Happy Earth Project – Week 2

As I mentioned in my previous post, this summer we decided to cover an environmental theme, called Happy Earth, In the first week we looked at issues relating to wildlife and the following week we tackled waste which is the topic I’m covering in this post (I was aiming to write a post each week but I’m a couple of weeks behind now!)

When looking at this topic we discussed the problems relating to waste going to landfill along with waste in the form of litter and causing issues for wildlife, linking back to last week’s theme. We identified the primary ways to help with waste are the four R’s:

  • Rot
  • Reuse
  • Recycle
  • Rehome

These formed the basis for our activities this week:

Rot

Over the course of the week we saved suitable compostable items sorted as green (nitrogen-based) or brown (carbon-based) and reused an old wooden crate covered with an Ikea carrier bag to start a small compost pile in the garden. The boys added the items in layers and we gave it some water to get it started! Since then we’ve been regularly adding-to and checking on our “compost” but it hasn’t changed much yet and is mostly serving the role of another bug hotel! I’ve read that it takes around six months before we will have any usable compost so hopefully it will be ready to use next year.

Reuse

The boys love junk modelling so didn’t need much of an excuse to build something new from our old rubbish! My younger son chose to turn an old egg carton into a monster while my five-year-old decided on something a little more elaborate which he planned out on paper first after seeing the the resources available; he chose to build a castle complete with a secret hidden area. He even managed to construct most of it himself and was really pleased with the end result!

Recycle

To deepen their understanding of the types of things that can be recycled we made a simple game together using ScratchJr. Various items of rubbish are displayed on the screen and the player has to tap the recyclable items, if they tap the wrong ones the item goes to landfill! (That was my son’s idea!)

In addition to their game we also wrote an email to our local councillor in an effort have recycling bins installed in our local parks; currently all rubbish goes in mixed bins meaning a lot of recyclable items are being sent to landfill instead of being recycled. We have yet to receive a response!

Rehome

The boys had a lot of old toys they no longer play with so agreed to sort some out to be rehomed, they were surprisingly ruthless in their plight (I even fished a few back out of their collection!). We decided it would be a good idea to ask for donations in return for the toys to raise money for the Oliver Fisher Neonatal Unit (the unit that looked after my twin boys when they were born four months early – full story here).

I advertised the sale within local groups on social media and displayed the items in our front garden over the weekend (alongside a QR code for people to donate contactless if they preferred), most people donated fairly, with one lady even returning with more money later as she only had a little bit of change at the time! In total we raised £76, so we were really happy with the generosity of the local people!

Litter Picking

As litter is a problem, not only aesthetically but harms wildlife we joined up with some of the boys’ friends to go litter picking (after first using their artistic skills to spruce up their litter pickers into “Litter Monsters”!). We were pleasantly surprised to find there was not a lot of litter around. We did manage to find a little bit and received lots of compliments from local walkers who all appreciated our efforts!

Here’s an overview of our waste themed challenges:

Happy Earth Project – Week 1

If you’ve read some of my previous posts or tweets you will know that my boys like to have a theme for their school holidays. Robot Week being our favourite so far; we also had a Dinosaur theme back in May (which I have yet to blog about!). Over the summer we decided to cover an environmental theme, called Happy Earth, knowing this would provide a lot of interesting STEM content as well as tackling real world issues. I’ve broken it down into the five weeks of the school holidays so we have a different sub-theme each week. In the first week we looked at issues relating to wildlife, both local and further afield and last week we tackled waste (I’ll write up a separate post on this). Here’s a breakdown of the topics we will have covered by the end of the summer holiday:

  • Week 1 – Wildlife
  • Week 2 – Waste
  • Week 3 – Food
  • Week 4 – Energy
  • Week 5 – The Oceans

I introduced the theme by giving an overview of the Global Goals using the following video:

We began our Wildlife Week by building a micro:bit bird counter, to enable us to keep track of the number of birds around our local lake. The children helped to construct a container to house the micro:bit, wires and buttons using their junk-modelling skills. As their reading skills are still quite limited I did most of the programming then talked them through what the code blocks were doing. The boys enjoyed taking their device out to our local lake and using it to record the number of each type of bird found. To our surprise the swans were missing, we probably wouldn’t have noticed had we not been tracking them, so we’re hoping to visit again to see if we can find them and check they’re doing okay. One feature we added to our code blocks was some audio feedback so you can hear when a button press has been recorded, without this it was difficult to know it was working, especially when the micro:bit was hidden inside the container. (In hindsight, a larger container with a see-through panel would have been better).

When we got home my 5-year-old was keen to record the numbers found, first with building blocks, which I then helped him to translate into a barchart (he loves number representations). He then extended his graphing skills and made another barchart on his own to represent monsters!

Our Wildlife Week momentum continued the following day by building a bug hotel and visiting the local nursery to buy and plant some bee and butterfly friendly flowers to create our own little pollinator garden.

Later in the week, after discussing deforestation, my oldest son planned an animation for us to make together, featuring orangutans losing their home to deforestation, he had the great idea of making the trees reappear at the end of the video and it having a happy ending! As this was a stop-frame animation we were able to simply play the first frames in reverse to make the trees reappear and orangutans happy, this was quite lucky as trying to keep a 5-year-old on track with only moving the pictures a tiny bit between frames was a little challenging, meanwhile my 3-year-old was crying because his orangutan was sad that the trees had been chopped down! We used Stop Motion Studio to create the animation, which is a very accessible app for young children to use but also has some more advanced features for grown-ups and older children to tweak timings. It also features a wide range of sound effects and music which my boys particularly like to explore. here’s our final video:

Another activity the boys enjoyed was developing a Happy Earth area within our family Minecraft world, we started a forest with each of us building our own trees (some were quite interestingly shaped!) and planting saplings.  We then created a bee garden by choosing our favourite virtual flowers to plant before spawning bees and building hives.

We concluded our wildlife week with a visit from Grandad who had prepared a variety of natural resources to help the boys build their own squirrel and bird feeder for the garden, they really enjoyed putting all the pieces together and even managed to hammer some of the nails and learnt how to use a screwdriver.

We ran out of time to complete our local wildlife tracking using the Seek app due to the weather but managed to get out for a walk the following week and used my mobile phone to scan and identify some local flowers and trees. This app feeds into a global database by iNaturalist so is very useful for tracking and monitoring wildlife across the world.

We also squeezed in a trip to the zoo at the end of the week where we were able to learn more about animal habitats and even spotted some more bug hotels!

Here is an overview of our Wildlife Week challenges:

I’m aiming to blog about each of our themed weeks so stay tuned to hear about our activities relating to waste.

Some STEM/STEAM Favourites

Since undertaking “Mummy School” earlier in the year I’ve really enjoyed working on some creative STEM-related projects with my little ones. I thought I would consolidate some of our favourites here (taken from my Twitter feed to save time!).

Robotic Owl Junk Model

Chain Reactions

Junk Model Dancing Monsters

Go Robot Mouse

Practicing Mouse Control

Fun with Minecraft

Sunflower Stop Motion Animation

Robot Week

And finally, of course. . . Robot Week over February Half Term was a whole week of robot-themed fun! You can read more about it here.

Dungeon Explorers

Nicki   April 24, 2021   No Comments on Dungeon Explorers

In this post I’m going to share my experiences, alongside my two young children, of developing a simplified Dungeons & Dragons style game for young children that we’ve named “Dungeon Explorers” and how this fits in with some basic digital literacy and computing theory. The main objectives of this project have been to:

  1. Develop a fun, non-competitive and expandable game to play together
  2. Spark imagination and enhance storytelling skills
  3. Introduce some pre-programming language and concepts

During the recent lockdowns we’ve enjoyed playing a variety of board and card games. Throughout the first lockdown my boys were just 2 and 4 but Snakes and Ladders and Cobra Paw were their firm favourites, more recently we’ve been enjoying Uno, Game of Life Junior and Dungeon Mayhem, to name a few. I love playing games with the children but the only downside is that games are often quite competitive and with two young children, someone usually ends up disappointed (or in tears) when they lose so I was looking for something that would encourage my children to work as a team and accomplish a goal together. From years of watching The Big Bang Theory and, more recently, Stranger Things, I’ve often been intrigued by the idea of Dungeons and Dragons. As my children are still young (now 3 and 5) I had a look around for a child-friendly alternative and came across Kids Dungeon Adventure. The basic idea of this is simple:

  1. Create a “dungeon” from building blocks.
  2. Introduce a scenario (our regular one is “the evil dragon has captured Sonic the Hedgehog and brave explorers need to rescue him“).
  3. Scatter monsters and treasures around the “dungeon”.

Gameplay involves navigating the dungeon and defeating the monsters by rolling a six-sided die (knock the die value from the monster’s hit points until they are defeated). The grownup plays as the dungeon master and rolls on behalf of the monsters as well as keeping the adventure flowing. Players each start with 20 hit points which are deducted when monsters attack. You can buy Kids Dungeon Adventure for around £5 which gives you the full rulebook along with gameplay ideas, monster cards and treasure cards. For such a reasonable price this is a great starting point for introducing the basic concepts and gameplay.

After playing through the adventure for the first time my five-year old was keen to set up his own dungeon maze using wooden blocks, he chose the monsters from the printed selection and we played again straight away!

3D Modelling

I couldn’t resist making the game a little more interesting and incorporating some Computing skills in the form of 3D modelling. I’ve been keen to introduce my oldest son to some simple 3D modelling after we purchased a 3D printer back in December so we decided to make 3D printed treasures which my son helped design using Tinkercad. I highly recommend Tinkercad as a starting point for 3D modelling with children, it works well in the browser both on a computer and a tablet, and was even accessible enough for my five-year-old to make some simple creations. He was so excited to be able to make something to print in 3D. He was really pleased with how these little tokens turned out and enjoyed assigning meanings to them in the game (for example, the dagger gives you +2 attack points and the key unlocks the dungeon at the end). I was also excited to be able to have something to design and print as I’d not had many opportunities to use the 3D printer, I also designed and created a player dashboard to store player information, items collected and health points which are little hearts. This was a really fun aspect to include in the project! (Although my three-year old cried the first time he had to relinquish some of his health points!)

Designing an adventure

My son was very keen to design his own story to play through, complete with monsters and treasures so I put together a planning booklet for him to use to help plan out the adventure and monster design sheets to create the monsters around the dungeon. He still needs my help with much of the writing during the planning stages at the moment but he gets the concept of why it is important to plan the game and what to do. He very much enjoys inventing stories and this has provided a good opportunity to discuss features that make a good story! We’ve also moved on from building the dungeons with building blocks to creating drawn maps for players to work their way around instead. Both of my children love drawing so the map and monster creation have been very enjoyable for them.

The planning booklet is currently very simple as my son is only five but I can already see some expansion may be needed soon as our stories are getting more complex and I’m thinking we really need a separate sheet for each part of the adventure alongside space to sketch each area of the map. At the moment my son tries to sit down and draw a whole map to play on then gets frustrated as he doesn’t think about or plan it in his head first so it often doesn’t meet his expectations, having he opportunity to do a rough sketch of each area first separately would probably be very beneficial.

You can download version 1 of the planning booklet below. Version 2 will probably include the addition of a setting description (or drawing), flowchart, planning pages for both maps and story segments for each of the following:

  • BeginningIntroduction to the story: Where are you? Why are you there? What is the goal?
  • MiddleOne or two areas with something to do to help achieve the goal (treasures, monsters, friends, puzzles etc.)
  • EndUsually a significant monster to defeat and/or door to unlock

I’m already seeing similarities with this and the game design documents I’ve used in the past when teaching computer game design. Here’s a download link for version 1 of the planning booklet, along with monster design and combat sheets:

Character Design

We’ve used a variety of different characters within our games so far; we began with Alien and Minion figures then progressed to Playmobil and Lego characters (complete with accessories!). As the boys are quite into role-play and drawing I decided I could use the 3D printer again to create some character pawns and help them to design their own characters properly to display in them. I referenced some D&D sites to look up common character types and their characteristics and used this to produce a character design sheet simple enough for young children to use, my youngest is a “rogue elf” called Finryn the Fearless. We ended up creating a family of characters including myself and my husband! This was a fun activity and the boys really liked seeing characters made themselves being played in the game!

If you fancy designing your own characters you can download the design sheets below:

Computing

You’re probably wondering how any of this relates to Computing, well, I must admit, I had my “Computing Teacher” hat on at the beginning of this project. My son loves using Scratch Junior to create his own little stories and animations and when I came up with this idea, in addition to having a fun game to play I thought it would be a good way to introduce the concept of decision making and rules within an interactive story which is a great starting point for making a simple computer game. I mentioned already that I can see the similarities between designing an adventure for this system to computer game design documents, and in fact, I’ve had fun running a workshop in school previously working with children to create a roleplaying style game using Scratch. Now I’m not currently in the secondary school classroom my focus is around the early years age group and I discussed in a previous post how, at this stage, the algorithms aspect of computational thinking doesn’t need to be taught within a strict computing environment but rather by just the use of our language with children to introduce the basic concepts of:

  • Making things happen (giving general instructions) – Explain what your character is going to do.
  • Making decisions (if . . . then . . . else . . .) – “If I roll 4 or higher the monster runs away else he stays and attacks
  • Repeating things (loops) – Roll – deduct hit points – repeat until the enemy is defeated
  • Knowing/remembering things (storing variables) – Keeping track of health and collecting items

As you can see, role playing games allow you to introduce these concepts in a very natural way. Just today my five-year-old played the role of Dungeon Master and explained: “IF you defeat this monster THEN you get the key and you can open the portal door.”

Reflections on Playing the Game

I’ve absolutely loved the evolution of our simple game system over the past few weeks, what started off as simply defeating monsters in a maze/dungeon now includes detailed descriptions of moves carried out, descriptions of the rooms they are in and made-up items they have collected! Both boys get very excited about describing parts of the story but need to be reigned in a little at times when trying to talk over one another!

Personally I have some particular highlights that have stuck in my mind recently:

  • The Bookcase – When I described a book case that opened into a giant cupboard my son revealed he found a book about all the monsters of the castle and how he could use it to give him extra information to help defeat them!
  • Robot Party Room (this was my favourite) – My oldest son found a sad robot that was “lonely in the corner of the room because the other robots wouldn’t play with him” so my son demonstrated a beautiful act of imaginary kindness and made friends with the robot who then joined the team to help with the quest.
  • Bats – In a room full of bats my son identified that bats don’t like light so got his new robot friend to emanate a bright light “like the sun” from his tummy to daze and knock out the bats when they started flying around erratically!

I’m really happy with how this initial concept has evolved from a simple Dungeons and Dragons style game to the inclusion of 3D design and printing, story-telling, writing and drawing. From here, we’ll continue to add detail and variety to our adventures. In terms of progression I’ve been looking at the Hero Kids RPG System which looks great with a large selection of adventures available to play. This starts to gradually introduce more complex gameplay so would be a natural next step. I’ve also looked at other off-the-shelf games which will probably feature on our future wish-lists, these being D&D Adventure Begins, No Thank You Evil and Stuffed Fable. If you have any more to add to the list drop me a comment below or tweet @GeekyNicki

Robot Week

Nicki   April 12, 2021   No Comments on Robot Week

Several weeks into “Mummy School” it was half term week, I was expecting a little break from the home-learning but my son had other ideas! Each week from school they were given a different theme and he requested a Robot Theme for the week (he wants to be a Robot Engineer when he grows up)! Now many of you will know I love robots so I was secretly doing a little dance inside when he made this request, even though there was a lot of planning to do! Luckily, I had some resources from teaching KS3 but they needed to be scaled back considerably to suit a 5 and 3 year old! So my first challenge was to come up with some fun robot-themed activities for the week with just the right amount of educational value without making it feel too much like school (it was half term after all)!

Phonics

I knew I wanted keep up with a basic amount of phonics during the week; my son was making good progress with this and I wanted to keep the momentum going as it had been a struggle in the beginning. To continue his phonics practice we alternated each day between reading “ditty” sheets and captioning pictures, this was significantly less than he would do in a normal week so I figured he wouldn’t mind! (I was right, luckily, as he is now quite keen to learn to read despite finding it tricky). I made special robot themed resources for these which you can view and download below.

Design – Create – Evaluate

We began the week by designing, building and evaluating junk robots made by upcycling old Costa Coffee cups as a base, it turns out this fits perfectly on top of a Sphero robotic ball so after building their own robots the boys were then able to place them ontop of my Sphero and navigate them around a maze, this worked well, although I had an old Sphero which wasn’t compatible with the Sphero Edu app meaning we couldn’t pre-program the controls. We were able to use the old app as more of a remote control instead and the boys still had to think about the instructions they were giving their robots and they had fun! Definitely counting that as a winning activity to start the week! I was also really impressed with my five-year-old’s design skills in this task as he really thought about how he wanted his robot to look and his creation matched his design perfectly. You can download the design sheet below.

We followed up with a simple evaluation discussion, identifying what they liked about their robots and what could be improved; my son identified the fact that it would be good to make the robot talk . . . Which brings us onto another of our activities . . .

. . . Programming Using a micro:bit

My oldest son loves electronics, we bought him a kit for Christmas and he’s learnt to build several of the circuits himself so he was very excited when I showed him the micro:bit (a pocket-sized computer that has an LED screen, buttons, sensors and input/output features that can be programmed). We attached this to the head of his junk robot and I guided him in the use of Scratch to program a face on the screen and record things to say. We used Scratch as he already had some prior knowledge of Scratch Junior but halfway through I realised some of the features were missing due to us having a micro:bit V2 so probably should have used Microsoft MakeCode, we had enough functionality for what we wanted to achieve but for any future projects with this I think MakeCode may be the way forward, he is not yet a fluent reader so neither option allows for much in the way of independent learning at this stage but he did enjoy sitting down with me looking through some of the features of the full version of Scratch and how it differs from Scratch Junior that he is used to.

Robotic Hand

My boys both love arts and crafts and I found a really interesting activity on Twinkl showing instructions on how to make a robotic hand using card, string and straws, my five-year-old was able to very carefully cut the straws to length and threaded the string through them so the fingers bend when the strings are pulled. My three-year-old enjoyed decorating his hand! I did consider connecting the strings to a Lego motor to control the hand movement but we didn’t get round to it in the end! (This may be a future project!)

Mars Rover Day

Thursday of half term week was the day the Mars Rover was due to land which fitted in perfectly with our robot theme! We spent much of the day learning about the Mars Rover and its mission, firstly through a garden scavenger hunt; finding and putting the stages of landing in the correct order. We also found a really good video on iPlayer from the Maddie, Space and You series explaining more about space robots. Our favourite activity of the day was probably using Scratch Junior to program a virtual Mars Rover. I had the setting and graphics prepared in advance, with instructions on what needed to happen, the boys basically needed to safely land the Rover then navigate it to an alien through a Mars Maze of rocks using the correct blocks. I’d already pre-programmed the rover to reset to its starting position if it hit the rocks so navigating the maze required a bit of trial and error. My older son managed the task, mostly, independently, while his brother watched, then went on to create his own Mars maze and animation! Having the scene ready-made was really handy as it meant he could get straight into the programming with a clear goal in mind, he really enjoyed having a challenge to complete. Scratch Junior is such a fantastic app for children of this age to learn some basic programming skills without the need to read! I can’t praise it enough and will be sharing more of our projects in a future post.

We also enjoyed some colouring activities provided by Nasa of Mars themed pictures and we ended the day by watching the landing (we let the boys stay up a little later than usual to see it!)

Just for Fun

We had a great week learning about robots and had lots of fun too! One afternoon I hosted a cinema experience (with tickets) to watch wall-E while eating popcorn in our darkened living room and we ended the week by creating robot costumes to dress up as robots and perform a robot song the boys had learnt! Not to forget giving out certificates for their participation in Robot Week!

Lets end with the song (sung to the tune of “I’m a Little Teapot”!), by Tara Simpson:

I'm a little robot,
Shiny and tall,
Here is my laser,
Here is my claw
When I get all cranky,
Sputter and cough,
Just flip the switch,
And turn me off.

I hope you enjoyed this post, let me know if you use any of the ideas or resources either in the comments or on Twitter – I’m @GeekyNicki