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Lockdown Challenge: Build a greenhouse, grow tomatoes and use tech to keep you fit

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The second instalment of the Lockdown Challenge is here – can you and your offspring rise to the occasion?

For most parts of the UK, we are now approaching the end of the Easter school holidays. But as we remain at a standstill, many engineers can look forward to spending much more quality time with their offspring over the coming weeks. Hence we launched the Lockdown Challenge last week – congratulations to all who rose to the challenge of building a bird box and designing the ultimate engineer's cave – and we have another couple for you this week.

Lockdown Challenge #3 – Build a miniature greenhouse and plant some tomatoes

First of all, there is a real magic about growing things that children instantly get. To have a dried-up seed, like a dried pea, and see it spring into life by just providing it with warmth and water, can be a source of wonder. There is no more obvious way of linking science with nature and the association with food on the table. We are also going to link with engineering, as we are going to build the greenhouse to grow it in.

However, the growing season has started, so this is a project to tackle this weekend or next. Those lucky enough to have gardens or safe places to walk and exercise in under the current circumstances will be well aware that blossom and leaves are unfurling everywhere. But this is also a great time for starting seeds out, and a greenhouse still offers protection from frost, which is still a danger for the next three to five weeks, depending on which part of the country you live in. One frost will slay a seedling, possibly leaving it too late to try again. Back to the crop later. First, you need your greenhouse.

It is no surprise that greenhouses come in all shapes and sizes – as big as barns or as small as a plastic bottle. And it is at the small end we are going. The idea is simply to build up a bit of heat and protect from the cold, so any plastic or glass arrangement could count as a greenhouse. This includes the aforementioned plastic bottles, which can have the bottoms cut off and placed over a seed planted in soil, whether in a garden or on a windowsill.

Everything else fundamentally revolves around having a frame covered with plastic or glass. Or if the plastic is rigid you could simply stick it directly together – people have concocted structures from old CD cases, although they may struggle to survive a spring breeze. Assembling what is essentially a box from a variety of old picture frames is another option – it doesn’t have to be symmetrical, it just needs to fit together without letting the wind in.

Plastic is obviously safer to work with than glass. It also comes under the prerequisite for Lockdown Challenge as something that can be unearthed at the back of the garage. Our suggestion would be to build a simple frame from leftover wood, possibly 1.2m high x 0.9m wide and 0.6m deep. It can be much smaller and therefore be used mainly to get seeds going – you can make anything from a matter of inches across for this. A thick plastic sheet can be tacked or stapled to the frame; just make sure there are no gaps – they can be surprisingly wind resilient unless the wind can get inside, at which stage it can be quite destructive.

However, the size we have chosen is firstly because it can fit on the corner of a balcony or patio as well as any (preferably sunny) part of the garden, and therefore this is something virtually any child (and adult) can enjoy. This size is also suitable for leaving a tomato plant in for the season. Some tomatoes, especially beef tomato varieties, need to be planted outdoors, while others tend to do better in a greenhouse, like cherry tomatoes. And again there is a reason why we pick tomatoes – they taste so good! Growing maincrop potatoes has its own magic – you put one in and dozens come out, but in truth, they don’t taste any better than the ones from the supermarket. Some vegetables like sweetcorn, peas and cherry tomatoes are a class apart when they are freshly plucked from the garden. You won’t need to give your child sweets again!

Greenhouse construction is one of those projects that is only limited by space and imagination and there is plenty of inspiration online. Sites such as A Piece of Rainbow have a host of ideas.

Lockdown Challenge #4 – Fun with fitness

We can’t go to the gym, or out to play sport. Kids aren’t getting their weekly PE and their daily run around in the playground.

Yes, of course, we can go out for a walk, run or bike ride, but there’s more to keeping fit and staying healthy than that. And besides, kids, particularly younger kids, will get bored doing too much walking and running.

What we do have however is time and creativity. So why not get the kids to devise a fitness routine using everyday objects from around the home and a bit of online tech to monitor and record how things go. You’ll encourage good health habits, a bit of personal health responsibility and have a lot of fun.

Garden fitness circuit

Help the kids research what’s needed to develop an overall level of fitness. Cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, mental awareness.

Use what equipment and space you have: trampolines, weights, skipping ropes, hoops. If you haven’t got these, water bottles or paint pots work as weights or a couple of cans of beans strapped to the leg or arm to work on one particular muscle group. You could get them to make their own dumbbells – two sacks of sand, gravel, rice or dirt. Tough sacks that won’t split. Tie a loop in the top of sacks. Use the rope to tie and secure the loop to stop it from opening. Use duct tape to reinforce the sides and underside. Work out what length of stick is needed and what material. Ideally a short, metal stick…but it would be good to try out a few materials, to see what best takes the strain of the weights and also enables you to lift the structure easily.

If no trampoline: short shuttle runs, star jumps, squats work just as well. Use the garden furniture if you want to add obstacles and make it a race. Larger items like chairs you can weave in and out of, smaller items, like boxes you can jump over. Put a broom handle across two chairs and that’s something to crawl under.

Throwing a ball to each other, or against the wall is a way of developing focus and also hand-eye coordination. Gives you a chance to add a bit of competition, too. How many catches (rolls for younger kids) can two or three of you do in a minute? Mix and match to make it more fun. How long does it take to do 20 catch and throws, lift the paint pots ten times, run to the other side of the garden and do 20 star jumps.

Stretching around the house

Use stairs and doorsteps to stretch calf muscles. Heel on the lower surface, toe on the higher.

Flat tabletops and chests of drawers can support you when doing hamstring stretches.

Heel on the surface, leg straight, heel and hips same height and point toe, reach forward to stretch.

Stretch shoulder and chest muscles by using the inside of an open door. Flat of hand and forearm against the wall. Opposite foot ahead and take half a step through the open door.

Thigh stretch using back of the sofa. Leg raised onto the back of the sofa, foot dangling over the other side. Hold onto a chair with hands and lunge downwards.

With all, stretch slowly to the point of resistance, when reached breathe and then extend the stretch and repeat. Use surfaces that are secure and depending on the person’s height, enable them to stand in the stretch position, easily, without straining. There are many online videos that show you how to stretch safely and effectively. Here’s one we liked...

Use apps to keep track

There are many easily accessible apps that will enable you to measure and heart rate, speed, steps taken, time, calories burnt. Many also allow performance and progress tracking, so you can compare how you’re doing with friends and family. There are lots of apps and new ones all the time: there’s quite a few on Digital Trends, and it’s up to date. 

Better still, get a friend or family member to set up the same routine in their garden and then connect via video link, and hold a virtual competition. You could even link grandad in, to be the video referee. To do this you’d set your webcam on your circuit, your friend or family member would do the same. Everyone is connected via video conferencing software. Skype would work, or Zoom, or any other that everyone has access to and has a timing and a record/playback function

Grandad or grandma would need to be able to see both circuits on their screen, he or she would shout "on your marks, go", and would be in charge of deciding who wins. A record/playback function would be useful to allow the ref to settle any disputes, and the competitors could watch their race afterwards and come up with ways in which they can improve their performance.

As ever, the IET has a host of resources through which adults can engage children into the world of STEM. 

We would love it if people sent in pictures or videos, or even just suggestions on how to make these challenges better or ideas for new ones. Please email tfryer@theiet.org.

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