Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Magic Muck: a solid or liquid, depending on how you hold it

I have one book in my house I consider the go-to end-all of crafts and fun scientific experiments for kids. It's called "The Super Enormous Gigantic Collection of Kid Concoctions 2," written by John E. Thomas and Danita Thomas. I got the book as a thank-you gift for donating to Iowa Public Television a few years ago. 

The book's experiments and crafts mostly are done with common items found around the house and cost only a few dollars, or less, each. I've used the book so often, and my kids have enjoyed the ideas so much, I decided to buy a Kid Concoctions book as an end-of-the-year-thanks-for-being-a-great-teacher gift for my son's first-grade teacher. I hope she gets as much school-room use out of it as I've gotten from it here at home.

The following recipe for "Magic Muck" comes from the book I have. Magic Muck is a liquid until you gather some in your hand and squeeze. Then it turns solid. Open your hand back up, and it converts to a liquid to slide through your fingers. The boys were absolutely fascinated. My husband, who is a chemist, was too. He wanted to take a container of it to show his co-workers. The messy factor was a big bonus for the boys, but extremely easy to clean up for me. The substance basically dissolves upon contact with more water.

Magic Muck:
3/4 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup water
5-7 drops washable food coloring (optional, the muck is just white if you don't color it) 

Mix water and food coloring together in a small bowl. Slowly add cornstarch to water and food coloring mixture. Do not stir. Let stand for 2-3 minutes. Pick up a handful of Magic Muck and squeeze it until it forms a hard ball. Open your hand and the Magic Muck will turn from a solid ball back into a liquid.

Tips: Experiment by adding different proportions of water and cornstarch. Or add a little glitter to make it sparkle.

A limited line of Kid Concoctions products, such as the kid-friendly paint brushes, can be found at Michael's Arts and Crafts at the moment. Danita Thomas told me this line has discontinued production, but her and her husband are set to launch a new line of Kid Concoctions products in early 2011 through Alex Toys. Favorite products, like their washable food coloring, will be re-launched and new products will be introduced, along with a new and updated book. The Kid Concoctions Web site currently has a 10-year anniversary book for sale that combines four of the Thomas' previous books, including the recipes I have in mine. After the new product line and book are launched, the Web site will expand the shopping offerings on its store link or will directly link to the Alex product page. For more information about the company and products, visit the Kid Concoctions Web site at www.kidconcoctionscompany.com.

****Magic Muck recipe reprinted with express permission from John E. and Danita Thomas, founders of Kid Concoctions and authors of "The Super Enormous Gigantic Collection of Kid Concoctions 2."

Monday, May 24, 2010

A bright idea: a solar-powered nightlight

I was in a crafty mood today, but I didn't have any idea what to do. It was a babysitting day, so whatever I decided had to be something 2- and 4-year-olds could handle. I went to one of my favorite crafty blogs, www.simplemessyfun.com, to see if the author had posted anything new I could use. Sure enough, she had: solar-powered nightlights. Stick them in a window during day-light hours to charge; put them in your child's bedroom at night for a soft, soothing light.

Apparently, this idea isn't new. Simplemessyfun's author found the idea on a different blog, and that blog's author had found it on yet another Web site. But the idea was new to me and looked like it had a lot of potential.

So I loaded up all four boys and the double stroller and went to the local home improvement store in search of supplies. 

Supply list:
1. solar-powered garden lights
2. glass jars with a wide mouth (this idea might work with hand-punched soup cans too ...)
3. frost spray paint or translucent items to put in jar (glass beads/rocks, marbles, etc.)
4. some sort of adhesive - silicone caulk, hot glue, sticky tack, tacky strips (found them near the hot glue supplies), or glue dots

The main supplies: The jar, garden light and glass "rocks." I apologize for the blurry images - I grabbed my old point-and-shoot because it was handy and fast ...

The garden light is by the brand, "Yards and Beyond."

The solar-powered garden lights and frost spray paint can be found at Lowe's Home Improvement store. The lights are sold individually for $5 each. The tops of the lights pop right off the garden stakes, which makes assembling the nightlights a snap. A can of spray paint runs about $5, but if doing this with young children, I'd skip the paint.

 The tops of the solar lights.

I looked for the jars at Wal-Mart, but didn't find any. Hobby Lobby, however, came through with flying colors. The jars were 50 percent off this week. Since they started at $1.99, I got them for just $1 each. I also found a new product there I've never tried. It was a roll of clear adhesive strips advertised as an alternative to hot glue. 

Zips Clear Adhesive Lines - a hot glue alternative

Since I was doing this project with young children, I picked up a roll to see if it would do the job. I ended up having to apply it around the rim of the jars myself because, boy, was it sticky. It did the job, though, was a lot less messy than hot glue, and resulted in a strong enough bond that the kids couldn't pry the "lid" off.

At Hobby Lobby, I also found the clear glass "rocks" normally used in fish tanks to fill the jars. I thought this was something a little more kid-friendly than using frosted spray paint.

The boys really enjoyed filling their jars with the glass rocks and thought the end result was just "way cool," according to my 4-year-old. 

1. Paint outside of jar with "frosted glass" spray paint or fill with translucent material
2. Apply clear adhesive to rim of jar
3. Attach solar light
4. Set nightlight in window to charge and it will be ready to use by the evening!

Total cost: Approximately $8 for each light. Could be more or less depending on materials used.

The end result. Note: the solar light replaces the jar lid.


*** One word of caution: If you decide to fill the glass jars with something, instead of spray painting them, be sure to put them out of reach of very young children. If shaken too hard, the glass jar will break.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A fun-filled day with the family costs very little and has big returns

Since leaving my job three years ago, I've spent a lot of time exploring the Cedar Valley with my boys. Living on one income means my husband and I have had to be creative in finding budget-friendly things to do for a family of five. The Cedar Valley hasn't disappointed.

Yesterday, we spent the entire day enjoying the town, for less than $20.

In the morning, my husband took the boys out and about so I could get caught up on housework. No fun for me, but the father-son time was much needed by the boys. They explored a farmer's market, took a short car ride to buy manly red meat for supper at the Gilbertville Meat Locker, and went to the local home improvement store. My husband wasn't there to look at tools with the boys - he was there to teach them how to use them. 

Lowe's offers a free Build & Grow program for kids that involves building simple wooden toys with the help of a parent or caregiver. Saturday's project was a mini catapult that launched ping-pong balls. The boys came home bouncing from the excitement of their morning and showing off their newly constructed toys. My husband only had one small complaint - his thumbs were a little sore from holding the nails for novice hammer-wielders. Next weekend, the project is a car. I'm hoping my husband's hands are sufficiently recovered for round two.

After lunch and naps, we decided to explore the University of Northern Iowa's prairie preserve. The preserve is part of the Tallgrass Prairie Center and is located on 65 acres surrounding the Center for Energy & Environmental Education (CEEE) on campus. The Center was established in 1999 to "develop research, techniques, education and Source Identified seed for restoration and preservation of prairie vegetation in rights-of-way and other lands" according to its Web site. A few years ago, the center decided to give the public free access to the preserve. Our oldest boy led the way as we explored the winding trails and followed the paths along the creek. We had to spend some time watching the water from the bridge before we found our way back to the van. 

Exploring the prairie preserve. 
The prairie grasses were only 
ankle-high at this point, but the 
trails were still visible.

Helping nature out 
by spreading dandelion 

Following the paths 
to the creek.


The boys enjoyed watching the water flow under the bridge.

Happy, but tired, explorers.


It was a hot walk, so we went to our favorite ice cream shop, Four Queens Dairy in Cedar Falls, to cool down with some shakes, which we ate while sitting next to the rushing waters of the Cedar River. Of course, the ice cream gave the boys their second wind, so next it was off to follow the path along the river and hike across the big bridge. On the other side, William found a mountainous pile of limestone rocks he thought looked like a good place to play. My husband and I caught our breath while the boys discovered the joys of rock climbing. After several trips from the bottom to the top and back again, it was time to go. Red-faced and weary, they were exhausted.

It was a fun day filled with new discoveries and learning opportunities.

For a map of UNI's campus: www.uni.edu/infosys/tour/
More information about the Tallgrass Prairie Center: www.tallgrassprairiecenter.org/
Lowe's Build & Grow projects (check your local store for program schedule): www.lowescreativeideas.com/build-grow/build-and-grow.aspx.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

My 2-year-old, the artist

My 2-year-old son is intent on exploring his artistic talents. 

A few weeks ago, he found a marker and tried his hand as a graffiti artist by tagging his bedroom walls, dresser, piggy bank, window, bed, bedding and teddy bears. He became a tattoo artist when he used the same marker to turn himself into a smurf after he was done with his room.

Tonight, he explored the art of stained glass. He had a brief introduction to this with the blue marker episode. Instead of creating translucent blue window panes, though, he tried a new medium: Vicks Vapo Rub. By the time we caught on to what he was doing, the bottom half of a window in his brother's room sported opaque, wavy glass. Very sticky, greasy, opaque, wavy glass. The very creative whorls and swirls he had drawn diffused the light into a soft glow. It was beautiful, and stinky.

The smell gave him away. When the central air fan kicked on, it picked up the scent and wafted it through every vent in the house. When the living room started smelling like Vicks Vapo Rub, we went looking for the culprit. We were not surprised to find our troublesome 2-year-old, completely absorbed in his gooey endeavor. The stench was so bad, it knocked us back on our heels, made our noses burn and our eyes tear up. Our toddler, of course, wasn't bothered in the least.

After several hand washings and a bath, he still went to bed with menthol-fresh skin tonight.

Friday, May 14, 2010

When learning takes a backseat to having fun

My oldest son came home from school today and exclaimed, "Mom! We didn't do any learning today!"

Since my son is at school for eight hours a day, and I couldn't fathom how he could have missed learning something new in all those hours, I was a bit confused. "You didn't learn anything today?" I asked.

"No! Instead, we watched a movie, had two recesses, had gym class, had extra gym class and had popcorn and M&Ms!" he said, as he ticked off the list on his fingers.

I knew that night was the annual Parent Teacher Organization Ice Cream Social fundraiser at the school, so I figured the administration must have decided to make the whole day into a party for the students. Being the responsible parent I try to be, I made a point to emphasize how important it was to always try to learn something new every day, and wasn't he a little sad he didn't learn anything that day?

His response, "No! It was fun!"

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What starts out frozen, but is better hot?

I called my husband at work the other day to get his opinion. I was out of ideas for supper and I was behind on my menu-planning. I had also had a rough day, and I was exhausted. Cooking was beyond my abilities at that point, so I called to see if he had any bright ideas or food cravings. He didn't.

My middle son was standing by my elbow as I asked my husband, "So, how about frozen pizza, then?" Before my husband could respond, my 4-year-old piped up, "NO, MOM! I want hot pizza! I don't like frozen pizza."

I never did get an answer out of my husband. He was too busy laughing on the other end of the line.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Shopping with toddlers the fastest cure for any shop-o-holic

I was reminded today again of why I never, ever, try to go shopping with my kids.

Summer is right around the corner and I'm working on changing out my three sons' wardrobes. It's an easy job for my two youngest: pull out the plastic tote marked with the right size of clothes inside, pull the summer clothes out, put the winter clothes in, store the tote again. 

It's a much longer and more difficult task for my oldest. He doesn't have any hand-me-downs sitting in a tote in a closet. I can do one or more of the following options when trying to clothe my ever-growing oldest son: cross my fingers and hope he gets showered with seasonal clothes for his birthday every spring (the same holds true for Christmas), spend my spring and summer hunting down garage sales or hitting up second-hand stores and sorting through piles of clothes only to come away with a few good pieces in the right size, or go shopping and buy brand-new. Whatever he starts out with, it needs to be in new condition so it makes it through him, my second son and hopefully my youngest. 

Since he didn't get any clothes for his birthday this year, and I don't have endless time to hunt for garage sales or through the racks at second-hand stores for the like-new items, that left me with the "shopping and buying brand-new" option.

My mistake: trying to do it with my two youngest along. 

I spent three hours "shopping" this morning. "Shopping" is a figure of speech. I spent two and a half hours trying to keep two squirming boys in a cart or stroller, dolling out snacks so they would sit still, helping both take drinks from their water bottles every five minutes (at which time I repeatedly kicked myself for forgetting their kid-friendly cups), trying to make each of them keep their hands to themselves and making two sprints to the restrooms (yeah - all those drinks had to go somewhere). The missing half-hour? Twenty-five minutes of it was spent at the kiddie play-land in the mall, letting them run off their pent-up energy. The last 5 minutes was how much time it took me to grab three pairs of pajamas, five pairs of shorts, five shirts and two bags of socks off the shelves in one store and make a dash for the cash register.

I hope it all fits him and doesn't clash too badly.  

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

As the wind blows, so do my children grow

Last night, my youngest son was having a difficult time settling down for bed. The wind outside was fierce, whipping the tree limbs so they knocked against each other and rattling the window panes. To help him calm down, I sat on the bed and rocked him. He curled up in my lap and asked me to sing him a lullaby. Every time I came to the end of the song, he asked me to repeat it, over and over and over again.

After about 30 minutes, my poor voice was going hoarse and my back ached from rocking a 2-year-old without any support from an actual chair. I really didn't want to put him down though. He's growing up so fast and so rarely wants to be rocked and sung to anymore. His soft little face was pressed into my neck and his still-chubby arms were locked around my shoulders.

But it was bed time and my arms were giving out and my back was starting to seriously protest. As I gave him his final hugs and kisses and rocked him one last time, he had one more request for me, "Mommy, you turn the wind off?" 

Oh, if only I had the power to make the wind quiet when it was time for my children to sleep, and to keep my children from growing up so fast every day they are awake. 

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The signs of aging from a child's perspective

My husband's parents came for a visit this weekend. At the dinner table with them, my 4-year-old son piped up, "Grandpa, are you going to die soon?" While Grandpa sat in stunned silence, I answered the question for him, "No, of course not! Why do you think that?" Connor's answer: "Because he has white hair."