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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Favorite Programs of 2019





After reflecting on my favorite reads of the past year, I decided to turn my attention to the programs I led over the last year. This proved much harder to narrow down! Luckily, most of my programs have gone really well, with storytimes being the most variable it seems, mainly because attendance at the weekend family storytime I do varies so much from week to week, in terms of numbers and ages, and really doesn't have a regular crowd. 

As a part-timer, I don't do as many programs as others, but I'm pretty happy with the variety that I've gotten to do. My regular programs include the weekend family storytime once each month, a monthly outreach visit, and a monthly after-school program for elementary ages, which is usually a STEM program, though occasionally a colleague and I will switch so she gets a chance to do STEM, and I get a chance to do arts/crafts. I also did a variety of other programs during the summer and occasionally do something special or sub for another storytime.

Favorite Storytimes  
My recent Cookie storytime was a lot of fun, and though the attendance was extremely low, the audience and I really enjoyed the books. My special Happy Birthday, Very Hungry Caterpillar storytime was also a lot of fun, and the caterpillar & butterfly craft I did with that is probably the best storytime craft I've done so far. Then, of course you can't go wrong with a Dinosaur storytime, which was probably the best attended and finally had kids come sit right up front. None of these are particularly original or creative themes, but they worked well.


Favorite STEM Program 
I don't think I can pick a true favorite here! My favorite at any given time is usually the most recent one that has gone well, and fortunately most of them have gone well. But, if I had to name one, I guess it would be the "Pumpkin Science" program because it involved a variety of activities from different disciplines, everything worked the way I wanted, the set-up didn't take long, there was surprisingly little clean-up, and everyone seemed to have a great time. 


A couple of others that stand out in my memory are "Ice Fishing & Other Icy Experiments" because of its elegant simplicity, low cost, and fun; and "Germs" because it gave me a chance to put my previous career as a microbiologist to use.

Favorite Special Program 
In this case "special" means that it's not something I do on a regular basis like family storytime and monthly elementary STEM programming. This is a tie between my recent pair of family mini-Gingerbread House programs, and the preschool "Dinosaur Dig" program I did this summer. I would also say that these two are my top favorite programs of the year overall.

I used to be a semi-professional confectionery artist, and made these mini-gingerbread houses with my daughter. I've always wanted to do it as a library program, and finally got the chance this year. I was a little nervous about doing it with such a large group and concerned the younger kids might too frustrated, but it went extremely well, with lots of creativity and problem-solving, and many people commenting on how much they enjoyed it.


The preschool Dinosaur Dig program was multi-disciplinary with several age-appropriate activities set up in stations, including STEM, arts and crafts, sensory, and movement. It took forever to set up and clean up, but what I liked most was that during the program I was relatively free to walk around and observe, interact with patrons, chat with parents, and take photos. Plus, it is of course one of my all-time favorite themes. 


Least Favorite Program

My "Moon Madness" STEM program was definitely my least favorite program. One of the activities didn't really work, and though the others did, the kids really didn't really seem to "get" them. Though the kids and parents seemed happy enough with it, I really didn't think they got much out of it, and I felt very "meh" about the whole thing. Part of it was we were not in our usual space because of scheduling conflicts, and the space we were in just wasn't ideal, but I think the concepts were just too abstract for the younger ages that tend to attend. I wouldn't deem it a total failure, but I won't be repeating it, either.


Overall, I've enjoyed almost all of my programs with very few exceptions. I really enjoy programming in general, though I have to admit I find the constant pressure to come up with ideas to be stressful. But at least in another year or so, I will have done enough over a long enough period of time to be able to recycle earlier ideas. 

I'd love to hear what some of your most successful and/or personal favorite programs have been! And while it can be humbling to share the ones that don't go well, it can be very helpful to others, so share those, too. I guarantee we've ALL had programs that didn't go well for one reason or another!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Best & Worst Reads of 2019




This post is purely for fun and a little personal reflection on some of my favorite, and not so favorite, reads from the past year, based solely on my personal reading and opinions. Also, I seem to always be a year behind, so while I will try to focus on books published in 2019, some will be from 2018 or possibly older. I'm sure there are many great books out this year that I did not get a chance to read, so feel free to make suggestions in the comments!

Favorite Picture Book 

The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach, 2019.

This was an easy choice, as I fell in love with this the first time I saw it, and couldn't wait to use it in storytime. It is very funny, very relate-able, and introduces some nice vocabulary. Fans of Mo Willems' Pigeon books will definitely love this, and the humor appeals to both children and adults. Click on the title to link to my full review.

I paired this with a pop-up version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and live caterpillars for a special caterpillar storytime to kickoff our metamorphosis program to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Sadly, I could not think of one other new picture book that stood out. I don't know if I'm missing them when they come in, or if it's just not been a great year for good picture books that appeal to my style. I'd love some suggestions!

Favorite Early Reader/Transitional Chapter Book 

Meet Yasmin! by Saadia Faruqi & Hatem Aly, 2018.

This wonderful series of transitional chapter books feature 4 different stories in each volume (which are also published separately, which can be confusing) about a young Pakistani-American girl dealing with everyday challenges and issues that all children can relate to, such as school projects, getting lost, and making mistakes.

The text is just right for newly independent readers, and the illustrations are contemporary and charming. As a bonus, there is extensive back matter, including discussion questions, a glossary of Urdu words, facts about Pakistan, a recipe, and a craft.


Favorite Middle-Grade Fiction 

Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake, 2018.

This is a poignant story of a 12-year old girl who is beginning to question her feelings and what they mean in terms of her sexuality, though that term is never used. The subject is handled so beautifully, and with such sensitivity, and in a completely age-appropriate way.  

In addition, Ivy's family has just lost their home to a tornado, she is feeling like the proverbial invisible middle child, her best friend is keeping secrets, and someone has found her private journal, so there is also some friend and family drama going on as well. 

Honorable Mentions: I had a really hard time narrowing this one down as there were several middle grade books I really enjoyed reading this year, including the graphic novel New Kid by Jerry Craft, the modern parent-trap-with-a-twist To Night Owl From Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer, and two older books, Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai and the delightful The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Allison Levy.

Favorite YA Fiction 
This one was a tie:

Far From The Tree by Robin Benway, 2017.

This story of three siblings, separated by adoption and foster care and meeting for the first time as teenagers, is a beautiful, moving story that makes you feel all the feels. 

The three begin to form strong bonds as they get to know each other, eventually sharing their darkest secrets. Eventually they decide to look for their birth mother together, which has a bittersweet, but ultimately uplifting and healing, ending. I loved this book so much!


The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, 2019.

Norris Kaplan is a black, French-Canadian teen having to adjust to relocating to Texas. Unhappy about the move and uncomfortable in his new school, he covers his loneliness and anxiety about fitting in by using sarcasm and snark as a defense. He initially is quick to judge and categorize everyone based on stereotypes, which comes back to haunt him later when his new friends learn of some of the unkind comments and jokes he made about them before he got to know them.

Being fluent in snark and sarcasm myself and having lots of experience with not fitting in, I loved this book and was thrilled to see it named a finalist for the Morris Award.

Worst Book 

Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, 2018

This YA feminist fairytale re-telling started with an interesting premise, but failed miserably in execution. The female protagonist, the "Damsel", was very flat and not well-developed, with little personality, and not particularly sympathetic, the plot was very predictable, and the writing was laughable, littered with such gems as "...the thick meat of him, a fleshy tusk, white like ivory in the bed of curled black hair" to describe the male anatomy, and "...swimming in the hot stew of his mother's juice" to refer to a babe in the womb. Though it was a Printz honor book and I know others who liked it, I did not like it at all and wished I had not wasted my time. Read Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust instead.

Biggest Disappointment 

The Library Book by Susan Orlean, 2018.

I had heard several librarian friends and acquaintances gush about this book, and was excited when my name finally came up on the hold list. I really expected to love this book, but sadly it did not live up to the hype, at least not for me.

Orlean clearly has an appreciation for books and reading, and fond memories of her childhood library, but I found her book to be very rambling, lacking focus and organization, and jumping back in forth in time and from one story to another as if she couldn't decide what kind of story she wanted to write: the history of the L.A. Public Library, an investigation of the fire at Central Library, or her own childhood memories. This resulted in a jumbled, sometimes boring, and rather anti-climatic book. 

Dishonorable Mention - I had heard people recommend Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz many times over the last few years, and had been meaning to read it for a while, so I was glad to see it on the reading list for my YA Lit class. However, though there are some good things about it and I really liked it at the beginning, Dante's character really began to wear on my nerves with his over-sharing and constant crying, and I did not like the way the ending was handled at all. It is not terrible, but I didn't really enjoy it, and it certainly didn't live up to the hype.

Biggest Surprise 

Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker, 2019.e

I found this middle-grade/young YA story about a trans tween sent to live with her aunts after the death of her parents and adjusting to her new life and finding a delightfully diverse group of friends to be a pleasant surprise. 

I had low expectations for this book based on the author's previous book, Felix Yz, which I found to be cluttered with too many competing storylines. Also, the author's attempt to include as many LGTBQ representations as possible was clumsy and often felt like tokenism; I found the representation of the gender-fluid grandparent who follows a fixed schedule of when they present male or female to be particularly problematic.

However, the author did not repeat these mistakes in Zenobia July. The story stays focused on the main character, and while it does include a wide array of wonderfully diverse characters, this time Bunker did an excellent job of developing them and integrating them into the story naturally, so that they enrich the story rather than distract from it, and the representations are positive and feel authentic.

Honorable Mention - I initially hadn't planned on reading Marissa Meyer's Cinder because sci-fi really isn't my thing, but knowing how popular it is, I thought I should at least be familiar with it. So I sat down intending to just read the first chapter, and I couldn't put it down! I loved how Meyer used the classic fairy tale of Cinderella as the inspiration for this YA story, but interpreted it in such a creative and different way. It is sci-fi, but also has a magical, fairy tale feel with a strong female character and is just a fun read.

So that sums up my impressions of what I read this year, though there were certainly many other books that I liked. I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of these books, or any you think I've missed. If you want to see what else I read this year, take a look at my Goodreads list, though I only track middle-grade and older books on there, no picture books, early readers, or transitional chapter books.

What what some of your favorites and disappointments this year?

Monday, December 23, 2019

Mini 'Gingerbread' Houses II - Family STEAM Program


Mini Gingerbread house program, graham cracker houses

I did everything for the second round of building mini "gingerbread" houses pretty much the same as I did the first time, except that I raised the registration limit from 30 to 36. Since the first one went so smoothly I realized that I could easily accommodate that many, and since we always have no-shows I figured I needed to up it to 36 to get 30 anyway.


I've already written up all the details about materials needed, budget, etc., in my prior post, "Mini Gingerbread Houses", so I'll just quickly summarize here. Each session required about $75 in supplies for 30 houses, using graham crackers and canned icing. No pre-assembly was done, the only "glue" used was canned icing (no royal icing required, and most definitely no hot glue 😖), and no milk cartons or boxes). Participants were given brief instructions, tips for construction, and shown a few examples, then had the rest of the hour to free-build and decorate their houses.

Mini gingerbread house program for kids, graham cracker houses

While this session did go very well, there were some distinct differences from the first session. First of all, I ran into a LOT more broken graham crackers; in the first session I had maybe 2 crackers that were broken in the box, but there were at least 20 broken ones in the second session! I have no idea why, as they were the same brand, purchased from the same store at the same time, and stored in the same place. It was very frustrating and cost me several minutes of set-up time, but thankfully I had purchased an excess of crackers in case this happened. 

mini gingerbread house program for families, graham cracker houses

I also noticed the demographics of the crowd was quite a bit different from the first. In the first session I had mostly moms with younger kids in the 3-8 age range, but in the second I saw more older kids and teenagers, including two teens who came together rather than with family, a family who brought a couple of adult friends with them, and a mom that came by herself. So clearly this is an activity that appeals to all ages.

Mini gingerbread house program for kids, graham cracker houses

And finally, I noticed that in the second group I observed more people making up their own designs rather than building the typical square or rectangular house with a gabled roof. I saw one that looked something like a cross between art deco and Chichen Itza, one that resembled a pagoda, and one that reminded me of a house of cards, plus several with flat roofs.

Graham cracker structures STEM program

Everyone seemed to have a great time, and I didn't notice anyone getting frustrated. I got lots of compliments and "thank you"s, and some expressing the hope that we do it again next year (and I certainly hope to).

Gingerbread STEM program, graham cracker houses, mini gingerbread house program for kids,

So, long story short:
  • Get plenty of extra graham crackers in case of breakage.
  • Royal icing is NOT necessary (or recommended).
  • Gingerbread house building can be a STEAM activity
  • Pre-assembly and milk carton bases are unnecessary, and deprive participants of the opportunity to use their imagination, creativity, engineering, and problem-solving skills.
  • All ages enjoy making gingerbread houses, making it a perfect multi-generational program.
  • Must-have candies for decorating are mini candy canes, gum drops, starlight mints, and small candies like mini M&M's and/or Smarties. Cinnamon candies were not popular.

Gingerbread STEAM program, mini gingerbread house program, graham cracker houses for kids


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Cookies - Family Storytime


Cookie Storytime

I struggled with a theme for my December storytime. We don't do holidays, but I still like to do something kinda special that fits in with the holiday season, without actually portraying a specific holiday. Last year I did a cookie theme, which was perfect, but didn't want to repeat it so soon. I first decided on "snowflakes" since there's just something magical about snow and I had two non-fiction books of gorgeous photos of snowflake crystals, plus I thought there would be some good crafts to go with it.

However, I was ambivalent with the fiction I found that featured snowflakes, and when I tried some of them out at my monthly outreach visit they definitely fell flat. So, I back-tracked and decided to do the cookie theme again, but to be sure to use different books, hopefully some I had never used before.

I began with a short "Hello" song as I handed out programs, and then warmed everyone up with my new opening song that I learned from Jbrary, "Hello, Everybody". I've found I like this one much more than the one I used to use because it's a little more lively and has motions that I can change up and are more fun. I introduced the theme of cookies, and led them in a fun rhyme where we pretend to make cookies, acting out each step.

Making Cookies

We are making cookie dough. 
Round and round the beaters go.
Add some flour, just two cups.
Stir and stir the batter up.

Roll them, cut them, nice and neat.
Place them on a cookie sheet.
Bake them, cool them on a rack.
Give them to our friends for snack!

After sharing what kind of cookies we each made, I transitioned to our first book by saying now they we've talked about making cookies, we were going to see how many other people worked to provide all the things we need to make our cookies. 

Cookie storytimeI love how Who Put The Cookie In The Cookie Jar by George Shannon shows everything and everyone that goes into making cookies, from the person who manufactures the cookie sheet to the person who cares for the chickens and gathers the eggs. 

Julie Paschikis' illustrations are very bright and cheerful with a folk-art flair and portray multiple skin tones; Shannon's text is uncharacteristically short and simple so that it is a good choice for a wider age range, and has a nice rhythm when read aloud so that it isn't too dry. And for an interesting bit of trivia, George Shannon actually worked as a children's librarian in the library system where I now work very early in his career.

Cookie storytimeThe kids had already spied the next book and were eager to read it, so I went straight to reading The Ninjabread Man by C.J. Leigh and Chris Gall. This is a very fun, modern re-telling of the Gingerbread Man folktale, with the wise old sensei making a special batch of magical ninjabread to test his students. 

When he opens the oven, KA-POW! Out jumps the Ninjabread man, who then disappears with a crack and a flash, subsequently reappearing to test each one of the sensei's students. Though the characters may be slightly different, the ending is the same. This is very cute and funny, and a really fun read aloud.

I followed that with a cookie rhyme with a cookie flannel set I made last year (though I used the yellow star cookie instead of the Oreo pictured this time):


Cookie Flannel rhyme

"Five Little Cookies"

Five little cookies, with frosting galore!
Daddy ate the red one, and then there were four.

Four little cookies, two plus two you see.
Mommy at the green one, and then there were three.

Three little cookies, and before I knew,
Brother ate the white one, and then there were two.

Two little cookies; oh, what fun!
Sister ate the brown one, and then there was one.

One little cookie, yum-yum-yum!
*I* ate the last one, and then there were none.

We did this twice, first naming the color of the cookie, and the second time naming the shape.

Cookie storytime
For our final book I chose one I have read before, but I love it so much I had to use it again. It combines two of my favorite things, dinosaurs and cookies! Cookiesaurus Rex is the king of cookies, so of course he demands to be iced first. At first he's happy, but then he sees other cookies getting sprinkles and other embellishments that he didn't get, so he demands a do-over. Fed up with the cookie's attitude, the baker decides to teach him a lesson, and a hilarious battle of wills ensues! 

Fans of Mo Willem's Pigeon books will love this. The text by Amy Fellner Dominy and Nate Evans is full of attitude and so fun to read aloud, and AG Ford's illustration are gorgeous and colorful.

We ended with singing Cookie Monster's song before moving on to our special craft.

C is for Cookie

C is for cookie, that's good enough for me.
C is for cookie, that's good enough for me.
C is for cookie, that's good enough for me.

Oh, cookie, cookie, cookie starts with C!

Craft

Cookie storytimeFor our craft we decorated cookies! I got small gingerbread man cookies and gave each child two cookies on a paper plate, with about 2 tablespoons of vanilla icing in a small zip-lock bag with the tip of the corner snipped off. I showed them how to hold the icing bag to pipe icing onto their cookie to outline it, make a face, turn it into a ninjabread man, or whatever they wanted.

Piping icing is a great activity for writing skills as it works the muscles of the hand, as well as hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Some kids tried to draw faces or outlines, and others just piped a pile of squiggly icing, but this is more about the process than the product, and it all tastes the same!

I used these cookies last year with no issues, but a couple of the kids this time found them to be too spicy, so next time I may try to find some kind of sugar cookie to decorate instead. 

How It Went
I was really disappointed at the low turnout I had; only two families were there for the whole storytime, plus one mom and toddler that drifted in and out. It seemed everyone was slow getting up and out that day, as several families came in just as storytime ended, plus it was just a slow weekend overall.

But, the kids that were there were old enough to appreciate the books that were my first choice to read, and enjoyed the humor as much as I did. I had not read The Ninjabread Man before, but I though it was really clever and fun to read. I paraphrased a few sections just a bit to shorten slightly. Though I didn't have a very big crowd, it went well and we had fun.

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:

 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.

Bistro 

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' Houses - 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)

Materials:
  • 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. 
Prep:


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.