Origami butterfly

What: A folded paper butterfly that became the basis for a few different moments

One of the Kid 6s’ butterflies.

How: I saw a video of these on Facebook or Youtube somewhere – it’ll be around. The steps weren’t too hard and I had a go on my own. You need some square paper – not too large – and scissors. Depending on what else you do with the butterflies you’ll want to have blutack, stickytape or string on hand (or whatever else seems useful).

Once I knew what I was doing, I made them with the usual crowd of Kid 6s of both genders that seems to appear in a screeching flurry after school several days a week. The butterflies are a little fiddly in one or two spots but not too bad and all the kids did OK with them. Then they came up with things to do with the butterflies.

It swings better than it flies. Pendulum science! except it’s not quite heavy enough for that. Maybe if it was weighted a little.

A couple of them went on the trampoline. One got thrown around the room but this design doesn’t really fly well so that didn’t last. One went on a string and became a kite – but not a very good one. Then that Kid 6 got some spare paper off me and cut and taped it into a bag, with the butterfly front and centre as decoration and the string repurposed into bag handles.

Every one of the sides of that bag has been cut separately and stuck together with tape. It was painful. I’m glad this Kid 6 has now encountered “nets” at school and can conceptualise that you can make a bag out of a single piece with folding. But I’m pleased they conceptualised the pieces needed for the bag in the first place.

Extras: If I had florist wire we could make a few of these and stick them on and do flower arranging. A few different sizes and patterns would work well as a mobile. Several of the same size could be attached to a paper chain. Folding them out of something waterproof instead of paper would mean we could hang them outside. They can decorate anything. To me they’re a useful piece for something rather than being terribly exciting themselves, though they did work well for giving the Kid 6 crowd something to fiddle with for ten minutes.

Review: 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids

150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids, by Asia Citro, MEd


About: This is hands-down one of my favourite books and a regular go-to for “What can we do this afternoon?”, “Mummy, please play with us” and “I don’t know what to DOOOOOOO” moments. I look through the book myself for something I’m willing to face up to, or I hand the book to the kids and get them to pick something out that they like the look of. I’ve also handed this book to Daddy for his nights-doing-stuff-with-kids and told him if he picks something he wants to do, I’ll make sure we have the ingredients. I really like Citro’s approach – she encourages a lot of the fundamentals of very-early-childhood science, which is basically investigating substances and the way they behave when you do stuff to them. It’s all play. Much of it is messy. It’s fun, it’s delightful, it’s imaginative, it can be wondrous. Many recipes and activities are suitable for kids who put things in their mouth, or who have allergies. Some take more prep or cleaning up than others, so I can choose what I’m capable of on a given day and find something fun. There’ll be a few activities I post up on this blog that have come from this book, or from Citro’s blog, FunAtHomeWithKids.com, which is well worth an explore. The age range of activities is probably 0 to 10 years, at least, so it’s a book you’ll get plenty of use out of.

Each activity has preparation time, suitable age range, and a bunch of other quick things you might be looking for (eg eat safe, gluten free, nut free etc). I also like the “Tips for doing things on a budget” boxes in each section of the book, though they are less relevant if you’re not in the same country as the author.

Good things:

  • Wide age range suitability
  • Lots of ideas with accessible ingredients
  • Well laid out and photographed
  • Kids can look through the book themselves
  • Good science fundamentals (and literacy and numeracy and manual dexterity)
  • Basically, all-round good early childhood resource
There’s also variations on each activity, to break it down or build it up to different age ranges, or to work with different materials if you don’t have something in the cupboard, or to extend it if you’ve already done this activity ten times and your kids want to do it *again*.

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.

Grass seed picture

What: A picture “coloured in” with glue and collected grass seeds.

The placing of glue and seeds is a little imprecise, though if you have the patience to do a bit, let it dry and come back for the next bit you can get more precision. We didn’t.

How: First, I and Kid 3 went out into the garden and collected seeds. We found different kinds of grass – there are several kinds of tussock and weed grasses in our overgrown back yard – and collected handfuls of seeds from each in different bowls. TBH, I did a lot of the prompting and collecting here, including sneaking back out and getting more of the kind that were most different, though Kid 3 thought they did it all. All with lots of conversation about the colour and size and differences. Then we went inside with our loot.

Inside, the bowls gathered dust sitting on the table for a day or two while Kid 3 “played” with them (i.e. talked about them to anyone who came near). Then I drew a picture on a piece of cardboard with big black marker (Kid 3 requested “a house”), and one section at a time we applied glue, then tipped seeds of a particular kind into the segment and spread them around with a popstick. I say “we” because glue and tippy things with a Kid 3 generally involves some “assistance” to make sure results match intentions (both yours and theirs). It took a couple of hours to fully dry, even though it was poked regularly to check.

Extras: You could do this with spices, or left over garden seeds from different kinds of plants – grass seeds have some commonalities, but seeds from the daisy/lettuce family or from the salvias or poppies or brassicas or umbrella herbs (parsley, celery, dill etc) can all be quite different in shape and kind while being similar within the family. You could draw patterns or shapes instead of a picture. And if picking the seeds together just doesn’t work out, taking a mixed bowl you’ve prepared beforehand and sorting or sieving them into different kinds might be fun too (depending on seed type).

Pasta pictures

What: Pictures made by gluing coloured pasta to paper.

Red and blue pasta stuck to heavyweight black paper. This was my bird, that I could work on slowly filling in the space and adding texture while the kids talked to me over their own work. Keeping my own hands busy elicits a lot more conversation from them.

How: We had two bags of previously coloured pasta (see Extras) that I wanted to get out of the craft cupboard. So I put them on the table with some PVC “gloopy” glue (in a plastic cup, with paintbrushes to apply it) and some black and white paper and let the kids go for it.

The Flower of Heaven, done by Kid 6. Glue is put on the paper rather than the pasta, to avoid the food colouring coming off on fingers *quite* so much.

I like to work with the texture and shape of things to make texture in the artwork, building up solid shapes, but the kids aren’t quite on that page yet. Kid 6 is (as is typical I believe) quite line focused, and used the pasta to make outlines of what they wanted to achieve. In their second piece they’d seen what I was working on and tried laying out pieces of pasta to take up space, then gluing them down – which resulted in the butterfly. Kid 4 went abstract, with no picture at all, and concentrated on making a pattern. After the pattern was done to their mental and emotional satisfaction, they began to add in other bits to make it more of a “picture”.

Kid 6’s butterfly. This was originally more densely packed inside the wings, but the process of lifting each piece off, putting glue on it and putting it back got a bit much and they lowered their goals a little bit .

Extras: This is actually the third activity we’ve done with this pasta. Kid 2 and Kid 4 helped me make it originally – we put pasta in plastic bags with a whole lot of food colouring and mixed it around and around (from the outside of the bag) until they were all covered in colour. Smooth pasta takes colour better than textured pasta, but the latter gives some cool effects too. Also, the blue was harder to manage because when it was even, it’s a bit dark and you can’t see the colour. Brighter and lighter colours are more optimal. The second activity was once the pasta was dried – we used it for threading pasta necklaces. There’s an age where threading seems to be a useful manual dexterity skill, and pasta and a bit of wool is a nice cheap way to do that. Plus having two linked activities meant we got a bit of time spent for not so much of my mental effort. Unfortunately, macaroni is really crap for threading – a lot of the pieces are squished at one end so you can’t get wool through, and that was very frustrating for Kid 2 and Kid 4. The penne was fine! The last thing you could do with this pasta is try cooking it. We didn’t, and now I wouldn’t because it’s had a *lot* of handling and sitting around gathering dust etc etc, but if you were doing these activities all in the same week then cooking up the pasta and seeing if it held its colour would be a nice finisher off. Plus then you’d have none left to take up space forgotten in the craft drawer.

Kid 4’s pattern, with some additional bits to begin turning it into a “picture”. I think it might be a plane with wings, or something with wings, I’m not sure.

“Washing” “dishes”

What: Gateway activity to getting the kids to wash dishes for me and also manual dexterity skills for cooking.

How: I collected lots of drink bottle and milk bottle lids over time, in a range of colours – orange, yellow and red from Gatorade and iced tea, blue from milk, green, black and purple from fruit juice. They were for use in other activities, but needed a good clean. The kids put an apron on each (and Kid 3 even kept it on!), I gave them a wooden spoon and mixing bowl with warm water and a squirt of detergent each. Then I distributed the lids. They had great fun stirring the water up to make bubbles, stirring the colourful lids around, trying not to send absolutely all their water over the edge, and getting the lids “clean”. I had a bottle-brush scrubber too that they took turns using. When they were “done”, they scooped the lids that were clean out and put them on a teatowel that I laid out for the purpose. I checked as we went for any that needed more thorough cleaning.

Kid 1 and Kid 3 stirring and scrubbing in their bowls.

Extras: This leads on to other variations of washing dishes, and also to forms of cooking that need stirring. Stirring’s a surprisingly difficult skill, especially judging the force needed to move the spoon without flinging the contents on the ceiling. The lids have been in constant use since for maths and reading foundational activities.