Drawing Shadows

Today was an on-and-off sunny day, but in those brief moments of sunshine we squeezed in a quick little chalk drawing project that’s a great way to help children look at things from a new perspective, which is a key ingredient in creative thinking.

I talked to N about a plan to draw our shadows earlier in the day, and lamented that it was too cloudy to try it out. When she spotted a break in the weather she was excited to head out and unpack the shadow drawing mystery. And her butterfly wings and bike, which were all her doing, were dynamic props for the activity.

What you need

  • Sidewalk Chalk
  • A sunny Day with a low sun. 2-3 hours before or after noon would probably be a good time to try this out.

We found a good spot with relatively smooth asphalt, and I asked N to choose a color for the drawing. What is it with this child and pink?! She watched closely as I traced around her shadow, and made every effort to hold her bike steady while I captured her image. It reminded me of those wonderful old daguerreotypes, or photos, of people who sat for their portraits for 15-25 seconds! I invited N to try her hand at tracing, but she wasn’t at all interested. I think it was a bit too challenging for her (she’s 34 months). Plus, she was busy being butterfly girl on a bike. Ya know?

Other Ideas

  • Take turns drawing shadows and being traced.
  • Invite your child to dream up props as shadow enhancements (akin to N’s wings and bike).
  • Draw shadows of inanimate objects: chairs, toys, tables, etc.
  • Distort reality by tracing part of a shadow literally, and other parts abstractly.

What else could you do with Shadow Drawings?

This post was shared with Childhood 101

Bird Feeder & Hop Circle

Today I’m sharing two outdoor activities for creative play…

#1: Peanut Butter Bird Feeder

Our house is shaded by an enormous pinecone-dropping machine, and these little beasts can be found in all corners of our mini-oasis. They are so begging to be turned into something, right? Peanut-butter coated pinecone bird feeders, here we come! (Apologies up-front to all my gluten and nut-free friends…this is why there are TWO activities in this post!).

We started by mixing some oat bran into our peanut butter. I read that this is healthier for birds than straigh-up peanut butter because the grains break up the sticky PB and aid their digestion.

Our little set-up: Peanut butter mix, Holiday cheese knife, Bowl of Birdseed, Twine, Scissors, Pinecones, and Paper to place the completed bird feeders on.

I twisted the twine on the cones and then handed them over to the queen peanut-butter spreader, who took her job very seriously.

She then coated them with seeds (from the dollar store – huzzah!). Which reminds me, I originally bought ten bags of the seed as an alternative to sand for our sand table. I highly recommend it as birdseed feels clean, it has a nice texture, and it has little specks of color that make it pop.

And there it is…ready for the birds. Not the pesky squirrels. Okay, are you ready for the sad part of this little tale? We made FOUR of these (4!), hung two by our house and two off a tree by the street. And not one of them was hanging the next morning! I’m pretty sure the squirrels managed to bring them down, but how? Clever little monsters! Has anyone else had this problem? What could we do differently?

#2: Hop Circle

It was a beautiful day, so N moved down to the sidewalk and started on some chalk drawings. She drew a (wobbly) circle on the ground and asked me if I’d draw more of them so that she could play “Hop Circle.” Haha. I kept calling it Circle-Scotch, but it didn’t really matter.

I thought it would be fun to add in some other shapes and drew a triangle. BIG mistake! I really should have checked with the creative director first, as this was NOT in the plan. Back to circles!

Once all the circles (and lone triangle) were laid out to her liking, she hopped away. How fun! And this reminds me of another hopscotch alternative I recently saw at Let the Children Play, where the kids drew a continuous hopscotch all around the school. Take a look!

Funnel Painting

This was inspired by an idea we found in Mary Ann Kohl’s Preschool Art. I know I’ve said this many times before, but Mary Ann’s books are brimming with creative and engaging projects, and each of mine are dog-eared in a million places. We used materials that we already had around the house — low threshold projects are my cup of tea! — and the set-up is really easy. The other thing I loved about this activity is the SCALE of it — I knew my child would be captivated by swinging a paint-filled funnel across a huge sheet of paper! Now that we’ve done this, the only drawback I could see was doing this indoors, as my daughter wanted to swing paint in every possible direction, turning me into a mini-general who curbed her enthusiasm more than I like to.

To make this happen, we used:

  • A curtain rod
  • String
  • Funnel
  • Large sheets of paper
  • Paint
  • Tape
  • Chairs to suspend the swinging funnel

My daughter helped me tape a big sheet of paper to the floor. We noticed that it wasn’t long enough, so we added some more. I could tell that the paint would come pouring out of the funnel, so I taped off the bottom of it to make the hole a bit smaller. I wrapped some string around the funnel, and taped it in place. Then I looped the string over the pole.

Ready, set…


After a few easy-breezy swings, N wanted to give the poor little funnel some heavy-duty pushes, which would have been fine if we were outdoors. After mopping up the fourth or fifth puddle of paint off my floors, we called it quits, but we’ll definitely be taking this activity outside in the near future. I can also envision sand in the funnel over a sandbox, or rice over a (really big!) sensory table.

Do you have any other ideas for funnel swings?

Winter Gardening

Although it’s winter, we were hit by a glorious warm spell about a week ago and I was overwhelmed by the planting bug. Now that the rain is back, what’s especially timely about this activity is that it’s all about bringing the outdoors inside. So, for my snow-bound friends out there, this easy gardening project may make you almost believe that Spring is right around the corner.

We started with a bag of wheat berry seeds that I got from a local farmer. You can also find them at just about any health food store. These are the ones they use to make wheatgrass, and I chose them because I heard they grow fast. This is no joke, they sprouted up almost immediately, and the grass was 7″ tall after just one week!

Day 1

We soaked the seeds in water overnight (about 12 hours), and then dried them out for another 12 hours.

Day 2

I poked drain holes in the bottom of a clean clamshell salad container (go recycling!!) and then filled it with some organic seed starting soil that I found at our neighborhood Hardware store. I love this little store, and all of the good people who work there. Is your hardware store the same?

Filling the container with soil and watering it really well. The spoon is for mixing. This may have been THE BEST part of the activity for my two and a half year old. Following this picture, there was dirt EVERYWHERE!

Filling little biodegradable pots (similar to these) with planting soil, and moistening the pots really well. Once the seedlings are strong, the whole container goes right into the ground. I’ve since found tutorials for making our own seedling containers from newspaper and cardboard egg cartons. They look really simple and incorporate recycled materials! Needless to say, I can’t wait to try both methods next time around.

N distributed the seeds amongst the pots.

So that you could barely see the soil.

And then watered them. I think the seeds can sit right on top of the soil, but I covered them lightly with a little bit more dirt.

She distributed the extra seeds all over our sad winter garden, hoping some of the seeds would catch. We watered our indoor seeds for one week, this is what our garden looks like…

Day 7

I swear, I’ve never seen anything grow this fast! We sprayed twice a day, to keep the soil nice and moist.

And often got impatient, and far preferred POURING water on our plants.

So I devised this much more elegant solution.

I just discovered that the fabulous Marie at Make and Takes experimented with growing grass in tons of different pots and planters — lots of good ideas there for planting pretty grass.

Now the big question — what to do with all of this wheatgrass??

Has anyone had luck feeding wheat grass juice to a toddler?

Frozen Wreath

Until a few weeks ago, I thought Halloween was the best “season” to celebrate with little kids, but now I’m beginning to think it’s got nothing on the winter holidays. My two year old is enamored by holiday lights, menorahs, ornaments, snowmen, animatronic lawn decorations, Santa, nutcrackers, and gingerbread houses. And the list goes on and on. When I picked her up from preschool this week, I found out that she led her class in a round of Jingle Bells! So, this wreath project is clearly the icing on a very well-frosted gingerbread bundt cake!

To make the wreath, N and I foraged for berries, rosemary sprigs, red leaves, and green sweetgum tree balls on our way home from the park, and then set to work making magic happen when we got home. We filled a bundt pan with water, added our beautiful natural finds, waited for it to freeze, added a ribbon and some more water, and then froze it some more. The perfect spot to hang it ended up being a post by the street, where we could enjoy catching many of our neighbors stop in their tracks to take a closer look. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me, as little creative surprises can be mood changers and eye openers, and it reminded me of Keri Smith’s fun-to-read book, The Guerilla Art Kit.

I stole this idea from the very thoughtful and creative Jean Van’t Hul of The Artful Parent. While our warm California weather renders a wreath like this useless after an hour or two, the lore and magic of winter evoked by this project make the process so worthwhile.

Thanks for the fun idea, Jean, and happy winter!

Easter in August

After Easter we moved some plastic eggs into N’s play kitchen, and every now and then she’ll ask us to hide them in the garden. One of these rogue eggs has been living in our fire pit for the past month (sadly, we haven’t been roasting marshmallows as much as we’d hoped), and she spotted it yesterday. So, with the two-year old hopping up and down asking for me to find — and hide — the rest of the eggs, I had to quickly pull together a spontaneous egg hunt. And all this led me to finally organize all of the materials in one easy-to-reach outdoor place.  If you’re not opposed to having egg hunts in August, this is a great hide-and-seek game (indoors or out) for any time of year.  And if you want to keep those eggs sacred for the holiday in which they were designed, you could hide toy cars, balls, or any other little fun objects you could dream up.

Pulling it together

I now store all of our eggs in a plastic shoe box, and collected all of our baskets into one place — couldn’t believe my only 2-year old already has four of these! While I usually start the hiding game, for some reason N now takes over after the second egg has been placed, and insists on both hiding AND finding the eggs. Not an issue, as this is obviously just the beginning of her inventing her own games. Which brings me to share why this is a creative thinking activity — I’m excited that my child doesn’t see holidays or seasons as limitations to her own ideas.  She’s not limited by cultural or societal constraints, and when inspiration strikes she’s enthusiastic to embark on a new journey to hunt for eggs in August.

Happy Hunting!

Documenting Passion Roundup

If you’ve been following me the past week, you know that I’ve been observing my daughter’s interests and activities in an attempt to document her passions by asking the question “What does she gravitate toward?” And the point of all that is to unpack some truths about her core interests (as opposed to forming my own assumptions about her interests). It’s been tough, at times, to separate myself completely into the role of observer, but given that I charted this path for a full week, I think I’ve taken a good stab at picking up on some of the qualities that currently define my child’s interests. And I also recognize that as she further develops and is exposed to new ideas, she’ll change and grow over time.

An interesting development this past week are the observations of Aleksandra and Danielle (see their comments on the past few posts), who both spotted behavioral patterns in their children. Aleksandra saw that her son, Max, needs to find quiet moments in his day to give him a little bit of respite from high levels of activity. And Danielle observed an inherent need to spread materials, objects, and toys in her daughter, Simone.  Related to this, I observed that my child is a sorter: she likes to clean, organize, separate, and place objects in small containers; which has led me to give her plenty of like materials (fake apples, water bottles, ice cubes, etc.) to sort  and organize.

This project has also alerted me to activity interests, the most obvious being her desire to play-act. And she seems most interested in play-acting moments and events from her recent experience. For example, after making pancakes with her G-Ma last week, she spontaneously made sand pancakes in the park yesterday. We’ve also spent a lot of time prepping her for the arrival of her baby sister. In reaction to this, just this morning she crawled all over the house, refused to talk (because, you know, babies don’t talk), and then broke character to ask me to mash up her bananas so she could eat them like a baby. To see how she’s handling the influx of baby gear, check out the picture at the top of this post.  If I didn’t already see a pattern of imaginative play as a means of grappling with her daily reality, I may have been concerned about what could otherwise be interpreted as receding behavior. This is rather obvious stuff, I know, but it alerts me to help her capture defining moments from her experience and support them through imaginative play.

And perhaps one of the biggest eye-openers is that I’ve noticed that art-making activities, which are near and dear to me, have been virtually nonexistent over the past week.  While there have been moments of involuntary drawing and mark-making (tire rubbings at the DeCordova was a big hit), my child has been more invested in other activities. At no point did I jot down any notes like “wants to paint” or “excited about drawing with chalk on the sidewalk.” And there could be many reasons for this: the novelty factor may be low because we make art so often or she may be at the developmental stage where art is too passive and she’d rather keep moving. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop the art activities all together…my child is young and as she develops, her skills will catch up with her mind…but I am aware that I shouldn’t expect my child to love every activity I set before her.  All in all, following what N gravitates toward has been a worthwhile pursuit that has raised my awareness of her desires.  And for those of you who were playing along — please share how this all sorted out for you too!

On that note, more art and creative activities coming soon. 🙂

Finding Nature with Kids

Outdoor Abacus. Tot Spot, Children’s Discovery Museum, Sausalito

Although I grew up in the culturally-rich and naturally-poor concrete jungle of Los Angeles, I had the good fortune of having a wild backyard at my imaginative disposal. On the hillside of our rough-and-tumble yard, my parents thoughtfully installed a playhouse filled with nooks and crannies for storing treasures and a magical trap door, hidden beneath a rug, where we could escape into a dirt patch next to an apple tree. We built forts in the overgrown bushes, picked apricots, pears, and plums from our trees, and generally invented our own little universe in the world behind our house.

In contrast, 100 yards beyond our front door lay a busy intersection, replete with a fire station, liquor store, abandoned hospital, and a bar that opened at 6 am and advertised “live girls and pool.” Until I was about eight, I actually thought they had a swimming pool in there, and imagined girls floating around on rafts just beyond the saloon doors. Sigh. Despite our less than pastoral location, having access to a backyard wonderland filled me with a love of nature that one wouldn’t expect in a city child.

Similarly, you may live in a less-than-ideal spot with few options to take your kids on nature walks or let them roam the neighboring creek, and it could be helpful to peek at an idealized utopia of nature-play to seek some inspiration for fostering creativity in the great outdoors.

Playing with Mud and Water

To get us started, in their article, Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environment: Returning to Nature (1), playground designer and early childhood experts Randy White and Vicki Stoecklin, found that when given the option of imagining their ideal outdoor play space, children would choose things like water, sand, and vegetation over jungle gyms and slides…a surprising observation in light of what most of our neighborhood parks actually look like. The reason? “Traditional playgrounds with fixed equipment do not offer children opportunities to play creatively (2) and promote competition rather than co­operation (3).” (Play Outside. Public Schools of North Carolina.). Slides and swings are no doubt fun, but children will bore more quickly of these closed-ended activities than they will of open-ended play spaces like sandboxes, forts, ponds, and climbing trees that allow for plentiful interpretations.

Playground designer, Randy White shares a comprehensive and workable list of things that children prefer in outdoor environments. I’ve found that some of these ideas can be implemented on a small-scale, and that inspiration can be found for even the most lacking of outdoor spaces.  These are also great things to look for when searching for playgrounds or preschools that foster creative growth through outdoor play.

Basic Components of Naturalized Play Environments (4):

  • Water
  • Plentiful indigenous vegetation, including trees, bushes, flowers and long grasses that children can explore and interact with
  • Animals, creatures in ponds, butterflies, bugs
  • Sand, and best if it can be mixed with water
  • Diversity of color, textures and materials
  • Ways to experience the changing seasons, wind, light, sounds and weather
  • Natural places to sit in, on, under, lean against, climb and provide shelter and shade
  • Different levels and nooks and crannies, places that offer socialization, privacy and views
  • Structures, equipment and materials that can be changed, actually, or in their imaginations, including plentiful loose parts


(1) White, Randy and Vicki Stoecklin, Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environment: Returning to Nature. Early Childhood News magazine, March/April 1998.

(2) Walsh, P. (1993). Fixed equipment – a time for change. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 18(2), 23­29.

(3) Barbour, A. (1999). The impact of playground design on the play behaviors of children with differing levels of physical competence. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 14(1), 75­98.

(4) White, Randy. Young Children’s Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children’s Development & the Earth’s Future. Taproot, Fall/Winter 2006, Vol. 16, No. 2. The Coalition for Education in the Outdoors, Cortland, NY.


Play Outside: Recommended Resources for Outdoor Learning Environments. Inspiring quotes, articles, and research for parents and early childhood educators.

Outdoor Learning Environments. National Clearninghouse for Educational Facilities. A long, detailed list of articles, videos and research on outdoor learning spaces.