Five Easy Steps for Talking with Children about Art

5 Easy Steps for Talking with Children about ArtHave you taken your kids to see any good art lately? As a an art museum educator I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how adults can help children talk about and make sense of art. But why is this important? Talking about art is good for kids’ minds: it helps them think critically, develop strong reasoning skills, pay attention to nuance, and explore new ways of interpreting the world. But facilitating a rich discussion about an abstract expressionist painting or a life-sized bronze statue can be daunting to many adults who don’t feel like they have enough knowledge about art to share it with their children. Does this describe you?

Well, here’s a little secret: Information is not important. What’s important is helping children find ways to describe what they see. If you understand a basic methodology for discussing art with kids, you’re good as gold and your children will enjoy the process of discovery that unfolds.

I’ll give you an example: There’s a new wall-sized installation at the Stanford Business School by artist Peter Wegner. On a recent walk through campus, it caught my attention and captured my 3-year old’s imagination. Take a sec to watch this video and see what you think.

Pretty cool, right? I hadn’t seen it before and wasn’t prepared with any questions or ideas before discussing it with my daughter. We were both curious about what it was and how it worked, so we stepped up close to take a good look at it. I noticed that the color chips were flipping like pages in a rolodex (remember those?!), and that the whole thing morphed in seemingly endless ways. It was mesmerizing. N didn’t say much, but after she looked at it for a few minutes I asked her, “what do you see?”

She noticed that the colors were shifting, wanted to know how the colors moved, asked where the on/off switch could be found, mentioned the sound, wondered about the label, and asked if she could touch it. As you can see, there were a lot of questions! And a lot of questions that I didn’t have answers to! I turned a lot of her questions back around at her, which compelled her to think critically and look more carefully at the artwork. Here’s a conversation example:

Me: “How do you think the colors can move?”

N: “Maybe someone is behind the wall, pushing the colors forward,”

Me: “What do you see that makes you say that?”

N: “I think someone has to be back there because I can’t see how it moves.”

It didn’t matter if she was wrong or right; what mattered is that she was invested in the artwork enough to think for herself and think critically about the piece by reasoning through her ideas. After we chatted more about her questions, I suggested that we step far away from the piece and look at it from a different perspective, and then I again asked, “What do you see?” This time she talked about how small everything looked, how she could see everything at once, and which colors she could see the most of at any given moment.

 Because she noticed the label when we first began our conversation, we walked back up to the installation to talk about it. I explained what I could about what I read. I shared that we can look for labels next to art pieces in sculpture parks and museums in order to find clues about the artwork. In this case, we could find out the artist’s name, birth year and place of birth, title of the piece, year it was made, and the materials the artist used. But that’s all the label had to say…there’s so much more that can be discovered through close observation.

When we got home, she wanted to make her own color installation, so my husband suggested post-it notes as the medium. She loved this idea, requested a step ladder, and began sticking a sea of color on one of our walls.

The methodology I used with N is grounded a research-based teaching strategy called Visual Thinking Strategies. I’ve used this strategy with children and adults for years and have seen it pull amazing ideas out of the quietest participants. It’s usually introduced to children when they reach Kindergarten, but you can try it as I did with younger children who can carry on a conversation.

Five easy steps for talking with children art with children

  1. Find real art. Looking at a real piece of art can be a far richer experience than looking at a reproduction (like a poster)You don’t have to go to the “best” museum to make this happen, just find something that captures your child’s imagination. Talk about art in your home or look for a public sculpture in a town square. 
  2. Be open-minded. Expect that the child will have his or her own ideas about the art, and try not to interject your own ideas of wrong + right into the conversation.
  3. Encourage careful looking. Get up close or take a look from a different perspective (up high, the side, far away, walk around it)
  4. Ask open-ended questions such as “What do you see?”, What’s going on in this picture/sculpture/installation/etc.”and exploratory questions such as “Do you have any ideas about how the artist made this?”, “If you could add something to this artwork, what would you like to add?”, “If this artwork could talk, what might it say?”, “What would you title this piece?”
  5. Look for an opportunity for related art-making. Making art can help strengthen a child’s understanding and critical thinking skills as they interpret what they saw in two or three-dimensions.

Do you have any tips for successful art discussion with kids?

Water Beads and Kids | How to Play with Water Beads

Have you ever played with water beads? They’re slippery, squishy, and a surprisingly fun and addictive sensory experience for kids of all ages.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

If you’re even remotely connected to Pinterest or a fan of any of my fave blogs, there’s a really good chance you already know about these spectacular little sensory Water Beads by Aqua Gems. If it hadn’t been for the magic of the internet I never would have known these even existed, let alone tried them as a tool for exploration and discovery.

Supplies for Water Bead Sensory Experience

This list contains affiliate links

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Step 1

I set up our DIY light table and then N filled the top with about 1/2″ of water.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Step 2

Pour the tiny aqua gems into a small container for for your child to add to the water.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Step 3

Scoop the beads and drop them in. Watch them grow. This is great for teaching patience, and it’s fascinating to watch the beads absorb water.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Our Experience with Water Beads

As my child mixed them up, we marveled at how they grew….slowly….growing….slowly…(good lesson in patience!). N played with them while her sister napped and we set them aside for a couple hours. After snacks and a romp outside, this is what they looked like.

And it turned out that 14 month old Baby Rainbow enjoyed them even more than big sister. I was super cautious at first because little things that look like food go in the mouth, but after a few watchful “not for eating”comments, she was good to go.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

I tucked the light table under a kitchen cabinet and Baby R has gone back to dig it out at least five times since. I think she’s fascinated by the texture of the beads and can’t seem to get enough of them. I still keep a close eye on her when she uses them, but it’s helpful to know that the gems are non-toxic. In fact, she’s intently playing with them as I type. So maybe this post is really about “how to entertain your little one while you get things done.”

One last thing, the beads look really cool with light shining through them, but it’s not a deal breaker if you don’t have a light table. A clear bowl on a sunny day or in a well-lit room will work well too!

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

More Water Beads

For more Water Bead fun, check out Messy Kids’ Creepy Crawly water beads  and The Chocolate Muffin Tree’s Water Bead fun. And related to this, you might also be interested in the FAKE SNOW that we recently made.

Water bead and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Have you introduced your kids to Water Beads?

What are your favorite materials for sensory play?

My 14-month old is well-supervised when playing with Aqua Gems. Please use your best judgment when introducing young children to small objects.

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In case you blinked and missed it, TinkerLab rounds up all the great stuff on the internets on keeping you and your critters creative and wraps it up for you in a tidy newsletter! (And throws in some secret giveaways for good measure!)  – Yuliya P., San Francisco, CA

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  • How to simplify your life and make more room for creativity
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Most Awesome Local Blog!

We recently visited one of our favorite Bay Area kid spots, the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, and stayed until the kids could play no more. If you’re local, or just might visit San Francisco with young kids, definitely bookmark this as a destination. There are views of the Golden Gate bridge, wonderful nature-based exhibits, and when you walk in you’re greeted by this sign…

It pretty much sums up why I love this place so much. And it turns out that I’m not alone. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other people agree, as the Bay Area Discovery Museum was just named the Most Awesome Museum by Red Tricycle readers.

And you know what else? I nearly tripped over our sandbox when I learned that TinkerLab also won its category: Most Awesome Local Blog!  I was nominated with some other terrific blogs, and could only half believe the news. I’m already a huge fan of Red Tricycle, a free email newsletter of amazing things to do around town, so of course this made me drool with delight.  If you happen to live in the cities they serve: SF, Seattle, Portland, L.A., or San Diego, do check them out!  One last thing, two of my favorite blogs in Seattle and Los Angeles also won — Teacher Tom and The Twin Coach. Oh my!

Okay, so back to the Most Awesome Museum: We were so busy playing in the toddler zone and outside that we only had time for a photo drive-by of the art studio. I always love to see what they’re up to in there, and on this trip they had open-ended exploration of paper and tape. Families were invited to add their creations to the growing paper chains that dangled from the ceilings. I could totally imagine a version of this in my home!

On the way out of the Museum I spotted these plastic-bodied butterflies that were screwed right to the wall. Wouldn’t these look cool in my backyard?

So thank you, Bay Area Discovery Museum for another fun day, and to each of you who voted for TinkerLab and shared this blog with your friends. Not only is it an honor, but I’m also thrilled to consider that our creativity boosters may enter the consciousnesses of more parents, teachers, and caregivers.

If you have a favorite museum, I’d love to hear about it. Please feel free to share a name or link in the comments.

Gluten-free Cloud Dough

 How to Make Gluten-Free Cloud Dough

Gluten-free Cloud Dough

After I posted our Cloud Dough recipe last week, Amy from Kids in the Studio wanted to know if it could be adapted into a gluten-free cloud dough recipe. What a good question!

This isn’t the first question I’ve received about gluten-free recipes since starting this blog, and I realized that I should be more thoughtful about sharing information that can help parents and caregivers provide rich learning experiences for their children. The original recipe is simply a combination of 8:1 flour  to oil, so in the spirit of experimentation, I thought we’d replace flour with rice flour and see what would happen.

Gluten-free Cloud Dough Recipe

  • 8 cups rice flour
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • A few drops of Lavender oil (optional)
Mix the rice flour and oil together in a big bowl until the oil integrates into the flour. Add a few drops of lavender oil (or other favorite scent) to give your dough a yummy scent. Place the dough in a big high-walled tray or bin. Children can play with the dough with just their hands, or add scoopers, mixers, and small pots.

If you haven’t bought rice flour before, it’s not inexpensive, and I can see why Amy asked the question! I mixed 2 cups of organic rice flour with 1/4 cup vegetable oil until the oil integrated into the flour, and then shook a few drops of lavender oil into the dough to give it a soothing smell. So far, the main difference I could see is that the rice flour made for a slightly grittier dough, but otherwise it was lovely. The real test would be my kids. I put it in front of my 14 month old, and you can see that she was in sensory heaven. My 3 year old wanted to join in, enjoyed it, and never commented on a weird texture of the dough. As far as I could tell, she didn’t know the difference.

If you make this gluten-free cloud dough, I’d love to hear from you. And if you have a favorite gluten-free recipe to share, please add a link or recipe in the comments.

Experiment with Gluten-Free Cloud Dough

  • If you don’t have access to rice flour or if you feel like experimenting, try the same ratio of flour to oil with garbanzo flour, gluten-free baking flour, corn flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, or arrowroot starch.
  • Change the ratio of flour to oil and see what happens, as the suggested flours and starches (above) will combine differently with the oil.

More Play Doughs

If gluten-free dough doesn’t concern you, here are more dough recipes to try:

This recipe for the BEST play dough.

Non-gluten-free cloud dough.

Glow-in-the-dark play dough

Cloud Dough Recipe

How to make cloud dough with vegetable oil and flour

How to Make Cloud Dough

Cloud Dough…Have you heard of it? It turns out that cloud dough is one of the easiest sensory bin recipes around, and it is so rewarding to play with. Even adults will love it. One caveat: it can be messy, so take it outdoors if this is a concern.

How to Make Cloud Dough| Clough Dough Recipe| TinkerLab.com

Me either, and I thought I’ve heard of most everything arts+little kids related. Karen at Flight of Whimsy introduced me to the recipe, and as soon as I learned about it I knew my  3 year old would love it. The consistency of the dough is lovely to feel and hold. It can be powdery like flour one moment, and then moldable like damp sand the next. This brought HOURS of fun to my home, and maybe it’ll do the same for yours.

Be sure to scroll down for the printable recipe!

How to Make Cloud Dough| Oil and Flour| TinkerLab.com

We started off with 4 cups of Flour and 1/2 cup of Oil. The original recipe is an 8:1 ratio. I would have enjoyed having the full 8 cups worth, but I didn’t want to deplete my flour reserves, just in case.

Don’t worry about writing all this down. There’s a printable recipe at the end of this post!

Watch the video

How to Make Cloud Dough| Clough Dough Recipe| TinkerLab.com

N took the mountain-making and oil mixing job very seriously. We mixed it with our hands for about 5 minutes until the dough held together when we squeezed it. We could still see some oil lumps in the dough, but it didn’t have an adverse effect on the material. The original recipe called for baby oil, but canola worked beautifully for us. However, Karen did mention the lovely smell of the baby oil, so we added a healthy dose of lavender oil drops (found at our health food store) to scent the dough. Heavenly!

How to Play with Cloud Dough

How to Make Cloud Dough| Clough Dough Recipe| TinkerLab.comI find it fascinating to sit back and observe how my kids explore new-to-them materials. The first thing N made was a wall. A really strong wall.

How to Make Cloud Dough, the funnest, easiest dough recipe around | TinkerLab.comThen she crafted the dough into a bakery and soup cafe. These silicone molds are wondrous for activities like this.

How to Make Cloud Dough, the funnest, easiest dough recipe around | TinkerLab.com

She enjoyed picking up and squeezing small handfuls of dough. The texture was phenomenal.

How to Make Cloud Dough, the funnest, easiest dough recipe around | TinkerLab.com

The next day we brought it back out and shared the dough with some friends. And this is where I wished I had made the full 8-cup recipe. Hoarders!! There was so much scrambling for all the dough scraps, and I found myself patrolling more than I like to. So, if you’re making a batch for more than one child, 8 cups of flour + 1 cup of oil may be the way to go.

Cloud Dough Recipe

Cloud Dough

Rating 

The consistency of this dough is lovely to feel and hold. It can be powdery like flour one moment, and then moldable like damp sand the next. This brought HOURS of fun to my home, and maybe it'll do the same for yours...
Supplies
  • 8 cups flour
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • Essential oil such as lavender or grapefruit (optional)
Steps
  1. Scoop and pour the flour into the center of a large tub.
  2. Create a crater in the middle of the flour.
  3. Pour the oil into the crater.
  4. Gently mix it all together.
  5. Enjoy mixing and learning about the properties of the dough as it is, or add small silicone bowls, spoons, or measuring cups to make small structures, hills, or pretend cupcakes.
Notes
The original recipe is an 8:1 ratio and we started off with half the recipe (4 cups of Flour and ½ cup of oil) because I didn't want to deplete my flour reserves, just in case. Turns out that this was such a hit and a full batch would have been equally wonderful, especially after our neighborhood friends wanted to come over and play with us.

How to Make Cloud Dough| Clough Dough Recipe| TinkerLab.com

More Playdough and Sensory Activities

Rainbow Play Dough

Gluten-free Cloud Dough

Flubber Gak Slime Exploration

Vinegar and Baking Soda

Flour and Water

Flour and Chalk

Is this your first time here?

  • Join the Tinkerlab network and be the first to know about simple art + science projects for kids, creativity tips, and simple ideas that will make your life more creative. Sign up for our newsletter.

    TinkerLab Newsletter

    In case you blinked and missed it, TinkerLab rounds up all the great stuff on the internets on keeping you and your critters creative and wraps it up for you in a tidy newsletter! (And throws in some secret giveaways for good measure!)  – Yuliya P., San Francisco, CA

    Join our community and you’ll learn:

    • How to simplify your life and make more room for creativity
    • How to make hands-on making a part of your everyday life
    • Easy, actionable ways to raise creative kids

 

Tinkering on the Typewriter

I’ve been thinking about getting an old typewriter for a long while (this post from The Artful Parent struck a chord, and I love how Jean set up a writing area around her typewriter), but since I’ve been on a purging streak since the first of the year it was hard to justify the purchase, and find a good spot for it.

By the way, if you’re interested in organizing your life and home from the inside out, I found this book enormously helpful. Okay, so fast forward many months…closets are mostly cleaned out, the garage is full enough to host 3 garage sales, and I’m flipping through a copy of Cottages and Bungalows magazine when I come across this bit of inspiration…

I immediately got on craigslist and within minutes, I found a cool 1970’s Galaxie Deluxe for $20! After recently spotting another machine in our thrift store for $100, I knew this was a deal. Score! My 3-year old was so excited about it, and we made a big adventure out of going to pick it up, cleaning it when we got home, and just playing with it for a solid hour that morning. Typing, spelling, checking out the inner workings of the machine, asking questions about how it works, scrolling, pounding…

Amy at Let’s Explore has been making these wonderful List Poems about Fall with her daughters that are wonderful keepsakes of a fleeting moment in time. I’ve wanted to try this with N, to capture her thoughts of the Fall, and she was game! Here’s what she dictated to me…

Don’t you just love the variety and hand-made quality of the type? So much character!! I think this wil be a fun addition to our Thanksgiving…thinking about asking each of our guests to share a message of thanks that we’ll add to a memory book.

If you’ve been playing with typewriters, or have a thought about picking one up, what would YOU do with a typewriter?

This post is shared on It’s Playtime