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

Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise. 

– Alice Walker

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

But where I live these visual surprises barely exist.

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

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

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

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

What is the Tree Tag Project?

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

What’s the Point?

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

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

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

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

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

How we did it

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

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

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

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

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

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

To get this started we gathered supplies.

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

And then set it up.

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

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

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

Others with pictures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you join me?

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

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

There are two ways to share immediately:

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

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

More Neighborhood Interventions

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

A question for you

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








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  1. I love this idea!

    We are moving and I was thinking of donating my sidewalk chalk instead of hauling it to another house. But I think I’ll maybe set it out on the sidewalk that I’ve seeded with some drawings or a question and invite others to add to it. Sort of like a cadavre exquis project.

    • Great idea! Love the idea of planting side walk chalk out!

    • Hi Danielle,

      We often leave a bowl of chalk on our sidewalk with a prompt (most recently: Please Draw), and it’s amazing to see who contributes, and it’s not always children! A couple weeks ago there was a drawing of two intertwined rings and the words “One year,” and I spotted a 20-something guy drawing a picture for over ten minutes. Good luck with the move, and maybe you’ll bring chalk drawings to your new home.


    • i LOVE this! i’m heading to the store for some new sidewalk chalk TOMORROW and doing this 🙂 i love the sense of community it brings and i can only imagine how excited my kids will be! thanks for the inspiration!

  2. http://landcare.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/diy-rainbow.html
    I think nature provides wonderful visual surprises, but in suburbia these moments of wonder can be less frequent. We had fun earlier in the year doing a chalk rainbow. I really love a bit of yarn bombing too. Good on you bringing some art to the burbs, I agree, it’s no good just wanting to have it around, sometimes you have to make it happen.

    • Your chalk rainbow project is so inspiring — your kids look like they’re having a great time and I love your comment about making the tunnels feel safer. Art really does have that power (like the painted intersections in Portland).

  3. This is such a cool idea! Might have to see if can figure out how to make this work with our apartment.

    • Thanks, Tina. I bet you can figure something out. Do you have access to a sidewalk? Even though we’re in a house, it really had no bearing on the project. You could even set up something similar in a park or at a university. I’d love to hear what you come up with.

  4. Oh wow this is really inspiring! I like the chalk idea too, we have a big box of sidewalk chalk.

    • Thank you, Meg. The sidewalk is so easy, right? It’s a great place to start, for sure.

  5. Rachelle, I think this is a fantastic, pretty and inspiring idea. In fact, since I saw your “chalk invitation” on instagram (a few days ago) I’ve been thinking in some ways to share the joy and adrenaline of creating to the world. This is brilliant! And, as you know, I’m a supporter so… it’s done. (Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll try to find a copy here, wish me luck!)

    • Hi Angaleta,

      With all the creative invitations that we set up for our children, it’s just one extra step to set one up for the world, right? I’m so excited that you’re in! We’ll have to come up with a hashtag for instagram 🙂 I’ll message you for your address and send you a copy of the book.


  6. I adore this. Community building. Giving children a voice. Inspiring others.

    …and taking me a little bit out of my comfort zone! Rock on Tinkerlab!

    • Thank you, Megan! I bet it takes most people out of their comfort zone, and maybe that’s what makes it work!

  7. Absolutely fabulous!!!!! My neighbors are going are going to love this. Though most of them are towing dogs so i wonder how many will stop?
    I can’t wait!!! Thanks rac!

    • Danielle! This project definitely reminds me of you, and you have a great group of neighbors who can make this work. What about adding a dog bowl full of water and a box of dog treats to encourage your dog walking friends to stop?

  8. Will be doing this this weekend. Just moved into a new neighborhood and the kiddos are itching to meet new people. Checkin out Keri Smith’s book too!

  9. This is such an inspiring idea! Do you (or your readers) have any ideas about how to make it work in an urban setting….where art supplies are more likely to “walk” if left unattended?

    • Hi Jill,
      I wouldn’t be afraid of materials walking away (at first) — maybe test this out with something inexpensive and see how it goes. Our first interactive project was with sidewalk chalk: We wrote a prompt directly onto the sidewalk and left a bowl of chalk nearby. You could write a little blurb about returning the art materials to where they were found, along with an appeal to help other people enjoy the project. Or how about projects that only use inexpensive and easily replaced materials. I hope this helps!

  10. Rachelle – YES! This is great! I have been really weirded out about my slow slide into true suburban life. During our block party (*city hosted after our adventure where’s terrorist Waldo?) I put out a bunch of chalk and the many people joined in, but I love the idea of doing something on-going. Am putting on my thinking cap!

  11. Great idea, Rachelle–and so many variations can be done with this idea. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Oh I love this idea! I’ve always been a fan of community and trying to create a sense of connection with those you live near — this is so neat! Did you have people sign the cards with their names? I have to share this post because there is a photo of the old cabin we stayed in for summer vacation — all the white circles on the cabin wall are pictures that families drew on paper plates. Most of them were drawings of favorite places that people visited in the area, a few were poems. It was so fun to read through them each night – there were more than 100 all over the cabin! http://www.kcedventures.com/blog/family-vacation-black-hills-south-dakota Excellent idea!

    • Hi Jacquie,

      Oh, I’m so sorry I missed your comment (and a few others) in this post! Some people signed their names, and others added their ages. The ages were actually more interesting than the names in many cases. And thank you for sharing the photo of the paper plates….that’s such a cool idea.

      xo, Rachelle

  13. We did something very similar to this a few years back in our old neighborhood. We had had a hard time connecting with our neighbors and finding others with kids. We set-up a “wishing tree” where we hung pieces of paper with string with our wishes. Our wishes included finding neighbors who had kids. Well, within a few days there was another wish hung on the tree by another family in the area with kids. We late connected with them on a walk and were so thrilled that our little project had made such a connection. Such art projects are so fun and they bring such a spark of excitement to life.

    • That is SUCH an incredible story, Julia. Wishes do come true!

  14. I so wish I could find my pictures of this, but I can’t, so I’ll explain instead. My neighbor’s family and I engage in summertime sidewalk chalk “wars.” We leave chalk puzzles (i.e. tic-tac-toe), unfinished pictures (i.e. draw the alien piloting this flying saucer), quotations, limericks, hopscotch boards, and any other creative prompts we can come up with on the sidewalks in front of our respective houses. My son is still too young to play, but the kids next door (11, 9, and 5) come up with ideas, sometimes their mom helps them execute them, and I do the same for them. Every day it happens brings a new surprise, and all those who walk by comment on our lively sidewalks. It’s a summertime endeavor, so we’re all gearing up for it right now. I think adding this tree tagging to the mix would be a blast.

    • I adore this! If you happen to think of it, snap some photos this summer and send them my way!

  15. This is a great idea! We homeschool our kids, so they are slightly out of the loop with the neighbourhood. This would be a great way to generate some more interactions.

  16. 🙁 love this idea but our only tree in front I huge no low branches to tie on, and our driveway isn’t very smooth and quite bumpy – open to suggestions

    • Hmmm, tricky tricky. You could come up with another idea altogether. Some thoughts off the top of my head:
      * Offer a bowl of yarn and invite people to braid it around the tree trunk like this: http://yolotrautz.blogspot.com/2013/04/melbourne-jan-feb-2013.html (scroll down about 8 images)
      * Set up a table and invite people to write anonymous letters to neighbors
      * Set up some chalk and invite neighbors to draw on a fence
      * Write a question/prompt on a table (covered with chalkboard paint) and invite people to draw or write directly on the table.

  17. Oh my GOODNESS…I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this idea!!!! I am going to create a calendar & map out upcoming, seasonal ideas right away! I’m also thinking about cheap giveaways for my neighbors as well (a bowl of baby pumpkins in the fall with a sign that reads “Free Baby Pumpkins to Good Home,” fresh flowers from my yard displayed in recycled tin cans in the spring, a stack of old books, etc.) I like the idea of engaging and also giving to others as well. THANKS for the great ideas!!!

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