November 20, 2003

assembling toys, deconstructing them

I talked with a friend about his son's birthday toys. He said he's constantly coming up to him and asking him to fix a Transformer Dinosaur toy. As I mentioned earlier in a post about Legos, many toys seem sturdier than they really are. The toys purchased at the dollar-type stores are often of such poor quality they're only good for an afternoon. But the books and workbooks you can buy there are often much higher quality.

Parents are always fixing toys these days. But as the dad and I agreed, we could use an electronics or engineer degree just to get some of these things working properly.

We have a large selection of Playmobils in our house. Still, for small fingers they are sometimes difficult to put together. But most of them have smiling faces, even though they may be "bad guys." We like that there's more imagination involved in these. Playmobil characters also have a weird sensibility when it comes to U.S. history. It's filtered through a German lens, so sometimes it's odd. But in general, Playmobils are a lot of fun to have in the house. Everything except the space toys have been very sturdy. They lead to imaginative play for girls and boys. Check the shopping links for my favorite online site to buy Playmobil. Puffins is a cute store in Madison, Wisconsin. The online site has many other of the educational-type toys.

November 16, 2003

a science & art fair

Last week we went to our school's arts and science fair. We had fun looking at the exhibits the students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade had created. I particularly liked the idea that children could submit artwork or stories as well as the traditional science fair-type project. You have to admire the kids' and the parents' involvement in these things.

Nothing, however, seemed extraordinary which is kind of reassuring. Even in this day of great technological advances and connections to more science than ever before via the web, students still have to learn the basic science project stuff. That appeals to me and it must to kids. There's still something amazing about making your own volcano, explaining how levers and pulleys work, observing bread mold, and finding out the differences among products such as soaps, diapers, and nail polishes.

I also think it's great that the creativeness of art projects is also included in the school's fair. Both science and art require you to think ahead, build on an idea, and see it through to the finish. The thinking and visualization before art is created is tremendously under-estimated. People seem to think that anybody should be able to make great sculptures with Play-doh. This, of course, is untrue. But the myth persists. Instead, art is about asking a question, considering how to carry it out, and then doing so. It's a lot about having the skills, which means practice. This seems most obvious for classical music and dance. It seems less obvious for design, painting, some types of dance and music, and writing. Intrinsic talent is a plus, but so is hard work and a discerning mind.

Another important part is knowing when to quit a project, knowing when it's done, when it's time to perform, to exhibit, to publish, to show others. A current vogue in teaching writing is to having students constantly re-write. Teachers have told me that a student can always re-write again and again. This is not true. Eventually, you have to know when to stop. Scientists probably have it easier, perhaps too easy sometimes. They know when to stop when they have answered their hypothesis. But the question becomes: was it the right hypothesis?

It's good to see children's art and science projects mingle together and the school support both equally. It will be a better day when the U.S. culture supports both equally, too.