Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Dramatic Play At The Library

Does your library have a dramatic play area? 

I will confess as a parent I never enjoyed "pretend play" with my kids; it just wasn't my thing. I was the parent who liked to joke around, wrestle, and horseplay with my kids, or take them to the park or zoo; I left all the tea parties and other pretend play to my husband.

But last year I transferred to new position at a library that fortunately has a large children's department with plenty of room for play and exploration, with a train table, several other tables with manipulatives and activities, and a dramatic play area, which I have assumed responsibility for. I initially set it up with a random assortment of play food and dishes, and I quickly became converted to a dramatic play believer after observing first-hand not only how much the kids enjoyed it, but all the developing skills dramatic play supports.

Dramatic play not only encourages creativity and imagination, but supports early literacy and language skills by giving children an opportunity to use expressive language, practice narrative skills, and see functional print. Dramatic play also supports socio-emotional development by encouraging caregiver-child interaction and social interaction among children. As children learn how to share, take turns, and play together, they are developing self-regulation and learning how to resolve conflict. Dramatic play provides an emotional outlet to allow children to work through difficult situations and fears in a safe environment. Children also use fine and gross motor skills in picking up and manipulating toys during the course of play.

And finally, a dramatic play area helps to create a sense of community by bringing families from diverse backgrounds together. I have seen so many friendships blossom in the span of one library visit between kids who didn't know each other prior, and as a result the parents get to know each other as well. I often hear them exchanging phone numbers and making plans for future play dates as they leave the library.

In order to keep the kids from getting bored with it, I have been setting up different themes for our dramatic play area and rotating play items in and out, and having a lot of fun with it! Since these require a fairly significant amount of planning and work to do; I only change them up every 2-3 months. I just love hearing the kids and parents playing together! The kids have really been enjoying it, and the interactions I observe are really wonderful. If you can carve out the space for one, I highly recommend having a dramatic play area in your children's department. 

Here are some of the different themes and set ups I have done so far (pardon the picture quality; I usually set these up on the night that I work when it is very slow, and it is rather dim in that area without sunlight coming in the window). Click on any image to enlarge:


 Bakery Dramatic Play Center, Dramatic Play at the library

For this one I pulled just the baked goods out of our assortment of play food: cake, croissant, baguette, rolls, cookies, donuts, bagels, cupcakes, and brownie; as well as a few assorted fresh fruits to have healthier options, and the milk and juice. I pulled assorted trays for displaying the baked goods; a few of the bowls, pots, measuring cups, and pans for baking; plates, utensils, and cups for serving; and the teapot, sugar bowl, and cream pitcher. We later got a play Keurig-type coffee set and added it (so cute!).

I made a sign and a menu with prices, adding pictures of the items and money since many who would be using the area are not reading yet. I put our large pieces of magnetic play money on the magnet board, and added a few large pictures of items to fill the rest of the space on the bulletin board. Finally, I pulled picture books (fiction and non-fiction) having to do with baking, bakers, cookies, cakes, cupcakes, brownies, donuts, etc. and placed along the window sill. I kept this display of related books up for the first week or two.

Farmer's Market 
[Whoops! Forgot to take any pictures of this one! It was already the beginning of summer reading and I was scrambling to get everything done, while working the busy service desk.]
I once again sorted through our play food to pull out all the whole fruits and vegetables, with play bushel baskets and bowls to put them in. We had a pretty good variety: tomatoes, onions, peppers, corn, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, lettuce, celery, strawberries, blackberries, assorted apples, oranges, pears, and probably some I'm forgetting. I also included a few bunches of artificial flowers, but the kids were really rough on them and they were pretty much destroyed by the end of the month.

I printed out a price list and found we had a play register with felt money that I put out. I also printed out a list of suggested activities to encourage caregiver-child interaction (sorting food by color, by fruit or vegetable, or by whether it grows above or below ground; gather ingredients for a recipe, pretend to buy & sell...) and also put up a couple of posters about healthy eating. Then I pulled both fiction and non-fiction books about gardening, farming, and farmer's markets to put along the window sill.


Restaurant Dramatic Play Center, dramatic play at the library

I started working on this one well in advance, beginning with the menu. I found an old file on the computer from a previous dramatic play set up years ago with a menu based on book titles, so it served as a bibliography as well, which I loved! 

Of course, after 10+ years we no longer had most of the titles, so I basically had to re-write the whole thing, and changed the color scheme and graphics, then made a coordinating sign.

Once I had the menu set, I pulled all the related play food, serving dishes, pots and pans,  and cooking utensils to put in the kitchen. I laminated several menus to put on display at the counter, as well as printing a large one for the bulletin board. Our felt money was pretty gross and well-worn by then, so I found some paper play money which I laminated to replace it with, and put out some scrap paper and pencils for taking orders. On the bulletin board I added a sheet with suggested activities, a smaller version of the sign, and a couple of posters about healthy food choices, and I placed several of the books mentioned on the menu in the window.

Finally, I couldn't resist staging a table for two with plated meals matching items on the menu, complete with healthy sides, coffee, and dessert. Can you guess the books represented?

I really enjoyed listening to the kids playing with this set up, listening to them take or place orders; playing waitstaff, chef, or customer (I did notice most often the adult caregiver was the customer); hearing some of the prices they would charge and new items they would add to the menu. I saw one girl expertly balancing two trays of food to bring to the table, just like a professional. I heard so many great interactions between caregivers and children, and among the children, with such imagination. I was a little sad to take this one down, but after almost 3 months it was time, and I had a great idea for the next one!

Veterinary Clinic 

Vet Clinic dramatic play center, Veterinary dramatic play center, dramatic play at the library

I really got into setting this one up! It took quite a while to prepare everything, so I wasn't able to get it set up on my Thursday night as usual (when it is really slow) and had to do it on Friday afternoon. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to get it done before the after-school crowd hit, so I had a hoard of impatient children crowding around me as I was scrambling as fast as I could to get it all set up and snap a few pics before turning them loose. Next time that I can't get it all done on Thursday night, I will just wait another week!

The items I stocked the clinic with were:
  • Patient Charts - laminated so they could be washed off and reused, with a space to write the pet's name, owner's name, and treating doctor, a section to check what kind of animal (with words and pictures), and a section to check what they were being seen for (again, with words and pictures). This gives them an opportunity to practice their writing, or pre-writing, skills.
  • X-rays - Real x-rays of animals that had been purchased previously.
  • Instruments - we bought two sets of play medical instruments, plus already had a few real stethoscopes, with trays and baskets to put them in.
  • Bandages - made from cutting off the tops of socks 
  • Casts - made from white cardboard tubes
  • Grooming Supplies - brushes, comb, empty shampoo bottles, and washtub.
  • Toy Pet Carrier
  • Toy Microscope - we already had this, and had never been used
  • Assorted Pet Food - I made new labels for our canned play food
  • Medications - I saved some pill bottles and discarded all my expired medicines to have the bottles, and either removed the labels or covered with masking tape. Then I hot-glued the tops on so they wouldn't get lost or be a choking hazard.
  • Blankets & Towels - I brought in a couple of baby blankets and a baby towel I still had at home.
  • Assorted Bowls & Trays - for food/water dishes and putting instruments on.
  • Assorted Patients - I had a couple of my kids' old stuffed animals at home, plus a few "Kohl's Cares" book characters, and then bought a few more at Goodwill, selecting the ones that still had tags and looked new, and washing them to be safe.

The cabinets and other spaces in the kitchen served as cages for the animals, and I later added a label to change the microwave in the play kitchen to an autoclave for sterilizing the medical instruments. The clinic sign named Dr. John Dolittle [probably showing my age here!] and Dr. Dottie McStuffins as the veterinarians, and Zoey (of Zoey and Sassafras) as the vet tech. On the bulletin board I posted the clinic hours (same as the library's), miscellaneous pictures and posters, and several pictures of animal x-rays for them to guess the animal. 

Finally, I quickly pulled a selection of books about veterinarians and pet care to put in the window, and turned them loose!

And of course soon after it looked like the clinic had been hit by a tornado! I also discovered two little girls that had absconded with almost a third of the stuff and used cushions to barricade themselves inside the reading nook on the other side of the children's department so they wouldn't have to share, LOL! I have noticed a little more arguing and fussing with this set-up, particularly over the carrier. I'll take that as a sign that that's how much they like it?? 

After a week, I unfortunately had to take away the markers for recording on the patient charts as I found that kids were scribbling all over everything with them, requiring replacement of everything on the bulletin board, and cleaning the walls and fixtures. Some ideas that work so well in a structured and well-supervised classroom of 4-year olds don't work so well in an less structured library environment with mixed ages that aren't always supervised as well as they should be, unfortunately.

I have seen other much more elaborate dramatic play set-ups, but considering that I'm only part-time and have to do all this while I'm on the desk (I get no time off the desk for planning and projects), I'm really pleased and rather proud of the set-ups I've come up with. Mixing it up keeps the kids from getting bored with it, and gives us time to replace lost, damaged, or worn out items. I just love listening to the kids play back there!

Now, on to planning the next theme... 

Do you have a dramatic play center? Tell me about it!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Mini-'Gingerbread' House - Family STEM Program

Gingerbread houses for kids, graham cracker houses

Yes, building gingerbread houses can be a STEM program! It all depends on how you do it.

This is a program I have been wanting to do every since I started working at the library, and this year I was finally in a position where I could. I first started doing these mini-houses made from graham crackers with my daughter, so she could have her own to do while I worked on mine that I wanted to be "just so", or worked on creations for clients (this was back during my days as a semi-professional confectionery artist). 

Since I was doing this program as an expanded version of my monthly elementary STEM program, I was adamant about retaining as much creativity, engineering, and problem-solving as possible. That meant no pre-assembly, no pre-cutting, no forms or templates (i.e. milk cartons), and no dividing the candy up into exactly identical, individual portions. I wanted to encourage creativity, not cookie-cutter houses that all looked similar, and I had confidence in my participants' construction skills (with parental assistance). I also had enough experience making gingerbread houses to know it's really not as difficult as many fear, with the right materials.

Of course, I had to dress appropriately for the occasion:

Ages: This was advertised as an all-ages family program, but most participants were between the ages of 3 and 10, plus all the adults.

Time: 1 hour (plus 2-hours for set-up and 1 hour clean-up)

Number: 30 participants (registration was required & limited due to room size)

Budget: Approximately $75 (buying store brands on sale)

  • 7 boxes graham crackers
  • 15-16 cans vanilla icing
  • 30+ disposable piping bags
  • 30+ rubber bands
  • 30+ 8" coated cake boards (if you use regular cardboard, you must cover with foil)
  • 30+ plastic knives
  • 30+ paper plates
  • short, wide plastic cups and/or bowls for putting candies and other decorations in
  • plastic spoons and/or tongs
  • assorted candies and other decorations
    I provided: mini candy canes, gumdrops, starlight mints, assorted other hard candies, cinnamon imperials (red-hots), mini M&Ms, Smarties, Teddy Grahams, and mini-twist pretzels. 

1. I put together a short Power Point with basic instructions and tips with photos to go over at the beginning. Then I also made a slide show of assorted pictures of gingerbread houses, mostly mini-graham cracker houses, but also a few amazing gingerbread structures, like the Capitol building, a castle, St. Basil's cathedral, and of course, Hogwarts, to just have running on a continuous loop throughout the program for inspiration.

2. I pre-filled 30 piping bags with icing, cutting the tip off to make an appropriate opening and twisting and rubber banding the top closed (this makes it much easier for novices and
kids; I have found using zip-lock bags instead of pastry bags does not work as they rupture way too easily). (This took an hour alone, and was the most labor-intensive part.)

3. I had 6 tables set up with 5 places each, and at each place I set out a cake board, paper plate, plastic knife, filled piping bag, and 5 graham cracker sheets (4 sheets is enough for a basic house). Then I added 3 cans of icing (that were about half full after filling the piping bags) per table [to save time and not have to divide it up further, I figured families could share], and paper towels.

4. As a compromise between being sure everyone had enough of each candy and allowing creativity and individual variation (plus saving time), I divided each candy/decoration into six portions in cups or bowls and placed one of each on each table, rather than dividing into individual portions or putting it in one big buffet up front. For anything that was not individually wrapped, I included a spoon or tongs.

5. I put extra supplies on a table up front in case we had extra participants, people wanted to try to build a slightly bigger house, or needed more icing or crackers.

The Program:

1. I asked everyone to come in and have a seat, but to please not touch anything until everyone was settled and I had given them some instructions and tips.

2. The first thing I went over was practicing safe food handling since we were working in a group and sharing supplies. That meant no eating of the supplies during the program (plus we wanted to be sure there was enough of everything), no licking icing off the knives, and no licking of fingers. [I know it is not realistic to expect complete compliance, as the temptation is very strong, but it's never too early to learn proper kitchen hygiene and food handling].

3. Then I showed them a few samples of different houses and the basic process of construction: spread a thick layer of icing in the center of the cake board, pipe or spread icing along all the edges of the pieces to act as glue, press them together gently. 

4. One important tip is to use a gentle sawing motion with very little pressure when cutting the crackers to the shapes/sizes needed to avoid breakage! And just in general, to use a light touch when adding pieces or decorations to your house. After it's assembled, you can pipe a zig-zag over all the seams and raw edges to make it look more "finished".

5. And the biggest tip of all is to remember the point is to have fun, not make a perfect house! So don't worry if your house is crooked, cracked, or lopsided. Most mistakes can be hidden with icing and candy, and there are no building codes in gingerbread land!

How It Went

I admit I was a bit nervous, hoping I had not overestimated my participants' construction skills and patience, as this was the first time I had done this activity with a large group. But, it went so well!

I was absolutely amazed at how well everyone did! I was expecting to be run ragged, going back and forth helping frustrated children, but out of 27 kids there was really only one that had problems and got visibly frustrated. Most families worked really well together, with parents provided assistance and advice when needed. Some of the older kids worked pretty much independently, and as expected, the younger kids needed a bit more help. And as also expected, there are always a few parents that help perhaps a bit too much, but everyone was having a good time.

While most did follow the basic square house with a gabled roof like my example, some did build slightly larger, rectangular houses, other added creative additions and accessories, such as chimneys, Santa in the chimney, Santa's sleigh on the roof (creatively using candy canes for sleigh runners), trees, light posts, pathways, and dog houses. While all the houses were adorable, one child was particularly creative with his design, building a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque house, complete with a table set with candy plates on the upper terrace.

Gingerbread houses with kids, Frank Lloyd Wright gingerbread house

Everyone had a great time, and were very proud of their creations. There were lots of smiling faces and many compliments and thank you's, and since my assistance was not needed nearly as much as I had expected, I was able to spend more time chatting with families and admiring their houses. There were so many great houses I put all the pictures in slideshow so I could show them all:

And I get to do it all again on the 20th! Since I knew there would be a lot of interest, but the size of our room makes it necessary to cap it at 30, I offered two sessions for twice the fun!

Take Home Message

You can do a gingerbread house program without pre-assembling and doing everything for them! Free-building encourages creativity, problem-solving skills, patience, and a greater sense of accomplishment. In addition, using a piping bag increases hand strength and picking up and placing candy decorations uses fine-motor skills, both of which contribute to writing skills.

I've followed several different discussions about gingerbread house programs over the last few years, and I'll be honest, I was surprised at how many said they pre-assemble everything so all the kids have to do is stick their individually-portioned candy on them, some even saying they use hot glue (yikes, never a good idea to mix inedible with edible, especially when working with children). I'm sure people have their reasons for doing it this way, and perhaps have different goals that I do, but after having done a free-build family program, I wouldn't do it any other way.

Also, a note about icing. While royal icing is the traditional icing used for gingerbread houses, it is a PAIN to work with, especially for kids, and it completely unnecessary. Regular buttercream icing or store-bought icing in a can is so much easier to work with. It is thicker and stickier, and provides more support and holding power without having to wait for it to set. True, it does not dry quite as hard as royal icing, but it will easily last for a month. Royal icing is necessary for the big elaborate gingerbread masterpieces because they are so large, take weeks or even months to construct, and are meant to be kept on display indefinitely.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Dinosaurs! - Family Storytime

Dinosaur Storytime

Yes, dinosaurs again. I never outgrew my childhood fascination with dinosaurs and paleontology, so I have to do at least a couple of dinosaur programs every year. [Plus it gives me another chance to wear my dinosaur dress and earrings!]

Last year I finally got the chance to do a whole big month-long Dinovember program that included passive programming, storytimes, a school-age STEM program, a dinosaur hunt, and social media campaign, and had hopes of doing it again this year on an even grander scale. However, our previous social media person left, and our social media situation is currently a mess, to put it bluntly. Without having the social media component and promotion, Dinovember really wouldn't be the same, so I decided to scrap it for this year and just do a dinosaur storytime.

Dinosaur StorytimeWe started with a "Hello" song, and warmed up with "Hello, Everybody" which has lots of fun motions. I then gave an introduction and we talked a little about our favorite dinosaurs. Then I led into our first book with "If You're Ready For a Story".

I chose a relatively new book, I Love My Dinosaur by Giles Andreae for our first story. This books shows a boy and his pet dinosaur as they go through their daily activities, and of course the dinosaur has to sleep with the boy so he (the dinosaur) won't be scared. Short, simple text combines with Emma Dodd's bright, bold, uncluttered illustrations with heavy outlines.

We followed that with one of my favorite songs that the kids always love doing:

Five Little Dinosaurs
(to the tune of "Five Little Ducks")

One little dinosaur went out to play,
Out in a giant swamp one day.
She had such enormous fun,
She called for another dinosaur to come.
(put hands to mouth and call, then slap thighs to sound like running)

Two little dinosaurs....Three little dinosaurs....Four little dinosaurs....

Five little dinosaurs went out to play,
Out in a giant swamp one day.
They had such enormous fun,
They played all day til the day was done.

Then the mommy dinosaurs called,
"Oh, little dinosaurs! It's time to come home!"
(slap thighs to imitate running home)

Dinosaur Storytime, Dinosaur Pop-Up Book
Next I read a great pop-up book, Dinosaur Stomp by Paul Stickland. All the dinosaurs are getting ready to go to the big party in the swamp! 

Pop-up books are always a big hit, and the pop-ups in this are engaging, without being too intricate or delicate (thus easily damaged), and Stickland's dinosaurs are a nice blend of cartoony without being completely unrealistic, and have very engaging facial expressions. The text is short and simple, so this is a good all-ages choice.

Then we got a chance to practice our dinosaur stomp, and more as we pretended to be dinosaurs with this song to the tune of "The Wheels On The Bus":

The Dinosaurs Go...

Tyrannosaurus rex goes roar, roar, roar.
Roar, roar, roar. Roar, roar, roar.
Tyrannosaurus rex goes roar, roar, roar,
All day long.

Pteranodon goes flap, flap, flap...
Mosasaurus' tail goes splash, splash, splash...
Triceratops goes munch, munch, much...
Brontosaurus goes stomp, stomp, stomp...

Dinosaur StorytimeI had initially planned to read We Don't Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins as I have not had a chance to use it yet, but I was afraid it might be too long, so I switched and read Jane Yolen's How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food

With Thanksgiving coming up, I thought it was a great time to talk about good table manners and trying different kinds of foods, and the kids are almost all familiar with this series and love it. It has relatively short rhyming text that has a nice rhythm and cadence when read aloud, and Mark Teague's illustrations are wonderfully realistic. I especially like how he hides the scientific name of each dinosaur within the illustrations.

We ended with a closing song, and I put out our extra large toy dinosaurs (pictured below from last year's Dinovember, from Lakeshore Learning) for them to play with, and an optional fold-and-cut 3-D dinosaur craft to make, with "Wee Sing Dinosaurs" playing in the background.

Dinosaur Storytime

Optional Craft

Back in the summer I did a preschool dinosaur program with multiple stations, one of which was making this simple 3D dinosaur from cardstock using this free printable file from Krokotak, which proved to be surprisingly popular. I had a lot leftover, which meant a ready-made storytime craft! All I had to provide was crayons to color it and scissors to cut it out, then they just had to fold along the dotted lines.

Dinosaur craft, dinosaur storytime

How It Went

This was probably one of the best family storytimes I've had in a while. I had a slightly larger than usual crowd, and had quite a few older kids instead of just 2-3 year olds, which is always a big help. The best thing of all was that all the older kids came and sat in the floor right in front of me!

That may not sound like a big deal, but I have been shocked at how hard it is to get people to move in closer so they can see the pictures and hear better. It is so much easier to keep their attention when they sit close, and easier to engage and interact with them. 

All the books and songs went well, and they had a great time making their own dinosaur and playing with the toy dinosaurs afterward.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Pumpkin Science - STEM Program

Pumpkin Science activities for kids, pumpkin catapults, pumpkin volcano, pumpkin battery, explore a pumpkin

I was searching for inspiration for my November STEM program, and looked up a list of holidays and observances. When I saw that November 2nd was "National Pumpkin Destruction Day", I immediately thought of the "Pumpkin Chuckin'" competitions I'd seen on television, where they build huge catapults and sling-shots to see who can throw pumpkins the farthest, and knew building mini-catapults to hurl candy pumpkins would be the perfect foundation of a "Pumpkin Science" program. I easily found several other related activities, settling on pumpkin volcanoes, a pumpkin battery, and pumpkin investigation.[Click on any image to see larger.]

Ages: 5-10

Time: 1 hour (most were done by 45 minutes)

Number: 12 (prepared for up to 24, but snow and cold kept many away)

Budget: $30

  • 1 large pumpkin (mainly for the guts)
  • 5 small pumpkins (I used pie pumpkins)
  • 3 or more small pumpkins of unexpected shapes, sizes, and colors
  • 50 craft sticks, plus extra for back-up and experimentation
  • 250 small craft sticks, plus extra for back-up and experimentation
  • 24 plastic spoons, optional
  • 100 rubber bands, plus extra for breakage and experimentation
  • 24 lids, about 1" or slightly larger, such as from a gallon milk jug
  • hot glue gun & glue sticks
  • 3 bags of small candy pumpkins (like candy corn)
  • several large bowls and/or cardboard targets
  • 2-3 boxes baking soda
  • 1 gallon vinegar
  • food coloring
  • dish soap
  • 2" deep dish/bin for containing "lava"
  • 1/4 dry measuring cup
  • 1 Cup liquid measuring cup
  • tape measure
  • ziplock bags
  • kitchen scale (if you happen to have one)
  • Potato Clock kit (or zinc and copper strips, wires, and very low voltage digital clock)
  • Towels
  • Paper towels
I set everything up as separate stations, since we really couldn't afford to buy pumpkins for everyone, and wouldn't have room to store them if we did. I had everyone come in and have a seat along the wall while I welcomed them and gave a brief introduction and instructions for each station (there were also signs with step-by-step instructions and photos at each station), and safety rules, which were mainly no shooting pumpkins at or near any people, and no eating of the ammunition, because it would be dirty and they'd run out. [I told them I had an extra bag of candy pumpkins I would had out at the end to eat, after they washed hands.] 

Activity #1 - Mini-Catapults & "Pumpkin Chuckin'" 

Prep - I bundled up 8-10 small craft sticks, 1 large craft stick, and another large craft stick with a lid hot-glued at the end (leave a small amount of the stick showing so you have something to push down on) for each person, then put them out on the table with 4 rubber bands each, along with instructions, extra supplies, examples, and spoons for an alternate design.

1. First, stack together several small craft sticks and wrap a rubber band around one end.

2. Next, insert a large craft stick in between the first two small craft sticks, then put a rubber band around the other end of the stack.

3. Hot glue a milk top to the end of a large craft stick, leaving some of the stick showing, and let cool (I prepped this part in advance). Then attach the other end of the stick to the short end of the base with a rubber band.

Mini-catapults for kids

4. Do a couple of test launches to determine where you want to place the fulcrum (stack of small sticks), then wrap the final rubber band around the intersection of the four sections to hold it in place. Experiment with the number of sticks in the stack, and where it is placed and see how it changes the distance and trajectory. [An alternate design uses a spoon in place of the craft stick with attached lid, or rubber banded onto the craft stick.]

Mini Pumpkin Chuckin', Mini Pumpkin Chunkin'

5. Place the payload (candy pumpkin in our case) in the bucket, hold the base down with one hand, press the end of the arm down with the other hand, then let go! (We learned the hard way that you have to leave room at the end of the stick to push down on, as pushing on the cap will cause it to pop off after a couple of launches.)

6. I set up a target range along one wall of the room. First, I placed a long table perpendicular to the wall on each side, with two large bowls at the far ends to try to aim their pumpkins into (placing a small towel in the bottom helps keep the pumpkins from bouncing out), and a small bowl of ammo at the near end. Then in between the tables I put a large cardboard standing jack o'lantern with cut-out eyes leftover from last year's Halloween party for them to try to shoot thru the eye holes. This provided ample space for a number of kids at once, and I reminded them to take turns and visit the other stations so everyone got a chance.

They had a blast! I even managed to capture a couple of pumpkins mid-chuck, and got some slow-motion video:


Activity #2 - Pumpkin Volcano

Pumpkin Science activities for kids, pumpkin volcano

You can't go wrong with any activity that involves mixing baking soda and vinegar! 😉 I had two stations set up on a table, and I did a demo first so they could see how to do it, then let them take turns doing it. [The pumpkins had to be washed out in between turns, which the adults were really great about doing while I was helping kids with the other activities. I strategically set this station up very close to the sink!]

1. Add 1/4 Cup baking soda, a few drops of food coloring, and a few drops of dish soap to a small, hollowed-out pumpkin (pumpkin should be sitting in some type of dish to catch the overflow of "lava").

Pumpkin Volcano, Pumpkin science activities for kids, pumpkin activities for kids

2. Pour in about 2/3 cup of vinegar all at once, and watch the eruption of bubbling foam!

3. Empty pumpkin, rinse out, and repeat! They never tire of this, and will use up however much baking soda and vinegar you make available to them (and ask for more!).

Activity #3 - Explore A Pumpkin   

Pumpkin Science activities for kids, Explore pumpkin

For this one I provided several small pumpkins in various shapes and colors, a pumpkin cut in half so they could see the internal structure, a measuring tape, a deep bowl of water, and pumpkin guts (from the one large pumpkin) in a ziplock bag and in an open bowl for those who were not squeamish (I also meant to bring my kitchen scale, but forgot it). On the table was a sign with a labeled diagram of a pumpkin, and several prompts for investigation:
  • Does it sink or float?
  • How tall is it?
  • How big around is it (circumference)?
  • How heavy is it?
  • What color is it?
  • What shape is it?
  • Is the skin rough or smooth?
  • What does the inside look like?
  • What do the insides feel like?
  • Are all pumpkins alike?
  • (Forgot to add this one) What does it smell like?
I thought about giving them papers to record their observations, but then decided against it because I felt like that made it too much like school or homework. 

Pumpkin science activities for preschoolers, explore a pumpkin

Activity #4 - Pumpkin Battery    

I've always wanted to try this, but was a little skeptical it would work, but it really does! Not all kits work equally well, but I highly recommend this Potato Clock kit I got from Amazon. The clock in it requires extremely low voltage to work, so just one pumpkin is enough; other kits required 2-3 in series to work (it will work with many fruits and vegetables; I also tried it with a potato and an apple).

1. Connect the copper strip to the positive wire, then connect the zinc/magnesium strip to the negative wire. 

2. Insert the electrodes (metal strips) into the pumpkin about an inch; ensure that they are not touching. The skin is hard to pierce so hold the electrode close to the bottom so that it doesn't bend as you push it. [The small chunk is cut out because one young participant pushed the electrode all the way into the pumpkin, and I had to cut into it in order to retrieve it.]

3. Voila! The clock is now running! One Amazon reviewer claimed that he kept the clock running for 11 weeks with a single potato!

Pumpkin science activities, pumpkin battery

How It Went  

Although I was disappointed the weather kept the turnout from being what I expected, I still had a decent crowd, and this program was very easy to set up, didn't cost a lot, had surprisingly little clean-up, and was a lot of fun!

Predictably the most popular activities were the Pumpkin Chuckin' and the Pumpkin Volcano. Surprisingly, several kids were already familiar with the fruit/vegetable battery, though had not seen it done with a pumpkin before (apparently, a potato battery is mentioned somewhere in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, because one kid exclaimed, "Who knew the Diary of a Wimpy Kid would teach me science!" The pumpkin exploration center did not see as much activity or excitement as the others, but some did do it, and it was nice to have on hand for the younger siblings who had to tag along but couldn't really handle the other activities.

No matter how many times they see some version of the baking soda and vinegar reaction, they are always enthralled with it, especially when done on a large scale. The trays I had the pumpkins in were not quite deep enough to contain all the foam, but the overflow was never excessive and just added to the excitement. Shockingly, there really wasn't much mess to clean up, either.

I had hoped they would do a little more experimentation with their catapults, but they were too eager to hit the target range. I was pleasantly surprised that they managed to resist temptation and did not eat the candy pumpkins reserved for ammo; I think letting them know in advance that I had a bag reserved for eating afterward helped motivate them, as well as not wanting to run out of ammo. I was proud that they also refrained from shooting at each other, and impressed at how well they picked up all the little pumpkins off the floor; I think I only had to pick up one or two at the end.

What I Would Do Differently 

In all honesty, I don't think I would do anything differently except to be sure when gluing the lids on the sticks for the catapults that room was left so that you could push down on the stick itself, not the lid, because I quickly found that the force would cause the lid to pop right off. But I had the glue gun handy and could quickly fix them when that happened.

If I had an older group that had a little more patience and more developed problem solving skills, I could probably do a program just on the catapults, and have them build and compare a couple of different designs, test and see how different tweaks and adjustments changed their firing range, and talked a little more about the physics involved, as well as the history. But what we did was perfect for the ages and personalities of the group I get.

Even though the "Pumpkin Exploration" table didn't see as much activity, I still think it's important to provide the opportunity to practice basic scientific observation. Plus it was really handy to have for the younger kids. One toddler enjoyed holding and looking at the smallest pumpkins, and squishing the bag of pumpkin guts.