There is something timelessly attractive about kites that appeals to young and old. Since humans cannot fly unaided, the soaring flight of a kite on a breezy day is the nearest most of us can get to experiencing the liberation from Earth that we envy in birds.
Even more exciting is making your own kite, something that children love doing. It is an excellent design and technology exercise, involving what national curriculum documents call a "focused practical task", and which the Scottish national guidelines say should "develop (pupil) awareness of features of design andI use (of) simple principles of the design process in the classroom". So you can have fun and knock off a few curriculum precepts at the same time - what could be better?
Incidentally, I do not put myself forward here as an expert in technology. As a child I did not spend hours playing with construction kits. I hated traditional woodwork, never even graduated to metalwork, and my rare attempts at using a potter's wheel start with an ambitious attempt to make an elaborate Greek amphora and end with a tiny candlestick. I drop screws down inaccessible cracks and glue myself to objects.
Nonetheless, I do enjoy technology activities, aided by the superb ideas of my colleague at Exeter, John Twyford, and kite-making is one of the best. There is an added bonus. Some technology projects seem to last forever. Organise it well and children can go from discussing principles of design to making a colourful kite and flying it in a single session - instant reward!
I start with a bit of science, capitalising on children's natural curiosity about the great phenomena of the universe. How do things fly? Lots of suggestions - wings, engines, jets, wind. "Flight" is a fiendishly difficult concept to explain simply, but children can usually get most of the ingredients and describe intuitively the forces involved.
When children fly a kite they are coping with four forces. The force of gravity would pull the kite down. But their muscles pulling in one direction and air resistance, especially on a windy day, make the kite fly, as the forces of weight, thrust, drag and lift all come into play. A wind of 10 to 20 miles per hour offers ideal conditions.
For children's first kite, I prefer to give them a template, so they can cut coloured tissue paper to fit. Purists will say they should try various shapes to see which flies best, but nuts to purity. I prefer them to make a kite that actually flies - they can experiment later.
The template is simply cut out of firm card. Draw a vertical line about 25 centimetres in length. Roughly seven centimetres from the top, make a mark and then draw a horizontal line stretching 15 centimetres either side of the vertical line, 30 centimetres in all. Join the ends to make a kite shape. Children then draw round the template on to coloured tissue paper and cut out their kites.
The stability is provided by two art straws, cut exactly to fit the vertical and horizontal axes. Flatten the straws and glue them on to the tissue paper. Steady with the glue, or the kite will be too heavy to fly - instead of art straws you can use strips of card, thin plywood, or strips of wood veneer (firmer than straws and they don't bend). Anything flat, light and firm should work. Add coloured streamers of tissue paper - about 40 or 50 centimetres long and one or two centimetres wide to the bottom - to make a tail.
The final touch is to cut a small piece of card about eight centimetres long and one-and-a-half centimetres wide; fold it into a W (with the centre of the W uppermost) and glue it on to the tissue paper side (not the art straws side) of the kite where the two straws meet. Punch a hole in it, tie a good length of cotton to it and the kite is ready to fly, once the glue is dry.
If it goes well, make different shapes and sizes of kite, seeing what flies and what does not. Pupils can decorate their kites with little pieces of tissue paper (a face, an animal shape, an abstract design). Use different-coloured tissue paper, and a set of kites makes a marvellous display. Most fun of all, however, is to go outside and actually fly them. The soul soars with the kite in the wind - wonderful therapy.
For follow-up work, they can write a story about the adventures of a boy or girl who flew away on the end of a kite or paint a picture of exotic kites in flight on a windy day.