Benefits of Using LEGO Mindstorms in Your Homeschool

Blog, She Wrote: Benefits of Using LEGO Mindstorms in Your Homeschool

Welcome to blog sponsor Explorental!

Have you ever considered a LEGO Mindstorms kit for your kids? Maybe you’ve seen them, but are unsure whether the investment is a good one for your family. For less than the cost of a popular game console system, you can have a tool for teaching endless concepts and a source of engineering challenge for your kids.

Reasons to Use LEGO Mindstorms in Your Homeschool

Working with the Mindstorms kit requires a lot of different skills from students even when you are just starting out. Take a look at some of the subject areas accessed by work with the Mindstorms.

  • Math- Although not always a student favorite, math is applied to the robot building when it comes to programming it. Geometry, particularly circle geometry is necessary to accurately get the robot to rotate the wheels the requested distance.
  • Robotics- Who doesn’t want to build a robot and take over the world? Or at least the LEGO world!
  • Mechanics- Part of the robot building has to do with putting the robot together with the technic pieces. How those fit together and work efficiently is a big part of the task.
  • Physics- Along with efficiency, you need a stable structure. We spend a lot of time learning about which designs are the most stable.
  • Fun- There is no shortage of fun when it comes to exploring with a LEGO Mindstorms kit.

Blog, She Wrote: Benefits of Using LEGO Mindstorms in Your Homeschool

Using Technology in Your Homeschool

Our kids use a lot of technology in our home- whether it’s a Kindle eReader, tablet or computers for programming and playing. One thing we really try to keep in check is how much our children are producers vs consumers when using technology. In other words, are they watching a lot and engaging in passive participation or are they being makers and creators?

LEGO Mindstorms uses software that is drag and drop so you only need to know some basics about how to get the robot to follow your commands. It takes time to master, but it’s worth the end result. I don’t mind my kids toiling for a few hours at a computer if they are actively problem solving. 

Enjoy a look at Ethan (and our basement!), our 15yo 10th grader, explaining one task he and his fellow FIRST LEGO League team members completed for their FLL regional competition in December. Our teams spend 7 hours a week pouring into this particular piece of technology and it earned them Grand Champion at their qualifying tournament.

Teaching with Technology G+ Hangout

Last week the iHN hosted an informative G+ Hangout on Teaching with Technology. I was excited to be one of the participants. Click and view at your leisure to hear how others are using technology in their homes.

Using Explorental to Experience LEGO Mindstorms

LEGO Mindstorms is a wonderful resource for homeschools, but it may not be the right time financially to invest in your own. How do you get a chance to work with the kit without making that big financial investment?

Take advantage of Explorental’s wonderful inventory of technology gadgets and other kits. They offer a LEGO Mindstorms rental for $43.99 for two weeks.

Blog, She Wrote: Explorental

FIRST LEGO League: Science, Technology, & Teamwork

Blog, She Wrote: FIRST LEGO League- Science, Technology, & Teamwork

I don’t blog enough about our FIRST LEGO League teams, but I’ll be catching you all up to date this season. This is the fifth season for our sponsored teams. Our homeschool group started with one team which grew into two teams coached by Dan and another homeschool dad engineer. We have lots of parent help and the teams practice together and so far have done well in competition together as sister teams. This is both teams’ third chance at going to the next round of competition. This year LEGO Da Vinci won First Place Grand Champion while the Disaster Masters won the Project Award.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL) begins with the FIRST Mission

FIRST was started in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, to inspire kids to become scientists and engineers. FLL is all about the science and research with the LEGOs being the hook in a high energy atmosphere.

Our mission is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.

Mr. Kamen had a vision:

“To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”  Dean Kamen, Founder

FLL Has Three Components

  • Research project- based on a theme. They must research the theme, choose a topic to become experts on and come up with an innovative solution to a problem they discovered a long the way. They get judged on their solution, how they contacted and worked with experts in the field, and in their presentation of their findings.
  • Robot- including programming, design, and performance. Teams must design and program a robot to perform missions in the robot game. It also includes their presentation to the judges about their robot.
  • Core Values- this is all about teamwork and gracious professionalism. Are teammates working together and treating others they encounter well? At the competition they have a team challenge to complete which tests them in their ability to work together well.

FLL Requires Commitment

The teams practice seven hours a week- one hour at co-op during the semester when Dan teaches the class and two other three hour practices during the week. The guys on LEGO Da Vinci are coming to our house, where we have the table set up, to work on missions this week for some bonus time.

Enjoy a look at just one of the missions. They have just 2.5 minutes to complete as many as they can. Next time I’ll share about their research project. The theme this year is Nature’s Fury and their research has been on blizzards.

Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday List is all about toys that last. Of the benchmarks of a lasting toy such as manufactured quality, perhaps the most important is playability. Does the toy have lasting play power?

I’ve picked ten categories of opened ended play items to share with you today which include choices for preschoolers, tweens, and teens. Let’s have a look!

Blog She Wrote: Top Ten Open Ended Toys


These include blocks of all shapes and sizes. My kids still play with these items. Even the almost 13 yo and my 14yo will play with blocks if you just bring out the right theme.

Our favorites are:

  • Kapla blocks- which are basic plank blocks. I think the US equivalent is Keva blocks.
  • Wedgits- who doesn’t love those geometric shapes for building?
  • Lincoln Logs- building blocks of a different shape provide lots of pretend frontier play
  • large maple blocks- a smooth finish on a beautiful block, a staple of the preschool world. We like adding architectural blocks to our stash
  • milk carton blocks- made from cardboard half gallon containers two to a block. You alternate the seam as you insert one inside the other to make it strong (you cut the spout end off)

Notes on purchasing blocks: easy places to buy at great prices are Constructive Playthings & Discount School Supply. If you have more than two kids, consider buying large quantities so there’s plenty of building materials for lots of creativity!

Blog She Wrote: Top Ten Open Ended Toys

Wooden Train:

My children have had countless hours playing with the wooden trains both Brio and Thomas sets and accessories. They will still set up a big train with all kinds of block buildings around it. They make a zoo or other fanciful worlds, but it is always fantastic and engaging for long sessions. We added a lot at once with a large set from Constructive Playthings and we used great coupons for local stores for the Thomas accessories.

Notes on Trains: Resist the urge to purchase the beloved train table! I had one made more cheaply than the store versions, but the table puts a pinch on the open ended value of building the train. You have to have uncanny spacial skills to get a track made that will fit in the confined space. It only took one visit to a friend who had their train sprawled out for miles on their floor to completely end the fascination (and subsequent frustration) of the train table.

Blog She Wrote: Top Ten Open Ended Toys

Marble Runs:

A marble run is such a great activity for younger and older kids and we’ve done a lot of physics with our sets.

Blog She Wrote: Top Ten Open Ended Toys

Dress Up:

What house full of preschoolers doesn’t love dress up? As your kids grow, they will still find reasons to get into costume. We often have great Halloween costumes from our dress up kits and my kids like to put on dramas and have fun being someone different for a while.

Centers- I like to store our dress up themes with their props. This makes it fun to pull a box and play out that scenario.

Example centers for creative play:

  • restaurant- apron, chef hat, oven mitts along with order pads and menus (from take out or they can make their own
  • grocery store- empty food boxes, cash register, sale signs, grocery lists, shopping cart (not exactly stored with the center_
  • Hairdresser- styling coat with hair doodads and scissors, hair dryers, barber shop set, etc
  • Adventure- hats, satchels, compasses, binoculars, maps, etc
  • Pioneer- guns, aprons, bonnets and some adventure items noted above
  • Knights- knight dress up, foam weapons

That’s not the end of the list, but you get the idea. I love having all the items together so they are easily stored and found when the mood strikes. We also have a free dress up bin with all sorts of costumes and fun in them.

Blog She Wrote: Top Ten Open Ended Toys

Cash Register:

This item had to make my list. There are so many play time activities that require a till- whether you are selling ice cream or running a zoo, the exchange of money will take place. A nice cash register will be the perfect prop. My favorite is the Learning Resources Deluxe Teaching cash register. The money is a nice size and there’s plenty of it. You can also order refills. It’s an investment, but it has lasted many years and far beat out its predecessor. This one has games in it for when math time begins.

Blog She Wrote: Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play


Buttons are such a great plaything! I order them from Discount School Supply and they are available in one or three pound quantities. Whenever I made an order I add a bag of buttons to the order. You can also find large sizes there for smaller hands.

What do you do with buttons?

  • scoop and pour- this is perfect even for supervised younger kids to scoop up and pour in a large bin in lieu of rice and sand!
  • sorting and counting
  • crafting- loads of things you can do with buttons from stringing to gluing
  • sewing

Blog She Wrote: Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play

Art Supplies:

Taking liberty here with the definition of a toy, but art supplies sure provide hours of open ended activity for kids.

What should you have on hand for creative time?

  • drawing paper- I like white sulphite paper from DSS
  • watercolor paints- Prang trays or tube watercolors are so vibrant
  • watercolor pencils- give you the fun of watercolor with the precision of a pencil
  • construction paper- sulphite doesn’t crack and  fade
  • glue
  • double sided tape
  • markers
  • crayons
  • colored pencils
  • butcher paper- sold in 50 lb weight for wet and dry media. This is a must have at my house. Countless games and murals have been made over the years. It’s also saved dinner time to have the giant sheet on the floor and three preschoolers laying there coloring together!

You’ll also need to allow your children ample access to the supplies as their age and ability allow. Teaching expectations at a young age goes a long way to being able to get more out for your kids. Open ended play doesn’t happen when kids don’t have access to the right playthings!

Blog She Wrote: Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play

Science Building Kits:

While some might consider these fairly prescribed given the directions and how things go together, for a kid like J7 who will invent and explore on his own, this is a huge sandbox of fun!

Suggestions to Start:

Some of the Thames & Kosmos sets listed above are compatible with each other so you can build things other than what you see.

Blog She Wrote: Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play


What toy list would be complete without LEGOS? I would argue that some sets are better than others when it comes to promoting open ended play. Themed sets lend themselves toward theme play, but it also depends on the personality of the kid. Some builders love to create on their own, while others prefer to build the sets as is. Some builders only build once and enshrine, while still others wreck the creation and start again. And some builders are meticulous about keeping sets together, while others like to mix things up!

LEGO Mindstorms NXT- The NXT 2.0 is the computer brick that is compatible with Technic pieces to build robots which use a variety of sensors to do work and all sorts of things. One note…LEGO has replaced NXT with the next generation brick called Mindstorms EV3. If you are investing in a set, make sure you get the new generation computer. We’ll be upgrading by next year. This is our last competition year with the NXT.

FIRST LEGO League- We are heavily involved with FLL and we teach LEGO robotic classes at co-op. There is a lot of open ended engineering for kids to complete a season successfully. I’m behind on blogging about our most recent season, but I’ll be sure to share soon.

Mindstorms NXT Manuals- there are many books in this series to help kids in making robots and programming them.

Crazy Action Contraptions- fun machines to build with Technic pieces

There is always something going on with our NXT kits. Right now E14 is working on designing and building an M&M counter for the 4-H Fair. It will sort and count colored candies while people watch. Of course they’ll get to submit a guess so they can win!

J7 got an accelerometer for the NXT for Christmas and he’s anxious to build a robot to use it.

Animation/Movie Making/Computer Programming:

Most of this list is of the screen free variety, but I had to include the open ended play my kids have with a variety of software. 

The video was made using SAM Animation with an idea from a Klutz book. It’s a video of a head of cabbage reciting the Gettysburg Address in its entirety. Listen in and you’ll hear a younger E14. He was about 12 when he put that together.

Links for Open Ended Computer/Video Projects:

Klutz Book of Animation- fun ideas and an introduction to stop motion

SAM Animation- fun software to help kids make stop motion films. We use the free version.

Klutz Tricky Video- ideas for video making

Alice- 3D environment for programming, free

Scratch- building blocks of programming for kids, free put out by MIT

Mindstorms- the software that goes with the LEGO Mindstorms Kits

Remember that open ended play begins with open ended toys/items and open ended schedules!

May you and your family have many hours of creative and engaging playtime!

Other bloggers of iHN are participating in the 10 Weeks of Top 10 Lists 2013. We’ll be linking up every Tuesday and I encourage you to hop over and see some other blogger lists.

JrFLL Expo 2011-2012

Last weekend was our JrFLL Expo on campus. Dan runs the event and hosted 11 teams to share what they had done. Our theme this year was Snack Attack and the kids had the task of building a model and researching their favorite snack. The boys chose sausage (after ham) when they found out their snack had to have more than one ingredient (a difference in the challenge from the older kids which we were very familiar with!). After some negotiations, the boys chose to name their team the LEGO Chefs. On Expo Day you will find team members in team tshirts with logos. We thought it would be fun to outfit them in chef hats and aprons. Enter big sister R11. She was on the job!

She was pretty excited about this pattern that we borrowed from a friend. She’s getting pretty good at finished edges.
Time to sew those pieces together- they will make the opening for size adjustment.

Adding Velcro- R11 is an expert at sewing on velcro.

Look Ma! Finished seams!
Velcro adjustment all set- she finished the seam on the inside as well.

A completed hat- she did run a top stitch along near the top edge of the band.
Now for the apron- a matching pocket of course!

R11 did careful work for her brothers (she made a hat for herself too with flower embellishments) and they were a hit. J6 even ended up in the local newspaper.

The boys had a great day and they did a great job building their model complete with a simple machine and one motorized moving part and sharing it with others. Way to go LEGO Chefs!

FIRST Lego League Results!

On November 12th, our FLL Team(s) competed in a qualifying event. They’ve been working hard all season and even over the summer. I am pleased to announce they won in several categories. The team work win got them the chance to compete in Rochester this weekend. Our sister team (mentored by Dan and another dad) is also going to Rochester. They won the robot game. Other awards LEGO Da Vinci won were the Community Outreach Award for contacting experts and learning from them and the Most Efficient Attachment- which is pictured below. It is a beast of a thing that lowers and grabs the object and takes it back to the base in the corner of the mat. The competition consists of three activities: The robot game, the project, and the team work exercise. Our team displayed Uh-Mazing team work when they worked together to build a car. They had 3 minutes and it was Flaw-Less. They made a decision, divided the task, and got the job done while showing “gracious professionalism”- they complimented one other and spoke positively the entire time. It was a proud moment for parents and coaches alike!

The kids have 2.5 minutes to perform about a dozen “missions” with the robot on the mat which has LEGO models to interact with. The teams program the nxt bricks to perform tasks. Above E13 was working on programming the robot to drive out from base and pick up that truck and take it back to base. Each mission has its own point value in the robot game.
This is a competition round in Corning, NY. The kids go in pairs to do the timed runs while the other team mates cheer them on! It’s a very exciting time for the teams. They get one practice round and three timed runs which determine their final score.

Sunday the kids compete again in Rochester. This is the first year our teams have qualified and they are very excited. The Food Fanatics (the second team) won an award for their thorough research in addition to their robot performance. We are looking forward to the event this weekend. Before we get there we have two more practices this week where the kids will likely practice their timed runs for the robot game. They want to make sure their missions are solid.

For those of you unfamiliar with the FIRST organization (For Inspiration in Research, Science, and Technology) it was founded by Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway) to get kids involved in science and engineering.

“To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”

Dean Kamen, Founder

Our mission is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.