8 Ideas to Kick-Start Creativity in the New Year

8 Ideas to Kick-Start Creativity in the New Year | TinkerLab.com

Creative New Year’s Resolutions

As a maker, tinkerer, writer, and designer, every January my brain goes into creative mode with the question, how can I kick-start creativity in the new year? Because I know that I’m not alone in this quest, I dug through my notes and archives to raise eight ideas that can help add some creative flair to life.

Whether you’re already a die-hard artist or a dabbler who could use a little boost, these ideas should present a bit of inspiration for us all (me included!).

1. Start a Sketchbook

Since I’m a super visual person, a sketchbook is my go-to spot for recording ideas. If you like to set up daily rituals for yourself, try to set aside just ten minutes each day to draw, paint, stencil, etc. Don’t be harsh on yourself. To get started, simply start with a sketchbook. This one is a favorite (affiliate), and experiment in it.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Fill a page with circles.
  2. Put some music on and draw to the beat.
  3. Fill a shallow bowl with paint and use it to stamp common materials such as a cork, straw, or fork.
  4. Draw clouds. See if you can come up with 15 different ways to draw them.
  5. Take a walk. Every time you reach a street corner, draw one thing that you see.
  6. Paint with leftover morning coffee

Read How to Use a Sketchbook to Boost Creativity for more ideas on this topic. You might also enjoy this simple sketchbook prompt and this post on why I carry a sketchbook.

One of the more inspiring daily sketchbook feeds that I’ve come across is by Jennifer Orkin Lewis who goes by August Wren on Instagram.

2. Keep a Journal

Similar to keeping a sketchbook, a journal is good way to document ideas, inspiration, and plans.

Some helpful posts in this category are Why you should keep a journal (Life Hacker) and Keeping a journal can change your life (The Change Blog), which includes 10-minute exercises with each suggestion.

3. Set up Mystery Trips

If you’ve never taken someone on a mystery trip, you are in for a huge treat.

Mystery trips first showed up in our family after my in-laws learned about them from their friend Joan. Joan and her husband, Larry, would take their kids on mystery trips to places that their children might otherwise moan and groan about. But when they added the element of surprise, and reframed a dreaded family outing with something like, “Hey kids, we’re taking you on a MYSTERY TRIP tomorrow!” the mood lifted and everyone jumped on the excited train.

Mystery trips can add spice to otherwise ho-hum events, or add extra flair to something truly spectacular. Many years ago, my husband-to-be bought plane tickets to a mystery location. Shortly before departure he revealed that Italy would be our destination, and then proposed to on a cliff in Cinque Terra. Talk about a great reveal!

We took a mystery trip with friends the other day to see a huge public light show, followed by dinner at a favorite Italian restaurant. While it wasn’t a trip to Italy, it turned out to be a night to remember. See #5 of this post for more on Mystery Trips.

4. Collaborate with a Friend

This is a creative new year’s resolution that I’m excited to try this year: Find a willing and interested soul to co-create with.

Sometimes making things with a partner can be the best way to find and nurture new ideas. Other people can inspire us with their unique outlook on the world and different way of doing things. If you’d like to start your own collaborative art-making night, there’s a project in San Francisco, headed up by Courtney Cerruti, called Social Sketch that you may find inspiring. And if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, the next Social Sketch will be held on January 7 from 7 pm – 10 pm at Mua Oakland.

Collaborative drawing exercise with one or more players:

Start with a sheet of paper and pens (the same or different colors – you choose). The first player draws in the middle of the paper. The second player adds to the first drawing and then passes it along to the next player. You can tun the paper, attach your drawing to another or have it hang apart. Make up your own rules. Continue until you decide it is done.

5. Take a Class

Whether you have an untapped interest in ceramics or have always wanted to learn how to make perfect pizza from scratch, a class will infuse you with energy and knowledge to tackle these new challenges.

If you have a child who’s old enough to take a class, consider signing up together. My mom signed us up for a pizza-making class when I was about eight years old, and it was such a fun and memorable experience for us both.

There might be a community center near you that offers affordable classes, or maybe you have a friend who could teach you how to make her show-stopping cioppino. I just signed up for an online course at Stanford University, and it’s free! There are plenty of classes online like those that my friend Jean has been taking with Craftsy. And in-person classes can be found in unexpected places, like the cooking class my husband and I took at Sur La Table.

6. Be Wrong

Most of us don’t want to be wrong. Am I right? :)

However, being wrong can be soooo liberating and fun. Which of these two scenarios sounds like more fun?

1. Building a perfect scale model of your home.

2. Building an interpretation of your home with toothpicks and play dough.

Hmmm. Unless you’re an architect who revels in the nuance of detailed elevations, I’m guessing you went with #2. And if I’m wrong (hooray!), you might really need this tip!

When we allow ourselves to be free of perfection, we give ourselves the opportunity to bounce into new territory and come to unexpected conclusions.

If you feel like perfectionism is keeping you from trying new things and stepping outside of your comfort zone, make this the year that you celebrate mistakes. Many of the world’s most successful innovators are not risk-averse, and would never have created their masterpieces or inventions without a ton of experimentation, testing, and iteration. There are some great links to failure-forward articles at the end of this article, and thoughts on the importance of nurturing a fail-forward mindset in kids over in this article. 

7. Give Yourself Time

“Complex cognitive processing takes time, and, without some reasonable time for that processing, creativity is almost impossible.”

This quote comes from a Harvard Business Review article, which makes a strong case that creativity requires time. If you really want to make this a year to make and create, be sure to carve out time for it. Here are some ideas:

  1. Set your alarm clock an hour earlier than usual. Use this quiet time to journal, draw, write, or exercise.
  2. Do you frequently wake up in the middle of the night? If you find yourself with the conundrum on what to do with broken sleep, this well-researched article suggests using that time for creative work.
  3. If you have a young child (who naps), put aside the housework and use this time to focus on a creative project.
  4. Get a wide range of inspiration on how artists work and organize their time in the new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (affiliate)
  5. If you have children, work for an hour after they are in bed
  6. Give yourself a weekly artist date night. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way (affiliate), first inspired me with this idea. More on artist dates here, and here’s a list of 99 Artist Date Ideas.

8. Invite Randomness Into Your Life

Surprises that come from randomness will boost you to look at old things in new ways, and can infuse your life with little bursts of inspiration. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Get lost in your own town. When I was little, my grandparents would drive me around Los Angeles and invite me to decide which direction the car would travel. At every intersection I would holler out, “left,” “right,” or “straight ahead,” and before you knew it we would be “lost.” So much fun! Invite a child to get “lost” with you, give yourselves a time limit (or not!), and see where you end up. Document the journey with photos of your destination.
  2. Give yourself a small amount of money to spend in a second-hand store, and then turn that trash into treasure. Will you make a skirt from a pillow case or a jewelry dish from cast-off china? The object/s that you find will determine what you make.
  3. Open up a cookbook at random. Make the dish that you see on that page.
  4. Close your eyes and pull three markers from a box. Color only with those markers for one week.
  5. Go to an art museum with a notepad. Look at art and come up with your own titles for the pieces. Create a running list of titles. When you get home, make doodles that represent each of these titles. The doodles do not have to replicate the original artwork.

9. What else would you add to this list?

I know, I promised you eight things, but of course there are more that I could have added. I had to stop somewhere since my window of free time to create was quickly closing. What would YOU add to this list?

More Articles for celebrating a Creative New Year

5 Resolutions for a Creative New Year

Family-friendly New Year’s Resolutions

My resolutions for 2014

The Best Art and Creativity Books for Kids

Easy Handmade Gifts | Cookie Dough Jars

Easy Holiday Gifts (that kids can help assemble) | Cookie Jars | TinkerLab

Easy Handmade Gifts, made by Kids

Could you use an idea for easy handmade gifts that kids can help with?

I’ve been thinking of different ways that my kids can get involved in gift-giving. They’re four and six, so it had to be something they could both help execute AND get excited about. Oh, and if the gift happened to look good, well, that would be nice too.

Well, friends, this easy cookie-dough-in-a-jar is just the project, and I would wholly encourage you to give it a try if you’re also looking for an easy gift to get the kids involved in.

Bonus: we have tested these cookies twice, and they are truly divine. They bake like chocolate chip cookies, with the added subtlety of oats, tart cherries, and walnuts. Feel free to leave the nuts out for nut-free cookies.

Handmade Holiday Cookie Jars | TinkerLab

Inspiration for this project came from Kids in the Holiday Kitchen (affiliate link), from Chronicle Books. My mother-in-law gave us this book a couple years ago, and it comes out every year for holiday cooking. The book is full of so many great ideas for cooking and crafting with kids in the kitchen. If you can grab a copy before (or after) the holidays, it will be worth your while.

If you click on the link you can peek inside. But I digress, for today I’m sharing how to make these rad cookie jars that are 100% kid-friendly.

Handmade Holiday Cookie Jars | TinkerLab

Start by cleaning and drying your jars.  The jars you’ll need for this are quart-sized mason jars and you can find them on Amazon: here (affiliate). I was surprised that the girls were so enthusiastic about this step. I found some little washcloths for them to dry the lids while I dried the jars.

Easy Handmade Handmade Holiday Gift } Cookie Jars | TinkerLab

Then we filled them. This was our favorite part. I filled a big bowl with each ingredient, one at a time, and then scooped out the appropriate amount for them to transfer into the jars.

Because we were making large quantities, I was able to find most of the ingredients at Costco. They carry tart cherries, organic sugar, and large sacks of flour. I was surprised that they didn’t carry brown sugar when we were there, but that’s easy enough to find elsewhere.

What goes in each jar

Recipe for Oat Walnut Chocolate Chip Cherry Cookies. For nut-free cookies, leave the walnuts out. You could replace the walnuts with another favorite such as pecans or almonds, and of course, the cherries could be replaced with raisins. Get creative!

Layer the following ingredients in the jar, in the listed order:

1/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup packed light brown sugar (tap the brown sugar down before you add the next ingredient)

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 cup dried tart cherries

1/2 cup rolled oats (not instant)

3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Easy Holiday Gifts | Cookie Jars | TinkerLab

Once the jar is packed, you could cut a circle of fabric out as we did, and seal your jar ring around it. Add a tag with the following information:

Oat Walnut Chocolate Chip Cherry Cookies

Makes 24 cookies

Pre-heat oven to 375 F

Beat 6 tablespoons of soft or melted butter, 1 egg, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla.

Add all of the jar ingredients to the bowl and mix until well blended.

Drop in round spoonfuls onto cookie sheet.

Bake for 7-10 minutes (We like our underdone. If you do too, err on the shorter side).

Easy Holiday Gifts | Cookie Jars | TinkerLab

One more thing: Because it’s always a good idea to test a recipe before you gift it to a billion people, and, well, these are wicked good, make a batch for yourself first like we did. Yum yum.

Easy Holiday Gifts | Cookie Jars | TinkerLab

More Handmade Gift Ideas

Handmade cards that kids can make.

Handmade Valentine Cards with heart-shaped envelope

Last-minute DIY gifts to make with kids

Party Dresses in the Art Studio

We’ve been in our new art studio for about two months, and it’s starting to feel like our second home. I’ve been busy planning and prepping for workshops and a keynote talk, so there hasn’t been as much making time in the space as I would like, but we’ve managed to spend a fair amount of time tinkering, crafting and making over there. Here’s a little sampling:

Art Projects at TinkerLab

Homemade journals, sewing stuffed animals with my 4-year old, crafty Saturday with my brother-in-law, Painting salt dough ornaments. 

To celebrate our new digs, our friends at Poppy England sent my kiddos (and me!) party dresses to wear in our new space. And they’re rad!

Poppy Dresses on TinkerLab

I was first introduced to Poppy England’s dresses when I was lucky enough to win a contest hosted by Maggy Woodley of Red Ted Art. (If you don’t know Maggie’s site and you love crafting with kids, you’ll want to bookmark it). As the winner of Maggy’s contest, Poppy sent my older daughter the sweetest dress from the Boats and Floats collection (see image below). She loved it so much that she wanted to wear it for her first day of school. Awww.

Boats and Floats Poppy England

Since that wonderful introduction, I’ve become a full-0n Poppy fan, and we’re excited to share our new party dresses (and a peek into our slowly-coming-together studio) today.

My kids love any excuse to take photos (as in, they love to be behind the camera), so I set up a tripod and let them have at it. They were entertained.

Kids in the art studio | TinkerLab.com

And here’s the photo they captured of me. Not bad!

Poppy Dresses on TinkerLab

I should mention that the fabric of these dresses is beyond cool…and very thoughtful. I selected my dress for the hardware pattern, which seemed too apropos for our new studio. Take a look at the little hammer, power drill, and and wrench details. Charming!

My girls picked out matching snowstorm patterns. The grey and black fabric is punctuated with balloons that are little bursts of yellow and lime green. These sweet linen dresses would be so cute for winter holiday parties.

Art Studio Party Dresses on TinkerLab

The kids caught me with this sort of pensive, confused look, which is probably how I look all the time. If you know me, you’ll have to let me know :)

Artist, Rachelle Doorley in Art Studio | TinkerLab

And after that bit of photo-taking passed, we were back to our usual silly, maker selves.

Poppy Dresses on TinkerLab

You can see how the studio is filling out. I’m trying to keep it somewhat clean and empty because lots of space keeps my head clear. Here’s a look at how it looked when we first started to move in:

Artist Rachelle Doorley in Art Studio | TinkerLab.com

And my favorite is this time lapse of us pulling all the furniture in:

Thanks, Poppy England, for helping us make our new maker home so much fun!

Girls’ Dresses: Martha Snowstorm in Grey

My dress: Ava Long Sleeves in Hardware

Gift Ideas: tons of unique products that would be perfect stocking stuffers.

Bonus: Poppy England is offering TinkerLab readers a special 15% off discount with the code TINKERLAB15, which ends on January 7, 2015.

A question for you: Which Poppy England Dress is YOUR favorite?

click here for all of their dresses.



Art Workshops in Palo Alto and Portland

I can’t believe that we’re approaching the end of the year! What?! Is it really already December?

Before the year wraps up, I’m planning to participate in two really fun family events, and hope to see some of you there. For both events, I’ll lead a hands-on workshop, and will have signed copies of my book, TinkerLab: A Hands-on Guide for Little Inventors, available.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area or around Portland, Oregon, please stop by and say hello…

Special bonus: if you’re planning to come, drop me a note in this form and I’ll have a little something extra set aside just for you :) What is it? Well, you’ll have to stop by and find out.

Want some details? Here you go…

Palo Alto, CA

Art workshops with Rachelle Doorley of TinkerLab at the Palo Alto Art Center and Portland Art Museum

Sunday, December 7, 2-4 p.m

Palo Alto Art Center

1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto


Celebrate and prepare for the holiday season! Children ages 5 and up and their families are welcome to an afternoon of creative holiday artmaking. Come for a special opportunity to help artists-in-residents Lauren DiCioccio and May Wilson create their fabric sculptures, which will be exhibited at the Palo Alto Art Center!

Portland, OR

Art workshops with Rachelle Doorley of TinkerLab at the Palo Alto Art Center and Portland Art Museum

Sunday, December 14, 2014, 12:30 – 2:30 pm

Portland Art Museum

Bring the family and enjoy free admission to the Museum all day. Also, join Rachelle Doorley, author of TinkerLab: A Hands-on Guide for Little Inventors (2014), for an all-ages workshop that explores art-making and creativity through process-based experiments.

Rachelle Doorley in Palo Alto, CA and Portland, OR

Hope to see you there!

More events?

See more events, past and future, here.

Play with Gelatin | from 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids

Play with Gelatin | from 150+ Screen-free Activities for Kids

Have you ever found yourself so busy that you’ve lost track of the things that keep you sane? A couple weeks ago I was preparing for a keynote talk in the little bits of free time that crop into my week. Preparing for this talk was an amazing experience for a few reasons:

  1. I had the chance to speak with 250 undergraduate education students about the importance of arts education
  2. It helped me hone in on my point of view on this beloved topic (Cliff Note version — Because artists think like inventors, an arts education has the capacity to build innovators). Hopefully I’ll have more for you about the keynote soon.

The talk was a success, but the hardest part about this busy time is that I put so many things on the back burner, including all of the fun activities that this blog is built upon. My kids are now largely self-sufficient when it comes to making and inventing, but they also love to spend time tinkering with me.

And so, within minutes after coming home from the talk, my 4-year old and I pulled out 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids (affiliate) and got busy making up a big batch of colorful gelatin. Why?

So that we could play with gelatin, of course!

150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids is a wonderful recipe and activity book that’s filled with “the very best and easiest playtime activities from FunAtHomeWithKids.com“. The author, Asia Citro, is an experience teacher with a strong science and education background, who is here to make parenting a little easier and a lot more fun with her new book. She also happens to be a friend of mine, and I think she’s even more rad now that I have my hands on her amazing book.

To give you a sense of what’s inside, the book includes…

  • 5 Slime recipes
  • 13 Dough recipes
  • 9 Paint recipes
  • 17 Activity ideas for small world play
  • 16 Simple Sensory Activities (the project I’m sharing today is from this category)
  • 18 Do it yourself Toys
  • Asia offers tons of suggested variations for many of the activities. For the gelatin project alone, she offers six variations including fizzing gelatin and frozen reusable gelatin)

Play with Gelatin | from 150+ Screen-free Activities for Kids

How to Make Gelatin

(Note: This post contains affiliate links)

My older daughter and I made this recipe a few years ago, with a slightly different twist that was built around injecting clear Jell-o with colored water, and it was fun to revisit this with my little one (who’s growing way too fast, by the way!).

  1. Pour one cup of cold water into a mixing bowl
  2. Sprinkle 4 packets of Knox Gelatine over the cold water. Let it rest for one minute.
  3. Add 3 cups of hot water to the bowl and stir until the gelatin dissolves.
  4. Mix food coloring or liquid watercolors into the gelatin mixture.
  5. Coat another mixing bowl with cooking spray or oil.
  6. Add plastic (washable) toys.
  7. Pour the gelatin mixture over the toys.
  8. Place in the fridge for about 3 hours, or until it sets.

Play with Gelatin | from 150+ Screen-free Activities for Kids

How to Play with Gelatin

  1. Remove gelatin from the mold. I ran a dull knife around the edges to help release the gelatin.
  2. Plop it onto a tray
  3. Excavate your toys
  4. Play with gelatin
  5. Melt it all down an refrigerate again for more gelatin play.

The last time I shared this project some readers found it ironic that we submerged toy animals in gelatin. I know, I thought about that too. If you’re not comfortable working with animal-based gelatin, this vegan jelly seems like a great option.

Play with Gelatin | from 150+ Screen-free Activities for Kids

Asia’s book, by the way, is fabulous. Go on and give it a look-see. And take a peek at my new book, too, while you’re there!

More Sensory Play Ideas

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities?

Make colored rice

Sensory play for babies

Sensory play with tapioca pearls

Sensory play with shredded paper

Sensory experience: Water Bead exploration

Sensory activity: Wheat berries

Sensory activity: Wet paper

Join the TinkerLab Community

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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

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