The Tree Tag Project {or How to Surprise Your Neighbors}

Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise. 

– Alice Walker

I love visual surprises. They fill me with fresh ideas and the reminder that humans are full of the endless potential to create. Things like public art installations, alleys full of colorful murals, political graffiti on the sidewalk, yarn bombing, and couches falling out of buildings excite me.

But where I live these visual surprises barely exist.

There are all sorts of things that I adore about my neighborhood, my immediate neighbors for one. But my town lacks the weirdness that comes with living in a place inhabited by artists. Like this altered sign by Banksy, the intersection painting project in Portland, OR these fake shiny geodes by artist Paige Smith.  After much complaining I realized, of course, that I had become part of the problem. It wasn’t like I was out there nailing rubber chickens to the side of my house or anything.

Stung with the realization that the suburban dream was about to swallow me whole, I decided to reclaim my place among the artists.

So let me introduce to you the first of what I hope are many more surprising projects to come (along with the caveat that this project is on the tame side — I’m just getting started here, after all)…

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

What is the Tree Tag Project?

Our neighbors are invited to write their response to a prompt and then hang it from a tree.

What’s the Point?

Bring people together: I want my children to get to know their neighbors outside of hosting the usual lemonade stand.

Empower a child: It’s empowering for children to see that they can set up a real world project that other people will respond to.

Be Surprising: Surprise my neighbors with an interactive project that stops them in their tracks and gets them thinking.

Democratize visual communication: Have you noticed that public visual communication is often limited to brands as they market to us through their loud signs and billboards. Visual noise is all around us, so why not reclaim a bit of this space in a way that’s fun, inexpensive, positive, and community-building?

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

How we did it

We turned an old crate on its side and topped it with a small container that was filled with crayons, pre-made paper tags, and a card with the question: “What’s your favorite place to travel to…near or far?”

Choosing the question proved challenging for us because I wanted five-year old N to be involved in the whole process. Our brainstorming session went something like this:

  • What book are you reading? (me)
  • What does your backpack look like? (N)
  • What’s the best thing that happened to you today? (me)
  • What’s your favorite show? (N)

We finally agreed on the travel question, I think because it’s something we were each able to answer, and that made it all the better since it was important to me that children could respond to these cards as much as adults could.

By the way, I still got to ask my book reading question over here. If you’re looking for a new book, you might find it as useful and interesting as I did.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

To get this started we gathered supplies.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

And then set it up.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

My kids seeded it with a few cards. Some with words.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

Others with pictures.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

The next day we were greeted with messages from our neighbors who like to travel to Tokyo, the Amalfi Coast, Bali, Lake Tahoe, the local walking trail, a city park in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and a host of other places. One neighbor who was out for her brisk morning walk didn’t have time to make a contribution, but she commented (while walking) on how inspiring the project was.

Baby steps, people. Today it’s a question about travel, tomorrow we may paint our grass purple.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

My kids loved counting the cards each day. At the end of the first day there were five cards, and by the middle of the second day there were ten. This was exciting!

The project ran for one week, and then we took it down to build the next street project. We’ll test out a few more questions, and maybe shake this up with some variations on the challenge.

Will you join me?

I realize that this isn’t for everyone, but I hope I’ve managed to encourage you to give this a shot. You don’t need a lot of materials or anything fancy to make this happen. And my experience is simply here for inspiration — you should run this with whatever materials move you.

The real joy here lies in the feeling of empowerment that comes from bringing people together and making something fun happen. If you’re as excited about projects like this as I am, will you let me know in a comment? I’m thinking about setting up a series of challenges that relate to this theme and I’d love to know if there’s a real interest…or not.

There are two ways to share immediately:

Facebook: Share a photo or a link to your blog post of your own Tree Tag Project (or something in the same spirit) on my Facebook page

On my blog: Send me an email with a photo of your Tree Tag Project (or something similar) or a link to your blog post, and I’ll share it right here on Tinkerlab! Email: Rachelle at Tinkerlab dot com

More Neighborhood Interventions

Keri Smith wrote a cool book called the Guerilla Art Kit, which is full of all kinds of public art interventions that share the spirit of this project.

A question for you

What other ideas do you have for neighborhood art installations or interventions?








Seven Tips for Setting up an Impromptu Garden Art Studio

These are great ideas! 7 tips for setting up an impromptu outdoor art studio for kids.

The other day we had the most amazing weather, so we set up a garden art studio…

Summertime Art Tips: Seven Tricks to Set up an Impromptu Garden Art Studio.

When I was in college I always loved those teachers who took their classes outside on a nice day. So why not recreate that magic with our kids? Did you know that most children don’t spend enough time outdoors?

The Benefits of Making Art Outdoors

  1. Being outside is calming, restorative, and resets the mind.
  2. Nature is fodder for the imagination.
  3. Getting messy isn’t an issue.
  4. You can get up water some plants/play/dig a hole, and then return to making.

Summertime Art Tips: Seven Tricks to Set up an Impromptu Garden Art Studio.

Our Process

I offered my children a few after-lunch options that included reading in the garden, making art outside, and going on a hike. Can you tell that I wanted to spend some outdoors? The weather was that incredible.

My older daughter liked the idea of setting up a blanket on our lawn and helped me hatch a plan to create an art studio picnic. 

Within moments of setting it all up, which took us about ten minutes, the girls were deep into making. At this point I gleefully broke out my new garden sheers and tackled mountains of overgrown plants. Hack hack hack. Things had gotten so out-of-hand in my poor garden, which now looks rather normal, that it initially appeared quite bald as I managed to fill our entire composting bin with greenery.

Summertime Art Tips: Seven Tricks to Set up an Impromptu Garden Art Studio.

Meanwhile, I’d pop over to check on the kids periodically and captured 4-year old N as she decorated a big river rock with paint pens. More details on drawing on rocks over here. 

Summertime Art Tips: Seven Tricks to Set up an Impromptu Garden Art Studio.

Her little sister has been invested in painting lately and we knew that she’d enjoy easel painting. If you really can’t get outside, 10 Steps for Easy Indoor Easel Painting will help you bring the magic indoors.

I also have a stand-up easel, but I thought this would be a nice way to have the girls work side-by-side. It was a great strategy until the watercolor jars were knocked over onto the blanket. Ahem, we only own washable paints for moments like this.

Summertime Art Tips: Seven Tricks to Set up an Impromptu Garden Art Studio.

Also, this little easel has a tray to hold paint on both sides and I knew both kids would want to paint at the same time. All in all, it was a fantastic afternoon and just the sort of experience that I imagine we’ll invest in all summer long.

7 Tips for setting up a Garden Art Studio

First of all, it’s important to address that you don’t need a sprawling lawn to make this happen. A patio, stoop, or balcony work just fine. The important thing here is to get outside and enjoy some fresh air!

These are great ideas! 7 tips for setting up an impromptu outdoor art studio for kids.

  1. Wear play clothes, aprons, or nothing at all. 
  2. Wait for a warm day.
  3. Keep the materials simple and choose one or two basic projects. We chose watercolors + easel and rock painting.
  4. Have a water source nearby for washing up.
  5. Set up a picnic blanket so that little makers can get comfortable.
  6. Make sure you have a camera to capture these moments.
  7. If you’re painting, lay dry pieces out on the ground to dry. If it’s windy, dry them on a clothesline or indoors.


Set up a Permanent Outdoor Art Studio

Take a look at Meri Cherry’s inspiring outdoor art studio for ideas on how to build or set up a more permanent outdoor maker space.

How to set up a successful backyard art studio for kids |

Outdoors with Kids Resources

Tape paper to the wall for an Instant Outdoor Art Studio

Six Ways to Take Art Outdoors

11 Classic Summer Camp Crafts for Kids

Start a Family Nature Club with this Nature Tools for Families Toolkit (FREE download) from Children and Nature Network.  The Children and Nature Network is run by Audubon medal winner Richard Louv who wrote the bestseller, Last Child in the Woods. 

If you’re in the Bay Area, get your hands on a copy of Bay Area, Best Hikes with Kids: San Francisco Bay Area by Laure Latham. I just got it and it’s awesome!

A fabulous roundup of ideas for building outdoor forts and shelters for kids, from Let the Children Play.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, but I only share links to products that I love or that I think you’ll find useful.

How to Make Paper Airplanes That Go Far

Have you ever made a paper airplane?

Did you learn how to make it from a book? Or maybe it was from the kid you shared a desk with in the third grade?

We tested a few designs, and one of them really stood out as a winner (I’ll share it below). You’ll have to test some, too, and see which one flies the furthest.

This will be fun for the summer! How to Make Paper Airplanes that go Far!

How to Make Paper Airplanes that go Far

Well guess what? Today I’m sharing links to instructions for making paper airplanes that go far and actually work, along with some ideas on how to help kids invent their own paper airplane designs.

So let’s get started with How to Make Paper Airplanes while building Design Skills…

paper airplane table set up

Paper Airplane Supplies

  • A few sets of instructions for making paper airplanes. You can get these from a book or download instructions from the internet (see recommended links below)
  • Copy paper. Thinner paper is easier for children to fold.
  • Markers (optional)
  • Scissors (optional)
  • A clear table

The Best Paper Airplane Designs

paper airplane instructions

Step One: Select a Design

We looked through all of our designs, picked one to start with, and my daughter and I sat down and followed the directions for the first airplane. If you’ve ever made origami, it’s the same approach. Most of the steps were easy enough for her four-year old hands and mind, but I had to help her with a few of the trickier folds.

If you find instructions that are too complicated for you, then skip them and find another plane to make.

Step Two: Teach someone else how to make a plane

Once we got the hang of it, N thought our six-year old neighbor would enjoy this project and we invited him over to join us. Either that or misery loves company.

We each started with another sheet of paper and while we folded, the kids educated each other on hamburger and hot dog folds. If you don’t have a neighbor to teach, teach a parent, babysitter, or grandparent. This step does wonders for building confidence.

paper airplane collection

Step Three: Iterate and Invent New Planes

Once that first airplane was complete, it was interesting to see where the kids took the project next. My daughter, a designer to the core, got busy decorating her plane with markers. Her friend, a tinkerer at heart who has a soft spot for Legos, began iterating on the design to improve it!

As we folded, he asked me questions like, “On your Eagle, how did you make the wing tips?” And then he proceeded to invent his own series of planes with pointed noses, flat noses, and wing tips.

When my daughter jumped in to help him, I commented that they were iterating. I actually said, “Hey you guys are iterating! Do you know that word? It means that you’re building a lot of planes to test new ideas and in order to figure out how to make it better. Can you say ‘iterate?'” And then of course, they obliged me.

I swear, the teacher thing will probably never leave my soul! Do you ever find yourself in that mode?

How to make a paper airplane | Tinkerlab

Step Four: Take it outdoors

They tested their planes in the house and once they amassed a small fleet of planes, I heard, “Let’s have an airplane show!!” So we took it outdoors to see what the planes could do.

Our friend guessed that the pointy-nosed planes would get more distance and said he was “amazed that the flat-nosed Eagle flew the best.”


All in all, we spent a good hour on this project, and in the end not only did these kids have fun bonding and playing together, but they came away with some new design skills, tools for developing an innovator’s mindset, and good ol’ fine motor skill practice. 

How to make paper airplanes that go far square

A question for you…

Did you ever make paper airplanes as a child? Where did you learn how to make them? And how did they fly?

50 Earth Day Activities for Kids

Earth Day is our annual reminder to slow down and appreciate the bounty of the earth. The following 50 Earth Day Activities for kids will encourage children to create objects from natural and recycled materials and spend more time outdoors.

I hope you’ll find some inspiration here, and if you have more ideas to share, please add them to a comment so that others can enjoy them too.

Happy Earth Day!

50 Earth Day Activities for kids | TinkerLab

Earth Day Activities with Natural Materials

50 Earth Day Activities for kids | TinkerLab

Earth Day Activities with Recycled Materials

50 Earth Day Activities for kids | TinkerLab

Outdoor Art Earth Day Activities

50 Earth Day Activities for kids | TinkerLab

Crushed Flower Experiment

Now that summer is coming to an end (sniff — I’m kind of in denial — you?), it’s a good time to harvest some of your last blooms for some flower-painting experiments.

Crushed flower experiment

We took a walk around the neighborhood and picked some weeds from wild roadside gardens, and also selected a handful of flowers and leaves from our own yard.


For this project you’ll need: assorted flowers and leaves and paper

The experiment lies in testing the flowers to see what colors actually emerge from them as they’re crushed and smeared onto paper. We were surprised by the blue hydrangea’s brownish-green hue, but also got some more predictable amazingly brilliant yellows and purples from our roses and dandelions.

Crushed Flower Experiment

More Artsy Science Experiments

If you’re interested in more experiments that lie at the intersection of art and science, you might also enjoy Invisible Ink: A Citrus Painting Experiment and the Egg Geodes Science Experiment.

More Flower Projects

For more with flowers, you’ll have a lot of fun Pounding them into Flower Bookmarks or maybe you want to learn how to press flowers. Zina at Let’s Lasso the Moon has a lovely idea for turning a huge sunflower harvest into back-to-school teacher gifts. And, there are over SIXTY amazing ideas in the Tinkerlab Flower Creative Challenge that will keep you busy with all your harvested flowers.

And similarly, here are some ideas for making vegetable-based egg dyes.

What are your favorite ways to use, preserve, and harvest your end-of-summer flowers?