Games and toys that promote creativity and thinking (Part 5)

Here is part 5 of a series of posts looking at commercially available* toys and games that can promote creativity and thinking in our kids, at home and at school. When I refer to creativity and thinking, I mean that children (and adults) have the opportunity to approach these toys in a variety of ways, not necessarily just the way described on the box. Creativity may involve changing rules, or allow a ‘free playing’ imaginative space for children to explore. Thinking, and expectations around thinking, will vary depending on the child and adult playing, for example it may be thinking about turn taking, sharing, language development, rule making or even just having a fun and relaxing space to talk in.

This week I am looking at Lego (and similar building style toys, including mega blocks, mecanno, and even the digital space of minecraft) as a toy that can support creativity through play.

The photos above are from a game of  ‘Lego creationary’ (think: pictionary with lego). This game has players make particular items and the other players need to guess the item made – lots of creative fun, competition and open ended play. The other Lego games also encourage exploratory play – games like Heroica, Minotaur, and Lego city police all have starting points for game play and set up, and as you play them more you can adapt the game board and rules to change the challenge level.

Aside from the more recent Lego games, Lego itself is a great open ended play tool. It does come in sets, with instructions to build the item on the box, and then once this is done and played with, the real fun begins. Children (and yes, adults too) can work together to build infinite objects. Today this is classified as a ‘sandbox game/space’ – an opportunity for open ended play where the child can be in charge.  Mecanno is very similar, but uses tools, nuts and bolts  to build machines.  Minecraft is a digital space that now fits this definition  – for a review of this please see: http://appsforaussiekids.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/minecraft-for-parents-part-2-of.html .   After getting used to the controls in Minecraft you can play and build whatever you want.  Playing with any of these alongside and with your child can lead to lots of fun, and learning for both of you 🙂 Setting challenges to ‘build’ – like building your house in Minecraft – can be interesting to collaborate on, as there are lots of problem solving opportunities that present themselves as you work though the challenge together.

So, what ‘sandbox games/spaces’ do you like? How else might you incorporate this style of game/toy to extend opportunities for develop thinking skills? Perhaps you would like to share a picture of your families collaboration in one of these spaces? Please share in the comments : )

Until next time

Fiona T

 

*All opinions are my own, and are unsolicited. I personally purchase all items reviewed on this blog and have received no payment from any supplier for promoting their goods. I am a student/teacher/academic and have no personal business affiliation or business motive on this blog. Opinions expressed are my own, and are not necessarily endorsed by my employer.

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Games and toys that promote creativity and thinking (Part 1)

I have thought for a while now that I would like to write a series of posts looking at commercially available toys and games that can promote creativity and thinking in our kids, at home and at school. When I refer to creativity and thinking, I mean that children (and adults) have the opportunity to approach these toys in a variety of ways, not necessarily just the way described on the box. Creativity may involve changing rules, or allow a ‘free playing’ imaginative space for children to explore. Thinking, and expectations around thinking, will vary depending on the child and adult playing, for example it may be thinking about turn taking, sharing, language development, rule making or even just having a fun and relaxing space to talk in.

This week I want to start with some simple, easy to access items that can be used across age groups in a variety of ways. All three items this week would make welcome presents for children, as they can be used in so many ways for a number of years.

Wooden blocks (and indeed lego/megablocks/duplo etc) are a staple in most homes with young children present. I have hung onto these blocks given to LT when he was 1. They get brought out when we have little visitors, and often take a while to go back in the cupboard as LT, WH and I play with them again too. From tipping them onto the floor, building towers, cities and other things, to knocking down and counting back in the box,  play is all about developing co-ordination and imaginative play opportunities. We can use blocks to explore colours, shapes and counting with any age group. We can also use them for talking with children about building and balance (eg: How high can you build a tower on the carpet? On a solid surface? What happens when you put a semi circle shape in? How can we make a see-saw?), exploring movement with the semi-circle and cylinder shapes, or even drawing and talking about 3D shapes and fractions as children get bigger. Adults and children alike (from my observations) enjoy building and playing with these blocks, and the bonding moments through any play situation are priceless.

Playing cards are in most homes, and are cheap and easy to locate at $2 shops. We have many sets and have ‘played’ with these in varied ways depending on the age of the child we are playing with. Social skills, like sharing and turn taking can be practiced by playing concentration, matching games (numbers, colours, or shapes), snap and fish. Rule following and changing for these games also allow opportunities for children to take ownership of developing games and articulating differences they have applied to existing games. Again, the opportunity for developing language and bonds with others is a bonus of any type of game played. When I suggested this post on the facebook page, other uses of cards included building card houses (avoid plastic coated cards here as they can be too thin and slippery for this to progress vary far), and introducing the element of ‘luck’ into the games played, so that winning is not just reliant on skill or speed.  Games like ‘gin rummy’ and ‘solitaire’ offer older children and adults more complex rules, and the element of luck, to consider and respond to using a variety of strategic playing options. 

A commercial card game that can be fun at many ages is ‘Uno’, I have had the pack above since I was 10, and drove my family mad wanting to play it. The basic rules require strategy and memory (to shout ‘uno’ at the right time) to use the cards you are dealt, to win. When I was involved in teaching in a summer school program ‘Uno’ was played often with tutors and students in break times (using 2 packs of cards and up to 20 people playing at a time), but the rules were known as ‘summer school rules’, including changes like everyone passing their hand of cards to the left when a ‘draw four’ was put down…heaps of fun and lots of thinking/strategy/luck required too.

Do you have card games you like to play with children or family? What are they, and what specific opportunities for creativity and thinking are available? Please share them in the comments below.

Until next time, keep playing

Fiona T

Wishing you a Merry and organised Christmas.

Season’s Greetings to all of my readers and followers on Facebook and twitter.
This time of year brings with it a pause for me to reflect on the year and plan towards next year. At this time last year, I was in the midst of a frenzy of baking, wrapping presents and entertaining LT as he had started holidays. This year I decided to take a calmer, more organised approach to the season. I did this by planning well ahead of time the baking I wanted to complete and began to use my freezer to support the baking I like to do at this time of year. I baked Almond Bread loaves and stowed them in the freezer to be cut and baked only a couple of days ago. Next year I will make the cookie dough ahead of time and freeze this too. I also broke up the cooking over a couple of days, so I have time each day to spend with my family and relax too. This has worked pretty well, especially when on the last day I couldn’t store any more food in the fridge/freezer and so I cancelled the last day of baking!

Another thing I did to improve my use of time was to get photo cards printed to use as Christmas cards (I use http://daisydesigns.com.au/ , they have a 24 hour turn around and email the card to you to approve. These would also be great for invitations.) A couple of years ago I set up an excel spreadsheet with my address list for Christmas cards, and after a quick update for people who have moved, I printed off the labels. This made the Christmas card process more streamlined this year.

Christmas shopping was a combination of online and ‘real’ shopping, and I had a list on Evernote to track my ideas for different people we buy for.  This, I am happy to say, meant that I have bought less impulse presents, and so don’t feel that I have wasted money this year.

So, I am much calmer and looking forward to a busy but fun Christmas Season with my family and friends.

All the best for the holidays and happy New Year. I hope to see you all again in 2013, the year of full time work and part time ‘paperless’ PhD.

Fiona T

Mendeley vs EndNote -Guest Blog Post

This week one of my PhD friends, Hardimah Said,  has written a guest blog post for me. She has recently shifted her reference database from EndNote to Mendeley and agreed to write a review on her experience with Mendeley:

“I had heard about Mendeley quite a few times from friends and from reading some academic blogs, but I never really gave it a thought as my EndNote was doing a fine job for me so far. Until, recently, I came across this blog (a link recommended by one of the phdchat twitters, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2012/08/20/organisation-research-library-mendeley-convert/
and I don’t know what ‘special’ effect this blog had, but it made me want to instantly give it a go. I surfed the Mendeley website and 30 minutes later I had a Mendeley account and all my references from EndNote were transferred to Mendeley too.

One feature of Mendeley that I love is that it allows the detailed notes on the right side of the same window. Whereas for EndNote, any specific reference that I want to look at in detail, will need to be opened as a new window. I also like the read and annotate feature which I can’t do in EndNote. And I found that whatever EndNote can do, Mendeley can do it too; such as the Microsoft Word Plug-in.

But overall, what I like the most about Mendeley is what EndNote can’t do*.  The backup feature which allows it to be synchronised to all other devices. This is a very convenient feature which is similar to Evernote (another great app that I rely on very much every day). So I now don’t have to worry anymore about updating & saving my Endnote from my office pc to my thumb-drive, and then do the same thing to my EndNote on my pc and mac at home. I have been ‘manually syncing’ EndNote this way for the last 2 years, so the auto sync feature in Mendeley is great. Another good feature which I love is that Mendeley can be opened on the iPhone or iPad, while EndNote can’t.  I usually use my iPhone in bed before going to sleep and so now I can check Mendeley or do some reading before I start dreaming.

For now, these are the reasons why I’m a happy convert to Mendeley although I know there are more great features of Mendeley that I know will be useful to me being in an academic profession such as; sharing papers, collaborating with friends and creating my own profile for own publication.

Hardimah Said.”

Thanks Hardimah! I have been enjoying the sync feature on Mendeley too, it does take the worry out of the backing up process.

I wonder what reference system you (my readers) are relying on? Is it EndNote, Mendeley or another program? As always, feel free to share in the comments below, or over on the facebook page.

Until next week,

Fiona T

*At this time ( October 2012) we don’t have access to the latest version of EndNote via our institution. Thanks to Tilla from EndNote for her comments about the increased functionality of EndNote6.  (Blog post updated 16th October 2012)

Squire’s Affinity Spaces: My example

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” (Buddhist Proverb)

This is the quote that was in my head as I woke up this morning. Last night I read more of Kurt Squire’s: Video Games and Learning and pondered the section on ‘Affinity Spaces’ as examples of ‘Participatory Spaces’ for learning. An online affinity space is a place to voluntarily share knowledge and expertise, it is a participatory place as those joining need to contribute to it (Squire 2011). The larger and longer running of these become known as ‘Communities’.

Squire’s (2011) examples reflect upon spaces for students as well as his experiences in creating and enacting them as an adult. In my life as a teacher and teacher educator I have been active in creating and maintaining my classroom (and beyond) as affinity spaces. As I was reading I was quickly realised that I am part of a few participatory affinity spaces. First to mind is Facebook, where I am active in contacting and conversing with friends, and playing games. Second to mind is Twitter, where I am getting more active in participating in PhD and Academic circles. But my best ‘real life’ example of an affinity space is the online tatting group ‘intatters’.

I have been a keen crafter for a long time, and have been tatting (lace making, using a shuttle and knots), or attempting to, for nearly 20 years. Having no one nearby who could help me with the nitty-gritty questions was frustrating and isolating,  causing me more than once to put the threads and shuttle back in the cupboard. Around 10 years ago I figured out the ‘flip’ needed to create the stitches needed and I began tatting again with renewed vigor! By then we also has a great internet connection and I began looking at ebay, blogs and other places I could find patterns, inspiration, and advice. It was only last year I ‘found’ and joined the online tatting guild (there is a guild in Victoria, but they meet around an hour away from me, so I haven’t pursued this community link).

As an affinity space and participatory space the opportunities in this free forum abound. It was the opportunity for me to share my knowledge and ideas, and an even greater opportunity to draw on the ‘collective intelligence’ of tatters from all over the globe. I have been involved in ‘exchanges’ (tatters send each other items, there are about 4 of these a year), forums and chats. I have also been active in classes to learn how to use designing software to diagram and write my own patterns. There is also an online tatting class to learn shuttle tatting. These are run as free classes, and the teachers volunteer their time to put together course work every week. The tatters who organise these classes are creating wonderful learning experiences and are the drivers of these affinity spaces. There is a sense that we are all learning together, and I feel that we are good friends (I have been doing the classes for nearly 10 months now). As a whole this guild and associated classes have been running for a long time, and last year (when I was ready to be involved in them) I jumped right in.

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” is as true today as it was years ago, it is just a bit easier to find the teacher using the wonders of the internet. When you are ready to learn anything today, you can easily use the online world to find an active affinity space to participate in. LT starts with you-tubes, I start with blogs, WH starts with ted talks and my BB starts with twitter.  Where ever you start, you will be able to find a place where you can be a learner and a teacher. Squire’s chapter explores the next step too, and says, if the affinity space you are looking for isn’t already there, digital media affords us the power and means to create it.  As a teacher I have seen students in schools active in creating affinity spaces, starting with their own classroom and then extending these spaces to the broader community. Knowing about and participating in these spaces goes hand in hand. Within my role as a teacher educator our team is modelling and exploring  how we can create, maintain and use these spaces for our own learning and that of our students.

I would be interested to find out about your examples of affinity spaces you are part of, or have been involved in creating. Please share stories and/or links in the comments.

Until next week,

Fiona T

On standby: Kid’s present box

Over the last 15 years I have gotten a lot more organised with kid’s Birthday presents. This came from necessity, my husband has 5 nephews, and (especially when we were first together) their birthdays would creep up on us and we would make a mad dash past the shops on the way to their birthday parties. It didn’t take me long to come up with a formula for presents and a plan for gift shopping. Welcome to the ‘present box’ idea. I know many people use these and, like me, are always on the lookout for cool presents and bargains that can go into the box and make a great present for any child at a moments notice.

First, you need to get a few things organised. I started by getting sticky tape, paper and generic birthday cards and storing them in a box. I also have balloons to put in the birthday packages. All of these are quite economical if bought at places like 2 Dollar shops or K-Mart/Big W.

Second, come up with a ‘present formula’. This helps when shopping and also when gifting. I found it helpful with the 5 boys to buy for, as it always made sure the presents were fair across the years. We also have a price limit on birthday gifts for kids, otherwise it can get out of control. My ‘present formula’ is pretty simple: Something educational (eg a book), Something Fun (eg a small toy), something to share with their siblings (usually a packet of lollies) and some balloons (’cause birthdays are fun). As the boys have gotten older, I don’t always put in the sharing thing, they often get a lolly or chocolate bar for themselves. The balloons are still a hit, even with my now 18 year old nephew (he did complain when I stopped putting them in when he was a teenager, so they were re-instated LOL).

Next, when you are out and about shopping keep an eye out for discounted items or sales. If you have your formula and price bracket in mind, this becomes easier. Things I have on hand in my ‘present box’ include: Packets of pencils/textas/crayons, Activity books, children’s books (we are still working through the stack of Mr Men books we got at an Aldi sale!), sticker packs, stamp packs, tubs of playdoh, fuzzy felt, glitter glue, craft paper, felt, small project kits (include things like sand art, foam art and making bags/jewellery), novelty paper clips and erasers, small meccano or lego sets, matchbox cars and paint by number kits (or the newer canvases with paints). These are mostly not gender specific gifts, so are flexible in that all children will enjoy them. With LT at primary school and birthdays (it seems) every couple of weeks, this present box is a brilliant time saver.

Do you have a present formula, or even a specific gift you like to give to kids?  Do you have a present box? What other tips could you add…please feel free to comment below.

Until next week

Fiona T

 

Recipes- Maple Date Loaf

In the lead up to Christmas I am working on conference papers for next year and my Ethics applications. Here is another recipe you may like to try. This recipe has been requested each time I have made it for others, so here it is. Quite quick to throw together and very filling and yummy. Enjoy!

Maple date loaf

(Super food ideas, August 2010 page 78 and http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/25390/maple+date+loaf)

(serves 6-8)

1 cup dried pitted dates, chopped

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

60g butter, chopped

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 cup cold water

2 cups Self-raising flour

1 teaspoon ground mixed spice (or ½ teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg)

1 egg, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1. Preheat oven to 170oC/150oC fan-forced. Lightly grease a 6cm deep, 10cm x 20cm (base) loaf pan. Line base and sides with baking paper, allowing 2cm overhang at long ends.
2. Place dates, sugar, butter, bicarbonate of soda and 1 cup of cold water in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring for 6-8 minutes or until butter has melted. Bring to the boil. Remove from heat. Cool for 10 minutes.
3. Sift flour and mixed spice into a bowl. Add egg and date mixture. Fold into flour mixture. Spoon into prepared pan and smooth surface.
4. Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 15mins or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Prick top of loaf all over with a skewer. Drizzle with maple syrup. Stand in pan for 10 mins or until syrup has absorbed. Turn onto a wire rack to cool. Serve.

This loaf will also freeze well. Slice and wrap slices to freeze for up to 3 months.

Christmas Cards: the quick and easy way

Over the last few years (since LT arrived in our lives) I have been writing Christmas cards. I love the idea of getting these in the mail and so have made sure I get them out each year. I began by writing them by hand, a few each day and posting them in batches. Over the last few years I have streamlined the process somewhat. Here are the three steps to ‘stress free’ Christmas cards.

The first thing I did was create address labels(this was prompted by my making mistakes on the addresses and having to re-envelope cards) by making an Excel file with my contacts and mail merging into word to print on ‘avery’ labels.

Then, step two, I jumped online to Daisy Designs and made my Christmas postcard. It took me approx 10 minutes (most of that time was choosing a family photo to put on the card). The file was sent to my email the next day. I took it on a memory stick to Big W and printed the right number of cards. I also picked up envelopes and enough postage stamps (Australia Post has slightly cheaper rates for card postage at Christmas time) while I was at the shopping centre.

Step 3 was putting the cards in envelopes, sticking on the address labels and stamps.

Walking past the postbox near my son’s school and posting the cards hardly counts as a step (we walk past it every day).

I have even had phone calls from some people I haven’t heard from in ages, thanking me for the beautiful cards. So, a special thanks to Daisy Designs for streamlining my card process further.

Part one of Christmas is sorted. Now, back to that ethics application!

Fiona T

Mummy needs a moment…

As much as we try, none of us are superheroes. We only have so much time in a day and energy to use up.  I find that I often get bogged down in my ‘have to do’ list and can go weeks before I realise that I am overwhelmed because I haven’t had any ‘down time’.  In my previous life, before becoming a Mum, I juggled work, house and my own projects seemingly easily. A big part of that ability I am sure was to do with having time for myself, even if that was 15 minutes in the car on the way to work.  There was time for me to think about the day.The thing that strikes me most about being a Mum is that it is constant, unless you make an effort to schedule time for yourself, you wont get it until you are perhaps at breaking point.

So there are times almost daily where I will do something for myself, often for just 20 minutes. This is most often my craft, at the present time tatting, but I also like to knit or bake. This blog is also a bit of time out from me, and allows me to reflect on what has happened over the last week and how I could do something better. I also play tennis once a fortnight, which in all honesty is the only exercise I do. I have many projects on the go, some related to work or study, others just things I like to do.

I suppose what I am getting at here is that family life is always a work in progress. There are times when you have to prioritize and give your time somewhere else. I am also aware of my limits, including times, energy and health, in view of this I am slowly feeling better about saying ‘No, I can’t do that at the moment’ for some things. I am also getting better at not just setting aside time to myself, but making sure I take it and use it for something that makes me happy. The weeks when I do this my whole outlook is different and I feel that I am in such a positive space that anything is possible. It is such a good feeling that I encourage others to find that time too, start small maybe 10 minutes a day and build up with what suits your circumstances.

How you will use your ‘Mummy moment’?

 

 

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