Engineering Some Fun

I’ve been tasked with running a STEM activity at Walt’s Cub Scout meeting this Friday. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.  A lot of people think that scouting is all about camping and fire building and knot tying but there are a ton of STEM concepts and activities that kids do through scouting.  Game Design, Robotics, Inventing, and Programming are all merit badges available to scouts interested in STEM.  However my task isn’t nearly that involved, I just need to teach a basic STEM concept through a fun activity that takes 5-10 minutes.  With that in mind I decided to do the only logical thing: rip off an idea from Camp Sayre’s STEM activity menu, specifically the plastic spoon catapult!

spoon catapult

So much yes!

This is just as awesome as it looks and even more so because it’s a requirement for Webelos Engineer Activity Badge. (On a side note, if any of you readers are on the fence about joining Scouting may I just point out that building a catapult as a family activity is a requirement in this organization!)

Here’s what you need:

  • 9 wide as you can find craft sticks (you can use Popsicle sticks but wider is better for little hands).  You didn’t hear this from me but if you’re bored at work you can also do this with pencils and torment your co-workers.  In the name of science, of course.
  • 6 rubber bands
  • 1 plastic spoon
  • mini marshmallows
  • a target.  We make towers out of plastic cups at Sayre but there are a ton of things you can use.

How to do it:

Take 7 of the sticks and rubber band them together at both ends.  This is going to be the middle part of your catapult.

Now take the remaining 2 sticks and band them together but only on one side.

Next insert the 7 stick bundle between the two sticks and slide it down as far as you can.  The further down you can get the more power your catapult will have. It should look something like this:

spoon catapult 3

Now rubber band the whole thing together and then attach the spoon with a couple more bands to the business end of the catapult.  Like this:

spoon catapult 4

Voila!  Now you have a working catapult and a budding engineer!

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Talking Turkey

A couple of years ago we had a flock of turkeys appear in our back yard on Christmas Day.  It was awesome!  For about a week.  The flock took up residence in the woods in back of the house through the winter and by February they had broken our bird feeding tray, educated us on the finer points of poultry poop, and scared off all but the most aggressive squirrels (those little red ones).  By the time they left us in March even the cats were sick of them.

Turkeys in our back yard.  I totally fed them and they stayed for three months.  Learn from my mistakes, people.

Turkeys in our back yard. I totally fed them and they stayed for three months. Learn from my mistakes, people.

All in all though turkeys are interesting creatures with some great history.  For example, contrary to popular belief, Ben Franklin never actually proposed that the turkey be considered for National bird. Instead, what he said was that the bird on the National Seal looked like a turkey and that he was “not displeased” about that because the Bald Eagle was, “…a bird of bad moral character”, whatever that means for a bird. Today 45 Million turkeys are eaten over Thanksgiving, which I suppose makes it a good thing that we chose the Eagle because I’m not really sure how I’d feel about being a country that ceremoniously eats its national bird every November.

Wild turkeys, which you might see here in New England this time of year, travel in flocks and can fly for short distances at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. They roost in trees at night to stay safe from predators.  They can be very hard to catch because not only do they see in color and sense movement from over 100 feet away but they have great hearing.  If you happen to see a turkey while driving, slow down or even pull over if you can safely, there will often be more close by in the treeline.  Look for a large feather sticking out of the chest of the turkey, it’s called a beard and only the males have it.  The males are the ones that gobble, too.  They also have brighter, more iridescent feathers and their heads can change color.  Really!  When they want to fight their head turns bright red and when they are excited it turns blue.  In fact a good rule of thumb is pretty much that if the turkey looks cool it’s a guy.

Check out this guy being all bearded and iridescent and gobbly.

Check out this guy being all bearded and iridescent and gobbly.

As cool as they can be though they are destructive in large numbers, kind of like zombies.  Don’t feed them or encourage them to hang out in your back yard.  Even if the photos of cats going crazy over them are pretty funny it’s not worth it, trust me.

"Take a good look Mittens, this is why we have the humans prepare these things for us."

“Take a good look Mittens, this is why we have the humans prepare these things for us.”

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Giving Your Child A Love: 10 Experiences You Can Give Your Child Instead of Stuff


I was in the mall yesterday, November 1st, and I saw Santa. Yes, Santa. And I thought to myself, “not yet!” I love the thankfulness and family togetherness of Thanksgiving before all of the commercialism that invades December every year and I’m just not ready for mall Santa and holiday ads yet. Granted, the irony of me thinking this while in a mall does not escape me either.

Shopping and commercialism is kind of like overeating, it’s a bad habit I don’t want to pass on to my kids. In fact this year Steve and I have been talking a lot about giving the kids experiences instead of things for Christmas. My kids have tons of things. They have dinosaurs, and dolls, and I’m pretty sure Gracie has 5 pairs of sparkly shoes. They have a million Legos and books which I’m actually ok with until I step on a Lego, but I don’t want to have another crazy Christmas with tons of presents under the tree that get ripped open over an hour or two and then played with a couple of times and forgotten about until I clean the playroom six months later. No more useless stuff! A lot of parent friends tell me the same thing. They want to give their kids a love. A love of nature, a love of science, a love of art or sports or history but a love of something that will last a lot longer than a dinosaur with a motion sensor in it that roars when you walk by. So after a ton of parental brainstorming I’ve compiled a list of ten experiences that parents can give their children this holiday season.


  1. A Special Visit To A Show

There are a ton of shows that play during the holidays and you can often get a great deal if you keep an eye on Groupon or Living Social. Don’t feel like you have to go all big fancy theater either, we scooped up two tickets to The Light Princess this season for $15 each at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, MA.

What they unwrap: The tickets and a printout of the show poster wrapped in a clothing box. I love it when they think they’re getting a crazy –don’t-make-me-put-on-the-bunny-pajamas outfit and then they don’t.

  1. Cooking Utensils And A Cookbook

Gracie loves to cook and really enjoys the feeling of presenting a meal that she has made to the family to eat. I think she also likes being in charge of me –the sous chef. This year she’s getting cooking utensils and a coupon saying “I would like to learn how to cook _________ with you this weekend.”

What they unwrap: Some brightly colored cooking utensils (you can get rainbow hued whisks, spatulas and more at places like TX Max and Kohls), a cookbook (with stuff I know I can make), and 6 coupons.


  1. School Vacation Package

My husband and I are both full time professionals so I know I’m going to be looking for fun school vacation options this February and April. I can kill two birds with one stone by registering early for Winter Camp and STEM Camp at Sayre and get $75 off on the combo registration (after all, it’s money I’m going to spend anyway). Camps in your area will also be opening registrations for school vacation options right around now and it feels really good to get that squared away before December.

What they unwrap: Tuck the registration into something small that represents the camp they’re going to. A sketch pad and colored pencils work for an art themed camp or a new bathing suit or towel for a camp that has swimming. Mine are getting the camp registration tucked in mittens for Winter Camp and I have to admit I’m going to splurge on the all female Lego Research Institute for Grace to unwrap for STEM Camp, but that’s because I want it as much as she does. The parental law of equal gifts dictates that if Gracie gets a Lego set Walt is getting a r/c race car for STEM then because NASCAR car and driver Scotty Lagasse are coming to STEM camp.

And in a selfish vein, if I do the combo, Walt is entered to win a ride to camp with Lagasse IN the racecar.

And in a selfish vein, if I do the combo, Walt is entered to win a ride to camp with Lagasse IN the racecar.

  1. A Day With An Adult Relative Of Their Choice

Ok, you’re going to have to rope in geographically close relatives on this one but sometimes it’s as much about who your child gets to spend time with as what they do. Movies with Grandma? Build a birdhouse with Uncle Rick? Once Walt got to spend the afternoon with Grampy at work (a landscaper) and he got to press the button that tipped the back of Grampy’s dump truck. Made his summer!

What they unwrap: You can do this one a few different ways but I really like the idea of making a scratch off ticket for it. On the top is the person –Grammy, Aunt Sarah, Uncle Rick and underneath is the thing they said they would do with your child –Go to a movie, visit the dog park, build a birdhouse. The child scratches off the part underneath to discover what they will be doing together. You can get some pretty simple DIY scratch ticket instructions here.

  1. A Class In Something Cool

Everybody has things that they’d like to try, even kids. Horseback riding? Rock climbing? Ice skating? There are a ton of experiences you can book as one-time things without making a huge time and money commitment.

What they unwrap: All of these places have pretty brochures. Take a couple and wrap a small gift in the brochure paper. Hand warmers in the ice skating brochure, for example. A couple of carabiners in the rock climbing brochure (these are useful everywhere. Seriously, everywhere).

Some everyday uses for a carabiner.  I hear you can climb rocks with them too.

Some everyday uses for a carabiner. I hear you can climb rocks with them too.

  1.  A Camping Trip To Look Forward To

Some of the most popular camping sites book way in advance but if you snag one now for a weekend next summer your child will have something to look forward to for months!

What they unwrap: Here’s where you can go big! Wrap up a sleeping bag and a pillow (they’ll need them anyway) in tissue paper tied at the ends like a giant piece of candy. If your child is a little older -and ready- you can make it even more special by giving her a first time responsibility. For example, wrap up a flint and steel and write a note with it that says, “This year YOU get to build the campfire!”

  1. A Museum Membership

It can be a little expensive but you’ll use it all year and there are a ton of cool options to choose from. A really reasonable one is the Peabody Essex Museum. It has a lot of family friendly exhibits including a house from southeast China that you can walk through. They also offer (insert shameless scouting plug here) half day merit badge and belt loop programs for scouts in a bunch of cool areas like sculpture and Indian Lore.

What they unwrap: I say on this one, go for it! Museum of Science? Microscope. Peabody Essex Museum? Kids paint by numbers set or a mini pottery wheel. Have fun with it!


  1. Something They Can’t Get Anywhere Else

All areas have this thing. Here in Massachusetts we have a place called Battleship Cove. It’s an experience museum on a big WWII battleship and destroyer. They have a helicopter collection. You can eat in the mess hall and sleep overnight on the battleship in a hammock.  They have Veterans come to talk to visitors during special weekends. Crazy history coming alive type stuff! Your town is going to have the same thing and chances are that if you don’t know right off the top of your head what it is your other parent friends will.

battleship cove

What they unwrap: This is going to be a kind of specialized thing. If I were doing the Battleship Cove experience as a gift I’d wrap up a Battleship board game that we could play together as a family. You should be able to find something similar that will represent the experience and be more to unwrap than a ticket printout.

  1. A Trip

This could really be any family day or weekend together but I like a ski trip because I can get them a lesson, which gives my husband and I a chance to do a little more than the bunny slopes, and I can drink cocoa in front of a fire back at the lodge. Wachusett Mountain is a good family ski area and Attitash is really nice too and in a very family friendly area. If you just want to do an it’s-my-first-time-be-gentle thing, try something small like the Blue Hills Ski Area in Milton, MA.

What They Unwrap: Hats, Mittens, boots, you can outfit their whole winter here and they’ll be wicked excited about it! Put a copy of one lift ticket in each boot, the reservation for the lesson in the hat, and the brochure in the mittens and they’ll be unwrapping the whole outfit to figure out their itinerary!


I know it sounds like a cop-out but it’s totally true. I work a lot of hours and sometimes when I get home all my kids want is time with me. This year I’m giving each of them a day when I’ll take off of work, keep just that child out of school, and have a special day together. They can each pick the day’s plan, we’ll eat at a restaurant of their choice, and I’ll make their favorite dinner. No work allowed. Only special family time. I know I might catch some flak for this and if they weren’t keeping up in school we’d do a weekend day, but it feels off to get them all excited about this (because they will get all excited about this) and then say, “Not till summer.”

What they unwrap: I’m making a Mad Lib where they fill in the story of our day (see below) and getting a frame from the dollar store to keep it in their room until the day, when we’ll take a photo together and put that in the frame instead.

Gracie and Mommy and the Story of January 15

On January 15 Gracie and Mommy are spending the day together! We will have lots of ________________(thing). In the morning we will have ____________________(food) for breakfast. Then we will not do the dishes! Instead we will go to ______________________________(a place) and do ______________________________________________________________(an activity). Then we will have lunch at _____________________________________________________(Gracie’s favorite restaurant). Dessert will be served! After lunch we will _____________________________________________(an activity) and if we have time we might even ______________________________________________ (another activity). Then we will go home and we will make _________________________________________________________(favorite food to make) together for dinner. After dinner we will all ________________________________________________________ as a family before bed.

Now we won’t be doing all of these this year and I’m pretty sure that there will be some useless stuff under the tree but it’s a start.  If one of the kids develops her love of cooking or discovers that he loves to ski it will be worth so much more than any toy or sparkly thing.  It will be priceless.

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Make a Swedish Torch For A Warm Campfire on Cool Nights!

At Camp Sayre one of the big debates we hear among the boys (and adults) at the Ax Yard and Outdoor Cooking areas is about campfire construction:  log cabin versus teepee style.


It’s a little harder to construct but with the TeePee style the cone takes advantage of the rising heat produced from the lit kindling.

Log Cabin Campfire

The log cabin campfire is a classic structure and pretty easy to put together. It allows air flow and elevates kindling above the initial flames of the tinder placed within the structure.

Personally I was a DuraFlame Log kind of gal until Walt joined scouting but last spring a great older scoutmaster introduced me to something new: the Swedish Torch.  A Swedish Torch takes one large round and splits it 6 ways, with a chainsaw if you have it but an axe works too. The trick is to try not to cut all the way through but if you do you can use a pulled-apart wire coat hanger to bind the pieces together.  Once you have the cuts made you can use tinder or even a small candle placed in the center to start the wood burning and it will burn from the inside out.  Very cool!  Since it’s all one piece it’s also super easy to transport and fits compactly even in a backyard fire pit.  It also usually has a flat top so you can even cook on it!

swedish torch           swedish flame

Swedish Torches can even be found sometimes pre-cut in grocery stores and if you have the chance to try one out it’s a cool way to do a fall campfire or even a little backyard outdoor cooking.

Good Scouting!

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Days Getting Shorter, How About Shadow Animals?!

If you looked at a picture of the earth in space it would look pretty straight floating there, right?  Well, it’s not!  The earth actually tilts in relation to the sun at an angle of about 23 degrees.  The result of that is that as the earth orbits the sun over the course of a year there are to be times when one side is exposed to the sunlight a little longer and the other side is dark a little longer.  In the summer time our side of the earth is exposed to the sun longer, making for longer (and warmer) days.  In the winter, our days get shorter and colder. 

There’s still alot of great stuff you and your family can do during shorter days though, like making shadow animals!  Take a look at the chart below and have a great time one evening after dinner making shadow animals with your children!


Can't get it just right?  That's ok, let the kids imagine that it's a brand new type of animal.

Can’t get it just right? That’s ok, let the kids imagine that it’s a brand new type of animal and make up a name for it!


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Watch the Partial Solar Eclipse Tomorrow With Your Family

A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the sun and Earth so that the Moon blocks out all or part of the Sun.  Tomorrow the northern hemisphere, and the West Coast especially, will have good viewing of a partial eclipse. The North East will have best viewing around sunset, and you can expect to see about a quarter of the sun blocked.

partial eclipse

Experts recommend not looking at the sun directly but there are several types of viewers that you can make with your scout in order to see this event safely. To make a 30-second pinhole camera, punch a small hole into a piece of cardboard or heavy, dark paper that will block out most of the light. Hold a white piece of paper a few feet away, altering the distance in order to focus the eclipsed sunlight.

pinhole camera

Here a tiny hole in a piece of cardboard serves as a fast and easy pinhole viewer. You’ll need to play around with the angle a little to get it to focus.

If you have a little more time you can make a more elaborate version still using items from around the house.  You can check out a step-by-step method for making a pinhole camera out of a toilet paper role here from

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Why Does Popcorn Pop?

Popcorn is one of the most popular snacks in America and movie theaters have been selling it since 1912!

A kernel of popcorn contains just a small amount of water. When these kernels are heated, the water turns to steam and the kernels “pop.” Popcorn is different than many other grains because its shell is not water permeable, making it possible for pressure to build up until the kernel finally explodes. A kernel will pop, on average, when it reaches 347° Fahrenheit.

photo (3)

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