Toddlers with Lasers

My only real New Year’s resolution this year: restart the blog and post by the end of January. Well, it’s Groundhog’s Day. Better late than never?

I am back at work these days doing some engineering work for a local company, which is one of the reasons that I have let the blog slide, though I’ve missed this. A little while ago, my daughter wanted to pretend that one of her Little People was me and was driving around in a car, stopping to get gas and going to work. This is apparently what I do. She wanted to pretend that the Little Person was at my work so I decided to show her what I do at work.

Okay, most of what I do at work involves staring at a computer and would be pretty boring for a two year old. But, I do have some educational optics kits that are used to teach students about light so I went out to the garage and brought it in.

The result was amazing. Almost 30 minutes (an eternity to a two year old) of exploration.


The kit consists of a laser source that shoots out 5 laser beams. These represent ‘rays’ of light. The idea is for students to then take some of the pieces of clear plastic that are molded into different shapes and see how the light travels through them. There are positive and negative lenses that bend light toward and away from their centers and blocks of glass for investigating.

Here is an example of a positive lens that my daughter put in the path of the light.

The main concept here is that when light hits something like glass or plastic, some it reflects off and some of it bends and travels through. How much reflects and how much travels through, as well as how much it bends, depends on the material. Mirrors reflect almost all the light, but glass only reflects a little and the rest travels through (making it a good window material!).

Here is a basic artistic view of what happens when the light hits a piece of glass:

If light inside the glass hits the surface with the air at a large enough angle, all the light will be reflected and none of it will be transmitted back into the air. This is called total internal reflection and can be used to make mirrors or trap light in things like fiber optics (that’s what brings my internet to my new house but more on that later).


At one point, my daughter put a prism in the light at just the right angle so that a little traveled through (and bent a lot) and a lot of the light was reflected. She put the prism down and then said, “Whoa mommy!” Whoa, indeed. Total internal reflection is cool.


Optics is cool, but I thought the best part of this experience was her exploration. Unlike my college students, she did not know what she was ‘supposed to do’ and did not care anyway. She tried putting all her toys in the laser beam – most of which did nothing at all but that did not phase her. She would just try something else – plastic Little People (every single one of them), Legos, teddy bears, books, and once she tried a little piece of foam packing material that turned about to be the coolest thing. The light bounced around the little piece of foam and it glowed bright red. She was so happy!

Her wonder gives me so much joy.

If you’re interested in the kit itself, I bought it at Arbor Scientific. You can find them there for $99. It is pretty basic but is a lot cheaper and in many ways just as good as the more expensive educational kits.


Experiential Learning, aka Vacation

My husband and daughter and I went on vacation a couple of weeks ago. It was the first time that our daughter flew with a layover and the first time we traveled where we weren’t just staying with her grandparents. There were a lot of new experiences for her (and us!) on this trip.

My daughter was clearly thrown out of her comfortable schedule and we were worried about how hard this trip was going to be for her. She definitely had a hard time adjusting to sleeping in several new places and was thoroughly annoyed with all the car travel by the time we got home. Otherwise, I was very impressed at how well she adjusted to all the chaos of the trip.

To give you an idea of some of the challenges and new things she experienced:

  • At least 4 hours of airport delays in both directions
  • Travel to four new states and one new country
  • A cat, a puppy and 5 little pigs (actually the pigs weren’t that little)
  • New food
  • Cousins! (They were almost as exciting as the cat and puppy and pigs.)
  • Walks through a major city, a bird sanctuary, a cheese factory and along a river
  • Sleeping in strollers, cars, and a travel crib in two different new houses
  • Eating in new places practically every meal
  • Playing a piano
  • Sitting in the grass and eating beans straight from the stalk
  • 6 airports and 6 different types of airplanes

I was tired on the trip due to less sleep than usual and all the travel and general chaos and I think I was probably paying less attention to my daughter than usual. I was just trying to get through the days and make sure we were getting her food and sleep regularly even though the schedule was different every day.

When we got home, we had a relaxing day with nothing planned (except lots of napping!). With all the chaos gone and my attention firmly on my little girl and her activities, I was amazed to realize that she had learned to wave hello and goodbye, and clap whenever we said ‘Good job.’ She also managed to climb the stairs on her own and stand up for the first time with nothing to pull up on. When did she learn all of that?!

People talk about how important repetition is for children to learn new things and I do believe that that is true and helpful for them. However, I am also realizing that taking them out of their comfortable routine and letting them experience so many new things can also make a huge difference in their learning.

We learn so much from our new experiences. I still cannot believe how much spending 6 months in a foreign country changed my view of the world and my own life. My daughter had very little experience with animals. She does not play with other children all that regularly and her cousins were excited to show her new things and share their experiences. Being in new houses forced to her learn how to get around on new surfaces and gave her new cupboards and furniture to explore. Her world must have gotten so much bigger from just this little trip.

I am going back to teaching part time this fall and this is a good reminder to me how important it is for me to challenge my students with new experiences and get them outside of their comfort zones from time to time. It is important to give them structure to help them learn, but then also to change up that structure with interesting hands-on demonstrations and problem solving. The most learning seems to come from situations where we have the opportunity to apply what we know to new situations and see the world around us with new eyes.

For an infant, whose world is still so small, it is relatively easy to introduce her to new experiences and she has so much to learn that it does not even really matter what these new experiences are – perhaps they will help her learn to communicate better, or move around more efficiently (even on bumpy or slippery floors), and learn more about the outdoors, or develop problem solving skills (like trying to open the container of raisins).

I am excited to be thinking about how to apply these ideas to the narrow range of information that my students need to learn in my class. It will be fun to think of new ways to help them apply that base theoretical knowledge from the book to a range of problems and situations. What types of experiential learning can I use in the classroom? Field trips to the local hospital to see how a variety of medical equipment works (and how much cool physics is involved!) would be fun, but perhaps not practical. But I bet I can set up some exploratory hands on activities to see how electrical circuits and magnets work and how light travels and can be used to do fun things like measuring the width of your hair.

Or maybe we should just skip the semester’s work altogether and go on vacation. That seemed to work for my daughter!

Photograph note: The pictures of the pig above was taken by my husband on our trip in Maine. Thanks to him for letting me use it!