Midwinter “stained glass” windows

What: Circles of “stained glass” patterns made with cellophane and cardboard, to play with winter light.


How: I cut circles from cardboard from the boxes frozen pizzas come in, and cut patterns in them with a Stanley knife or craft knife. Kid 4 and Kid 2 helped me paint the cardboard black (sitting on some layers of newspaper of course). When it was dry we took pieces of coloured cellophane and stickytaped them to the back of the cardboard, sometimes layering more than one piece to get different shades or depths of colour. Then we blu-tacked them to the window to see them in the light!

Extras: We just did very simple patterns with no particular rhyme or theme. I was picking up on the idea of “wheels” and some of the traditional circular designs (the quartered circle, a six-fold wheel, a St Leonard’s Cross) but didn’t talk to the kids about them at all. You could choose colours and shapes more carefully to fit a theme or idea, copy famous windows and patterns from around the world, do more complicated patterns and pictures inside the circles – there’s plenty of room to make beautiful art out of these. The first ones I ever saw were ones my mum made when I was perhaps 4 myself – she made angels for Christmas. I was captivated by the stained glass effect and the visceral sense of how it felt to have colours falling through the windows – I think I danced the story of the colours on my skin for the rest of the day, or just stood there soaking it in in absolute delight. As an adult I remembered the project and thought it would be a good thing to do for Midwinter when we celebrate the returning of the light. As my kids get older we might make another set of these, and let them do more of the planning and the cutting – these ones were set up beforehand ready to go and pretty heavily guided.

Winter leaves

What: Painted fallen leaves, arranged on the wall.

The veining and shape of the leaves suggested spots to do different colours.

How: We collected fallen leaves from one of the local plane trees, choosing a range of sizes but mostly “the big ones”. Then I gave Kid 4 and Kid 2 each a paintbrush and a plastic takeaway container lid with some dobs of acrylic paint on it, and let them go for it. They mixed some colours on the tray, and others directly onto the leaf. I painted a few as well to get a bit of variety in colour and style. Once they were dry, we arranged them on the wall as if the wind was blowing them along. Kid 4 helped me with the sticking and enjoyed getting up on the stepladder to do it. So there were two activities here.

Note to people in other climates: here, leaves fall in winter – if they fall at all in this evergreen land. It just doesn’t get cold enough before then. So this for us is very much a winter activity. We also don’t get much of what people talk of as autumn colours – again, because even in winter it’s not cold enough to trigger the colour change in most of those trees that are famous for it. So painted leaves can be as close as we get, even if the colours are unusually fantastic.

The drift of painted leaves lowing along the wall. I think we stuck them on with bluetack. I wasn’t too fussed about what it would do to the wallpaper underneath.

Extras: Talking about the seasons with the kids is something I have to do every autumn and winter – they are barraged with the cultural ideas of “fall” and “autumn leaves” and it’s not always obvious to them that the autumn they experience isn’t like that at all. Though as they get older they’re noticing it more. Our autumns – and indeed, much of our winters – means bright, bright flowers against brilliant hotly blue skies. Bougainvillea, trumpet vine, poinsettia, plumbago, umbrella tree – oranges, reds, corals, pinks, scarlets, light blues, purples all so vibrant. Autumn is also the time when the eucalyptus trees lose their bark and show their trunks in an amazing range of colours. So going on a colour hunt is something we should try doing (though now that it’s winter it’s too late for the tree bark!). There are other things to try with plane tree leaves too. This year we’re making a picture with the plane tree leaves, and I’ll put that up as a separate post once we’ve done it.

Rainbow room

What: Decorating the room with “real” rainbows, made with CDs.

How: We chose a few spots by windows that get direct sunlight, and put old CDs there. The rainbows form throughout the day, moving, shrinking, appearing and disappearing with the sunbeams.

As an activity this takes no time at all, unless you do it as a discovery project (see Extras). The beauty of it is in what it does to a room that you’re spending a lot of time in. Our CDs are in our north-facing front lounge room, which is the warmest and brightest place for most of the day during winter. The rainbows brighten it even more. For us it’s purely a decorative thing, all of us love colour and find the rainbows peaceful.

Obviously this works best on a white ceiling, so please pretend ours is white and not covered in years of grime.


Extras: And, of course, there’s heaps of things you can talk about. We went through an accidental-discovery moment, which you could set up in advance to happen if you wanted to. First we discovered one of these rainbows that had formed by accident, and had to find what was making it. That took some conversation and exploring. Then we had to get some more old CDs to try making more. When that worked, we put them in windows – but the rainbows moved! And later when we looked again one of them had disappeared! The idea that things change over time, even if we’re not watching them or even when we are, is a basic scientific idea that kids spend a bit of time learning and reinforcement never hurts. Especially the bit about how you don’t have to be afraid of change because everything *does* change.

My kids aren’t old enough for me to bother with explaining the difference between diffraction (which is how CDs make colour) and refraction (which is how rainbows make colour). It’s enough to talk about how white light is made of all the colours and if you separate them out, that’s when you see the rainbow. Kid 6 worked out for themselves that this was a bit like when they looked through Mummy’s prism. Kid 5 also happily talked about times and places they’d found rainbows. We got to talk about the colours we could see, and whether they were distinct bands or blended into each other, and how many colours we thought there were. That’s always a good conversation, because kids get drilled early on the idea that there’s seven colours in a rainbow, and there totally isn’t. ROYGBIV is just the way it was written down some three hundred years ago by an early scientist, when we named common colours differently to the way we do now (cyan, anyone?). And it’s a handy acronym for remembering the order of colours, if you want to talk about how rainbows always have their colours in the same order, but beyond that its usefulness drops off quickly. (Yes, I have opinions on colour.) Add that to how kids get all kinds of weird-coloured rainbows on their toys and clothes, especially girl clothes, and they can come up with some fascinating and funny observations. Though I still don’t have a good answer to “Why isn’t there any pink in it?”. (I tried saying that it’s just that pink is “light red”, but that didn’t wash.)

Playdough cookies

What: Edible playdough / cookie dough, created with and baked.

Patterns, layers, marblings, plain cookies, pressed-on spots, twisted spirals and The Biggest Cookie Ever.

How: There are a few recipes online, pick one that suits your diet and what you’ve got in the cupboard. Most any white cookie dough of a suitable texture works, as long as it can be rolled out, squished up, and hammered over and over again without getting too “worked”.

For us playdough cookies can be quite an event. First you make the plain cookie dough. Then you split it into two or three or four bowls (depending on how much dough you’re making) and work the colour in. I have tried using “natural” colours but they’re not always bright enough – choose whatever colouring works for you. Too much liquid colour added makes the dough too sticky to work, so be prepared to juggle that and add more flour if you need to.

This step is messy. And that’s OK!

Then, once you have your coloured dough, it’s off on the construction side of things. The first time I did this I think I just let the kids do whatever. The second time I showed them how you could spiral strips of different colours together and we all made cookies of that type. One time we used two colours arranged in cylinders to make a checkerboard pattern when it was sliced, but I’ll post about that separately. This time was one of the “just let the kids go” times. Whenever we do this, I always make a few and pick something odd to do as an example, which the kids might or might not try themselves. This time I did some layering – putting a star of one colour on top of a circle of another colour. Kid 4 copied that trick, but Kid 6 was too busy making The Biggest Cookie Ever (which was a lesson in itself about structural stability). I also did one marbled cookie, with two colours marbled together, and next time I might show the kids how to do that particular trick. Or I might do cut-outs, or stamp designs in, or press lines in with a knife or fork. Most cookie or clay techniques can be demonstrated, and this has become one of our go-to activities.

Once the trays are full, you bake the cookies. I recommend supervising the thickness of the cookies put on the tray so that they bake evenly. I also recommend baking them for only just as long as the recipe and cookie thickness suggests – once they start to brown you lose that excellent colour. And then: you get to eat them afterwards. With some negotiations, of course, which is the other reason I always make some of my own. I might not be allowed more than one small one otherwise!

Part way through. Both kids are starting to get tired and lose focus. Some days they last longer than others. I choose the quantity of dough partly on how many I think we’ll make that day.

Extras: This activity is all about the creativity. And eating cookies. But… it’s also an excellent opportunity to bring in clay and modelling skills, like the marbling (which is really good if you want to go on to use those plastic clays to make beads for jewellery), or structural stability. Layering colours, sticking pieces together in patterns, making 3D patterns that you only see when sliced (like those rock candy pulls you can get for weddings and birthdays!) – there are plenty of opportunities to extend this. Once the eldest child – a Kid 5 or 6 at the time I think – suggested we try and sell the cookies to Daddy and promptly attempted to extort as much cash out of him as they could get. While that didn’t work out entirely in their favour when Daddy took the whole tray of cookies hostage, playing “shop” or “cafe” is still a good idea. Cookies are fun to put on plates and serve!

Gods’ eyes

What: The “gods’ eyes” that were a Big Craft Thing to make when I was a kid.

How: Kid 3 and Kid 5 went out into the garden with instructions to find two sticks, reasonably straight, “about yay long”. I had to assist them a little with assessing whether a given stick was strong enough or too thin or thick – understanding the relationship between “width” (diameter) and area of cross-section is a long way off – but they could do length fine. I got out my box of miscellaneous wool and let the kids choose an initial colour. We crossed the sticks, I tied on the first end of the wool and showed them how you go around a stick, then on to the next and around that, and keep going. When you get to the end of a piece of wool, pick a new colour and tie a new length on.

Kid 5’s piece, decorated to be “a compass”, with mine and Kid 3’s in the background. Hanging was just a matter of wrapping a string around the same way.

You’ll find better instructions than mine online. What’s more important for you to know is that this was *hard* for the kids. Kid 5 is spatially-challenged anyway, all directions are identical, subjective and meaningless, and Kid 3 is a fiddle-fingers who can’t *stop* turning things around in their fingers. Even though the steps of a Gods’ Eye are simple, they rely on you doing them the same way consistently over and over again. So I spent a lot of time droning the rhythm at the kids – over, around, over again, across to the next – and helping them remember which way they were going so they didn’t unwind their hard-won earlier work or just do the same two spokes over and over again, or switch from looping over to looping under, and so on. Holding the wool at the correct tension was also tricky – it’s a skill you expect a kid to maybe begin to learn at this age, but my two hadn’t learnt it yet. The idea that you had to keep making sure the wool was tight enough and not hanging floppy every time you looped it was a bit tricky. But, they got there in the end. Kid 5 did quite a credible effort. Kid 3 did sufficiently well for them to be proud of their work, and enjoyed it enough that nine months later (as a kid 4) when they had to take something they’d made to school for class “news”, they remembered the Gods Eyes and asked to make a new one to take along. And that effort was distinctly better and easier.

Extras: On the face of it, this activity is just about manual dexterity, manipulating sticks and wool in space, the textures of wool and wood, feeling and holding the tensions steady – getting a feel (literally!) for textiles. It’s the sort of thing you do before you go onto knitting because it’s so much bigger in scale than little needles. A related activity would be back-and-forth weaving on simple looms.

Where this activity jumps into the extras though is in cultural awareness and in religion. Gods eyes were a big thing in the 80s. When Kid 4 asked to make one for school I went looking them up to see if there was another name for them, because as a non-Christian family in a very multicultural school I didn’t want to have to defend Christianity in a discussion about religious materials. Then I realised that their actual name was Ojo de Dios, they weren’t originally Christian, and that the 80s had blithely appropriated a really interesting cultural artefact for the sake of something “pretty” (how unusual /sarcasm/). At any rate, I attempted to teach Kid 4 the Spanish name and that they came from Mexico for the “news bulletin”. So depending on the age of your kids, going at some level into the cultural history of these is quite interesting.

From a pagan and religion POV, I quite like them. They are similar to Buddhist prayer flags or prayer wheels – physical prayers activated by movement. There are some conceptual similarities to the little icons of saints that people used to carry or have on their mantelpiece (and many still do). Making them is a lot like walking the medieval labyrinths, those pilgrimage substitutes, with the same kind of meditative repetition. As a mindfulness activity it’s quite fun too. I will bring these back into my pagan teaching at some point, when we discuss focus objects and how people use objects (and their making) to focus magic or prayer, and also as part of the ideas of sacred landscape and conscious journeying. They’ll also no doubt be a good example of the “cultural trappings” of magic, because the colours had such important meanings in a long-ago-far-away culture but now we might assign quite different meanings and have access to a different range of colours so the “meaning” or “intent” is not a universal constant.

Origami baby ball

What: a lightweight origami toy/gift for a little baby.

Four month old, fascinated by something they can actually grab and hold and turn.

How: To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how or where we found the instructions for this, it was a random origami book somewhere, but I’ll bet it’s available on YouTube nowadays. The idea was that you folded six of these shapes, attached them together as a cube, and they flexed into a ball shape. The only trick was attaching the bits together. I think I used stickytape for this one, because I didn’t want to risk staples flying around when the baby grabbed with both hands and yanked in opposite directions. The first time I made one of these, for my first Kid 0, I used paper glue (just a standard glue stick) and that worked OK until they worked out how to apply more force than the glue resists. So, fastener is your choice, see what works for you and your kid’s developmental stage / attitude towards interesting objects. I found there was a huge difference between 3 months, 4 months, 6 months – and between children of the same age (there are smashers and kissers and many types between).

I loved this ball because it was light weight, so the baby could pick it up, wave it around and then when their hand strength predictably yet unexpectedly failed they could drop it on their face – and this wasn’t a problem. I also liked that it had lots of pointy-out bits – paper, not stiff, so they didn’t hurt or poke, but small grasping fingers could find plenty of bits to latch onto in order to try and grip. That made it suitable for a whole range of manipulative abilities, it wasn’t something they just accidentally knocked around the room because they couldn’t grasp it when they threw their arms in its direction. Because it was home made we could use a range of textures and colours and patterns in the paper, getting more subtleties than baby toys often have. It’s also visually interesting, with the combination of detail and symmetry. And it’s paper, so if they chew on it, well, it gets soggy and maybe it tears, but at the end of the day it’s still only paper. You can make another one easily enough.

Extras: The first one of these was made as part of an origami party for Kid 0, when friends of ours came over and made lots of origami shapes for a mobile. So it was a nice social thing. It was actually made by a Kid 11, from memory, who really enjoyed working through the printed instructions and then repeating the steps five times to get the six identical pieces. I think you’d need at least a Kid 8 or 9 to make it – it wasn’t too tricky, but it did take a little folding precision (plus of course the ability to read and follow instructions!). I made the one in the photo here, and I also made a third one that we mailed to a friend for a new baby gift. Lightweight = cheap postage!  These latter two were both made under Kid 1 and 2’s “supervision” – they helped select the pieces of paper I used and which order they attached in.