Should Food be used in Preschool Sensory Activities?

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Every since I dipped my toes into the world of Early Childhood Education, the hotly debated issue of whether or not food should be used in preschool sensory activities has come up multiple times. My background in the arts, where all supplies were fair game for art-making, didn’t prepare me for the variety of opinions that circle this topic.

TinkerLab reader, Pam, presented this question on Facebook after I shared a post for making colored rice:

Should food be used in toddler sensory activities?  |  TinkerLab.com

And Pam’s question reminded me of a question from our friend, Lori, just two weeks earlier:

Should food be used in toddler sensory activities?  |  TinkerLab.com

Since this question comes up a lot, I wanted to take a moment to unpack it here and share some of the pros and cons for using food in toddler and preschool sensory activities. Please keep in mind that the word “preschool” can relate to a preschool classroom setting or to the age of a preschool child who is at home. My own answer to this question (shared below) differs according to the context.

I’d love to invite you to share your thoughts on the topic, as it’s quite possible that something will be left out. My goal isn’t to convince you to take a stand in one camp or the other, but to provide you with the tools you might need to make a decision that’s right for your situation.

I pulled together some reader quotes from the aforementioned conversations and invited some blogging friends to chime in on the topic as well.

Let’s go…

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Con: Using food for Play is Insensitive and/or Wasteful

With millions of children in the world living in poverty I think it is ignorant to use food for play. Sticks, crunchy leaves, seed pod, tree slices, bark, dirt, organic sawdust, shells, small stones, sand, ice….. The list of non food, non toxic FREE play alternatives are endless. Mother Nature has provided us with all we need for sensory play. - Lee-Anne

When you fill your sensory table with rice or millet you are being playful with an amount of food that could feed a family for weeks. It teaches children that materials are abundant, and not of any great value, things that aren’t true in most of the world. In my center we use edible materials for babies but we try hard to find ways to value and honor the food that we use.  – Kendra

It is not about confusing play with food you would eat, it is more like using food in play as though it were nothing, when in reality in many countries out there, it is very expensive, heck, 1 play bin could feed a family of four for 2 meals in our own country. We do not realize how much other people struggle and it is seen as wasteful. It was mentioned on my blog how many USA bloggers treat rice and beans and lentils and the like as nothing, but in many other areas those things are expensive. Not just underprivledged struggle either, many Americans that are there for the Armed Services find those things pricey in many areas as well…it is about being informed. - Michelle

Just know your audience. If you’re working with families facing food insecurity, seeing bins or beans or rice “wasted” can seem disrespectful. I use a lot of dried beans and dyed rice in my sensory bins, but I make sure it is ok as far as the population I’m serving first. – Sarah

Best practice means being respectful period, not just the make up of your class for one particular year.  – Mary

In New Zealand we don’t use food ie dried pasta etc for play as its not Tikanga. Cultural principles around the subject. There are many many other natural resources we use to provide tactile play.  -Sarah

Play with food at the table, in the context of eating, is ok, but playing with food for enjoyment sake itself is, in my view, a real first world ignorance. It could feed a family, perhaps even one in your centre, for a day and you disregard that issue with this type of play. Also, stuffing bean bags with dried beans, rice or other such food, is not a good idea either, for the same reasons. Many cultures keep food sacred, separate from all other activities, and with good reason. I highly suggest avoiding food-play in this way. The greatest food play is getting even the youngest of children to help you prepare food- my 2 yr old loves to bake, peel carrots and whisk eggs. Making games of the meal is all part of learning to enjoy food. Hope this helps. Non-toxic toy alternatives are wool, cotton, wood, and flax, not food.  - Tota

Oh my….Food needs to be respected- not played with! Let us try as an early childhood community to raise children on the concept of respecting food, where it comes from and how it is vital for nutrition. – Cathie

It is a child care regulation in my state that food cannot be used in sensory tables nor art projects for the cultural and wasteful reasons others have mentioned.  – Genuine

Pro: Using Food for Play is not Insensitive or Wasteful

It’s funny how being respectful of food with children comes up frequently, yet the biggest challenge facing most of the global population is clean drinking water. We frequently use it for “play” and for washing off surfaces. Children in some areas are deprived of a good part of a school day because they walk hours to get fresh water for their families. In schools here we have “water tables” and “splash pools” full of drinkable water before it gets used.  I have no problem with staples being used for food play with children. Food banks and global donations always contain a surplus of those items. Fruits and vegetables, dairy, and proteins are items to be avoided for food play with children. Anyone who is struggling financially has no problem putting macaroni or rice on the table. It is the other 3 food groups that are challenging. A lot of staple foods are thrown out because they have gone stale or not eaten. Using them for educational purposes is better than discarding them.  - Alan

I prefer to use the food scraps. We have a post on vegetable scrap stamping. If the food is going into the disposal, the trash or the compost, and it presents an opportunity to learn (either by dissecting it, planting it, or doing some art with it), then it is great to use. It also affords an opportunity to have the kids in the kitchen with me while I cook, where we can do an activity together even though I’m getting chores done. – Patricia, Critters and Crayons

As a history educator, I keep in mind that food items often were and are still used in play and art all over. Consider, too, that the bag of rice you buy in your developed world grocery store won’t otherwise be going to someone living in hunger l. Global hunger is less due to a food shortage than to war, lack of infrastructure, and a political failure of will. Rather than take stand on a particular type of material, I focus on being mindful of the effects of our choices and the ways in which we can further social justice.  – Candace, Naturally Educational 

 I used a bunch of old macaroni that was stale for a sensory bin for my toddlers. Seeing as it isn’t cooked, it’s hard to recognize as “food” and I would rather use it in some way than throw it away because it never got eaten. Plus, my 2 year old tends to put everything in his mouth and I would much rather him end up with a stale piece of macaroni than sand or beads. – Christina

I don’t agree that using food in a different way is “wasting”. It’s being used, meaningfully and with great purpose. Are kids wasting finger paint? No they are using it. They are learning with it. It is valuable. I appreciate the need to be sensitive to families both socio economically and culturally but I reject the idea that use is waste.  - Kawai

We enjoy using food for our crafts and sensory play. I do understand that it may be seen as a luxury to be so wasteful with food – but then surely having a huge variety of paper, handfuls of crayons and pens and many many more craft materials could be considered a luxury too? This may be a little black and white for some, but if I can afford to buy a pack of marker pens for $5, then I can also afford $1 for a bag of rice. – George, Craftulate

We use rice in our sensory table because we have yet to find something that feels as wonderful. We’ve been using the same container of rice (we rotate) for two years now. We are not being wasteful with it and have found the benefits to be wonderful. – Melanie

In regards to the food “waste” issue, I would argue that food is not being wasted, just used in an alternative way. Is the food being digested and giving the body nutrients? No. But is playing with food stimulating my child’s nervous system in ways that non-food sensory play can’t? Yes. And in the long run, we’ll be “wasting” much less food because my child will now eat the food we played with, rather than refusing it every time it’s presented on a plate.  – -Jordan, Motherhood and Other Adventures

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Con: Preschool Kids May be Allergic to Sensory Activities

Also a consideration is food allergies or intolerances that may crop up in the classroom. It’s hard to have to make changes to the curriculum year to year to safely accommodate everyone so if you can come up with non food alternatives that may be best.  - Lissa

My daughter had a dairy allergy when she was a preschooler. It was brutal worrying about every potential craft or activity being something that could harm her. I’m grateful she outgrew it, but I remember those anxiety filled days well.   – Melinda

As a parent of children with food intolerances, I dread any food-based activities at school. Especially at preschool with my toddler, who is more likely to jam things into her mouth. In fact, when my oldest was a toddler, she viewed the sensory table as her own personal all-you-can-eat buffet. (This was before I knew how those ingredients affected her.) As a parent, I either have to hope the teacher can exclude my child from any activities involving foods she’s intolerant to if there’s a risk of ingestion, or else I as the parent have to provide enough of a safe alternative for the class to use instead. Which can quickly become an expensive burden! I do see the value of food-play, and it’s a safe way for littler ones to have sensory play without fear of choking. It’s also a great way to raise adventurous eaters, by having them interact with ingredients in multiple ways (taste, touch, smell, etc,) and by using familiar foods in different ways (a lot of kids get stuck in a rut where a food must be served the same way every time!) So as long as the teacher/school is willing to accommodate food allergies and intolerances, then I’m all for food play at school! But if a child is constantly put at risk or must be excluded from an activity, then that class may have to miss out on food activities. -Kendra, Biting the Hand that Feeds You

Pro: It’s fine if Children have no Allergies

As long as there are no food allergy issues, I’d say go for it. Kids will play with food no matter what.  - Teri

I have children that put everything in their mouths. Using food made more sense than anything else because it wasn’t going to be toxic if they ate it. It also wouldn’t leave trace on their hands and was easily replenished. We reuse the food as much as possible. I have a cupboard with jars of various food used in arts and crafts and play that gets brought out again and again. -Cerys, Rainy Day Mum

Pro: It’s Helpful to Children with Sensory Needs

As a mom of a child with Sensory Processing Disorder, yes, food should definitely be used in toddler and preschool sensory activities. Presenting a child with food to play with, instead of eat, is a way to introduce new textures and smells without pressure. The child is allowed to explore at their own pace, and in their own way. My son never was willing to taste pasta until after we explored cooked spaghetti in a sensory play activity. -Jordan, Motherhood and Other Adventures

My son had sensory integration issues and was only 14 lbs at 1 year. He was on a feeding tube and went to OT. At OT, do you know what they did? Play with food!. It actually teaches them to get used to different textures and not have an aversion to new foods. I was born during the Vietnam War and there was mass starvation when the war ended due to collectivization of the farms and bombings. I personally had to get over food hoarding and being a member of the clean plate club. Like everything, moderation is the key. Be respectful and don’t throw the rice around, keep it in the container and try to reuse it afterwards (make bean bags, make maracas, stress balls in balloons, heating pads, I Spy bags, rainsticks, etc.).  – Lucy

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Con: Natural Objects should be left in their Environment

Would like to just throw out there that it seems many who have big concerns about food play are suggesting the alternative is to simply gather items from nature instead, and that idea is grand but should be approached with consideration to the natural world versus ”free for the taking”. If everyone heads outdoors to gather up sticks, twigs, pinecones, seeds, flowers, bark, etc. then you’ve now taken food and shelter from animals who depend on us leaving these things be. Absolutely, there are responsible ways to acquire some natural items within reason; e.g, from your own property, but typically most educational sites and resources do not promote this, they simply put in their lesson plans ”gather up some pinecones and make this glittery craft” or ”swoop up flowers from a nearby field to dissect or learn fractions”, etc. Squirrels and Bees would suggest perhaps growing your own flowers and pick one pinecone vs. a plethora, especially if it so happens to be a weak year of natural food. I know where we live is scarce this year due to rain last year and the bears and wildlife are hungry searching for what they can. As well, some natural found items are federally protected resources that can land you in big trouble for taking. So it really seems that providing any materials to children to play has a plus and a negative aspect to it. Perhaps looking at it altogether differently is an alternative. For example, children digging and growing a small garden themselves gives sensory experience whilst building an appreciation for food, as well as not taking food from wildlife to play with. Picking and Washing the veggies also are hands on sensory experiences. Eating and preserving most whilst using a few in crafts and games much like ancient cultures did. For example, making apple heads or bobbing for apples, creating corn dollies or even corn husk dolls. Or maybe gather natural items at a time of year they are not so crucial to wildlife and then returning them when needed (fall/winter). Another alternate idea from food; either human or animal, is building up a recycling/repurposing inventory. Milk jug tops, empty cartons, squeeze bottles, jars, cans, etc. These can be turned in to fantastic toys and play items.  - Missy Louise

Pro: Food is Natural and Healthy

I used to have a problem with it, but now I think it´s better than buying other toys/playdough etc. We reuse the dried food/homemade playdough over and over. From an environmental view I actually think it´s better than a lot of plastic, battery operated and general toys as they are often made with nasty chemicals, break and may end up in landfill. So I would much prefer to be letting them play with dried foods that will decompose! Kids naturally play with food at the table when they eat and I actually think it´s important to do this so that they can experience the food you are expecting them to put in their mouths. In saying all of this rice, flour and beans are about all we use (easy to store and re-use). At Christmas/easter time the odd potato for stamping. - Felicity

I have to say I lie in the pro-food camp. For me the benefits of using food in preschool activities outweigh the cons. I personally like using food because it is a less expensive alternative to many costly art supplies, because it encourages children to see unique ways to use everyday items, and because it makes for safe, non-toxic play materials. - Ana, Babble Dabble Do

I understand the concern but do you want your children to play or accidentally ingest toxins??? I would much rather use rice or flour than something that would harm their growth, remember this is used as a learning tool and something to keep in mind using toxins what message is that sending? I am all for organic but we must understand there is a down side to this usage also.  – Robin

My girls are 3 and they know not to play with food at meal time. They constantly do food play at school and home…..I would rather them eat a Cheerios than a plastic bead. If they are taught to understand (which they can do at preschool age) it shouldn’t be an issue. - Jessica

You could have food on plates that could be played with then eaten. You could use beans for play then plant them. I’d much prefer kids playing with biodegradable products than something that’s going to end up in the bin like the loom bands everyone has gone mad for. I think in the scheme, of things a bag of rice is fine for play, perhaps playing with food might bring children closer to understanding and appreciating it. I’ve made veggie critters with kids and it’s a wonderful activity.  – Kristy

 If we are not “pro-food” in sensory play, then what are we? Unless you’re only then reaching for natural materials, the alternative is synthetic, manufactured items that cause their own environmental footprint and sense of “disposable” waste. If properly cared for, food sensory items can be reused again and again — the same bag of quick oats, the same batch of homemade playdough.
Food provides unparalleled, multi-sensory engagement and is something that most people reading will have ready access to.
Also, if the concern is having children “play with their food,” I would suggest that allowing this might encourage children to be more adventurous with their food choices. Even painting with spices might encourage a plain-eater to try something a bit spiced up! – Jennifer, Study at Home Mama

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Take the Middle Ground

Gather materials from nature for your sensory bins. Rocks, pebbles, sticks, fresh cut herbs, dried plants, mud, etc! It’s free, teaches about our local environment, and can be returned outdoors or composted. Personally, I use limited amounts of food materials. Winter wheat berries that we then give to a farmer is great in the fall. Talk about wheats life cycle, read “little red hen”, sprout wheat, talk about wheat to flour, bake some bread. All in balance friends. No sense judging one another’s practices!   - April

Really, it’s about the balance and respect for other cultures. I do use food, even as a sensory but in the context of teaching my preschoolers about cooking and nutrition. Giving them the independence to learn how to make something and then do it at home is the best lesson I can teach them. They still get to “play” / “create” with food but in a more appropriate context that they will remember and use.  - Cathryn

I personally aim to think carefully about any materials we use in play. I want my children to have access to a wide range of materials for sensory experiences and creative prompts, and prefer open-ended, natural materials. We try not to use anything which is disposable after only one brief use, we use as many recycled materials as possible, and we try to recycle or compost what we’ve used after we have played. Using this criteria sometimes food is a better choice for us – for example some uncooked pasta which we might use as maths manipulatives, put in a sensory tub, and then paint and use for art, or threading necklaces. We use it many times before composting it to benefit our garden classroom.  – Cathy, NurtureStore

I probably think way too much about this topic. I do agree that for some young children using food is a safe alternative – if they tend to put things in their mouths (my son says I’m the most over-protective mother). Several years ago when teaching art at a preschool in a poor neighborhood it struck me as very sad that many o the children only ate when they got their free breakfasts and lunches at school. I imagined how one of those children would feel seeing pudding used to paint or an apple used to print. I stopped using food in my projects. I’ve since started again, but not in the same ways. I’ll use items I would normally toss (like strawberry tops) or I do a swap- I’ll have my son choose an items to donate to the food pantry box at our grocery store if we are going to use food in an activity. I know that the five blueberries I’m going to use or a printing project won’t cause a world hunger crisis, but it makes me feel better and teaches a good lesson on helping others to do so. I explain it a little better in this post on berry art. – Rikki, Mini Monets and Mommies

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Where does TinkerLab stand?

As I mentioned earlier, my background in the arts prepared me to think abstractly and broadly about what can be used as an art material. When I set up my first art studio, Chris Ofili’s paintings with elephant dung and Damien Hirst’s real shark floating in formaldehyde took the art world by storm, demonstrating just how far artists can push past the use of traditional art supplies. I happily made things with non-art materials like Valentine conversation hearts, resin (which comes from trees), and flowers collected from my garden. Wasn’t this better, and maybe more interesting, I thought, than spending tons of money on store-bought supplies?

Now here’s an interesting fact about store-bought art supplies: Food and natural materials are often in the ingredients. This is something to think about if you have a child with food allergies. For example: Play-doh (flour, salt), Crayola Colored Pencils (soy), Air-dry Clay (corn starch), and Crayola Washable Markers (corn syrup). If we’re to avoid food products in art then we need to consider these less obvious culprits. These ingredients aren’t included in package labels and are essentially hidden from consumers. Since food products are found in store-bought art supplies, I see very little difference in adding food to my own supplies.

Introducing my kids to natural materials is also far more interesting to me that exposing them to toxic materials. As such, we will occasionally use food for play or projects, and I’m more inclined to do so if it’s scraps, expired, or if the play/art supply will last for a long time. We do our best to recycle and return things to the earth. Some of the things we have used and made: flour and oil in cloud dough, rice flour in gluten-free cloud dough, rice in colored rice, flour in the best play dough recipe, wheat berries in our wheat berry sensory table, and sweetened condensed milk in milk paint.

Food for Play in schools: I don’t run a school, but in that context there’s a good chance that I would avoid using food for play due to allergies and a desire to respect the religious and personal perspectives of a diverse audience. When it comes to the school environment, I often look to my colleague, Deborah, at Teach Preschool. See the first article, below.

More thoughts on Food in Play

A Discussion on Food Use in the Early Education Classroom, Teach Preschool

Parents and Teachers Working Together: Should Food Be Used as Learning Materials, Early Childhood News (the discussion in the this article is so rich and will give you a lot of food for thought — no pun intended!)

Play with your food? Or not? My thoughts on Food in Play, Picklebums

Being Thankful for Food, Planet Smarty Pants

Using Food in Preschool, Interaction Imagination

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Doily and Watercolor Art for Preschoolers

Easy Watercolor and Doily Art | TinkerLab

This simple doily and watercolor art for preschoolers uses basic art materials and encourages children to explore the medium of watercolors through process-based creating.

Easy Watercolor and Doily Art for Preschoolers | Tinkerlab

This project, like so many others that you’ll find on TinkerLab, is process-based. It’s set up as a Creative Invitation, meaning that the materials are laid out in an inviting way, and then the child is invited to interpret and use them however he or she likes. With creative invitations like this, I’ll sometimes give my kids a little prompt, but usually I sit back and see what they come up with…and I’m often surprised by their ingenuity.

Around here, these creative set-ups are part of the Creative Table series, and you can find more of these ideas here.

Supplies: Watercolor Art for Preschoolers

Note: I’ve included Amazon affiliate links for your convenience.

Easy Watercolor and Doily Art | TinkerLab

The Creative Table Set-up

Line a tray with paper: Set up a big tray, and line it with paper. We have big sheets of 18″ x 24″ paper that I cut to fit. You could also use butcher paper, a brown paper bag, or smaller papers that are taped together. This step isn’t mandatory, but it’s helpful to have a absorbent trough to catch all the extra liquid.

Squeeze liquid watercolors into an ice cube tray. We have a mini tray that’s reserved for just this purpose. I often add a little bit of water to the watercolors to extend the life of our paints just a bit.

Doilies and paintbrush. Set up some doilies and a paintbrush and/or pipette nearby.

Easy Watercolor and Doily Art | TinkerLab

My three-year old enjoys the challenge of pulling doilies apart. Oh, and she’s also wearing an apron and has rolled-up sleeves. Both recommended for this potentially messy project.

Easy Watercolor and Doily Art | TinkerLab

Here’s the pipette in action. Pipette’s are fun for little kids, and a good challenge as they figure out how to squeeze the paint up, and then squeeze it out again.

Easy Watercolor and Doily Art | TinkerLab

We set up another tray nearby to absorb our drying, colorful doilies. Once she made a small handful of these, my daughter thought it would be fun to dip clean doilies in the pool of murky paint. What a fun experiment!! It’s moments like this that make this a Creative Table!

soaking doily

She loved seeing the paper soak the paint right up. Once we had a healthy collection of doilies, my kids remembered that we recently picked up laundry hanger at the dollar store. So we carried our trays full of doilies outside where we hung them to dry in a tree.

They’re still there, actually, decorating the neighborhood.

Easy Watercolor and Doily Art | TinkerLab

And here’s a bit of the aftermath. I love before and after photos!

Easy Watercolor and Doily Art | TinkerLab

If you enjoyed this activity, be sure to check out our new book, TinkerLab: A Handbook for Little Inventors (June 2014, Roost). You might also enjoy these creative invitations:

Creative Table Highlights via Instagram

Creative Table: Tape and Paper Bags

Creative Table: Paint and Looping Lines

Creative Table: Doilies and Scissors

Creative Table: Leaves and Glue

Creative Table: Stickers and Frames

Handmade Valentine Cards: The Amazing All-in-one Envelope

sealing card

Handmade Valentine Cards: The Amazing All-in-one Envelope

If you like to make your own Valentines but you’re pressed for time (or have a small and impatient child like me), all-in-one Envelope Valentines could be the way to go. Turning a heart-shape into both a Valentine and an envelope is a delightful way to surprise the card’s recipient.

This handmade Valentine card is made from a giant cut-out heart that’s then folded into an envelope. Simply draw your message on the heart, fold it up, seal it, and your Valentine is ready to go!

Since we started making Valentines in January, we’ve had plenty of time to iterate on the Valentine theme and recently whipped up these easy all-in-one cards that would be perfect to make for a group of classmates.

Because 2-year old N couldn’t wait to give all of these out for Valentines Day, they became Chinese New Year/Valentine Cards. My child lives quite happily in a post-modern world.

Handmade Valentine Cards: The Amazing All-in-one Envelope

Handmade Valentine Cards Supplies

  • Paper
  • Stickers
  • Scissors

Handmade Valentine Cards: The Amazing All-in-one Envelope

Step 1

Cut out a heart, turn it upside down, and fold. If you’d like a tutorial on cutting hearts, this tutorial will make it easy.

Handmade Valentine Cards: The Amazing All-in-one Envelope

Step 2

Fold the “top” (or bottom!) of the heart up so that the folded edges line up. Crease.

Handmade Valentine Cards: The Amazing All-in-one Envelope

Step 3

Fold the “bottom” (top!) down, so that it looks like an envelope. I had to make a few of these before getting the location of the creases just right.

Handmade Valentine Cards: The Amazing All-in-one Envelope

Step 4

Open it up and flip it over.

Handmade Valentine Cards: The Amazing All-in-one Envelope

Write a message.

Handmade Valentine Cards: The Amazing All-in-one Envelope

And seal it up!

While my daughter is thrilled to cut paper and build sculptures, she hasn’t been the least bit interested in writing or drawing lately. So you can imagine my surprise when she actually had the stamina to make more than one of these!

When we sat down, I cut and folded a bunch of hearts and we got to work! Well, she folded, too…

Handmade Valentine Cards: The Amazing All-in-one Envelope

We plowed through and made about ten of these before she had enough.

Handmade Valentine Cards: Making window decoration from our scraps

And when we were done, I recycled the cut-out Valentine scraps into window decor. Want more handmade Valentine cards ideas? Here you go…

More Valentine’s Day Inspiration

30 Valentine Activities for Kids

How to set up a self-serve card-making station

6 Valentine’s Day Activities for Preschoolers

Deconstructed Valentines

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

DIY Fabric Ornament With Kids

Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

This post is sponsored by Gymboree. Bring a friend to a Gymboree store and sign up for Gymboree Rewards together and you’ll both SAVE 25% off an in-store purchase. 

Kids Crafts Ideas: Hand stitched fabric ornament with KidsKids Crafts Ideas: DIY Fabric Ornaments

These sweet fabric ornaments teach children hand sewing techniques while building fine motor skills, and they don’t demand that parents have a lot of fancy sewing skills to facilitate. Perhaps best of all, they’re heirloom quality and can be gifted or saved and used for years to come.

Hand sewing with Kids

As soon as the tree went up my kiddos begged me to pull out all of our ornaments, and we spent two full days decorating. We ooohed and ahhed over all of our hand made ornaments, some made by my girls’ great grandma! Last year we made stacks of salt dough ornaments and we talked about making something different this year.

My 4-year old has been interested in hand-sewing, and she came up the idea of making her own stitched ornaments. Great! Not only are they sweet, but children can make these with just a wee bit of adult assistance.

This is a good project for older children or children who have a little bit of sewing experience. We’ve done other sewing projects such as Toddler Hand Sewing and Preschool Machine Sewing, so my daughter was ready for this.

With cups of tea and cider poured (I highly recommend this step), this sewing experience was a soothing way to spend an afternoon connecting with my preschooler. If you have a child who’s interested in sewing, I’d encourage you to give it a go.

MATERIALS

  • Fabric scraps
  • Fluff such as cotton balls to fill the ornaments
  • Embroidery floss
  • Embroidery needle
  • Thread
  • Sewing Needle
  • Ribbon
  • Treasures and Glue gun (optional)

 Step 1

Kids Crafts IdeasChoose a shape and cut out two of them. One will be the front of the ornament and the other will be the back. I like to give my children creative freedoms whenever possible, so I encouraged N to choose the fabric. She picked out fabrics that reminded her of the holidays. I love that!

You don’t really need a tape measurer, but kids love them and they add to the fun. Oh, and you can see how big our ornament is. Maybe that’s useful?

Step 2

sew on heartSew any ornamentation you like onto each of the fabric pieces (before you stitch them to each other). N wanted a heart sewn to this one, so I helped her hold the fabric while she did all the sewing. Normally I’d help with two hands, but I had to pull one away to snap this revealing shot.

Step 3

circles stitched together

Stack your two pieces of fabric together with the right sides facing each other. Pin fabric in place. Hand or machine stitch around your shape, leaving about a 1.5″ opening. Be sure to lock your stitch at the end.

We hand-stitched ours. N made it about half way around before she lost steam and then asked me to step in. That’s fair…sewing can be tiring for little hands!

Step 4

fill with cottonTake out all the pins. Flip the fabric shape inside out. Fill with stuffing.

Cut a piece of ribbon, about 6″ long. Fold it in half.

Insert the bottom of the ribbon into the fabric opening. Stitch the ornament shut, being sure to sew the ribbon into the ornament.

Step 5

homemade fabric ornamentThis is where my toddler happily stepped in to play. Attach treasures with a hot glue gun. Don’t make our mistake! We “secured” ours with white glue, and they mostly flaked right off the next day.

When you’re done, hang them proudly on the tree or gift them to loved ones.

stitched ornament

You could also take a cue from a friend of mine who invited all of her friends to do a random act of kindness in lieu of birthday presents — and gift an ornament to a stranger or someone you know could use a thoughtful hand made pick-me-up.

What kind of hand made ornaments have you made, or are you planning to make this year?

 

Winter Craft Collage Invitation

Kids Winter Craft: Winter Collage

How do you feel about holiday activities?

I love it all…the tree trimming, wreath making, cookie decorating, Santa sighting, and latke cooking. Yes, it’s only December 7, and we’ve already done it all!

But I’ve learned that I can only take it in small doses before I need to bury my head in a pillow. And then I learned this week that my kids feel the same way.

When we put our kids to bed my husband and I often make up stories, and they invariably involve some sort of adventure (on my 4-year old’s request, every time). The ongoing story I tell is about three rabbit sisters who go on wild adventures to solve mysteries, but tonight N requested a story about the three rabbits “and their relaxing afternoon.”

I pressed the topic. “Okay, did they play at home and then take a walk to the park?” “No,” she said, “they stayed at home. All day long.”

If you find yourself in a similar place where you and your child just need to take a load off, brush off some of that holiday pressure and chill out, the spirit of this craft invitation is for you.

No special materials are required and the “product” does not have to look like anything in particular — forage through your cabinets and you’re sure to find everything you need.

The objective here is to pour a cup of something warm, go easy on yourself, and celebrate the process.

Winter Craft Invitation: Gather your supplies

My goal was to present my kids with a smorgasbord of materials that might inspire them to create a winter landscape. I envisioned shapes that might remind my children of a winter scene and came up with these materials:

  • Sheet of paper (light blue)
  • Green paper cut into triangles
  • White paper cut into circles
  • Dot stickers
  • Colorful Tape
  • Do-a-dot markers
  • Markers
  • Glue Stick
  • White Glue
  • Candy Cane Stickers

Winter craft collage invitaiton, Tinkerlab.com

Clear a table

Clear everything off the table and then do your best to attractively set the materials up. Our table is usually uncovered, so I took a minute to cover it, which made my kids notice it and in turn built their excitement.

Winter craft collage invitaiton, Tinkerlab.com

Leave it open-ended

While it would be easy to tell my kids to use the circles as snow or the triangles as trees, they see things their own way. The winter suggestion is there, and they can take it or leave it.

My 2-year old wanted to use a glue stick like her big sister, and took great pride in figuring out how to secure shapes to her paper.

Winter craft collage invitaiton, Tinkerlab.com

Listen to the story

When my children complete a picture I often ask them to tell me about it. My 2-year old was really excited about how she worked with scissors to chop up that triangle you see on the right, and she talked about how she glued and taped everything down. Fascinating, right? She didn’t say one thing about imagery; it was all about the process.

Winter craft collage invitaiton, Tinkerlab.com

My 4-year old was soooo literal with this project that it practically killed me. She told me about how the middle tree needed more ornaments than the others and how it was snowing. As I spent more time looking at it, though, I was also struck by the suggested symmetry of the piece.

Winter craft collage invitaiton, Tinkerlab.com

I wondered if the collage invitation was hindering her creativity, but after seeing this picture  (below) that she created on the same day, it was clear that her imagination was still alive and well, and that the collage enabled her to test new design ideas with form and composition.

Winter craft collage invitaiton, Tinkerlab.com

How are you feeling about the holidays this year?

Are you overwhelmed by them or are you fueled by the excitement? Do you have any strategies for taming the crazies, respectfully turning down invitations, or taking things off your plate?

 

Toddler Watercolor Painting, Keeping it Neat

clean and tidy painting with toddlers and preschoolers

I’m not afraid of messes, but I’m also not looking for them. Are you with me? So when my almost 2-year old said that she wanted to paint, I was ready with my spill-management toolbox: an ice cube tray and a wooden serving tray.

In case you’re wondering how the wooden tray is paint-free (I’d wonder about that), it’s seen better days and was just treated to a new paint job with a few quick strokes of acrylic paint.

clean painting toddlers preschoolers

After I squeezed a few tablespoons of Colorations Liquid Watercolor Paint (one of my favorite supplies) into the ice cube tray, I invited R to pick a brush (she likes the fat ones), and painting was underway in less than five minutes.

Sometimes I’ll add a bowl of water for rinsing brushes between colors, and a dry rag for absorbing excess water, but this was a simple, no frills kind of project.

clean and tidy painting with toddlers and preschoolers

Clean-up was a snap. The brush and ice cube tray got a quick rinse in the sink — watercolors clean up super fast. And the tray was stored away. I also like to keep a pack of baby wipes and a damp rag near the art table for hands and spills. This happened to be a neat, mess-free day. Maybe we had some good karma coming our way?

Do you have any tricks for neat and tidy painting?

 

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12 Doll House Games and Ideas

doll house games

12 easy dollhouse games with kidsDid you grow up with a dollhouse?

I grew up with a beautiful hand made dollhouse, built by my cousin’s father about twenty years before I was born. It was a family treasure that got passed around from cousin to cousin. I always imagined that my own children would play with this imagination-building house, but it was time to send it back to its original owner.

So when I found this handmade house in a second hand shop that looked so much like the doll house I grew up with, and knew it could become a family heirloom. I mean really, look at those cute shingles! It needed some work (painting, wallpaper, cleaning) , but it’s also sturdy and hand-made, and I couldn’t pass it up.

I found some fancy Plan Toys wooden dollhouse furniture on Ebay, picked up little wooden peg people, made a few dolls myself, and my mom shipped me a big box of my old dollhouse furniture that reeked of 1981.

When my kids visit their grandparents, they play with some fantastic wooden Melissa and Doug dollhouses that are every bit as wonderful as this house, and I especially love that they fold away when my kids are done playing: Melissa & Doug Fold and Go Princess CastleMelissa & Doug Fold and Go Wooden Castle (the Princess Castle, in grey), Melissa & Doug Fold & Go Woodland Treehouse.

doll house games

How to Play with your Doll House

doll house games

Okay, so you have a dollhouse (or you’re about to after you check out the links below). Now what? Kids are natural inventors with rich imaginations. If you do a good job setting the stage for them, they’ll most likely know what to do. In the event that you need a little extra help, here are a few pointers and dollhouse game ideas:

  • Get some furniture and dolls. Keep your eyes open for miniature things in unexpected places: Ebay, Craigslist, Amazon, Museum Shops, Tourist Stops. I found our canoe at a sailing shop by San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • Play games based on real things that happen in your home: cleaning day, birthday party, getting ready for school, packing for a trip, eating breakfast. Children love to recreate their experiences, as it solidifies their learning and understanding of the world around them. To do this, each of you can take a character (or two) and role play with the dolls.
  • Make up something fantastic and highly imaginative. For example: Fairy’s first visit to Unicorn Palace, the house becomes a zoo for animals or parking garage for cars.
  • Move it around. Our dollhouse has a spot on the floor, and it’s rarely used. I moved it to a low table and my kids acted like it was a new toy. This advice could go for any unloved toy. Move it to a new room or spot and see if it gets new attention.
  • Add something new. I added tape lines to the table to suggest roads and parking spaces, which gave my kids something extra to consider and puzzle over. Other ideas: Roll butcher paper underneath/around it and draw streets, gardens, etc. Find a new character (our doll house gets more use with Strawberry Shortcake Dolls), add a new piece of furniture, make a tunnel or slide out of a paper towel tube, add holiday lights, cut old t-shirts to make sheets or rugs.
  • Decorate. Give your kids paper and markers and invite them to make miniature art for the walls. Decorate the house for the holidays. Paint wooden furniture or wooden dolls.
  • Give it time. My older child was never into small-world play and didn’t take to the doll house until her younger sister took an interest. It may not be for your child, or they may not be ready for it yet. I put ours in the garage until a few months ago, and now it’s getting tons of use.

doll house games

More Doll House Play Ideas

Do you want to make your own dolls like the little man in the boat up there? I’ll teach you how to do it with simple materials here: Felt Dollhouse Dolls.

Do you have a shelf? Let the Children Play offers this clever alternative to the traditional dollhouse 

Do you like to spend time outdoors? Make a fairy garden.

Maybe you just have cardboard? How to Make a Cardboard Doll’s House from Red Ted Art. She also has tutorials for making a baby doll and a dollhouse bed.

Cardboard Shoe Box Doll House with Egg Carton Furniture, from Pink and Green Mama.

Check out the life-sized dollhouse by installation artist Heather Benning. It blows me away.

Note: Some of the links in this post connect to affiliates that I think you’ll find valuable. If you purchase anything from these vendors, you’re helping me keep the Tinkerlab engine go. Thanks for your support!

Self-serve Valentines for Kids

valentine box

I’m working on a project with the San Francisco Children’s Creativity Museum, and one of the ideas we’re playing with is to create a buffet-style selection of materials for children to choose from in our DIY art zone. I’ll share some of our activities with you soon, but in the meantime I thought you might like to see how this strategy has manifested itself in my own home.

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner and a love for all-things-holiday in our house, I set up a smorgasbord of hearts, flowers, silk flower petals, shiny wrapping paper, doilies, stickers, and glue. Each clear container is filled with a thoughtfully-selected material as an invitation to make, play, and create. Oh, and invitations can be accepted or ignored. I always try to pay attention to how these things play out because, of course, I want my invitations to be accepted!!

I barely captured any photos of my 3 year old making art because I was busy cutting paper and helping Baby R. But she made a Valentine for her sister and one for me. She draws her “M’s” upside down, so my name is spelled “WOW”… isn’t that great!? N stuffed the Valentines into her light-up Hello Kitty mailbox (the hand-made Valentine box we threw together last week truly couldn’t compete with this one!) and we opened our little parcels of love up at dinner.

All in all it was a success, and I look forward to sharing more of these invitations with you soon.

DO YOU SET UP INVITATIONS TO PLAY AND CREATE? DO YOUR KIDS MAKE SELF SERVE VALENTINES? DO YOU THINK THIS STRATEGY COULD WORK FOR YOU?

Sensory Play with Tapioca Pearls

boba in milk

Have you ever had Boba Tea or Pearl Tea? You know those chewy, soft balls that sink to the bottom of milky tea that you suck up through a fat milkshake straw? The drink originated in Taiwan as a novelty for children, and has since taken the world by storm with bubble tea houses popping up everywhere. I have yet to be converted to boba, but I when I spotted a bag of multi-colored dried boba in one of our Asian markets, I saw the opportunity for play and exploration.

To read more, I’m writing over on the Kiwi Crate Blog today about our sensory boba adventure.

What do you think about tapioca pearls as a food or art material?

This post is shared on It’s Playtime.

 

Recycled Weaving Fence

DSC_0114

When I saw this awesome weaving installation on display at the Bay Area Discovery Museum I knew it was something that I wanted to recreate at home. If I were running a preschool I think I would have taken the time to build such a structure because it would be a stellar group project, but as the parent of one curious, yet fickle, preschooler I thought it might be prudent to build a simple test-model first to see if this would be an idea worthy of further exploration (and investment!).

After scratching my head over this, I came up with this prototype made from wooden skewers (two on each end), painters tape, a deconstructed fruit sack from the market, and assorted ribbon.

It was a beautiful day, and N was up for the challenge.

With four ribbon spools to choose from, she cut  what she wanted and worked on figuring out how to get it through the mesh.

It was tricky, but she kept at it until she figured it out. Real challenges give kids the opportunity to celebrate their successes and gain confidence in their problem-solving abilities.

She also tried this shiny, elastic ribbon, and found it was easier to push through the holes. What a nice surprise lesson in compare and contrast!

And she even wrapped it all the way around the edge of the wood post.

N likes collaborating with me — it seems that she takes her work more seriously if I get involved too — so you can see a few of my ribbons woven in there as well. We worked on this for about 20 minutes and I left it up so that we can revisit it over the course of the week. And if there’s still energy around weaving, and this project in particular, I may just invest in some garden fencing like the stuff I saw at the children’s museum.

Has anyone made one of these? Did your child/children stick with it for a while?

Related Ideas

  • If you have a chainlink fence, you could weave through it with fabric or crepe paper. I’m thinking about bringing a basket of crepe paper with us next time we visit the park. Do you think anyone would mind if we made a fence weaving installation?
  • Check out this yarn heart-weaving from Outdoor Knit.

What else could you build a weaving fence from?

This post was shared with Craft Schooling Sunday. Childhood 101, It’s Playtime

Simple Balloon Yo-Yo

DSC_0790

This springy balloon yo-yo is fun to play with, easy to make, and can be created with things that you may already have in the cupboard. It can also teach children a nice lesson in resourcefulness, helping them understand that toys can be invented from simple objects. In this day and age of toys overflowing from grocery shelves and toy baskets, this is always a welcome lesson in my home!

I was inspired to make these balloon yo-yo toys after seeing this postby Sherry and Donna at Irresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning.

I attached a balloon to a funnel and filled it with rice. Small seeds or beans would work too. Or you could go with Sherry and Donna’s plan and partially fill with water.

I tied up the end of the balloon and secured one rubber band around it with a knot.

I looped another rubber band onto the first one…

and carried on with this looping and attaching until I achieved the desired length. I used four rubber bands per yo-yo, but this would all depend on the size of the bands and the height of the child (or person using the yo-yo…it could be you!).

After making these, we took our yo-yo everywhere  as a diversion. We were visiting grandma and grandpa at a hotel, and N found a way to entertain herself while everyone finished up with breakfast. If you can believe it, this was the best photo…playing with the yo-yo is active business that turned all attempts at getting a clear photo into a blurry mess!

What toys have you or your kids invented?

This post was shared with It’s Playtime, Craft Schooling Sunday, Childhood 101, Sun Scholars

Rolled Easter Egg Painting

DSC_0794

When my daughter was about 2 1/2, her very favorite art activity was rolling paint-coated marbles all over sheets of paper. We made Rolling Rock Paintings with smooth rocks and Spooky Marble Spider Webs for Halloween. With Easter coming up, I was inspired to make something fun with the plastic eggs that consume dollar stores across the country. Not only is this fun to do, but the set up is easy and it’s a novel way to celebrate the spring season. On the developmental/arts experience level, kids will make choices about the colors they use, they will be active (standing and moving!), and they’ll learn how to manipulate the uneven balance of a rolling egg (as opposed to a more predictable rolling marble).

Materials

  • Easter eggs. I used plastic, but just about any eggs will do. If you can pry the chocolate ones away from your kids, more power to you!
  • Paint. Tempera or biocolors. Washable is always preferable!
  • Paper
  • Tray to hold the paper. We used a wooden tray, but I’ve also had great success with an open cardboard box.

Before we got to rolling, N wanted to dip half-eggs in the paint…

And print them.

Then she took a closed egg, rolled it in red and white paint (because her favorite color is pink, and she’s proud of her color-mixing knowledge!)…

…and then rolled it on the paper.

A few colors later!

So much fun. And clean up wasn’t too difficult — as long as you keep those eggs on the paper and in the tray!

What do you think?

This post is linked to It’s Playtime