Tuesday, July 3, 2012

One small step for Sam - making moon sand

What have we been doing in this heat? Well, generally, what we do on a hundred degree day is avoid being outside.

Unfortunately, being inside all day is not that easy for a 3 1/2 year old boy.

To distract him, I decided to try one of those cool activities that those really awesome stay-at-home parents do...those Montessori-oriented, fun-loving adults who have time and energy to prepare great, educational, fun, messy things to do with their kids, then take pictures of them and blog about how wonderfully they went.

I wasn't at all sure this was going to be a great activity. Given my short temper on the last activity we tried, I wasn't sure about anything except that I had to do something to keep him from climbing the walls (and I mean that literally...I actually said to him, "Feet belong on the floor...we do not climb walls!"). I was sure it was going to be messy, though, and sometimes, especially with little boys like mine, that's all you need.

Also, it occurred to me that some other parents out there might be interested in knowing how one of these activities went in a family like ours. (You know, a family where things aren't quite together most of the time...the kind of family that is usually in minor chaos...the kind of family that has never posted anything on Pinterest and occasionally eats boxed macaroni and cheese because we forgot to plan something to have for dinner.) To that end, I'm going to rate the activity in several categories at the end of the post. If this turns out to be helpful, I'll keep doing it.

And now, here's what we did.

The planetary obsession here is ongoing. Anything having to do with the solar system is going to go over well. So today, we made moon sand.

Moon sand, for the uninitiated, is this cool-feeling, squishy substance that is kind of a solid and kind of a liquid and kind of extra-terrestrial feeling. You can buy it in craft stores or sometimes in the toy section at Target. It's not cheap, but it's fun to play with. You can make it into balls like play-dough, flatten it like a pancake and put your handprints in it, crumble it between your fingers like feta cheese. It's neat stuff.

I found a recipe here to make moon sand at home. Many of the online recipes are set up to make large quantities, like for a preschool class or to put into a sand table. We just wanted a little bit. Scaling the recipes can sometimes work, but since texture is so important with moon sand, I was happy to find a recipe that would make just enough for my would-be astronaut to enjoy.

To make moon sand, mix together:
  • 4 cups of sand (preferably clean sand...we got a 5 lb bag from Wal-mart for around $4)
  • 2 cups of cornstarch
  • 1 cup of water

The Boy measured the sand, cornstarch and water himself. (I dumped in the first cup of sand and left the room briefly, and when I returned, he had added "all" the sand, which looked to be about a cup and a half. He had, in fact, counted three more scoops of sand and poured them into the box...just not full cups. It was an opportunity to talk about how we need to fill the measuring cup up all the way to be able to count it as a cup.) We dumped it into our "sensory box" (a Rubbermaid storage box with a lid), and The Boy mixed it all up with his hands.

How was that for him? "Muddy. A little bit slimy. Mostly okay, though. Cornstarch is a funny word."

I helped with the kneading required to get the texture right, and then we started to play. We added some larger rocks ("moon rocks") to the box and a few other toys. The Boy used a "guy" from his toy collection to make "moon footprints" in the sand, and we photographed them. Then, he grabbed a drinking straw from a nearby cup and started taking samples of the moon sand "to take back to Earth to show people." We ended up analyzing the samples in our "lab" on the lid of the box, using plastic silverware to pick through them and talk about the things we found. ("Moon poop" was the most prevalent element discovered.)

There was a great mess by this point, but I was enjoying his glee and the way he kept exclaiming, "Look at the DISCOVERY I just made!" - this made the mess seem more tolerable. It was all going to be sweepable, anyway.

Suddenly, he announced very seriously that we needed to make a flag. He was going to be the first astronaut to put a flag on the moon. "This is very important," he said.

We found some duct tape and stuck it on one of the straws, and he started climbing into the box! I had not been expecting this at all.

"Whoa! What are you doing?" I asked, about to grab him.

"I'm walking on the moon to put up the flag," he said, as if it were completely obvious.

And then, in what might be one of my finer parenting moments, I decided that it was okay for him to do it. The kitchen floor was already wrecked. The babies were waking up - I could hear them starting to fuss, which meant the activity was almost over. He could walk on the sand inside the box, and then I could put him directly into the bathtub and wash off his feet. It was time-limited, he would love it, and the risk was low. I took a deep breath and decided to let it happen.

He stepped into the box, walked on the sand, planted his flag, and said, "Okay, there, I put the flag on there for everyone to watch it on their TV. Pretend you saw me do that on your TV."

I asked him, "Are you Neil Armstrong? Buzz Aldrin?"

"No, " he said, the way you'd speak to someone who didn't quite understand what was going on and needed you to be very, very patient with her. "I'm Astronaut Sam, and that was a big step for me."

Big. Mommy. Grin. Sometimes, he is truly awesome.

I "blasted him off in his space pod" (carried him to the bathtub to wash his feet). Once he was clean, he helped sweep up the floor. That sweeping up thing is going to take some work, but the idea was there...he helped make the mess, so he helped clean it up.

Overall, it was a great activity. Here's the breakdown, for you tired parents who want to know how much work this is actually going to be. On a scale of 1 - 10, with 1 being " hardly any at all" and 10 being "so incredibly much I can hardly stand it":

Messiness factor: 6.5
It is pretty messy, but the cleanup is mostly just sweeping. If you don't have a sweepable surface under your box, just put down a tarp or plastic shower curtain liner that you can shake out when you're done. Then you won't be stressing about the sand that inevitably escapes from the box (which could totally mess up your chance to have fun with your kid!). The mess is potentially more if you let your child mix the ingredients with his hands. It could be disastrous if you let him walk in it and then walk out of it onto your living room carpet, but the way we did it was acceptable to me.

Prep time: 1
You just need to make sure you have the stuff available. The mixing is part of the fun, so there's no real need to put it together ahead of time.

Cleanup time: 2
It's really just sweeping. The box of sand gets stored without the lid so it can dry out. I hear you can just add some water to reconstitute it the next time you want to use it. If you store it with the lid on, it can mold, which would pretty much ruin everything for me.

Learning factor (a.k.a. "what can I work in if I'm feeling motivated to help my kid make connections?"):
  • Math - measuring, counting. 
  • Fine motor - scooping, pouring, raking, crumbling, rolling into balls, taking "samples" with the straw. 
  • Science- talking about the moon, the first astronauts to walk on the moon, what happened when they jumped up and down on the moon (which my son totally did, almost falling out of the box. This was the end of the activity.) 
Use the chance to teach some big words if you want...gravity, astronaut, geologist, excavate...there are lots of possibilities. Your child might surprise you by using them later (maybe even in front of your in-laws or someone else you'd like to impress with your wonderful parenting!).

Ages appropriate: maybe 2 and up. You have to know your kids. If they are going to eat the sand, you might want to pass on this one. There was a 50/50 chance that my astronaut was going to eat the sand...we did discuss ahead of time why this wouldn't be a good idea, and he resisted the temptation. He did lick cornstarch off the floor, though.

How long did it last? He played with it for a full half-hour easily. He could have kept going if he hadn't brought it to a climax with the moonwalk (moon jump) experience.

Would I do this again (was it worth it)? Absolutely. It was easy, and he loved it, and it wasn't hard to clean up.

The Boy's review: "This is very, very, very cool. I think other boys and girls should do this with their moms and dads. Probably not with their babysitter because they might get in trouble. The best part was walking in it. Can we play with it some more now?"