Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Box Trolls - Skip the Move, Read the Book.

Laika Studio's The Box Trolls releases to DVD later in January.  I purchased an early release version on Amazon instant video, last week.  It was after my mother's visit, and I was looking for a way to cheer up, and distract my youngest two (ages 8 and 10), who were mourning the loss of their grandmother's company.

I don't often purchase movies sight unseen, without at least checking the Plugged-In review first.  I was busy with Christmas prep at the time though, and it was the only new children's movie out, and so I bought it, and sent my daughters off to the family room to watch it, while I started mixing up a batch of gingerbread.

The animation style of the movie didn't look very appealing to me, but I've felt that way about other movies the children have ended up enjoying - so I took a chance.

The gingerbread hadn't even come out of the oven though, before the girls were back in the kitchen, scolding in unison.

"Maaawm! That was not a family friendly movie."
"They took God's name in vain!  And, it's a bad story."
"We turned it off."

Can you hear my sigh?

I would have learned all of that if I had gone my usual route and checked out the Plugged-In review first.  I would also have learned that the movie was based loosely on a children's novel.  And, had I known that, I might have picked up the book first, and discovered a truly delightful story sooner.

Because, although I cannot recommend The Box Trolls to you - you might like it, we all have our own tastes, but my children did not care for it - I can however, highly recommend the story it was loosely based on, Alan Snow's Here Be Monsters.

The story is still strange.  It's the sort of book you might expect to find in Roald Dahl's library, if he had ever decided to team up and write a children's novel with Lewis Caroll, or maybe even Dr. Seuss, that is.  But, it's also fanciful, fun, and almost impossible to put down.  And, thankfully, as is the case with so many novels, bares almost no resemblance to it's film adaptation.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Winter Fun - Mind Challenging Puzzles

Challenging: testing one's abilities;  demanding, testing, taxing, exacting; stretching, exciting, stimulating, inspiring; difficult, tough, hard, formidable, onerous, arduous, strenuous, grueling.

I'm not sure whether or not you've happened to notice the unfinished puzzle lurking in the background of the pictures from our last few posts.  It was there while G was editing her short film.

It was the reason there was only room for four of the challengers at the table for our hot chocolate tasting (the other two were set-up at the kitchen counter).

And, it was there for the whole of the gingerbread house disaster.

In fact, it was there before the gingerbread was even baked.  Truth be told, it's been on our table for more than a week - ever since I pulled it out to work on with my mother during her pre-Christmas visit.

It's actually been in our game cupboard since July.  I bought the 1000 piece EuroGraphic's puzzle of Raphael's "Small Cowper Madonna" to go along with the book we were reading at the time - Laura Marx Fitzgerald's Under the Egg - in which the painter's work features heavily.  A house sale/fail, and packing for a move kept us from doing it then, but Christmastime seemed like an even better time to piece together the Madonna and Child, anyway.

EuroGraphics (non-affiliate link) has a number of very lovely puzzles to choose from, and an entire section of "fine art" prints to choose from.  Putting together a puzzle is a fantastic way to really focus in on, and get to know a painting - but, be warned!  If the rest of the EuroGraphics puzzles are as difficult as this one - then be prepared for a lot of slow, and painstaking piecing.

It's not the difficulty of the design, or the number of pieces, but the fact that they are oddly shaped pieces.  So oddly shaped, that it takes three, or four to come together to fill in space for what appears to be made for one normal puzzle piece.   I like puzzles, and occasionally I like a really difficult puzzle - one more challenging than the average floor puzzle I do with the children - one to remind me I'm not as smart as I can start to think I am, when comparing myself to the intelligence of my normal companions - a group of children.

This "Small Cowper Madonna" fit the bill, and was perfect for passing a stormy winter evening, or two...

...or ten.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Winter Fun - Hot Chocolate Flavor Identification Game

While the girls were outside filming in the cold, yesterday, I set up a game of mystery hot chocolate tasting, to warm them up when they came back inside.

We played the same game last year, with holiday tea blends.  It was such a big hit then, I knew we'd have to play it again, and when I happened to come across a display of individually packaged servings of hot chocolate mixes, in various flavors - I knew they'd be perfect for our first big winter storm.

With the wind howling, and the temperatures dropping, I put the kettle on to boil, and started preparing cups, and playing cards.  I made one card per player (pictured above), listing each flavor of hot chocolate we had, with a column of letters to match them to.

For each hot chocolate flavor, I prepared a set of cups - one for each player, with a letter on the side (different for each player), and the hot chocolate flavor on the bottom.

Then, I mixed up the hot chocolate, dipped a little into each of the players' cups, and moved them quickly to the table, with the playing cards, while the hot chocolate was still nice and warm...

The players sampled, and guessed the flavor in each of their cups...

...checking the bottoms of the cups to see if they were correct, once they had guessed all of the flavors.

The player who correctly identified the most flavors - in this case E (age 10) with 3 correct matches - was the winner. 

Just like with the teas, it was harder than we thought it would be to discern between the flavors, and there were some real surprises.  Unlike, the with the teas, we did not pick a new favorite - the children were staunch milk chocolate fans before we played the game, and remained so afterwards, as well.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Winter Fun - Student Made Films - "A Short Snow Drama"

G (age 15) took advantage of a blustery winter day today, and created A Short Snow Drama with the help of her younger sisters, our old Canon Power Shot A530, Corel's Video Studio Pro x7 (non-affiliate links), and a couple of songs off of YouTube (credited in the video description).

As a mother, of course, I'm thrilled with the end result of her work - a very cute video to share with the grandparents.

As her homeschool teacher I'm loving the hour or two of work that followed the five minute shoot - editing videos, navigating software, dealing with the headaches of lost video files, and music files that just wouldn't link, all the while racing the clock before our outdated laptop decided to overheat and shut-down, only to have to repeat the entire process in order to create a "blogger ready" version with first names removed from the credits.

Software issues, hardware headaches, and a glance at the hard work behind the creative process...

...that's what I call computer science.

It's great to be a homeschooler.

Friday, December 26, 2014

When Things Don't Go Perfectly or Gingerbread Disaster, A Christmas Story

Our gingerbread house, this year, turned out to be less than structurally sound.

There was a great deal of concern, when it was ascertained through eye witness reports, that the occupant of the house was at home at the time of the collapse. 

Police moved quickly to locate the victim...

...then worked with engineers, lifting...

...and securing fallen walls, long enough...

...for rescuers and paramedics... reach and...

...remove the trapped gingerbread man from underneath the rubble.  He reported being shaken, but "okay"...

...and was transported to a local hospital for observation... a volunteer demolition crew assembled... order to clear away the remains of the ruined...

...but delicious structure.

Just a quick reminder, that with all the real tragedies going on around the country, and throughout the world today, don't forget to take a moment to count all those little trivial holiday trials - like long lines at big box stores, batches of burned sugar cookies, or even gingerbread disasters - as the true blessings they are.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Really Great, Last Minute, Stocking Stuffers, and Small Gifts from the Grocery Store

We are very quickly running out of days before Christmas.  If you still have a few small presents, or stocking stuffers to buy, let me suggest a trip to your local supermarket.  You probably need a few last minute chips, and crackers anyway, so why not maximize your time, and finish up your gift list, too.

The junky little toys that hang on the aisles might, at first glance, appear to be cheaply made, wastes of money - and in truth many of them are very cheaply made - but they can also turn out to be surprisingly entertaining, inexpensive, and sometimes even educational, if not long term, toys.

Searching the grocery store aisles tonight for our favorite, but hard to find, holiday crackers (we really like those butterfly crackers from Pepperidge Farms) I passed a number of such toys, that my own children (ages 8-17) and their friends, have especially enjoyed, and thought maybe I'd share them here, in case anyone is looking for ideas or inspiration.

Ja-Ru Toys' Dino World Fossil Kit.  These are some of the best little dino-digs we have ever done.  The digging material is well formed, and held together, but not rock hard, making it pleasant to excavate the tiny little skeleton pieces.  I have seen reviews elsewhere that speak of missing bones, and disappointed children, but we have always had complete skeletons (except when we lost a piece during a recycle experiment - and that only led to more imaginative play).

Grab-A Bubble 3-D.   Not only are the touchable bubbles weird, and interesting, but the 3-D prism might be handy for all sorts of science experiments, later on.

Tricky Worm/Magic Worm puppets.  You can finger knit your own, but the store bought variety is always a big hit, too.  This one is good for teens, as well as the elementary aged set.

Finger Lights.  Just click the link to see some of the fun and learning these can create.

Fake Mustaches. They don't last long, but they're fun while they stick around.  We gave some as a white elephant gift at a home school Christmas party, last week.  One of the teenage girls there opened the package, and it wasn't long before she, and a group of her buddies, were trouping around the room, proudly sporting them.

Grow Snow.  Add a touch of tonic water, and a UV light, and you can even make it glow.

Or, for small gifts, you might peek at the toy aisle (or Christmas gift shelf) for Singing Tubes...

...or in the produce, or floral section of the store for a Venus Fly Trap.

I'm always amazed at how many stores have them in among the apples, and carnations.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

30 Second Christmas Science - Electric Playdough, Christmas Lights

Remember the burned out finger lights I mentioned earlier? 

They weren't much good for making colored shadow puppets, but I figured as long as we had them out, we might as well tear them apart, and figure out what was wrong with them.

We tested the little LED's against the battery pack...

...from our Leapster, and discovered a number of them still worked.

Most of the little button batteries still worked too, so it must have just been that the plastic casings had become loose, and weren't holding everything together tightly enough.

No matter, because now we had a bunch of LEDs (light emitting diodes) loose, and ready to play with.  We just needed something to decorate...

...and as we just happened to have a can of green Play-doh handy, we formed a quick Christmas tree, cut it in half down the middle (if the two sides touch the lights won't work)...

...added our lights (all running the same polar direction,  + and - wise), and plugged the tree into the battery pack (DC power is safe for this, AC power would not be - I think) with insulated alligator clip leads (we keep a number of these on around...they're so handy), with the positive on one side, and negative on the other.

We also played around a little, adding a strip of plastic wrap to the center of our tree, so we could connect the two sides without turning off our lights (LEDs are very bright, by the way, you don't want to stare directly at them).

Then, the children started working on a Christmas wreath, creating a string of lights, and balls of Play-doh.  Very quickly, though, they ran into a voltage drop problem.  When they tried to string three lights together, the third would not light...

...even though they were able to light four together, when only using two balls of dough.

I imagine there's a lesson in Ohm's law in there somewhere, but I'll need to brush up on my high school physics before we tackle it together. 

However, with my mother flying in for a pre-Christmas visit this evening, and the gnome-bot still refusing to fold laundry, it will probably have to wait until after the holidays.

The really great, and terrible, thing about 30 second science experiments is they tend to lead directly into deeper study, that lasts a lot longer than half a minute.

30 Second Christmas Science - Light And Shadow

After driving around town to view Christmas lights, we came home inspired to explore, and play with light, and shadow.

The first thing we needed was a couple of green and red lights.  We have plenty of colored finger lights, but all of our greens were burned out, or had dead batteries, or a loose wire, or something... we grabbed a flashlight, and colored the lenses with red and green washable markers, instead.  We used a flashlight that had a double light, but you could just as easily use two separate flashlights, one colored red and one colored green.  The washable marker wipes right off, with a dry cloth, when you're done.

When you shine a red, and green light, together, on a white wall (or in our case, the top of a white, washing machine), the light appears to be white, at least in the center.

But, an object held between the lights, and the wall will cast very Christmassy, red and green shadows - perfect for holiday themed shadow puppets.

Shining the red and green lights, together, down into a clear, glass bowl filled with water...

...produces a pattern of concentric circles, in an alternating red and green pattern, that flutes out, and changes when the water is disturbed.

And, shining the lights, together, through the sides of the bowl, creates a moving...


...northern lights kind of effect on the wall, which I'm sure we would have explored further, had I not been alerted by the glowing green light behind the light show...

...that the washing machine was done, and ready for the next load.

Christmastime or not, laundry isn't going to do itself.