GeekMom Holiday Traditions: Blowing Ships

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Younger children enjoy blowing their ship across the “lake.” Photo credit: Sam Cook.

Every year, my children and I make a craft/game called “Blowing Ships” to celebrate the Solstice and all of the wonderful festivals of light that happen this time of year. I first came across this activity in an amazing series of books I used as a resource for a culture and nature co-op class I taught. Written by Irmgard Kutsch from the Children’s Nature and Garden Centre in Reichshof, Germany, the series includes four books (one for each season) that focus on activities that integrate what is happening in nature into the rhythm of daily life.

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Princess Anna and an Ewok watch as the lights float by. Photo credit: Sam Cook.

The wonderful thing about this tradition is that it has evolved with my children. They now help me make the ships, which are basically beautiful little candles in walnut shells, as well as help to design the game every year. The idea is to float your ships in a container of water and blow them from one side of the container to the other without blowing out the candles.

When my children were younger, I would give them straws to help direct their breath, but now they have gotten quite good! In the past few years, we have built more elaborate waterscapes with rocks and moss “islands,” around which they must navigate their little ships. We also love to make extras and give them as gifts. My favorite way to do this is to wrap three ships in a wax parchment bag with a little note of instructions on how to play the game. Blowing ships are easy to make and fun for every age.

This past Sunday, we decided to share our tradition with a larger group of kids, and everyone was delighted! Here’s how we did it:

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Photo credit: Sam Cook.

To get started, we gathered our materials in one place. You will need whole walnuts, tools (nutcracker tools, a flathead screwdriver, and pliers), wax flakes, a candle wick, an aluminum pouring pitcher, a larger pitcher or pot, and a container for the ships to float in.

In order to make the ships, you need to crack the walnuts into two perfect halves. Nutcracker tools tend to crack the shells unevenly. We found that a flathead screwdriver inserted into the seam of the walnut works much better. You’ll get more surface area covered as you use the screwdriver as a lever. If one side cracks unevenly, a pair of pliers is a great (and accurate!) way of pulling the unwanted pieces of shell off. Inevitably, not every walnut will separate perfectly, and that is OK. Just save the nuts and make banana bread the next day.

Once you have your walnut shells cleaned out, you are ready to pour your candles. While you are shelling the walnuts, you can heat up the wax on the stove or an electric burner. I like using soy wax flakes. They melt quickly and are much cheaper than natural beeswax. In order to melt the wax evenly and prevent scalding, put the wax in a pouring pitcher, and then put the pouring pitcher in a boiling pot (or larger pitcher) of water. Remember that this pot could get wax on it, so avoid using your best All-Clad that you got for your birthday after asking for three years.

When all of the flakes have liquified, it is ready. Pour a bit of wax directly into the shell. As a bonus, if any of the shells have small cracks, the wax seals them up and your ship will still float. Place them on wax parchment or in empty egg cartons to cool. When the wax gets cloudy, insert a small piece of wick (about 1 inch in length) into the center of your ship. You must wait until the wax is the consistency of Jell-O or the wick will just fall over. However, you must also remember to put the wick in before the wax dries!

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Photo credit: Sam Cook.

Once the wax has cooled completely, your ship is ready to set sail! A good beginning container to try is a lasagna pan. We also used a special zig zag pan (designed for all edge brownies) for more of a challenge. Finally, you can get really creative (as we have done) and build an entire waterscape with rocks, moss, and little people. Use whatever you have around to make a challenging course. Remember, the goal is to move the ship without blowing the candle out. (Helpful hint: Aim for the water right behind the ship!) Try practicing before lighting the candle, and let the kids figure it out. There is such triumph and celebration when they successfully pilot their ship! They also look festive just floating, in case you have extra. Everyone we have shared this tradition with has loved it and we hope you do, too.

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Photo credit: Sam Cook.