Explore Modern Artists: Paint like Jasper Johns

Today on Explore Modern Artists, we’re taking a close look at the work of American Artist Jasper Johns.

Explore Modern Artists with Kids : series of projects on Tinkerlab

For the art historians out there, Jasper Johns is technically a contemporary artist, but the piece that my four-year old and I looked at falls into the time-frame of modern art. I spent years working in modern and contemporary art museums, but love this kind of art because it breaks rules, the materials are often surprising, and the work is often as much about ideas as it is aesthetics.

Explore Modern Artists with Kids: Jasper Johns

I flipped through a 20th century art book in search of something that would appeal to my preschooler and had a feeling that Jasper Johns’ White Numbers would do just that. My daughter is obsessed with writing letters and numbers, which helped her dive into this project, and ultimately made it her own.


  • Image of Jasper Johns’ White Numbers
  • Acrylic Paint (FYI: acrylic paint will stain clothes so wear a smock or nothing at all)
  • Paint brushes: Flat, Foam, Make-up sponges
  • Paper Plate
  • Stick-on foam or paper letters and/or numbers
  • Foam core, wood panel, canvas or other substantial surface to paint on
  • Paper to cover work area

Jasper Johns. White Numbers. 1957. Museum of Modern Art. Encaustic on Linen. 34″ x 28 1/8″.

Art Looking

Begin with a short discussion about the artwork. Try to use open-ended questions, although this can be more difficult with preschoolers who are just getting their bearings with vocabulary. These are some of the questions I used:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. How did the artist organize the numbers? Are they in order or random? What do you see?
  4. What colors do you see?

Through this line of questioning, my daughter was able to figure out that Jasper Johns created a random series of numbers in rows and columns.  She concluded that Jasper Johns may have been trying to confuse people with his meaningless series of numbers.

peeling stickers

After about five minutes of this, we talked about the materials that we would use, and I asked N if we should use numbers, letters, or both. I also asked if we should use the same palette of paint as Johns. She chose to use numbers and letters, and requested “all the colors.

preschool jasper johns

As we peeled them, my daughter wanted to sort them by color.

Despite Johns’ neat rows of numbers, N also wanted to place her’s randomly on the board “to confuse people.” And then she walked all over them to make sure they were stuck down properly.

We added paint to a paper plate.

This whole activity was set up on the floor, which I highly recommend as it gave N a lot of freedom to move around.

And then we painted. I offered her three different brushes and we talked about which one she preferred (foam brush).

We worked on this together and she really enjoyed the camaraderie. When the painting was dry we hung it up to enjoy. The foam core buckled a bit as it dried, which is something to consider if you’re thinking of hanging this in your home. Wood or canvas would be a far better choice.

More on Art Looking

If you’d like so tips on how to look at art with kids, you can check out one of my more popular posts: Five Easy Steps for Talking with Children about Art.

I’m also a huge fan of an in-school program called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which helps children build visual literacy and critical thinking skills through the process of looking closely at a work of art. A facilitator sits in front of a group of children and leads an interactive discussion about one work of art. I’ve led many of these discussions myself, and the energy around these conversations is palpable. To see VTS in action, there a some great videos on the Visual Thinking Strategies website. 

More from Explore Modern Artists


DIY Water Wall

Does it feel like summer in your part of the world? It’s heating up here, and my kids have been enjoying this easy and inexpensive new backyard water feature. All you need is a nearby water source, recycled plastic bottles, and a wall to attach it to.

My older daughter helped me build this one afternoon last week while my toddler was napping. She loved the responsibility of holding the bottles steady while I drilled and took a lot of pride in our finished water wall. It’s not gorgeous, but it’s a lot of fun and an upcycler’s DIY dream.

water wall build

To replicate this upcycled playscape in your own garden or patio, I’ll break this down into some simple steps.

collection of water wall materials

DIY Water Wall Supplies

Plastic bottles

Screws (our nifty kit is from IKEA)

Drill. The one in the photo is no longer with us. Sniff. However, our brand new, favorite drill is a cordless wonder is the Makita DT01W (affiliate). It comes with two sets of rechargeable batteries, so you’re never without power!

Exacto knife. This one (affiliate) is a good deal

DIY Water Wall Steps

With the exacto knife, cut a hole in the side of the bottle. The hole will be large enough for you to fit your hand into it so that you can easily position and drill in the screws.

score bottle and add screws

Using the exacto knife, score an “X” on the side of a bottle and push a screw through the “X” from the inside. Repeat one more time so that you have two screws poking through the bottle.

Screw the bottles to a fence or wall. Tilt them slightly downward to help the water pour through. You might have to shift the bottles around or cut the holes a bit more to make the water wall work properly. Test as you go.

water wall testing

Test it out to make sure it works. Add a bucket at the bottom to catch the water, which can then be added to plants or returned to the top of the water wall.

Invite some friends over to play.

water wall play

Set up a water-filling station and add some pitchers, watering cans, and cups.

And be prepared for eye-opening, open-ended fun.

Inspiration for this project

I’ve been inspired by Let the Children Play once again! Last summer Jenny gave us the idea for our mud pie kitchen (and here’s her mud kitchen), and other outdoor hands-on activities that get my kids thinking and building in the fresh air. Her water wall post (full of water wall inspiration from around the web) has been sitting in my mind since she posted it in October (she’s in Australia where it’s bloody hot in October), and it’s altogether responsible for the hours of fun my kids and neighborhood friends had with our newest backyard water feature. Thank you, Jenny!


Painting Birdhouses

The last time my in-laws visited, they left my girls with these cute little wooden birdhouses. I tucked them away to paint on their next visit, but my 3 year old couldn’t wait that long. In fact, about a month after I stored these, and an hour before leaving the house to meet friends in the park, my daughter suddenly remembered the birdhouses that were, as far as I could tell, out of mind.

“I want to paint birdhouses today!” she said. After explaining, for the 80th time that starting a sentence with “I want” isn’t okay with me, I further shared that there was no way we could get the materials out, set up, paint, clean up, and be out the door in time.

Well, in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation, it can almost be done. We were ten minutes late.toddler painting birdhouse


  • Wooden birdhouses. My MIL found these at Michael’s, and I think they’re very reasonably priced.
  • Acrylic Paint
  • Paintbrushes
  • Paper Plates
  • Bird seed
  • Funnel or paper + tape for a DIY funnel

toddler painting birdhouse


Squeeze paint onto throwaway paper plates. Paint as desired. The challenge of painting a 3-D thing is entirely different from painting a flat surface, and there’s something magical about it. If you have a child who doesn’t normally enjoy painting, I’d suggest you try painting something with width and depth and see what happens.

By the way, acrylic paint will almost never wash out of clothes, so be sure to cover up properly.

birdhouse materials

Fill with Seeds

Unless the paint is quite thick, acrylic paint dries really fast and you could move on to this step within an hour. When the paint dries, the bird house is ready to be filled. If you don’t have a funnel, you can easily make one by spinning a piece of copy paper into a cone shape and taping the side shut.

filling birdhouse with seed


The last step is to hang it. If you have squirrels be sure to hang it somewhere that squirrels won’t reach it. Our squirrels are sneaky and go almost anywhere birds go, so unfortunately our seed has been poached…once again. But I’m determined to attract some cute little songbirds around our house one of these days.

More Bird Feeder Inspiration

Juggling with Kids made these cool cookie cutter birdfeeders

If I were a bird, I’m not sure I’d venture close to this feeder

Biodegradable Orange Bird Feeder from the lovely Rhythm of the Home

Recycled bird feeder, made from a plastic bottle and a couple wooden spoons, over at Heck Fridays

Word Drawing Game

Do your kids like to draw? Do you ever play drawing games?

The other day my kids and I were cleaning out the garage. Well, really it was me while they loitered, moved things around, and made a lot of noise.

My 3-year old found an old, but never-before-opened game of a Cranium. She adores opening new packages and ran into the house for a pair of scissors.

Once the box was open and she was done exploring its contents, she asked if we could play. I love how open-minded and full of enthusiasm children can be.

If you look at the packaging I think it recommends this game for age 18 and older, so it wasn’t exactly age-appropriate, but we played a version that she enjoyed and I think it could work in some capacity for kids of all ages.

drawing games preschool

I searched through the deck of cards for something that she had some chance of drawing (and understanding). Which meant “no” on Devil’s Food Cake, Card Shark, and Wicked Witch of the East, and “yes” on Mermaids, Bubble Bath, and Potty (short for Potty Training).

My daughter can’t read yet, so this is how we played…

I pulled out a card and read it to her while she looked on (and maybe picked up on how letters form words). Then she drew it, to the best of her ability.

This part was the most fun for me, and in some cases frustrating for her. In the picture above, she was challenged to draw a mermaid and asked me if she could look at a picture of one. I pulled up a drawing of Disney’s Little Mermaid, she gave it her best effort, exclaimed that it looked nothing like a mermaid, and this exercise ended with, “it’s your turn.”

Then I drew one (a potty) while she guessed what I was drawing. Despite years of drawing classes, my drawing barely looked like a potty and it took her forever to make a correct guess. I think it helped her to see me struggle, showing that we can’t always create the things that our brains envision. At least I hope that’s what happened.

Back to her…she got to draw bubble bath…

drawing game preschool

Again, I was so curious to see how she would tackle this challenge. She chose a blue crayon….

drawing game preschool

Drew some water along the left side of the paper and bubbles on the right side. Ah, a bubble bath! We played a total of about 5 drawings before she was done.

If I were to do this again, I’d make my own cards with words of things that are in her drawing vocabulary: flowers, people, rockets, and rainbows. And I’d include a few things just outside of her drawing ability: house, bike, tree, bunny.

But venus flytraps and Hawaiian shirts may have to wait another 15 years.

More drawing games

Art Dice: A fun tool for creating randomly-created art. Also good for teaching shapes, colors, lines, etc.

Slide Drawing: A roll of paper and some crayons turn a slide into more than a downhill ride

Drawing Shadows: Play with sidewalk chalk on a sunny morning or afternoon

Organic Shape Monsters: You just need some string, a drawing tool, and a big imagination.

Hole inspiration: Draw around holes cut into a sheet of paper (The Artful Parent)

Challenge Drawings: Cut out shapes of paper and see what you can turn them into (The Artful Parent)

Pick and Draw Art Game: A deck of drawing cards reviewed by The Chocolate Muffin Tree

A simple way to learn how to Draw Circles from Lessons Learnt Journal

Stuck in a waiting room? Save this fun waiting room drawing idea (Mama Smiles)

Do you have a favorite drawing game or post about a drawing game?

Making Paper with Kids

Making paper with kids is a rewarding experience, and today I’m going to share how you can do it.

Making paper with kids - so easy!Have you ever made your own paper?  It requires some patience and preparation, but it’s not tricky and the process is worth exploring with children or anyone who’s curious about how to make paper.

After my toddler created a sensory bin full of paper and water, I saw an opportunity to upcycle that mushy paper pulp into some new-to-us paper. We had most of the materials handy, but had to make a trip to the hardware store to buy a small window screen (affiliate)

The hardware store happens to be across the street from an ice cream parlor, so my kids were okay with that.

Two ice cream cones later, we returned home, put my youngest down for a nap, and got busy with some paper-making…

Let’s start with the materials (full printable recipe at the end of this post):

How to make paper with kids | TinkerLab

Supplies: Make Your Own Paper

  • Window Screen. This sliding window screen (affiliate) is economical and reusable.
  • Two Plastic Wash Tubs (affiliate) or similar
  • Washcloth/rag/burp cloth/large piece of felt
  • Water
  • Torn paper from newspaper, tissue paper, magazines, etc. Be sure that it’s staple and tape-free
  • Blender (affiliate). <<This is my favorite economical workhorse machine. 
  • Small seeds (optional)

Steps: Homemade Paper with Kids

To get into the spirit and expand our knowledge of paper making, we watched a Mr. Roger’s episode about paper making. If you like this video you’ll also love learning about how crayons are made. Alternatively, here’s the video-free step-by-step (all from PBS Kids).

how to make paper with kids

Tear the paper into tiny strips, about 2″.

how to make paper with kids

Place your window screen on top of one of the plastic tubs

how to make paper with kids

Add paper to the blender, cover it with water, and run the blender on a low speed.

Since you will squeeze all the water out of the paper pulp, you can’t really have too much water, so if the blender doesn’t move easily, add more water.

Make paper with a blenderRun the blender a little bit faster until you get the paper mixture into a nice, smooth pulp. Ours is kind of chunky because my kids wanted it that way. Yours can be smoother.

how to make paper

My toddler wanted to play with the pulp right away. She squeezed it, scooped it, and carried bowls full of pulp into the living room. It’s so fun and a rich sensory experience, so leave time for this if you have a little one.

how to make paper with kids

Next, spread the pulp thinly and uniformly across the screen and then layer a cloth diaper or towel on top to absorb the extra water, while also pushing the water through the screen into the tub. Get the kids involved.

how to make paper

Place one hand firmly on top of the cloth while you flip the screen over onto a table or countertop that can handle water.

how to make paper

Remove the screen and put the cloth with paper pulp in a spot where it can dry, undisturbed, for about a day. The thicker the paper, the longer it will take to dry.

Make paper with a screen

Later the next day, this is what it looked like. Not your typical paper, but beautiful nonetheless. We haven’t done much with it yet, but I’m thinking some Sharpies or watercolor paint might be a good fit. And with the seeds embedded in the pulp, we could cut these up and give them away to friends, with the invitation to plant them in their gardens.

how to make paper


How to Make Paper with Kids
Recipe type: Sensory, DIY
Making paper teaches children how one of our most ubiquitous materials -- PAPER -- is made, and it's also a fun sensory project for kids of all ages.
  • Screen (we bought a $10 sliding window screen)
  • Large Tub
  • Washcloth/rag/burp cloth/large piece of felt
  • Water
  • Torn paper from newspaper, tissue paper, magazines, etc. Be sure that it's staple and tape-free
  • Blender
  • Small seeds (optional)
  1. Shred the paper up into little pieces (roughly 2" square)
  2. Add paper to the blender, cover it with water, and run the blender on a low speed. Since you'll squeeze all the water out of the paper pulp, you can't really have too much water, so if the blender doesn't move easily, add more water.
  3. Run the blender a little bit faster until you get the paper mixture into a nice, smooth pulp. Add more water if your pulp is still chunky.
  4. Spread the pulp in a thin and uniform layer across the screen
  5. Cover this with a rag or cloth diape to absorb the extra water, while also pushing the water through the screen into the tub.
  6. Place one hand firmly on top of the cloth and then flip the screen over onto a work surface.
  7. Removed the screen and put the cloth plus paper pulp in a spot where it could dry, undisturbed, for about a day. The thicker the paper, the longer it will take to dry.


Easy step for making paper with kidsMore Handmade Paper Inspiration

Allison of No Time for Flashcards used and Immersion Blender to make Recycled Paper Hearts.

Jen of PaintCutPaste made Handmade Blooming Paper.

Rebekah of The Golden Gleam made Recycled Paper Ornaments for Christmas, but you could easily make these with ornaments of just about any shape.

Kristi of Creative Connections for Kids made Wildflower Paper Ornaments (using the same screen as us!).

Melitza of Play Activities made Earth Day Seeded Paper.