This Book Was a Tree | Book Review

Sweater Felting inspired by This Book was a Tree | TinkerLab

When my friend Marcie Chambers Cuff, author of This Book Was a Tree (Perigree, 2014) asked us if we’d like to join her virtual book tour we jumped at the chance. I’ve had her inspiring book for a few weeks now, and every time I flip through it I’m struck with a new slice of inspiration.

The book is packed with ideas on how to reconnect our digital, nature-deprived selves with the earth through hands-on making, journalling, adventuring, and playing outdoors.

this book was a tree review

“Marcie Cuff makes nature even more fun than the way you find it. This is a book about imagination and creativity — and getting dirty.”

– David Yarnold, President and CEO of the National Audubon Society


One of the first projects that caught my attention involved upcycling wool sweaters into felted flowers. Felting old sweaters has long been on my to-do list, so when my friend Danielle recently gifted me the most gorgeous handmade felted cuff and belt I knew this would be the project to dive into first and learn how to do this myself.

I’ll share all the details on how to felt a wool sweater tomorrow, but for now I’ll share a little preview…

This Book was a Tree - Book Review on TinkerLab

Somewhere, in a book of advice on aging, I read a fine adage: Do something real every day. That’s good advice for people of every age. From the title of the book, through all of its pages of ideas and adventures, Marcie Chambers Cuff helps us remember what’s real and what makes kids and their families feel fully alive in a virtual age.”

-Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods


What’s Inside?

The book is packed with so many ideas that I know will keep my family busy for a long, long time. Here are just a few of the thoughtful and novel projects inside this humble book:

  • Make a junk journal
  • DIY Pinhole Camera (including the science behind the art)
  • Upcycled Terrarium
  • Tree Stump Sundial
  • A list full of ideas for decompressing and slowing down
  • Make an Ecological Calendar
  • Make all-natural bug lotion

This Book Was a Tree Blog Tour

This book tour started on April 1, so if you’re on the fence about purchasing a copy today, scoot around and see what these amazing bloggers have to say about it.

4/2    Mindful Momma
4/4    Maya Made
4/7    Rebecca Sower
4/10 Tinkerlab


You didn’t really think we’d share this book without giving one away, did you? Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll announce the giveaway in the next couple days.

See Marcie Cuff in Real Life

If you’re in NY, CT, TX, or PA, Marcie has some cool in-person events where you can learn how to felt wool, make seed bombs, and more.

Engineering for Kids | Fort Building Kit

Fort Magic Kit Review

This post is sponsored by Fort Magic. Read all the way to the end for a special offer!

Do you have a child who likes to build forts? Have you heard of Fort Magic, the fort building kit for kids? 

We were first introduced to this super-fun engineering kit for kids over a year ago, and our fort-building is still going strong. You can read our original review of Fort Magic here. Since we first built that submarine, our kit caught the eye of our neighborhood friends and by some miracle it made it back to our house!

Engineering for Kid: Super Fun Fort Building Kit

So what is Fort Magic?

Fort Magic is an innovative fort building and construction toy that enables children to build 3D, kid-created, “life-size” worlds for inventive play!

The kit includes 382 poles and connectors that can be assembled to build forts of all kinds. To keep the pieces tidy when they’re not being used, they come in a handy mesh bag that has extra room and an easy-to-close velcro top. If your child enjoys Legos, there’s a good chance that this fort building kit would appeal to them.

The kit also comes with a small instruction manual that shows you how to easily assemble things like a boat or tent. 5-year old Nutmeg enjoyed the process of following the instructions to figure out how the pieces could connect. I love that she could do this on her own.

How we played with Fort Magic

To tell the truth, we actually started with a small argument. Rainbow wanted to build a Princess castle and Nutmeg wanted to build a tall rectangular structure. What to do?

We compromised and built a short rectangular structure with some arches.

And they were both genuinely thrilled.

Engineering for Kid: Super Fun Fort Building Kit

Every now and then the girls would stop and look carefully at the instructions for guidance.

Fort Magic Kit Review

Fort Magic Instructions

And while we started with the instructions, my kids quickly figured out how to manipulate the pieces in their own way. 3-year old Rainbow took it upon herself to decorate the edges with curved pipes. She was very serious about this business. And 5-year old Nutmeg devised a plan to add arches to the top.

Fort Magic Kit Review

Before you knew it, the whole thing went up. My kids put most of the bottom together on their own, with Nutmeg guiding her sister along. She turned out to be a very strong leader, and I relished the collaboration and teamwork that went on between the two of them.

I was responsible for the top level, and covering it all with sheets.

The kit doesn’t come with fabric, so you’ll want to have a few extras set aside for your fort building. We only had two spare sheets, but the kids didn’t seem to mind one bit.

After it was covered, Nutmeg added some more pieces to the front of the fort to make an entryway.

Fort Magic Kit Review

Once it was all set up, it proved to be the perfect place to snuggle in and watch a movie.

Fort Magic Kit Review

What you should know about Fort Magic

  • The kit comes with instructions to make things like a submarine, castle, tent, boat, and car.
  • The pieces come in an easy-to-close, durable bag.
  • Children can assemble forts themselves, but may need some adult help with tall forts and securing sheets to the fort with fabric clips (clips are included).
  • Sheets are not included, so be sure to have a selection of sheets handy. But stay posted because Fort Magic lets us know that fabric covers are coming soon! The kit does include a ton of clips for securing your fabric to the pipes.
  • The forts will take over your room, but it’s worth it for the problem-solving, teamwork, and hours of fun involved.

Fort Magic imagination toy

What people say about Fort Magic

We really love this toy, if you’re still wondering if it’s for you, take a look at all these reviews to get your questions answered.

Where can you buy this Fort Building Kit?

Fort Magic can be purchased right here.


We’re excited to share that we will be giving away one Fort Magic Kit, valued at $199 to one of our lucky newsletter subscribers in our next newsletter. If you’re not already a subscriber, click over here and sign up today.

Snap Circuits Review and a DIY Spin Art Machine

Snap Circuits and DIY Spin Art | Tinkerlab

Snap Circuits and DIY Spin Art | Tinkerlab

Snap Circuits Review

If you’re in the market for a toy for a child who likes to build things, tinker, or is curious about how things work, Snap Circuits SC-300 tops my list. We’ve had this toy for a year and I just bought a BUNCH of them for friends because I like it so much. This is not a sponsored post — i’m just a happy customer who wants to spread the word. (Note: This post does contain affiliate links)

With Snap Circuits, those of us with no electronics background or understanding can easily build a light switch that works or a doorbell that rings. With a clever system of snaps that safely connect electronic components together, children will learn the basics of electricity and how to build all kinds of circuits.

The instruction manual is easy to understand, and I noticed that after we were halfway through our first project together, my five-year old figured out how to finish the assembly on her own. While it’s designed for children ages eight and up, my three and five year olds enjoy using it with adult collaboration, and I know it’s a toy that they’ll grow with.

What kind of toys should I buy?

When it comes to buying toys for my children, there are three questions that I like to ask:

  1. Is it a learning tool?  With Snap Circuits, children will learn about electronics and how to build a variety of circuits.
  2. Is it engaging and fun?  If children are curious about making things and how things work, the process and rewards will be fun and motivating.
  3. Is it open-ended? While many of the projects have a specific outcome in mind, many of them have multiple end-points. The example I’ll share today is an example of this.

In case you’re wondering, here are some curiosity and creativity-building toys that we’re also crazy about:

  1. Blocks. We love this set from Melissa and Doug
  2. Obstacles Game
  3. Marble Runs
  4. Spielgaben
  5. Stomp Rocket

And now, on to the project…

Build a DIY Spin Art Machine with Snap Circuits

Snap Circuit Spin Art Machine 2

Making their own spin art machine captured my kids imaginations, and we assembled it in about ten minutes. The toy comes with a grid that’s fitted with little prongs. The electronic pieces then snap right onto those prongs, which hold them in place. Putting these together will remind you of playing with Legos. In fact, if your child enjoys Legos, these might be a natural extension for you.

Snap Circuits doesn’t come with batteries, so if you buy this as a gift it’s something to keep in mind. If you don’t want to mess with replacing batteries over time, there’s a battery eliminator that people seem to be very satisfied with.

Snap Circuit Spin Art Machine

One of the components in this circuit is a small motor, and we were instructed to attach a stiff, circular paper base to the motor with some tape. Next, with a piece of double-stick tape we added a second circle of paper on top of the first one.

Snap Circuit Spin Art Machine 1

There a small on/off button on one side, so while one of us pushed the button, someone else got to use markers to add color to the spin art.

Snap Circuit Spin Art Machine 4

We struggled a bit with centering our circle, but no one seemed to mind our off-center designs. My 3-year old is obsessed with rainbows at the moment, and she enjoyed documenting her rainbow colors in just the right order.

I think they came out beautifully!

DIY spin art machine with Snap Circuits | Tinkerlab

After we played with it for a full hour, I was ready to disassemble it and store it away. But my kids saw this as a new toy, and wanted to keep it out. I complied, of course, and we made spin art for days! After two weeks we just broke it apart, and we’re now ready for another electronics challenge.

What’s your favorite toy for inspiring creativity and curiosity?

Exploralab by the Exploratorium, Book Review

Exploralab Book

We were sent a free copy of Exploralab to review, but all ideas shared here are our own. This post contains Amazon affiliate links.

Exploralab Book Review

We were thrilled to get an advance copy of Exploralab by The Exploratorium (Weldon Owen, September 2013) to review for our readers. Do you know about the Exploratorium in San Francisco, or have you ever been? In a nutshell, the Exploratorium a wonder-filled interactive science and creativity center with ground-breaking exhibits that set the bar for many science museums around the world. If you’re an educator or homeschooler, the Exploratorium’s Educator pages are full of ideas that are sure to inspire, regardless of where you live.

Related to that, if you’re a fan of the Exploratorium or would love to grab a piece of its magic, this new book, Exploralab: 150+ Ways to Investigate the Amazing Science All Around Youwill transport you to San Francisco’s Pier 15 with its hands-on projects that encourage children explore science in their everyday world. 

So what’s inside?

The book is full of fun, easy-to-read science activities for parents, caregivers, and teachers to share with young children. You’ll be happy to sit down, like we did, and flip through the pages with your child to select activities together. If you have an older child, you might like to gift them a copy to browse through when that “I’m bored” feeling settles in.

The projects are a delight in the way that they break down complex science into bite-size, digestible chunks. Something else about this book that I know a lot of our readers will appreciate is that the materials and tools are generally things you can easily find in your pantry: paper, pencils, glue, scissors, measuring spoons, etc.

Still interested? Let’s take a peek inside…

The Inside Cover

Inside cover Exploralab Review

See that little window on the left? it has a clear envelope that you can open, and then pull out a cool plastic lens that does this…

Exploralab Review Inside Cover

Cool! We’re off to a fun start! The inside of the cover really sets the tone for the rest of the book, as more interactive elements follow.

Exploralab Review Lab 3 closet flaps

Engaging Labs

The book is full of “150+ ways to investigate the amazing science all around you,” that are contained within fourteen “Labs” that encompass topics such as school, nature, the city, and games. For example…

Game Hour Exploralab

Roller Coaster Exploralab

Lab #05: The Street Underneath Your Feet

My five-year old and I flipped through the pages and I asked her to pick a project that looked like fun. You can probably see that she tabbed more than one page. We decided to start with “Lab #05: The Street Underneath Your Feet.” Zoom in and you’ll see that this spread is full of ideas for engaging children in the science of the street. Ideas like using your feet as rulers to measure distance, studying shadows to understand more about how the earth spins, and making rubbings from found textures.

Rubbing Lab Instructions Exploralab review

This last idea is what we dug into.

Exploralab review rubbing directions

I really enjoyed the relief that’s set right into the book! Take a look at the bottom of this next picture and you’ll see what I’m talking about. What a clever idea.

Exploralab how to make rubbings

We ran our crayon right over the page to understand the project before hitting the streets.

Exploralab rubbing in book

Take it outdoors

We made a simple book from four sheets of paper, stapled three times along the edge, and then took it outside to gather some manmade and natural textures.

Rubbing Water Grate

Leaf rubbing Exploralab Review

The next project my daughter plans to tackles is the Juice-Tasting Challenge, where you change the color of familiar drinks with food coloring and challenge people to guess what they’re drinking. The eyes and tongue send off conflicting flavor messages and we’re excited to see what will happen.

Exploralab Breakfast Lab

If this looks like it could be a good addition to your library, you can find your own copy of Exploralab through Amazon. We’re an affiliate, and your purchase helps keep our Tinker-engine running, so thank you!

Exploralab BookWe’re giving away three copies of Exploralab!

If you’ve read this far, we’re excited to share that we have copies of Exploralab to gift to three Tinkerlab newsletter subscribers. Details will be sent in our next newsletter, so subscribe today and stay tuned for more details!






Spielgaben Educational Toy Review

Spielgaben Educational Toy

“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”

~ Friedrich Froebel, Founder of the first Kindergarten

Spielgaben review

If you haven’t already heard of Spielgaben, the new educational toy from Australia, then I’m very excited to be the one to introduce you to them.

Spielgaben is inspired by the first educational toy invented by Frederick Froebel, who’s perhaps best known as the founder of Kindergarten. Spielgaben, meaning play-gifts, were invented by Froebel as a building, design, and manipulative toy to be used in his kindergartensFrank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and Albert Einstein played with such blocks in their own childhoods — and that might be reason enough to buy a set for your child or school!

full version Spielgaben

Inspired by Froebel’s play-gifts, this fresh new version of the spielgaben comes with thirteen boxes of materials that can be manipulated in a multitude of ways. This toy is genius, and one that will not collect dust on the shelf. The kit is something that I wish all children had access to — either at home or at school. As someone who used to purchase materials that had to withstand handling by thousands of museum visitors, this is just the sort of product I would not hesitate to recommend for a high-use learning environment. The quality is outstanding. 

When Spielgaben asked me if I’d like to review their product I jumped at the chance. We stock our shelves with open-ended construction toys such as blocks, marble runs, and Legos, and I’ve been drooling over the Spielgaben set from afar since I first read this stunning review by Anna at The Imagination Tree.

Let me introduce you to our set…

Spielgaben Store

I can’t even begin to describe the enthusiasm that met Spielgaben when it arrived at our home. We were all so excited to unwrap each of the beautifully packed gifts and my children worked together to cover this side table with a blanket and set up a “store.”

Game Night with Spielgaben

When we first opened the box my five-year old couldn’t find the instruction manual (not to worry — the kit does come with comprehensive play-guides, interactive worksheets, and inspiration cards that are full of ideas for facilitated learning and play), and quickly came to the conclusion that “we can use these however we want!”

Thank you Spielgaben for making this a truly open-ended experience for us!

With that, she invented a game! She covered a cube in painters tape and wrote color names on each side of the cube to correspond with the colors of colorful wooden rings. She then created a looping path of circles and found small pieces for our game tokens. The rules of the game were similar to Candyland, and we played for a full hour!

dice game Spielgaben

The next day my three-year old wanted to play again, and this time for almost two hours. I kid you not. The power of child-directed play was palpable.

game Spielgaben

Benefits of Spielgaben

Volumes could be written on the benefits of this toy, so let me briefly share just a few of my favorite benefits of Spielgaben:

Loose parts: The kit includes hundreds of loose parts that can be organized, sorted, and played with in countless ways. No two play sessions will be the same and the imagination will be active as straight sticks come to represent street lamps and a tower of cubes becomes a metaphor for a castle.

Spielgaben pieces

Child-directed Learning: Children will be inclined to invent their own games, stories, buildings, patterns, and ideas with these blocks. And the open-ended nature of the materials means that children can use them to direct their own unique interpretations of ideas.

Spielgaben diamonds

Fun for adults: While many children’s toys can quickly lose an adult’s interest, Spielgaben is engaging for both children and adults. Just look at the diamond patterns I made with those triangles!

Spielgaben clock

Learn while you play: While these blocks are playful, they’re also a true teaching tool. The set comes with an enormous volume of learning ideas, printables, and 8-12 years worth of learning activities and lessons. In the example above, you could create a clock shape and use the pieces to teach children to tell time. And in the picture below, a color wheel is set up to teach complementary colors.

Spielgaben color wheel

Materials: The materials used to make the sets are environmentally sustainable and non-toxic.

Spielgaben clock from above

Order Yours Today

To order, visit the Spielgaben website. If you place your order by November 23, 2013 Spielgaben promises that it will arrive in time for Christmas! Just saying. All orders include shipping. Spielgaben will ship to all of Europe, US, Singapore, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. (Outside, US, UK and AU, there are extra shipping charges).

Also, Spielgaben is offering Tinkerlab readers a promotional discount. All you need to do is fill out a contact form and mention that you heard about Spielgaben from Tinkerlab, and you will be provided with a discount coupon.

Resources: Spielgaben and Froebel’s Gifts

Froebel Education and Learning with Spielgaben

Using the Spielgaben in Play-based learning Environments

Reggio Emilia and Spielgaben

The Psychology of Froebel’s Play-gifts: A free ebook by D. J. Snider, 1900

The Kindergarten Building Gifts: With Hints on Program-making: a free ebook by By Elizabeth Harrison, Belle Woodson, 1908

Note: Spielgaben sent us a free set of materials to review, but all opinions are our own. No further compensation was received in exchange for this review.