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Kermit the frog and Miss Piggy from the Muppets

Lockdown Challenge: Make a Kermit puppet or the Eiffel Tower

Image credit: Dreamstime

More family fun this week as our Lockdown Challenges take you from puppeteering to creating France’s most iconic landmark.

Some people leave their footprints trampled across modern culture and you suspect they will always remain there. Jim Henson, who died thirty years ago this weekend (16 May), is such a person, and while the Muppets might not be quite as omnipresent as they were at their peak, they are certainly not going away. So as a tribute to the late Jim Henson, our first challenge for you to bring to your family this week, therefore, is to either recreate a favourite Muppet or invent new ones. In our second challenge, Neil Downie looks at how to bring an engineering focus to a simple building project.

The IET also has a host of resources which adults can use to engage children with the world of STEM.

https://education.theiet.org/key-stage-1-2-3-and-4-free-stem-resources/home-learning-resources-key-stage-1-and-2/  

We would love it if people sent in photos and videos of their ‘Lockdown Challenge’ efforts, as well as suggestions about how to make these challenges better and ideas for new ones. Email your contributions to tfryer@theiet.org.

Lockdown Challenge #10: Make your own Muppet

Henson was famous for designing Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Cookie Monster and the other characters that appeared on TV shows like Sesame Street, the Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock.

Henson brought new techniques into TV puppetry in the 1950s, including changing the camera frame shot so that the puppeteer could work off-camera and making puppets from flexible fabric coloured foamed rubber, rather than carved wood which was popular at the time (think Bill and Ben the Flowerpot men) The Muppet heyday was the seventies, but they’re still going today in films, TV shows, cartoons and live shows. After Henson’s death, Walt Disney bought the characters.

Muppets come in all shapes and sizes

  • Small rod-shaped puppets (Rizzo): too small for a human hand to operate from the inside. Rods extend from the hands to enable some control, small mechanical systems operate moving parts such as the jaw for speech.
  • Rod hand puppets (Kermit): Puppeteer hand inside the main part, uses rods to control hands and legs
  • Live-hand puppets (Cookie Monster): puppeteer controls puppet's mouth and movement inside a long-sleeved glove
  • Full body (Big Bird): Operator wears whole-body suit, more complicated mechanisms for jaw movement.

Choose a character. Muppets can either be human, animal, weird creature or any combination of the three. They also have a personality that gives them some sort of overwhelming drive. Eat cookies (Monster), Get on stage (Fozzie), Be the most beautiful (Piggy). They can be scientists, chefs, rock stars, film critics – pretty much anything. Rumour has it that Jim Henson even based Kermit, the mild-mannered and long-suffering compere of the show, on his own personality.

Colour

We can’t go to the shops to pick up the perfect felted bespoke muppet materials, so instead see what spare material you’ve got around the house… old clothes, curtains, duvet covers, anything brightly coloured.

Hair. Wool dyed in ink or paint will do. If not, scraps of shredded paper or strips of cloth will work. If your character is bald – try a swimming cap, cling film or masking tape. Make the style as distinctive and over-the-top as your character requires.

The body. Roll up some old cardboard pieces (all those Amazon deliveries will come in useful). Doesn’t have to be a perfect body shape, just more or less the right size for your arm to get inside, or your upper body, if you’re going for a big bird effect. Wrap it in foam, if you have some, if not then any soft material, or as a last resort, newspapers or tissue. Cut out a hole at the top, big enough for your hand to slide in and out.

Cover the foam with your chosen material, pin it and then sew it in place.

The head can be made of bubble wrap, cling film, or scrunched up newspaper, covered with tape to maintain its shape. Don’t forget to cut a hole for the mouth. Use plastic and cardboard pieces covered with material to make facial features.

Arms: cut out from foam or replacement material, cover in material. Sew pieces of metal into the cloth and use magnets to move them up and down.

Mouth: cut a circle around your hand, the middle of the circle aligned with your knuckles, bend in half. Attach material hand straps to each side, this is where you put your fingers. Cover with chosen material and stick or sew.

Now all you need is a script and it's showtime!

Lockdown Challenge #11: The Eiffel Brick Tower

The Dark Secrets of Ultra-high Eiffel Brick Towers

Secret number 1: multiple legs to the tower, joined with platforms. You will need a platform every two or three bricks. To get going quickly, try building your first Eiffel Brick Tower with platforms made, maybe, of heavy paper or thin card, or anything thin and flat and 100mm or more on a side. CD cases once got us to 5m!

Secret number 2: the spirit level for horizontality (and plumb line or laser for verticality). A spirit level will tell you if you are going off horizontal on each level. Try different bricks, try shims (see below). And then test verticality with a plumb line, or just build the tower near a wall and measure with a ruler. A laser is another possibility. Some people have used an eye-safe laser at the bottom of a tower facing vertically upwards, with a piece of thin paper on the top to see where the beam is – a great guide to keeping vertical. 

Secret number 3: not all bricks are the same: as your spirit level may have told you. Try adding little ‘shims’, a little piece of paper, between bricks to get the tower back to horizontal.

Secret number 4: elastic bands for making platforms. A really key technology. This adds a whole new dimension – tension force – to the compressive forces mostly holding your tower together. It hugely expands how high you can go – and without the paper/card platform pieces, with just bricks and small elastic bands. Make a platform out of bricks by stretching an elastic band around a set of 4 or 6 or 8 or more bricks in a square. With the elastic band on you will find you have a rigid platform.

Secret number 5: foundations – start from a solid base. Think a carpet is a good base? Think again. 

Now get building!

Tower

Image credit: Neil Downes

Challenges

  • How high can you go?
  • How skinny – minimising the bricks used – can you make the tower?

And finally… Fire and Jenga – The Ultimate Jenga Game!

So you’ve built your ceiling-high tower. What now? Well, knock it down, of course. Nooo! Stop for a minute. You can have more fun now. You’ve played Jenga right? An Eiffel Brick Tower doesn’t have redundant bricks in it, if you’ve done it right, at least in the uprights. But some of the platform bricks, some of those could go, right? But the elastic bands need to go to release them. But how to get rid of the bands? This is where the fire comes in. A cigarette lighter, or, even better, one of those lighters with a stick-out nozzle for BBQs and candles. Oh, and BTW, if the flame is an issue, then you could use an electric soldering iron.

Just a hint of a flame, and Ping! Off goes an elastic band. One or two platform bricks will fall out. But now the tower is built, the weight of the tower stabilises it, stops the bricks from falling. So now hand the flame to the next person to compete. Which elastic band to go for? The bottom, where forces are highest? Or the top, where the platforms are smaller? Ping! Off goes another elastic band. Now it's getting tricky. Ping! Crash! Bang! Wallop!

Try my books like The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science, and for lots of other things (and a free copy of Exploding Disk Cannons book), www.saturdayscience.org.

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