Saturday, 22 June 2013

Insect related educational toys and unit study ideas


This is really just a simple net structure with a coupon to order live caterpillars - which will cost an extra £2.95, but it is fun and it allows children to witness metamorphosis first hand. We currently have 4 cocoons. We used a live plant inside this as well as the supplied foods and the caterpillars really seemed to enjoy it.


My son is fascinated with tunnels for some reason. At one point he asked for a hamster. I asked him if he really wanted a hamster - and all the work that entails or he just liked the cages with connecting tunnels. Turns out it was the tunnels. So when I saw this, I knew he would like it - and ants should be a lot more low maintenance than a hamster. The worker ant only lives about 5 months, so unless by some chance a female worker breeds ( very are and since I don't think we have a male even less likely), or we find a pupa which hatches into a queen, or perhaps buy one, the colony will die out in the fall. This might be just as well as I don't know if the cold above ground would kill them even though they are indoors.


2 red tinted pods
2 clear pods
a length of red tubing which is meant to be cut into 4 bits
6 legs - or support pieces
1 clear canister, very much like the old film containers which is called an ant catcher
1 red food canister
cotton wool
12 O rings
2 plugs
tweezers ( although I'm not sure why, you'd crush and ant if you picked it up with these)
A pippette for dripping water through the ventilation holes, or directly into the pod for planted pods.


Ants - you can catch your own or order online either from Interplay, the company that makes this set, or another source like. Interplay charges £5.95 including postage for 45- 50 ants. This group will not include a queen, nor does it appear to contain larvae or pupa. Interplay only sells the harmless, common black ant. Alternatively you can choose from a wide range of packages from the Queen Ant Shop, many of which contain queens, eggs etc with prices starting at £4.99 and free shipping. This business not only does the common ant, they have a few imported varieties, the native but more unusual yellow ant, and if you are not quite right in the head a few varieties of red stinging ants. I can't quite imagine putting these deliberately in my house, and the business makes very clear they are not suitable for children. I did to write to the fellow, who is very knowledgeable and happy to offer advice. I don't think he would even sell you the red ants if he knew they were for children, advising the common black as the most active, or the yellow if you want something a bit different.


The basic model is pretty quick and easy to build. I would estimate less than ten minutes, with the child doing most of the construction. Because we had bought 3 sets, construction was more complicated. My son had envisioned recreating an 8 pod set which was pictured on the back of our first set. However even with 3 sets, we did not have enough legs. If we had been able to build this - it would have taken a very large area to set up as well as each base is nearly 12" across. We ended up building a smaller set with two bases and 9 pods. This later had to be downsized when I accidentally snapped a leg, leaving us with 8 pods.

We built this without paying much attention to the instructions. The bottom half of each pod is meant to be all open , while the top part is divided into 3. Our way didn't work and meant switching everything around - after we put the ants in. You need to do it the right way because the ventilation and water holes on the top. Word to the wise : read the instructions.

The instructions are well written and contain a lot of additional information about the life cycle of ants and general ant care. There are even a couple of recipes if you want to start cooking for you ants. There is also a picture of a real ant colony, showing how this is modelled after their natural habitat.


Both of my boys love this. they love the tubes and the general set up. Having extra pieces makes this even more fun, but a single four pod set is would have been adequate. having extra pods means we can try different things though. We have two pods with creeping plants growing in them,  Creeping Julie I believe and cress. The other pods have mixtures of material. Foolishly I put cotton wool in one ( it was meant to soak in liquid for drinking) but the ants love it. Others have soil, sand, grass cuttings and a fiber substrate intended for reptiles and invertebrates. The ants seem to prefer the dryer soil and sand. The ones with plants are kept wetter.

This set is well sealed and you are unlikely to have escapes - unless some idiot leaves a tube disconnected or a plug off. This has happened once when we were rearranging the pods. The idiot shall remain nameless, to protect the guilty. Thankfully, it was when this was first set up and we don't seem to have lost many - if any - and the children didn't mind too much. It meant my oldest had to collect more ants, but he really enjoyed his father getting upset about it, so I'm sure it was worth it. Especially as it has future wind up value. I'm currently looking for plastic ants to decorate his food with or put on his face when he is sleeping. Needless to say this would be more of an issue if we were to have ordered one of those really nasty stinging varieties. You do have to be very careful that the pod seals perfectly when assembled though. This should be no problem with sand or soil, but if you have plants, a small stem sticking out can create a gap - which might result in escapes.


So far our problems have been minor. I did snap one leg, but that was my fault. The overall construction is very good. We did have some problems with the food conatainers and ants becoming stuck in these. I phoned the company and they are sending out a new food container, so I would advise you to observe the food jars closely and if ants get stuck, dump them back into the pods and phone Interplay. I considered rating down on this, but customer service was so brilliant, I decided to keep the 5 star rating. You are advised to place all food in the feeding container so you can throw out anything that is not used. Apparently the ants will keep their own area tidy, if need be using an extra pod as a rubbish dump. I certainly hope so as I can't imagine any way of cleaning this once it is set up. The other issue is ants do not live forever. I am looking into buying a queen, but I don't know if one can be added or the temperature requirements. Worst case scenario, the ants will die off ant this will need to be put away in winter, but one can always collect new ants in the spring, and I do feel that children can understand that an ant is not meant to live for years. Also an ant farm is basically a group of anonymous creatures, it isn't like the children will form a special bond with one.


This can also be connected to Interplay's Ant World, a more traditionally shaped ant farm, and you can interconnect as many Antosphere pods as you like. this can also connect to Interplay's worm farm or Eco Dome. Interplay also has some really brilliant looking sets like Antlantis, Fantasy Island, and the Mayan Ant Invasion, which I would love to have, but they do not seem to be available in the UK. I did find one ebay seller willing to ship here, but at a price of nearly £70 it was well out my range.


I think this is an excellent toy. Even at full price, I feel it does represent value for money. It is educational and fun, and has encouraged my sons to want to learn a great deal more about ants. It really is a nice looking set up, and I love that we can create different types of environments in each pod, giving the ants a more realistic environment, as the clear balls with plants would more closely resemble what they are used to above ground, while the red pods create a more natural underground habitat for them. I feel that it much more fun watching them scamper about the different the levels than a single rectangle like most ant farms use. Of course the rectangular ant farm might be a fun add on at some point. I also think it is more educational as the children can experiment with different types of environments and see which the ants prefer. If we are able to add aphids to a planted pod this will add a whole new dimension to the set up. The children can also experiment to find out which foods the ants like best, what times of day they are most active in, etc...

Obviously this toy is not suited for every child. A wee neighbour girl approached my son to see what he had in the collection jar and ran away screaming. This obviously would not be a good gift for a child phobic of insects. The manufacturer advises that this set not be used by a child with a known allergy to insect stings or bites, or by a child under 36 months, which I feel is rather obvious. But if your child likes creepy crawlies this really is a very interesting toy. It is set up in a large window sill between my computer and the children's and I have to admit, I often find myself observing the ants as well.
Full review @ dooyoo


The Bug Barn:
This is 8" long and 4 1/2 " high if you do not count the handle. It is made of plastic with a fine steel mesh screen material which ensures plenty of ventilation, but is not quite as good for viewing as plastic. There is a sturdy handle and two screen doors which slide open easily and close securely. The very fine screen mesh should prevent any unwanted escapes - but perhaps not all wanted escapes - more under our experiences. This is my four year olds favourite part of the set as it allows him to bring to creepy crawlies

Magnifying Glass:
This surprisingly good, we have had many magnifying glasses in science kits and I really did not expect much based on previous experience. This has a very sturdy handle a quite good magnification + there is a small circle with higher magnification. The total length is 9 1/4" with the glass itself being 4 " across. I would expect to pay £5 - £6 for this on it's own, so I was well pleased to have this included. It is plastic, and I find the glass magnifying glasses to be the best, but one hardly expects glass in a toy for small children to run about with.

The Catch Net:
You won't be catching butterflies easily with this one. The net portion is only 5"x 4" but it is reasonably sturdy and is fun for trying to catch flying insects. or perhaps some pond or tide pool dipping. The small size of this net is perfect for transferring creatures to the bug barn if you wish though as it fits over the door perfectly. Despite being small this is my oldest son's favourite part of the set.

Not really much use in my opinion. I think it would be all too easy to accidentally injure a bug trying to lift it with these. You can however grasp an unfortunate fly with these to lower into the waiting trap of a Venus flytrap.

These are window stickers that peel on and off easily and very nice, but sadly depict American insects

We call this the bug jar. This is 2 1/2" high and 2 1/4" wide. The lens has a built in magnifying glass but this is not exceptionally strong. The lid is also vented, but this is definitely a catch and release jar, or something to catch an insect and transfer it to the bug barn. You would not want to keep any bug in this for long.

These are very basic but then it is self explanatory anyway. Unlike most of these sets, this does not include a booklet of common insects to find, but as these always seem to be for American insects, I'm not bothered by this. I have bought a number of British bug identification books so while a sheet with common creepy crawlies would be nice, we don't really need one. It has a warning that you should not stare at the sun through the magnifying glass, but I would think that is obvious.

Our experiences:
My sons absolutely love this. They have had hours of fun searching for insects, which they bring in and identify, looking up facts about them in the books and occasionally keeping them for awhile to observe. they are learning to classify insects, take field notes and record experiences all of which I feel is useful for educational purposes, but more than that, they are really enjoying themselves outdoors in the fresh and air and sunshine. I also just find something nice about seeing my children enjoy the kinds of activities I enjoyed as a child. I like to see them play with things with out whistles and bells, computer chips and screens. I think every child should have fond memories of bug hunting expeditions.

This toy is listed for ages 6+ but my youngest is 4 and absolutely loves this. Of course a bit of supervision would be wise, and children need to be taught to avoid bees and wasps, but there really aren't many dangerous insects in the UK.

It is possible to burn things with the magnifying glass, and my boys were burning holes in paper earlier. I think it would be quite difficult to actually start a real fire this way, but a bit of supervision is never a bad thing. As long as an adult is keeping an eye out, I can't see any harm being done.

Necessary kit for an insect hunting safari.
This review also appears on dooyoo


Unit study ideas:

 I would also suggest outdoor activities in the springtime - go on a bug safari - record and graph the number of each type of insect found. Use an insect identification book to identify species and chart family, order etc...

For a maths exercise one might look up measurements of many different specials and compare sizes.

Draw out food chains showing how many animals depend on insects.

A dragon book so good it deserves a post of its own.

Please note this review contains spoilers. The whole point or shall I say "hole " point of buying this book is the ending. My meaning will be come clear at the end of this review.

My youngest son loves dragons, so when amazon recommended this for me I couldn't resist. It begins with a very cute little green dragon, playing sword fight, having a snack, brushing his teeth and taking a bath. He then looks up at his mother with a book in his hands and an enchanting look that just must be saying "Please read me this". His mother happily cuddles up to read the story of a fierce red dragon, who never goes to bed, terrorises trolls and eats princesses for dinner.

When the story is finished, with the sweetest of expressions the little dragon softly asks again to read again. Looking a bit tired, his mother obliges, but she changes the story a bit, making it a bit more gentle, and perhaps more conducive of sleep. The little dragon is still very happy, dancing about, but when his mother goes to leave he grabs her tail shouting "Again!". This goes on for several more pages, with the mother dragon looking more and more exhausted and the little dragon wider and wider awake. The mother tries to make the stories more suitable for calming down and going to sleep, but little dragon doesn't like this. He gets angrier and angrier until he turns a bright angry red himself, finally releasing a fireball which puts a hole right through his book, and your book as well. It's a good thing it is nearly the end of the story as the last page and the back cover now a big blackened hole in the middle.

This book is two stories in a way. We do get to hear the complete story of the angry red dragon each time as the mother reads it to the little dragon, while at the same time, there is another story of the little dragon and his mother. The second story is told primarily in pictures and the illustrations tell it perfectly. Other than the first line "It was nearly bedtime." the only word is "again". even a child who can not really read can quickly learn these lines and takes turns voicing little dragon's lines while the parent reads the story like the mother dragon would. As the story progresses Mother looks more and more worn out ( I'm sure we all know the feeling) while little dragon's face changes from angelic to petulant to nearly demonic with rage.

My son still giggles with delight every time we read this. He especially loves when the poor Mother dragon falls asleep and the little dragon jumps up and down on her screaming "again" which he often acts out by jumping on my bed. He also loves the hole in the back of the book and enjoys peeking through it or poking his fingers through. he likes pointing out how the little dragon is getting very angry as his facial expressions change, and little spots of red appear.

As a parent I can certainly relate to poor Mrs Dragon as well. At least my boys are nice enough to tiptoe off to bed, or the youngest may just go to sleep beside me when I have fallen asleep halfway through a story. the look of exasperation on the mother dragon is sure to bring a smile to most parents.

I have hundreds if not thousands of books. I have no intention of counting, but as a single shelf can easily hold 100 picture books, and I have book case after book case filled with books I don't think my estimate is too high. In fact a rumour was flying about that the school board counted the books in your house on home visits. My husband simply said "They may bring plenty of helpers then because they are not staying overnight". I doubt you could count them in one day. Needless to say they have never bothered. With so many books, it takes a lot for book to really stand out as exceptional, but this is one of the very best picture books I own. If you have a child between 9 - months and 7 years - all I can say is "buy it". Even my eight year old was laughing with this one, as was I. This is another book that will never find it's way into the charity shop. When my sons outgrow it, I am keeping it for myself until such time as they have children of their own.

This sells for £7.58 for hardback copy new and delivered from Amazon, or £5.28 from Amazon Marketplace. You can get a paperback for less, but in this case I would recommend paying the extra for a hardback copy as the hole effect is much better. I also feel that this is one of those books that may be read until it is falling apart in a paperback format. I did get my copy for much less as I bought used as new. I love this book so much though that if it were out print and something happened to my copy I could easily see paying £20 or more. As far as I am concerned it is priceless.

* This review has also appeared on dooyoo