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Music and Meaning

photo 2 (11)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

One of the weakest skills in my high school students today is creative application, including problem solving.  In this age of immediate access to almost anything, and the concurrent race to abundant “right” answers, students feel that a simple Google search is a decent replacement for creativity.  I love making opportunities for my kids to “think outside the box,” innovating and experimenting.  It’s within these creative forays that I feel that intuitive learning, commitment to ideas, and risk taking happens, and all three are important life skills, particularly for future developers, inventers, and self-sufficient people.  This, by the way, is one motivating force behind the Common Core Movement, so I am not alone in my thinking.

Music is something people have done for eons, and the context is an easy way to introduce kids to creative problem solving and design.  I spread my music lesson across two days, modeling for the 4-to-8 year olds some simple instrument design and application of music.  Music tells stories, evokes emotions, and embraces plenty of physics and mathematics, and is so easily accessible these days.  I started the two-day stint showing just how pervasive music is in our worlds, by giving the kids a scavenger hunt for music-related things.  I included plenty of applications (“This music wakes me up,” “…tells me someone is at the door,” “…announces that food is ready”), aesthetics and popularity (“…is a popular group of musicians,” “…announces a San Francisco concert,” “…is a national anthem,”), widely recognized instruments (“guitar,” “drum,” “piano”), and lesser recognized instruments using nature (“…the wind makes my song,” “…I make you want to pee,”).  The kids had fun running around the house looking for appliances, concert posters and records, conventional instruments, and taking the time in silence to listen for our wind chimes and fountain. 

After reviewing that music could really come from anywhere and stir the senses and emotions, I gave each a big sheet or paper on a clipboard, and we began drawing to music.  This was one of my very favorite things to do as a kid.  We didn’t get many channels of television, but faithfully would watch the Boston Pops Orchestra on PBS each weekend, with our big pieces of construction paper and sets of pens, pencils, or crayons.  Staccato notes got brief, pointed shapes and dots.  Flowing medleys of instruments matched my long, sweeping lines and swirls of color, intertwined as were the different tones of a cello with a violin.  For some kids, this was their first time trying this, and for others, they were seasoned pros.  We listened to a range of different music pieces, thanks to their ease of accessibility on YouTube.  First it was a ragtime song, then a symphony (“Flight of the Bumblebee”), then a jazz rendition of a Radiohead song.  In preparation, Holly and I sat and listened to a couple other songs, and she was immediately turned off to “Night on Bald Mountain,” because it was too “dark and scary.”  I was really impressed that my 4-year-old grasped that – the clear intention of the composer over a hundred years ago.  It’s a stormy, torrentuous piece, and I decided not to play it for my young crew, based on her reaction.

After some free play and a smoothie break, we headed up through traffic to San Mateo’s kinetic sculpture garden, which includes some interesting installments that work with sound.  The sculptures at Ryder Park/Seal Point were in disrepair when we visited, but we made the way up to the top of the point, above the dog park and windsurfing launch.  The kids had fun trying to see through the mounted binoculars there, then enjoyed playing with a tennis ball between two concave discs.  I’ve visited this park many times with many different Stroller Hikers, but with the older boys, it took them a little more time to slow down and realize how this sculpture changed sound.  The concave discs face each other, concentrating sound waves at a central point in the sculpture.  You can stand in the middle of it, then slowly move to its edges to experience sound change, so for the younger kids who can slow down and take in the world like a sponge, the discovery of how the sculpture worked was almost instantaneous.  About 30 feet away, a group of pipes looking not so different from those on a pipe organ, can be activated to help kids realize that changes in tube length change the tone of sound perceived.  This sculpture used to have shoes hanging from it – a sturdy flip-flop makes an excellent mallet to generate waves of sound to vibrate up the length of each tube.  Far less impressive with my stiff Tevas, the kids understood the lesson, nonetheless.

photo 4 (9)Back at home, after more free play and a little lunch, we set out to play with sound closer to home.  Together, we made kazoos (waxed paper wrapped around combs), plastic egg rattles, tambourines (paper plates with paper-clip-mounted bells along the edge), a wrench xylophone (propping different-sized metal wrenches on an egg carton), and a simple rubber band guitar (rubber bands across a clipboard).  We played a song together, then I challenged the kids to design their own instruments in their journals, using any or all of the things they had worked with that day.  Some kids drew pictures, and others listed out features.  Some kids used the concept of focusing sound by including a partially closed box, some used rubber bands to generate vibrations, others used metal or loose small things, like the bells or beans (from our rattles).  All ideas were creative and did not mirror entirely something conventional.  Hoorah- creativity!

photo 5 (7)When the kids resumed camp the next day, the first item of the day was to build their creations.  I offered prizes for several categories, to keep everyone motivated, of course.  Ryan’s invention reminded me of old Bob Dylan photos: as soon as he had one sound-generating piece working, he added another sound-generating piece.  A wrench was hit by a butter knife, and not only did we hear ringing, but the beans below a chamber shook, and when he strummed a rubber band, bells shook while the body of his instrument warmly hummed.  Max’s approach was to generate a wide range of notes, in order, so he created a strumming box with notes ranging low to high.  Shira and Samuel copied each other, something cool to see siblings do.  As soon as Samuel settled on needing a big plastic bin, so did Shira (but a different-shaped bin of course).  As soon as Shira had hung bells from vibrating bands, Samuel opted to do the same.  They were parallel collaborators, for sure.  Shira practiced her playing of “Row Your Boat” while Samuel went to add more bells.  Holly made a drum out of a huge oatmeal container, and played with putting holes in the head of her drum, to change the tone of it, as well as putting a layer of lentils atop the vibrating head.  I made a wind chime-meets-tambourine instrument, with hanging rattles of different tones and types.  After we all won our respective awards, we relished in our little prizes (bouncy balls and bubbles), and I embarked on the long cleanup spilled lentil beans affords.

photo 5 (8)We had done one of my favorite music things the day before – drawing to music – so after free play, we were on to another favorite from my childhood.  I still have the record from the late 60s that we listened to, complete with the same skip in it.  I put on Leonard Bernstein’s rendition of “Peter and the Wolf,” and all of the kids found a pillow to relax on, to cover almost every nook and cranny of our tiny living room.  If you have never heard or seen it, it is a fantastic introduction to the personification a tone can provide.  In the story, the bird is a flute, young and spritely Peter a clarinet.  I’ll let you use your creativity to guess at what the wolf would be.  It’s a fun story with morals that hold true to this day.

– Debbie (Founder, Stroller Hikes)

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Sushi Rolls and the Seashore

image (4)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

Summer Camp with Mom 1: Ocean Foods

image (2)With very low tides on the first Monday of Summer Camp with Mom, we ventured to Fitzgerald Marine Reserve to start the day.  We established rules about safety before we left, then I passed out a scavenger hunt paper for things found at the tide pools to each child.  We had fun scrambling around the newly exposed kelp beds, atop rocks, and digging in the sand.  We saw everything on the scavenger hunt, but had to talk to the local ranger to know where sea stars and purple urchins were.  The daring kids dared to have their fingers kissed by sea anemones.

We were at the beach in the morning, and after snack, jumped back in the car to ride home, so we’d be home in time for lunch.  Since our theme was ocean foods, I wanted the kids to think about what we get from the sea.  While I prepped food, they brainstormed as many things as they could think of, drawing pictures or making lists in their journals.  The top list got a prize.  I was impressed to see all of the kids include seaweed, fish, and salt on their lists.  We would make sushi today and taste salt tomorrow.

We had tuna melts and grilled cheeses, with sides of strawberries (strawberries love growing on the bluffs above the beach, as they do in Watsonville).  The kids each picked their quiet  rooms (one kid to a room) and books for an hour of relaxation time.  While they rested, I started some sushi rice cooking in the rice cooker, and sliced matchsticks of cucumber and carrot.  I also put out avocado and pickled ginger, and cooked up an omelet that I then cut into matchsticks.

After nap, we made waist aprons.  I had sewed a ribbon onto a rectangular piece of ivory fabric for each child.  I’m a crafter, so I collect fabric ribbon from gifts, and had quite a lot to choose from.  I also had some old upholstery fabric leftover from a sofa project years before.  If you’re not a crafter, this project is made easier using napkins or dish cloths; just sew on a ribbon so the apron can be tied on.  You can also buy premade aprons ready for decoration at your local craft store like Michael’s.  We colored our aprons with fabric markers.

Clad in our aprons, we were ready to cook!  We added sugar, rice vinegar, and salt to the cooked rice, then stirred it.  It’s great when the number of ingredients and steps equal the number of kids participating; to a little bowl, Jack measured and added the sugar, Pranav measured and added the vinegar, Max measured and added the salt, and then Holly mixed up the contents of the little bowl and added it to the rice. 

Our recipe for Seasoned Sushi Rice:

Cook 2 cups of raw sushi or short-grain rice according to package directions.

In a small bowl, stir together:

2 Tablespoons each of rice vinegar and sugar

1 Tablespoon kosher salt

Once dissolved, stir seasoned blend into rice.

 HumanSushiRollAfter the rice was made, we sat down to plan out what would go in our dream sushi rolls.  The kids each drew pictures in their journals, and the older ones added written labels and named their rolls.  Some kids already had their favorites from the neighborhood sushi bar, with cucumber and salmon.  Others had never eaten sushi, so benefited from some descriptions and drawings from other kids.  Others made wild rolls with cotton candy inside.  A new ingredient emerged as a result of this planning: cream cheese.

The issue with sushi rolls is that they must be super tight, so to teach this concept, what better than to make some human sushi rolls?  I have a bamboo picnic/beach mat, so each kid took a turn being the filling.  They each laid down, then we pulled the mat up on one end, patted it down all over, then kept rolling.  Giggles all around, but by the time we got to making our rolls, the training had paid off.  At each of their own little bamboo mats, on top of dried nori sheets, kids patted on thin layers of sticky sushi rice with rubber spatulas, then laid on just a few toppings.  They rolled the first inch of their rolls, then patted everything in place.  Tight, tight, tight!

SushiI took care of cutting the rolls while the kids escaped to free play in the backyard.  When all rolls were cut up, we had fun eating our creations, and when parents came to pick up their kids, they got to take a few rolls home to have with dinner.  We finished the day by watching part of Ratatouille – “Anyone can Cook!”

– Debbie (Founder, Stroller Hikes), Max (8), Holly (4), and Andrew

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Bay Beauty

image (16)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

Summer Camp with Mom 6: Bay Beauty

Week 2 of Summer Camp with Mom centered on the topic of the Bay Area.  We started the week by drawing out a huge poster on butcher paper with what we expected to see at the Baylands in Palo Alto, our field trip for the day.  We headed out, parking near the duck pond, a historic salt water swimming pool that had once been used by bathing beauties from Palo Alto, and is now a sanctuary for geese, ducks, coots, egrets, herons, pelicans, and more.  We made quick work hiking all around the pond and to the observatory at the Baylands (sadly, closed on Monday), then settled down to paint with some watercolors. 

I have seen artists at Palo Alto Baylands many times, and today was no exception.  But today, the artists included three young kids, drawing rally trucks, forest landscapes, rainbows, and fireworks.  I was the only one drawing the local landscape, but it was a treat to see that these kids are never lacking for creativity.  Some had never painted with watercolors before, so it was fun to offer them this new experience.  Everyone enjoyed blending colors and trying to draw things they could imagine or see.

We headed home and added to our poster what we had seen that we had not drawn before – a lot more birds, flies, and bugs.  I brought home a small sample of muddy water from one of the estuary regions of Palo Alto Baylands, so we enjoyed watching a water boatman bug zip to and fro, and watching little protists shake about and squiggle, amongst nematode worms.  As before, when we had looked at yeast for making bread, there were no creepy-crawly responses, and the kids were impressed and amazed at what they could see through a microscope lens.

image (15)After a taco lunch, the kids relaxed.  I cued up movies summarizing the natural beauty and diversity of the Bay Estuary (there is an exemplary, award-winning series titled “Discover the Bay” on YouTube), then we delved into Native American history of the region.  There was some nice review about the flora and fauna of the area, including some ocean foods like we had discussed or tasted the week before.  We watched as a Native American built a canoe out of reeds, and checked out the homes and dress of natives in the area centuries before.  While the natives lived in thatch and mud structures, we opted to build something a bit less messy – Tepees out of tyvek and balsa dowels.  The opportunity for design and experimentation with construction was just what the kids needed – something that initially took 15 minutes to complete lasted for 90 minutes, as the kids made their structures stronger, more complex, and prettier.  Holly even grabbed some blankets and cuddled beneath hers for a catnap.photo (5)

The day ended well with some bike riding around the block.

–          Debbie (Founder), Max (8), and Holly (4)

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Lemonade, Get Your Lemonade!

photo (56)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

 Summer Camp with Mom 5: Food Businesses

In this day and age, I think it’s very important for kids to not lose sight of where their food is from, what it takes to make it, and where money associated with the food industry really goes.  Politics and complex economics aside, I’ll settle this year to expose my kids to simple cooking that they could otherwise pay at least tenfold for, quality ingredients enjoyed without much cooking at all, and good personal interactions around food.  For our final day of Summer Camp with Mom’s week about food, we opted to have a lemonade and cookie stand near our house. 

When our first Summer Camp with Mom guest, Pranav, arrived at our house, he could not wait to get started.  The oven was warm and baking cookies at 9:30 AM, hours before the 1:30 PM opening of our one-hour stand.  In the air, eagerness melded with the smell of chocolate and peanut butter.

Once everyone attending camp on this day had arrived, we brainstormed all of the parts of our stand, sketching pictures in our journals.  Then we split up jobs and got busy.  Some were finding supplies.  Others finished the cookies.  Everyone designed posters.  We all headed to the park to run and play, between hanging signs on every lamppost we could find, until we had run out.

After relaxation time, the kids eagerly assembled our stand, complete with table cloth and beach umbrella, at the end of our block.  The kids were tireless in their efforts to flag down drivers, market to pedestrians, and even knock on a few neighbors’ doors.  In our hour of sales, we sold out of lemonade (16 lemons worth) and nearly sold out of the 6 dozen cookies we had made.  We’d raised some $34.50 at the stand – all donated to Hollyhill Hummingbird Farm that we had visited the day before.

I was amazed that everyone still had energy after being out in the sun, selling their wares.  We finished the day by making some homemade ice cream.  We rolled our ice cream ball (a concentric set of balls, with cream, milk, sugar, and vanilla at the middle, and salt and ice in the outer sphere), and had fun playing a take-your-turn word-association game.  We topped our fresh soft serv with marshmallows, honey, and chocolate.  It was a prize well deserved after such hard work!

– Debbie (founder), Max(8), Holly (4), and Andrew

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Creek Cruising

photo (6)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

Summer Camp with Mom 7: Creek Cruising

Our adventures exploring the Bay expanded to water travel, today.  With a goal of building boats, I wanted the kids to understand that they had a lot of supplies they could choose from, and all they needed was a material with the right density.  I handed each kid a small bowl and told them to find anything they wanted to test for floating, as long as it fit in the bowl and could go in water.

The kids scampered off eagerly, returning with fruit, wood, stones, coasters, plastic… you name it.  I taught each child how to use a triple beam balance to determine mass, then water displacement for volume, and we recorded our observations, including if the items floated or not, for 13 items in our journals.  Then out came a calculator, and we computed density.  The kids were diligent about recording most items in their journals, and I stuck huge Post-Its on our windows, so they could keep track of it all.  It worked like a charm – only the highest density items sunk; the kids quickly made those observations, then could explain fairly well what density was and why being low density meant floating.  It was fantastic science, all hands-on!DensityMath

I let the kids do some free play as I cleaned up, and reminisced about how such conclusions were not so easily made when I taught 9th grade in Eugene about 20 years ago.  Of course, that was to a class size of about 30, not a small group of three!  Still, I don’t expect my kids to be able to explain density precisely in a week, but it’s very likely they will remember our process of “discovering” it.

After a quick snack, we began thinking about boat design.  We started with a 1-minute YouTube movie about hull design, then the kids sketched out their plans in their journals.  They then made patterns on paper, which we traced onto foam poster board.  We punched in bamboo skewers for masts, added paper sails, and drew and colored to further customize our watercraft.  The kids tested their boats in the bathtub, then adjusted position of sails, added flags, or taped on more foam to provide counterweight.  I made a pontoon boat with two empty water bottles for pontoons, because the YouTube video had described pontoon boats as being the most stable.RyansBoat

After lunch and relaxation time, we headed to Stevens Creek to test our boats.  With the slow trickle of the creek, Ryan’s narrow sailboat won each race hands down, compared to Max’s wider sailboat, Holly’s heavy sailboat (that tended to capsize), or my fat and tall pontoon (that was, indeed, stable).  Still, we had a blast getting wet, climbing around rocks, and watching honeybees come and go, using the creek to take a cool water break.

After getting home, we enjoyed some popcorn and cold water, and watched “A Deeper Shade of Blue,” a documentary on the history of surfing, with plenty of footage including Californian surfers and beaches.

– Debbie (Founder), Max (8), Holly (4), and Andrew

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