Found Object Art | Junk Critters

I’m a huge fan of breathing new life into long-lost materials, and I’ve been making found object art pieces like these since I was a kid.

Last weekend my friend, Danielle, and were in Napa to lead a fun, fast-paced Maker Session at the California Association of Museums annual conference.

For our workshop we brought these cool hands-on mystery boxes that my kids oohed and ahhhed over before I headed off to play in wine country.

Tinkering Kits

The tinkering kits carried similar materials, but the nature of collecting found objects meant that each maker box was unique. I’ll share images from the workshop with a close-up on how adults interpreted these materials shortly, but I thought you might be interested in seeing what kids made of these.

My kids were my prototype testers, after all.

Found Object Art - Make a Junk Critter |

Collect your junk supplies

Before the boxes were even filled, we experimented with some basic materials like ribbon, wood scraps, fabric swatches, paper baking cups, markers, and plastic party beads.

You’ll need:

  1. Junk
  2. Something to cut the junk (scissors)
  3. Something to attach the junk (glue gun – Amazon link to our favorite one)

Found Object Art - Make a Junk Critter |

Invest in a low-heat glue gun

There are always people who gasp when they see kids handling hot glue guns (maybe that was you…no worries) and I’m here to tell you that kids are capable of using glue guns.

Here are a few glue gun tips for kids:

  • Use a low-heat glue gun like the Cool Shot (Amazon link). I’ve been using this model for years, and it’s fabulous. If you spend more than a few seconds touching the tip you could theoretically burn yourself, but I have yet to see this happen.
  • Explain the glue gun rules to your child ahead of time: don’t touch the tip, try not to touch the hot glue with your bare hands

Found Object Art - Make a Junk Critter |

Add some eyes

My 3-year old worked on this one. She added goggly eyes to make it come alive, but of course you could draw eyes on or cut eyes from paper. Googly eyes are an awesome invention, and truly animate anything they’re stuck to. We have a pair on our stapler, and “he” looks like a little alligator.

Found Object Art - Make a Junk Critter |

We foraged the recycling bin for more objects and had some fun with building blocks and pom-poms: all stuck on with the miraculous glue gun.

Found Object Art - Make a Junk Critter |

Share your found object art critters

When you’re all done creating, put your critters on display, play with them, take photos of them, carry them on a walk and take photos of them in different places. The options are endless. More sharing ideas:

Share on Facebook

And if you’re really brave, snap a photo and share it with me on my Facebook page!


When I was at the conference we asked participants to take a photo of their critter and tag it with #tinkercritter. Here’s on example. I love it! Go check out their critters and upload your own to Instagram. Don’t forget to tag it with #tinkercritter!

More Found Object Art

This cool Pinterest board from Mary Briden

Louise Nevelson painted on assemblages made from wood scraps in the 1950’s.

Joseph Cornell made these gorgeous diorama boxes that were filled with all sorts of curious ephemera.

Boston Children’s Museum Pop-Up Recycle Shop

Boston Children's Museum Pop-Up Recycle Shop | Tinkerlab

We spent some time in Boston over the winter break, and had the great pleasure of happening upon the Boston Children’s Museum’s Pop Up Recycle Shop. The Recycle Shop has been a staple of the museum for over 35 years, and lucky us, they’ve brought it back just for the holidays.

If you find yourself in the Boston area in the next few days, it’s open through January 1, 2014, and totally worth a visit. Hours posted here.

We were lucky to meet the Alice Vogler who oversees the space, as she gave us a little tour and talked with my children about the various materials. Alice writes an outstanding recurring blog for the Children’s Museum website called Creative Confidence, and you should check it out if you like learning about how to raise creative children.

recycle pop up shop bags and room

The Pop-up Recycle Shop is located on the second floor, next to the Art Studio.  When you walk in, grab a bag and fill it with industry cast-offs that most kids see as treasures, full of potential for sculpture-building, art-making, and all sorts of inventions. My children each filled a big bag with shiny papers, tubes, and materials to make bird’s nests.

recycle pop up shop bags

According to the museum, “all of the materials are provided by Extras, a clearinghouse that recovers tons of material from being burned or thrown away and redistributes it for creative educational use.”

There’s a similar organization near our home, located in San Jose, CA called RAFT. I’ve been thinking about compiling a list off all of these reuse spaces — would you find this useful? If there’s a creative reuse organization near your home, will you add its name in the comments? [UPDATE: You can find a complete list of creative reuse centers here, courtesy of Lancaster Creative Reuse]

recycle pop up shop collecting

The space is only open for a few more days, but Alice mentioned that it’s been a huge success and will probably return again.

After filling a bag with goodies, move next door to the art studio, where you can make an upcycled character from wood scraps, felt, cups, and other found materials. I love how the simple act of adding googly eyes or eye stickers to an object brings it to life.

I’ll share a few photos as inspiration, because even if you’re not in the Boston area, these little figures are easy to replicate with found materials that you likely already have lying around the house.

recycle pop up shop characters2

recycle pop up shop stuff

recycle pop up shop characters

Happy Making!

Jellybean Matzo House

 This article was first shared in April 2011.

How to build a jellybean matzo house for Passover.

We had more than our fair share of Easter sweets this weekend, but I had a plan all along to purge our house of all that extra sugar by “gluing” it to some sort of base, like a paper plate, and calling it art.

As I talked to my almost three-year old about the idea, we mused over what we could glue our candy to. Something bigger than a cracker. Something flat. Something hard. Something we already had in our pantry.

And then it occurred to us — Matzo!

The irony of mixing Easter jellybeans with Passover matzo isn’t lost on me. As I laughed about this with my husband, we also realize that this is a fair representation of of our melting pot family. And I’m sure we’re not the only ones these ingredients on hand?!

What I especially love about this project, which looks oh-so-similar to the beloved gingerbread house, is the reminder that we can borrow ideas from other seasons. Here’s another seasonal mash-up from last summer: Easter in August.

How to build a matzo house

N started with some matzo and enjoyed breaking it into smithereens. She’s two, after all. Totally unusable for this project, but super fun.

If you’ve ever broken matzo with the intent of making neat little sandwich, you know that matzo has a mind of its own and can be completely unpredictable.

First, break your matzo…carefully

After accepting my fate that we would use uneven pieces, my husband messed around and came up with this strategy: Place the tip of a knife into the middle of the matzo, on the groove that you want to break…

And then press down.

It’s still a little wobbly, but it worked SO much better than my sad attempt at breaking them by hand.

I since found another strategy that sounds worthwhile: dip your finger in water and run it down the groove you intend to crack. It will soften the matzo just enough so that you can get a clean break.

Then we attached the pieces together with ornamental frosting, which dries hard. Our ornamental frosting was too runny for the job, but I’ll share the recipe below just in case you want it. Instead, I’d recommend the royal icing recipe that we used for our gingerbread houses.

Recipe for Royal Icing


  • 1/8 cup Meringue Powder
  • 1/4 cup Cold Water
  • 2 cups sifted Confectioners Sugar

Add water to meringue powder and beat until soft peaks form. Add sugar into the mixture and beat until it’s the desired consistency. Add more sugar for stiffer icing.

Ornamental Frosting

Used in the pictures of this article

  • 4 cups powdered sugar (one box)
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 3 egg whites

Blend it together until smooth. If you’re not using the frosting right away, cover the top of your bowl with a damp towel to keep it moist.

We attached the “wall” pieces to a large matzoh base.

And then added jellybean decorations. That leaning wall is the result of one of my hand-breaking attempts. Sad. Looks like a foundation problem.

I finally conceded to the frosting-coated jellybean eating request. I can be tough!

We thought the white frosting made this was looking way to wintery, and not at all spring-like…

…so we colored our frosting green.

And then there was more…eating! It looked a bit like Roman ruins…

How to build a jellybean matzo house

So we added a roof. Voila! Jellybean Matzo House (with icicles) for Spring.


Do you have a good idea or tip for making candy houses?

This post was shared with Craft Schooling Sunday, Skip to my Lou, Sun Scholars

DIY Paper Pyramid Lanterns

I have such a heavy heart today, friends, because we lost one of the good ones in this world. My dear friend, Steve, who happens to be one of the funniest, wisest, and most generous people I know lost his long battle with cancer.

I wasn’t planning to post anything today, but the glow of these paper lanterns made me think about Steve’s shining light, and I thought I’d dedicate this post to him and his incredible wife, Jen.

Grab a few battery-operated tea lights, a favorite paper (in this case security envelopes!), scissors, and tape, and you're ready to make these simple DIY lanterns to illuminate a dark winter night.

These were inspired by the Paper Lanterns from Willowday, and if you change up the paper patterns (or maybe make your own), these could become party decorations, Halloween luminaries, or bedroom night lights.

If you you happen to make these lanterns (and why wouldn’t you — they’re rad!), I like to think that the glow might remind you that we’re each filled with enough light to brighten a friend’s darkest hour. Go on — spread some joy today. Life is truly short and we each have the capacity to touch the lives of others.

So let’s get started. Here’s what you’ll need…

How to Make Paper Lanterns

  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Hole Puncher
  • Clear Tape
  • Ruler
  • Battery-operated votive candle
Because I drew my triangle free-hand, and you shouldn’t have to go through all that trial and error, here’s an equilateral triangle for your printing delight:
equilateral triangle
If you know me, you know that I like to get my kids involved in hands-on learning, and this is a good way to teach children how to carefully outline shapes, which in turn teaches patience and accuracy.

make a paper lantern

Step 1: Draw an equilateral triangle (or scale and print it) and cut it out.

Make paper lantern

Step 2: Trace it onto a sheet of paper FOUR times.

We drew ours onto a security envelope because we like to upcycle around here. And I’m super crazy about the patterns on these.

how to make paper lanterns

Step 3: Cut the whole shape out.

Step 4: Tape it together and punch holes into the sides if you’d like.

Step 5: Add a battery-powered tea light (not a real candle, please, safety first) and decorate like mad.

how to make paper lanterns

I love you, Steve and Jen. You’ll always be in my thoughts.

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Celery Science Experiment

How to set up a simple Scientific Experiment with Celery and Food Coloring :: Tinkerlab.comWhile I’m an art educator by trade, having small people pulling at my pants has turned me into a mini-alchemist who’s suddenly found herself reading books to her kids about Galileo (The Magic Schoolbus and the Science Fair Expedition) and brewing all sorts of concoctions in our kitchen (vinegar and baking soda, anyone?).

The celery science experiment is easy to achieve with basic kitchen materials and it’s embedded with all sorts of opportunities for introducing the scientific method (in short: asking scientific questions, making predictions, and conducting an experiment).


science food coloring celery experiment


  • Celery with leafy tops
  • Clear glasses
  • Water
  • Food coloring

The Celery Science Experiment

N poured water into three glasses. about 3/4 cup in each.

Then she added a few drops of food coloring — 5-8 drops, but who’s counting! — into the glasses and stirred with a piece of celery, which was left in the glass. And then we talked about what might happen if we left the celery in the colored water for a while.

science food coloring celery experiment

We oohed and ahhed over the lava-lamp effect of the food coloring as it hit the water.

The Scientific Method: Make Predictions

We started off with red, yellow, and green, but N really wanted to mix colors and added blue and red to the green water (far right). We revisited our earlier discussion and made predictions about how the celery might change.

While waiting for something to happen, I chopped the celery heart off the bottom of the stalk and set up a printing activity.

N humored me by making a few prints and then asked if she could play with colored water. Totally!

While I only have one photo of this, it was probably the highlight of the afternoon.

capillary action

When we checked the celery a couple hours later, this is what it looked like. I put a leafy top next to it so you can see how subtle the change is. Hmmm. While I could see the change, I wasn’t sure it would make a big impact on my daughter. And then I realized that I should have just put the leafy parts in the water for a more dramatic result. Done!

A few hours later the blue/green had the most pronounced shift, but the red and yellow were visibly different too.

capillary action

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the red and blue-green died celery tops, about 16 hours after the stalks had been sitting in the water. N seemed to appreciate the difference, but wasn’t nearly as impressed as her dad and I were.

How the Celery Science Experiment Works

Plants need water to survive and they draw water up from their roots through their capillaries. The capillaries are hollow and act a lot like a straw. Adding color to the water helps us visualize this usually invisible process.

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