Big, Bad, Porcelain Canvas

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In preparation for a recent trip to Boston, friends suggested that I stock up on new toys to entertain my child on the airplane.  So, along with purchasing a Mrs. Potato Head and an Elmo DVD (a moment of weakness for our almost-TV-free home that thankfully paid off), I found these great washable bathtub crayons in a local beauty supply store.

I knew these would be a hit after seeing our almost-2 year old “washing” the sides of the bathtub with bars of soap and sponges.  Drawing on the bath seemed to be a natural extension of that!

Obviously, this wasn’t a plane toy, but what better place to test out bathtub crayons (that are supposed to wash off, but do we know for sure?) than in a hotel bathtub?  You’re with me, right?  I wish I was able to capture the visuals a little better, but I was busy getting a little wet as my daughter drew and erased the drawings at least four times.  I usually refrain from drawing on my child’s pictures, but she asked me to make some stars, which she promptly filled with expressive marks.  And the good news is that in the end, it all cleaned up perfectly!

The best part of this activity, in my opinion, is extending the process of mark-making beyond the piece of paper or easel. This is one of those “thinking outside the box” activities that can help kids understand that there can be more than one way to do something.  Not to mention, a lot of joy can come from freely moving greasy crayons all over a huge porcelain canvas.

Exploring with Play Dough

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Got dough? Here are some ideas to get you started…

The possibilities are truly endless. At 16 months, it was enough for my daughter to just squish it and move balls of dough from one bowl to another. At 20 months, she wanted to cut it, so we introduced a safe wooden “knife” that we got for free from our local cupcake shop.  Lately, at almost 2 years, she likes to “cook” muffins and cookies and tacos, and I’m grateful to whoever makes play dishes, rolling pins, and cookie cutters!  I collect tools from everywhere: Melissa and Doug Shape Model and Mold comes with rolling pins and is fabulous, the Play Doh Fun Factory comes with cookie cutters and a spaghetti maker (much like a garlic press), and I source my own kitchen for straws, potato mashers, toothpicks, and popsicle sticks.

You can roll the dough into worms and balls, smoosh it and stamp it, and poke it with forks and straws.  If you want to help your child learn how to use scissors, roll out some worms and show them how to cut them with safety scissors. This is incredibly rewarding to kids who are frustrated by cutting paper, which is really not the easiest thing to do!

Sometimes we’ll roll it out on the counter, but  there’s always a little art table covered in Mexican oil cloth that’s ready to go at a moment’s notice.  You can pick up inexpensive plastic sheeting or oil cloth at your local hardware store.  My best advice, if you rarely play with play dough, is to just put it out with a bunch of tools, and see what happens.

Sticky, Gooey Play Dough

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I’m addicted to play dough. Playing with it, cutting it, rolling it, but especially making it.  Play dough is an excellent material for exploring a pliable 3-D media, and it has the potential to help a child exercise fine motor skills and develop their creative mind through play acting (i.e. making “cookies”).

When my daughter was 16 months we bought our first batch of play dough at Whole Foods.  It was awesome.  And expensive. And when the whole family came down with what felt like the swine flu just days after playing with the stuff, I knew I had to throw out the whole sad lot with the tissues and hand wipes.  It was painful to fork out more money for another round of dough, and then a friend asked why I wasn’t just making my own.  Right.  Excellent question. I was an art teacher, and why had I never made play dough?  Slightly embarrassed, I knew I had to set off and find a great recipe.

If you look around for play dough recipes you’ll find recipes that include everything from cornstarch to Kool Aid to peanut butter, but the one I’m sharing here is for the really good, traditional stuff.  The recipe comes from First Art: Art Experiences for Toddlers and Twos by MaryAnn F. Kohl, and it’s the only one I’ve used.  So, do let me know if you have one that trumps it, but I’ll stand by the quality of this dough.  The book, by the way, is fabulous, and I recommend it highly to anyone searching for excellent art activity ideas for little ones.

The Recipe

This will make enough dough for an entire preschool class.  I usually make 1/2 the recipe and it’s still plenty!  For two colors, divide the recipe in half.

  • 5 cups Water
  • 2 1/2 cups Salt – an entire container of Morton’s-style
  • 3 Tbsp Cream of tartar — this can be bought in bulk at Whole Foods, or found in the spice section of big grocery stores
  • Food Coloring: 1 tsp for pastel, 3 tbsp for vivid
  • 10 Tbsp Oil — I use Canola, but any veggie oil should work
  • 5 cups Flour

Combine the water, salt, cream of tartar and food coloring in a large saucepan on a low heat, and stir with a wooden spoon. As the mixture heats up, stir in the oil and then the flour.

Mix, until the dough comes away from the edges of the pan, starts looking dry, and it becomes difficult to move the spoon. Pinch a piece between two fingers…if it’s not sticky it’s done. Remove from heat. Cool until it can be handled.

Place on counter and knead 3-4 times. Store in an air tight container or large Ziplock bag.


Eight Ways to Follow a Child’s Curiosities

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“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

I really wanted a birdhouse.  I’m not sure why exactly, but I impulsively and enthusiastically bought an unfinished birdhouse, and for whatever other reason, I then tucked it away in the back of closet. The mind works in odd ways.

In any case, about a week ago, my daughter became especially fascinated by some birds she saw on one of our walks.  The observation led to further curiosities about birds in our books, birdhouses, naming birds in various toys, and spotting birds in the sky.  Following one of our bird chats, I offered  up that we could make our very own birdhouse.  What I didn’t completely anticipate was the unbounded enthusiasm you often see when someone has earned an Olympic gold medal!  And what I experienced in that short, beautiful moment is that my child was thrilled that I had not only listened to her, but that I also intended to help her pursue her interests and follow her curiosities.

Seeing the enthusiasm, I quickly pulled out the birdhouse, paint, and brushes.  I’ve been unprepared for these impulsive moments in the past, and was relieved that the table was already covered in vinyl and the brushes and paints were ready to go.  With toddlers, the whole mood can shift with the wind, so within minutes Project Birdhouse was underway.  Any preconceived ideas I had for my darling birdhouse flew out the window and I opened myself up to my toddler’s ideas.  Thankfully, she allowed me painting rights, and the two of us painted the whole house (under her direction!) in about 15 minutes.

I somehow convinced her toddler impatience that we had to let it dry before filling it with seeds, and the next day it was outside attracting birds.

Eight ways to support a child’s curiosities

  • Listen closely and carefully to what your child is saying.
  • Don’t interrupt the child with your own interpretations.  Rather, reiterate what they are seeing and experiencing.
  • Follow the child’s lead.
  • Explore the child’s curiosity in multiple ways.
  • Ask questions about the process of discovery.
  • Encourage risk-taking and experimentation.
  • Be flexible and ready to change your agenda to accommodate growing interests.
  • When possible, have a stockpile of self-serve materials (i.e. books, craft supplies, toys, videos) ready that will support your child’s interests.

If your child is interested in…:

  • Doctors, newborn babies, hospitals: Visit a large nearby hospital.  Many hospitals are open to the public and allow visitors.  You might be able to see newborn babies in the nursery, and it’s educational to look for scrubs, wheelchairs, gurneys, stethoscopes, etc.  Also, consider purchasing an inexpensive doctor kit.
  • Airplanes: Take a trip to the airport.  If you’re in a car, look for a road that loops around the back of the airport that will allow you to  watch planes taking off.  And if you happen to have an aviation museum near your home like this one your child will love the hands-on experience of climbing into a cockpit and “flying” helicopters.
  • Cooking: Cook together, and set up a mini-kitchen for your little chef.  Have your child climb up on a step stool so that he or she can see all of the action.  Depending on your child’s ability and age, he or she can pour flour into a batter, mix scrambled eggs, spread jam on toast, pull husks off of corn, etc.  A mini-kitchen can be as simple as fashioning a stove out of a low cabinet that’s repainted and covered with little kitchen accessories.  Here’s a smart and simple DIY kitchen idea.

Exploring Glue

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Who doesn’t love playing with glue?  I have a strong memory of covering both my hands in glue with my best friend at summer camp, and then seeing the look of horror on our counselor’s face when we mischievously started peeling off our own “skin.”  I’m not advocating for that kind of behavior here, but my point is that there are endless possibilities for creating and playing with glue:  it can be used as an adhesive or a paint, it can be squeezed or dripped, and it has a delightful (and for some, disgusting) sticky quality that is fun to touch…and sometimes peel.  There are lots of recipes out there for home-made glue, but I love good old-fashioned Elmer’s School Glue.  It’s non-toxic, inexpensive, and works really well.

Exploration Connections:

  • When playing with glue, children can learn about viscosity, and how one object can adhere to another, sometimes permanently.
  • Children will also make choices about which objects they want to use, where to place them, and how many to include on the paper, helping them experience decision-making skills and autonomy in a lovely way (rather than throwing an “I want THAT cookie” fit in the grocery store).

Time:

Set-up: 5 minutes (after materials are gathered and/or purchased)

Activity:  5+ minutes, depending on the child’s ability, interest, distractions, etc.

Materials:

  1. Paper
  2. Glue
  3. Disposable Bowls
  4. Small objects for gluing (i.e. feathers, pom-poms, leaves, macaroni)

Activity:

  1. Squeeze enough glue into a disposable bowl to fill its bottom.  (After the glue dries, you can use the bowl again for another gluing activity.  Hoorah for recycling!)
  2. On your own paper, show your child how to dip an object in the glue and place it on the paper.  Hold your paper sideways or upside-down (depending on the weight of the object) to demonstrate that the glue is holding the object in place.  Next, encourage them to try, and ask them what they’re doing and/or comment on their process by saying things like, “You’re dipping the noodle in the glue and dripping glue on the paper.  And now you’re placing it on the blue paper.”
  3. Alternatively, give your child a small glue bottle and show them how to squeeze it on the paper.  They can then place the objects on the small dot or pile of glue.  This is a great option for kids who don’t want to touch the glue, and also helps children understand the physics of squeezing a bottle to release a liquid.

Another idea for the preschool crowd: Writing with glue as a preschooler

Creativity in the Garden

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Spring is here (!!!), and for us that means it’s time play outside and start a garden.

Children learn through play, and for them “play” is “work.”  So this is a great opportunity to let them “play” while learning about seeds, digging holes, packing mulch, and watering.  All you need are some play clothes, a few plants, a pot or bit of land, soil, and a trowel or two.  Not to fret if you don’t have land — this activity can be easily adapted to an indoor space (such a kitchen) or patio with a few pots and a small bit of dirt.

You can start with the following simple instructions, and then go from there…make garden art, build a musical fence, play with the hose, build a birdhouse, look for snails, or collect leaves.  The options are endless.  More inspiration on gardening with kids can be found here: http://www.thekidsgarden.co.uk/

Creativity Connections:

  • Gardens can be a place to gain problem-solving skills. For example, children can explore how deep they need to dig holes, how much water it takes to fill a watering can, and they can make decisions about where they want to plant seeds or plants.
  • Ask the child problem-solving questions such as, “What shall we plant in this large hole?  The strawberries, the sage, or the tomatoes?”
  • Ask the child invention-building questions such as, “What do you suppose we could do with this trowel?”

Time:

  • If you’re planting a pot or two, once you’ve gathered your materials, this activity could be done in 1/2 hour. Children who enjoy the sandbox, may linger over the joys of digging dirt and could use more time.  For a larger garden space, give yourself at least an hour…possibly more. Attention spans can be short, but once outside, time can go by quickly with all of the distractions of bugs, dirt, digging, water, and mud.

Materials:

  1. Planting pots or  a clear spot of earth
  2. Soil
  3. Plants: veggies, herbs and small flowers are great for small hands
  4. Seeds
  5. Trowels:  one adult size and one child size.  Spoons can work too.
  6. Gardener’s knee pad (not necessary, but really helpful) — get two if you can!
  7. Spray bottle: not really necessary for gardening, but little gardeners adore playing with these
  8. Watering can or hose. Small watering cans are easy to find in drugstores as part of sandbox kits this time of year.
  9. Play clothes

Directions:

  1. Talk with your child about what you’re planning to do:  You can choose the plants together or have them ready on “planting day.”
  2. Show your child the tools you’ll be using, and explain how you’ll use them (i.e. dig holes, put plants in the ground, water the plants).
  3. As you’re placing seeds or plants in the dirt, explain the process to your child so that they hear what they’re doing while actually doing it.  This helps solidify their learning.  Also, be sure to ask them what they’re doing, to get their take on it.
  4. Be prepared for a MESS!  It’s inevitable, but also part of the fun.
  5. After the plants and/or seeds are in place, don’t forget to water them.
  6. Once you’re done, recap the gardening process with your child by reminding them of what you just accomplished and asking them what they did, and encourage your child to play in the garden.

Dirt-free Alternative:

If you don’t have a garden, can’t stand the sight of dirt, or you’re facing a rainy day, plant some seeds indoors.  We eat a lot of avocados around here, and a fun, simple activity is “planting” avocado pits.  Check out these simple instructions.  All you need is an avocado pit, 3 toothpicks, a glass, water, and A LOT of patience.  So simple!   Be sure to plant a few just in case they don’t all “pop.”  Ours were planted three weeks ago, and we’re still waiting for them to sprout!