Simple Block Learning: Shapes and Colors

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This idea was an extension on recent block puzzle play with Veronika. But this time, she had to puzzle out two variables at once: color and shape.

To start, I laid down a sheet of butcher paper and began to trace some of her soft foam blocks, making sure to use a corresponding crayon color for every block color.

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She immediately was naming shapes and colors as I worked and wanted to trace (i.e. scribble) alongside me! In retrospect, I would set this up while she was napping for a cleaner piece of paper.

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But eventually, I had enough shapes traced for the real puzzling to begin. It was neat to see her mind work through this activity. She immediately put a red triangle in place when I pointed out the red outline.

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Rectangles threw her off since we had both short ones and long ones, and she tended to either mix up the two or orient her rectangles in the wrong direction.

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Often, she proudly laid down a shape in the right outline (e.g. square in square), without any regard for the color.

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And all of that was perfectly fine! I loved that this was a challenge for her, and how gamely she rose to it.

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The activity also lends itself perfectly to extended play. Once all those shapes were in place, we could start connecting them like bridges into ever-bigger structures and towers.

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Without any prompting, she trotted away and then brought back a toy car. Now we had tunnels for cars to go through or garages to park them in!

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We eventually re-positioned the blocks into one long road for her to drive cars down, which she loved.

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She played solo so happily and I caught her driving cars up one side of a triangle block and down the other, almost like it was a mini mountain.

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And through all of this, she kept up the narrative of shapes and colors to herself. This activity was a true joy.

Chock-Full of Blocks

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Here’s a fun spin on block play if your toddler is growing tired of simply building towers up and knocking them down.

I gave Veronika a small box and challenged her to fill the bottom of it completely with blocks so that none of the bottom showed. She didn’t understand at first, but I modeled the behavior and she soon joined in the fun.

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She did also try to build up a little once our bottom was covered!

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The box was quite small so we decided that we needed a bigger space to work with. Mark out a square or rectangle on your floor with painter’s tape and show your toddler how to fill that space with the blocks.

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This was a great way for Veronika to see how some shapes fit together to form others, too! Two triangles made squares in some of our corners, and two squares could make a rectangle. Obviously she needed a lot of my help for this activity, but it was a fun project to tackle together.

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As a bonus, she also loved the clean-up, throwing all the blocks back into the bin one-by-one until the tape square was empty once more.

Puzzle Pursuit

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Here’s a fun way not just to do puzzles with a toddler, but to make finding the pieces a part of the puzzle, too!

Veronika and I played around with this idea in two ways. For the first, I wanted puzzle pieces that were small enough to fit inside of plastic Easter eggs (well, they almost fit), leaving them slightly open and in very obvious hiding spots. I was hiding them for a two-year-old after all!

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I laid a few of the puzzle pieces out on the coffee table to capture Veronika’s interest, but then told her, “Oh no! Where are the rest of the pieces?”

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The bright plastic egg colors caught her eye, and she was soon trotting off to bring the pieces over.

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A jigsaw puzzle is beyond her abilities, but she loved watching the images of favorite trucks come together.

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She even slotted in the final few pieces!

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For the second version of the game, I used a chunky toddler puzzle that she can solve all by herself. Once more I hid the pieces, although “hiding” was again a relative term, really just scattering the pieces under nearby pillows.

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She was so delighted when she spotted them and immediately knew how to fit each animal over its image on the puzzle board.

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Hmm, she was missing three pieces. Was anything hiding under the scarf?

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Ta da!

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I loved watching her brain do double the puzzling in this fun activity.

Solve with Me Panda Crate

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Veronika’s latest Panda Crate, Solve with Me, was easily her favorite yet. With an emphasis on shapes, puzzles, and problem-solving for kids (aged about 18 months and up), here’s what she received.

One: Peg Puzzle

First up was a classic shape puzzle, with a square peg for squares, triangle peg for triangles, and so on. To start I simply laid out all the pieces and she had to figure out what went where.

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As soon as I asked, “Can you put the triangle on the triangle?” she had the idea. The puzzle is also great for colors (“How about the blue square next?”) and for counting, since it ranged from 1 circle to 3 squares.

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Two: Lacing Beads

This was the best child’s lacing toy I’ve ever seen. The “needle” is actually made of stiff felt, but pokes easily through the wooden beads. Peek-a-boo, pull it through!

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She loved that she could master this lacing all by herself. She also loved when I showed her a pattern (early math!): square, semi circle, triangle, repeat!

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The thread and needle also come with two giant buttons, so you can even teach your older toddler how to make a crisscross. Parent bonus: you can store the beads right on the lace.

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Three: Squishy Shapes

These giant shapes were Veronika’s favorite of the lot, first of all because they were just so squishy and big, like stuffed animal friends in geometric form!

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We laid them down and first used them for gross motor skills. Give your toddler instructions like “Hop to the triangle!” or “Run to the square!” and watch him or her happily comply.

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She had a blast with this game. Then I held her hands and helped her “trace” each shape with her feet, almost like mini balance beams.

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Toddlers can also trace a finger along the inside of each shape, which has immediate tactile rewards and larger learning benefit for pen control later on.

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Finally, we sorted the other items from the crate onto them, which was great for helping her categorize shapes.

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Four: Beanbag Shapes

These classic beanbags, one each for triangle, circle, and square, extended the squishy shape play. Firstly, each one nests perfectly on the inside cut-out of the corresponding squishy shape.

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“Let’s the put the triangle here!” Veronika proudly said, and narrated this play solo to herself for a while. Don’t forget to point out size comparisons, like how the beanbag makes a little circle and the squishy shape makes a big one.

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Second, we played hide and seek! I tucked a beanbag under its corresponding squishy shape and she proudly found it each time.

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Finally, it was gross motor skills time! Move the squishy shapes back a few steps and take aim with the beanbags. Veronika also adored this part, and we’ll work up to throwing from further away.

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Five: Board Book

As with past crates, I was disappointed in the caliber of the book. There was so much more that could be done for a shape-themed book, starting with having the book come in a fun shape. Still, Wonder magazine suggested using this book for a shape hunt.

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You can extend this idea to your child’s favorite books from home. Veronika spotted diamonds, triangles, and more in one of her go-to books!

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In Wonder magazine, parents can read more about the benefits of letting your toddler puzzle solo, as well as tricks for when those little brains get frustrated.

We did a final activity of a Shape Scavenger Hunt in two ways. First, I drew shapes on 4 index cards in big bold colors.

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Time for Veronika to pick a card! As we went through each one, we made a pile of items in that shape on the floor.

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Rectangle was the only one not included in the crate, so I could see her brain working extra hard when it came to finding items in that shape.

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As a variation, I then traced several shapes onto white paper, this time including heart and star for some outliers.

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You can head off around the house and find one item for each shape. Or, use the paper more like a shadow-matching puzzle and have your toddler fill it in with 3-D versions of each shape.

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Since music always aids in learning, we sang a shape song to the tune of The Farmer in the Dell:

A circle’s like a ball,

A circle’s like a ball.

Round and round,

It never stop.

A circle’s like a ball.

Make up verses for every other shape your toddler knows, too!

Finally, it was storytime. We had fun checking the following three out at the library:

  • Shapes, by John Reiss
  • Curious Baby Everyday Shapes Puzzle Book, by H.A. Rey
  • Sweet Shapes by Juana Medina Rosas

Puzzling Plates

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These easy one-piece puzzles are great for toddlers who are just beginning to fit pieces together.

Start by covering the center of paper plates with any easy-to-identify picture. If you have large photo prints of friends and family, those would work great. In a pinch, I cut pictures out of magazines that depicted familiar items (a house, a cat, vegetables) and glued them on.

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Cut one “wedge” from each puzzle pie and scramble them. Now see if your toddler can tell which wedge goes where!

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The hardest part for Veronika, more so than matching a piece to its correct puzzle, was making sure the wedge was oriented in the right direction when she slotted it back into the pie.

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But once she got the hang of it, she aced the game.

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You can make this activity harder as your child gets older simply by cutting multiple wedges from each puzzle pie!

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Craft-Stick Matching

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Here’s a great DIY puzzle for toddlers who have recently learned their shapes. Matching up the outlines of craft stick is great for fine motor skills, too!

To set up, I arranged jumbo craft sticks on plain white paper and traced the outlines. I made one page each for a triangle, square, and diamond, and decided to trace each shape with a different color just in case we wanted to add a color component to the game.

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I also then colored on the craft sticks with crayon in corresponding colors. We now had a red triangle, green square, and purple diamond.

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Now slip each shape into a zip-top plastic bag and show your toddler how to line the craft sticks up over each outline.

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Because there’s nothing to hold the craft sticks in place as in a puzzle board, Veronika’s shapes were always a little askew, but she certainly had the right idea!

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There was even a happy victory dance after she finished the triangle!

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I loved watching her puzzle through exactly where each stick should go.

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It turned out that she mixed and matched the colors, rather than placing a purple stick in a purple outline, etc., but that was just fine, too.

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Puzzle Pail

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What do you give your toddler to play with after a Building Bin? A Puzzle Pail of course! Today’s “invitation” for Veronika was a pail (from our beach toy collection) appropriately filled with puzzles. I liked the alteration here, but of course any container would work, not necessarily a sand pail.

I set out the puzzles in a few different ways. Bulky ones (including one with latches and another with farm animals behind flaps), I simply set out on the ground.

But for more standard puzzles, I separated them into pieces and each puzzle got its own zip-top baggie. I then put these baggies into the pail. Veronika immediately grabbed at all the bags, emptying her pail out.

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She wanted to tackle the shape puzzle first. There must have been a leap in her brain, because she solved the entire puzzle without any help!

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All I had to ask was a prompt (“Where does the rectangle go?” and she immediately knew.

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When it was complete, it was fun for her to load the pieces back into their zip-top baggie.

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In fact, your child might find the bags and pieces the most interesting part of this activity, rather than solving any puzzles.

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Next up was an animal puzzle. And she solved this one without any assistance, too!

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I guess my girl has earned her animal stripes (and spots).

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I also included an animal sound puzzle to add a fun auditory element.

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I loved seeing her busy with all the different puzzle varieties throughout the day, and only occasionally needed to jump in for assistance. This one truly lived up to its intention as a solo activity.

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Little Passports: England

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Travis enjoyed learning about England in this month’s kit from Little Passports, not least of all because it involved lots of puzzles (and I mean lots!). As with the India package, he had a personal interest, too, because he has some English heritage.

After familiar finds in his package like a world coin and stickers for his map, passport, and suitcase, we turned to the booklet.

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This month’s booklet allowed him to tackle a crossword puzzle, spot four-of-a-kind images, and do a mapping activity.

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That last is the only one I would say was beyond his grade level.

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The souvenir was a 3-D puzzle of Big Ben, a huge hit because Travis once had an obsession with this clock tower (yes, we used to watch videos of it chiming). Now we could build it!

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The puzzle slots together easily, but a parental note of caution: it didn’t last long because Travis wanted to play with it more like an action figure.

Further Activities:

I was happy to see a wide variety of activities this month, both in the booklet and continued online. For science, we printed out a template for Newton’s color wheel. After learning briefly who Newton was, Travis colored in the provided circle in a rainbow.

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Glue onto cardboard for sturdiness and then thread onto a string that is 30 inches long. Wind the string up and then let it spin until unwound; it rotates fast enough that the colors blur back to white.

The website also had a printout of a British afternoon tea spread to color, which you can then cut apart and re-do as a puzzle.

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Travis wasn’t terribly interested, but it was nice to color side by side.

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There were two available add-ons from the company with the England kit, and we opted for both. To extrapolate on the theme of Shakespeare and the theater, Travis made shadow puppets. He loved slotting together and decorating the cardboard theater first.

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Turn on the battery-operated lights, and then it’s time for felt puppets to take center stage! This is sure to be a great toy to play with even completely separate from this Little Passport’s package.

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The second add-on circled back to themes of mapping and puzzles: a 3-D puzzle of London.

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The puzzle was far beyond my 6 year old’s ability, but he loved slotting the landmarks into their spaces, and we read about each one in the provided insert.

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And after all that, the neatest project by far was to make Stonehenge from homemade play dough! We mixed 2 cups flour and 1 cup salt in a large bowl. We wanted to make it black, so added red, blue, and green food coloring to 1/2 cup water. It turned our mixture more gray than black, but that’s probably closer to Stonehenge’s hue anyway. Stir until the color is incorporated, then add an additional 1/4 cup water. Knead until you have a workable play dough.

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We arranged the plinths and monoliths on a piece of cardboard and left it to dry for about 1 day. Not only did this look awesome, but it was a great background for his Lego figures to play in, too!

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We always end these country kits in the kitchen. This month’s recipe was for Awesome Apple Crumble, which lived up to its name!

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For the topping:

  • 1 and 1/2 cups flour
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3/4 cup Earth Balance butter, cubed

For the filling:

  • 1 pound Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • Pinch of cinnamon
  1. To prepare the topping, combine 1 and 1/2 cups flour, 3/4 cup brown sugar, and the salt in a bowl. Add the Earth Balance butter and use your fingers to mix until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs; set aside.
  2. To prepare the apples, place the slices in a large bowl. Add the remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon flour, and the cinnamon, stirring to coat.
  3. Spoon the apples into a 9×9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle the topping over the apples and bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes.
  4. Serve warm and drizzle with a little non-dairy creamer, which is closer to how the Brits would serve it than serving American-style with ice cream.

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Jumbo DIY Cardboard Puzzle

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This easy project can be your toddler’s first jigsaw puzzle! With just two pieces, it introduces the notion of interlocking pieces, and your child can proudly solve it all alone.

To start, I cut a cardboard box into pieces and saved the two largest sides. I drew an outline of a simple picture on each, choosing two of Veronika’s favorite things: a butterfly and a heart.

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I invited her to help me color them in! Now the process of making the puzzle was just as fun as the final play. She loved talking about colors as we used crayons side by side.

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Then I cut a big zig-zag shape down each of our two drawings. Voila: We had two-piece puzzles!

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“What happened to butterfly?” I asked her, coaxing her to realize the cardboard was now in two parts. I showed her how to slide the two pieces of cardboard together again.

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She echoed my words, and busily began moving the cardboard pieces apart and then back together again.

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It hadn’t occurred to me, but because we made two puzzles, she did some mixing and matching as well. She was confused when the heart wasn’t the other half of the butterfly until I helped her solve it.


I loved that I could really see her brain at work here!

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In sum, this is a fantastic first jigsaw puzzle, and so easy to make.

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Mirror Illusions Kiwi Crate

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Travis’s Kiwi Crate this month focused on mirrors and the tricks of light that allow for illusions. There was a bit of overlap with the Secret Agent crate, so I was surprised it was next in our queue from the company, but he still enjoyed the projects!

First up was making a Trick Box. This very simply involved folding open the provided green cardboard box and slipping in an illustrated insert. (Kids also have the option to illustrate their own insert).

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Place the insert in the box, then slip in the provided mirror, making sure it is at the correct angle (arrows marked inside help kids to ensure a proper alignment).

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Peeking through the box now reveals the image in reverse. This was a bit lost on Travis, as he couldn’t read the “hello there” message he’d chosen either forwards or backwards.

More of an impact came from the penny trick you can perform: Drop a penny through the slot in the top and it seems to disappear, when really it is just falling behind the angled mirror. This is a fun one for kids to play a “magic trick” on friends and family.

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Next up was making a Painted Puzzle. Place the provided wooden squares in a frame, and cover with one of the provided clear stickers. Travis did this a bit differently, attaching all four clear stickers, so our results weren’t perhaps perfect.

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But the painting method was neat! Travis liked using the paint stampers, which are dipped into provided tiny paint pots. Cover the surface of the wooden tiles, let dry, then peel off the stickers.

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The painted puzzle can now be taken apart and put back together again. But even cooler is viewing it through…

…Mirror Goggles, the final project. To make these (which look almost like Google’s VR viewer), open up the provided cardboard goggle box.

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Travis got to exercise his fine motor skills to attach the sides with a brad; add padding foam around nose and forehead for comfort; and place a sticky donut and bead on top. This bead is going to help you keep your head up later, read on!

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Thread an elastic through the holes on either side and secure with cord stoppers, then attach a mirror to the underside of the goggles with sticky foam. Your goggles are ready for viewing!

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Wearing them took a bit of practice, with the goal of piecing together your Painted Puzzle or a provided wooden puzzle. I had Travis watch me first, as you really need to keep your head up to have the mirror show you what’s on the work surface below. Don’t tilt your head down for peeking or the bead will fall from the donut!

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Once he got it the hang of it, Travis thought it was so cool. I loved watching his hands move, forward when they needed to go backwards and vice versa, until he started to understand he was seeing in reverse; it was like observing the gray matter of his brain at work.

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If it won’t frustrate your kids, have them try writing their name or drawing a picture while wearing the goggles. Full disclosure, this is hard. Here’s my attempt to write his name!

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There was lots more fun to be had in Explore magazine. First, we made a map (a bit of an overlap from Secret Agent). When read normally, it led him nowhere. Then he looked at it through the selfie feature on my phone.

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Aha, he spots the treasure…

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Then I showed him an example of backwards writing (again an overlap from Secret Agent).

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There’s also a mirror word search for older kids, and a few cool mirror illusions you can try to recreate at home like multiplying apples…

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…or a disappearing middle!

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We finished with a bedtime read of two suggested books: Light: Shadows, Mirrors, and Rainbows by Natalie Rosinsky and Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reverso Poems by Marilyn Singer. The latter features fantastic poems that can be read both backwards and forwards.