Child's Play

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Draw me a cat," implores my 4-year-old daughter, pushing a crayon and a piece of paper into my hand. Gulping hard, I pick up the crayon, wondering at what point in my life drawing a cat became one of life's important tests.

"A giraffe?" says my daughter, studying my finished product. "Oh, that's OK. I wanted a giraffe too," she adds charitably.

Now I've managed to do a thing or two in my life. I've traveled, earned a bunch of degrees and even bought a home in L.A., but I've never learned how to draw--which shocks my children. And an impressive financial portfolio or the ability to speak four languages means nothing to a kid who wants you to make a paper airplane.

Unfortunately, the child "experts" have little to offer here. Nothing in Brazelton about knock-knock jokes. Not a word from Penelope Leach about how to pull a bunch of flowers out of someone's nose. Sometimes being a "good enough" parent just isn't good enough.

So for all those parents like me who have forgotten--or who never learned--these important life skills, here are the real experts.

* This paper airplane design comes from Marguerite Morgan-Cargo, an engineer with Rocketdyne's space shuttle main engine turbo machinery staff:

Start with a 9 1/2-by-11-inch piece of paper. Fold the paper in half down the longest side. Open the paper as if you were opening a book, then fold the upper corners down toward the center of the sheet, making a point at the top of the paper.

Turn the paper over. Fold the triangle toward you at the line where it meets the rectangle so it lies on the rectangle's back. Take what are now the top corners and fold them toward the center crease so they touch each other about 1 inch above the triangle's tip.

Now fold this little tip over the touching corners to secure the corners in place. Bring the right and left outside edges toward the center, lining them up along the crease. (Don't be alarmed--if you've folded this right, your plane should have a blunt, not pointed nose.)

You should have what looks like an A with a blunt top and two little wings extending beyond the bottom edge. Now fold the paper again in the center to reinforce the fold along the longest side. Hold the plane in the center and open the wings. Morgan-Cargo suggests using a little tape on each end to hold the plane together. Give the wings a little bend to make sure they're flat across the top and you're ready to fly your new plane.

* Paul Kimball, one of the first animators to work for Walt Disney, created such memorable felines as Alice in Wonderland's Cheshire Cat and Lucifer from "Cinderella." While he admits the easy way out might be to draw an oval with a circle on top and then filling in eyes, ears and whiskers, to really draw a cat, you have to know one. "You've got to have a relationship with a cat before you can draw one," he says, noting that the devious Lucifer was drawn from one of his own six-toed cats.

Kimball also suggests browsing through picture books and copying the illustrations until you get the hang of it. But nothing, he says, replaces observation. "They have different personalities and you have to take the time to know all the funny ways cats walk and play and sleep before you can draw them."

Mari Hulick agrees. Hulick, a Los Angeles artist who teaches art classes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says drawing a cat has little to do with circles and triangles and everything to do with actually looking at a cat to see the animal's true shape. "Adults who draw stick-figure people and lollipop trees have a visual memory of these objects but they haven't really let themselves become aware of what these things really look like," she says.

"If you can write your name you have the motor skills to draw," she says. "Anyone can draw a cookie-cutter cat. But art is about how you see the world."

* "The best stories are those from our own lives when we were kids," says David Novak, master storyteller for the Disney Institute and storyteller with the Music Center on Tour.

"Even if the story appears to be very ordinary--'Let me tell you about the time I rode my bike down the street and hit a neighbor's tree'--that still can be fascinating to a child if you really give yourself time to go into the events. We forget our childhoods are now history and there are all kinds of things exotic in our childhoods that we take for granted, like turning off a black-and-white TV and watching that little bright dot in the middle of the screen."

Novak says when in doubt, tell about getting in and out of kid trouble. "You'll always have a good story," he says. "You have the structure of a beginning, a middle and an ending, and kids love hearing these kinds of tales."

Look also to the child's own life for story ideas, Novak says. "Watch your child, listen to what's going on during the day and then when you're snuggled together before bedtime, you can begin a story about what happened to a little boy who lost his purple Popsicle because it fell on the sidewalk."

Storytelling is the original virtual reality, Novak says. "It's a living process so relax and just begin talking. A story is never ready until you begin telling it."

* Here's an easy-to-master card trick from David Thorsen, an instructor of magic for the Magic Castle and professor of music at Cal State Fullerton:

To prepare for this trick, place the four aces on top of the deck. Have the spectator divide the deck into four face-down piles, making sure the top of the deck (with the four aces) becomes the fourth pile.

Demonstrate what the spectator is supposed to do by picking up the first pile and placing the top card of this pile on the bottom of the second pile. Take the new top card from the first pile and place it on the bottom of the third pile. Place the next top card from the first pile on the bottom of the fourth pile.

Still holding the first pile, place one card on top of each of the three piles and put the first pile back on the table.

Now have the spectator repeat the procedure for the second, third and fourth piles.

Finally, turn over the top card of each pile and voila!--four aces.

* And for those times when you need one boffo bug fact: Call them pill bugs or roly-polies or sow bugs, just don't call them insects because your garden's armadillidiidae are crustaceans like lobsters and crabs, says Dr. Art Evans, director of the Natural History Museum's Ralph M. Parsons Insect Zoo. To tell if a creepy crawler is a bug, ask your child to count its legs: Insects have six, spiders have eight and roly-polies have 14, "completely out of the bug thing," Evans notes.

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