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Balancing Gnomes

Age: 3 to 8+ Time: Under 1 hour
Materials: 4' furring strip, eye hook screw, duct tape, twine, velcro, 2 gnomes
Skills: Curiosity, Focus & Self Control, Problem Solving, Teamwork

Although the gnomes folks place in the garden seem to date back to late 19th century Germany, mythical, whimsical, earth-dwelling creatures pop up far earlier in the folklore of many cultures from the Mayan Alux to the ancient Greek Dryad. This winter, we watched the short film, The Gnomist (if you haven’t, it’s well worth the 17 minutes) and fell in love with the story of Firefly Forest and the impact Robyn Frampton’s mysterious gnomes had on all ages.

It was clear to us that to children (and many of us who still like a little magic in life), gnome-like characters are captivating friends who inspire our imagination. So we sent all Tinkergarten Leaders gnomes of their own, and a series of activities highlighting these small, magical friends. The gnomes themselves continue to be used by leaders and children in many creative ways. In this activity, the gnomes help kids direct their own study about balance, opposing forces, and friendship.

The Guide

  1. Gather materials: This one takes a quick trip the hardware store. You’ll need the following: a 4 foot long piece of furring strip; an eye hook screw; duct tape; twine and 4 feet of velcro. It’s also great to have a few planks and foot-long pieces of 2x4 to give kids the chance to play with balance in different ways. Need gnomes? You can find figurines like this in some toy stores or make your own. We found ours in the HillsideHomestead shop on etsy.
  2. Set up the balancing “tree branch”: The furring strip will become the teetering tree branch on which your gnomes will sit, tip and then be set right again. So, to prep, first measure and mark the center of the furring strip and place an eye hook screw in the center. Tie some twine to the hook so you can suspend the furring strip from a tree (or an adult hand if you cannot temporarily tie things to trees in your park). Add some duct tape where the screw and twine connect to make it sturdier. Adhere one side of velcro to the top of the furring strip. Place the opposite side of velcro on the bottom of each gnome. Hang the branch from a tree.
  3. Tell your story! We wanted kids to experiment with making mobiles, but it was hard to figure out how to engage them without being too directive. So, we created a story about two little gnomes, Timber and Sprite, who loved to sit on the edge of a very tippy branch hanging off a giant mother tree. Once they became the very best of friends, they wanted to sit next to one another, but every time they did, the branch tipped. Oh no!
  4. Solve the problem: As you are telling your story, move the gnomes from being balanced to being next to one another on your furring strip. Kids will quite naturally worry for the gnome friends and how they must feel tipped over like that. Welcome them to think about that and wonder, “How can we help the gnome friends sit together and balance again?"
  5. Suggest some tools: Without mentioning how you would use them, offer some pieces of twine. We recommend already tying a loop in the twine so it can be slipped over the furring strip. Kids can pass the loop over the strip, then suspend an object from the twine (learn how by making a Nature Curtain). This allows them to experiment with which objects to use and where along the strip is the perfect place from which to hang the object.
  6. Support kids as they problem solve: Allow kids to drive the ideation and attempt to solve the problem. Simply be on hand, and do let them get just a bit frustrated. From that point of frustration comes real discovery and growth. If things get too challenging, though, step in to offer some questions that can guide them and some assistance as needed. If kids do not appear interested right away, support them in playing near the gnomes. We’ve found that they’ll keep coming back with new ideas until the gnomes are right again.
  7. Play with balance and forces: In addition to balancing two gnome friends, we suggest offering kids other ways to play with forces that are more self-directed and tie in really nicely. Pulleys and rudimentary scales made by placing a plank on top of a few sections of 2x4 are easy favorites.

Why is this activity great for kids?

When children work together to help their two gnome friends, they get the chance to build on their problem solving and collaborative skills. Children also get the opportunity to explore the concepts of weight, balance, and counter-balance. By starting with a problem solving scenario, we inspire kids to be curious and experimental. The materials we recommend are quite responsive, making this a challenge that does require a certain amount of trial and error, persistence and grit. This kind of tinkering ultimately promotes creativity in the long run as well. Finally, using gnomes as ambassadors to this kind of playful work opens up you and your kids to a world of imaginative play.

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