Sunday, November 14, 2021

It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Mr. Losik's 2021 Holiday STEM Toy Guide

 It's that time of year again. Time to start sorting through the best bets for bringing holiday smiles to our kids while keeping their brains engaged. There's no shortage of choices this year, but it's important to start early because even in years with no supply chain issues, the hottest toys always end up in short supply. 

If there is a common theme running through this year's list, it's all about creativity and building new things. You will also notice there are very few screens involved. I've built a very rewarding teaching career in the arena of educational technology but after the last two years, the last thing our kids need is more screen time. There's technology involved with a lot of these toys, but ultimately this year we are looking at stuff to help our kids move beyond anything virtual and start making real, cool stuff. 


Playmake 4-in-1 Woodshop - $120 - Amazon, The child-friendly, working wood shop was the hottest thing on last year's list but nobody could find them available in time for Christmas. So far this year, there are units to be found at Amazon and Walmart, among other online sellers.


Woodworking is not only a fun hobby, but it gets kids creating in ways that develop all of the skills we are trying to build in stem. There's engineering involved with tackling a project and there are all of the different motor skills involved with applying the tools to wood.


This item is also sold under the PlayMat brand but appears to be the same product. They're in stock in mid-November so nab them quickly.

Jixelz - Free Form Puzzle Pieces - $4.95 to 16.95 - Fat Brain Toys is a company that has been a star on this list for years and this year they check in with a number of offerings. First up is Jixelz, a whole new take on jigsaw puzzle pieces. Instead of having to find the exact pieces to complete a puzzle once, kids take colored pieces and build out their own creations. The possibilities are seriously endless.


Each set of Jixelz is themed and comes with instructions to build pre-designed objects that end up looking like old-school pixelated graphics. There are all kinds of themed sets from festive Santa and Rudolf mini sets to the 1500 piece "Under the Sea" (pictured) and "Up In the Air".


Once kids follow the instructions and build a few designs, it's time to go free-form and build creatively. Jixelz is an amazingly simple idea that gives kids endless opportunities to create their own art. It makes you wonder why it took this long for someone to come up with it.


Off-brand Legos - 1000-1500 piece sets, $22.99-$29.99. - While looking to add more Lego bricks to our STEM repertoire this fall, I discovered that not only do quality, fully Lego-compatible bricks exist, they can be had on Amazon at a major discount compared to Lego-brand bricks. I remember being in elementary school and having well-intentioned relatives buy me Lego-like bricks but they never worked well together. These bricks are essentially identical minus the Lego name stamped on the studs.


The other key fact I learned from my students when I introduced these this year is that many kids who are nuts for Legos and have hundreds of dollars worth of them often struggle to free build with them. I had kindergarteners almost in tears because they didn't have instructions on how to build something. They'd just built a Millenium Falcon but had hardly ever just built for fun. The Star Wars and Harry Potter sets are a blast, but after kids build the thing on the box, hide those instructions.


Buying bundles of Legos that aren't themed gets kids creating freely and coming up with their own ideas beyond the instructions.


Fun Forts - 83 piece set - $33 - The blanket, of all things was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2011 because the joy of building forts has been a part of childhood for centuries. Power For Fun and Fun Forts bring architecture and engineering formally into the process with these easy to assemble frame kits that can then be draped with the hall of fame blankets of your choice.


There are two great aspects that stand out with this one. 1) All of your couch cushions will remain on your couch. 2) As families and friends begin to gather again, this toy gets kids playing together. It's heartbreaking to think how few opportunities kids have had to play and build together since the 2019 holiday season. That lack of socialization is showing up in the classroom as many kids struggle to work cooperatively as we resume more group activities that require them to work together.

3D Home Kit - $27.95 - Fat Brain Toys delivers something for the creative big kids on your list. For under $30, you and or your budding architects can use the same kinds of design tools to not only plan but actually build paper models of your own home or dream home. Enough materials are included to build a model representing up to a 6,000 square foot structure. This one carries a degree of difficulty best suited for teens or super creative adults.


Artie Max - $99.00 Drawing Robot  - As we move into the gadget portion of the list, the only toy on this list that connects to a tablet is the Artie Max drawing robot. It might involve some screen time, but the big benefit of Artie is that it draws what the kids code. This is a toy that bridges the gap between creating something on a device and making something in real life. 


My favorite aspect of Artie Max is that it is packed with potential and room for learning growth. It has very basic built-in activities for beginners, but as kids get deeper into coding, the robot supports 5 different coding languages and is capable of seriously high-end creations. 


Botley The Coding Robot - $49.37 This 2019 Innovative Tech Toy of the Year is for the young coder (5-7) in your family. Botley is a screen-free robot that uses sequencing cards and other sensors. It is wonderful for building logical reasoning and problem-solving in kids. Also, check out Botley 2.0. It's a price jump at $73.99 but offers some new futures like being able to interact with other 2.0 robots in the room. Both models come with lots of accessories, games, and "hidden" features that kids will discover as they play.

Deluxe Eco Robots - $33.95 - Fat Brain Toys - While we are talking robots, let's up the age level. As I asked my 3rd and 4th graders to recommend toys for the list this year, this robotics kit from Elenco Electronics was a heavy vote-getter. One kit allows kids to make 14 different robot variations. Being able to create in so many ways is one plus, but kids love that these utilize solar so they're not as dependent on batteries.


Mega Cyborg Hand - $39.95 - Speaking of award winners, Mega Cyborg Hand is the 2021 STEM Toy of the Year. This offering is from another great, brain-engaging toy company, Thames and Kosmos. Assembling an oversized and wearable hydraulic hand carries lots of STEM benefits in itself. There is physics involved, but also some anatomy as it's designed after the mechanics of the human hand. A not-so-obvious benefit is the empathy kids develop for people with disabilities that have to rely on prosthetics like artificial hands. There is a ton of potential for creative play that comes with this project too.


Thames and Kosmos Arcade Maker  Lab Candy Claw Machine - $37.99 - Having your own arcade claw game would be fun in itself but what's even more fun, and what makes this a great STEM toy is that kids actually build the machine themselves. The game comes with candy that has loops attached for the claw to grab. It also contains looped pouches that kids can fill with their own prizes.


Battat Roadster and other vehicles - Ages 3-6, $17.00 - Here's one specifically for the younger engineers this holiday season. These all disassemble with a battery-powered driver, requiring kids to choose the right screw head or socket. Like with free-building Legos, the real fun and creativity starts when users start "Frankenstein-ing" vehicles back together and swap parts across toys because the screws and bolts are all compatible. These are available online, but check your local Target as well. That is where I first found them.


Snap Circuits - Various Kits - $21-$105 - Elenco continues to grow their line of Snap Circuits toys that use principles of electronics in hundreds of fun projects. Projects vary from building transistor radios to codeable games and a new kit that teaches how to wire a smart home. As the offerings from Elenco has grown, so has the popularity of these kits. 


Gooey, smelly, and sticky stuff - Back in the 70s and 80s, playing with a chemistry set literally meant kids had the potential to actually blow something up which was pretty much the essence of being a kid in the 70s and 80s. Today's chemistry sets are a whole lot safer and actually a whole lot more productive. All we were doing was mixing random powders and seeing if they'd ignite. Now, chemistry sets make everything from bath bombs to gummi worms. Check out all of these fun items to concoct! Kiwico Bath Bombs - $15.95 KiwiCo has made the list before for its awesome subscription STEM crates, but now the company lets you purchase individual projects that are sent out in crates and others exclusive to their website. The bath bombs won't blow up your tub, but they will help young makers combine several ingredients and do some chemistry to create bombs to make bath time more soothing.

Ooze Labs Soap - $29.95 - While we're talking about chemistry in the bathroom, check out this Thames and Kosmos kit for its "Ooze Labs" line of toys. The company describes its product this way, "Real science and pretend play come together in this activity-filled kit that can be used alone or as an extension of the Ooze Labs Chemistry Station (a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor winner!). As you mold different glycerin soap shapes, you learn about the chemical properties of soap that help it pick up and wash away dirt. While you’re concocting bath bombs, you learn about how acids and bases combine to form fizzing reactions, and what a pH level is. Expand your cosmetics knowledge with an overview of the biology of skin care and other science related to soap and bath products. All materials and chemicals are non-toxic." It sounds like a good way to get kids cleaning up and in the bath tub. 


Soaps and bath bombs are fun, but let's make some candy. The Thames and Kosmos - Gummy Candy Lab - $19.99 involves a lot of the same scientific principles as young chemists experiment with polymers, flavors, and colors. Change up the Ph with some citric acid and turn those unicorns into sour unicorns. 


Molds of clouds, unicorns, and rainbows add to the joy. 


Slimey Stocking Stuffers - 

At only $4.99 to $7.99 each, Thames and Kosmos lets you wrap up the little gifts with their "Ooze Labs" family of slimes and magic sand. These might actually be more fun to give to a child of one of your really up tight relatives. Watch your sister-in-law with the museum quality house squirm as your giddy nephew opens up a tube of glow-in-the-dark slime that potentially get everywhere. Check out Amazon for all of the creepy options. 


And finally...by the time the presents are all unwrapped and we are rapidly approaching that "all out of fun" limit, here's a cozy place for your little ones...or you to find a little respite and some "me time". The Sky Nook - Hammock Swing - $39.95 is a great retreat where kids can escape the sensory overload that the season brings with it. We know that children who struggle with sensory processing greatly benefit from a space where they can do some nesting. Truth be told, a little nesting is healthful for all of us. This one is from Fat Brain Toys and is designed for 3 to 8 year olds. Check Amazon though for other hammock chairs to fit all members of your family. 

So there you have it, this year's list. This year it's all about getting away from the screens and start creating. Let's get our kids viewing themselves are makers and builders and not just students who fill out digital worksheets for school and stuck on devices at home. There is a little something for everyone to create something from these suggestions. What will you and yours create? Whatever it is, I hope it brings you great joy. The world needs joy more than ever!

Monday, February 8, 2021

How Glowforge Brings Joy to Teaching Through this Mess -


On the night of Wednesday, March 10, I won the $2000 METS Idea Slam at the 2020 MACUL Conference in Grand Rapids. Two days later, the doors to our school buildings would be literally slammed shut behind us. 

Since first seeing a Glowforge 3D laser printer demonstrated on its Kickstarter page, I knew that if this device actually became a reality, it could play multiple roles in my elementary STEM classroom. At just under $2500, I also knew it would take some type of minor miracle to fund one and get it into the hands of my students. Having attended multiple METS Idea Slams in the past, I figured it was about time I step up from the audience to see if a minor miracle might be in the cards. All I wanted to do was share from the heart all of the ways I see an intuitive laser cutter and engraver transforming the maker space. I laid out how my kids try to prototype, but we don’t have the tools to create truly meaningful items and I pitched that with Glowforge, entrepreneurial lessons could also be included as kids fundraise off of the things we make...and my spiel worked. Like I had just won the Stanley Cup, I hoisted that big fake check above my head, so excited about how my students would soon be creating with this amazing device. Then they shut the world down. 



As we all attempted to make some semblance of whatever teaching last spring was, I remained buoyed by the excitement of winning the Idea Slam and through REMC’s help, my Glowforge arrived in early May. I did some Zoom demos for students and started to find ways the device could still be part of virtual STEM. One of the last units I taught was on design thinking and I hosted a contest for students in grades 2, 3, and 4 to design a commemorative wooden coin to mark the completion of the 2019-2020 school year in STEM. From the kids’ instant buy-in you would have thought we were designing the next dollar bill. Of all of the activities, I taught during quarantine, this one by far generated the most excitement. In the end Autumn, a third-grader had the winning design and on the last day of virtual learning, kids who stopped by the school were presented with her token. When I asked students this fall what their favorite virtual activity was, the design contest ranked amongst the favorites. Even during the three-month shutdown, Glowforge helped me bring joy to learning.

The start of the 2020-2021 school year in Hamilton, Michigan began with students separated into cohort pods. My STEM room became a make-shift second-grade classroom and all of the materials like Legos and Sphero robots, that typically elicit bounties of joy were all stashed away. STEM time was reduced by 10 minutes per class period and instead of building towers with timber planks and skyscrapers out of cardboard, everything became screen-based. Because I was bouncing to eight different classrooms per day, the Glowforge remained at home.  I was relieved to be back teaching face-to-face, but I was exhausted and I was struggling mightily to find any joy in anything we were doing.

Toward the end of September, Hamilton made the decision to return to full classrooms and to the traditional specials schedule where students would come to the STEM room. With my own room back, Glowforge could finally make its debut. It has not disappointed us.
In the past, we have worked on projects that have taken us months. In the first week of having Glowforge, kindergarteners were designing pumpkins in Keynote, and we were cutting them from birch plywood in the same class session. 


Instantly, the joy had returned to STEM because kids were creating on a screen yet taking something tangible with them. 1st and 2nd graders used the animal shapes in Keynote to create characters they would later write about. They were amazed when they returned to class with their skateboarding gorilla or duck on a motorcycle. 


One of the activities I pitched during the slam was to raise money through Christmas ornament sales. Well, the sales are going to have to wait a year, but every 3rd and 4th grader has already begun to take home ornaments they’ve designed that are cut and engraved during class. 

Wrapping up 2020 and the holiday season was some epic gingerbread house making. We discovered one day in class that Glowforge will even cut graham crackers with incredible precision. The classroom might smell like the Keebler elves forgot to take the cookies out of the oven and burnt down their tree, but it’s all worth bringing joy back to STEM class. Thanks Glowforge...and thank you METS Idea Slam for helping to fund this adventure. 



 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Go Virtual with HyperDocs - One Consistent Pedagogy, Infinite Possibilities.

 


Your free guide to making HyperDocs the centerpiece of how you teach digitally,
complete with tutorials in Google Docs, Slides, Sheets, and Forms.

Special thanks to many educators whose ideas are included.


As teachers tackle moving instruction from face-to-face learning to virtual learning, the curriculum needs to be converted to a digital learning environment that utilizes an intentional pedagogy for delivering instruction online. According to Modern Teacher, a strong digital learning environment is organized, engaging, creative and rigorous, supportive, as well as collaborative and connected. By using HyperDocs and the included guided template as the foundation for your new digital learning environment, you will be giving students a digital experience that includes each of those aspects and sets them up with a high-percentage shot at being a successful virtual learner.


The founders of HyperDocs Lisa Highfill, Sarah Landis, and Kelly Hilton describe the concept this way, “HyperDocs, a transformative, interactive Google Doc replacing the worksheet method of delivering instruction, is the ultimate change agent in the blended learning classroom. With strong educational philosophies built into each one, HyperDocs have the potential to shift the way you instruct with technology. They are created by teachers and given to students to engage, educate, and inspire learning. It’s not about teaching technology, it’s about using technology to TEACH.”


When teachers create a digital learning environment that involves using one pedagogical framework that can house unlimited amounts of content, crucial consistency can be achieved.


  1. Consistency in how teachers present materials and how students and their families access materials

  2. Consistency in a manageable set of digital tools in which teachers and students can continue to develop mastery

  3. Consistency in elements of lesson construction

  4. Consistency in expectations for student completion of work


By adopting a pedagogical structure that can house a lesson and be adaptable to any content across any grade level, HyperDocs makes it easy for teachers to build and easy for students to access and navigate. When one method is used repeatedly, teachers get better at designing because they are doing more reps with the same technique. Kids get better at executing the tasks as well due to more reps with the same technique. As the legendary Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”


What may seem like a simple doc with links is really a detailed progression of delivering digital instruction. Many HyperDocs follow this basic format that takes students through six steps of a lesson. Google Education Innovator Brian Briggs explains each:

  • Engage: Hook your students, get them engaged, and activate prior knowledge. You might use a fun video, interactive website, or audio recording.

  • Explore: Link resources, such as videos or articles, for students to explore more information.

  • Explain: Clarify the learning objective for your students. This is where you could teach a whole group lesson with direct instruction, or add additional resources for students to explore. 

  • Apply: What do you want students to create to demonstrate their learning? Give instructions for the assignment.

  • Share: Provide a way for students to share their work and receive feedback.

  • Reflect: Pause for reflection (whole class, think-pair-share, etc.) or link them to a digital way to share their thoughts.

  • Extend: This portion is great for early finishers. Provide extra activities, additional online resources, or challenge them with an extension assignment to extend their thinking.

Check out the full guide and begin implementing HyperDocs into how you teach digitally.


Thursday, November 19, 2020

Mr. Losik's 2020 Holiday Gift Guide: 13 Great Ways to Engage the Brain this Christmas Season


 
Normally, I am solidly in the camp of not rushing the Christmas lights, music, or tree trimming until after the dishes are done on Thanksgiving Day, but if rushing the holiday season this year helps increase our joy and gets 2020 off to dumpster of history faster, then pour the eggnog and put Nat King Cole on the record player. It's never too early to be thinking about great holiday gifts that elicit hours of fun and engage the brain along the way. 

2020 has stopped a lot of things but it's not going to stop my tradition of sharing great learning-related gift ideas. This year's list showcases a dozen ideas from a really old school to the adventurous. Also, don't forget about checking out my past lists as well. 

You will want to make your purchases early this year as retailers and shipping companies like FedEx and UPS expect a surge in online ordering due to the dangers of and restrictions from the Coronavirus pandemic. Some of these items are on a lot of Christmas lists so supply could be an issue as well if you wait too long. Links provided are to Amazon listings but by all means, shop around for the best deals.


Classic Spirograph and Spirograph Jr. - $9.99-$21.99

Here's a classic that has made a recent comeback and continues to allow kids to create fun artwork while unknowingly learning all kinds of geometric concepts. First designed and sold by a British engineer in 1965, Spirograph is a great quiet activity for families who just might be spending more time indoors together in the coming months. Just like everything else these days, there are a ton of YouTube videos for cool ways to take art with Spirograph way beyond the instructions.


Strawbees Inventor Kit - $34.99

Maker Kit - $20.99

Strawbees have been growing in popularity with STEM teachers over the past few years and more and more kids are wanting to experience the fun they have with them in the classroom at home. A series of connectors make it easy to build elaborate structures out of straws. A couple of different options are listed here. Like the other great building toys, kids can start with the instruction manual and then create whatever they can dream up.


Back to the Roots Self-Watering Planter - $25

With a Michigan winter ahead of us, watching something green growing in your kitchen brings hope for warmer days ahead...as long as that green thing isn't growing in a corner of your fridge. Back to the Roots offers all kinds indoor grow kits to explore on their website. Families that buy kits for home this holiday season can also give one to the elementary school of their choice because Back to the Roots will be donating one-for-one to an elementary school of the buyer's choice. Just post a picture of you and your kit to social media and tag it with #GrowOneGiveOne.





Young Modeler Kits - $28 - $32

The wooden desktop modeling kits from Young Modeler are great for the aspiring contractor, architect, or crafter. Young Modeler is a Korean company founded by Yeongjong Park who was an office worker for 20 years but loved building wooden models of boats. He and a friend started the company and now they offer a number of different structures from various homes to cafes to Old West saloons. Models can be left plain or given special paint and customization. One of the best aspects of these models comes with their numerous details like landscaping and other unique building features.




Lego Architecture Kits - $45.99

Speaking of classics and building, check out the architecture kits from Lego. These come in a variety of individual landmarks or full cityscapes. The series originated in 2008 with the Sears Tower and other single buildings like John Hancock in Chicago and the Seattle Space Needle. Over the course of the last twelve years offerings have spanned the globe. Venice, Berlin, and New York City became the first city sets to be offered in 2016. New for 2020 are Tokyo and Dubai. Not only are these great buildings and places to construct, but undoubtedly kids will also want to get on Google Earth and go learn more about what they just built.



BeeBeeRun Construction Kits - $24.98

This one is geared for the 3 to 6-year-old crowd and especially those who love to take things apart and put them back together. The BeeBeeRun kits use the same parts and included tools to build five different vehicles. Well, five vehicles according to the instructions can be built, but the real creativity starts when kids start "Frankesteining" the parts to come up with their own hybrids of different types of cars/plane/copters.


Tello Drone - $99

The big bummer about a lot of drones is how hard they are to fly and also how weather-dependent they are. While the Tello doesn't do well in strong winds, it's super easy to control and is safe enough to fly indoors. In fact, it even has a mode where it will land on your hand. It uses on-board cameras to avoid collisions and will record video and take still photos. For the price, you get a seriously engineered drone at a relatively affordable entry-point. The Tello is my drone of choice for learning in STEM.




Snap Circuits Arcade - $44.97

Electrical engineering has never been more fun than with Snap Circuits. The fun gets ramped up even higher with the Arcade edition of Snap Circuits. Kids use 30 different electronic components that snap into place and are contained in super-safe housing. Just like learning to code doesn't necessarily make a kid a video game designer, I wouldn't let the kids rewire the house after playing with this gift. What you can be certain of is that there is a ton of logic and problem solving that comes from the completion of many of the 200 projects.


Magic Motion Mobile - $19.99Fat Brain Toys is a staple of this list, and this little guy from them earns his place here in multiple ways. This is another gift for the 6 and under crowd, but the technology rivals any toy for any age group. It's a remote control car that doesn't require an app or a controller, just the waving of a hand. Magic Motion Mobile vehicles are motion-controlled cars that are controlled simply by dragging your hand or a ball in front of them. In follow-mode it will track whatever is in front of it. Flip a switch for escape-mode and hovering your hand above the car moves it forward. A hand in front of the bumper sends it in reverse. This is especially great for the younger siblings who see big brothers and sisters playing with more complex RC toys. Now they can be cool like the big kids.





 Marble Run Super Set - $36.99

Here's a great unplugged activity that delivers a ton of learning about physics and problem-solving while providing hours of creative play. Marble run sets are a blast because there's no limit to how many ways they can be set up. Also, they are a nice break from all of the screen time we've all probably had too much of lately.


Bananagrams Party Edition - $14.99

This one's been around since 2006 and was founded by 76-year-old Abe Nathanson as a way to bring three generations of his family together, united by their love of word games. Countless other families, including mine have done exactly that over the years from the Nathansons' invention. Bananagrams has delivered new spins on their classic over the years. Why not check out this holiday season their "Party Edition"? Think Banagrams meets all of the fun strategy cards in Uno like Draw Four or Reverse. Drop a monkey wrench into your opponent's game plans by playing one of several tiles that can really change the game. Bananagrams is a great way to keep everyone's brains working while having a blast together around the table.


PlayMake 4 in 1 Wood Shop - $110.00 

Just like previous list member Worx ZipSnip, this power tool is a game-changer when it comes to kids being able to actually (safely) cut and craft. This one is definitely an investment but at $110, it's still almost $200 cheaper than a Nintendo Switch gaming system. The tool converts to a drill press, a band saw, a lathe, and a sander. Reviews on Amazon are favorable and one parent stated that they are on their second machine because four boys used the first one for six years and it finally gave out on them. We might have to invest in one of these for the STEM program.


Swurfer Tree Skate Swing - $79.99  This final item is going on my "grownup Christmas list" as well. As someone who's stayed stoked since riding my first wave on an air mattress at the legendary Big Surf in 1980, let me tell you that there's something incredibly special about the feeling you get from sliding down the face of a wave. Just like skateboarding and snowboarding deliver that same "stoke" so does this tree swing from Swurfer. The Charleston, SC company offers all kinds of swings now besides the tree skate featured here and why I included these products in an educational toys list has more to do with the sensory aspects that certain types of swings provide. To any swing, there are a bunch of physics concepts that kids unknowingly explore, but swinging can also be tremendously therapeutic. Children with autism benefit greatly from swinging, but we actually all do. That's why there are front porch swings and rocking chairs. You can just sit on the front porch or you can add that gentle motion to relax even further. The Tree Skate provides the simple fun of swinging while giving riders an adrenaline shot if they so desire. The tree skate can handle riders up to 200 pounds and the motion required to make it move is a great core-building exercise.





Christmas and the holidays are bound to be very different this year, but even if it's not what we're used to, there's a joy to the season a global pandemic can't take away. Hopefully, these ideas help with your shopping and deliver some of that joy to your kids this holiday season.