Dragons & Catapults

dragons and catapultsEnter the realm of mythical beasts, sieige engines, and truly stunning Medieval headdresses…it’s time for more kid-tested product reviews! Today, Hope is taking on the Aquarellum Junior paint kit by SentoSphere (ages 7+, retails for approximately $20) and the Tabletop Catapult kit by Sterling Innovation (ages 8+, retails for approximately $25). Have at thee Hope!

Hi everyone! I’m back… and this time, with a Medieval twist! First, I’m going to review the Aquarellum kit.

aquarelleum kitOpening the box, I found four pieces of light, thin, cardboardy canvas, referred to in the instructions as “Aquarellum Board.” The face of each board had a rendering of a dragon outlined faintly on the surface. One of them looked like a Chinese dragon, and the other three were a jumble of Viking and Medieval. There was also a plastic paint palette, six watercolor paints in bottles, a paintbrush, a plastic eyedropper, and a set of instructions. Dr. Dana thought the instructions were beautiful, and their bright colors captured my attention too.

french instructionsThe instructions were a 3 page, double-sided foldout. I started reading them hoping to glean a bit of information on using the product. But the instructions were written completely in French! Scouring them, I finally found a miniscule paragraph written in English. Sadly, it offered me only a vague idea of the procedures of the project. It described the board and how to paint on it, how to mix and dilute your paints, gave a few application tips for the paints, and then… nothing. But I got the “picture” (hahaha). However, I was sad that I couldn’t read the rest of the lovely illustrated instructions. Ah well. C’est la vie!

Basically, each Aquarellum “canvas” had a picture of a dragon outlined in wax. Since the paint was water-based, any messups would be deflected by the wax. What an epically cool concept! It was almost impossible to mess up!  Choosing one of the canvases, I assembled the extra materials recommended for the project.  And I quote…

  • a blank sheet to test mixed colors on
  • absorbent paper
  • A glass of water in which to rinse your brush, dilute inks, and clean the dropper used to dose the inks
  • Direct light (sunlight or a desk lamp), allowing you to clearly see the designs, since the varnish is very pale.

Setting up the materials, I readied the brush and paints.

prepping the paintI used the plastic dropper to place the paint in the cavities of the palette, tested the mixed colors on a piece of paper, and washed the dropper and the brush off in a cup of water.

paint testsThen I started to paint. Oh! What fun!!! The colors were vibrant, the paint easy to use, and it was nearly impossible to mess up!

wax outlines I finished one dragon, and moved onto the next. I found that the paint dried super quick, which made it easy to layer more colors onto the canvas, creating new shades. It was awesome! The only downside was that the paint dried so quickly, it sometimes dried on the wax, creating smudges. Here’s a finished canvas:

finished red dragonOverall, I really enjoyed this project! It was super fun, and my results turned out beautifully, even though I am not an expert at painting. The only downsides of the product were that if you went outside the main outline of the dragon, the smudges dried so fast that they could permanently mar your art.

Also, the bulk of the instructions were in French! This was especially frustrating because the French instructions were beautifully illustrated and clearly had more detail than the paragraph written in English. Also, Dr. Dana and I could not figure out the correct way to pronounce the product name! Aquarellum? What a tongue twister!

And the Scores Are In!


PROS: Fun to use, vibrant colors, easy, entertaining, beautiful results.
CONS: Directions mostly in French, smudges dried too quickly.

SCORE: 5 OUT OF 5!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Setting aside the dragons, I turned to the weaponry….BEHOLD!  A catapult!

catapult kitOpening the box, I found a book titled The Art of the Catapult, wood pieces, wooden pegs, directions, a chunk of brown clay in a plastic baggie, metal washers, white twine, a wire, and some glue. Unfolding the directions, I discovered that they were mostly illustrated. While I liked that they were so precisely illustrated, the text directions were vague, which confused me. The directions also called for a “Healthy Snack,” which was funny, because we only had marshmallows handy (more on those later)!

I used the inventory sheet on the first page to make sure I wasn’t missing any pieces, and started building the catapult. It was pretty straightforward. Use the wooden pegs to connect the wood pieces together to construct the base of the catapult.

base of catapultHowever, some of the pegs were loose. I used some glue, which (thankfully) seemed to help. Other pegs were too tight and had to be hammered in with a piece of stone that Dr. Dana had in her office!?! It was ludicrous, but equally hilarious, to see me pounding pegs into the wood with a huge chunk of stone. Rock dust flew everywhere, and the noise… let’s just say it was painful.

hammer timeAfter I had finished building the base and support structure, I had to construct the torsion string. When I saw the word torsion I thought, “WHAAAAAAAAT?!?!” (Torsion means “to be twisted” or “the act of being twisted”).

In a nutshell, to make the torsion string, I had to coil the string several times and use a wire to thread it through two washers and two holes in the catapult base. Then I wound the ends of the string loops around two pegs (called the “tensioners”). The catapult’s swing arm was inserted in the center of the torsion string and I used the tensioners to tighten it. Dr.Dana assisted, using her knightly muscle.

torsion stringThe directions for this part definitely could’ve used more clarification. The picture/word combination was just too weak for the complexity of the task. I couldn’t figure it out, so I called in Dr. Dana, who also had to carefully inspect the directions and fiddle with the catapult. But figure it out we did!

finished catapultWe made a ball out of the clay…but there was another problem. The wooden peg on the “trigger” was too weak to hold the catapult arm back – the peg just kept popping out. So Dr. Dana reinforced it somewhat with masking tape.

taped trigger pegBut there was another problem. Now the entire trigger would flop over, releasing the catapult arm. It just wasn’t strong enough to hold the arm down. So we ignored the trigger and used our fingers to hold down catapult arm while we loaded it.

But it was fun to use! It was just so utterly entertaining to watch stuff fly through the air! First, we launched the clay ball. Later, we launched a marshmallow and a ping pong ball. The clay ball had the lowest altitude when launched, the marshmallow went the farthest distance, and the ping pong ball went the highest.

Then we decided (of course) to try to launch a marshmallow into curatorial staffer Ellen’s mouth. First, we made sure she was wearing proper head and eye gear:

ellen's awsome headgearEllen sat in a chair approximately 65” away from the catapult. We tried again and again, moving the chair all over, but missed every time! Finally, Ellen took matters into her own hands:

Needless to say, we had fun!

The kit also came with a book called The Art of the Catapult, by William Gurstelle (Sterling Innovation, 2004). The book was broken up into nine chapters. Each chapter contained at least one or two additional catapult-like projects you could build. However, they were far more complex and difficult than the catapult that came with the kit.

The rest of the book was information about the evolution and variation of catapults around the world. To me… well, some of it was cool. Alexander the Great, Saladin, and Richard the Lionheart. But the rest of the projects and history of the catapult…. frankly, it felt like too much dry detail.

In addition, the writing style seemed to change throughout the book. Sometimes it felt like an adventure novel, sometimes a history textbook, and other times, translations of ancient writings, like the Torah, Bible, or Koran. It was odd, because the book was by one author. But maybe the author’s interests were also varied, and his writing simply reflected that. It just didn’t flow very well.

The catapult kit was kind of fun, but overall it was more confusing than excellent. The directions were annoying with their briefly captioned illustrations. The project was recommended for ages 8+. Yet I had to use a rock to hammer pegs into the catapult. To me, it suggests that something is wrong. And so…

The Scores Are In!


PROS: Fun to use (because of laugh factor. It was so fun to launch marshmallows at Ellen), good excuse to eat marshmallows, sturdy materials, came with a book (yay!), built a catapult!

CONS: Confusing directions with not enough written description, aiming was hard, trigger not effective, clay projectile a bit disappointing, book was a little dry.


Postscript: Dr. Dana here! Last night, I took the catapult home to my 2 children (ages 4 and 6). For 3 straight hours, they launched ping pong balls around the house. The little catapult held up beautifully, even though the trigger never worked. We ended up removing the trigger and just using our fingers. For extra fun, use a Sharpie to draw silly faces on the ping pong balls.

Bedtime? What Bedtime?

jake stays awakeTime for bed? Not for this little fellow. His head barely touches the pillow before he launches himself out of bed! The secret: a craft stick catapult concealed beneath the covers!

jumping out of bedWe read Jake Stays Awake by Michael Wright (Feiwel & Friends, 2007). Jake refuses to sleep in his own bed, preferring instead to knock on his parents’ door at night and insist on joining them. But it’s definitely not working for his parents. So they make a deal. Jake can sleep with them, but perhaps he can think of a different place for them to bed down for the night? So they try many places (including the roof, the stairway, the kitchen counter, garbage cans, the family car) until exhausted Jake finally hits on the one place that might just work – his own bed.

You’ll need:

  • A box (mine was 4 ½” X 4 ½” x 9”)
  • A 5″ x 5″ square of tagboard for the headboard
  • A 3″ x 4.5″ rectangle of tagboard for the footboard
  • Extra pieces of tagboard for bed decor
  • 2 jumbo craft sticks (mine were 6″ long)
  • 6 medium craft sticks (mine were 4.5″ long)
  • A selection of colored masking tape
  • 2 medium rubber bands
  • A small rectangle of white poster board for pillow (mine was 2.25″ x 2.5″)
  • A rectangle of tissue paper for blanket (mine was 5.25″ x 7″)
  • 2 toilet paper tubes
  • A selection of multicultural construction paper
  • A selection of patterned paper
  • Construction paper for hair
  • A small rectangle of stiffened felt for teddy bear (mine was 1.5″ x 2″)
  • Scissors, tape, and glue stick for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

We’ll start with the bed! Cut the box down until it is approximately 2.5″ deep.

bed steps Now cut your headboard and footboard out of tag board. Make sure the footboard is low and rounded. Otherwise, your tube person might not clear it when catapulted.

headboard and footboardHot glue (or tape) the headboard and footboard to the ends of the box. To create some texture on the bed frame, we made some simple tag board shapes. The kids decorated them with markers and glued them to the bed.

finished bedOn to the catapult! Stack 2 jumbo craft sticks on top of one another, then wrap a rubber band tightly around one side.

rubber banded craft sticksNow stack 6 medium craft sticks on top of one another and wrap both ends tightly with colored masking tape.

taped craft sticksWedge the stack of 6 craft sticks in between the jumbo crafts sticks like so:

wedgedThen wrap a second rubber band around both sets of craft sticks to secure the catapult mechanism (a criss-cross wrap works best).

bandedHot glue the stacked craft sticks to the inside center of the box. Really glob the hot glue on. You don’t want the catapult to come loose!

catapult securedCut a toilet paper tube in half lengthwise, then cut a 1.25″ segment off the bottom of one of the halves. This is the “catapult cup” that will hold the lower section of your tube person steady whilst it awaits launching. Attach the catapult cup with hot glue, but avoid getting hot glue on the rubber bands.

catapult cupRound the edges of the white poster board rectangle to create a pillow, then hot glue it to the top of the catapult arm. The pillow should be flush with the end of the craft stick.

pillow placementFinish by draping the tissue paper “blanket” over the top of the catapult.

blanket placementThe catapult is ready. Now for your person! Wrap the top of a toilet paper tube with a strip of multicultural construction paper. Then wrap the remainder of the tube with patterned paper. Add construction paper hair and use markers to draw a face.

Lastly, cut arms and legs from the patterned paper and tape to the tube. Make sure, however, that you attach the arms and legs to the front of the tube. This produces the best launch from the catapult.

side view finished personPlace your person on top of the catapult. His/her head should rest on the lower part of the pillow, and his/her rear end should rest in the catapult cup. But before you launch, how about a fuzzy companion? I cut a teddy bear shape out of white stiffened felt and used Sharpies to add some details. Then I prepped a bevy of bears for story time!

lots of bearsPlace the teddy bear on top of the tube person. Then reach between the posts of the headboard and press firmly down on the top edge of the pillow.

press down Remove your finger quickly and watch as your person launches out of bed, teddy bear flying!