This is a Thanksgiving spin on the old marshmallow-toothpick engineering project. Instead of using marshmallows, however, we poke the toothpicks into cranberries. All you really have to do as a parent is put a bunch of cranberries (the ripe kind, not the craisin type) and toothpicks on the table. If they still need prompting, ask them to see what they can build. Trust me, they will take it from there.
I thought it would be cool to create the ships Columbus sailed to America on. In case you have forgotten your history, that would be the Santa Maria, the Nina, and the Pinta. However, my littlest was not all that interested in making a ship. Instead, she went to work creating a pilgrim house. I should point out, it was not historically accurate in any way, but the goal here is for kids to learn structural engineering, not to have things go according to plan). Once she made her base house she decided it needed lots of extras. First, it was a flagpole, then a deck, an extra room for some horses, and on it went. This kept her busy for nearly half an hour!
The nice thing about this type of building is that they can't hurt themselves and it is a minimal mess. When it's time, just bring the trash can over and wipe down the whole table straight into it!
This is a creative engineering project that kids can work on while you bake the perfect pumpkin pie.
If your kids are a little older and they want a specific challenge then I suggest boat making. Kids can build a base structure out of cranberries and toothpicks to use to wrap foil around, using tape to make it waterproof. You can add to this boat challenge in a ton of ways, for example, you could ask kids to secure a sail to the ship and have races, or test how much treasure a ship could hold before sinking.
Structural engineers are paramount to our society and our safety. They are a key component in construction since we don't want the buildings we build to fall down at the first gust of wind, or melt in the first rainstorm. This requires a lot of planning, physics, and math. We can expose kids to these concepts in hands-on methods by allowing them to create buildings, ships, or other things, out of toothpicks and cranberries (or marshmallows).
What will kids learn by working on structural engineering?
Kids will get a lot of life lessons from this project. For example, they will learn the need to build to a scale, and within constraints. If they build a ship out of toothpicks and cranberries it isn't really going to be a ship. Not one you can sit in. And similarly, their ship will not have exquisite rounding corners, since you are limited to straight, toothpick length segments.
Kids will likely also learn loading constraints and bracing naturally. As their too tall towers begin to twist and fall they may decide on making shorter towers. This is them realizing the loading constraints of toothpicks and marshmallows (or cranberries). Similarly, they might realize the tower is getting too heavy for itself, but desire to push upwards. In this case, they will likely naturally gravitate towards bracing their structures! They won't know it, but they are actively discovering methods to spread the forces out in a stabilized fashion!
If you really want to milk the project for all it is worth, you should implement the engineering design process. This process starts with asking what needs to be created. This is an important step since you wouldn't want to create a ship if the challenge is really to build the tallest structure possible. In engineering, we need to know the goals and plan towards them. After kids have a handle on the challenge, they should begin by imagining a solution, building their idea, and then testing it. Once testing is done they go back to the imagine step and rethink how they could do better.
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