Recycled Art Sculpture | Mystery Box Challenge

Do you have a box of recyclables with a plan to turn them into art or something amazing? Today we’re sharing one of our favorite recycled art projects using found objects, inspired by this project at the Boston Children’s Museum. and the Random Challenge Boxes from Matt Jervis at Make it Creativity.

Recycled Art with Upcycled Materials

Recycled Art Sculpture |

I recently led a fun maker station for the California Museum Association’s (CAM) annual conference that we called the Mystery Box Challenge. While we often share child-led projects here on TinkerLab, the participants in this challenge were all all museum professionals. To see how my children interpreted the same prompt, click here. This project was inspired by the Art Studio at the Boston Children’s Museum.

Mystery Box Challenge

For the Mystery Box Challenge, I prepared a bunch of boxes by filling them with all sorts of interesting found objects and trinkets: pieces of wood, surplus plastic, cupcake holders, pipe cleaners, pom-poms, etc. Each participant received their own box with a prompt to make a critter from any or all of the supplies in the box.

I found the boxes at the craft store, some of the supplies came from RAFT (Resource Area for Teaching, a non-profit that sells low cost surplus materials for education), and others were found at the craft store and a local party store. We were also lucky to receive a generous donation of low heat glue guns and glue sticks from Blick Art Materials.  Thanks Blick!!

My colleague and art buddy Danielle and I set everything up, and then we waited for people to show up.

TinkerLab Mystery Box Challenge |

The table got busy and it was amazing to see the high level of focus from our incredible makers as they cut, glued, assembled, and invented their characters.

TinkerLab Mystery Box Challenge |

TinkerLab Mystery Box Challenge |

Once their critters were done, we invited everyone to have us take a photo of their inventive designs. Those who were on Instagram tagged their images with #tinkercritter. One of the best things about an open-ended prompt like this is to see how differently each person interprets the invitation and materials.

We were blown away by the creativity and ingenuity in the room!

Recycled Art Sculptures with Found Objects | Mystery Box Challenge |

Recycled Art Sculpture |

Margie, Director of Education and Public Programs, Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

Mary, Graduate Student, University of Washington

Tyrena, Camp Coordinator, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Recycled Art Sculpture |

Jamie, Mutual of America

Elizabeth, Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

Carl, Director of Education, Curiodyssey

Recycled Art Sculpture |

Maria, Museum Studies Student, San Francisco State

Elise, Long Beach Museum of Art

Dawn, Curator, Heidrick Agricultural History Center

Recycled Art Sculpture |

Conny, Graduate Student, San Francisco State

Kristine, Community Education Director, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Mandi, Exhibit Envoy

Invite us to your School or Event

Thanks to everyone who played with us in Napa at the CAM Conference. It was so nice to meet each of you. If you’d like to have us come out and lead this or another maker project at your school or event, shoot me an email at rachelle at

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Clay Menorah for Preschool Children

How to make clay menorahs in preschool | TinkerLab

Today I’m sharing how to make easy clay menorahs that are easy for toddlers and preschool children. These are made with air-dry clay, so no baking is necessary.

air dry clay menorah with kids

This post contains affiliate links.

Supplies – Clay Menorah

  • Air Dry Clay
  • Small bowl of water
  • Clay tools such as popsicle sticks, rolling pins, and cookie cutters
  • Acrylic paints for painting the surface. Liquitex is a solid brand.
  • Mod Podge or acrylic clear coat to seal it with a shiny coating

The Set-up

Cover your work surface with a vinyl tablecloth or work on a non-precious surface that easily wipes clean.

If you’re making a Hanukkiah (it holds nine candles, rather than seven), talk about the story of Chanukah and how the Chanukah menorah has eight candles + 1, the shamash, to represent the miracle that oil burned continuously for eight days.

Invite your child/ren to make menorahs. Encourage creativity and original thinking.

air dry clay menorah with kids

We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas in our home, so, as some might agree, our children get the best of both worlds! But it can also be a tricky mash-up of cultures, but I guess it makes sense to my kids who know nothing else.

The other day we discovered a new-to-us A-mazing teacher supply store, and came home with a 2.5 pound bucket of Crayola Air Dry Clay to make our very own menorahs. It cost just $5, and I cannot recommend this clay enough.

It feels just like the clay you throw pots on, and my kids were enthralled by the texture. So unlike play dough, and it has the potential to make long-lasting objects.

air dry clay menorah with toddler

We started with a mound of clay, rolled it out with our new rolling pin, scored at a Waldorf school winter festival, and poked a candle into the clay eight times. N placed one of our menorahs on the table as inspiration.

Menorahs hold nine candles, eight for the eight nights of Hanukkah, and a ninth called the shamash (meaning “attendant”) that lights the other candles.

Meanwhile, my 15 month old got into the clay spirit. She’s been copying everything her sister does, and after seeing this magic, I wished I had given her a bigger piece of clay to play with.

air dry clay menorah with kids

To make room for the shamash, we decided to build a little mound by making a ball of clay, scoring both sides of where it would connect with hatch marks, and then pressing the pieces together.

air dry clay menorah with kids

We used a little water and a popsicle stick to smooth out the edges. I read that if there are cracks in this clay it can fall apart once dry, so we were sure to smooth all those cracks right out with water.

air dry clay menorah with kids

And then N decided to use a wooden stick to poke a pattern of holes all over the menorah.

air dry clay menorah with kids

And a hole for the shamash.

air dry clay menorah with kids

My little one was happy to play with a small pot of water and the goopy clay.

Now we have to let the clay dry for 2-3 days before painting it. If you’d like to join us and make an air dry menorah too, you should be able to find Crayola Air Dry Clay at Target, Walmart, Office Depot or on Amazon for $5.99.

So far, I love this product, and I think we’ll make handprint ornaments with it tomorrow!

How to Make a Holiday Paper Star

How to make a paper star

Today I’m going to share how to make holiday paper stars with your kids.

If you have young children, the first half of the project will be kid-centered as they color and decorate the paper as they like. Once that’s done, adults will assemble the stars.

Okay, are you ready?

how to make a paper star

Supplies – Giant Paper Stars

  • Two pieces of thin paper – we chose large sheets, but small would also work
  • Mark-making tools
  • Glue
  • Scissors
  • String

I found an easy, workable tutorial at The Magic Onions for our paper stars.

decorate paper stars

I cut large squares from four sheets of 24″ x 36″ drawing paper. You know, the trick where you fold a triangle in the paper and then snip the excess rectangle off?

I taped that extra rectangle to the table so that my daughter had a place to store her rubber stamps and pens.

Pine cones and snowflakes in a limited palette of red, green, and silver.

Snowflakes, sea stars, and Stars of David. That’s how we roll.

The tutorial over at The Magic Onions is really clear, so I won’t get into the details here, but suffice to say that once you make one, you’ll want to keep cranking them out. They’re so simple!

I used Elmer’s Craft Bond Extra Strength Glue Stick to seal the paper right up. Worked like a charm.

Waiting for it to dry.

I cut a piece of cotton string, about 3′ long, so we could hang it from the ceiling, and taped it about 3″ inside one of the points.

Then I ran a line of Elmer’s School Glue under the string to give it extra support and along the edge of the point. A little clamp helped keep it all together.

hanging paper star diy

Sticking the pieces together. This was a little tricky. I placed the pointy face of one star in a bowl, rested the other star on top of it, and added bits of school glue to hold it in place. I gave it overnight to dry, but school glue seems to dry in under an hour.

hanging holiday paper star diy

There you go! 

Since I already the drawing paper, stamps, and string, the whole thing cost $0.00! But the materials are so low-cost and flexible anyway, that I bet you could do it too with wrapping paper and ribbon after opening gifts on Hanukkah or Christmas. Or make them from all the extra art work your kids bring home from school. Newspaper colored with potato prints. What do you think?

Creative Challenge 7: Magazines

Today I have something extra cool in store for you. Kiwi Crate and I are bringing you a super-star line-up of rockin’ kid-friendly bloggers for a no holds barred invitational kid-centered magazine challenge, and an extra-special Kiwi Crate box giveaway at the end of this post. Each of the 20+ bloggers spent some time tinkering, plotting, creating, and playing with their kids to come up with an activity that your kids will enjoy. After you read about how we manipulated and upcycled our magazines, spend some time checking out all the other ideas. Bookmark them or pin them, because you’re sure to need these ideas on a rainy or snowy day. Okay, do you have a cuppa ready? Here we go…

I spent about 20 minutes ripping pages from my favorite alumni magazine. Do you ever read yours? Loved the school, but sadly, the magazine just rolls right into my recycling bin each month. So I happily rolled the glossy pages of ho-hum stories into tubes, taped them with clear tape, and added them to a tall vase. The next morning, my 3 year old woke up to this provocation: Magazine tubes, clear tape, a stapler, and a bowl of stickers. I didn’t have a plan and was curious to see where she would take it.

She started by taping the tubes together, ignored the stapler and stickers completely, and then found another roll of tape so that I could help her. Right, tape is popular. Must remember that!

This is how it began.

Then she cut some tubes down to smaller pieces. How could I have forgotten the scissors? Tape and scissors…check. But that’s okay, we must have about 20 pairs and she knows where to find them.

Oh, and she loves ribbon too. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother with provocations when she knows her own mind. She found a few rolls and brought them over to the table. We created this structure together and then she wore it on her head for part of breakfast.

The next day her dad took a turn at the table and this is what they came up with. I’m fascinated by it because my husband has a huge thing for hanging sculptures. I mean HUGE. It’s a wonder I’m not constantly banging my head on things that hang from our ceilings.

 He screwed an eye-hook into the ceiling, tied a piece of ribbon through it, and hung their masterpiece over the couch.

When standing on the couch, my daughter can bat at it, so I think I’ll call it an interactive hanging magazine sculpture. 

Creative Challenge Participants:

Child Central Station , kids in the studioTeach MamaThe Imagination Tree,Childhood101Teach Preschoolhands on as we growArtful ParentPaint Cut PasteA Mom With A Lesson PlanToddler ApprovedKiwi CrateArt 4 Little Hands,  Red Ted ArtThe Chocolate Muffin Tree,  Imagination Soup,Michelles Charm WorldMessy PreschoolersTinker LabMommy LabsPutti Prapancha, Sun Hats and Wellie Boots


Kiwi Crate has generously offered to give away one crate box to two randomly chosen winners. Each box includes all the materials and inspiration for 2-3 projects related to a theme (e.g., dinosaurs.)  Projects may include arts and crafts, science activities, imaginative play and more, and have been hand-selected and kid-tested to be open ended and encourage curiosity, exploration and creativity! I love Kiwi Crate because it embraces the same process-oriented activities that I promote on this blog, but it’s all packaged up beautifully and delivered right to your door. To enter, leave a comment with your child’s age/s and favorite upcycled materials. And then hop on over to the Kiwi Crate blog for another chance to win. Winner’s address must be in the U.S. Deadline for entry: Monday, December 12, 9pm PST. Comments Closed. Thank you to all of you for your comments. The winner is Susan P! 


Your Turn…

What would you (and your kids) make with magazines? If you have a kid-centered magazine project that you’d like to share, please add your link to the blog hop or comment section below. And feel free grab the button or copy the text into your HTML. Tinkerlab Creative Challenge Code:<a href=”” target=”_blank”><img style=”border: 2px;” src=”” alt=”Tinkerlab Creative Challenge” width=”150″ height=”150″ border=”2″ />

Pop-up Paper Zoo

I love collaborating with my three-year old, so I was thrilled when she came up with this idea for me to draw animal shapes for her to color in. We don’t have coloring books in our house (aside from a mandala coloring book suggested by Jen at Paint Cut Paste), so maybe this fed some deep seated need to color in the lines? When I drew the outline of the first animal I wasn’t sure where this was going, but N started coloring away with a clear vision in mind. She’s a true director, putting me to work on the the details while she masterminded the big picture. When she came up with an idea to make the animals stand up, we cut them out, cut small slits in the bottom of the animals and a matching slit in the opposing “stand,” and we suddenly had the makings of a zoo!


  • Card stock
  • Favorite mark-making tools: Markers, crayons, colored pencils
  • Scissors
After working on the bee, N worked on which way she wanted it to stand.

And she even made her own animal shape. I tried to pin her down (in the most open-ended way possible) on a name or type of animal, but she kept me guessing. I think it was just a shape, but you never know!

She colored both sides of the animals, making them truly three-dimensional. She’s just started to draw with representational marks, and I love seeing how faces and other recognizable objects emerge through these marks.

Our zoo family!

Would you make a pop-up zoo?

After making these I thought some of you might like to have some animal templates to print out. If you do, let me know and I’ll make a PDF set that you can download.

This post is shared with It’s Playtime, World Animal Day Bloghop

Spiral Watercolor Streamer

I love it when we make things that make our house feel like a party, which might explain why buntings drip off the wall of my kids’ room, paper crowns peek out of our cabinets, we have four pink balloons in the bathroom, and we celebrate birthdays months before they actually happen just so we can blow out candles. My baby turns one next week, and we’ve been singing her Happy Birthday every night over tea lights with the hope that she’ll learn how to blow out her candle by Labor Day. Please tell me that we’re not the only ones!

I’ve never actually seen spirals like these at a party, but they remind me so much of streamers. Wouldn’t they be lovely, especially in large quantities?

To get started I set up watercolor paper cut into circle shapes, watercolor paint, brushes, and water.

I added some paper towels, which are useful for dabbing up excess water. I also like to offer a few different brushes so that my child can learn how brushes can make a variety of marks while building her materials confidence. And while the end product is all pre-planned, the art-making portion is open-ended. Any form of art 2-D art exploration is encouraged!

After the paintings dried I cut them into spiral shapes, pierced a small hole in the center of each one, and then tied a piece of string through the hole…knotted on the back of the paper.

They store flat until they’re ready to hang.

My neighbor came over this afternoon and noticed it right away, which either means that the spiral is rad or a total eyesore. What do you think?


Cork Sculpture

Ever since I was a child I’ve had a thing for repurposing found materials. Neither of my parents were mad upcyclers, but I think I can trace this passion to an after-school class that was led by a parent-artist. This mom was (still is) AWESOME! — she died her hair, plastered her house (walls, ceilings, etc) with sequin-studded art, and encouraged us to create imaginary worlds from whatever we had on hand. Obviously I had an affinity for this sort of thing because all of my friends didn’t turn into artists like me, but this exposure helped me see the world through a lens that made things a whole lot clearer. (So thank you, Ingrid!).

Fast forward way too many years…I’m still making art with random bits and bobs — it just comes naturally to me, but it’s also a way of living. Art materials don’t have to be purchased in the store — they’re all around us. And now I’m in a position to inspire my own children as Ingrid inspired me.

Exposure is everything.

I like to offer my 3-year old, N, materials as a provocation: I’ll put a few bowls of things out and see what she comes up with and on this occasion it was: CORKS! My daughter developed her idea for this sculpture from a box of corks, bag of buttons, a few small dowels, piece of laminate, and a hot glue gun, but it could have gone in a million directions.

She built the tower as high as she wanted, and then added the buttons and dowels. To assemble it, I manned the low heat glue gun while she directed me on where to put the glue. She was in control, but I got to keep everyone’s fingers burn-free.

Baby sister was right there with us, captivated by and grabbing for all the little pieces that were potentially hazardous to her health. Who knows, maybe she’ll become a busy upcycler one day too!

If you like to create, tinker, or make art, can you trace the root of your passion back to an inspiring person or event? And do you see yourself as the source of inspiration for someone else?

This project is shared with It’s Playtime

Sculpting with Claytoons

Most days I feel like I have the best job in the world (and this is especially true after my morning coffee). While I’ve chosen to be SAHM, there’s still a busy worker bee inside of me who has trouble not working, and I consequently have trouble saying no to exciting opportunities that coincide with my creative values. Squeezing work into the small cracks of free time isn’t always easy, but striking the right work/family balance is something that I’m always striving toward.

This is a long way of saying that I recently started working with a group of talented educators and designers to create an art curriculum for a DIY art zone at Zeum: San Francisco’s Children’s Museum. After one of our meetings I discovered Zeum’s gift shop (what a lot of fun!) where I found a box of Claytoons sculpting clay — the stuff that Zeum uses for all their stop motion animation projects — and it made for the perfect gift for my little sculptor.

The challenge for my 3 year old is that it’s much stiffer than play dough, but the flip side is that it holds its shape better and can therefore stand upright without wobbling over. You can also add armatures (wire threaded through the clay) to it for further support.

We practiced rolling ball and tubes, and worked on strategies for attaching pieces together. One of the best things about Claytoons is that it’s oil based and it won’t dry out! So go ahead and leave it out on the table for a few days and it’ll still be in tip-top shape (which is much more than you can say for play dough!).

My daughter’s representational drawings are far from recognizable as objects, but with the clay I could tell immediately that this was a person. Amazing! Not that it matters, really, if she makes something that I can recognize, but through this observation I could see how rewarding this experience must be for her — to articulate an idea with clay that couldn’t be articulated with pen and paper. If your child is in the same boat, sculpting may be for you too!