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What Floats Your Boat

Age: 3 to 8 Time: Under 1 hour
Materials: Newspaper, String
Skills: Curiosity, Making Connections, Focus & Self Control

Although a dubious role model, Curious George has many qualities we would love for our kids to emulate. He is personable, optimistic, self-directed, persistent and, of course, curious. He may get himself into trouble, but he always learns something and makes friends along the way.

In one of the classics, Curious George Rides a Bike, George, shirks his paper route duties to play in a nearby river, deciding to fold the undelivered newspapers, origami-style, into boats and set them sail. Not only would we hope our daughters would be curious and self-directed enough to experiment in such a way, but we suspect Curious George’s creator, H.A. Rey, would agree. For, in the story, he included step-by-step directions for how to make the boats George put into the river. How could he not be have been hoping young readers would give it a whirl?!

One night, after reading this story for the umpteenth time, we got to wondering about how many kids have actually tried this. We figured that most kids, like ours that night, read the story and didn’t even consider folding paper into a boat, even though the invitation to do so was right there in the book. What a missed opportunity! Why not try it? Wouldn’t that model both curiosity and the behavior of a good reader if we decided to put George’s boat making process to the test? We had already planned to mess around with water and floatation with the girls, so this seemed a perfect way to set such explorations in motion.

So, the next morning, we packed up the book and some string, set off to buy a newspaper (how quaint!) and trotted down to a local pond to put our ambition to the test. What followed was nearly an hour of fascinating, guided play, including: folding; redesigning; launching; rescuing; offering passage to seed pod and stick friends; comparing floatation qualities of other boat materials; and, ultimately determining the point at which our fleet of paper boats and their fearless captain were simply too soggy to sail on.

The Guide

  1. Get your hands on the book: We were given the book but also found it in the local library and find both the Google ebook version and the Kindle version helpful.
  2. Read the book with kids and get them wondering: Give the story a read. Pause at the part where George is making the boats. Chat with kids about the boats, raise some questions like, “What are boats usually made of? Do you think paper would make a strong (or fast, long-lasting) boat? I’m not sure that you can really make boats out of newspapers. Maybe it’s just a part of the story. Would you like to try it and see if it really works?”
  3. Make a plan: Plan to give it a test. Chat about what materials you’ll need and where you can go to put the boats in the water. Take the book/Kindle/mobile phone/print out, a newspaper (scissor and string optional) and head out for the nearest accessible body of water.
  4. Fold your boats: Follow the directions provided by H. A. Rey. If you don’t have the book or just like learning by watching others, watch our short how-to video. If your kids are too young to fold boats themselves, make one in front of them but make the rest ahead of time and have them ready.
  5. Launch the boats: Before you set the first boat sail, wonder with the kids, “Will it float?” Cheer loudly when it does.
  6. Play: Watch the boats. Play with them. Let kids experiment and experience their boats in their own ways. Here are a few other ideas to try and model once kids have had a chance to play for a while:
  • Change up the design on the next few boats in any way you like. Does the new design still float? If so, does it float better or longer? Why or why not?
  • Find passengers in the form of acorns, pine cones, pebbles, twigs, legos or whatever else you find in pockets, etc. Talk about how their weight changes the boat's behavior, if at all.
  • Test out other objects (rocks, sticks, seed pods/acorns, flowers, flower petals, leaves) to see what else floats like boats.
  • Try coloring the underside of one of the boats with crayon. Be generous. The wax coating can keep a boat from soaking through. See whether the crayon boat stays afloat longer.
  • Try experimenting with different types of paper - does a bag from the grocery store do better than the sports page? What about wax paper? aluminum foil?

Clean up: Try to rescue as many of the boats as you can (i.e. try not to litter). A good, long stick can help you reclaim boats. You can also punch a hole in one end of each boat and tie a string through the hole so kids can tug, steer and keep hold of the boats.

Why is this activity great for kids?

There is nothing cooler (or more good-habit-forming) to kids than wondering and asking about something, then actually taking the time to experiment and answer that question. And, if we want our kids to drive their own learning, we need to help them build as much curiosity and confidence as we can. Furthermore, subtle as it may seem, just by modeling questioning what we read in books (or see online or on TV) builds a strong foundation for critical thinking skills.

Just posing the question about whether or not something will float vs. sink and then trying to see if paper boats could float helps kids develop their understanding about fluids and density, abstract concepts that can be hard to grasp. The more experience kids get with asking and answering that question, the better able they will be to formalize the concepts in school. They will have a feel for it, and that will give them a real advantage.

Remember, it's about more than the boats—Even though she was really into the boats, Maeve continued to break off to play in muddy puddles, toss objects into the water and stir the pond water with sticks. And, rather than drag her back to the boats, we let her decide what to be interested in and when. Kids learn to direct their attention and stay on task by practicing or, in these cases, bouncing from thing to thing and back again. So, let them. They'll need that ability to focus in order to learn in a classroom and, eventually, to solve complicated problems, learn complex concepts, finish great novels or, better yet, write their own some day!

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Do It Yourself

We think all families should be learning outside. Try this activity with your child and begin to see the power in outdoor, play-based learning. Have fun!

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