Friday, September 28, 2012

Pom-Pom Catapult

Yesterday I shared several pre-school / early elementary game ideas featuring the humble pom-pom.  One of them called for a homemade catapult.  I linked to plans for this engineering wonder at "Little Bit Funky."
Of course, I didn't follow her directions precisely - what kind of a DIY'er does that?! I thought I'd share today some of the modifications I made.
(Click to enlarge)
Why I changed things up
Several of my substitutions were based purely on the materials availability. I have wipes containers in excess since I get one with every Costco-sized box of wipes, but no shoe boxes of the right dimensions. Making a virtue of necessity, though, I decided that the plastic box gave the toy a bit of permanence, not to mention a compact means of storage since the pencil "fulcrum" can be easily slid out of the holes and folded inside.
Others were based on the fact that I don't like glue.  I realized as I was thinking through past craft projects that this is quite true. Not only is it messy and slow to set, but it has failed me too many times and I simply don't trust it.  Especially in a project like this with a lot of moving parts and relatively high pressure, I didn't want to rely on it to attach a bottle cap to a pencil, or secure two pencils at a right angle, or even attach a rubber band to the end of the spoon.  So I went out of my way to avoid it.


  • Plastic diaper wipes container, such as this Huggies one.
  • 1 Pencil
  • 1 Baby Spoon, fairly heavy.  (A disposable spoon will probably break after a few throws.)  
  • 4 rubber bands
  • 1 paper clip, the heavier the better
  • 1 bag clip (such as this one from Ikea) or a second paper clip


  • Craft Knife
  • Drill (optional, but highly recommended.) 

Procedure (in brief - definitely take a look at the Little Bit Funky tutorial for more detail)

  • Remove the lid from the wipes container.  This can be done without breaking it if you want to store the catapult inside the container later. 
  • With a permanent marker, mark a dot about 2-3 inches from the end and about 1 of an inch down on both of the long sides of the box.  Try to get the dots even with one other - the pencil should travel straight across the box. 
  • Using a craft knife, carefully cut two holes about the diameter of a pencil where your dots are marked.  These holes do Not have to be perfect.  However, they do need to be large enough to let the pencil rotate easily: extra friction here is not helpful. 
  • In the center of the short side of the box opposite the holes you just cut, cut another small hole about 1/2 inch down.  (See photo.)  This hole only needs to be big enough to allow a rubber band to pass through.  
  • If you have a drill available, use it to place a very small hole near the end of the handle of your baby spoon.  (See photo.)This is where a paperclip will attach to your rubber band. 
  • If you do not have a drill, keep reading. 
  • Using two rubber bands, connect the pencil and the baby spoon tightly at right angles. Leave at least 2 inches of spoon handle below, but make the "throwing arm" as long as possible. 
  • Join the other two rubber bands end to end.  Thread one end through the hole in the short end of the box and secure it with the plastic bag clip or a paper clip. (Using a large plastic clip makes it easier to adjust the tension of the catapult later by looping the band around a few times.)  
  • Unbend a paperclip into an "S" shape and connect one end to the rubber bands. 
  • If you've drilled a hole in your spoon, slide the other end of your paperclip through it and bend to create a loop.  (This will try its best to unbend while the catapult is "loaded.")  
  • If you have not drilled a hole, loop use another rubber band, twine, wire, or etc. around the end of the handle and secure with a drop of strong glue.  Then attach the other end of the paperclip here. Just keep in mind this is where much of the force in the device is transmitted, and is therefore most likely to slide off or otherwise break.  As an absolute last resort, attach the paperclip on the bottom side of knot of rubber bands attaching the spoon to the pencil.  This was my initial design, and it was really hard to keep it working.    
  • Finally, thread the ends of your pencil through the holes in the box, making sure that the spoon bowl faces down.  
  • Your catapult is ready to shoot!  Grasp the bowl of the spoon and pull it back until it's parallel to the bottom of the box, holding it with your thumb.  Place a pom-pom (or marshmallow, or pine cone if you're playing outside!) in the spoon, and release.  Not much distance?  Go back and adjust the tension by reducing or increasing the length of the rubber bands to get the most power possible without pulling everything apart. 
  • Uh... remember, you made this for the kids.  You'll have to give them a turn eventually!  

Thursday, September 27, 2012

How To Digi-Scrap for Free (or very nearly): Part 1

How to Digi-Scrap for Free (or nearly!)

Back in late 2009, I purchased a beautiful new laptop on a Black Friday sale. Since that time I have become immersed in the world of digital scrapbooking. My paper supplies have all but mouldered in the garage while I've digi-scrapped literally hundreds of pages of my babies, my niece, our courtship, and our family life. I've printed more than a hundred pages at 12x12 while keeping my monetary investment to about $1.25/page, including S&H and the plastic page protector.
I've purchased no paper, no glue, and no shnazzy little metal brads that you just Know you're going to use but get lost in the bottom of the bag immediately. Perhaps more surprisingly I've also purchased no software, digital paper, elements, or fonts. All I've done is filled up my hard-drive!

This has become a multi-part series with a handful of Gimp tutorials on specific digital techniques. The first couple of posts, however, are an overview where I hit the highlights of free graphics software, free digital downloads, and basic "workflow."

A quick blurb about my background: I've been using computers since my family owned a TI99-4A back in the mid 80's, and I've been using graphics software of some description for at least 12 or 15 years. I'm a PC person, not a Mac , although I've never gone as far as Linux! In other words, I am Very comfortable with computers, and I don't want to pretend that all of this is super-simple-intuitive to the uninitiated non-geek.

Frankly, if you have no time or patience whatsoever to learn digi-scrapping but still want a slick
looking bound book to give to the grandparents, your best bet is to use one of the myriad online
drag-and-drop programs such as are available everywhere from Costco to Walgreens, Picaboo, Smilebox, or Snapfish. You won't even pay through the nose. And if you do want to do "real" from-scratch digi-scrapping, you will probably find it Easier to use commercial software such as Adobe Photo Elements (~$100) if for no other reason than that all the tutorials and help files assume this is what you've got installed. My way is simply cheaper!
So, let's get started!

Your first can't-live-without program is Google's Picasa. (
This software manages your photo collection quickly and easily, performs about 80% of the color correction, red-eye removal, cropping, and sharpening you need, and has a good handful of special effects built in. You can ID people in your photos, add stars or tags to help you find them again, and upload your favorites to free online albums.
I also use it to manage my digi-scrap supplies, although it is not truly designed for it. I've evolved several techniques to help which I will share in a later post.

Your second integral piece of software is Gimp. (
This oddly named creature is an open-source full fledged graphics editor that will remind an old hand very strongly of Photoshop. Created first and foremost for Linux, there are nevertheless very stable Windows ports. I installed it when my laptop was brand new, and then never got around to digging out my paid-for copy of Paint Shop Pro. Gimp has a lot of advantages over the former - not to mention the free bit. It can handle layers, text, color correction, sharpening, custom brushes and special effects. And yes, it can read multi-layered Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, PGP, and a myriad of other file types, rarely losing anything of real importance in the process. This is the program you'll use to actually assemble your pages.

Digital Paper and Embellishments
Now that you've got your photos and layout software, you need some fun paper, stickers, and letters to add to your pages.
There are a zillion places online that want to sell you what you need very badly - one of the first that springs to mind is, who also publishes a nice (free) daily newsletter. As mentioned above, I've never actually purchased anything from any of these sites. My basic impression, however, is that you end up paying $3 to $10 for each "kit," or perhaps around 25-50% of what you'd spend for physical materials at the craft store.
Thankfully, there are also an amazing array of people who want to give you your scrapping supplies for free. Sure, some of what's out there is low quality and even amateurish, but much is really very good. I'm not going to try and build a directory of free scrapping materials - it's been done. I will mention a few of my go-to sites.
  • A new favorite: Everyday Mom Ideas.  Many, many high quality paper and element kits, all free. 
  • An old favorite: Dreamsfulfilled (
    This wonderful lady used to post free kits or kit pieces a couple of times a week, and the quality is excellent. While she had to remove some of her kits due to bandwidth problems, there is still a lot out there and I encourage you to visit.  
  • No Reimer Reason (
    Most of the downloads are templates, not paper and element kits, but I've found the templates very helpful.  
  • ShabbyPrincess ( sells most of their kits, but it is more than worth snagging their freebies. I think they may take first place in terms of quality and beauty.
  • The Skrappy Kat has released several very nice free kits which I found most easily archived at also has a good freebie section, mostly of relatively small packages of add-ons or ready-made pages that coordinate with their for-sale kits.
Digi-Supplies Tips:
  • When starting out, resist the urge to download everything in sight - unless it's from Shabby Princess! ;)
    It's going to take a lot of bandwidth and hard drive space (kits commonly run 30+ megs), and as fun as "shopping" is, you don't want to overwhelm yourself with supplies such that you can barely decide where to start.
    Moreover, I've found that what I use over and over is not what I downloaded in the first months of my habit. It took time to figure out my style, what was easy and what was difficult to utilize, and therefore what to bother downloading. (For instance, I almost never use "Alphas" - that is, fancy decorated letters applied one at a time like chipboard or stickers. I've learned to do my own in less time. I also practically never use pre-made pages or templates. You, however, may be different!)
  • When assessing freebies, make sure that you're getting true 12x12 size at 300 dpi. That means your "papers" will be 3600x3600 pixels. If they're smaller, you may not be able to print out at an acceptable quality, and nothing is going to irritate you more than to spend 6 hours on a page that looks all "pixely" when printed.
    (This, by the way, is - aside from pure piracy concerns - what stops you from simply grabbing any ol' clip-art from the internet and throwing it on your pages. If you do a little research, you'll find that your largest images are around 1024x768 but usually much smaller. These are going to print out at about 3 inches wide at best!)

OK, that's enough for post #1. The next post in this series will cover establishing a digital
workflow - which is geek-speak for nailing down which programs to use for what purpose, when, and in which order.

Pom-Pom Party!

I was in charge of our pre-school co-op's lesson today, and the week's theme was to be Manipulables."  As the school-year is new, I was the first to teach in this provocatively entitled yet mysterious category.  Thankfully.  After some head scratching, I decided that a "Manipulable" was any item or group of items that could be stacked, built, created, sorted, arranged, or - in our case - thrown, blown, or raced. Eventually, I settled upon my favorite cheap toy for the big event: the humble pom-pom.
I devised three games and a set of informal activities appropriate to the wide age range in our group.

Game One: Pom-Pom Puff


  • 5 color-coded pom-poms per child
  • 1 large straw* per child 
  • Blue or standard masking tape
  • A square at least 8 ft per side of relatively obstruction-free floor space

* I purchased a bag of very small diameter straws from the Dollar Tree.  These proved impossible to use in Game 2, Pom-Pom Pick Up.  They also make this game harder.  Splurge on ones with the largest diameter you can find - like the ones used for drinking smoothies.

Up to four at a time

Set Up
Use the masking tape to create a square or circle on the floor in the center of your playing area approx. 1 ft in diameter.  This is your target.
Moving out 2 to 4 feet from the target, tape a straight line about 12 to 18 inches long.  This is your starting line.  Repeat on the other three sides of the target.

 Each player chooses a color of pom-pom and collects 5 of them.  Each player is also given a straw.
Assign each player a starting line. Line up the pom-poms behind the starting line, and have each player lay prone just behind his.  When the signal is given, each player blows through his or her straw at a pom-pom, driving it towards the target area.  As soon as it crosses into the target, he or she returns to the starting line for the next pom-pom.  The first player to "puff" all of his or her pom-poms into the target circle wins.

Age Variations
Our four and five year olds (we had just two today) were ready for the competitive aspect of this activity - although they did not demand that we declare a winner.
Our three-year-olds were more interested in simply blowing the pom-poms around, which is rather more difficult to do accurately than you may think.

Game Two: Pom-Pom Pick Up

This is a variation on "Pom-Pom Puff," but instead of blowing the pom-poms, players pick them up by "sucking" on the straws.  Then, on hands and knees, they carry them from the starting line to the target area.

Age Variations
Picking up the pom-poms by suction simply wasn't achievable by anyone but the oldest child present (5 1/2.)
Even I dropped the silly thing two or three times in the four feet between starting line and goal.  I had the three-year-olds try, but they found it frustrating and went back to either blowing or "golf" using the straws as clubs.

Game Three: Pom-Pom Pop


Each child uses the catapult to launch several pom-poms.  The one that lands farthest away wins.

Age variations:
At least in the form I built, using the launcher was right at the edge of our three-year-olds' abilities.

"Game" 4: Pom-Pom Play

In addition to our 3 to 5 year olds, we had four kids right around the age of 2.
We made no attempt to include these little guys in our organized games.  Instead, we provided them with a big ol' bag of pom-poms, adult supervision, and the following
  • Cup-cake tin
  • Straws
  • Several bowls with lids that had approx. pom-pom sized holes cut in them * 
  • If the kids hadn't stolen them, I would also have included a couple of those Munchkin snack bowls with "dilating" silicone tops. 
* I used Ikea Bowls and Yogurt Lids. Nice way to avoid sacrificing good Tupperware! (An Exacto would probably be ideal for making the hole, but I'm pretty sure I just bent the lid and used scissors. The plastic is very soft.)
I also cut out the screw top portion of an orange juice container and taped it onto a yogurt lid with a hole in it. I used a short length of yarn to tether the screw-top lid to the yogurt lid. (See photo below.) Not only was hole just right for pom-poms, but the kids were able to practice screwing and unscrewing.

All of the kids enjoyed poking the pom-poms into the small holes, taking them in and out of the muffin tin, or simply batting them around with a straw.
Some of them were also interested in blowing through the straws, although not with any goal in mind.

PS: Most of these ideas came from "As We Grow," where you will also find a collection of 30 activities for developing fine motor skills.

Field Observations
As is so often the case, I think the youngest and the oldest kids actually had the most fun.  The three-year-olds found themselves once again in that frustrating middle ground where they Want to do the older kids' activities, but aren't quite socially or mechanically ready.  I found them enjoying the babies' container play as well, and made no move to stop them.  I have to step back every now and then and remind myself not to push too hard for "cooperation" from this age group.  They're just beginning to feel their way into organized group play, and it's hard work.  My son especially is prone to wandering (running!) off and blowing off energy in some unrelated activity.  I wish he'd participate more fully, but I am often encouraged by observations or conversations well after the pre-school meetings that show he was absorbing quite a lot more than I'd believed.  

More Ideas
Finally, another game that I would have brought - except that the pieces are lost in the move - are the magnetic "marble runs" I describe here.  I would have been interested to see what a couple of pre-schoolers did with them working together.