Looking at Art with Kids: Norman Rockwell

Have you spent any time looking at art — in a MUSEUM — with your child? Even though I’m an arts educator who spent years leading gallery tours and training docents, we don’t spend as much time in art museums as I’d like because, you know, my children look at everything as a potential playground. I have an arsenal of gallery games and tricks up my sleeve, but they’re no match for a 2-year old!

This isn’t to say that we don’t look at art. We look at art at home, and sculpture gardens are a preschool parent’s best friend. But given my love for visiting art museums, I’ve had to seriously adjust my expectations of how a visit feels.

In a word. Short.

This summer we had the pleasure of visiting Cape Cod’s Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich, MA. If you ever find yourself in the area with little and big people, it’s a multi-generational gold mine. A few highlights were Hidden Hollow (an outdoor classroom and fun zone), the indoor carousel, and gorgeous gardens and grounds. What we didn’t expect to see was a traveling Norman Rockwell exhibit, Norman Rockwell Beyond the Easel.

My mother-in-law wanted to see the show, and while I did too, all I could imagine was the push-pull of my two- and four-year-olds to skedaddle in the wake of weary art patrons and Rockwell’s photorealistic paintings.

But the interpretive team did a great job bringing Rockwell’s work to my kids’ level. We snapped lots of photos in the Model T, put on old-fashioned clothes that matched the style of Rockwell’s models, and assembled a magnetic version of Rockwell’s famous painting, The Runaway (1958).

Do you know The Runaway? It turns out that Norman Rockwell’s narrative work provides a rich platform for children to search for meaning, and my my 4-year old loved it!

We were all fascinated by the side-by-side comparison of the final painting with intermediate sketches and the black-and-white photograph that Rockwell staged as inspiration. We did a lot of tennis-match looking to spot the similarities and differences, which made me appreciate Rockwell’s eye for details and storytelling even more than I had before.

Try it for yourself…it’s super fun.

Print the two images, and then look at them carefully with your favorite little person, an experience that fosters creative thinking and curiosity. Beyond making comparisons, you can try asking a couple inquiry-based questions (based on Visual Thinking Strategies) that will get the conversation flowing:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that? (ask this question if your child offers a subjective answer such as “The boy likes the Police Officer.”)
After that, if you want more information about The Runaway and the photo that it was based on, click over here.

If you find yourself falling in love with this image or you want to see more works by Rockwell or other beloved American artists, you might enjoy visiting Art.com’s Americana gallery or go directly to The Runaway on Art.com. I own a few pieces by Art.com, and the quality is beyond belief. I almost feel like I’m looking at the original piece.

They also do an incredible job framing their work, which was the first thing I noticed when I opened the carefully wrapped print that arrived on my doorstep. You can see what I mean in this craftsmanship video, which shows how Art.com‘s frames are handcrafted in America.

You can also find Art.com on Pinterest, where they pin cool art and, ahem, I hear there’s a BIG giveaway happening soon for their Pinterest followers.

What was the last museum you went to? Any tips on visiting art museums with kids?

This post is sponsored by Art.com, but all opinions are my own.

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.

Organize a Self-Serve Creativity Zone

“The drive to master our environment is a basic human characteristic from the beginning — from birth.”

-Jack P. Shonkoff, Harvard University (From Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky. New York: Harper Collins, 2010).

Do you have self-serve spaces in your home that are dedicated to creativity, art, science, and tinkering? Today I’m sharing our creative zone, the space where most of our art and creative explorations take place.

The key to this space is that it’s all self-serve. I jump in and participate, of course, but my kids know where everything is and it’s all accesible to their little hands. And they’re capable of cleaning it up when they’re ready to move on to the next thing.

We live in a small home, and I’m not suggesting that our plan will work for everyone, but the general spirit of it is something that I think we can all stand behind: when children can execute on their own ideas, it builds their confidence and encourages curiosity and a thirst for knowledge.

My objective is to give my children room to take charge of this space in order to test and follow through on their big ideas.

This space has moved all over our house, but for now it’s in our dining room space, just off the kitchen. It’s perfect for us because the light is the best in the house and there’s room for our self-serve art supply furniture. The table and chairs (Pottery Barn) are sturdy, meaning that grown-ups can comfortably sit in them and there’s plenty of natural and artificial light.

In order to execute on their ideas, children need to have access to creative materials, so all of ours are stored on low shelves where my kids can find them (and then, theoretically, put them away). Having a garbage can (Ikea) in the space is also key to keeping it neat. I don’t know why it took me so long to get a waste basket for this area!

Not all of our creative materials are stored here: I keep less-often-used materials like bottles of paint and play dough tools in a closet and the garage. I also introduce new materials when my children seem to tire of what’s in the space — maybe once a week. This week our table is consumed with a big batch of slime! If you’re interested, you can watch our video tutorial on how to make slime here.

There’s a letter writing center on top of one of the book shelves, which includes envelopes, cards, small homemade booklets, string + tape (both in action at the moment), a stapler, art dice, compass, and an address stamper. Next to this is a 3-tiered dessert tray, repurposed to hold collage materials and stamps.

Beneath this shelf is storage for clean recycled materials (including a phone book that just arrived — I can’t believe they still make these!), sketchbooks, a magnifying glass, and this hammering activity.

Next to the shelf is a unit of drawers, and one of them is dedicated to my kids and their creative pursuits. It’s filled with various tapes, extra clear tape (we race through this stuff), scissors, hole punchers, extra scissors (because mine constantly walk away, like socks in the laundry), my card readers, and a few other odds and ends. This drawer is in flux, but for now it’s working for us.

The other day I set out this invitation of pre-cut paper and a bowl of stickers to greet my kids when they woke up. So simple and it took me three minutes to arrange it. When my kids saw the table, their imaginations turned on and they got right to work, dreaming up all sorts of possibilities as they pulled various materials out to help them realize their visions.

More Creative Zone Inspiration

Organize your Art Station

New Creative Studio Corner

Art Supply Organization

Organizing Art Supplies: Day One

Organizing Art Supplies: Day Two

Organizing Art Supplies: Pantry Labels

Art Table in the Living Room

What are your self-serve tips and tricks?

Bonus: 50 Art Materials for Toddlers

50 Art Materials for Toddlers is a fun post that rounds up our favorite supplies for little hands. We asked our readers to share some of their favorites, which are added in the comments. See what you think!

Join the TinkerLab Community

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to sign up for the weekly TinkerLab newsletter. It’sfree and we often send exclusive content and opportunities that are only available to our subscribers.

In case you blinked and missed it, TinkerLab rounds up all the great stuff on the internets on keeping you and your critters creative and wraps it up for you in a tidy newsletter! (And throws in some secret giveaways for good measure!)  – Yuliya P., San Francisco, CA

Join our community and you’ll learn:

  • How to simplify your life and make more room for creativity
  • How to make hands-on making a part of your everyday life
  • Easy, actionable ways to raise creative kids

TinkerLab Newsletter

DIY Pumpkin Pie Playdough

Have you ever made your own play dough? Im a fan of store bought dough (it’s so easy!), but making your own is a money saver and we can make TONS of it in minutes. And with the simple addition of a little pumpkin pie spice, our dough smells heavenly…just like pumpkin pie!

"Smells like Fall" Pumpkin Play Dough | TinkerLab.com


Inspired by The Artful Parent’s Autumn Arts and Crafts book, The Artful Year: Autumn, we finally pitched our peppermint playdough in favor of a more seasonal scent: Pumpkin Pie!

Pumpkin Pie Playdough Recipe…

I used our favorite play dough recipe, which also happens to be the favorite of my daughter’s awesome preschool class, so I’m not going to get experimental with the dough itself, but we did experiment with the spice combination.

The dough itself takes about 20 minutes to prepare, it cooks on the stove-top, and the most complicated-to-find ingredient it calls for is cream of tartar. If it’s hard for you to find, you can get Cream of Tartar on Amazon.

Yes, you can find 2-minute dough recipes, and I’d encourage you to use them if you’re short on time, but the benefit of this recipe is that it will last for ages. Ages. Scroll down for a PRINTABLE recipe card.

"Smells Amazing" Pumpkin Pie Play Dough | TinkerLab.com

After we made the dough, I placed it on the counter to cool. Meanwhile, my 2-year old worked away at pinching out a real pie crust.

"Smells Amazing" Pumpkin Pie Play Dough | TinkerLab.com

When the dough was cool to touch, we squeezed orange liquid watercolors on half of it and then kneaded it in. For this step, be sure to mix on a surface that won’t absorb the watercolors. My 4-year old wanted to make half the dough orange and half of it white.

"Smells Amazing" Pumpkin Pie Play Dough | TinkerLab.com

Although we had planned to use a jar of pumpkin pie spice in the dough, my 4-year old was curious about using whole spices that we just bought, so we pulled out the coffee grinder and gave it a very loud whirl. Fun! I don’t have a proper nutmeg grinder, but this seemed to do the trick. And the smell of cardamom — I absolutely love it.

We experimented with the spice blend by adding the different spices, first quite cautiously and then rather liberally, and in different combinations. I learned that my 4-year old isn’t too crazy about the smell of cardamom, but loves cinnamon.

5.0 from 5 reviews
DIY Pumpkin Pie Playdough
Prep time:
Making time:
Total time:
Playdough is a wonderful material for building fine motor skills, developing imaginations through exploratory play, and supporting early engineering and building skills. This recipe rivals anything store-bought.
  • 5 cups water
  • 2½ cups salt
  • 3 tbsp. cream of tartar
  • 10 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 5 cups flour
  • Food coloring or liquid watercolors
  • Pumpkin Pie Spice, or a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cardamom
  1. Mix everything but the food coloring together in a large pot until somewhat smooth. It will be lumpy. Not to worry, the dough will get smoother as it cooks.
  2. Cook the dough over a low heat. Mix frequently. The water will slowly cook out of the mixture and you’ll notice it starts to take on a sticky dough appearance.
  3. Keep mixing until the edges of the dough along the side and bottom of the pan appear dry. Pinch a piece of dough. If it’s not gooey, the dough is ready.
  4. Place the dough on a counter top or large cutting board or cooking tray that can withstand a little food coloring.
  5. Knead the warm dough until it’s smooth and then divide it into the number of colors that you’d like to make. We divided our in half: one orange and the other white.
  6. Flatten the ball, add a little bit of food coloring, and knead it in. Add more food coloring to get the desired shade.
  7. Store the dough in a large Ziplock bag or sealed container. Unused, it’ll keep for months.

"Smells Amazing" Pumpkin Pie PlayDough | TinkerLab.com

My 2-year old was very happy, however, to shake-shake-shake the pie spices all over her gigantic mound of dough. Can you imagine how yummy our kitchen smelled?


Easy "smells great" pumpkin pie play dough | TinkerLab.com

After all this cooking, it was time to bake! At this point, our orange and white/tan doughs marbled into something lovely, and we got busy making small cakes and setting them out to eat on a 3-tier plate server.

Playdough Recipes

Rainbow Play Dough, Tinkerlab

No-cook Cinnamon Playdough, The Imagination Tree

39 Ways to Play with Playdough, The Artful Parent

Downloadable (Free) Playdough Recipe Book, Nurture Store

Fall Activities

50 Simple Halloween Ideas for Kids, TinkerLab

Fall Bucket List, Tinkerlab

40 Autumn Activities for Kids, The Imagination Tree

Make Fall Sunprints, Tinkerlab

Multi-color Leaf Prints, Kleas

Negative Leaf Impressions, Tinkerlab

Is this your first time here?

Join the Tinkerlab network and be the first to know about simple art + science projects for kids, creativity tips, and simple ideas that will make your life more creative. Sign up for our newsletter.

TinkerLab Newsletter

In case you blinked and missed it, TinkerLab rounds up all the great stuff on the internets on keeping you and your critters creative and wraps it up for you in a tidy newsletter! (And throws in some secret giveaways for good measure!)  – Yuliya P., San Francisco, CA

Join our community and you’ll learn:

  • How to simplify your life and make more room for creativity
  • How to make hands-on making a part of your everyday life
  • Easy, actionable ways to raise creative kids

Subtraction and Addition with Manipulatives


Do you have a child who’s interested in math? Or maybe you have one who’s struggling, and you’re searching for a way to make it more relevant and fun?

Problem Solving Skills

This is, ahem, the very first math post I’ve ever written. My oldest child is 4, and has taken a huge interest in math, so it might just be the first of many. Fingers crossed.

If you know my blog, you’ll know me as an artsy-DIY-experiment kind of gal, and recognize that this post goes waaaaaaay out of my comfort zone, but if you need a little proof that I’m sort of qualified to talk on this subject, I took high school calculus (thanks Mrs. Tracey!) and I’m really good at counting :) I’m also an advocate for creative and critical thinking, child-directed learning, and math games can help children develop problem solving skills. 

Okay, so this is how this game came about…

My kids and I were on a Target run, and did the obligatory cruise down the $1 lane when 4-year-old N spotted a pack of dry erase subtraction cards (see the photo below).

She eagerly asked if we could get them and my first thought was…

“um, no, you don’t even know how to add numbers, let alone subtract them!”

But after a beat, I put on my improvisational hat and said “yes, of course, that will be fun,” and I imagined that she’d simply enjoy the process of drawing all over them.

math is fun

When we got home she wanted to know how the cards worked, so we pulled them out.

Applied Math

Math can be so abstract and the only way I knew how to communicate the principles of subtraction was with the assistance of small objects that we could add and subtract. I’m sure I learned how to add this way, and I’m hardly claiming originality here.

I took out our basket of tree cookies (sliced up branches), and removed twelve of them, since the highest number on the cards was 12. We had tree cookies, but you could use coins, crayons, blocks, pom-poms, or any other small object that you have handy.

She can read numbers, so we started with the first problem: 3-3= 

N held her dry erase marker carefully above the worksheet and waited for my next move.

I separated three cookies from the pile and asked her how many pieces we had. She said “3.”

I proceeded: “Okay, so if we take 3 away (and I swiped them aside), how many are left?”

“Zero!” she yelled, loud enough for the neighbors to hear (they’ve told me that we’re kind of loud…eek).

“Exactly,” I said.

Cool Math

After this first round, she was on a roll. As we moved through the problems, she would set up the cookies for the first number, and then take them away for the second, and mostly needed me as her cheerleading section. And her little 2-year old sister got into the spirit too, yelling out numbers across the table. Seriously, math is cool and fun, and great for building problem-solving skills. 

Also, I never thought you could skip addition and go straight for subtraction!?

Have you tried teaching your child math this way? While we used pre-made cards, you could easily make up your own worksheet by hand or on your computer.

Do you think you’d give this a try?

If you like what you see here, we’d love to have you join our 7000+ member community on Facebook.