Homemade {Easy, Low-cost} Light Table

You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to make an inexpensive DIY light table.

DIY light table that's easy and affordable

Light tables like this are great for preschoolers, as they inspire them with sorting and designing compositions. Light Tables are wonderful for exploring the play of light, shadow, color, and transparency. Their unique nature can add a magical element to child’s play and encourage curiosity, exploration, and problem-solving.

If you’ve been following my blog, you may remember the overhead projector that we salvaged for just $5 from Stanford’s Re-Use Department or the DIY Light Table that we filled with salt and water beads.

Build a Light Table

I wanted to include a light box tutorial in my forthcoming book and recognized that our light box wouldn’t be easy for other parents or caregivers to replicate, so I started tinkering. Once I wrapped my head around this project, it couldn’t have been simpler.

Like painfully simple! Wait ’til you see.

If you don’t already have one of these, you’ll wonder why not.

make your own light table

DIY Light Box Materials

  • Under-the-bed style clear storage box. This Rubbermaid Storage Box (affiliate) is fantastic and this one with a snap top lid also looks great. I’ve also spotted really nice boxes at IKEA, which may be worth hunting down.
  • White Tissue Paper (the kind you wrap gifts with), wax paper, or tracing paper. My preference is white tissue paper. Stay clear of parchment paper as it’s impossible to tape it to anything.
  • Clear Tape
  • String of holiday lights
  • Extension cord: optional


  1. Tissue Paper: Line the inside of the lid with tissue paper and tape it in place. Use clear tape so that the tape doesn’t show. 
  2. Holiday Lights: Spread a string of holiday lights around the inside of your box. The cord will dangle out. We were able to close our box on the cord, but this isn’t necessary.
  3. Play! Place a few bowls of transparent manipulative materials near the light box and invite your child to create.
  4. Seed the project: My kids are most responsive to this invitation if I seed the table with a few ideas. I set all of the materials out as you see in the photo above. My 2-year old saw this and added a red circle in the middle of one of the “flowers.” Then she decided to build a whole series of flowers with my assistance (below).

Homemade Light Box

Materials for the Light Table

affiliate links

Inspiring objects for light table

More cool design materials that you might enjoy

Store-bought Light Box Options

If making your own light box doesn’t appeal to you, there’s an enormous selection of store-bought options to choose from. We also have a sweet little 5″ x 7″ Gagne Light Panel that I found at a local art store. Dbmier makes a similar tracing pad that’s recommended for stenciling, 2D Animation, Calligraphy, Embossing, Scrapbooking, Sketching & Drawing, and Sewing projects,.

This small box doesn’t have the big-impact, scale-wise, as our homemade box, but it’s portable and I love it for tracing projects (mama makes art too!).

plug in light table

More Light Box Inspiration

I couldn’t have written this post without mentioning that as I was working on this project, my friend Anna at The Imagination Tree posted her own DIY Light Box for Sensory Play. Our projects are nearly identical, and this isn’t the first time this has happened! Click on the links to see how Anna made her sensory light box.

Two years ago we both posted the same project, on the same day. Here’s a peak: If you have a toddler, you might also enjoy my Colander Sculpture and Anna’s Discovery Box Pipe Cleaners. The Imagination Tree is one of my favorite blogs. If you’re a hands-on parent I’m sure you’ll love it too, so do check it out if it’s not already on your radar.

Easy Low Cost Homemade Light Table

Dead simple. How to make your own (easy) light table for curious and creative kids.

Marbled Paper Suminagashi

Are you looking for a last-minute hands-on gift, or maybe an idea to bookmark for a cold winter day? I’ve been saving this Suminagashi kit for a quiet morning and it was a true winner with both my 2-year old and 4-year old.

The process of marbleizing paper encourages creative thinking, open-ended exploration with ink and water, and experimentation.

Marbled Paper with Suminagashi

But first, maybe you’ve noticed that it’s been a little quiet around here. I’m sorry that I’ve kind of dropped the ball on my blog this month. I’ve been hunkering down with my other writing project and something had to go sit on the back burner. (sorry, bloggy).

Maybe you didn’t notice, in which case — yay! You’ve probably been busy too. It’s the holiday season after all. What are your plans for the holidays? Have you been baking? Are you going anywhere tropical or fun?

My kids finished making and packing their gifts for friends, my shopping is all but done, and now only the dreaded box of holiday cards is staring at me from across the room, waiting for messages of holiday cheer and stamps (that have yet to be purchased — eek).

But that can wait just a few more minutes because I have to share this important, colorful, festive, and fun art meets science experience with you…

Marbled Paper

I ordered our Suminagashi kit from Amazon for about $16 and you can find it here: Marbling Kit, Japanese Suminagashi. I just checked and if you order today it’ll arrive before Christmas. You know, just in case.

The beautiful word, suminagashi, translates from Japanese to mean “spilled ink.” I love saying suminagashi, and hearing my kids try to say it is a-dorable. Suminagashi is traditionally done with Sumi Ink, which is oily. Since oil floats on top of water, guess what? So does the Sumi ink! The ink that comes in this kit is non-toxic and “made by high-grade cosmetic pigment with P.V.A via a special process.” Loosely translated from Japanese, I assume.

The kit is recommended for ages 6 and up, probably more for dexterity reasons than anything. Both of my children handled the dyes quite capably — my younger daughter with a little help — so I wouldn’t let the age thing stop you if that’s a concern.

Marbled Paper with Suminagashi

The process is fun and simple: Squeeze a little bit of color into a tray of water, swirl it around, drop a piece of paper on top, and you have a print.

Marbled Paper with Suminagashi

Marbled Paper with Suminagashi This is one of those projects that’s tough to stop at just one. Because each print is unique, it’s compelling to try multiple variations on the theme. This kept us active for a good hour, and when they were dry my 4-year old turned these into holiday cards for her fantastic teachers.

More Suminagashi around the web

If you’re interested in another version of this experience, we did some marbling experiments  a couple years ago with spectacular results: Marbleized Paper with oil and liquid watercolors.

Inner Child Fun shows how to make gorgeous concentric circles — I wish we had tried this ourselves. Next time!

The History of Suminagashi

Oder this book, How to Marbleize Paper if you’re interested in learning how to make 12 traditional marbleized patterns

**Note: I am an Amazon affiliate, but I only share links to products that I adore and/or think you’ll find useful**

We only think when confronted with a problem

“We only think when confronted with a problem.” — John Dewey, American philosopher and educator

What do you think about this quote by John Dewey? 

I spend a lot of my time considering how to set the stage for open-ended discovery as a way to foster a child’s confidence and independence. If you caught my last post, Organizing a Self-serve Creativity Zone, you’ll see a thread here. Children who set up their own problems are invested in the process of learning and are motivated to see a project through completion.

If you were to put paint pots, blocks, or a basket of acorns in front of your child, what expectations would you have? Do you think you would have a specific outcome in mind or would you be curious to find out what he would make of these materials?

When I place materials on a table or in the garden as a learning invitation, or provocation, I can’t help but guess or imagine how my children might use them. Maybe that’s human nature.

The other day I invited my 4-year old to draw some pumpkins that I placed on the table. I imagined  that she might draw a round, orange image with a green stem on top. Instead she started with a round, orange pumpkin shape, and then added a pattern of orange circles, a grid of orange lines, a windy brown flower-covered tree trunk, and then she filled the rest of the page with Halloween stickers and polka dots. In all, she spent close to an hour working on this project. An hour.

If I instructed her to draw a pumpkin as I imagined it, you can guess how long that might have taken her.

So I try to get past any expectations I might have because my children always surprise me with their own clever interpretations that often extend far beyond the box of my adult mind. Not only that, but these invitations are fun for me because I get the chance to learn from my children and witness how they think about the world.

Today I challenge you to place some intriguing objects in front of your child as a provocation to explore, create, invent, and problem-solve. Be open to exploration, wonder, and curiosity. Pay attention to where their own thinking leads, as it might surprise you.

Maybe you already do this — yay! If so, I’d love to hear about how you set up successful provocations and what makes them work in your home or school.

Ideas for Provocations

  • An opened-up paper bag and a black marker (see above)
  • A jar of fresh flowers or colorful Autumn leaves, paper, markers or crayons to match the flowers/leaves
  • Multiple cups filled with vinegar, one cup filled with baking soda + a spoon (See Vinegar and Baking Soda)
  • A basket of toy cars, cut pieces of cardboard (that could become ramps or bridges), boxes
  • A couple sheets, kitchen clips (See How to Build a Simple Clip Fort)
  • A tall jar of water, assorted liquid watercolors in jars, pipettes
  • Large piece of paper covered with circles of multiple sizes, container of markers
  • Clay or Play Dough, small bowl of water, popsicle sticks (See Clay)
  • Piece of canvas, wood or felt; bowl of small stones, sea glass, or shells
  • Containers filled with different scrap paper, glue, large piece of paper (See Self-serve Valentines)
  • Child-friendly knife, whisk, mushrooms or other soft food, cutting board, bowl (See Cooking with Toddlers)

Silently step aside and observe. What does your child do with the materials? What problem is he trying to solve? You might want to step in periodically to help problem-solve or prompt further discover with open-ended questions.

How do you set up provocations and what makes them successful in your home or school? If this is new-to-you, I’d love to hear how what you think about this process for discovery.

Make Your Own Birthday Cake

kids diy make and bake birthday cake

If you know a little bit about me and my parenting philosophy, you’ll know that I welcome opportunities to get my children into DIY mode. The only way they’re going to learn how to do something is by getting involved, so I may give them a few pointers and then I’ll step back and let them take the lead.

My youngest, R, who I sometimes refer to here as Baby Rainbow, is no longer a baby. Sniff. She just turned two! When we’d ask her what she wanted for her birthday, her response was consistently “vanilla cake.”

Not only do I also drool over vanilla cake, but this simple request made for a totally low-key, low-stress birthday that I look forward to repeating again with future birthdays.

Baking Cakes

To get started, my 4-year old, N, and I mixed up one box of vanilla cake mix from Trader Joes. It doesn’t get easier than that, and the ingredients are actually fairly healthy.

We pulled out our rotary hand mixer/egg beater, which my daughter uses any chance she can get. Not only is it fun for kids to use, but it gets them involved in the kitchen and it does wonders for developing hand-eye coordination and motor skills.

kids use rotary mixer


After she mixed the batter up, we divided it into two 9-inch cake pans and cooked as directed on the box.

Meanwhile, we mixed a batch of our favorite frosting: Buttercream Frosting. Oh-my-goodness. If you’ve never made it before, it’s not only easy, but it’s also highly addictive. Yum.

My kids are always promised a beater to lick at the end of baking, which helps keep hands out of the bowl while we’re assembling.

Once the cakes cooked and cooled, we popped them out of the pans and started in on our grand assembly plan.

Cake Recipes

My 2-year old’s request: Vanilla Cake

My 4-year old’s plan: Two-tiered vanilla cake with vanilla frosting and strawberries in the middle layers. The top will be covered with sprinkles, Happy Birthday letters, a “2” birthday candle, and fairy cupcake toppers (basically, everything we had in the cabinet).

frosting cake with children

Decorating Step 1: The kids used butter knives to cover the bottom layer with raspberry jam (this was my suggestion, and they did not protest). Then we added a thick layer of vanilla frosting.

kids decorate cake

Frosting for Cake

Decorating Step 2: My 4-year old thinly sliced the strawberries and the kids layered them on the cake.

frosting cake with kids

We placed the second cake on top of the strawberry layer, and then covered the whole thing with frosting. When you’re working with children, it helps to value the process over the product. You can’t worry too much about how the cake is going to look. It’s a bonus, of course, if it looks amazing, but the important thing is that they have take pride in make something amazing happen.


We started gussying the cake up and R requested jelly beans. There were only six left in the box, and she eagerly plunked them into a corner of the cake. This ended up being her piece!

kids bake in the kitchen

And when we were done, they got the frosting bowl as a bonus.


For more of our kid-led cooking experiments: How to Invent a Recipe with Kids, Cooking with Toddlers, Cooking with Kids (exploring butter and rosemary)

Also, one of my friends and favorite bloggers, Jean Van’t Hul of The Artful Parent recently wrote about a birthday cake her daughter made: A Kid Made Birthday Cake. I think my kids would feel right at home in her house!



Messy Art: Splat Paint Olympics

Today I’m over on the Melissa and Doug blog, writing about our experience making Splat Paint Olympic Rings with household sponges. Painting with non-traditional materials does wonders for helping children look at the world with fresh eyes. And throwing paint-soaked sponges? Well, that’s just silly fun.


While we did this with the end-game of the Olympics in mind, I could imagine setting up this process-oriented, messy art exploration at a block party, artsy outdoor birthday party, or just for the joy of throwing paint at big sheets of paper.

Since we set this up in the driveway, clean-up was simple. Read the post to see how we did it.

Have you tried painting with sponges? Do your kids enjoy making messy art?

Easy Art: Air Dry Clay

creative kids clay

Material: Air Dry Clay

Have you ever noticed that kids don’t need a lot of bells and whistles and fancy stuff to get creative, have fun, and feel on top of the world? Yesterday we foraged some cardboard boxes from a neighbor’s move because 4-year old Nutmeg has a vision of building a space station.

Today I’d like to introduce you to ONE material that helps build creative thinking, and share some tips on how to use it. The idea is to keep your life simple while supporting your child’s curiosities.

creative kids clay

Crayola makes a wonderful product called Air Dry Clay. You can buy it in 2.5 or 5 pound containers. The 5 lb. container is about $10, and if you store it properly it will last for ages. I’ve had our 2.5 lb. tub for about 5 months, we use it about once/month, and it’s still in great shape.

But why buy clay, if you have play dough?

I’m an enormous fan of play dough (here’s the BEST play dough recipe if you’re looking for one), but there are some unique benefits to clay:

  • In terms of squeezing, building, and inventing, clay and play dough serve similar purposes, but the texture of clay gives children a different sensory experience.
  • Kids will enjoy learning that clay is a special kind of dirt that can be molded and dried at high temperatures to create dimensional objects
  • Clay is more dense and requires stronger muscles to mold it and work with it.
  • Adding water to clay creates a slippery material that many children love to play with. In the real “clay world” a mixture of water and clay is called “slip” and it’s used to attach one dry clay piece to another.
  • Clay can be molded into sculptures and objects that can be saved and later painted: pinch pots, bowls, alligators, rockets, etc.

How we use it

We always pull all the clay from the bucket and divide it in two, so that each of my kids has a hefty piece. Our table is covered with a plastic table cloth,, and at the end of the project clean-up is easy with a few wipes of a rag or sponge.

To begin, I usually give my kids a pile of clay…and that’s it!

I like to scaffold my projects, meaning that I’ll slowly introduce materials to them. I do this because I find that extending a project like this improves their ability to fully explore phenomena and keeps them from being done in 3 minutes flat. You’ve had that happen right?!

Once that runs its course, I’ll give my kids a small bowl of water so that they can add it to the clay to moisten it. Older children will probably dab the water with their fingers and add it to the clay as needed. My monkeys, on the other hand, are champions of bowl-dumping. And that’s fine. If the table is getting too wet I’ll limit them to “x” number of bowls. They love playing with the clay when it’s wet…it’s a totally different sensory experience.

creative kids clay

And finally, I’ll introduce them to a simple tool such as popsicle sticks, toothpicks, wooden knife, glass marbles, etc. Again, I usually try to keep this to one material so that they’re not overwhelmed by choices. Having one material to add to the clay invites them to push their imaginations and test multiple solutions to problems.

When they’re done, the clay goes back into the container. While this clay is designed to “air dry” we solely use it for the purpose of sensory play, fine motor development, and imagination-building.


I wipe the table down with a clean, damp terry cloth rag. Any clay that gets on the clothes should wash right out. Put clumps of clay back in the container or in the trash. It’s important that clay doesn’t go down your sink, or it will clog your pipes.

Other Materials

I’m planning to write about other art and exploration materials: is there anything that you’d like to see me write about?


mr. rogers celebrates arts

Mr. Rogers Episode 1763: Celebrates the Arts. Mr. Rogers meets potter Dolly Naranjo who forages clay from a hillside, mixes it with volcanic ash (with her foot!), and shows us how to make a coil pot. If you have Amazon Prime, you can screen it for FREE by clicking on the link.

Clay and Children: The Natural Way to Learn. By Marvin Bartel at Goshen College Art Department. A wonderful resource by a potter on teaching children about clay.

What is clay? on KinderArt. Kid-friendly definition of clay, words used in the pottery studio (wedge, kiln, slip, glaze, etc.)

Make Air Dry Pendants, from Melissa at The Chocolate Muffin Tree

Cooking with Kids: Butter and Rosemary

Do you like to cook with your kids? It’s not always the easiest thing for me to do; we have a tiny kitchen and limited counter space, but I try to find ways to integrate my kids into the kitchen routines when I can.

Why? Because cooking, experimenting, and learning about the interaction of ingredients builds creative thinkers, gives my kids a solid footing  and confidence in the kitchen (hey, I’m priming them to cook for me one day!), and it’s a wonderful way to bond and share stories about family traditions and food adventures.

20 month old Baby R (who’s hardly a baby anymore) likes to spend time in the kitchen, but she’s not the best helper in the world. So I try to drum up activities that will keep her hands busy and her mind engaged while I cook.

The other day we were baking bread and the recipe called for rosemary and a pat of butter. As I pulled the flour, yeast, maple syrup, milk, salt, and butter together, I also cut two tablespoons of butter off the end of the stick and chopped it into rough pieced for R to handle.

The slippery texture was captivating.

I handed her a few sprigs of rosemary to handle and poke into the butter.

cooking with kids

After squishing the butter for a bit she really wanted to cut the butter like me, so I gave her a small butter knife and showed her how to hold it. She cut butter for about fifteen minutes before tiring of this, which gave me just enough time to pull the bread dough together.

I’m not one for wasting food, but we did throw the gooey mass of butter and rosemary away when we were done.  I suppose I could have saved it, but there was a lot of finger licking going on and I wasn’t ready to go there. However, I liken this experience to playing with play dough (made from flour and oil) or dry beans, both materials that we use for imaginative and sensory play. When children learn to handle real food they build a relationship with it and gain a stronger understanding of its properties.

So, the next time you’re in the kitchen, if you don’t already do this, look around for something sensory for your toddler to explore. You might also enjoy reading Cooking with Toddlers, where I share a few tips including our favorite kid-friendly knives.

If you have a preschooler or school age child, you might like this fun post on how to invent a recipe with kids, where I share some ideas on how to foster a spirit of experimentation by building a pancake recipe from scratch.

And when my kids want to play in the kitchen, but they’re not interested in helping, I often slide this big tub of wheat berries out from under a counter for them to explore. It often makes a big mess, but it keeps them entertained while I cook and it’s easy enough to vacuum up when they’re done.

What do your kids like to do while you cook?

Finding Flow: A Journey Toward Happiness

Have you ever been so deeply involved in something that you lost all sense of time? How did you feel in this moment?

It happens to me all the time, often when I’m writing blog posts like this late into the night. Oops, it’s 2 am. How did it get to be so late? Or when I’m building or painting something that requires my focus and attention. Maybe it happens to you when you’re training for a big run or when you’re baking your favorite recipes. It’s a great feeling, right? You lose all sense of yourself and probably create something incredible that amazes even you. And maybe you thought, “really, did I make that?”

And guess what…this happens to kids as well. 

When I pay attention to what my children are interested in and how they get wholly absorbed in meaningful activities (pouring and mixing water in the bath, imaginative play in forts, or mastering a drawing game, below), I notice that these moments happen all the time. At the root of these moments are the elements of curiosity, exploration, and imagination.

I recently facilitated a cloud dough station at my daughter’s nursery school. A handful of children surrounded the table, asking good questions., squishing dough in their hands, and laughing. One of the boys who arrived at the table late couldn’t keep his hands off the dough; it reminded him of snow.  He was captivated by the feel of it and stayed rooted at that table, running his fingers through the silky dough and enjoying the phenomena of its texture. Witnessing this enthrallment in a child other than my own reminded me of the growth, comfort, and exploration that children can find through meaningful hands-on experiences.

Csikszentmihalyi flow with kids

Watching young children engage deeply in an activity (some to the point that they stopped talking and forget that the world is moving around them) made me think of the concept of flow, coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal book,  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

The idea, simply, is that people are happiest when they’re deeply absorbed by whatever they’re doing. In a 1996 Wired Magazine article,  Csikszentmihalyi explained flow as…

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

In his books,  Csikszentmihalyi explains that reaching a true state of flow can takes years of experience and practice, but you can see moments of it in children of all ages, learning how to focus their attention by exploring the things that they’re passionate about. Have you seen these moments in your own children or students?

An interesting point to note about flow is that it can’t happen if the task is too easy. If the child (or adult) isn’t challenged to test their new skills,  they become bored. You’ve witnessed this transition away from flow if you’ve ever tried setting up a “favorite” activity, only to find your child is no longer interested in it.

In the photos I’m sharing here, my daughter just learned the dots and boxes game, and wants to keep at it (over multiple days) to figure it out and test her knowledge. She’s in a state of 3-year-old flow. But as soon as she’s mastered the game or feels like it’s too simple, she’ll no longer be in that state.

Csikszentmihalyi flow children

I’d love to hear about your own observations of flow, either with yourself or your children. Can you think of a time that you experienced this? And what about your children?

And if you can’t think of any off the bat, I’d like to challenge you to look for these moments over the next few days. Take some notes and report back with your discoveries.