Plant a Garden with Kids

Do you have a little spot of dirt for your kids to garden in? If not, today I’d like to challenge you to think about your outdoor spaces and see if you can come up with a spot that’s just for the kids. It can be anything from a large plot to a couple of planters.

Children learn through hands-on experiences, and this project will enable them to spend time outdoors, design their own garden, and make a deep connection with plants and nature.

If you live in the Northern hemisphere, there’s a good chance that you’ve been knee-deep in dirt at some point in the past month. We have a small garden that’s keeping us busy with our share of vegetable planting, soil tilling, and outdoor beautifying.

In the process of involving my kids in all my garden projects, they’ve grown their own fascination for dirt, creepy crawlies, plants, roots, and flowers. When my neighbor suggested that we turn a sad and dusty little spot of land between our houses into a kids’ garden, I knew this would be a fun project for us.

We started out with a chat about the dirt patch, and I shared that she would have the opportunity to design her own garden. We talked a bit about our vision and she couldn’t wait to get to the garden store.

I gave her a limit of fifteen plans, and she had to make some choices.

When she spotted these technicolor cacti, she decided that she wanted a section of the garden to be a cactus garden. Not exactly kid-friendly, but it’s what she wanted. And I have to agree that these little plants are spectacular. We decided to put them into a planter on the side of the garden.

kids in the garden

I outlined the space with some bricks that remained from a neighbor’s garden excavation. Score. We then filled the space with three bags of garden soil (2 cubic feet each).

My Father-in-law bought my kids a little kid rake last summer, and it was perfect for this project. We also picked up some new gardening gloves, which I think go a long way for generating enthusiasm for a project like this.

Oh, and since it was a hot day and water would be involved (at some point), my kids insisted on the bathing suits. Love it.

kids in the garden

kids in the garden

Nutmeg chose the big pavers to line a path in her garden.

kids in the garden

She decided on the direction of the path and I helped her set them into the dirt.

kids in the garden

And then she decided where her flowers would go. I mostly dug the holes, just to make sure they were deep enough. Little Rainbow wasn’t such a big help, but she hung out, wore her new garden gloves, and talked about the dirt and flowers. Success all around.

So, what do you think? Do you have a little spot of land or a few planters you can set aside for your child to dig in, design, and call their own?


I’ve partnered with GoGo squeeZ, the first squeezable, re-sealable, no-mess, 100% fruit, no-sugar added apple­sauce based snack for kids in the U.S, as a Playbassador, which means that I have more reasons to share fun outdoor activities that celebrate play and creativity. All opinions in this post are my own.

GoGo squeeZ believes in the simple mantra of “always play” and is putting this belief to work through the “Pass the Play” campaign with the goal of bringing the simple joy of play to those who need it most across the country. GoGo squeeZ recently announced their brand new flavor, Apple Cherry. This flavor will be hitting stores in July!


Thrifting for the Garden

Is it warm in your part of the world? Are your kids spending lots of time outdoors?

Summer is here and our garden is getting so much attention. My kids are happy when they’re outside, so I’ve been thinking up ways to turn our outdoor spaces into play pockets and learning laboratories.

thrifting garden

In addition to our water wall, fairy garden, and outdoor drawing studio, my children and I headed over to one of our bigger thrift stores in search of low-cost inspiration for building out some new creativity corners in our garden.

thrifting for the garden

Going to a thrift store with kids can be overwhelming, and I wouldn’t recommend it if yours like to run in every direction, but the experience can be educational as well as fun. We donate a lot of our gently used toys and clothes to the thrift store, so the full-circle story of use and re-use is not lost on my children You can give older children a budget and allow them to make some purchases of their own, and watching children play with toys can help you decide what’s worth buying.

The home goods section of our thrift store is nicely organized, and I decided to head straight for the wood and basket areas to keep our focus on objects that would fit in nicely with our outdoor space.

thrifting for the garden

I found all of these nifty pieces for about $25. So what did we get?

  • My one-year old chose a cute little hand-made wooden bench for $5 that fits her perfectly
  • A few baskets that are perfect for treasure hunts
  • A table-top easel
  • Wicker picnic basket
  • Small wooden manger turned into doll house

manger doll house

Everything we picked up has been put to good use. Most popular, fo far, has been the basket-treasure hunt game with my 21-month old. We’ll scatter treasures and rocks all over the garden, which she collects. And then we start all over again.

thrifting for the garden

My favorite thing about this experience is that I spent a minimal amount of money for maximum impact. And my second-favorite piece is that you just never know what you’re going to find, and that element of surprise is perfect for kids’ toys and activities.

My children don’t care if something is brand-new or not, but high quality is important to me. I’d rather spend $3 on a nice used wooden stool than $10 on a brand-new plastic stool. I don’t always have such good luck on thrifting adventures, but with a little bit of luck and effort I usually come home with something wonderful.

How about you? Are you a thrifter? What treasures have you found in your second-hand shops?

Tinker Tots: How to Take a Plush Toy Apart

Tinkerer: one who experiments with materials and ideas to fully understand their capacities, and who further iterates on their learning to find better solutions to current problems. 

Tinker tots: Take a plush toy apart, using an unloved toy.

Tinker Tots is a series of projects where I  share tinkering materials or tools that can be safely introduced as open invitations for children to explore and tinker.


  • Toy or Stuffed Animal that could be easily taken apart. Choose a toy that’s not well-loved, or do what we did and pick one out at the thrift store. Our criteria: A clean toy that my daughter was interested in deconstructing.
  • Scissors


To learn how a toy is assembled through hands-on exploration, and have fun along the way.

You might want to brace yourself for this one as it may seem a bit graphic. although my 4-year old didn’t seem to be unsettled by this at all. I’ll share some photos to inspire you, along with my daughter’s thoughts on the process.

tinker with stuffed animal

N, who I call “Nutmeg” for the sake of this blog, was able to cut parts of the toy open, and I helped make sure she used the scissors safely and also helped cut the more difficult parts. She wanted to start by cutting off the doll’s arms.

Nutmeg: Let’s call this “animal-cutting-open-pouch.”

Me: Do you like taking things apart?

Nutmeg: Yeah, I do. This one is especially fun because it’s hard to cut open. When you open it you see everything inside.

tinker with stuffed animal

This was followed by cutting off the nose and cheeks, which she could tell were filled with fluff. She wanted to pull every last bit out, which we stored in a large bowl.

Nutmeg (to me): Now cut the nose off.

Me: What do you think is in there?

Nutmeg: More cotton. That looks ridiculous!

tinker with stuffed animal

We turned it inside out to find some clues as to how it was made.

Me: How do you think this was made?

Nutmeg: I don’t know. I wonder how they put the hair on. That’s a big mystery. But the biggest mystery is how they put the whole thing together. That’s what we’re trying to find out.

tinker with stuffed animal

Me: What did you think would be inside?

Nutmeg: I thought cotton would be inside.

tinker with stuffed animal

Once the toy was disassembled, she came up with a plan to glue some of the pieces to paper, and this was followed by cooking with the stuffing. She also asked to save the stuffing in order to make our own stuffed toys.

tinker with stuffed animal

Tinkering is about hands-on experiences, learning from failures, and unstructured time to explore and invent. And through the processes of exploration and invention lies the potential for innovation.

Do you think we were successful? We took a stuffed animal apart — can you think of other toys that could be easily and safely disassembled?

This project is inspired by the Exploratorium’s project: Taking Toys Apart. They have a wealth of tinkering activities on their site and it’s worth pouring over if you like this sort of thing.

More Tinkering Ideas

Follow my Tinkering board on Pinterest

Why is Tinkering Important?

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. -Thomas Edison

hammering nails tinker

Hammering in the Mud Pie Kitchen, Tinkerlab

True to the name of this blog, Tinkerlab, I’m excited to start a new series called “Tinker With…” where I’ll introduce new tinker with materials, categories of materials, or tools that can be introduced as open invitations for children to explore.

The first Tinker With… will be tomorrow, so read on about why tinkering is important and then be sure to check back tomorrow for more.

What is Tinkering?

Tinkerer: one who experiments with materials and ideas to fully understand their capacities, and who further iterates on their learning to find better solutions to current problems. 

Last week I wrote an article called What is Tinkering?, and you may enjoy taking a peek back to read it.

In its classic sense, tinkering is about puttering around with electronics or machines, but in this more up-to-date definition, tinkering is about playing with materials and figuring out how just about anything can be assembled.

Tinkering is about hands-on experiences, learning from failures, and unstructured time to explore and invent. And through the processes of exploration and invention lies the potential for innovation.

gum drop building

Gum Drop Sculptures, Tinkerlab.

Why is tinkering so important and why should we care?

Tinkering is important because it can help children understand how things are made, enables children to have focussed and unstructured time to explore and test ideas, and it’s at the heart of invention.

Think of Thomas Edison as a classic example.

tinker tinker

Hammering nails into Rain Stick. From Anna at The Imagination Tree

Edison may be best known as one of the most prolific inventors in history. He’s responsible for the first light bulb, stock ticker, electrical power, and motion pictures.

And do you know how it all began?

Edison had a rough childhood. Due to illness, he started school late at the age of eight and was deemed unfit for education by the schoolmaster. Hard to believe, right? His mother chose to homeschool her son, where he learned at a much higher level than he would have been at in school.

At age ten, Edison built a chemical lab in his cellar. Soon thereafter, he was obliged to take a job selling sweets and newspapers on a train. He found an opportunity in what could have been drudgery, and built another laboratory for himself in the back of the train (very industrious and tenacious of this young boy!). In this train job, he further learned morse code and became a proficient telegraph operator.

Overall, he learned how things work together, he was a resourceful self-starter, and he created opportunities to test his ideas from a very young age.

power drill tinker

Taking apart a machine. From Kristin at Sense of Wonder

The world has changed a lot since Edison, but opportunities for tinkering and invention still abound! So I pose this question as something that we can unpack together:

What can we do to give our children opportunities to think like Edison?

Woodworking, from The Chocolate Muffin Tree

Raising a maker-kid doesn’t mean we have to outfit our homes or classrooms with high tech equipment or tools that our outside of our budget or comfort zone. Think back to Edison who was motivated to build a lab in his basement. What we CAN do is provide our children with opportunities to explore materials, take things apart, and imagine new possibilities through the process of invention. And this can be done simply by providing them with low-cost materials and time to tinker.

We’re entering a new era of invention and innovation, and if we want our kids to be prepared for this DIY movement, now is the time to provide them with cardboard boxes, rolls of tape, tools, and a lot of free time to explore and experiment.

makey makey tinker

In addition, we’re fortunate to live in a time where hacking and a DIY spirit are in full swing. Open-hardware invention kits like MaKey MaKey (above), magazines like MAKE and its related hacker-art festival, Maker Faire, open-source software,  maker camps such Camp 510, and websites like Instructables make this an exciting time to be a tinkering maker-kid.

Tinker with…

I hope you’ll join me tomorrow for the unveiling of our first “Tinker With” challenge.

Special thanks to The Chocolate Muffin Tree, The Imagination Tree, and Sense of Wonder for sharing their tinkering images with me.





DIY Masa Play Dough

masa play dough

What? You’ve never heard of Masa Play Dough? Oh yeah, me either! The dough has a crumbly texture and leaves your hands oily, although they felt more moisturized than greasy (the base is coconut oil, which is used in beauty products). The dough also has a lovely tortilla scent that I really enjoyed.

Are you ready? Follow me, and I’ll show you how it’s done.

colorful tortillas

I live in California where there’s no shortage of Mexican food, and we happened to visit one of my favorite Mexican markets last week where I spotted these colorful beauties! My toddler was racing toward the bananas with her mini shopping cart, so I barely had a chance to snap this shot, but I’m really curious to find out what makes these colors so brilliant! Next time I’ll look.

While I was there I grabbed a bag of Masa Harina, a special corn flour that’s prepared with lime and used to make corn tortillas. I was invited to join the Play Dough Pledge (with The Imagination Tree, Nurture Store, and Sun Hats and Wellie Boots) this week, and thought we’d give masa play dough an experimental whirl and see how it holds up against my favorite play dough recipe.

masa play dough ingredients

After a long search for masa play dough turned up absolutely nothing, I realized I’d have to figure this out on my own. Eeeek. But this experimenting mom wasn’t fazed.

I adapted what follows from my play dough recipe and a few others I found online. Because this recipe calls for corn-based flour, I’m not sure if cream of tartar is necessary, but I was too chicken to leave it out. If you have a thought on this, I’d love to hear from you.


This was a test, and I’d encourage you to try your own recipe, or play off of ours. This is a cooked play dough, which means that it should have a longer shelf-life than the uncooked varieties. If you’ve ever made corn tortillas, the dough has a similar texture to tortilla dough. And you could just make tortilla dough if you didn’t want to go to all this cooked trouble, although the oil that’s added to this dough keeps it from quickly drying out and will give it a longer life-span.

  • 2 cups Masa Harina
  • 2 cups Salt
  • 1 tbsp Cream of Tartar
  • 5 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 cups of water
  • food coloring or liquid watercolor

Mix masa, salt, and cream of tartar in a large pot. Put it over a low heat and add in the oil. If it’s solid, allow it to full melt into the dry mixture. Slowly add water until the mixture is smooth. Play Dough will be ready when it pulls away from the sides of the pot and is somewhat dry in appearance. If the dough turns out too dry, add more water and/or oil. Squeeze small amounts of color into the dough and mix until you reach the desired color.

I added an additional tablespoon of oil at the end because it felt like the dough was drying out.

When you’re done with the dough, store it in a sealable plastic bag or food storage container.

masa play dough

I removed our dough from the pot before the color was fully mixed in because I knew my kids would enjoy hand mixing it. My toddler loved the warm dough and the sensory experience of repeatedly poking her hand into it.

masa play dough

I pulled out some play dough tools and she covered the dough with a mountain of cookie cutters.

masa play dough

Then we made cupcakes and snacks with a wooden knife and ice cube tray.

masa play dough

And I tested out the dough with cookie cutters too. The texture is grainier and more crumbly that our favorite play dough, but my children played with it for close to an hour, if attention span is any test of it’s success.

And I’d say it is.

So there you have it, Masa Play Dough. You heard it here first!