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.
What: Edible playdough / cookie dough, created with and baked.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
About: The book starts with one yellow dot, and the word “Ready?”. Then… “Press Here”.
Each page has a new instruction, and a response. It’s not what you’d call truly interactive, of course – it doesn’t matter whether you follow the instructions accurately or not – but the process of working your way through the book and seeing what happens is great fun for a range of ages. I think I was given this book when the kids were 0 and 2, or maybe 1 and 3, and it still entertains them. You can only do it a few times before it needs to go back on the shelf, because nothing changes, but I’ve been able to leave it with either for them to work through on their own. Which is why there are pen marks on the cover in the photo.
What: Tesselating and making pictures or patterns with blocks.
How: I have no idea where we got these blocks – I played with them as a child, and it’s possible that my mum played with them as a child too. They are good manipulatives for starting to think about angles – many of the shapes fit together, in fact most – but not quite all. So you can easily spread a tesselating pattern out across floor space, working out from the centre. Or, you can just use them to make simple pictures, tangram-style. We did a bit of both. It held Kid 5’s attention longer than Kid 3, and I’ve played the blocks at younger ages too but this was the first time they really actively got into it and started manipulating the shapes themselves.
Extras: I think this is all in whether or not you want to start talking about the angles, how some corners are pointier than others, whether you want to look at the number of sides shapes have before and after you put them together, surface area, breaking up 360 degrees into equal parts, which shapes tessellate (and do you even want to say “tessellate” or do you want to say “fit together without spaces”, which I think is how it’s been put to Kid 6 in school).
What: Pictures made by gluing coloured pasta to paper.
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.
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”.
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.
What: A multicoloured pattern, similar to some wrapping paper designs.
We took an A3(ish) sheet of drawing paper and folded it into a strip, then folded the strip into a small square. When we unfolded it, there was a grid of creases in the paper.
In the first square we drew something small, an easily repeated shape, with a coloured marker from a tuned set of six. We then counted across one square and down one square and drew the same shape again, and repeated til we had a diagonal line that went down to the bottom of the page.
We then went to the second square, and drew a new shape in a new colour, and repeated this down the diagonal line. There was a little bit of fiddly explanation to show how the line “wrapped” around from the right hand side of the paper to keep going on the left – Kid 6 took this as a random nonsensical instruction and followed it meticulously, eventually beginning to get a glimmer of why, and Kid 4 (who is very pattern oriented) grasped the idea immediately but had difficulty with implementation. Both kids worked out pretty quickly that moving one over and one down always put you on the right of the drawing you did before.
We kept going until every square had a shape in it. This is where Kid 4 ran out of patience / thought their pattern was complete / decided they were Done, and where I encouraged them to stop.
Then, we took a new colour of marker from the set and coloured the right-most-top square’s background, and went one over-left and one down to make a new diagonal line. I took some care to try and pick a colour that wasn’t going to turn up in the shapes we were colouring around. Eventually Kid 6 worked out for themself that there was a repeating pattern in the shapes they were colouring around – e.g. orange, brown, blue, orange, brown, blue – and that some of the colours weren’t in each line at all. The idea was to keep the background colours wrapping around as well, but Kid 6 lost track of this and decided to do their lines in a symmetrical colour pattern (green – purple – blue – purple – green) instead of wrapping (green – purple – blue – green – purple – blue).
The whole thing took us quite some time, it was meticulous work, and a reasonable way to fill in part of an afternoon when it was too warm to go outside. I actually did this activity with each of the kids separately, having thought that kid 4 wouldn’t be up to that much drawing / colouring (which they hate) but that kid 6 would like the time working quietly with me and talking, and was quite able / needing to deal with 2D patterns instead of linear ones. However, kid 4 is competitive (they both are) and didn’t want to miss out on having a pattern on their gallery wall if kid 6 had one.
Extras: In theory, if we used butcher paper instead of good drawing paper this could become our own wrapping paper. I suspect if it was a good enough piece I could probably digitise it and find somewhere online that prints wrapping paper too (Spoonflower?). We could do something like this again but with stamping and gluing paper squares instead of drawing and colouring, which would speed it up / make it a little easier on the non-drawing child (it’s a long time to grip a marker). Spending more conscious time on the idea of nesting patterns would be interesting, to see how the results then changed across the whole grid. A related activity would be to tape paper around a cylinder of some sort, get them to draw lines around the cylinder and then untape it to see how the wrapping had mapped back to flat.