Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Potion of Peace - aka World's Coolest Calm Jar

I'm sure that you've come across many pins and blog posts about "calming jars:" the basic idea is to hand an over-excited child a bottle filled with water, glue, and glitter and have him watch it until the glitter settles and the child is magically calm. To be honest, I haven't had stellar results with this strategy in our home, but the jars are undeniably cool to play with.
While browsing Instructables a couple of months ago, I came across these instructions for making Rheoscopic Fluid, which is immediately appealed to me as a "calm down jar on steroids." My son's upcoming birthday party gave me the excuse I needed to try it out, and I must say that it is even cooler than it looks in the photos.
Here's a little video so you can see the colors swirling...

Aside from obtaining the necessary mica powder, this is about as easy as it gets. Here's what I did

1. Colored mica powder. I got this set from eBay. Admittedly it's pretty steep. Feel free to order the smallest amount possible: you don't need much at all!
2. Empty, clear, smooth sided bottles (I used sizes between 8 oz and 24 or more)
3. (Optional) Scraps of fabric and yarn
4. Glue for lids

* Wash your jars or bottles and remove the labels. (I like Goo Gone for this task!)

* Add about 1/2 gram of mica powder to your bottle.
The stuff is both light weight and clingy, and there are inevitable losses to whatever it is packaged in.
I used a make-shift paper funnel to channel it in: wax paper might work even better since you could pour water in after it to reclaim a little more.
Whatever else you do, start with a small amount of powder and add more if necessary: it goes a long way!

* Glue your lid on tightly. I used Gorilla Glue, which is better than most glues (which, as a class, I hate!), but I am still not sure I really trust it against a determined child.

* If desired, cut a square of fabric to cover the lid - I did this while the glue was wet! - and then tie some pretty yarn or ribbon around it.

* I was making these as party favors, so I added a label with text as follows

Potion of Peace
Directions: Shake. Relax. Take a deep breath. Watch the swirling colors, perhaps while repeating a favorite Bible verse or prayer. Repeat.
Now... was there something you were upset about?

And that's it. We've had quite a bit of fun playing with these jars - and if Mommy finds it more calming than the kids, well, we need a little help becoming peaceful too, right? :)

Oh, one more note: Compared to the common glue/water/glitter calm jar, the mica flakes stop spinning more quickly - even much more quickly - but take longer to settle all the way to the bottom.  I have not experimented with mica in a glue/water mixture - I'd love to hear from anyone who has! In any case, you may need to encourage your wound up child to shake it up a couple of times.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Simple Knights and Dragons Birthday Party

My eldest recently celebrated his fifth birthday with a Knights and Dragons party.
In keeping with my "Quick n' Dirty philosophy" of kids' crafting and activities, I planned a frugal, low-key celebration that, despite being postponed twice and nearly rained out, nevertheless came off remarkably well.

As always, over-thinking and over-planning is a serious temptation for me, and during the initial brainstorming stage I was in real danger of making myself crazy by biting off Way more than I could chew while also retaining my trademark calm and patience (heh heh!) - especially given the extra demands my very challenging 1-year-old is putting on me. Thankfully, I got 'hold of myself and scaled back Multiple times before the event actually occurred.

Here's what we did:

We invited our entire homeschool co-op, which consists of 15 kids: 4 1-year-olds, and the rest between age 3 and 6.  While this is a pretty big number, it was essentially non-negotiable given that I was taking over the co-op time!
In the event, one family called in sick and a second was already out of town for the Memorial Day weekend, so we had only 6 kids over 3 - which was a nice, manageable number, really.
It's also worth mentioning that the mothers remained in attendance and provided much of the "crowd control!"


I wanted to do a scavenger hunt. I had this vision of beautiful photographic clues (since few of the kids are readers yet) that would lead them from location to location, picking up clues and magic potions along the way, until they finally found the magic sword to slay the dragon. I even imagined moving the hunt from the nearby park back to our yard on foot...
This was making my head spin. Aside from potential vagaries of weather, I just couldn't imagine 11 young children remaining organized long enough to make such a thing work.
As I was bemoaning this fact to my husband and brainstorming possibly breaking the group into teams that would each move through the clues separately, he said "No, no. Too complicated. Just hide a bunch of "dragon eggs" in the yard and set them hunting. When they deliver a certain number to the "fairy," they'll be given access to the magical sword's hiding place (up top of our backyard play structure.)  Simple as that.
"Well, Duh!" I said, and with the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders, eagerly adopted his plan. Which worked perfectly, I might add!
(For once I was glad I'd been slow on disposing of this year's crop of plastic Easter eggs, since they're not in the stores outside of April!)

Once the sword was located, it was used to "slay" the paper mache dragon, as described in my DIY Dragon Pinata post.


I went with basic cupcakes and ice cream.
Although the party was at 11 am (our standard co-op meeting time), I chose not to provide lunch.  Too complicated, messy, and time consuming. Although people were starting to get a little hungry before we finally served the cake, I stand by this decision. I just wish I'd planned a few more snacks!
The cupcakes were from a mix; the frosting was from a can. Dead simple. I baked a day or two before and froze them until the morning of the party so they'd be easier to frost. The ice-cream I pre-served into tiny dixie cups and stored in the chest freezer until game time - a strategy I sincerely recommend if you have the space!
Oh, and we ate outside. Always eat out side if you have Any choice in the matter! I mean, it was raining and we still ate outside huddled under the gazebo!
The cupcakes were decorated with a couple of waffle cones I intended to look like castle turrets. I don't know if that really came across - it looked fine in any case. I also sprinkled them with a little colored sugar (hint: make it yourself by adding - guess what - food coloring to sugar. Seriously, it's That Simple.)
The real decor was tiny cork knights and princesses I crocheted from this pattern. This is the only element of the party that makes no sense whatsoever from a frugal, quick n' dirty perspective. It took several weeks of my evening free time to make all those little guys.  But, crocheting is a favorite leisure activity for me, and I'd started in on my army of cork knights well before the plan to use them as party favors took shape.
If I'd been in a hurry, I expect that a quick internet search or even a dollar store could have supplied some miniature action figures to fill the same roll.


Along with a handful of candy from the pinata, each guest got to take home his or her knight or princess.
In addition, each family got to take home a "Potion of Peace"- a clear bottle of rheoscopic fluid that's really fun to watch swirl around. Check out my tutorial here. Again, I admit that the mica flakes made this just a little more expensive than a truly frugal favor might permit, but I frankly was looking for a good excuse to order the stuff in fun colors from eBay! :) And there was left-over mica that I hope to find a use for eventually.

The Plan Meets Reality 
As we know, no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy, and this one was no exception. Drizzle kept more of the party indoors than I'd hoped, and waiting for late arrivals kept me adjusting the order of events - even inserting an emergency extra indoor egg hunt - on the fly.
But you know what? The kids very clearly did not notice. They were there to play with their friends, eat cake and ice cream, and beat on a pinata as a fun bonus. Any little hiccoughs were far beneath their notice.
I am very glad of the limited scope and flexible activities I planned, and my son is simply content that he got to beat on something with a wooden sword! (Oh yeah, and Legos. One of his friends gave him Legos.  Happy kid!)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

DIY Dragon Pinata

As my son's fifth birthday approached, he was full of ideas concerning his party. While most of them changed, wildly, on a daily basis, one thing he was quite certain about was that he wanted a pinata. A Dragon pinata.
I know they sell such things at the grocery store or Wal-Mart, but I wasn't very excited about them - either their appearance or the thought of spending $15 or more on something designed to be beaten to pieces by stick-wielding children.
On the other hand, I also wasn't terribly excited about spending hours and hours of messy crafting time Making something with the same intended fate.
Nevertheless, monetary frugality won out and I finally decided to give it a try.

Before jumping into the project I decided several things:
1) Set my own expectations very low. This is not an heirloom: it is for an easily pleased 5-year-old to beat apart.
2) Try to make something sturdy enough to hold candy, but fragile enough to actually break apart after a few whacks. (My SIL made a paper bag pinata like this one when our kids were 3. Not only could they not break it: neither could the adults!)
3) Try to avoid paint. I hate paint. Nearly as much as I hate glue!

In support of goal #1, I did a little Googling and found this tutorial on making a dragon pinata. I decided that if I could make something about this good, I would be satisfied. I further decided that the neck and tail, while impressive, were overkill for my purposes: 2-dimensional card stock attached after the fact would suffice.

Here's what I used and how I went about it


1. Homemade paper mache paste. (See directions for recipe.)
2. A large balloon, inflated
3. Strips of phone book paper (or newsprint, or paper towels), anywhere from 1/2 inch to 2 inches wide.
4. Colored paper strips for outer layer. (See directions for specifics)
5. Light cardboard for head and tail (For instance, a cereal box)
6. Sea serpent wall sticker from the Dollar Tree. (See comments for alternatives) 

(If I'd purchased everything for this project - paper, balloons, corn starch, etc - my cost would have been $8-$10. Of course, many of my decisions were made based on what I had on hand, and I actually purchased only the sticker for a total of $1. Definitely Money - if not time - ahead here!)


1. Make the paper mache paste. 
After reading the tips from this site I went with 1 C of cornstarch mixed with enough cold water to make a paste, and then blended with 7-8 C of boiling water and some salt. This turned out to be WAY more than the project needed. Try 1/4 C cornstarch with 1.5 - 2 C water if you don't want leftovers. Oh, and be prepared to let it cool for a Long time if you made the whole batch.

2. Apply strips of newsprint / phone book paper to balloon. 
On a protected work surface (I just used our beat up picnic table outside!), prop your balloon up. Using your hands, scoop out some paste and apply it to the balloon, and additional paste to your strip of paper. Place the paper on the balloon, smoothing it around its contours.
(The last time I did mache, 20+ years ago, I used a much thinner paste into which you dipped the pieces of paper, or which was brushed onto the balloon. This won't work in this gel-like stuff. Just use your fingers.)
Apply the second strip overlapping the first by 15-25%.
Repeat until you have a layer completely covering the balloon. *Except for the neck near the knot.* Leave it bare so you can tie a string to it!
Use plenty of paste, but you don't want it dripping off the balloon: remember this has to be dry before you can complete it!
Do a second, lighter layer over the first using your phone book paper.
Don't go overboard, both because you need it to get dry before it gets moldy, and also because you aren't building Fort Knox here!

3. Apply colored paper to outer layer. 
I used this "Mala" paper from Ikea. It's heavier and less absorbent than construction paper, which was a double-edged sword on this project. It looked nicer when it dried, but it also did not mold to the balloon's shape as readily. I think cheap construction paper would have been easier to use, but with trade-offs in the appearance of the finished product. Also, it took 4-6 sheets of green, which was all my pad had - I had to supplement with blue at the end. Your pad from the Dollar Tree won't have enough of any given color.
I think that wrapping paper would also have worked nicely, although again if it were especially cheap I think there would have been bleed through from my phone book: paper towels as the bottom layer would be a better plan if you're going this route. 
Anyway, obviously this layer requires a lot more care because it is going to show. My stiff paper certainly had a few gaps and ripples, which I decided not to fret. Just try and keep things going in roughly the same direction.

4. Tie a string tightly to the exposed neck of the balloon and hang it somewhere to dry. 

5. Wait about 3 days. (We live in Oregon and it started raining hours after I did this step on a Friday afternoon. I hung it in the garage, and it was dry enough to use by Monday. If you're in a time crunch, point a fan at it or hang it over a heating vent.)

6. Cut a small access hole in the top of the pinata. 
Set your dry pinata on the counter and decide which side is up and which end is which. I used a cheap serrated kitchen knife to saw a three sides of an approx. three inch hole. *Leave it attached* so you can easily seal it again.

7. Fill pinata with loot, then attach a hanger and re-seal. 
I used a single hole punch to create a small hole as far away as the punch could reach from each edges of my access hole. I looped a piece of yarn through both holes and fastened it off, leaving plenty to hang it with. Clear packing tape closed the hole, but wasn't technically necessary.

8. Construct head, tail, and wings. 
As mentioned above, I used a Sea Serpent wall sticker I stumbled upon at the Dollar Tree. I won't kid you: this was a major part of why the project succeeded as well as it did. Unfortunately, Dollar Tree's inventory is notoriously transient so there's not much hope you'll be able to just run up an grab one. Had I not found such a thing, I was planning to do one of the following:
a. Go ahead and paint some cardboard green and then either paint or draw features on top of that.
b. (More likely) Cover cardstock or cardboard with paper matching the dragon's body and draw and/or paper-piece features

Since I had the stickers, though, I began by applying the head to my cardboard and then cutting around it, leaving a 2 inch "flap" at the bottom I could fold out and attach to the body. Using that piece as a template, I cut colored paper to glue to the other side of the head / neck. I left another 2 inch flap at the bottom which I folded out to attach.
I then repeated for the tail.
I also free-handed a wing on a piece of the colored paper (not card-stock) and cut two.

9. Put it all together! 
I used a combination of neon green duct tape and clear packing tape to fasten the head, wings, and tail to the body. Finally, I attached the two "humps" from my sticker set to either side.
They did Not conform to the shape very well. I didn't care! :)

All in all, this was a 2-3 hour project. Not as bad as I feared, and the end result was considerably better than my expectations - largely because of that useful little sticker I found. I'd have been happy even if I'd had to draw the head, though, and I'm Really glad that I didn't spring for a $15 store bought alternative. It was reasonably fun, there was no paint mess to clean up, the paper mache mess was pretty minimal - and outside! - and the kids enjoyed the project.

Speaking of which, here are some ways the kids helped:
1. Cutting the paper strips
2. Asking about a million questions
3. Using up the gallons of left-over cornstarch paste by finger painting with it in the bathtub. (I added a few drops of food coloring first!)
Certainly even 3 and 5 year old kids could have helped actually applying the strips, and they each did do one or two. However, my oldest really isn't happy getting his hands dirty and I was on too much of a mission to do much encouraging there!

Epilogue: How did it work? 

In a nutshell: it didn't work (that is, break!) in the way I imagined, but it broke never the less!

My poor daughter came down with hand, foot, and mouth disease two days before her brother's birthday, and his party ended up being postponed by two weeks. So this poor dragon languished in the garage for much longer than intended. When we finally brought him out to be bashed, his tail had already come half un-stuck, which I didn't even attempt to fix.

Our party of dragon slayers consisted of 6 kids between 3 and 6 years old. A fairly sturdy wooden sword was the weapon of choice. My son insisted that no-one be blindfolded.  We went through the line in reverse age order, and limited everyone to 3 blows. I used one of the smooth metal beams in our pop-up gazebo as a "pulley point:" I kept one end of the string in my hand and moved the dragon in and out of reach.  The first thing that broke - before even the first blow was struck, in fact - was the standard weight cotton yarn he was hanging from. I did an emergency replacement with some sturdy plastic twine. Next, one of the two holes the twine passed through tore out.  Again, I refastened it through the remaining hole and let them keep bashing, because all the actual damage was being done to the top of the dragon, near the access port / hanger point. Finally, when the oldest kid got his second turn, there was enough of a hole that I declared the dragon "broken" and tipped him upside down manually.  Much dashing for candy ensued and the game was declared a success!

What would I do differently next time? Well, I'd start out with the sturdier twine, I guess. I might punch four widely spaced holes and put two loops of twine through them in an attempt to distribute the load a little better, although I don't know how much good this would do. More importantly, I would probably hang the dragon just a little higher to encourage the bashers to concentrate on the bottom of the beast rather than the top. And lastly, if I was convinced the candy just Had to fall out of a hole on the bottom, I would probably pre-cut a slash along the belly to encourage it to break in the right place. This would, however, weaken it enough that you'd really have to either blindfold or do a lot of jerking the thing out of reach to avoid letting it take blows before everyone had a chance.
But really, it was fine. It lasted almost exactly as long as we needed it to: everyone got a chance to play, but it wasn't hard to kill to the point of frustration.  A great success, in other words!