Gold Fever

gold fever

It sparkles and shimmers. Could it be gold? Well, you might strike gold and get rich…or you might be fooled by some glittery pyrite! We made some awesome geology connections at To Be Continued, our story time for 6-8 year-olds, including rocks that sing!

We read Missing on Superstition Mountain by Elise Broach (Henry Holt, 2011). Brothers Simon, Henry, and Jack have moved from Chicago to Superstition, Arizona. The sleepy little town is shadowed by the looming and unforgiving Superstition Mountain, which has a history that none of the adults seem to want to share. The boys have been forbidden to go into the mountains, but when Josie the cat runs away, they follow her and soon uncover a mystery that involves three human skulls, a lost gold mine, and the strange, seemingly supernatural, power of the mountain. Can the boys and their friend Delilah survive Superstition?

In addition to a secret gold mine (which is totally awesome), Missing on Superstition Mountain has quite a bit about rocks, landscapes, and geology. When we finished the book, I thought it would be cool to do some rock-based activities. And Princeton University have some fantastic resources when it comes to geology.

department of geosciencesFirst, we took a walk across campus to Guyot Hall, home of the Department of Geosciences. Their central office space is lined with display cases full of rocks, gems, fossils, and minerals.

case 1The kids oohed and aahed over some of the precious stones…

case 2But were equally impressed by the gigantic mineral specimens!

case 3We visited a Allosaurus skeleton and a T. Rex skull on our way out of the building. Yes!

dinosaur skeletonBack at the library, I had samples of pyrite for the kids to look at (courtesy of Laurel Goodell, manager of the undergraduate labs in geosciences). Pyrite is called “Fool’s Gold” because of its sparkly gold appearance, but it’s actually a mineral.

pyriteThe kids couldn’t take home the big samples of pyrite, but I did find some smaller pieces on Amazon. I bought three, 0.2 ounce boxes of pyrite nuggets for $5.79 a box. They arrived powdered with black grit, so be prepared to do some major rinsing, and maybe a little scrubbing, before you given them to kids. But as you can see below, they cleaned up nicely and there were some pretty good sized pieces in there.

pyrite nuggetsThe kids took their stash home in a cotton drawstring bag (left over from this event). I also tucked a little information sheet inside the bag too (here’s the template if you’re interested). But I saved the best geology connection for last. Did you know that some rocks can produce musical notes?

lithophoneThis is a lithophone. It’s a xylophone with tone bars that are made out of stone (as opposed to wood or metal). When you strike the stones with a mallet, they produce a musical tone. But not all rocks sing! It takes a lot of trial and error, as well as a lot of chipping and grinding to make rock tone bars. The stones you see above are limestone, sandstone, and granite.

The lithophone was made by Tom Kaufman, owner of Tinkertunes Music Studio in Michigan. I commissioned him to build it for a Journey to the Centre of the Earth event in 2013. After the event, the lithophone went to its new home in the geosciences lab.

Ready for a little rock concert?


If you think that’s cool, you should check out Tom’s lithophone fence. It plays “Row Row Row Your Boat” as you run around it with a mallet! The fence was installed at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan for ArtPrize, an annual art contest.


Many thanks to Laurel Goodell and the Department of Geosciences for the pyrite and lithophone loan! 

Crevasse Challenge

crevasse challenge jumpOne, two, three, jump! Are you ready to meet our most popular toddler activity of all time? Ladies and gentleman, may I present…the Crevasse Challenge.

The Crevasse Challenge was one of many activities offered at a large-scale Journey to the Centre of the Earth event we hosted in 2013. The YMCA was one of our event participants, and we wanted their activity to involve both geology and exercise. Rock climbing, of course, was the most obvious choice. But we already had a huge inflatable climbing wall in another area of the event.

climbing wallWe needed something else. Something less vertical. Additionally, the climbing wall had age and height restrictions, so we wanted an activity everyone could try. So it needed to be adventurous, on the ground, with no age restrictions, and still rock related.

What about the challenge of jumping over a big, dark, mysterious crevasse? Perfect!

The crevasse needed to be constructed out of something that wouldn’t rip, bubble, slide, or otherwise become a trip hazard. The solution? Black contact paper. I bought a big 18″ x 75′ roll on Amazon (it was $27 and I had lots left over). We used the contact paper to make a jagged, 18′ long crevasse. Then, we used additional pieces to make smaller cracks branching off the main crack. Here’s the shape of our crevasse:

crevasse challenge outlineIt’s important to mark where the different pieces of the crevasse fit together. That way, on the day of the event, you simply match the pieces, peel the backing off the contact paper, and stick everything in place. We used the matching lettering system below to pair the side cracks with the main crack (the letters were written on the backs of the pieces in permanent marker):

crevasse matched lettersThe crevasse is done. Are you ready to rock? I bought these “riverstones” from Discount School Supply. Not only are they colorful and sturdy, they have anti-slip bottoms. At $70 a set, they are a bit of a splurge (especially since we bought 2 sets). But I considered it an investment in quality and safety. After the event, we donated both sets to our local YMCA for further fun.

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Image from Discount School Supply

If the rocks aren’t within your budget, I found some circular “poly-vinyl spot markers”  in the Discount School Supply online catalog. They’re made of thick, no-rip vinyl, and I’m assuming they won’t slide around on the floor (but definitely test them first). A set of 6 circles cost $15.  An even cheaper option? Use masking tape to outline rock shapes on the floor. I don’t recommend cardboard or paper rocks because they’re potential slip hazards.

After some trial and error, we strategically placed the rocks around the crevasse. Then we took a picture of the rock placement (Katie shot the photo below with the panoramic feature on her phone). The photo allowed us to set up the Crevasse Challenge quickly and easily the morning of the event. In fact, by lettering the backs of the matching crevasse pieces and providing a photo of the rock placement, event volunteers set the whole thing up, without any oversight from us.

crevasse challenge rock placementThe rules for the Crevasse Challenge were simple. Starting on a yellow rock, you had to travel the length of the crevasse and land on the other yellow rock. If you fell off a rock, you had to start all over again (unless you were very young, and then you just climbed back up on the rock and tried again). If older kids wanted to increase the challenge, they had to complete the course only using the large rocks.

The prize for a successful run was a 1.75″ metal carabiner from Oriental Trading Company. Specifically, they are the “colorful key chain carabiner clips.” A pack of 50 costs $12. The prize is purely optional though (honestly, most of the toddlers at the event were blissfully unaware that there was a prize).

carabinersOn event day, the Crevasse Challenge was hopping for five hours straight. Kids went nuts for it! The crevasse! The rocks! The jumping! The carabiners! The only challenge was keeping the course clear of kid collisions. But the YMCA folks were total pros, and we had no accidents.

crevasse challenge 2Big kids tried it, little kids tried it, grown-ups tried it, but the toddlers were they main players. They couldn’t get enough of it! My daughter, who was 2 at the time, spent 45 minutes hopping, jumping, running, and trying different rocks. And just look at this cute little guy!

crevasse challenge 3

If you’d like to try a variation on the Crevasse Challenge, buy blue contact paper. Voila! Instant river rock hopping adventures. Another fantastic use of contact paper? How about this giant floor maze?