La Cucaracha

cockroach pizza boxDon’t panic! Those are FAKE cockroaches winding their way through a pizza box maze. The roaches crawl beautifully, thanks to a hidden magnet wand positioned underneath the box. This project is from To Be Continued, our story time for 6 to 8 year-olds. It was a big hit!

We read Measle and the Wrathmonk by Ian Ogilvy (Harper Collins, 2004). Young Measle Stubbs lives in a grim house on an abandoned street. His legal guardian, Basil Tramplebone, is a very strange man. He always wears black. His skin is ghostly pale. And oddly, whenever Basil goes outside, a raincloud follows him. But up in the attic of Basil’s horrible house is the world’s most amazing train set, and Measle desperately wants to play with it. He throws together a wild plan to get into the attic – and gets caught. While Measle certainly expects Basil to be angry, he doesn’t expect Basil to shrink him down to a half an inch and put him in the train set! Measle soon discovers he’s not the only victim trapped on the set. Can Measle and his gang put together a plan to defeat Basil?

I won’t give away too much, but there are some terrific giant cockroach chase scenes on the train table. For the project, I toyed with the idea of making a miniature train set obstacle course inside a box top. But then opted for something simpler and quicker to construct – a drinking straw maze. Building off a marble maze project I spotted on Pinterest (you can see it pinned to my board here), I decided to replace the marble with a magnetic plastic cockroach.

plastic cockroachYou’ll need:

  • 1 pizza box
  • 1 plastic roach (I purchased mine on Amazon – a set of 12 was $4.58)
  • 2 button magnets
  • 1 wine cork
  • Drinking straws
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

To make your magnet “wand,” hot glue a button magnet to the top of a wine cork, then hot glue a second button magnet to the bottom of the plastic cockroach.

cockroach magnet corkAfter some trial and error, we determined that using 2 different sized button magnets (0.5″ and 0.75″) worked best for our roaches and pizza boxes.

Slice Between, a local pizza shop, gave us a deal on 2 dozen pizza boxes (a copy paper box lid would work too, but I thought pizza boxes would be a better match for the creepy cockroaches). During the story time workshop kids cut, arranged, and taped drinking straws into maze configurations. Some kids expanded the maze to both sides of the box!

double box topTo navigate your cockroach through the maze, place the cockroach on top of the box. Hold your cork magnet wand against the underside of the box, directly underneath the cockroach. The two magnets will connect through the cardboard and you can mosey your cockroach through the maze!

Two hints for this project:

  1. When attaching the straws to the box, keep the tape as flat as possible. Bumps or raised bunches of tape might hinder your roach’s movement through the maze.
  2. When guiding your roach through the maze, move the cork wand slowly. If you go too fast, the magnets tend to break their connection.

I had markers handy in case anyone wanted to decorate their boxes (or make “Start” and “Finish” lines for their mazes), but some kids used the markers to create some fan art. Here’s Basil, his stinky Wrathmonk breath, and an indication of what happens to him later in the book:

wrathmonk fan art 1And here’s yet another portrait of Basil, with a little hint about his ultimate fate:

wrathmonk fan art 2Measle and the Wrathmonk (and its sequels) are fantastic. They’re fun, scary, creative, and even though Wrathmonks are horribly evil, they’re terribly funny too. Ian Ogilvy was a well-known English actor before he became a children’s author, and it shows in his talent for dialogue, pace and characterizations. Measle and the Wrathmonk is delightful to read aloud and had the kids hooked right from the beginning. Honestly, you could hear a pin drop when I was reading certain sections of the story!

All Hail the Cab

taxiNeed to catch a cab in NYC? No problem! We made some pull string taxi cabs and picked up some passengers in a noisy – and most definitely doggy – traffic jam!

We read The Adventures of Taxi Dog, written by Debra and Sal Barracca, and illustrated by Mark Buehner (Dial Books, 1990). A stray dog’s life is changed forever the day Jim the taxi driver adopts him. Instead of being alone and hungry, Maxi now proudly wears a red bandana and helps Jim with his fares. From Sadie the Broadway singer to a young couple expecting a new baby (any minute!), Maxi loves his new life in New York City!

You’ll need:

  • 1 box (mine was 4 ½” X 4 ½” x 9” – a large tissue box works too)
  • 2 plastic cups (mine were Walmart brand 5 oz clear plastic)
  • A 30″ piece of string or yarn
  • Yellow construction paper
  • 1 taxi parts template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ white card stock
  • 4 black poster board circles (mine were 2.75″ in diameter)
  • 4 orange dot stickers
  • 1 taxi cab roof template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ yellow card stock
  • 2 small strips of silver metallic poster board (approximately 1″ x 4.75″)
  • 1 rectangle of silver metallic poster board (approximately 2.5″ x 3.75″)
  • 4 silver metallic dot stickers
  • 4 red dot stickers
  • 1 large gemstone
  • 2 toilet paper tubes
  • 1 taxi driver and dog template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ white paper
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

First, cut a rectangle out of the box’s lid (if you’re using a tissue box, flip it over and cut the rectangle out of the bottom of the box). It might be a little difficult to see in the image below, but my rectangle is cut slightly off center. There is approximately 3″ of space above the cut, and 3.5″ of space below the cut. The shorter, 3″ space will be the taxi’s “backseat,” and the longer, 3.5″ space is the taxi’s “hood.”

taxi box cutMy cut created a 2.5″ x 5″ rectangle, but your cut will vary according to the size of the plastic cups you’re using. You want the cups to rest snugly in the box. Later, these cups will become your taxi riders’ “seats.”

cup placement But DON’T tape the cups to the box just yet! Set the cups aside for a moment and cut the roof from the template. Tape the roof to the box like so:

roof attachmentYou’ll notice that the front legs of the roof get taped to the “dashboard” of the taxi, and the back legs of the roof get taped to the very back of the taxi box. Next, knot a 30″ piece of string on one end, and tape the knot to the top of the taxi’s hood.

pull string on taxiNow cover the hood, front, back and the sides of the taxi with yellow paper. Tape (or hot glue) the long and short checker strips from the template to the sides and roof of your taxi. Tape (or hot glue) the black poster board circles to the sides of the box for wheels, and add some orange dot sticker hubcaps. Now put the plastic cups back into the taxi, and secure them to the box with tape.

completed side of taxiOn to the front of the taxi! We used 4 metallic dot stickers to make double headlights, a strip of silver metallic poster board for a bumper, and a rectangle of a silver metallic poster board for the grill (I rounded the top of my grill and used marker to add grill lines). A large gemstone hot glued to the top of the grill adds a nice pop of color. The “On Duty” sign from the taxi parts template gets folded along its dotted line, then taped to the roof. Finally, I found some old white office file stickers in the art cabinet, which we turned into license plates (or you can use scraps of paper, and tape or glue them to the bumper).

front of taxiTo the back of the taxi we added: 4 red dot sticker tail lights, a silver metallic poster board bumper, a license plate, and a fabulous “I ♥ NY” bumper sticker (also created out of old office file stickers).

back of taxiThe final step is to color your driver and dog template pieces, and wrap each of them around a toilet paper tube. Drop them into the plastic cup seats.

dog and driverWhen the taxis were finished, it was time for our “traffic jam” activity! First, I collected all the dogs and lined them up on a windowsill. When I shouted “GO!” the kids pulled their taxis over to the windowsill, found their dogs, popped them into their taxis, and zoomed away. It sounds simple, but we had a lot of kids at story time that day, resulting in a stupendous traffic jam.

As you can see, the fastest taxi arrived at the dogs first…

taxi pickup 1It was quickly followed by another taxi…

taxi pickup 2More taxis started to arrive…

taxi pickup 3And more…

taxi pickup 4Pretty soon we had a full-on crazy NYC traffic jam!

taxi pickup finalI made a sound file that combined honking horns and barking dogs, looped it for 4 minutes, and burned it to CD. I played the CD during the activity, adding to the chaos and fun!

Nifty Neon

nifty neonTime for another post from our kid tester, Hope! Today she will be reviewing the Neon Light Writer by Thames & Kosmos. It’s intended for kids ages 8 and up, and retails for about $20.


Hello, Readers!! Upon opening the box for the Neon Light Writer, I was surprised to discover that what looked like a chic pegboard on the front of the box was really just black, 20” x 8” piece of cardboard with holes punched in it! I fished for the other items in the box and found a coil of wire, a plastic battery holder attached to the wire that had a little switch on it, a collection of 25 black plastic pegs, and a manual. I opened up the manual and saw the “Kit Contents” list. Double checking to make sure I had everything I needed, I turned the page.

kit contentsAfter reading the handy dandy instructions, I learned that the concept of the project was to insert the plastic pegs in the pegboard in a certain pattern, then thread the wire through the pegs to spell out a word. Cool! was my immediate thought.

I decided to follow the instructions and try my hand at writing the word “GEEK” as a first attempt. As I put the pegs into the cardboard, I noticed that the peg holes were a little small for the pegs. The manual said that the sign is supposed to hang from nails, though there was no kind of hanging device mounted on the back, or any nails included within the rest of the kit.

Maybe because the nails were supposed to be inside the peg holes the holes were small? It’s also a possibility that the holes were small so the pegs didn’t fall out while the sign was hanging up. It was annoying because small holes meant that the pegs had to be forced into the board. Since the pegboard was flimsy cardboard, I was afraid I would rip it.

When I was finally through painstakingly pressing in pegs, I unwound the little bundle of wire and started threading it through the pegs, which had little notches in them.

notched pegs close upIf I thought putting the pegs in was bad, then this was a pain in the tush! The wire was flexible, but moderately thick compared to the size of the peg notches. In some places, it was necessary to double the wire over because of the shape of the letters. This made it even harder to thread through the peg notches.  Another challenge was that the wire would bunch up between each peg if I didn’t keep it pulled taut as I threaded it through. If I tried to straighten it after I had put it through a peg, the peg would come out of the board. This was frustrating, as pegs popped out of the board quite a few times!

working with wireWhen it was finally finished, I turned on the little battery holder box button. The light was faint inside the bright room, so I moved to a darker room to test the magic. There we were, Katie, Dr. Dana, and I, cramped in the gallery’s storage closet, better known as “The Black Hole.” As I clicked the button the wire became illuminated with neon blue light. I said, “EPIC!! It actually works!!!” In the dark, we noticed that the blue light was sort of flecked, in a way that made it look like the wire was malfunctioning or something (more on the fleckiness later).

flecksNext, I decided to make a word of my own (“Zap!”). Instead of using paper, tape, and marker as suggested, I used the letter chart in the manual. The chart was super helpful. The letter chart showed the pegboard as a diagram, and showed you where to place pegs for each letter in the alphabet. Here’s the finished word:

zap set upWe went back into “The Black Hole,” and there were still flecks in the wire. We checked the manual (and the box) and discovered that the wire was real EL wire (Electroluminescent wire)! The manual listed the different components of EL wire (copper core, phosphor, copper wire, PVC plastic sleeve, colored outer PVC plastic sleeve, AC power source) and how it works. I thought it was very considerate to include all of the cool bonus information! That was definitely one of the best parts about the product.

Though I was excited to know I was using real EL wire, the manual didn’t “shed any light” on the whole fleckiness issue.

So, a few days later, I decided to call the company, Thames & Kosmos, and find out what was up. I talked to a very kind man, named John. He asked me to describe my issue. I informed him about the flecks in the wire. He told me that that was NOT natural! He even offered to send me a replacement wire! Great customer service! Hats off to John! He asked for my email, name, and address so he could inform me of any problems with shipping.

He told me it should arrive in 2-3 days, so I started waiting for the wire. I waited. And waited, and waited. And it wasn’t there a week and a half later! So I called John’s personal extension. I was told that the wire wasn’t in stock when they went to ship it, so they had to wait for a new order to come in. They were evidently shipping it that day. They should have emailed me! I thought.

Finally(!), the wire arrived three days later! I set up the new wire and clicked it on. Voila! A wire with no flecks, a stream of fluorescent (haha, phosphorescent!) blue! The new wire was beautiful. It was a feast for the eyes compared to the old flecky wire!

wire 1 vs wire 2All in all, this product was pretty fun, but it has its faults.

First, the directions called for extra items I didn’t actually use. Two sheets of white paper, markers, and tape. Those items were to help you write your word and place the pegs in their proper places on the board for the wire, but they were not necessary. Unless you wanted to write in cursive, or some other kind of script, you could use one of the handy letter guides inside the manual.

Also, the instructions called for black tape to cover the part of the wire between the letters. I don’t know about you, but I don’t own any black tape. Thankfully, Dr. Dana had some black masking tape handy.

The company’s customer service was excellent! However, I felt that I should have received an email about the delay of my replacement wire. That left me a bit frustrated.

Additionally, the cardboard was pretty flimsy. I mean, who wants to pay $20 for a piece of cardboard that’s supposed to be a pegboard!? The box calls the cardboard a “pegboard,” so I was expecting a sturdier base for the project. And why would you want to buy a product, not knowing how many extra materials you would need? (I checked the outside of the box for the product, but it mentions only two of the six other things you need!)

Oh, and this brings me to another pet peeve about products and books: the recommended age.

neon light writer age 8 plusThe recommended age for this product is 8+. Considering the frustration I had at age 12 signals to me that maybe the product should either A) note that adult assistance is needed, or B) it should be recommended for ages 10+.

This product was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed how it actually lit up! I was really skeptical about that! I loved how you could use the switch on the battery box to change the light mode to “Fast Blinking” or “Slow Blinking.” It was definitely a project I would recommend for science lovers or engineers-to-be!

THE SCORE

Pros: Fun, cool that it actually lit up, educational information in manual, great customer service/friendly and helpful staff, lovely new replacement wire.

Cons: Frustrating at times, wire hard to use, pegboard a bit low quality, no email about shipping delay.

GRAND STAR TOTAL: 4 STARS OUT OF 5!

Though this product had some faults, most products do. Overall, it was a super fun little project that could double as a science lesson!