Vacation Exploration: Star Projectors

shining-stars-kidAh, winter. It’s cold and dark out, yes. But one of the best parts of winter is the star gazing. The stars come out early enough for even your youngest children to observe…just make sure you bundle up when you go out to see them!

After you’ve stargazed a few times, and picked out a few constellations with your kids, you can bring the learning inside by creating your own constellation projectors. This activity is based on “Shining Stars” from Boston Children’s Museum’s Beyond the Chalkboard curriculum. Click here for those more detailed instructions. Constellations are pictures that people have imagined in the patterns of the stars, and they are familiar in some form or another to most children. Creating homemade projections of these constellations is a fun way to connect to astronomy at home. This activity is a good follow-up to Constellation Creation, posted on this blog earlier this week, and also from Beyond the Chalkboard.


  • Flashlights (see Preparation below for notes on these)
  • Paper cups (a few per child) (see Preparation)
  • A thumb tack, paper clip, sharp pencil, or wood skewer
  • Pen or thin marker


Flashlights – The kind of flashlight you use for this activity is important. LED flashlights are preferred, but whatever kind you use, it is best if you can remove the reflector from the head of the flashlight. The reflector is the shiny, silver cone that lies just inside the lens, and the bulb of the flashlight typically shines inside it. Here’s what it looks like:


Some LED flashlights make it impossible for you to remove the reflector, so check your flashlight before you start. Old school flashlights with removable bulbs almost always work, and are less expensive than LED lights, but are not as bright as LEDs.

Cups – the paper cups should fit over the lit end of your flashlight, and the flashlight should fit at least part of the way into the cup. It might be a good idea to have a few different sizes of cup available for testing.

Remove the reflectors from your flashlights, and make sure all of the flashlights are working.


  1. Talk about constellations you know, or look some up online, or in a book. You could also try the Constellation Creation activity, posted earlier this week, before you make your fancy projectors.
  2. Look at the constellations you found, and choose one you like.
  3. Notice how a cup will fit over the flashlight, and turn the flashlight on with a cup on it. What do you notice? You should see the cup is all lit up. Poke a few holes in the bottom of a cup, then slide it on the lit-up end of the flashlight again. Turn off the lights, and point the flashlight (with the cup on it) at a wall. What do you notice? You should see a projection of the holes you made as points of light on the wall. If the holes look fuzzy, you may not have taken the reflector out (see above).
  4. Make some new cups with holes representing stars in a constellation.

You may notice that if you poked the holes going in from the bottom of the cups, so that the constellations look correct on the bottom of the cup, then they will look backwards when projected. Try either poking the holes in the correct configuration from inside the cup, or draw the constellation dots with a heavy, dark marker (like a Sharpie) on a piece of paper, flip the paper over, hold that paper over the bottom of the cup, and poke the holes of this backwards constellation through the cup. Your constellations should now project correctly.

Some children who have made these projectors have used black construction paper circles on the bottoms of the cups, before poking the holes. Some kids have trimmed long cups so that they were shorter and easier to handle. Some children have even decorated the outsides of their cups with themes that match their chosen constellations. What could you do?


  • Mag Lites are the best flashlights for this activity, as they are LED, bright, and have removable reflectors. The Mag Lite Mini LED 2-Cell AAA Flashlight is around $15, and the AA model is around $20. You can find Mag Lites at Amazon (click here for an example), Home Depot, Lowe’s, etc. You can try this activity with less expensive, incandescent bulb flashlights – just be certain the reflector is removable, and that your room is nice and dark to accommodate the dimmer lights.
  • Doing a simple image search for familiar constellations like Orion, Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, and others will yield many results.

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Vacation Exploration: Constellation Creation

constellation-creationConstellations are pictures that people have imagined in the patterns of the stars. They are now accepted scientific ways of organizing the night sky. This idea that a scientific model could begin with imagination might seem surprising, but should it be? Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” He was pretty smart. This activity, based on “Constellation Creation” from Boston Children’s Museum’s Beyond the Chalkboard curriculum, invites you and your children to look at star patterns and imagine your own new constellations, while practicing STEM skills like observing, recognizing patterns and thinking creatively. This kind of creative activity encourages children to make personal connections to objects in the sky, and to seek out their new constellation when you look up together at the sky at night. Continue reading

Vacation Exploration: The Science of Luminaria

light-celebrations-luminariaLuminaria are a beautiful addition to these longer winter nights, and you may especially encounter these glowing paper lanterns along driveways, sidewalks, or even on houses on Christmas and New Years Eve. While they are traditionally made using paper bags with small candles inside, why not turn luminaria into a science activity? Because, you know, science. Below is a description for how you can investigate basic circuitry with your children, and create something beautiful as a result. And it’s a way for you to find utility in all of those no-longer-working holiday lights that you just can’t bring yourself to throw away. Life is good.


Suggested Materials

  • D or C-cell batteries (2 per luminaria)
  • 1 string of holiday lights (even one that is not working any more). From this string of lights, you will prepare:
    • Stripped individual light bulbs (see instructions below)
    • Stripped wire pieces, 6 inches long (see below)
  • Scissors and wire strippers (optional)
  • Masking tape or electrician’s tape
  • Small paper lunch bags (white or brown)


If this is your first time playing with batteries and bulbs, you can try the “Lighting a Light Bulb” activity from Boston Children’s Museum’s “Beyond the Chalkboard” afterschool curriculum. It serves as a good foundation for this activity. Just replace the word “students” with “kids” in the instructions. Or with the word “me”, if you’re awesome enough to be playing around too.

There is some preparation for this activity, but you and your kids can do it together. It looks like a lot, but it is quite simple – the instructions below are just very detailed. And once you have it done, you’ll have bulbs and wire to use for years to come! Continue reading

The Art of Letting Go

Boy ChairI have a confession.  I posted an article in March, 2013 called “The Resiliency Gap”, in which I wrote about our observed increase in the number of children shying away from difficult challenges – particularly from trying and failing, then working through that failure and trying again.  This skill of resiliency, or “stick-to-itiveness”, is imperative for a child’s development, their self-esteem and their ability to solve problems.  But here is my confession…as a dad, I’m terrible at teaching this skill to my child.  I talk a good game, but if my 3 year-old son is struggling with a puzzle, or with figuring out how to dress himself, I find that I am quick to step in and assist.  Too quick, actually.  I hate seeing him frustrated, and I have an innate urge to make his life easy.  This extends to real risk-taking too – if I see him climbing something, I am quick to ask him to climb down, or rush over to assist him for fear that he might fall.  If he is in any situation where there is a remote opportunity for injury, I tend to hover.  And worry.  And hover some more.  But my son continually expresses his desire to “do it myself”, or to test his limits and the physics that govern his movements in ways that, frankly, scare me. Continue reading

How to Be a Bubble Hero

Bubble ChaserSummer is a great time for kids to be outside investigating the world around them, and there are not many more captivating activities for kids than blowing and chasing bubbles. Maybe you have tried it with one of those plastic bubble bottles and little round bubble wands.  Want to do something a lot more impressive?  Read on, bubble master.

Here is how to create giant bubbles that will impress your kids, your neighbors, your friends and yourself.  And all you need is stuff you already have at home. Continue reading

Imagine Science

DSC_0122b smScience is not about facts.  That may sound like an odd statement – after all, it is quite likely that the way you were taught science in school was ALL about facts.  That is sort of a shame, and it may be part of the reason that our education system is struggling in terms of teaching children science.  The truth is that science is about DOING.  And about wondering, and asking questions, and figuring things out.  While it is important that we learn about the things that other people have discovered, the real exciting stuff in science is the stuff we DON’T know.  And that is where we fall short in getting children excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) content and careers…we focus on what is already known, and testing them on how well they memorize it, rather than getting them excited about what they might discover in the future.

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Dadding in the Kitchen: Oobleck

Copyright 2012 Bill GalleryIf you find yourself at home with your children this vacation week, and you are looking for a kind of amazing, simple, fun and educational activity to do with them, you need look no further than your own kitchen.  This activity – making a substance that has come to be called “oobleck”, in honor of the Dr. Seuss book “Bartholomew and the Oobleck” – will help your kids to practice scientific skills like observing, experimenting and problem solving (which are skills that will benefit your children in ALL facets of their lives).  And as an added benefit, this is an activity that is actually a lot of fun for adults too.  Really. Continue reading

The Big Picture: Art and Science

IMG_5448Close your eyes and picture a typical scientist.  Now imagine an artist.  You probably conjured up two very different images.  But the truth is that artists and scientists have more in common than most of us may think.   There is art in science and science in art.  What seem like contrasting disciplines are actually quite closely related to each other.  In that vein, for the past two Fridays Boston Children’s Museum has played host to “The Big Picture,” a project funded through FOCUS (Forest, Oceans, Climate, and Us), a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the Wyland Foundation. The Big Picture merges hands-on art with environmental literacy through a series of large mural projects in which children and families create art alongside some amazing local artists, all inspired by the environment around us.  It’s science meets art meets the great outdoors.

Matching art with science might seem like a strange combination, but for us the two worlds have always been intertwined.  Artistic expression can be a gateway to science discovery (and vice versa), because both disciplines share many of the same characteristics.  Continue reading

Dadding on the Go: Travel Bingo

Magnifier-smallerAh, summertime.  Warm weather, outdoor play and…the family road trip.  Do you and your kids look forward to or do you dread long rides in the car?  Keeping your kids engaged and learning without resorting to motion-sickness-inducing distractions IS possible, and can be fun.  Whether you are taking a long trip in a car, on a train, or even in an airplane this simple activity, adapted from Boston Children’s Museum’s Beyond the Chalkboard website ( helps kids practice observing, collecting data, predicting, problem solving and critical thinking, as well as literacy skills like communicating and writing. Oh, and grown-ups can play too! Continue reading

The Resiliency Gap

Tops Mom and DaughterOur work at Boston Children’s Museum has taken us well beyond our walls, into our local community and even to schools and afterschools across New England and around the United States. Through professional development workshops and visits to afterschool programs that we have conducted across the country, it has become increasingly clear that there is a growing issue facing our children; what I am calling a “resiliency gap.” We hear a lot about a series of disparities that impact children and families – the income gap, the digital divide, learning gaps…all things that require more: more money, more resources, more infrastructure, more time. But an ever-increasing divide (and one that cuts across all income lines), is a deficiency that requires not more of us as caring adults, but less…and that is a growing gap in resiliency, what used to be called “stick-to-itiveness.”

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