" he says. Having been recruited into his powerful army, I grabbed my own stick and marched loyally behind my mighty commander into the battle field. We soon recruited Kor Kor and Daddy as well, and were pretty soon marching around the field, yelling out commands and shooting at bad guys lurking behind trees. The delight on our little one's face was obvious.
The joy of unstructured play!
I have been learning what it means to let our children play, unhindered. It never ceases to amaze us how they can amuse themselves for hours with such simple things like sticks and rocks, some earth, handfuls of sand, a small puddle. 

Yet so many children I have encountered in my career as a teacher seem to have either lost that sense of curiosity and make believe, or yearn to have the chance for some me-time, some simple happy moments of play - but do not have the time to do so because their parents feel they should fill it up with activities and assessment books. I once even met a girl whose mother would not let her take walks during her exam revision period for fear she would lose out on precious time studying!

We do not realise that it is through giving our children the opportunity to move about and play, that we are actually helping them increase their capacities to learn even more effectively.
The beauty of pretend play. What do you get when Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear flies to the rescue of
Happyland citizens who have been kidnapped and held hostage on an iconic wooden bridge?
There has been so much recent research on how children need to play in order to learn. 

Play improves language and cognition, as well as social affect. 
Psychologist Edward Fisher analyzed 46 published studies of the cognitive benefits of play (Fisher 1999). He found that “sociodramatic play”—what happens when kids pretend together—“results in improved performances in both cognitive-linguistic and social affective domains.”
Play also helps with developing those STEM skills, which we all want our children to have in order to prepare them for the jobs of the future.

Recently, the field of education has experienced a push to develop the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills that are important to success in the 21st century. Through play with objects – blocks, sand, balls, crayons, and paper – children begin to understand logical scientific thinking, such as the concept of cause and effect. They also practice mathematical skills such as measurement, quantification, classification, counting, ordering, and part-whole relations (Gelfer & Perkins, 1988; Ginsberg, Inoue & Seo, 1999; Piaget, 1962; Ness & Farenga, 2007). The informal understanding children gain through experimentation, observation, and comparison in play lays the foundation for higher-order thinking and later learning of formal STEM concepts (Bergen, 2009; Ginsberg, 2006; Shaklee et al., 2008 as cited in Fisher et al., 2011; Tepperman, 2007). 
Mark and I have recently set up an online store, Sensational Play, for this very purpose. We felt burdened to give children in Singapore a chance to play - and this includes children of all ages and abilities, whether or not they may have been labelled as hyperactive, slow, have poor social skills, or have a hearing/ visual impairment. 

I have met so many parents and teachers who want to help the children they work with or parent, but who are not sure what to do when a boy fidgets in class or chews on everything in his pencil box; who are lost when a girl constantly seems to have issues with her handwriting, or seems lost or dreamy in class.

There are very practical solutions to help these children. I have seen the wonders of a wad of putty in one of my students' hands in helping her to focus when she is low in energy and attention after a long day of school; I have seen how a cool Space Explorers suit can help calm our son down when he is overexcited. I have seen our other son's face light up when he fits the wooden pieces together in his puzzle to solve a problem. There is truly great value in play, and our kids need to move in order to learn.
Our older son having a wild time in his Space Explorer suit.
Angela Hanscom, an pediatric occupational therapist who has recently been featured in an article in The Washington Post explaining her view on why it seems there are so many hyperactive kids in schools today, says,
Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs and is not getting enough of to “turn their brain on.” What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brain goes back to “sleep.”
Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough! They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.
In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.
There's so much our kids can learn when they're given the space and luxury of time to move their bodies, engage in their worlds of make-believe, build towers out of blocks that reach the sky. You may be surprised at how attentive, focused and quick to learn they might turn out to be.
Our almost-3-year-old loves the Smart Games that we have brought in for our
online store. Here he is playing Camelot Junior, a puzzle game teaching children
how to find creative ways in order to help the knight rescue the princess.
I've also been learning to step back and let our boys have a go at whatever they have decided to do during their play. Let them take some risks, even argue or fight a little - come to their own conclusions about whose idea they should use, or if they should come up with something new. There is so much they are learning through play - creativity, conflict management, logical thinking, problem solving. And they are always moving their bodies, which is great for their central nervous systems and self-regulation.

When I woke up from an afternoon nap today, they both had their  potty-training doll with what looked like play dough plastered over his eyes, swaddled in a  t-shirt. Mark and I have no idea what was going on, but the boys took the poor doll in for a bath and then went off for a family dinner robed in their bath towels, galloping like horses. Who knows what they'll be up to next!