Let’s Make Some Stuff Fly!

By | April 20, 2011

Being outside you always find different ways to engage with the natural world. This week the wind is just blowing, and it got us talking about the wind and birds and airplanes. Grace loves to point out long contrails when we are on road trips, and she can spend hours making and tossing airplanes around the house with her grand-dad.

There are a ton of ways to have fun outside trying to “ride the wind,” so to speak, and most are pretty cheap. Even the price of a little R/C helicopter has come down! But we’re looking at hand powered toys today. Here are a couple of ways we like to explore the wind.

Kites
Kite-flying is really all it promises to be. You can spend hundreds (even thousands?) on professional kites and string rigs, but as Mr. Banks rightly sings at the end of Mary Poppins, “With tuppence for paper and strings, you can have your own set of wings.” In fact, when it comes to kites, I always say cheaper is better.

In college, a former tenant of a house we lived in left a really nice nylon kite. It was missing supports and was really too big for a regular spool of string. For a few bucks at a kite shop I was all set for a day a of fun. Once in flight, however, this kite was like trying to land a marlin! I had over 200 feet of line out, and it took me an hour to wind it back in. And quite frankly, it was boring.

Kids bring back the fun. They don’t mind standing out there watching the kite just float. They’re ecstatic just to hold the string, and if it crashes eventually all the better. So with kids I think the best kite is one that costs less than a Happy Meal. (I am exaggerating, but you get the idea.)

Balsa Wood Airplanes
Powered by winding up a long rubber band, the old balsa-wood airplanes from your youth are still available. They’re a bit pricier now a-days, but not prohibitively so. You can find them online, but shipping just makes the expense ridiculous. Instead we find ours at Hobby Lobby or Michaels for less than $3 (usually much less).

We have a nice high deck off the back of the house. It’s about six feet above grade, which is just enough altitude to add some lift when tossing a plane, but not so much that you need an escalator to make the endless runs up and down retrieving spent aircraft.

My kids are still young yet to really exploit the learning moment. We spend most the time chasing airplanes and screaming with giggly delight every time they crash. But with a few simple tweaksŚmoving wings forward or back, angling the tail fins, etc.Śwe can get the plane to start acting in unusual but predictable ways. That’s where they start picking up on the nature of aerodynamics.

Paper Airplanes
Paper airplanes can be just as fun as their balsa-wood peers and don’t require endless winding of rubber-band propellers. On the down side, they don’t stay aloft as long either (though with a balsa-wood plane I’ve never even gotten close to the paper-airplane world-record flight of 27.6 seconds. On the up side, you get to make (and decorate) them all by yourself.

There are a ton of sites out there with paper airplane designs. Some designs are really overly complex, and if your kids are really young, you’ll be doing all the folding work yourself. While not the prettiest page on the Web, I have found this paper-airplane site to have a lot of great designs. You can even find videos on here in addition to the illustrated instructions.

For our kids, a favorite part of flying is the crash, so any design that promises a gentle glide then sudden nose-dive is an instant hit. The other favorite part is trying to fill every inch of the paper with some crayon decoration. This adds to the weight and messes with the dynamics of flight, so I usually just make regular old planes, nothing fancy.

Parachute Guys
Any decent toy shop will have parachute guys for a song. Easy as anything, you simply remove the rubber band holding the plastic chute and toss. These work best if you have someplace high you can climb to. Really good if there’s a three-story playground fort nearby. We used to toss them from the third-floor gallery of our town courthouse (but part of that fun was seeing how long you could watch them before the security guard looked up and came after you).

Maple Tree Helicopters
Nature also gives us plenty to play with. For watching thing fly you could do worse than sticking with maple seeds. In the summer these seeds whirl and wind from the tree in our back yard. When they are still bright green, we collect them by the handfuls and toss them from the deck. You can keep doing this all summer as they dry out and yellow, until the blades start to wear too thin. This year we are planning on collecting a bucketful and using markers (the kind that clean up with water) to color the blades. It might be fun to watch a hundred of these twirl away, like it’s raining Skittles.

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