Shadow outlines

What: Drawing around our shadows to see the way the sun moves – and how silly it looks when our shadows stretch or shrink!

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Long Midwinter’s Day shadows, parallel like sunbeams.

How: You need a space long enough to do the shadows, that gets some direct sun. Our driveway is our preferred spot. Also, chalk. Then, it’s just a matter of when you do it. This week’s drawing was in honour of the winter solstice, done not long after dawn, so the shadows are at their longest for the year. On other occasions we’ve repeated the activity at noon or in the afternoon, so that you can see how the shadows point the same direction at a given time (they’re parallel) but point the other way later, or how they are much shorter at noon than they are early or late.

Extras: There’s so much to play with here, in the themes of astronomy, seasons, time and change. Winter and summer shadows are quite different in direction and size. If you do this activity every couple of months the kids may remember what it was like the last time (mine didn’t!) – or take photos to assist the comparison. You could stand on one spot and repeat the outline every hour or two to overlay a series of shadows for that day (older kids could talk more specifically about angles or measure lengths). There’s plenty to talk about how the sun moves, how it’s lower in the sky or higher with the seasons, how dawn is late in winter but very early in summer (if you’re getting up to do a dawn drawing!). My preference is to not talk much about it, but to try and do the exercise often enough that the kids themselves realise that something is changing and start the conversation themselves. Though more often they’ve gotten distracted by the presence of chalk and begun colouring in their own pictures and adding details – and that’s just fine too. At some point I will probably use this activity as a foundation exercise before we play with sundials – both the normal fixed kind and the kind where you use yourself as the gnomon. I’d love to build one of these in the garden with stepping stones! And of course there’s the survival skill of using the movement of shadows to find north, which is easier understood if you’ve spent time thinking about the idea that your shadow isn’t fixed or constant.

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Midwinter “stained glass” windows

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Grass seed picture

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

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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).

The beginning of puddles!

What: Marking the autumn equinox by prepping the rain gear.

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Umbrellas, boots and one raincoat undergoing additional testing in the first puddle of the season.

More details: In Perth, where I live, there’s almost no rain from November to the autumn equinox in March. Spring is long and warm, summer is long and hot. The first rains after the autumn equinox is an important local change of seasons for us, it’s the end of heatwave season and the end of endurance. And it’s the beginning of puddles! So we always mark the autumn equinox by going over the rain gear. Everyone has to have a working umbrella and gum boots that fit and don’t leak. Raincoats are awesome too, though we don’t do those every year. Two or three years ago the first rains were on the equinox, the year before that they were the first day of April, this year they were on Easter Saturday, the last Saturday in March. So usually if I’m getting organised around the equinox it mostly works out, timing-wise, for us to have our gear ready when the puddles arrive. Kid 6 this year spent a lot of time asking if it was the equinox yet.

This year I knew our current kid-sized umbrellas were broken so I picked two up as souvenir presents on a recent trip. They change colour when wet which has provoked some discussion as to *how*. Other years we’ve looked online at umbrella stores and hunted for favourite animals and styles, or searched for boots that match a current umbrella. Gum boots usually come from wherever we come across them – I tend not to buy them online due to needing to size them well, though I have at least once. Mostly that’s camping stores or discount clothing stores, once an agricultural supply store, it really depends. Because the heatwaves only finish with the first rains, a lot of stores here don’t get raincoats and gumboots in “until it’s cooled down”, which is usually after the puddles arrive. So I get them where I find them.

Poster of the Month

What: A group-drawn-and-designed, parent-led poster that features seasonal things about the month we’re in.

How: A big sheet of butcher’s paper, or a leftover page from an A2 visual diary, whatever works – plus a big black marker, and textas or crayons as suits. I laid the paper out on the floor and we talked about the month – what the name of the month was, what happened in it. That included

  • festivals or special events or birthdays,
  • trees that flowered or flowers we found in the garden or fruit that was in season,
  • what the weather was going to be like and what would change,
  • relative lengths of days and nights.

Kid 3 had no idea about any of this, but was pretty clued up on the idea of birthdays and excited to hear about coming festivals. Kid 1 was only mildly interested. The main point of the activity was to start giving a sense of time passing and repeating, putting markers and waypoints into the endless Now, and kid 1 wasn’t ready for that but kid 3 was.

Once we’d identified the things that were important about the month – and I was very flexible and child-led about this – I drew some very generic pictures and kid 3 and kid 1 coloured them in. Kid 3 added some of their own pictures too along the way, when so inspired. The conversation helped to steer that so that the pictures were related and not totally random.

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The posters were pretty random and very simple. Plus things like yellow flowers got added even though they aren’t in bloom til October, because, well, Endless Now. All parts of time get drawn simultaneously.

Extras: It helps that I have a detailed knowledge of the local seasons, so I could lead on ideas like the equinox or solstices, or predict which trees we’d see flowering. If you’re Australian, there are websites and now even apps with local Indigenous knowledge for your area that you can tap into for this, and garden centres and clubs will often have “what to plant” or “what to harvest” or similar lists that you can use as well. My being steeped in Druidry meant I always included the sun’s path, the solstices and equinoxes, when relevant, and also acknowledged the local Aboriginal seasons (which are way more accurate than the “official” ones), but whatever floats your boat.

Other activities that relate to this would be anything that works with the months of the year, or just working with the idea of what a month is – thirty days is an uncountable number at this age! – or more specific seasonal activities.

Another related activity is that around the same time I tried introducing a day-to-a-page nature journal, where we wrote down the weather and any birds or animals or flowers we saw that day and which could be used in multiple years so you’d see what you wrote down last year on the same page. But that was a bit much for the kids at that age so it got dropped pretty quickly. It would be worth reintroducing now they’re older and observing and writing or drawing independently.