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

Computing at Home During “Mummy School”

Home Learning Reflections

So, having been out of the classroom environment for five and a bit years this blog has been pretty quiet, in short I have been having some time out raising a family since my maternity leave started abruptly in 2015. My oldest son started school in September and I’ve experienced home learning for the first time this year during a nationwide lockdown. I’ve been keen to start blogging again so I thought I’d share some reflections on this time. For the most-part I have really enjoyed playing the role of teacher again during “Mummy School”, and although we were given set tasks to choose from I also took the opportunity to throw in some Computing and IT activities along the way too. A few weeks in we bought a Kindle Fire tablet and found some fun and educational apps that support learning. The app I found most interesting was Scratch Junior which is a stripped down version of Scratch made for younger children (non-readers), both my boys absolutely love this and request to use it often (more than games). My three-year-old focusses mostly on the graphical aspects, changing colours and features of the pre-built characters and scenes whereas my five-year-old likes to make things happen using code blocks.

IT Skills at Home

It was fun to introduce some IT skills during this time with a much younger audience than I’ve experienced previously (I’ve honestly never seen anyone get so excited about seeing their work appearing on paper coming out of the printer!). Using the computer my son really enjoyed using Paint to do some basic drawing and we worked together to do some video editing with Henry choosing title sequences and music to present an interview he did with a neonatal nurse. He also created an information poster about owls using Publisher which provided an opportunity to discuss reliable information online and introduced some basic typing skills, he did struggle a little when the capital letters on my keyboard didn’t match his knowledge of what the letters should look like, but persevered and used a word mat as an aid to find the letters.

Learning Through Play

One thing that struck me with home-schooling a child of reception age is how EYFS children are taught, many of the set tasks were very practical and the maths in particular was largely play based with learners using various items and toys to represent and explore mathematical concepts.

Having so much independent play time makes a huge difference in helping children fully learn a new skill, this has been obvious when watching my son learn, at this age we expect children to learn predominantly through play, exploring and really embedding knowledge but somewhere between this stage and by the time I would see them in secondary school there is no longer time for play (or very little at least). Typically we deliver the topic then move on every lesson because we have so much to cover in such a short space of time.  In terms of mastery of the topic, particularly programming, it was something time just did not allow from my secondary perspective. Building and mastering skills was always something I found frustratingly difficult in the KS3 curriculum as having a week in between lessons left a lot of time for some of the learning to be forgotten leaving me frustrated when my students struggled to recall prior knowledge. In the primary sector mastery of the basics is obvious especially with maths and phonics and it is rightly repetitive, slowly building on previous skills. Examples of some of our play-based maths tasks include measuring with building blocks, weighing with home-made (Lego) balance scales, counting with toys, playing dominoes and dice games and playing shops to name a few. Almost every maths task has involved some form of play element and his progress and knowledge is very apparent as a result. We’ve been following the White Rose Maths resources and the pace and content has been spot on.

As I mentioned earlier I’ve been teaching my son some simple programming skills using Scratch Junior in a similar way, I show him something and he plays with it, makes mistakes, fixes them and when he’s ready to move on I then introduce the next idea or concept but the key thing is he gets to play and explore with each new concept in a similar way to his maths lessons, if only we had time for this much play time in the classroom! So far, in Scratch Junior, he knows how to record voices and sounds for his characters, move items around, repeat actions using loops and grow and shrink sprites. Each week during home learning the children were given a poem to focus on and we tried to present this in a different way each time. One week my son chose to use Scratch Junior for this task when given a poem called Furry, Furry Squirrel, using this he was able to record his voice reciting the poem, draw a squirrel sprite and make it move in relation to the words in the poem with very minimal help from me! In fact, he is already reaching some limitations of the Junior version that are available in the regular version but of course this does require a child to be able to read so provides less opportunity for working independently. (However it has provided some motivation for learning phonics, recognising that the more he can read the more advanced things he can do!)

Seeing his development in such a short space of time really highlighted to me that in an ideal world programming skills should be taught in the same way in the classroom and was something I tried to embed into my schemes of work (to a certain extent) and is definitely something I always embedded during staff training sessions; introduce a topic then let the learners play with it until they are confident; much the same as we allow five year olds to play with building blocks to fully understand counting and how combining two groups of 5 blocks make ten and so on (and they practice and build on these skills everyday.)

I’ll just point out at this stage that this kind of mastery within the algorithms aspect of Computing 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 four concepts:

  • Making things happen (giving general instructions)
  • Making decisions (if . . . then . . . else . . .)
  • Repeating things (loops)
  • Remembering things (storing variables)

All of these can be demonstrated through role play almost daily, something I have been trying to include at home now I’ve thought about it as I know my son will be starting Computing formerly next year and would like to give him a head-start as he already has an interest in the subject. We’ve started playing role-playing boardgames at home too which naturally include all of these concepts without the use of a screen, I’ll talk more about this in a later post and share some of the resources we’ve made.

Summertime and Money Off

Henry CodeYou may have read my previous post on ‘Why I’ve Been So Quiet Lately‘ and as a result will know that I am currently on maternity leave with the little guy on the right until January 2017. As the first three and a half months of my maternity leave were spent with my son in hospital I decided to divert from my original plan and take the full year off. As I’m sure you can imagine as a result of now being on statutory maternity pay (and nothing at all pretty soon) funds are a little tight and I have therefore decided to start charging for some of my teaching resources, this will also give me the motivation to work on some new topics while I am off. You can see what’s available by visiting the store.

My units are reasonably priced at £110 each which includes all resources in an editable format and throughout the summer holiday (up to 1st September 2016) you can get 10% off at the checkout by entering the following voucher code:

SUMMER16

There will be some exciting things to come over the next few months including a fully self-marking Baseline Assessment for Computing, so check back regularly for updates!

Have a great summer everyone and if you’re looking for some interesting holiday reads, check out the following books: