Pumpkin carving is one of fall’s most beloved traditions. There’s no surprise on the timing; 80% of the pumpkin supply in the US is available in October. My kids enjoy every step of the process, from picking a pumpkin to choosing a design to hollowing out the pumpkin to carving it. Each member of the family gets to carve his or her own pumpkin, as well as one or two extra pumpkins that we carve together. By the time Halloween night rolls around, we have at least a half dozen carved, decorated and illuminated pumpkins adorning our front porch.
Needless to say, we end up with a lot of pumpkin guts and seeds — but none of it goes to waste. The guts make a wonderful stock that can be used as a base for soups and stews, and the pumpkin seeds are even more versatile. They can serve as healthy family treats or as snacks for the birds in the yard. The seeds are also a unique crafting material and an even rarer math manipulative, great for activities like counting and sorting.
Here’s how to give the classic macaroni art project a seasonal and mathy twist with pumpkin seeds:
1) When you pick your pumpkins, estimate the number of pumpkin seeds inside. Ask your child whether he or she thinks a correlation exists between the pumpkin’s size and the number of seeds — will bigger pumpkins have more seeds inside? Fun fact: it’s said that most pumpkins have about 500 seeds.
2) Scoop out the pumpkin seeds, rinse them well, and leave them to dry for 6-8 hours.
3) Once the seeds are completely dry, count them out. Instead of counting them one by one, have your child count them out into batches of ten, then count the number of batches and figure out the total number of seeds. Compare your estimates to the actual number of seeds.
4) Decide how many colors you want to dye your pumpkin seeds, and then divide your pumpkin seeds among the number of colors you want. This is a great time to introduce the concept of ratios. Ask your child questions like: do you want to divide your pumpkin seeds equally among the number of colors, or have twice as many red seeds as you have blue seeds? Challenge older kids to figure out how many red, blue, and green seeds they will end up with if they have 240 seeds and a 5:4:3 ratio.
5) Dye the seeds. For each color, you will need a cup filled with 1/2 cup warm water and 1 tablespoon vinegar. Add food coloring to each cup. Pour in the dried pumpkin seeds, stir, and leave for at least 30 minutes (the longer you leave them, the more intense the color will be).
6) Spread the seeds out on a baking sheet lined with paper towels to dry (at least 6-8 hours, preferably 24 hours). Have your child note the time they started drying, and work together to figure out when the seeds should be done.
7) When it comes time to gather up the dried seeds, be prepared for a brief (or not-so-brief) interlude: I don’t know of any child who can resist grabbing a handful and letting the seeds spill through their fingers! The dried, colored seeds are not only pretty, but they’re pretty perfect for sensory play. Give your child a chance to play with the seeds for a while, or set aside a bunch of seeds for your artwork and put the rest in a mini pumpkin seed sandbox. In addition to running their little fingers through the seeds, they like to build little mountains with them, arrange them into lines and shapes and patterns, mix them up, and sort them back into separate colors.
8) Have your child draw the outline of a favorite fall image on a sheet of construction paper: a pumpkin, an ear of corn, a tree, an owl. This is a wonderful opening to talk about estimation and surface area. How many pumpkin seeds will it take to fill in the design?
9) Have your child fill in the design with pumpkin seeds. Use craft glue to secure the seeds onto the paper.
Now that you’ve counted, sorted and done all sorts of math with your pumpkin seeds, it’s time to move on to using those math skills on the real Halloween treasure—candy!
Photo courtesy of Ana Picazo