How to Turn an Orange into a Hands on Learning Tool

Our days seem to have themes lately. Last week we had our “all about snails” day {read about that here}, and today seems to be centered around the giant bag of oranges that Squishy’s aunt brought by yesterday. We were all sitting around the table last night; Squishy was absently looking at the light through his slice of orange, I was peeling mine and putting the peel in my vinegar jar (more on that later), and my sister, out of no where says, “Isn’t it weird how you can just grow food, right in your backyard?”. Don’t laugh, she was completely serious. I totally did, though, and then I started thinking. Which is why I was laying awake at 2:00 this morning thinking of ways to incorporate oranges into our day.

Hands on Learning with Oranges

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Oranges are a staple in our lives from fall through the first winter frost. You can see them on every street corner, and most of our neighbors have at least one citrus tree. Squishy has spent many hours climbing up to pick some of this juicy fruit at his Aunt Meow’s house. He is especially fond of those little mandarin/clementine cross breeds called Cuties. We are lucky enough to get them at their freshest here in Central California.

Hoping that my plans would strengthen his connection to a nature he has already experienced, I decided to start with a very simple activity. While Squishy was still eating breakfast I set out a bowl of some of the oranges and a small pile of cloves. I didn’t tell him anything about the activity I just invited him to explore the objects.

Clove Oranges
I didn’t really know how this activity would go with Squish. I sat down after breakfast and started to make my own orange-clove ball, and let him decide if he wanted to join me or not. He picked up the orange and proceeded to copy my movements of puncturing the fruit with the end of the whole clove.

It was a little difficult for him to pierce the flesh of the orange with his little fingers, but it was great fine motor and pincer grip practice. When he started to get frustrated, I asked him if he would like to work together. He gave me one of his hundred watt smiles that I can never resist. I sat him on my lap and I pierced the clove through the toughest part of the peel, leaving a little bit out for him to push in. As I was pushing a clove into the orange, Squish gasped. “Did you see that?” He exclaimed as a fine mist squirted up into the air. I was wondering if he was paying attention. He concluded that it couldn’t have been juice because the juice is below the peel, and the burst happened at the moment of impact. In his mind the orange exploded, and the result smelled wonderful.

He lost interest in the activity after our examination of the zest, and proceeded to smash the cloves with the orange. The activity didn’t last long, but I am calling it a win on a couple different levels. He got some fine motor exercise in, he was being a keen observer, and using all of his senses. I left him to his pounding and went to gather the supplies for our next project. Monday’s are our baking or kitchen days anyway, so I came up with some interesting Kitchen Science to explore our oranges a little bit more.

After thinly slicing up several oranges with our mandoline, I set out everything else we would need to preserve the oranges.  We started with just dehydrating the slices. I had Squishy lay a single layer of orange slices on a baking pan lined with parchment paper. I gave him instructions to pick the best circles. We put them in a low oven to set. I turned the oven light on so Squishy could watch the dehydration happen. He would run over to he oven throughout the day to check on the progress. I had told him to let me know when they stoped looking juicy so we could flip them over.


Dehydrated oranges
I haven’t decided exactly what we are going to be doing with the dehydrated oranges yet, but I suspect we will be stringing them to go on our Christmas tree. Once those orange slices were in the oven, we started our candied orange slices.


Kids in kitchen candied oranges

Squishy has been cooking in our kitchen since he was strong enough to push a chair in there at about 2 years old. I know he is aware of the dangers, and knows our kitchen rules well. Still, though, I have a small panic attack every time he uses the stove. I’m sure that I will have a permanent scar in the shape of teeth marks on my tongue very soon.

Squishy’s favorite part of making the candy, besides just eating the sugar of course, was melting the sugar into the water to make the simple syrup. He remembered watching a Magic School Bus episode about molecules, and was explaining to me what happens to the sugar when it “disappears” in the water. I then got to tell him about what happens when you add a bit of heat to the mixture, and how that changes it forever.

I used this recipe from Paula at Call Me PMC to make the candy. It was a simple, straight forward recipe, and gave me and Squishy a lot to talk about. I did add a small twist to her recipe,though. After letting the orange slices dry for about 15 minutes, I had Squishy dump them in a small dish of sugar. He was able to dredge them around and play in the sugar for a bit. A perfect mid-day sensory activity. Then he had the added bonus of licking his fingers.

Kids cooking candied oranges
We had so much fun exploring this wonderfully versatile fruit. I feel like we touched on several of the same principles and lessons as we would have discussed outside. We also had the added bonus of eating some tasty treats. And they are oranges…so they are healthy, right?!

After they were dry enough to handle (we couldn’t wait the couple of hours recommended) we took one candy and one dehydrated orange slice to examine and compare. Squishy was really fascinated with how wet heat, dry heat and sugar could change the orange slice so dramatically from its original form.

Compare dehydrated orange to candied orange

That was the end of our “learning time” for the day, although learning really never stops when your homeschooling. Squishy and I had started another orange project a few weeks ago. He had been asking about other ways to use garbage, in reference to our compost bin. Since he has had such a preference for Cuties lately, I had decided to have him make an orange infused vinegar to give as Christmas presents. It’s a great visual for observing what happens to the orange when acid starts eating away at it. After lunch we revisited our Orange Vinegar to check on the progress, and add some peels from our Cuties.

Orange Infused Vinegar
It was exciting for him to see how the clear white vinegar had “stolen” the color from the orange peels. Instead of being colorless it had turned a nice rosy orange color, while the peels had faded to a soft peachy color. The peel had also become much more “squishy”.

Orange Infused Vinegar

After writing it all out it seems like we did a whole lot today, but all the orange activity’s slipped pretty seamlessly into our day. The best part was he was engaged with each project; asking questions, getting messy, and making mistakes. I hope our day full of oranges has given you a couple of ideas on how to bring the Outdoors~Indoors.

Turning an Orange Into a Hands on Learning Tool

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