Ideabox: Twigs

It seems like Spring’s only just decided to stay, but at the museum we’re already looking towards the fall and the September opening of Branching Out, Trees as Art.  I’ve been gleefully anticipating this show for a while now, and it’s finally getting close enough to start telling you about it!

ideabox twigs

As we’ve been investigating artists who work with assorted tree materials in surprising ways, I’ve come across some fun interdisciplinary ideas for exploring trees (especially twigs) in and out of the classroom.  Here are a few of my favorites!


Winter twig study – Indoor and outdoor ways to explore what trees are ‘up to’ in winter

Identifying parts of a tree (foldable) – A good way to practice scientific drawing and make an interactive vocabulary flashcard, from the Inspired Classroom blog.

Tree Study Foldable from The Inspired Classroom

Tree Study Foldable from The Inspired Classroom

A magnifying glass or dissecting scope will only get you so far, but check out these amazing photos of slivers of branches thin enough to distinguish the layers of cells:

Conifer cross section by Eckhard Voelcker

Conifer cross section by Eckhard Voelcker


Twig math?  Really?  Yes, really.  Check out this astonishing set of directions on how to make Skewer Hyperboloids – and then try it with twigs of the same approximate size!

Photo by Cindy Lawrence, see link above for source

Photo by Cindy Lawrence, see link above for source

Literature & Drama

From "Not a Stick" by Antoinette Portis

From “Not a Stick” by Antoinette Portis

Paeans to imagination are always a hit in my book, and Not a Stick is a  great option for dramatic play as well.  Round up a few helpers and one of the world’s simplest props to act out the scenes imagined in Not a Stick, then challenge your audience to do the same with some other every day material–blankets? Paper plates? Cardboard tubes?  See what other suggestions they come up with for imaginative play.

 Book buying options for Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis0
Pinterest collection for Not a Box/Not a Stick activities


twig painting

Twig or branch, individual or collaborative, painting can bring out natural bark patterns, and encourage close looking at details like knots and buds

A few weeks ago during the Mass Poetry Festival, we had a guest calligrapher, Elissa Barr, who demonstrated brushwork with a variety of natural materials as well as traditional ones.  One of my favorites was using a pine twig with needles still on as a great variegated brush.

Kid using a pine twig brush, photo from Rockabye Butterfly, click for link

Kid using a pine twig brush, photo from Rockabye Butterfly, click for link

Nature in the Neighborhood

It’s still a little cold to get super excited about a long ramble in the woods, but I like to think ahead, and the teachers from the Salem State Pre-K program and I had a great time a few weeks ago looking at ways to incorporate art and nature study into their year long theme studying neighborhoods.

As a librarian’s daughter and former English teacher, I believe strongly in centering lessons around stories.  Great stories make great hooks to engage learners of all ages!

Fiction and nonfiction related to local MA history and natural history

Fiction and nonfiction related to local MA history and natural history

So we started the day with a read aloud of MT Anderson’s The Serpent Came to Gloucester, which I love, not only because it’s based on actual history, but because the illustrations and sea-chantey-esque text are captivating.  We then made sand paintings, with glue, sand, sea shells and sea glass (some courtesy of the local beaches, some thanks to Christmas Tree Shop).  People made some beautiful designs!  I only wish I had thought to have related music playing in the background while we worked.

Inspired by the Delft tile-styled end papers in The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Inspired by the Delft tile-styled end papers in The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Mixed media sea serpent!

Mixed media sea serpent!

Sand Castle inspired by The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Sand Castle inspired by The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Next we moved on to oral history techniques that are useful with pre-k and other young students.  Download the discussion notes here: Oral History Projects with Pre-K  As part of this activity, we also worked with Twisteez wire to make a representation of our favorite toy from childhood, and talked about 2D and 3D ways of working art into story telling and personal history.

Recreating a childhood memory in wire.

Recreating a childhood memory in wire.

Art & Nature Center director Janey Winchell made a guest appearance to talk about great ways to get young kids involved in and actively observing on a nature walk, complete with a suggested Nature Walk scavenger hunt.

School Programs manager Emily Scheinberg also led teachers on an investigation of Salem  history in PEM’s collections.

What clues to Salem's past does a fire bucket hold?

What clues to Salem’s past does a fire bucket hold?

Finally, we wrapped up the day with a pair of observation activities: examining and understanding beach erosion via milk and cookies, and creating ‘viewing frames’ to take on a walk through the neighborhood to encourage close looking, thinking about perspective, and even the basics of composition.  These two activities were inspired by Corinne Demas’ The Disappearing Island and Dr. Seuss’ To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street.

Download activity directions erosion and frames

What do you see on the street?  In the sky?  On the buildings as you pass by?

What do you see on the street? In the sky? On the buildings as you pass by?

Decorating frames with a few of our favorite things.

Decorating frames with a few of our favorite things.

Sandstone and conglomerate...aka ginger cookies and chocolate chip.  Which will stand up to milk's erosive force?

Sandstone and conglomerate…aka ginger cookies and chocolate chip. Which will stand up to milk’s erosive force?

The beach before the milky waves, representing several kinds of rock!

The beach before the milky waves, representing several kinds of rock!

Want more?  Other classroom activities, read alouds, resources etc available for download here: handouts 2014

Rushin’ towards the Olympics

Pretty sure I had gloves just like this when I was 7, only there was a tiny knit teddy bear in a pocket instead of a Russian flag...

Pretty sure I had gloves just like this when I was 7, only there was a tiny knit teddy bear in a pocket instead of a Russian flag…

It’s almost time for the Winter Olympics, and time for me to find friends with working TVs so I can play too.  Before the torch reaches the Olympic stadium, however, there’s still time to work in some fun Olympics themed interdisciplinary awesome!

Languages and Cultures

The folks over at The Educators’ Spin on It have compiled some fun pins about Russian language and culture to explore with younger children, and also a list of fun ways to use the three Sochi Olympics mascots (a bear, hare, and leopard) to explore Olympics history. (The mascots even have a Twitter account!)

olympic symbol sochiThe Australian Olympic team has provided a set of interlinked Winter Olympics lessons for several grades and disciplines.  (Despite its dubious educational benefit, my favorite is the coloring sheet featuring a kangaroo jumping out of a matryoshka, for sheer hilarity.)

From the Australian Olympic team, see link above

From the Australian Olympic team, see link above

Science and Engineering

NBC Learn has a host of neat videos on the science and design behind the tools, gear, and execution of various winter sports.  There’s even one called ‘Olympic Movement and Robotic Design’ that I am looking forward to watching when I get a free minute.  (2010’s series of films are still available thanks to the NSF here.)

Don’t miss Olympic STEM resources from Edutopia, or this great set of history, language, and science resources for older students from Teacher Vision either.

Plus, check out past Olympics round ups from right here on Brain Popcorn:
Vancouver 2010: Warming up for the Winter Olympics
Sliding, Rolling, and Gliding (Bobsleds and more!)

Twelve Days of Popcorn (Day 1): Seasonal Papercraft

In recognition of the holiday season, I have decided to celebrate with twelve posts of things that make me happy, inspire me, make me think, or otherwise stick alluringly in my brain.  (Expect a bit more humor and a bit less curriculum!)

Today’s Topic: Seasonal Papercraft, with a highlight on origami and snowflake making

Photos from the Origami Resource Center

Round Up of Origami Snowflakes and Snowmen directions from the Origami Resource Center.  Very cool stuff.  I love the idea of using wax paper or patty paper so that you get the layered translucent snow-like effect.

Decorating the Origami Tree at the American Museum of Natural History:

Photo by snowflake designer, see link for details

How to Make Star Wars Paper Snowflakes

Robert Sabuda’s Winter’s Tale, a pop up book that makes me happy every time I open it.  His site has templates for creating all kinds of cool pop ups as well.

A page from Robert Sabuda's Winter's Tale


On the first day of popcorn, this idea gave me glee–a pop-up folding snow-bedecked tree…


Star Wars Ice and Scientific Mermaid Song: Exploring Sound

My anonymous tipmaster sent me a very cool video earlier this week showcasing the universality of the pentatonic scale.  (Bear with me: it means that anywhere in the world, people watching Bobby McFerrin jump around a stage can actually sing on pitch and together with almost no instruction).  This incredibly cool exploration of sound, music, and the way we think  reminded me that I’d been collecting some very fun sound-related links to share with you here on Brain Popcorn.

A Not So ‘Silent World’

Diving in New England is a relatively quiet business.  Most of the time, it’s your air bubbles, your dive buddy’s air bubbles, and the occasional scrape of gear on rock that accompanies you in the deep.  But not always, and not elsewhere.  Diving in the USVI a few years ago I was thrilled and startled to be surrounded by what seemed like a chorus of marine Morse code, and was informed that there were ‘very talkative shrimp’ on that particular reef.  A recent report highlighted by the Smithsonian suggests “A Noisy Reef is a Healthy Reef,” which is a fascinating new look at ways to measure the health of communities in endangered waters.

For most of us, the ‘sound of ice’ is skates carving up the surface, or possibly that sharp pop you get when you drop an ice cube into a glass of lukewarm juice.  If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the land of glaciers and icebergs, maybe you also think of the great rumble and splash of a calving glacier.  But what about a lake in winter?  Thoreau certainly noticed interesting sounds at his spot by Walden Pond:

The cracking and booming of the ice indicate a change of temperature. One pleasant morning after a
cold night, February 24th, 1850, having gone to Flint’s Pond to spend the day, I noticed with surprise, that when I struck the ice with the head of my axe, it resounded like a gong for many rods
around, or as if I had struck on a tight drum-head. The pond began to boom about an hour after sunrise, when it felt the influence of the sun’s rays slanted upon it from over the hills; it stretched
itself and yawned like a waking man with a gradually increasing tumult, which was kept up three or four hours. It took a short siesta at noon, and boomed once more toward night, as the sun was
withdrawing his influence. In the right stage of the weather a pond fires its evening gun with great regularity.

Read more from Thoreau’s Walden here.

If you can’t make it out to a pond when the weather is perfect, then listen to some amazing ice sounds from the warmth of your own desk, with sound artist Andreas Bick’s recordings, or check out compositions played on instruments made of ice by Terje Isungset.

Sounds Like a Fairytale

The Voice of the Little Mermaid — How might the Little Mermaid have sounded under water?  If, like certain people who shall remain nameless, you’ve ever tried humming in the swimming pool to find out, here’s a way to explore a little further.  An opera singer has actually performed most of an opera, singing underwater, and discusses her technique and the changes in the sound at the link above.  Very cool–but hard on the costumes, I should think!

Ladle Rat Rotten Hut – Did you ever notice that when listening to the radio or the TV in the background, you could still get a sense of the meaning even without catching all the words?  Try reading this intro to “Little Red Riding Hood” aloud with a ‘storytelling voice’ and see how far you get.  Listen to the narrator on the Exploratorium’s page if you’re stumped, and find the rest of the story there too.

Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge dock florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry ladle cluck wetter putty ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.

Sliding, Rolling, and Gliding

Downhill skiing is fast.  Ice skating’s got those nifty blades.  Bobsleds are faster and those runners are longer, and they make that awesome ‘whooshing’ sound.  What’s not to love?  (Okay, so I was maybe influenced a little a lot by Cool Runnings as a kid.  I’m not the only one.)

Bobsleigh Homepage at — full of fun stuff!  Current photos and videos from the ongoing games, equipment and history, techniques, etc.

Physics of Bobsledding at Howstuffworks

Team USA’s Bobsled page

Want to try building a bobsled course at home?

There was a tree at the base of the best side of the house for sledding when I was a kid.  A really big pine tree that you didn’t want to hit, if at all possible.  So my brother and I, assisted by our parents, got pretty decent at packing up snowbanks so that we would curve around the tree, around the corner of the house, and out into the backyard.  It worked enough of the time to be worth it.

However, there are safer, smaller ways to build a bobsled course that don’t involve pine needles down your jacket collar.  My favorite is the paper-towel-tube bobsled run.  The simplest of indoor Olympic sports, all you need are paper towel tubes (wrapping paper tubes, mailing tubes, toilet paper rolls, you get the picture), marbles or toy cars (I’m more of a marbles fan, myself.  Run 4 at a time for a four-man sled!), masking tape, and a whole lot of books, furniture, and boxes to form your ‘hill.’  Cut, tape, and go wild!

(To make ‘curved’ sections, I recommend cutting out triangular pieces from the paper towel rolls [which end up looking like diamonds once you’ve made the two angled cuts] and bending and taping them together.  This takes some practice to get a reasonable variety of angles that aren’t going to make your marbles stick in the turns!)

For other examples, check out some of these snazzy runs for ideas!

Patriotic Marble Run

Courtesy of Marie at

Winter Olympics Games for Kids from (for very young children)

A 3 floor marble run and you want more?

For the truly Olympic oriented educator, Kathi Mitchell’s impressive Olympics for Kids round-up page, with lesson plans, interactives, and assorted links galore.

Warming up for the Winter Olympics

Vancouver Olympics 2010

I love the Olympics–talk about an interdisciplinary event!  Theatrics, costumes, sport, science, art, international themes, history…a brain popcorn extravaganza if ever I saw one.

To get you in shape for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic celebrations and competitions, here are links to gear up your brain!

Official Websites of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics

Official Site of the Vancouver Olympics, including a fun interdisciplinary nod to native legends and local ecology with the three kid-friendly mascots, Quatchi, Miga, and Sumi.  Have to admit that Miga is my favorite — how can you not love a ‘sea bear?’  Part orca, part endangered Kermode ‘spirit bear’, and relentlessly adorable.

US Olympic Team Official Site

NBC Coverage of the Olympic Games

Olympic History

70 Years of Olympic History, from the Washington Post’s coverage of the ’98 Nagano Games

Science of Sport

Winter Olympics Sport and Science from Montana State University

Science of Hockey, part of the Sport Science feature on the Exploratorium website (gotta love those guys!)

Ice is Nice

ice photography

Images above: This collage shows four of Dr. Wasilewski's art compositions. Credit: Dr. Peter Wasilewski

Olympic Ice is Different in a Frozen Light from NASA.  Very cool photography in this one.

##Current News!## Scientists Keep Water Liquid Far Below Zero Degrees from NPR, reported Feb. 5

Clever snow conservation going on in Vancouver these weeks running up to the games… Spinning Straw into Snow from CNET

Do Try this at Home*

For those who find it too cold to climb trees this season, try some House Gymnastics.   Or at least enjoy the pictures of people hanging precariously in their stairways.

*maybe.  Some of these activities are a little dubious on the safety-meter.  Clamber over furniture, etc. at your own risk!

Coming up next…

Having fun with bobsled/bobsleigh and other things with runners — links and activities!

Happy Winter Solstice 2009!

Let it Snow

You would think I’d be done with cool snow-themed links by now, right?  Nope.

Guide to Snowflakes from CalTech.  Great chart of the immense variety of snow crystal shapes, with neat pictures by Ken Libbrecht and descriptions of some of the conditions needed to form specific kinds of snowflakes.  This is just one page out of a pretty impressive site all about snow and frost.  Well worth exploring.  (One of my favorite accidental discoveries on this site was the page on how to make snowflake fossils.)

Solstice: the day the sun stands still (from the Latin)

Newgrange at Solstice

Newgrange at Solstice, from (Click for original page)

Find all kinds of cool facts about the solstice today from National Geographic (you’ve all noticed I love these guys by now, I should hope?) I particularly enjoyed the mention of Newgrange, an incredibly cool Stone Age monument/tomb in Ireland which is 1000 years older than Stonehenge.  When it was built, it was designed to exactly align with the winter solstice dawn.  I visited it in summer, and it was still impressive then.

Here we come a wassailing

What’s the solstice without a touch of celebration? Despite my general fondness towards things historical, I haven’t tried either of these recipes yet.  However, they look delicious and have very positive reviews, so taste at your own discretion.

Kid-Safe Recipe

High Octane Recipe

Happy Holidays to all! This blog will be going on vacation until Jan. 2nd, 2010.  May you and yours be safe, warm, merry, and curious this holiday season.

Icy Cool Science

I was going to post this tomorrow, but in honor of the enormous blanket of white stuff covering the East Coast from DC northwards, I’m posting early.

Boiling Water to Ice Crystals in a Flash

Boiling Water Flash Frozen

Boiling Water Flash Frozen

On a day when temperatures are below freezing (the colder the better!), get a mug or pot of boiling water and bring it outside.  Toss the water in the air (away from yourself and any innocent bystanders!)  and watch the water flash freeze into a cloud of ice crystals.  NB: If you do this at your school or museum, do not direct the water where ice will fall on walkways, parking lots, or visitors.

Why does this happen?

All things being equal, cold water freezes faster. It takes time for the energy contained in a hot object to be transferred to a cold object. However, the rate of heat transfer is proportional to the temperature difference between the two objects, so hot water will lose heat faster than cold water. In other words, if you have water at 90 degrees C and water at 10 degrees C and the freezer is at -10 degrees C, the hot water will lose heat five times faster than the cold water; however, the cold water will still win the race. As the hot water cools it’s rate of heat transfer will decrease, so it will never catch up to the cold water.

Some people claim that hot water freezes faster because a pot of boiling water can be thrown into the air on a cold winter day, and it freezes in mid air creating a shower of ice crystals. Whereas a pot of cold water thrown into the air comes down as large blobs of water. This happens because the hot water is so close to being steam, that the act of throwing it into the air causes it to break up into tiny droplets. (hot water is less viscous than cold water, listen to the sound it makes when you pour it in the sink) The small water droplets have a large surface area which allows for a great deal of evaporation, this removes heat quickly. And finally, the cooled droplets are so small, that they can be easily frozen by the winter air. All of this happens before the water hits the ground. Cold water is thicker and stickier, it doesn’t break up into such small pieces when thrown into the air, so it comes down in large blobs.

Joe Larsen, Ph.D. Chemistry, Rockwell Science Center, Los Angeles, CA

For video and further information, see

Plus an extra-cool kaleidescope snowflake generator, with thanks to Paul Orselli of Exhibitricks for the link!  I love the option to spin your crystals round not only in two, but in three dimensions.

Fun with Snow: Shovels Optional

Here are a bunch of snow activities to try, to celebrate last week’s first intense snow of the year.

Make a Snowflake:

Fold a piece of paper or a coffee filter in half.  Then fold it in thirds from the middle point.  (As if you were making ‘pizza slice’ shapes, so that you have 6 triangles.)  Trim the edges so that you have roughly a circle, if you are using a regular piece of paper.  Cut along the edges and folds, then unfold for a proper 6 pointed snowflake!

If you want to avoid the blizzard of cut paper pieces, try an online snowflake-maker, here:

Outdoor Snow Fun:

1. Jump snow hurdles: Lightly pack a bunch of basketball-size snowballs. Use them to build a course of hurdles to jump over in a round of follow the leader.

2. Get on a roll: Pair up for a contest in which the object is to finish with the biggest snowball. The contest ends when the teams can no longer roll their entries or when you run out of snow.

3. Catch a snowflake: Find out what’s different ? and the same ? about a bunch of snowflakes. Catch some on a piece of black construction paper or a dark mitten or sweater.  At The Discovery Museums, we have a bunch of blue-velvet covered cardboard squares available for snow-catching.  We tend to store them in the freezer so they’re snow-ready!

4. Make an iceberg float: Invite kids to make two miniature icebergs (snowballs), one packed very hard and the other fairly soft. Indoors, fill a bucket or basin with cold water, put the snowballs in it, and watch what happens. (Because the hard snowball has air bubbles trapped inside, it will float higher in the water than the softer one.)

Stay tuned next week for icy cool science!