Some things are so awesome a socially conscientious person is obligated to share them with the entire world. My sister brought this little gem to my attention. The link she shared came with the following note:
“We’ve got about 23 years. We’d better start rehearsals now.” (Episode IV is 7 years old and, as yet, the only female grandchild on my side of the family)
This is the sort of “Dorking” that gets my full endorsement.
hen it comes to purifying the essence of humanity, there is no crucible hotter than the cluster of parents at a youth soccer field on Saturday morning.
Most of the time at our weekly games everyone keeps a cool perspective on things. The kids are young so the competitive-factor is low and the “have fun”-factor is high. But these are our kids we’re talking about. Put together a bunch of parents living vicariously through their children, mix in a diverse collection of personalities, add a dash of competition and what you have is a powder keg just waiting for a lit fuse.
I am well aware of the over-enthusiastic-parent-on-the-sidelines-of-a-youth-athletic-event stereotype (tip of the hat to Mr. Chavez at our high school basketball games). I know my own passions run high, particularly when it comes to my kids, so on soccer morning Saturdays I try really hard to keep that beast in its cage. That being said, there was an – *event* – this weekend where my daughter was singled out by a couple of her coaches. When it happened I’m glad to say I didn’t go all Bruce Banner right there on the soccer field, but it was pretty startling how quickly I transformed from the tranquil, rational Dr. DorkDaddy into “HULK SMASH!!!”
After all, when you come after my daughter you come after me.
A full weekend (and a couple of facebook rage-posts) later the beast is back in his cage and I’m ready to use my blog as a platform for rational discussion. I’ll share with you all the impartial details, make my closing arguments and then let you, The Jury, decide who was in the right.
A little background:
1) First and foremost, it needs to be said that parents who volunteer their time as youth sports coaches (good or bad) should be lauded from the mountain top. These people are glue that holds a community together. To anyone out there who’s ever coached a community sports team, thank you.
2) My daughter can be a little… bossy. On the soccer field she puts as much effort into telling her teammates where to stand and what to do as she does chasing the actual ball around. Some would call that “obnoxious,” others would call it “leadership”. In any case, I can appreciate how that behavior could rankle some people. C’est la vie.
3) Our head coach was gone on vacation all week, leaving the assistant coach(es) in charge of practices and the game.
4) During practice that week one of the girls got injured. There was concern of a broken ankle that required a visit to the Dr.’s office and an X-ray. Thankfully it was just a sprain, but the player had to miss the game. The details of what exactly happened are sketchy, but the consensus seems to be my daughter was in close proximity when the injury occurred.
On to the events in question:
Just before the game starts Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach #2 comes up to UnDorkMommy and says “Can I talk to you a moment?” She leads my wife away from the crowd, towards the players huddled on the sidelines and they start talking together quietly. Admittedly, the following details are second-hand as my wife was not expecting to get deposed by me after the fact. But what she relayed to me was that Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach #2 told her as they walked towards the players that there was some feedback from some of the other mommies and/or coaches on other teams that my daughter was being a little too “aggressive”. The two assistant coaches were planning on having a talk with Episode IV about it before the game and they wanted my wife to be there when it happened.
By the time my wife and Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach #2 made it to the kids, Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach #1 has taken the initiative and was already finishing up “the talk” with my daughter on her own. The game started with my daughter sitting out the first quarter – which in and of itself isn’t unusual but given the context becomes a little suspect.
Needless to say, this was news to us, especially given the fact that we’ve been to every game and every practice and haven’t observed anything inappropriately “aggressive”. If anything we’ve been proud that she’s starting to mix it up a little more and get herself into the scrum of girls clustered around the ball, as opposed to passively staying out of the fray as she has in years past. Granted, she’s taller than most of the girls on the team, and that makes her more of a physical presence… but “aggressive”? I don’t think so. It’s not like anyone’s coming away with a fat, bloodied lip. She isn’t tripping anyone, pulling hair or scratching at eyes. She may be using her body to get into the crowd and get to the ball, but that’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s soccer. That’s sports.
We spend the entire first quarter trying to make sense of this new development. I’m probing my wife for details about what exactly was said, by whom and in what context. She’s doing her best to communicate to me while she’s still trying to process. But basically all we’ve got is that someone thinks Episode IV is being too “aggressive” on the soccer field, and the coaches have now told her she needs to pare it back. Now I’m madly trying to process all the variables and implications, watching her across the field sitting out the first quarter, and naturally I’m starting to get in a lather. One of the other team moms hears our conversation and says to us “’Too aggressive’? You’re kidding, right?” She reaffirms that she’s never seen my daughter do anything that would lead her to that conclusion.
No matter what, clearly this was something that would necessitate a quiet conversation with my daughter after the game, and to do that I was going to need some facts. While the assistant coaches were busy managing the girls between quarters I quietly made my way around the field to where the assistant coaches are doing their thing. I can hear first-hand what’s going on. As they assign positions for the 2nd quarter they ask who wants to be on offense and who wants to play defense. My daughter enthusiastically raises her hand and says she wants to play offense. Assistant Coach #1 makes an effort to keep her response between her and my daughter, but I was close enough to hear exactly what she said. Here are her words to my daughter, verbatim:
“I know you want to play offense, but you remember that little problem we talked about before the game? You’re going to play defense this quarter so you can work on it.”
Oh… It. Is. On.
As the quarter started and the girls got to playing, I silently moved up behind Assistant Coach #1. “Obviously we’re going to have a talk with Episode IV about all this after the game,” I said over her shoulder, eyes fixed on the game. “I want to make sure I’ve got my details right so I’m going to need a little context from you.”
“Oh!” she said, visibly startled. Obviously she wasn’t expecting to hear a deep, sonorous, authoritative but conspicuously calm and rational voice resonate suddenly from behind her while she was focused on getting the quarter started. There wasn’t much I could do about that. “Well, um, we’ve got some feedback from some moms and some coaches from other teams that Episode IV is being a little too aggressive.”
“OK. Fair enough,” I replied. “Just so I’m clear, is it a sportsmanship issue? Is she playing dirty? Is she pulling jerseys or taking cheap shots? That sort of thing?”
“Oh no. Nothing like that,” said Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach #1.
“So it’s not like she’s playing dirty. She isn’t kicking anyone in the shins or throwing a tantrum if things don’t go her way. Her heart is in the right place.”
“Right, right. She’s just really enthusiastic and that’s making her play really aggressively”
“So what’s the lesson I need to reinforce here?” I asked. “Do you want me to tell her she needs to be a little less enthusiastic? Should I tell her she needs to be more passive?” I was using that tone that my wife hates so much. It’s the tone that on the surface sounds respectful and reasonable enough, but just under the surface makes it very clear how ridiculous I think your position is.
“No, no” she responded, notably flustered. “I told her she just needs to tone it down a bit.”
“I see,” I said in the same tone, hands behind my back, chin up, eyes still fixed on the game rather than on her. “Thank you. I think I have everything I need.” I walked back to the parent side of the field without excusing myself and relayed the details of the conversation to my wife.
At halftime Episode IV came over to us to get her water bottle. “Hey, Honey. What was it your coach told you before the game?” we asked.
“She said I was being too aggressive and I need to not be so aggressive” she replied. “Also *NAME REDACTED* said that it was my fault *NAME ALSO REDACTED* isn’t playing today.”
I kneeled down, put my arm around my strong little girl and whispered in her ear “We are super proud of how hard you are playing. Accidents happen, and what happened at practice was an accident. That’s nobody’s fault. As long as you’re a good sport, as long as you’re nice to everyone on the field, I want you to play as hard as you can. You keep playing aggressive, no matter what anyone tells you.”
She looked up at me with her knowing smile and ran back to her team. Worth noting: in the 3rd quarter she was thrilled to play in the (notably non-aggressive) goalie position.
Sorry, Supes. Not on this team. You’d be too aggressive. Try a boys team.
This is 7-year-old, non-competitive, girls soccer. This should not be the sort of thing that gets a parent so worked up that he can’t see patients on Monday morning (my first patient today and I had a good laugh about that). But this is also my daughter we’re talking about.
I want my daughter to be a strong woman. That kind of strength will serve her well in life. Women have enough to deal with in the world without getting the message from the authority figures that they should be less aggressive.
What then IS the message that we are sending? What is the lesson that we are teaching here?
This is sports – albeit 7-year-old, non-competitive girls soccer. Priority #1 should be “have fun.” The other priority #1 should be “be a good sport.” Beyond that, what lessons should we be teaching them? Sports are as much about competition as they are about work-ethic. Working hard, playing hard, being aggressive, learning how to be a good citizen in those contexts, these are some of the most valuable lessons we learn from sports.
“Be less aggressive”?!? Unless someone is being unsportsmanlike, I can’t think of a single context where that message is appropriate in an athletic setting. On the contrary, if this had been a boys team at the same level a coach would be fired for giving the advice “be less aggressive.” In fact, ostensibly, it isn’t hard to imagine that if she were a boy, Episode IV would have been celebrated for being aggressive, and encouraged to be more so.
On top of all of that, my wife made the observation that my little lady getting that message from another woman, a grown woman, adds another shameful layer to the entire affair.
In any case we used the entire experience to reaffirm to our daughter the value of sportsmanship, the fact that we are incredibly proud of her, and the notion that sometimes adults, even adults in a position of authority, *ESPECIALLY* adults in a position of authority… can be wrong
Today is Monday. It’s a new week. The Head Coach is back and my pressure gauge is safely out of “critical” back down into the green zone.
I am more than willing to acknowledge the possibility that I am way off base here, and if you readers tell me as much in the comments below I will accept it with humility.
But one thing is clear: whether it’s me or Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach(es)#1(and#2), this weekend one of us had our priorities way out of whack.
Recently fellow dadblogger and friend of the blog, Alan Kercinik (find him at Always Jacked) just had his third (boy). Inspired by his news I thought I’d share my thoughts, now that UnDorkMommy and I are on the other side of our childbearing years, on what the motivators were behind the decision to have each of our children. To be clear, the decision of when to have children, how many to have and why we have them is incredibly personal and different for everyone. The intention behind this blogpost is not to make judgments on or espouse values onto other people, but rather to express my own thoughts as they relate to my own life.
We had you because we dreamed about you our entire lives. It was the promise of the joy you would bring and the thrill of unknown adventures. It was all the stories of all the parents who’d come before. It was our naïve (though ultimately, totally justified) enthusiasm of youth. It was as much our own selfish desires as it was the timeless pull of instinct. Every decision in our lives we made with you in mind. Step by step, decision by decision, choice by choice, we worked our way towards you. Even before you were here you were at the very center of the life and the home we built together. We waited as long as we could, but no longer than we had to. We knew, just as we’d always known, that every other dream we had took a back seat to the dream of you, and if none of our other dreams came true, realizing the dream of you would make everything else worthwhile. We couldn’t imagine our lives without you, even before we met you.
For this reason, you are the most wanted child in the world.
We had you because as amazing as the first experience was, we quickly realized (and to some degree always knew) that it just wasn’t enough. Without you there was always something missing. Whether it was learning to share, squabbling in the back seat, the happy-squealing sounds of play in the backyard, or the challenge of balancing another totally different personality, in our hearts we knew our family needed siblings. We knew you would need each other to tell and keep secrets, to challenge you when you might not be right, to learn to balance the needs of other people, to grow through life together and to commiserate with when your parents get old and crazy. We knew we needed to balance the equation – to make sure the kids had at least as many seats at the table as the adults. We knew that, at least the way we imagined things, we needed you to make us feel like a family.
For this reason, you are the most wanted child in the world.
We had you because we wanted you – plain and simple. Although it meant stretching things a little tighter and putting off retirement a little longer let’s be clear, like an extra scoop of ice cream after dinner, you were a luxury. Although three children are more than anyone has a right to hope for, the experience of the first two was so amazing, so wonderful we just couldn’t bear the thought of never doing it again. We had you out of pure selfishness. We wanted more love in our lives, more happy chaos, more notches on the growth chart, more art on the wall and more pictures on the fridge — despite the fact that all of it comes with more daily loads of laundry. We were a little older and a little wiser. We knew what having another would mean and we decided it was absolutely worth it. We had you because we could.
For this reason, you are the most wanted child in the world.
should preface this post by pointing out that my family has noticed over the past year, with some chagrin, that my 12 year old nephew has steadily withdrawn from family events into the world of his electronic devices. When we’re at his house he’s always locked away in his bedroom on his computer. When he spends the weekend at his grandma’s house he commandeers her laptop (she doesn’t use it anyway) and spends the weekend on that. When he’s over at our house he’s hunkered over his Nintendo DS.
“What are you doing there, dude?” I’d ask.
“Playing Minecraft,” is his answer, without even looking up.
“Yeah? Tell me about it.” Getting his attention is like pulling wisdom teeth.
“It’s nothing, really,” he finally says, when he realizes I’m not going to leave him alone. “You just collect materials and build stuff.”
He probably doesn’t realize it, but he and I have had this exact conversation at least three times in the past 18 months. This is generally the point where I give up trying to make an effort. I can pull wisdom teeth at work, thankyouverymuch.
If you have young people in your life, likely you have at least heard of “Minecraft.” If you haven’t at least heard the word, it’s safe to say you are no longer connected to what’s “cool” these days. Minecraft is a video game, released in 2011, that has reached full-on phenomenon-status on the order of Cabbage Patch Dolls in the 80’s, or grunge rock in the 90’s. Even if your kids aren’t playing it, their friends are – or at least they’ve got the lunchboxes and T-shirts at school. For my part, although I’ve been aware of it for some time, I managed to avoid any personal experience beyond flash glimpses over my nephew’s shoulder.
Then about a month ago a fellow dadblogger posed a question to our dadblogging facebook group “I know Minecraft is a thing, but that’s about all I know. Is this something I need to look into and know more about? Because I’m sure the infection is eventually going to spread to my kids.”
That planted the seed.
A week later I posted on my facebook status “OK. Someone who knows, please give me a good reason why I shouldn’t start playing Minecraft.” I got the sort of responses you’d expect:
“Don’t do it man. It’ll eat up your life. It’s a total time-suck.”
“It’s like crack, man. The first taste is free, but after that you’re hooked. They should call it ‘Minecrack.’”
“OMG. That’s all my kids will talk about.”
If these people were trying to ward me off of the game, how could they not know that their comments were having the exact opposite effect.
The next day I got a private message from a longtime gaming buddy of mine. “Dude, it’s amazing. I’ve got a server set up just for me and a few friends. You should come join us.” (If this was the 60’s would he be inviting me to his private farm where he grows special herbs and mushrooms?) In my previous blog post I mentioned “dipping my toe in a new video game”. That was Minecraft.
Today – two weeks later – is the day I finally came up for air.
This is the post where I attempt to answer the question for the uninitiated, “What exactly is Minecraft?”
To put it plainly, my nephew was right. Essentially, you collect materials and build stuff. But that’s a 12-year-old’s oversimplification born out of a need to get a pesky uncle to leave him alone. I think a better way to describe Minecraft is to say that it is an incredibly powerful platform for creativity which, to my thinking, is enough to explain its white-hot popularity. Think digital Legos on steroids. To a mind like mine, the open-ended creativity is incredibly intoxicating. Now that I’ve been there, I could easily join my nephew in the Minecraft-transe.
Gamers classify Minecraft as a “sandbox” style experience. For non-gamers, that means there are no concrete objectives. There are no princesses to rescue. There are no power-pills and ghosts to chomp. There aren’t even any levels to earn or super-tough boss badguys at the end of a long dungeon crawl. You are simply tasked with doing whatever you want to do. It is the player’s job to decide what he or she wants to accomplish. You’re just plopped down in an environment and encouraged to explore, interact and experiment.
The game is essentially set up as a patchwork worldscape made up of multiple, completely interactive biomes (desert, jungle, plains, forest, etc). Players can scoop up a bunch of sand, or chop down a tree, or dig into the dirt, collect the materials from those actions, and use them to generate something new – say, a tool – which in turn gives you the ability to interact with your environment in a whole new way. Your creativity options just explode from there.
You want to dig down to the depths of the earth, exploring underground caverns? You can do that.
After digging deep enough under my castle, I found this cavern waiting for me.
You want to build a city, complete with villagers, livestock and crops (which you have to protect from monsters that come out at night)? You can do that.
Every block of every structure in this village was placed by me.
You want to build a castle with a mosaic floor in the pattern of a symbol that only the most hardcore Star Wars fans would recognize? You can do that.
Notice the symbol on Boba Fett’s shoulder? Now look at the floor of my castle’s main hall.
You want to build an amazingly intricate subterranean, mine cart roller coaster exactly like the one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? You can do that.
The very first leg (maybe 5%) of a rail system leading from my home to another player’s.
You want to construct an underwater base accessible only via a secret passage in your castle that snakes across the ocean floor and resurfaces right by your buddy’s castle? You can do that.
The picture doesn’t do it justice.
You want to sculpt a mountain into the shape of a skull with lava pouring out of its eye sockets? You can do that too (and that may be my next project).
Just in case a young Jedi comes along trying to rescue his buddy from carbonite.
And all that is only scratching the surface. The game even has its own version of electronic circuits which power and move mechanical bits, giving you the ability to engineer incredibly complex, working machinery. (My castle has a trap door on the floor activated by a lever on the arm of the throne so I can dispatch of unwanted guests as it pleases me. If there were a Rancor in the game I’d put one in the pit below. Alas.) Someone even built a real, functioning, virtual computer, in a totally digital medium, using nothing but the electronics (they’re called “redstone”) components ingame. Check this video out:
In fact, if I was still teaching science, this game makes an ideal introduction to both electronics and quantum mechanics (the universe is made up of individual particles, each particle has unique properties, and particles interact with one another in predictable ways, which makes the world go round).
As with so many things of this nature, when I first became aware of Minecraft I quickly wrote it off as an adolescent’s plaything – especially after observing the effect it had on my nephew. But I’m here to say this game is geared to anyone with a creative mind. If you can think it, you can do it. There is absolutely zero violence. None. In fact there is zero “adult content” in any way shape or form. In that way I can say with confidence that this game is 100% kid friendly.
…ignoring, of course, the totally addictive, all-encompassing tendencies that the game draws you into.
Two addicts in training.
If you endorse your children developing and flexing their creative and problem solving muscles, by all means let them play Minecraft.
If you endorse them turning their lives completely over to a virtual, digital medium, keep them far, far away.
One thousand, eight hundred and eighteen pages… and still 3 books to go.
At long last we made it to the end of the 4th book in the Harry Potter series; which is to say *I* made it to the end of 1,818 pages – bit by bit, night after night, reading aloud to my two older children over the better part of a year. As per our agreement we let them watch the 4th movie for Friday movie night. As excited as they are about those stories and as pumped as they were for the movie, there has been an twinge of sadness in the air since then because sadly, at least for the time being, this is where we have to stop.
In less than 12 months, with the exception of the odd guest-reader here and there, this DorkDaddy has read aloud every single one of those pages, doing all of the voices and keeping them all straight in my head. I don’t mind admitting I’m exhausted. But more importantly, this is where the subject matter really extends beyond the grasp of a 7 and 5 year old. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is where the series, much like the kids in it, matures from children’s fare to young adult material. Students at Hogwarts start to notice other boys/girls in *that* way, and the romance angle between Hermione and Ron shows its first signs of life. Thankfully at this point all those nuances are lost on my kids. This is also where Lord Voldemort legitimately comes back to life in a dark, sacrificial ritual and the larger epic life-or-death struggle between dark and light factions comes starkly into focus. A classmate of Harry’s is even killed outright. I think we can all agree that there’s no need to push a kindergartener and 2nd grader into that sort of material before they’re ready.
Finishing book 1, back in November.
That said, my daughter being who she is, made an impassioned plea to read book 5 to herself, on her own, and keep going with the series. Here’s the thing. The rule in the house has always been that you have to read the book before you can watch the movie. That’s been a great strategy for keeping inappropriate movie material out of their reach. The next book in the series ”Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” is 870 pages long. In all seriousness, the way I see it if a kid is mature enough to legitimately make it through a 870 page book completely on their own, he or she should be mature enough to handle the subject matter. So when Episode IV made her case, I handed the book over to her knowing the chances were slim.
Still, Saturday night after the boys went down, Episode IV went to her room with a new Harry Potter book to read and a twinkle in her eye. This was big kid stuff. To sweeten the deal I even told her she could stay up as late as she wanted, so long as she was reading from that book. I tucked her in, kissed her on her forehead, wished her “good night and good luck” with a wink, and closed her bedroom door. UnDorkMommy went out for mom’s-night-out with her girlfriends and I settled in to dip my toe into a new video game.
Half an hour later Episode IV came out of her room and padded down the hallway to me. “Daddy,” she said sadly, a defeated look on her face. “I like it better when you read it to me.” Bless her sweet heart, she pushed through seven pages before she had to acknowledge that a book like that is just a little bit bigger than she could chew. I hugged her, told her it was OK, and took her back to her room to tuck her in again.
I know what someone’s getting for Christmas.
“But Daddy,” she said. “What are we going to read now?” The flaw in my plan was revealed. For all my hand-wringing about how I was going to wean her off of the Harry Potter books I forgot to have a viable alternative ready to go. I scrambled quickly through the house for something that might be comparably dorky and appropriate for her age and stumbled across “The Hobbit”. We’ve had a false start or two on that book before when she was younger, but I’m happy to report that the tone and the style of “The Hobbit” is now perfectly suited for my precocious 2nd grader.
After our first installment reading and our 2nd good-night tucking in of the evening, Episode IV said to me “Daddy, I like the Hobbit OK and we can keep reading it, but it isn’t my favorite because there aren’t any girls in it.” Fair enough, sweetheart. Fair enough.
Although I must say I suspect, at least in my daughter’s mind, that Hermione Grainger could hold her own pretty well in a wizard’s duel against Gandalf The Gray.
Any suggestions for female-friendly, 2nd grade appropriate, fantasy-type books would be appreciated.
he weeks of summer were slipping by. The first day of school was on the distant horizon and although the kids were blissfully ignorant, the parents knew there was one last major item of business to take care of before launching into full-on get-ready-for-school mode. Episode V was turning 5, and the kid needed a birthday party before the whole world disappeared into backpacks, class rosters, lunch boxes and new shoes.
Finally we had to acknowledge that we wouldn’t procrastinate any longer. A party needs guests, and that means invitations, and that means giving people some notice ahead of time. UnDorkMommy sat down at the computer to get the E-vite cranked up and asked Episode V “So what kind of birthday party do you want to have?”
The boy was lost in play at the moment, and could only offer 10% of his total mental bandwidth to the conversation. “I don’t know,” he replied.
“Do you want a superhero theme?” she asked.
“Mmmm” came the noncommittal response.
“What about a Lego theme?” The only answer from the boy was the sound he made of two plastic robots crashing into each other. “Or how about a bike party?” The sound of battling robots stopped as Episode V realized that UnDorkMommy was still talking to him.
“Um… what did you say?”
Just as UnDorkMommy was about to express her exasperation, DorkDaddy walked into the room. “I have an idea” he said with the wide-eyed smile that promised something epic and awesome was about to follow. “How about.. ((pause for dramatic effect)) a SUPER SCIENCE BIRTHDAY PARTY?!!?”
“YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!” shouted the boy.
DorkDaddy threw a smug wink to UnDorkMommy, which was returned by an icy sneer - at once a reminder of who’s who around the house and also a warning not to push his luck one millimeter further.
Later that night the division of labor was established. “You realize this one is all on you, right?” said UnDorkMommy.
“You handle the food and the invitations,” said DorkDaddy. “I’ll handle the entertainment.”
As usual, UnDorkMommy did a masterful job managing the logistics. There really was no question. As the day of the party approached, the only real unknown was whether or not UnDorkDaddy would be able to make good on his promise and deliver a “5th BIRTHDAY PARTY OF SCIENTIFIC AWESOMENESS!!”
Below is an account of how I ran things. Was I successful? I’ll let you be the judge.
E-vite invitations and reminders went out with specific instructions. This would be a parent-assisted birthday party. No drop-offs and pick-ups after the festivities. Kids were also encouraged to bring their bikes and helmets. The party would be held at the local park, and there would be some down time here and there, perfect for biking around the dirt track.
Between the kids Episode V knew and their siblings, we expected 18 children (and their parents). So we planned all activities for 20, just in case. Once everyone made it to the party it was time to gather around the table for the first experiment.
It’s important to point out that when teaching science, enthusiasm has to be high. The dork-factor has to be turned all the way up. Success in teaching science lives and dies in the presentation. The good news was that I am supremely qualified in both the scientific and the dork arenas. I made sure I brought my A-game.
I called all our little scientists over to the experimentation table where they found the scene pictured below. Each one of them had a pair of goggles (thank you Amazon.com) waiting for them. We took a moment to sharpie their names on their goggles and explain the rules: Nothing goes in your mouth. Everyone listens to instructions before starting. Etc, etc, etc. When they were sufficiently pumped-up, it was time to start the show.
Mentos and Diet Soda
mint flavored mentos candy, diet cola (diet seems to work best, but any carbonated cola will do) in a bottle (any size)… cans are too difficult to work with (and don’t hold enough soda to make a spectacle), a mop (because this gets incredibly messy).
The original, legendary experiment that, in one form or another, has spread like wildfire across YouTube, Facebook and the Twitterverse. It’s as simple as this: Get a bottle of diet cola. Carefully remove the cap so as not to release all the carbonation too quickly. Drop in three mint-flavored mentos, and stand back to watch the cola-geyser of awesomeness erupt in dramatic fashion – and make an incredible mess all over the place (I would strongly encourage you to file this experiment in the “outside only” category). If you’re really feeling spunky, do a YouTube search on “mentos and soda” to see all of the creative variations on a theme. For my money, when you’re wrangling 20 5-year-olds, simplicity is key.
Note: only the original mint-flavored mentos will work here. There are other flavor varieties, none of which work nearly as well for reasons I will explain later.
Another Note: Don’t throw away the soda bottles used in this experiment yet. Collect them all and have someone rinse them out thoroughly during the next experiment. You’ll use them again for the 3rd activity.
The reason why this works is a phenomena called “nucleation.” To explain let me change to a different but not unrelated topic. For water gas to condense into a droplet it turns out that the gas needs something to condense around… some slight irregularity in the environment to grab onto. Without that slight irregularity the gaseous water stays stuck in gaseous form. At extreme altitudes where airplanes fly, the air is so pure/clean that gaseous water, no matter how badly it may want to turn into water droplets (clouds), has nothing to grab onto (nucleate around). So the gaseous water up there stays gas until an airplane comes around. The plane’s engines leave exhaust and that exhaust is made up of itty-bitty particles. Those particles are just perfect for the gaseous water to nucleate around, condense from gas to liquid, and form itty-bitty water droplets. And that’s airplane contrails are formed.
The same goes for the carbon dioxide gas stored up in the soda. The carbon dioxide gas is actually dissolved in the liquid cola and desperately wants to get out by forming a gas bubble and escaping. The problem is the inner surface of the plastic soda bottle is so uniform, so smooth, the carbon dioxide has nothing to nucleate around to form a bubble. As it turns out, the surface of the mint-flavored mentos candy has the perfect texture for nucleation. Drop three candies in and there is more than enough surface area around the candies for all the carbon dioxide in the bottle to grab on to, form gaseous bubbles, and fizz out of the cola almost all at once. This is why the other flavored mentos don’t work nearly as well. They have a waxy coating to them which is almost as smooth as the inside of the cola bottle, and are therefore nowhere near as effective for nucleation.
Frame this experiment in the context of “states of matter,” which is to say solid, liquid and gas. The candy represents the solid, the soda the liquid, and the gas is the carbon dioxide dissolved in the cola. The question at hand is how to get the gas out of the liquid. For extra fun you can purchase commercially produced geyser tubes to make the reaction erupt higher and in more than one direction. It’s particularly fun to watch all the parents standing around at the party go running for cover when the fountain reaches more than 12’ high and the wind blows the cola into the crowd.
For a more merciful way to demonstrate solids, liquids and gasses a root beer float will do just as nicely. If you’re doing this activity in a classroom environment, it makes a nice way to wrap up a unit (and I can say from experience that root beer erupts just as effectively as diet cola).
At this point we sent the kids off to go race bikes around the track. While they were doing their thing we collected all the bottles together in a garbage bag. Coincidentally, Episode VI was starting to melt down so UnDorkMommy quick took him home to put him down for a nap (Grandma babysat), rinsed out all the soda bottles, and brought them back to the party before anyone was the wiser. While she was doing that, another dad and I wrapped up the entire mess, tablecloths and all, and stuffed it into another garbage bag for disposal. Like a well-oiled machine we gorilla taped two new tablecloths down, and set out the materials for the next experiment. We turned the entire thing around in 5 minutes and managed to avoid losing the attention of our little scientists. “Attention scientists! Find your goggles and your grownups and come on over for the next experiment!”
Experiment #2 was deliberately chosen for the #2 spot because it’s a little lower-key. You can’t keep kids at full RPM’s for the entire party, and I knew I wanted to finish with a bang. Best to bring it down a little.
colored plastic bowls, milk (the fattier the better), liquid detergent, plastic spoons, food coloring
Pour just enough milk to cover the bottom of the colored plastic bowl; about ¼” deep should be more than enough. Place a few drops of food coloring (5 or 6) at random spots on the surface of the milk, taking care not to stir the drops and blend them into the milk. Just leave ‘em sitting there. For best effect, use a number of different colors. Put a little liquid detergent into a spoon and drop by drop, one drop at a time, drip the detergent into the milk at varying distances from the food coloring drops. Watch as the detergent makes the food coloring drops dramatically swirl and blend in the milk like a bad 60’s acid trip. Observe one of your detergent drops close up and watch the food coloring churn in a tiny turbulent pattern.
Fats and oils (lipids) are very long, large molecules that are difficult to digest. In order to extract energy out of lipids our bodies first need to break them down into much smaller pieces – it needs to emulsify them. Just underneath our livers is the gallbladder which releases bile into our digestive system, the purpose of which is to emulsify the fats we eat so our bodies can better extract energy from lipids.
Where organic chemistry is concerned, detergents perform much the same as the bile in our digestive tracts. They break long lipid molecules down into much smaller chunks. When you put a drop of detergent into the milk, the detergent begins to emulsify the fats in the milk. The food coloring drops swirl, mix and churn because they follow the currents in the milk initiated by the emulsification.
If you want to get messy with things, you can hand each child at the party a potato chip and ask them to rub it between their hands until it’s smashed to oblivion (a little piece of hot dog would work too). Then have them reflect on what’s left on the palms of their hands. They should notice the grease right away. The grease is a lipid, and it’s in most foods that we eat. Since chewing grease doesn’t break it down, our bodies needs to find another way to emulsify it. That’s where the gall bladder and bile come into play.
A bottle of vinegar and oil salad dressing also makes an effective demonstration. Notice how the vinegar and oil is separated after it’s been sitting for a while. Shake the bottle vigorously and notice how the oil is now broken into many itty-bitty little droplets that are suspended in the vinegar. The lipids have been emulsified.
UnDorkMommy had carefully coordinated the delivery of the pizza to coincide with the Rainbow Milk experiment. By the time we were done everyone was getting hungry, and the pizza was piping hot and ready to go. I sent them over to the other tables to refill their tanks. Again, I took the opportunity to clean up from the previous experiment. We bundled everything up in the tablecloths, stuffed ‘em in a garbage bag, and taped down fresh tablecloths like a Formula-1 pit crew. After everyone (except DorkDaddy) got a few slices of pizza in them, it was time to ramp-up the “Ooooh… Aaaaa” factor.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Although this activity is called “elephant toothpaste,” under no circumstances should any of the materials be put in the mouth. Adult supervision is a must.
a tablecloth, 6% hydrogen peroxide (the stuff you get at the pharmacy in the brown bottle is 3%… it’ll work, but it won’t be as dramatic. The 6% stuff comes from a hair salon), dish soap, food coloring, dry yeast, a soda bottle, cup, water, spoon
First things first: get a decent tablecloth down, preferably one with paper on one side and plastic on the other. This experiment is ultra-messy, so you’ll want the plastic side of the tablecloth down and the paper (absorbent) side up.
Place about three fingers (scotch reference) of 6% hydrogen peroxide into an empty soda bottle. If you’re recycling the bottles from the mentos/soda activity, be sure they’re thoroughly rinsed out. They don’t have to be dry. IMPORTANT NOTE: Hydrogen peroxide can irritate eyes and skin; concentrated hydrogen peroxide even more so. This part of the experiment should be done by grownups, and eye-protection is an absolute must. Into the bottle with peroxide, squirt a little bit of liquid dish soap and three or four (5 or 6) drops of the food coloring of your choice. Be careful not to shake up the solution and make it frothy. Just gently swirl the peroxide/soap/food coloring until it’s nice and uniform… minimal bubbles at this point.
Fill a separate cup about ½ full with water and stir in one spoonful of dry yeast (you can find dry yeast in the grocery store by the flour… took me a freakin’ hour to figure that out). When the yeast/water is well stirred, pour it into the bottle with the peroxide/soap/food coloring.
Stand back and watch an awesome, Technicolor, foamy mess bubble forth from your bottle. The reaction will keep going for a good long while, and very soon it will become clear why it’s called “elephant toothpaste”.
When the reaction is done it’s perfectly safe to touch. At this point it’s just soap and water. Notice that the foam is a little warmer than you would expect.
Hydrogen peroxide is a molecule with two hydrogens and two oxygens (H2O2). All by itself it wants to break down into water and oxygen gas (2H2O2→ 2H2O+O2). It’s the oxygen gas that you’re seeing when you see hydrogen peroxide bubble. The reaction is easily quickened if you introduce impurities (remember nucleation?) or even sunlight (that’s why it comes in brown bottles). The dry yeast acts as a nucleation site, which makes it easier for the hydrogen peroxide to break down. Tiny oxygen bubbles are then trapped in the dish soap, and the result is a really cool (and messy) foam that continues to froth out of the bottle like someone endlessly squeezing a tube of toothpaste.
It is an axiom in chemistry that whenever a bond is broken energy is released. That holds true for hydrogen peroxide breaking down into water and oxygen. The foam will feel slightly warm, like a plate fresh out of the dishwasher. Reactions like this are called “exothermic.” Had we used more concentrated hydrogen peroxide, more heat would have been released in the same space, and would therefore feel much warmer, even hot. In this regard, stick with the 6% peroxide. The reaction isn’t too exothermic, and isn’t too abrupt. It’s just right for a bunch of kids.
Do a “elephant toothpaste” search on YouTube and you’ll find all sorts of fantastic video variations on the same theme. If you’re doing this experiment in a classroom it makes a great way to wrap up the lesson.
3 experiments down. One to go. This time we sent the kids for cupcakes, and blowing out the candles. The pit crew did their thing again at the experiment tables. It was important to sugar the kids up because the next activity was the grand finale. By the time we were done we could hand ‘em back to their parents for de-tox.
Pour a healthy quantity of Elmer’s glue into a disposable cup (ideally about ½ full). Put in 3 or 4 (5 or 6) drops of the food coloring color of your choice and stir evenly with a plastic spoon.
In a separate cup fill about ½ full with water. With a separate, 2nd spoon scoop a spoonful of borax into the water and stir thoroughly. The borax won’t dissolve particularly well in water, but enough will get in solution to do the trick.
NOTE: Boron is toxic via ingestion. As always, nothing used in this experiment should wind up in anyone’s mouth. Adult supervision please.
At this point I should point out that the entire borax/water step can be substituted with straight-up liquid laundry detergent. It certainly simplifies the entire procedure with fewer steps, and for that reason that’s the way we went at the party (with 18 kids to wrangle, simplicity is key). But having done the experiment both ways I have to say, the results are much better with borax. The borax gak is more rubbery, where the detergent gak is more whispy, runny, sticky and slimy. If you don’t want the stuff getting in your kid’s hair, on their clothes and all over the car upholstery, rubbery is better. In any case, be sure to have a zip-lock baggie handy for storage when you’re all done. Gak preserves pretty well in a zip-lock.
Before the powdered borax in water settles to the bottom of the cup, pour a healthy quantity of water/borax into the cup with the colored glue and stir vigorously. Stirring will require a little strength as the reaction takes place and the concoction begins to gel. At some point it may require an adult with a stronger arm. Additionally, the mixture tends to form “glue bubbles” where a thin skin of rubbery slime encapsulates a wet, sticky bubble of unreacted glue. At some point the scientist will have to scoop the concoction out of the cup with his/her hands (don’t worry, everything here is safe to touch) and kneed it around to incorporate as much borax solution as possible.
Eventually the scientist will be holding in his/her hands an awesome, slimy, nasty handful of colored gak. If the results seem too sticky, too liquid for your tastes, just add more borax solution to firm it up to the desired consistency. Eventually it shouldn’t stick to your scientist’s hands.
This is a fantastic lesson in polymerization. In chemistry, a fancy word for a plastic is a “polymer.” A polymer is a fancy name for a long chained-molecule where the links in the chain are the same identical units repeating over and over. If the long chain is called a polymer, an individual link is called a “monomer.”
As far as this experiment goes, Elmer’s glue is a chemical called polyvinyl acetate. By itself the polyvinyl acetate (glue) is a runny liquid (the “polyvinyl” parts are really long chains by themselves and tend to get tangled, so glue isn’t as runny as other liquids… but it’s a liquid none the less). The boron in borax likes to reach out and make four bonds with two different polyvinyl chains (we call that new structure a cross-linked polymer)
It isn’t polyvinyl acetate, it’s polyvinyl alcohol. But you get the point.
essentially linking them all up together and making the big long polyvinyl molecules even more likely to get tangled — which in turn changes the solution from a thickish liquid to a stable gel.
When discussing polymers and monomers, first pull out a bunch of same-sized legos (duplo blocks work even better because they’re bigger and easier to see). Explain how, on their own, each lego brick is a monomer. Under the proper conditions it’s possible to link them all up into a big, long chain. In chemistry, that chain is called a polymer… made up of individual, identical monomers.
Next get the kids up off their butts and out into a defined, open space. Instruct them to wander around on their own, herd-style, within the space. Notice how easy it is to move around, even if they do bump into another kid once in a while. Then, when you shout “CATALYST” each kid needs to find the kid closest to them and link arms, a different kid on each arm, eventually making a long (polymer) chain of linked (monomer) kids. Now instruct the chain to wander around in the same defined space without breaking the links. They’ll quickly see it’s a lot tougher to wander. That’s why the glue goes from liquid to gel after the polymerization reaction.
And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how to throw a 5th birthday party of scientific awesomeness!!