Award-winning star of stage, screen and television, John Lithgow is no stranger to the world of children's books. He's the best-selling author of four so far and his latest, "A Lithgow Palooza: 1001 Ways to Entertain and Inspire Your Kids" is full of fun for the older set. Lithgow discusses the book on “Today.” Read an excerpt here:
THE BIG PALOOZAS
Adopt-a-Soup Can Hold on to your hats, this is a nutty palooza. But trust me, the kids will love it. Andy Warhol exalted sameness in his Campbell's Soup Can series. This palooza brings an individual can of soup to life and gives it a personality all its own.
What's the Palooza? Choose a can of soup to adopt. Roam the soup aisle at the grocery store and read aloud the names of various kinds of soup. Pick a soup that tickles your fancy and bring it home to "live." Invent a name that suits your soup can's personality; think Beany Bacon, Alpha Beth Soup, Tommy Tomato, Charlie Chowder, and so on.
At home with the soup, make a birth certificate for it. Look at your own birth certificate as a sidelight. Include the soup can's name, date, time, and place of birth (date of purchase, and store name), and the name of its legal guardian (your name). Once the soup can is named and has proper documentation, invent the soup can's life story and personality traits. Then dress it accordingly.
To dress the soup can, carefully remove the paper label. Trace the outline of the label onto a piece of paper to make a can-sized "dress" pattern. Design and color the new dress (or pants, bathing suit, tutu, and so on) for the can using the pattern. Thinking of its personality, use the soup can's favorite colors and patterns. Stripes. Solids. Citrussy oranges and pinks. Businessy blues and grays. Don't forget to leave space to draw a face onto the paper. Outfit the can by taping on his new clothes. Add hair by attaching pieces of yarn to the top of the can with tape.
A soup can's accessories say much about his personality. Dress him up for a business meeting by adding a little necktie. Draw an umbrella and handbag for her. Or a baseball cap and glove for him.
What's your soup can like? She's a little bit shy, but loves Audrey Hepburn movies. He's always green with pea-soup envy. Does she socialize with other soups or prefer the company of mixed nuts? The idea is to make the can as interesting a character as possible. And to get her involved in your life! She comes to the table for meals. She helps with homework. She goes to ballet class and soccer practice. She may even go to school for show-and-tell. Be sure to tell how she got that dent below her ingredients list. It's quite a story.
Souper Can is a soup-can superhero. He's got whatever powers you dream up for him. (And he's probably wearing a cape and lots of spandex!) Take photos or draw pictures of Souper Can doing outrageous superhero kinds of things. Use the photos or drawings to make a comic book of Souper Can's adventures. Souper Can lands on the roof of the dollhouse for an amazing rescue of a cat stranded on the second-story windowsill. Souper Can bravely cleans his plate of Mom's asparagus casserole. Souper Can discusses playground safety with the school principal. Souper Can looks under a child's bed with concern. Write funny captions or dialogue to go with the pictures.
Junk Garden By planting in unusual objects, planting an entire garden in an old tire, or decorating a whole garden with quirky found objects, kids get to flex their resourceful and imaginative muscles. They also gain an appreciation for whimsy in the garden and for the earthly delights of a garden itself.
What's the Palooza?
Create a junk garden by incorporating the odd and unusual in the backyard, family garden, or outdoor terrace by using household items — from metal buckets or work boots to red wagons and old chairs — as planters or garden decoration. One person's old frying pan is another's dream ornament for a patch of scarlet begonias. A toy truck displayed on a rock just so becomes an appealing garden sculpture.
Choose a patch of ground in your yard or garden that can be designated as the "junk garden." How big a patch of ground you choose depends on the size of your property, of course, and how much space you want to devote in the yard for the activity. A minimum of one square yard is plenty to start. Mark it off with stakes and twine, twigs, sticks, and stones, or other objects you gather for the garden border. Use seashells, wooden blocks, dominos, board game pieces, or even plastic race car tracks.
Once the border is defined, the junk garden is ready to be planted. Plant objects only or a combination of objects and plants. You may want to plant your objects first, so as to avoid trampling the plants. Or you may want to get impatiens or petunias in the ground first, so as to invent creative displays around them with found objects. You can also skip real plants altogether. Go wild "planting" colorful cups and saucers you've collected at yard sales or plastic juice cups. Dig a little hole in the ground and "plant" a cup so that it is sticking in the ground about halfway. Or paint wooden spoons bright colors and plant them as flowers in your garden. Plant action figures, plastic animals, Barbie, you name it.
Plant items from the kitchen or basement such as a yardstick, an old boot, measuring spoons, or flatware. Be artful about the planting and think of interesting ways to combine objects and plants. Use saucers as backdrops for small plants. Make a perch for birds out of an old spoon tied tightly to a twig with rubber bands. Tend the junk garden carefully and water frequently. Change or move the objects as you collect new items or simply to redesign the garden.
Look for interesting old chairs at yard sales and antique stands. Choose a chair that has the patina of age or might be painted a favorite color. Position the chair in a spot that will accommodate the kind of plant you wish to grow, sun-, soil-, and water-wise. Ask your plant store for recommendations or choose a vine such as honeysuckle, sweet potato, passion flower, or a flowering bean vine, and train the vine to climb the chair. Voilà. Chair trellis.
Use an old tire to make a raised bed. Fill the center of the tire with good soil and plant a tomato seedling in the center. Decorate the tire garden with Barbie shoes or marbles or other found objects. Then make tomato sandwiches in summer.
Junk Garden Themes
Choose a theme. Go all natural and use only twigs and stones, bird feathers, leaves, shells, moss-covered stones from a stream. Or make the garden dinosaurs-only. Create an imaginary universe in the garden using dollhouse furniture, "fairy furniture" made from items you collect (pipe cleaners, Popsicle sticks, toothpicks, old crayons), or twig tepees. Choose plants by theme, as well. Plant basil, lemon thyme, mint, dill, and lavender in a "nose garden." Plant snapdragon, tiger lily, catnip, and spider plants for a "zoo garden."
If it holds soil, and something will grow in it, it's a garden. Plant something wonderful in an old work boot. Or an old cast-iron frying pan. Or a little red wagon. Follow potting instructions for container planting from your favorite gardening book or rely on your own green thumb (paying attention to drainage, using good professional-grade potting soil, and so on), and plant to your hearts' content. Try lavender in the boot. Begonias in the wagon. Use yogurt cup liners (with a hole punched in the bottom for drainage) for planting in mugs you collect in thrift stores and yard sales. Have a mug garden collection.
Flowers for Your Garden
For immediate results in the flowerbed, plant seedlings or small plants from the nursery. Try annuals such as nasturtiums, petunias, impatiens, or verbena. Sunflowers are easy to plant from seed, and you can see growth almost daily. Green peas, lettuces, and pumpkins are fast-growing vegetables. Hollyhocks and daisies, two old-fashioned perennials, also mix well in a junk garden.
I've never outgrown my sense of amazement at the sheer audacity of a bridge. The idea of spanning an enormous body of water while appearing suspended in air by a few thin steel threads is magical. No wonder children — and most adults — are endlessly fascinated by bridges.
What's the Palooza? An exploration of bridges, mind-boggling and mysterious — think about them, design them, build them!
Make up a quiz entirely of questions about bridges: What is the longest bridge in the world? The highest bridge? The strongest bridge? The oldest bridge? What country has the most bridges? What are all the types of bridges? What are the great bridges of the world?
Once the quiz is finished, take a trip to the library or the Internet. In looking for quiz answers, you can find out about famous bridges around the world, the history of bridges, how bridges are built, what materials they're made from, and so forth. You can also find out about the dozens of types of bridges, including suspension, cantilever beam, cable, truss, swing, and arch, to name a few. Try to find an example of each kind of bridge in your search.
Now that you know something about bridges, start building bridges out of as many different common materials as you can think of: paper, sticks, stones, clay, blocks, Legos, wire, magnets, candy, cards, toothpicks, you name it.
Begin by sketching a simple bridge. Then decide what material would work best for that particular bridge design. An arched bridge might be built out of plasticine. A truss bridge could be made of Popsicle sticks, white glue or Scotch tape, and string.
One of the simplest of all bridges is made of an 8 1/2 x 11 inch sheet of paper and six books. Take the piece of paper and rest opposite ends on a stack of three books each. Here's where the mystery of science comes in: If you try to put a weight on this paper bridge, say a few pennies, it will collapse. If you fold the paper a few times, it magically holds the weight of the pennies.
If you're feeling ambitious, make a simple scale-model truss bridge, using toothpicks, glue, cardboard, and a marker. Go to http://www.yesmag.bc.ca/proj ects/bridge.html and follow the step-by-steps.
A terrific book all about build-it-yourself bridges is Bridges! Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test by Michael Kline, Carol Johmann, and Elizabeth Reith. It's a great introduction to the whole wide world of bridges, with history, science, and lots of hands-on designing, building, and testing activities.
And check out www.pontifex2.com, featuring Pontifex II software, which allows you to build and test a bridge of your own design. Then you can use the 3-D graphics feature to view your creation from any angle, including "first person," where you're in the driver's seat of the test car.
Travel Bridge Start a "collection" of bridges by keeping a special bridge notebook in the car. Then, whenever the family drives anywhere, pay attention to every bridge, no matter how small, you cross. Try to catch the name of the bridge and include the town or state it's in, what body of water it spans, or if it covers a landform of some kind, such as a ravine. See if you can figure out what type of bridge it is, too: suspension? arch? cantilevered? Maybe you give yourself extra points for crossing an unusual bridge — a covered bridge, for example. But it's plenty of fun simply to keep a lifelong list of bridges.
A Game of Bridge
Play an old-school game of bridge — London Bridge. Building bridges in the Middle Ages was fraught with suspicion because the bridge might disturb a place inhabited by devils and arouse their anger. In the original medieval game of London Bridge, being "caught" by the bridge was a way of separating players into devils and angels.
Two players stand face-to-face and clasp each other's hands high in front of them to form the bridge. Sing the words to the song as the other players walk or run under the bridge. To capture someone, the two bridge builders lower their arms whenever the verse reaches the words "My fair lady." Once every player has been caught, they divide in half, holding on to each other's waist to form a chain and play tug-of-war. (The tug-of-war symbolized the battle between good and evil -- devils and angels.)
Bashful. Buttoned up. Taciturn. Tongue-tied. Wouldn't you rather be the one they called enlightening and effervescent, loquacious and mellifluous? It's all a matter of exercising your conversation muscles — and having fun, of course. They don't call it "wordplay" for nothing!
What's the Palooza?
Practice the fine art of conversation. It's not always easy to think of something to say, especially to someone you've just met. But there are simple ways to get a conversation started, and great ways to make it interesting.
The best place to start to explore conversation opportunities is around the dinner table at home. Usually the adults drive the dialogue, and it's easy to just let them do that. But you're tired of the "How was school? Did you do your homework?" dinner conversation you usually have. So take matters into your own hands. Throw a few provocative conversation starters out there and see what happens.
Ask questions. Choose one person to ask one question. Others around the table may want to answer the question as well, or the question may lead to another topic of conversation. Here are some ideas for questions to ask, but you should definitely think up some of your own:
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
What famous person would you like to meet?
What is your earliest childhood memory?
What were your favorite cartoons when you were a kid?
If someone gave you $1,000 to spend in one day, how would you spend it?
If you could be invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
How would you describe your perfect day?
Flash the facts. Share interesting pieces of information that are likely to spur conversation. For instance, did you know that no word in the English language rhymes with month, orange, silver, and purple? Or that the average person falls asleep in seven minutes? Or that an ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain? Collect tidbits like this from books and magazines that you read and use them to get people talking.
Use the news to stir things up. Did you see a story on the sports page calling your dad's favorite baseball player "trade bait"? Did you hear on the radio that the government says ketchup counts as a vegetable in your school lunch? Did you see a story about someone spotting a UFO? Share these kinds of "news" bites, and you're sure to spark lively debates about what's fact and what's opinion — or what's fact and what's fiction!
Know what you think. When you hear a news story or listen to a conversation, don't just let it go in one ear and out the other. Stop and ask yourself, "What do I think about that?" Pay attention to subjects and issues being discussed around you and try to work out your opinion on them. It's okay to have mixed feelings about something (on the one hand, on the other...) because things are rarely crystal clear or black and white. Just try to know what you think and practice expressing it at the table. Who do you think would make a good president — and why? Do you think there should be a designated hitter in major league baseball — why or why not? Do you think that human cloning is possible — and if so, should it be allowed? The more you know about what you think, the more there is to talk about!
You can play Hi-Point, Lo-Point with family and friends or people you've just met. Start by sharing the hi-point, or best moment, of your day. Then describe the lo-point, or least pleasant part of your day. Hi-point? I got an A on my science test. Lo-point? My sandwich fell on the floor at lunch. Get everyone to share their hi-points and lo-points. Compare stories — who had the highest hi-point and the lowest lo-point? Play hi-point, lo-point every night at dinner and soon you'll have a Hi-Point, Lo-Point Hall of Fame. And shouldn't the person with the lowest lo-point not have to do dishes?
A conversation piece is an object that is so unusual and provocative that people can't help talking about it. It doesn't matter whether it's shocking or beautiful or rare or bizarre, as long as it arouses interest. If you are in someone's home and you see a skull on a bookshelf, for instance, or an elegant orchid on a table, you can be sure these are meant to be conversation pieces. Sometimes people dress in an extreme or unusual manner in order to be a conversation piece. Or they'll wear a startling piece of jewelry or over-the-top hat. Conversation pieces command attention, to be sure, but they don't guarantee that sparkling conversation will happen. That's still up to you.
It's About Time
It's hard to imagine getting through a day without our alarm clocks, wristwatches, and wall clocks. But ancient societies experienced and measured time in completely different ways (and they did just fine, didn't they?). This palooza explores some aspects of time we rarely take the time to think about.
What's the Palooza?
Devote a day to the exploration of time, and see what it would be like to live without our modern mechanical clocks at all. Before the late fifteenth century, mechanical clocks as we know them did not exist. But people came up with other ingenious ways to measure time. We've all heard of hourglasses and sundials. But there were also fire clocks, which were made of a burning candle with lines marking each hour, or even an incense stick that burned at a steady rate. Water clocks measured time by the flow of water through a small hole. In some of the most primitive cultures, time has been measured in vague but concrete approximations — people would talk of "the time it takes to cook a pan of beans" as a unit of time. And, of course, without reliable tools for measuring time, the sun acted as the biggest indicator of time.
Make a sundial before the day you will spend thinking about time. You will need a large piece of heavy paper or cardboard, a short pencil, a small amount of clay, and a watch. Place the pencil point down in the center of the cardboard, using the clay to secure it firmly. On a clear, sunny day, put the cardboard outside soon after the sun rises, making sure to put it in a spot that will not be obscured by shadow during any part of the day. If necessary, the cardboard can be held in place with small stones or a brick. At every hour until sunset, mark the place on the cardboard where the end of the pencil's shadow lies and the current time. Be careful not to shift or disturb the cardboard, or your measurement will be inaccurate.
The next day (which should probably be a Saturday, Sunday, or other no-school day), rise with the sun — or whenever your own biological clock tells you to — and let the fun begin! Unplug, put away, or cover up all your clocks, and use your sundial instead.
Over the course of the day, see if anyone in the family really has a good sense of time. One at a time, have each person lie down on the floor and close his eyes and start the stopwatch. Whenever he thinks one minute, or two minutes, or five minutes have passed, he stops the stopwatch and checks the amount of time that really passed. Write down each person's name and how many minutes he actually spent lying on the ground. Whoever gets the closest to ten minutes wins the Natural Timekeeper Award.
Mostly what you'll discover is how out of touch everyone's sense of time really is. Try to brainstorm the various ways that you can measure the passing of the day without looking at a clock or watch.
Talk about units of time drawn from the details of your day-to-day life: how about the time it takes the answering machine to pick up? The time it takes to lock the front door? See if you can incorporate these time units into your everyday conversations, such as, "Dinner will be ready in the time it takes to walk around the block." And then walk around the block, because that's a good idea, anyway!
At the end of this day of primitive timekeeping, it might be hard for you to decide whether you are lucky or unlucky to live lives where time is precise to the second. Does it make your life more organized or more frenzied? Would it be possible to abandon our traditional perception and measure of time completely? Never look at a watch or even your sundial? Imagine time not as cyclical, rather as one long line into the future without any measure but the quality of how you spend it. Read a good book until your eyes get tired. Then take a lovely nap until you wake up. Eat when you are hungry. Take a bath when it would feel good. Shaking off some of our micro-measurements of time would at least be a relaxing vacation!
Time Management Race
Set up relay teams, with one or more persons in each. Create a "course" of household or other tasks like loading or unloading a dishwasher, making and packing lunch for school, making a bed, and so on. Guess how long it will take to complete the tasks. Use a stopwatch to time the tasks. Closest guess to the correct time wins.
Reinvent the Calendar
How would you organize the 365 days of the year into smaller units or make your year have fewer than 365 days? What day will be the start of your calendar? What would you call the days, weeks and months? Maybe your "days" only come in pairs — Even Day and Odd Day. What are the special days on your calendar? Will the calendar correspond to the phases of the moon or changes in season, or will it be organized by something random, like whenever someone loses a tooth?
I never knew that mazes and labyrinths are not the same until I happened to be invited to the home of a friend who had a full-sized labyrinth on her property. As we walked it together, she explained that a labyrinth only has one path: you walk in toward the center and out again the same way. Mazes are meant to be confusing, full of dead ends and blind alleys, high walls or hedges, and twists and turns. Labyrinths are less frustrating but equally mysterious to a child, which is why they make a great palooza.
What's the Palooza?
Learn how to draw your own labyrinth. First, look at the examples of the labyrinths, opposite, which are the two most common types out of hundreds of variations. Labyrinths have a rich and varied history; they've been found on Greek coins and clay tablets, Roman mosaics and pottery, Swedish coastlines, medieval European cathedral walls and floors, Native American baskets and cliffs, Peruvian sands, Indian dirt, and English village greens.
Begin with the simplest labyrinth of all, the three-path (three-circuit). Look at the "seed pattern" below and copy it on a piece of paper at least 81?2 by 11 inches. It's better to draw the seed pattern in the bottom half of the paper. Then it's a matter of connecting the dots and lines, as illustrated below. Once you've drawn your own, you can "walk" the labyrinth by tracing the path with either your finger, a pencil eraser, or a crayon or marker. (This is great to do in a restaurant with crayons and paper tablecloths.) It might take a few practice labyrinths before you get the hang of drawing the lines evenly enough to make nicely spaced paths, but that's part of the process.
After you're comfortable with the three-circuit labyrinth, you can try the seven-circuit, as illustrated below.
Sand and Land Labyrinths
Once you know how to draw a labyrinth with pencil and paper, you're ready for a larger canvas. Any wide open, level ground outdoors makes an excellent place for a three- or seven-circuit labyrinth with paths lined in small stones or rocks. If you're ambitious and energetic enough, make it really large and invite friends to walk it.
Your own backyard has labyrinth potential: try a simple three-circuit labyrinth by marking with chalk then cutting the pattern in the grass with a lawn mower. Driveways and sidewalks are great for chalk labyrinths of any size.
Next time you're at the beach, make labyrinths in the sand, using either a stick, your hands, a shovel, or even your feet.
About 10 percent of the world's population is left-handed, and no one knows why. In some cultures, left-handedness is taboo, and left-handed children must write and eat with their right hands as if true righties. Lefties today are met with fewer cultural prejudices, but they truly do live in a world made for right-handed people. This palooza lets children explore the curious asymmetry of their own bodies and the inherent right-handedness they might never have noticed in everyday objects.
What's the Palooza? Devote a day to left-handedness. Righties try to make their way through the day using their left hands the way they usually use their right hands. If you want to be really authentic, do it on August 13, International Left-Handers' Day. You'll realize how well trained our preferred hands really must be to do everyday tasks. Eating with a fork with your opposite hand feels awkward and can be messy. And writing with your opposite hand — well, for most people, it's just sloppy. You'll notice right away how automatically you use your right hand when dashing to pick up the phone or flip on the lights. As hard as it may be to switch for the day, you'll discover how hardwired you are to your handedness.
Explore the house and study all the little things you never noticed were intended for right-handed people. Wear your watch on your right wrist (as most left-handers do). It's hard to change the time without taking the watch off — the knob is on the wrong side! Play a game of cards with a standard deck. You'll notice that if you fan your cards in the left hand, you can't see the numbers. Now try writing in a spiral notebook. Ouch! Those books are definitely made for right-handed writers. Use a pencil to write. You'll see that our writing system, which reads from left to right, causes your left hand to get smudged with graphite as it continually rubs over what's just been written. Try using scissors or a can opener with your left hand. See how they're made just for righties? Make a list of all the things you can think of that favor the right hand. Even better to discover the rare objects that are easier to use with your left hand (a toll booth is one example).
The Right Way
Here's where the 10 percent of you who are left-handed try to see how the other 90 percent live. You'll struggle with awkwardness when writing and doing other ordinary activities, just the way the righties do when trading places with you. Look for all the little ways to work with your right hand -- buttoning your shirt, tying your shoes, buttering your bread. You can gripe every other day of the year about tools and equipment being right-handed -- today's your day to live in the lap of right-handed luxury.
Leonardo da Lefty
Being a lefty isn't only about getting ink smudges all over your hand when you write. It means that you're wired differently — the right hemisphere of your brain, instead of the left, is the dominant one. Left-handed — and thus right-brained — people tend to be creative and visually oriented, with exceptional spatial abilities. Whether you're left- or right-handed, stimulate the right side of your brain by looking closely at left-handed art. Examine the masterpieces of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael and see if you find some quality or tendency of their work in common. Look at the works of Picasso and van Gogh and think about how the way their brains worked — as well as their talented left hands! — helped them develop such unique styles of painting. Look up the drawings of M. C. Escher, which demonstrate the incredible spatial sense found among many left-handed people. Give the right hemisphere of your brain a real workout by trying to draw spatially impossible shapes and staircases leading nowhere. Go to www.artcyclopedia.com to view works by these and other artists.
Excerpted from: "A Lithgow Palooza: 1001 Ways to Entertain and Inspire Your Kids." Copyright 2004 by John Lithgow. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. For more information you can visit the Simon & Schuster Web site at: