Time off school in my house always starts with a "yay" and quickly escalates to a "now what?" Good question. I'm game for anything inexpensive, easy to set up, and that doesn't involve three hours of clean up for me at the end. I am also a big advocate for STEM activities (science, tech, engineering and math); partly because I am a huge geek, and partly because kids love them.
Here's how to STEM the shit of your school break.
The basics of coding are just simple instructions and learning how to string them together. There are loads of free online sites where kids can learn how to code. My favourite is Code.org. Their tutorials include Star Wars, Frozen and Minecraft themes. Most of them suggest minimum age 6 and up but if you have an interested 4 or 5 year old I would not hesitate to let them try. There is no maximum age.
If you already know the basics and are looking to learn a new coding language, codecademy has you covered.
And of course, there's an app for that. Search "free programming app" on your app store and you'll get lots. My recommended favourites are ScratchJr (free) and Lightbot ($3 to download). Both start at age 4. Lightbot has both a Jr and regular version.
If you are a fan of the show Project Runway, you will be quite familiar with the "unconventional materials" challenge. For those that don't watch, at least once a season the group of contestants on this reality show are asked to design clothes using materials that are not fabric. It could be items in a hardware store or only what you can buy at Hallmark cards. This is a super fun and creative way to get kids to think outside of the box - which is what engineering and new development is all about. Maybe you use wrapping paper, or plastic recycling, or only empty boxes. Give your kids a set of materials, a time limit and a challenge to make an article of clothing out of them.
Grab your bag of mini marshmallows, some toothpicks and start building. You can make any number of games using only these 2 materials. Try giving everyone the same number of marshmallows and see who can build the tallest tower. Put out a bowl of shallow water and see who can build a bridge over the bowl. Make a support structure and see how many of the same toy can stand on before it collapses. This is a great one to do kids vs kids, or parents vs kids. And you can eat your tower at the end.
Do you have at least one small hot wheels car? Any tiny balls or marbles at your home? If you answered 'yes' to one of these question then you must have kids! Collect all those toilet paper and paper towel rolls from your recycling and tape them together in ramps and tunnels.
For marbles: you can build a 'marble run' using different angles on the tubes and tape them to a wall or each other. You can also tape straws about 1cm apart to make ramps. In fact, challenge your kids to see what else they can find around the house that a marble will run on.
For cars: you can build ramps using books and other household items. Try sending a car down a tube and over a ramp to see if it can make a jump. How steep does the tube have to be for the car to be fast enough to make the ramp? How angled does the ramp need to be for the car to jump? Physics at its best. This also works really well with remote control cars.
Need inspiration? Here's a video of a marble run made entirely of paper towel rolls and tape.
For very young kids, give them a strong magnet and have them collect things around the house that are attracted to it. For older kids, you can make this more complicated by adding parameters like 'things that are smaller than a quarter' or 'things that start with the letter S'. Also try 'items that float', or 'items that light can pass through'.
You can do the same for materials that conduct electricity. You can either buy a kit or pick up a few simple things: battery, wires, and an LED (that tiny lightbulb with two wires sticking out). Attach the ends of the wire to the end of the battery and then one wire to the LED. When you put a conductive item between the LED and wire, the LED lights up. Items that don't conductive will have no light.
For those times you are done with activities and just want to turn on the TV, let Bill Nye the Science Guy teach your kids for a bit (Bill! Bill! Bill!). You can find his shows on Netflix or on video at the library. Though geared at elementary aged kids, they are super entertaining for all ages. Also on Netflix are a myriad of nature shows under the documentary section as well as the series Cosmos, with the very entertaining Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Need more? Google 'science experiments for kids' and you will find loads of great online resources including this Science Kids site.
Good luck, fellow parents ... and may you never hear the dreaded words "I'm bored."
First off, what is STEM? It is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. They have been grouped because they overlap in terms of education and future jobs.
Research shows that we are losing girls in STEM fields by age 10. Not grade 10, age 10. Why? No one knows for sure, but my (totally biased) opinion is that the toy market is largely to blame.
We have aisles that are physically labeled BOY and GIRL. Often, the toys that involve problem solving, analysis, and building can be found in the "boys" section and the ones that involve creative play are in the "girls." Now just to be clear, I am an engineer that grew up on Barbies and Cabbage Patch dolls. So I have nothing against dolls, BUT we are limiting each of the genders by segregating the toys. My eldest daughter couldn't care less which aisle her toys come from, but my youngest daughter is acutely aware of who the toy is marketed to.
To solve this problem there is now a large push for companies like Lego and Goldieblox to provide building-toys targeted specifically at girls. From an engineering front, these are great. But what about the other fields of STEM? Here are 10 unconventional STEM gifts for all the amazing smart girls (or boys) on your list.
For all those times you were aching to cuddle E Coli, Giant Microbes are stuffed versions of all your favourite germs and human microbiology. Bonus: Next time you are invited to something you don't want to go to, you can say "Sorry, we have the flu," and you wouldn't be lying. For all ages.
Create your own wonderful spa by making your own lip balms, bath bombs, and perfumes! If you are a DIYer, there are tons of recipes and instructions on Pinterest. But if you want to send it as a gift, Kiss Naturals makes lovely kits which have no additives or artificial colours. I bought the bath bombs for my girls. Secretly, I am just hoping they make me a few. Ages 5+
Though most people think of math as numbers, it is also patterns. Enter Rainbow Loom. Though it has descended from its peak of popularity, it is amazing for teaching kids who to think ahead for pattern making, architecture, and logic. Seriously, there is some crazy things people make with those tiny elastics. Check YouTube for ideas and guidance. Ages 5+
There are lots of ways to teach kids the basics of coding, but if they are intimidated by computers, or you are limiting screen time, Robot Turtles is the game for you. It is actually a board game that teaches computer programming. Plus, it has adorable turtles. Ages 4+
Want the ultimate in feel good gifting? The WWF Frontline hero dolls (come in male and female) are various scientists and the animals they protect. You get two stuffies (hero and animal) or just hero. It comes with educational information AND you contribute to saving animals. I actually used these as end-of-year teacher gifts once, and they were a hit. All ages.
If you haven't read it yet, The Martian is a fantastic book about an astronaut stranded on Mars (also a recent movie with Matt Damon). The book reads like a giant math and engineering puzzle. Super fun for people who love numbers or building crap out of other crap. For tweens/teens+
Admittedly, I am all geeked out on this Science Jewelry. From solar system bracelets to DNA pendants, they've got you covered. For ages 8+
The Atlantic-based Gills Club is a foundation that aims to connect young girls with female marine biologists. The Gills Club shop has all sorts of cool shark conservancy items. Despite what Steven Spielberg wants you to believe, sharks are cool. Not a shark lover? Google search other animal conservancies. Another win-win on getting a cool gift and contributing to saving animals. All ages.
Since logic is the basis of all things STEM, one of my favourite logic games is Camelot Jr. It is a puzzle game with various shaped blocks. You are given a set up and a selection of blocks to use to solve the puzzle. Sometimes the knight has to rescue the princess, and sometime the princess rescues the knight. The real beauty is no reading. I actually once saw my daughter play this game with a little boy who spoke no English, and it was awesome. Ages 4+
In the vein of "you can't be what you can't see," girls need more role models in science. Fortunately, there is no shortage of them. You can get books and posters on many famous scientists. I own this wonderful poster of Female Scientists from artist Megan Lee. Fun Fact: beautiful and talented actress Hedy Lamar invented the technology on which today's WiFi is based. All ages.
Have a great STEM idea you don't see here? Let us know!
There are a handful of computer hacks and data breaches that have made headlines. Most notably was the Ashley Madison breach that had everyone glued to their news feeds. Unfortunately though, there are 10s of thousands of websites hacked on a daily basis that are not reported on. Which is probably why you may not have heard about the latest hack: VTech.
VTech is the popular toy company that makes digital products such as tablets, cameras, and baby monitors. Late November of 2015, a 'white hat' hacker was able to access their databases. The 'white hats' are the good guys, also known as 'hacktivists'. They break into systems to find vulnerabilities and then force companies to upgrade their securities. It's like hiring an ex criminal to try to break into your home just to see if they can do it and then fixing the weaknesses. Not that all hacktivists are ex-criminals, just that they know how to think like them. In most cases, hacktivists don't distribute the information, they just prove it is possible to get.
What was taken?
The hacker in question was able to get a hold of 4.8 million parent accounts and over 200,000 children's accounts from VTech's Learning Lodge website. Information includes parents email addresses, home addresses, security questions (and answers) and as well children's birthdates, names and genders. More importantly, there were many photos and videos as well.
What do I do now?
The good news is that this particular hacker had no malintent so nothing was breached - or given away - in this hack. That said, the system could have been breached before by someone else who could still be using this information.
In the event of any hack, the best place to check to see if your information has been breached is Have I Been Pwned. The website name comes from online gaming language where 'pwned' is a substitute for 'owned' meaning 'has someone got me'. The website itself is a trusted service. You enter in your email address and it will give you a list of any or all hacked data breaches in which your account is included. If your account is in a sensitive breach, like Ashley Madison, they will email you the information to make sure that only you get the results. The site is run by a hacktivist who verifies data before posting it.
Digital information is ony ever as safe as the system that holds it. With breaches to the Apple iCloud, Snapchat and banking institutions, it shows us that no system is 100% secure. All information should then be treated as permanent and potentially public. Much like a physical credit card you carry in your wallet; it is safe until the time you accidentally leave your card on a store counter or someone steals it out of your bag. Unlikey, but always possible.