MacArthur Foundation Awards "Genius Grants"

Have you ever dreamt of receiving a large sum of cash to pursue your creative dreams? You may have heard that the MacArthur Foundation just named twenty-three very surprised fellows as the recipients of this year’s “genius grant,” an unrestricted award of $500,000 to spend on projects of their choice. There is no application process for the award. Rather, recipients are chosen on the merit of their current work and its potential to further blossom with the time and resources that the grant money will afford them. Because the awards are often given to those who demonstrate high levels of creativity and innovation, I thought I’d share this and a few related  creativity links in honor of this notable event. The winners range from an Installation Artist (Jorge Pardo) to a Computer Security Specialist (Dawn Song). Interestingly, eight (yes, eight!) of the twenty-three winners hail from California!

And I have some questions for you…

What project are you currently working on that you’d like to expand upon if you had more resources? How would you expand up on them? If you were given half a million dollars to develop your next big idea, how would you spend it?

Preschool Leaf Collage

Leaf Collage for Preschool


Sticky Leaf Collage is a great activity for preschool children. It encourages them to collect leaves, discuss what kind of trees the leaves come from, create a composition, and preserve their leaves in a viewing sleeve. The collage can late be used as a placemat or window display.

Leaf collage with contact paper for preschoolers

California has been hit by a heat wave, so staying inside our hot cave of a house is barely an option. Despite the heat, there’s a lot of fall madness in the air — you can’t miss the mountain of gourds and pumpkins piled up at the markets, leaves are turning colors, and my favorite…spiced pumpkin lattes in the coffee shops. Mmmmm…


Steps: Preschool Leaf Collage

  • Collect Leaves
  • Name them and discuss what you found
  • Cut two identical sheets of clear contact paper
  • Attach the leaves to sticky side of contact paper
  • Place another sheet of contact paper on top to seal the leaves in
  • Display your collage if you’d like

We began by pulling out some clear contact paper. I encouraged my daughter to feel its tackiness, and then we discussed the process of collecting leaves and sticking them to the paper. We found an Easter basket (wrong season, I know!) and then took a walk around the neighborhood in search of leaves and other flat-ish treasures. This, by the way, is how we landed on a lemonade stand, so it pays to get out of the house!

After collecting (and naming!) the leaves, N stuck them on half a sheet of contact paper (sticky-side up).

Make leaf collage with a toddler

She filled in most of the spaces…good for understanding spatial relationships!

And then we smooshed the other half of the contact paper on top of the leaves. This was followed by two more walks around the neighborhood and two more collages. In our books, this activity was a hit.

When we finally came inside, contact collaging continued with magazine cut-outs, post-its, and googley eyes.


Identification guide for  kids: New England leaves

Nature Detective Leaf Identification Sheet: UK

Leaf Identification Activities

Why do leaves change color?

More Art Projects for Toddlers

12 Simple Art Projects for Toddlers |
For more toddler art projects, you may enjoy the easy-to-set-up activities that use mainly everyday materials in 12 Simple Art Projects for Toddlers.

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Craft Foam in the Tub

Here’s a clean creativity-booster that doesn’t involve scrubbing paint out of clothes or scanning the rug for bits of smooshy play dough. It’s also fabulous for folks with limited art-making space. I wish I could claim this idea as my very own, but when I saw this on Filth Wizardry (Leslie over there is so creative), I knew it was something my pocketbook would adore and my daughter would get hours of creative fun from. And now, you should feel free to steal it from me (via Leslie)…immediately…and not feel an ounce of guilt about it.

Start with some foam sheets. I picked these up at JoAnne Fabrics for .69/sheet. Good deal!

Cut the foam into desired shapes. I kept mine pretty simple (rectangles, triangles, circles, half circles, hearts, etc.) so that the process of playing with them could be open-ended.

And then cut some more shapes. Use pinking shears to make shapes with zig-zag or curly edges, or use cookie cutters or a die-cutter to create more elaborate shapes.

Find a suitable container

Let your kids play! Just dip the foam in water and watch it stick to tiles, glass, or porcelain…pretty much anything slick. The first night we played with these, the joy came from getting all of the pieces up on the wall.

The second night we busted these out, it turned into a color sorting game. And then on the third night (nursing baby and supervising bath…sorry no pictures!), we started building symmetrical patterns. I can already see how this activity will grow as my daughters grow. There are endless possibilities for learning shapes, colors, telling stories, and designing monsters or cities…to name a few.

Ideas for guiding discovery:

1. Ask your child to find all of the red (or purple, green, etc.) pieces, and then all the blue pieces…

2. Ask your child to find a circle, square, star, etc.

3. Encourage your child to build a path in one color.

4. Suggest that your child build monsters or animals with the pieces.

5. If you have older children like Lindsey, give them some foam sheets and safety scissors…in the tub…so they can invent the shapes they want as they go.

Slapdash Slide

While I’ve been on baby duty this past week, my husband has been an incredible pal to our older daughter, and it’s been inspiring to watch them develop their own style of play and invention. We both believe strongly in paying close attention to our child’s interests and then helping her grow beyond her current capabilities, which is how this little activity emerged.

On this snoozy weekend morning, N really wanted to hit the park and run around, but my sleep-deprived husband was still rubbing his eyes and nursing his coffee. A middle ground was found with a few rounds of couch somersaults, and then my DH struck gross-motor toddler gold when remembered the large piece of wood we picked up for my inverted-board-turn-the-breech-baby exercises. Add in a yoga mat for friction and a few pillows for protection, and the slapdash slide was invented.

One of the pillars of our parenting philosophy lies in the idea of the zone of proximal development, a learning theory developed by renowned psychologist and cognitive theorist, Lev Vygotsky, which can be described as the gap between what a learner has mastered and what a learner is capable of doing with help.

In this case, our daughter loves climbing and tumbling. Combine building the slide with some dialogue and a few gentle suggestions, and she was soon diving down the slide head-first, turning her body sideways to scoot down in “the splits”, and walking up and down the slide. These are all things she could do at the park, but with other kids around we ask N to play it safe and have good playground etiquette. The beauty in this activity is that it was all hers, and she could explore and push herself as she desired.

What games and toys have you invented with your kids? In what ways have you guided a child master a skill that was too difficult for him or her to master alone?

Flour and Water

We recently attended a back-to-school event at my daughter’s preschool, where her teacher shared a funny and inspiring story that involved a messy flour and water sensory activity. With my ears on the alert for fun and thoughtful creativity-builders, I knew immediately that this was something we had to try. It’s unbelievably simple and requires no art supplies…all you need is flour and water. It’s so straightforward, in fact, that I’m almost embarrassed it wasn’t already part of my repertoire. Strip your kids down and get ready for some messy flour fun. This activity is all about activating the senses, and will entertain your toddler or preschooler for a good long time. Guaranteed.

Before you get started, be prepared for a bit of mess, although nothing too cray-cray since it’s just flour and water. I set us up in the kitchen and placed the materials on a low table covered in oil cloth.

Our materials included a large mixing bowl, three little bowls, and a spoon. Two of the little bowls were half-full of flour, and the third was three quarters full of warm water. The large bowl was empty. Without giving her any directions, I merely placed the materials in front of my daughter and encouraged her exploration with comments such as “you’re dumping the flour in the large mixing bowl” and “what does the dough feel like in your hands?”

Pouring water with a spoon.

My daughter started by pouring all of the flour into the large bowl and mixing it dry. After playing with it for a bit, she requested more flour. I gave her two more bowls, one white and one wheat, and we talked about the differences for a moment before the scooping resumed.  After moving all of the flour into the large bowl, she scooped it all back up with her spoon and divided most of it up into the little bowls until they overflowed. At this point the water was still untouched, which really surprised me as I imagined she’d hastily dump the water in the large bowl in one big pour. Instead, she gently poured the water, spoonful by spoonful, into a small bowl of flour and mixed it in. And she was very careful to keep her hands clean throughout! No surprise there, as my child is obsessed with napkins and tidiness.

Hand mixing.

But as the activity escalated, one hand finally succumbed to hand mixing, and then the fun really began. She had a running commentary throughout the process that was fun to witness. I sounded something like this, “Now I’m mixing it with my hand. It’s like dough. I’m pouring more water in. I’m making bread dough. Can we make this in the bread maker?”

At the end of it all, she asked for a mid-day bath, and my trusty assistant/Mother-in-Law and I were more than happy to oblige.

More sensory ideas

  • Fill a tub with beans, rice, or sand. Offer your child small bowls and scoopers for filling and dumping.
  • Play with shaving cream.
  • Mix corn starch and water. What a strange feeling!
  • Play with ice cubes in a warm bath.
  • Shine a flashlight or experiment with a glow stick in a dark room.
  • Blow out candles.