Sunday, November 27, 2011

Build a Lego Set

Cost $$ - $$$$$ - New lego sets are expensive, but there is a variety of sizes to fit most budgets.
Value $$$ - Lego is expensive for a reason.  It is the best.  Megabloks don't cut it, the other pseudo lego brands are worse.
Fun !! - At a certain age, it is priceless fun, once it becomes all about candy, less fun.
Time # - #### - a small set can be done in minutes, huge sets in hours and hours over days and days
Age - The box says 5-12

I'm very serious when I saw that Lego is the best toy.  Durable - I still have pieces from the late 60's that were handed down to me by my older cousins.  A little mangy looking, but unbroken and still fit together well.  Educational - promotes hand eye coordination, following complex instructions, spatial recognition, engineering, patience.  Fun - the boys love lego and can play for ages.

Mars was given set 7287 Police Boat from granny for his birthday.  172 pieces, so a good size for Mars' very first 'solo' build.  It took two sessions of almost an hour with a nice big break in between.  He is still a little young and needs help with the directions, but he built 95% of the pieces by himself.  (I did much the last 5% when he ran out of steam and patience).  It actually floats, but we haven't tested it in the bath yet.

At age 5, the lower end of the lego recommended age group, the directions can be complicated.  However, with help from mum/dad it is still doable.  Good practice for numbers and colours and working on recognizing small changes in each picture.  Describe the bricks based on the number of studs, the colours, the size, the shape.  Mars was pretty thrilled when it was finished.  Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for a 3 year old little brother to demolish what took so long to build!
The next day!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Go Trick-or-Treating

Cost $ - No Cost
Value $$ - Save on Gas

Fun !! - At a certain age, it is priceless fun, once it becomes all about candy, less fun.
Time ## - At least a couple of hours

Age - Under 12

GET.  OUT.  OF.  THE.  CAR.  Seriously.  Driving along slowly while your kids hit the houses may be loosely regarded as 'supervising' or something, but hardly quality time.  It always amazed me at our old house to see cars idling at the end of the driveway then cruising along 30 feet as the kids cut across the lawn to next door.  Pick a street.  Park the car.  Get out of the car.  Go with your kids up one side and back down the other.  If you feel uncomfortable going to doors, stand back fifteen feet while your kids do it.  Even if you live in the boonies and there is 500 metres between houses and must drive between, get out of the car with your kids at each stop.

Ask them about other kids costumes.  Vote on the best pumpkins.  Jump for joy with them after they score two chocolate bars AND a sucker.  Get a little bit of exercise.  Race up the driveway.  Count witches.  Help them be brave.  Pretend to be scared of the ghost.  Negotiate candy trades.  "Inspect" the candy and confiscate any that looks like your favorite unsafe.  Make scary faces with the help of your flashlight.  Do any of the hundred little things you can do other than sit in a car and wait.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Homemade Hallowe'en Costumes

Cost $ - Use stuff you already have around the house
Value $$$ - Pretty much free,
fun, and substantial savings from store bought costumes 
Fun !! - Making your own is far more fun
Time ## - Takes some time to hunt down and/or covert
all the parts
Age 2+

When I was a kid, store bought costumes were unheard of.  I don't even think you could buy costumes at a store.  My mum sewed costumes from scratch, like these ladybug ones.  Kids wore stuff from their dress-up trunk, stuff from mum or dad's closet, maybe some facepaint or makeup.  It was all good.

I'm not sure when it became standard practice to buy a costume in a bag, but it sucks, and it is nowhere near as fun as improvising your own.  I always give extra candy to the kids with homemade costumes.

The clothes all came from the boy's closet and drawers.  The dress-up trunk yielded Batman's mask, the grey cape, and Indiana Jone's hat.  The batman logo was cut out of sticky backed foam from our craft supplies.  The stencil for it was actually recycled from this year's Batman Pumpkin.  A cool gold belt from mum (hard to see) that acts as Batman's utility belt.  A belt and a nylon webbing strap for Indy, his whip is also a belt.  You can't see, but Batman also has a jetpack/backpack which is really a pouch to hold a portable cd player.  (Mars authoritatively claims Batman doesn't use a jetpack, Odin wanted it because he wears it when he dresses up as Jango Fett).  The little foam soccer ball he is holding is his 'batbomb'.

Lots of fun and imagination involved.  "Where is the...?", "What can we use for...?", "Do you have any ideas...?", "Can you find a...?".  The end result is time spent together making some pretty easy, pretty awesome, and pretty cheap costumes.  So much better than a costume off a rack.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Monkey Poo Fight!

Cost $ - Free Online Flash Game
Value $$ - Free
, fun, a quick 10 minute laughfest
Fun !!!! -
Ridiculously funny for boys of all ages
Time # - Hilarious as it is, the novelty wears off at a rate inversely proportional to age. 10 minutes.

Age 2+ if they are boys.  I hear girls are more mature...

It has monkeys, it has poo, it has monkeys throwing poo!  What else is required to elicit giggle fits from any male of any age?  The boys and I giggled to the point of hurting for 10 minutes as we played this.
Find it here: Monkey Poo Fight

Skin Carve a Pumpkin

Cost $ - Stencils are free, tools you might have, pumpkin $2-$10
Value $$$ - Hours of quality time with your kids for under $10
Fun !! - Picking a stencil is fun, the finished product is fun, the in-between can be challenging and frustrating
Time ## - Simple designs can be an hour, more complex 3+hours
Age 8+ if they are helping - sharp tools mean close supervision is required

Stuff you need:  
Pumpkin - bigger is better.  It is much easier to carve a bigger detailed image than a little tiny one.  Make no mistake, it is a time consuming process, but you are less likely to slip and either cut yourself or cut off part of the pumpkin skin you wanted to keep.  Ideally, you want a pumpkin big enough so that width of your small cut lines are no smaller than the width of your scraping tool.  Pumpkins often have one flatter side where they lay in the field.  This can hold a stencil very nicely.  Check for cosmetic stuff if you care about nice stems and how flat it sits.  
Where to find a stencil - I get a lot of hits from people looking for stencils.  I used to spend hours of google-fu looking for "free pumpkin stencils" and largely got crappy simple designs or links to pay sites.  There are actually millions of free pumpkin stencils out there if you change your keywords!  The trick is to search for "[WhatIWantToCarve] colouring pages"  (or coloring for my American friends).  Refine by choosing black and white images and you should have ample choices.  This year, I chose Tinkerbell for one of my pumpkins.  I searched "tinkerbell colouring page" on google images and picked the third one.  Try to find a square or landscaped image. Tall narrow stencils don't fit well on pumpkins, so I went with Tinkerbell sitting down. 
Carving Tools - I have a craft kit I picked up years ago.  I think it is supposed to be for carving wood.  I use only 3 tools from it:  a scalpel-like blade, a chisel-like gouger/scraper, and a needle-like poker.  You want a gouger/scraper that has a flat blade, not the ones that are curved.  The poker is reversible - one end is pointy, the other flat - and both come in handy.  I've heard of people using dremels.  I tried it one year but found the skin would tear and make jagged lines.  The scalpel gives you a nice clean edge.  
Other Stuff - Kitchen knife, scissors, a sharpie, clear packing tape, sharp spoon (an oxymoron?), newspaper, bowl for pumpkin guts.  
How to do it:
1. Prep your pumpkin - not going to go into much detail since you should already know how to do that.  Lay down some newspaper to make cleanup easier.  I use a sharpie to draw a lid, cut it out with a kitchen knife.  Scoop the gunk, keep the seeds to roast up a nice snack.  This is where the sharp spoon comes it.  Scrape the inside of the pumpkin where you are going to carve the outside.  You want to get into the drier noodle-like yellow of the pumpkin (left in pic) and not just the orange slimy stuff (right in pic).  This thins the wall of the pumpkin to allow light to shine through better.  You won't have to carve as deep on the outside. 2. Prep your stencil - you've picked the stencil, use the computer to resize it to best fit your pumpkin.  I use the generic Microsoft Photo Editor's resize tool.  You can also play with size on the print preview screen of many programs.      Be anal-retentive like me and measure the pumpkin, or just print until you get one that works.  Remember bigger is better and easier.  Print two copies - one to use on the pumpkin, one for reference after you've cut the first one into little bits.  The simplest way to carve a colouring page is to just cut thin lines along either side of all the black lines - an 'outline'.  Check out Tinkerbell's shoes and the left side of her dress in the photos further down for an example.  You can do the whole image like this.       If you have good spatial recognition skills, you can do a nicer but more complicated (and more error prone) three colour carving.  You have orange skin, yellow carved skin, and bright yellow/white hole.  The 2nd copy stencil comes in handy here for shading in what you're going to do.  I decided to skin carve the wings and skin, and outline the dress, shoes, and hair.
3. Attach stencil to pumpkin - Cut the excess paper around your stencil.  You're putting something flat on something rounded (unless you found a pumpkin with a perfect flat side), so make the little cuts shown in the picture to help form it against the pumpkin.  Position the stencil, tape the top and bottom to the pumpkin with clear packing tape.  Smooth the rest of it flat to the pumpkin.  Tape like mad.  The whole stencil needs to be covered with bands of tape.  The paper will get wet and soggy when you start cutting, but the tape will hold it together and in place.
4. Start cutting - use your scalpel and start cutting.  I hold it like a pen.  You need to make the cuts as deep as possible, absolutely perpendicular to the pumpkin, particularly wherever there is fine detail.  Cut a single line where you will scrape off the pumpkin skin (wings, skin) and a double line to outline where you are leaving pumpkin skin (hair, dress, shoes, between two skin scraped areas).  Spatial recognition helps a lot here.  Make sure your lines join up or the skin will tear at the next step.  Cut out the parts of the stencil one by one.  If the paper comes off easily, the lines meet up.
5. Start carving - Peel off the remnants of the stencil and tape.  You will be able to see the faint lines where you made your cuts.  With the help of your 2nd copy of the stencil, start gouging the skin off.   Note that right off the bat, I messed up my plan!  I had wanted to outline the hair but got distracted and started gouging it instead.  Oops.  At least it was easily fixed by adding a double line and changing to an outline.  The shoulders are a good example of what I mean by double line.  I basically cut on either side of the colouring page line so I would leave that strip of pumpkin skin.  Same technique but in reverse for the shoes outline.  You're using the gouge/scraper like a chisel.  Chisel/gouge (gently) towards your scalpel cuts.  A slight twist of the tool and a piece of skin will break off.  Because you cut your lines so deep, it will be a nice clean break where you want a nice clean line.  Where there isn't room to get the gouge in - like between Tinkerbell's eyebrow and hairline, use the scalpel to cut away the skin instead.  Be very careful around tiny parts like this - the eyebrow/eyes/mouth - it is very easy to slip and cut them off.  Try to leave them to last so they are less likely to break off while you're handling the pumpkin while scraping elsewhere. 6. Fudge Details
Often your stencil will have details too small to be able to carve.  Perfect example is Tinkerbell's fingers or the pom pom things on her shoes.  You can't get that level of detail, so either remove (the pom poms) or simplify (the fingers become a mitten shape)
7. Start scraping Now its time to light the pumpkin.  Candles don't do it.  I usually use a trouble light or temporarily wire up a bulb and socket.  Only use a compact fluorescent bulb.  The heat of an incandescent will dry out the pumpkin and the light won't shine through as well.  The light will show your chisel marks.  Flip the chisel tool over, hold it like a pen, and start scraping the marks away.  It is possible to vary the depth of the scraping to get some subtle colour differences.  Scrap the wings deeper to make them brighter for example.  This is also where you need the poker.  The flat end is small enough to fit nicely for scraping around outlines like the shoes.  The pointy end can get your third colour by poking all the way through the pumpkin, which is a good accent for the eyes. 
8. Finished
There are a number of little mistakes, but don't worry about it.  All the kids who come to your door (in my case 3-5) will recognize Tinkerbell and be impressed.   Photo shows the mostly finished pumpkin.  You can see where I've started accenting the hair, but I still need to scrape the wings more.   The big problem with skin carving pumpkins is that they dry out and you don't get the same cool translucent look once they do.  I'm going to leave finishing it until Sunday when I'll scrape off the dry layer.  Ideally you want to carve your pumpkin on the 31st.  Any sooner than that, try covering the carving with wet paper towel to hold moisture in. 
9. More Pumpkins This year I'm also doing a Transformers pumpkin with the Autobots and Decepticons logos.  Much, much easier than Tinkerbell since it is mostly straight lines and not much detail. Here are the final results for my Tinkerbell pumpkin and transformers pumpkin  
10. Other examples
Pumpkins 2011:  Batman Pumpkin, Batman Symbol
Pumpkins 2010: Tinkerbell Pumpkin, Transformers Pumpkin with Autobot and Decepticon logos Pumpkins 2009: Scooby Doo and Shaggy Pumpkin, Mystery Machine Pumpkin, Yoda Pumpkin, Boba Fett Pumpkin
Pumpkins 2008: Ernie and Bert Pumpkin, Soccer Ball Pumpkin .


The idea for this blog has been sitting on the back burner for a couple of years now.  I think the genesis was one of the many times other people's children have come up to us in a playground wanting to play with us - complete strangers - wanting to play.  We play with our kids in playgrounds rather than just watch, and are often amazed how few parents do the same.