When the nights are getting longer and winter is closing in, what can you do to charm the pants off a couple dozen kindergartners while grandma is in town? Invite the veteran elementary-school teacher in to talk about the coming of the solstice, of course! This is a great activity to do with young children to explore just why it's been getting dark out long before bedtime.
Here's what we did: sat in a circle and talked about energy, and the seasons, and the sun, and the days getting shorter. I was pretty fascinated by how much these 5 and 6 year olds already know about the world around them. We brought in two balls -- a giant one for the sun and a small one for the earth. A couple volunteers acted out day and night (the earth spun around and we talked about how warmth and light come from the sun) and then the seasons (the child spun around while walking around the sun and then I picked up the smaller ball to show the earth's revolution on its axis. OK, I actually picked up the child and tossed her around, but you get the idea).
Everyone listened raptly while Jewel read Elisa Kleven's Sun Bread. The aide in the room said reverently, "You can tell she's a teacher just by the way she sits." It was so meaningful for me to get to see my mom in action. I loved how she asked the children questions all throughout the story, how she stopped and pointed at the pictures, and how focused the children were while she was reading.
Then we sang, "The earth goes round the sun!" to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell." (We skipped the moon bit so as to stay on kindergarten message). The kids shook up a couple mason jars of heavy cream until they turned into butter, with lots of help from their kind and generous teacher and teacher's aide. While this shaking (20 minutes or so) was going on, each child made a snake and then a snail which turned into a sun's ray (at their wax-paper covered desks). Oh, and they all washed their hands! We talked about photosynthesis (leaves using sun to make plant energy) and how the cows eat grass and turn that energy into butter. So the butter (and bread) we were making would give us energy from the sun!
Finally, we talked about the winter solstice (coming up for us on Dec. 21, 2008).
My mom and I headed home to bake the bread while the kids had lunch and recess. Then my mom scurried back with the freshly-baked loaves (one of the benefits of living close by the school) and the children gobbled it all up.
Recipe for Sun Bread (adapted from Elisa Kleven's fantastic, eponymous book)
1. Mix well: 3 eggs + 3 tablespoons honey
2. Combine: 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour + 1 stick butter, melted
3. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and beat well.
4. In a small bowl combine 4 1/2 teaspoons yeast + 3 tablespoons lukewarm milk
Let stand until mixture is foamy, at least 5 minutes.
5. Add the yeast mixture to the batter and stir. Knead dough on greased, floured surface for 8-10 minutes.
6. Place dough in greased bowl, cover with a cloth, and let rise in a warm place for about an hour (until about doubled in size).
7. Punch down dough, knead for a few minutes. then separate into two portions.
8. To form the sun's face, shape one portion of dough into a round, somewhat flattened ball, then place on a large greased baking sheet. We made the face by making balls/snakes of dough for eyes, nose, and mouth.
9. To make the corona for your sun, roll the remainder of the dough into snakes. Then curl the snakes into puffy snail shapes. Firmly attach the snails around the edge of your sun face.
10. Cover the sun and let it rise again in a warm place for about an hour.
11. Preheat oven to 400F. Bake for about 20 minutes. Test for doneness with a toothpick in the center of the bread (should come out clean).
12. Enjoy with butter!
Got any family or classroom activities you like to do to celebrate the solstice? I'd love to hear them.