It was rainy, blistering hot, and we’d been stranded four, no five, days due to snow. Not all at the same time, of course, but the days in which the potami ask “What is there to do NOW, mom?” kind of blur together, you know?
If you’re nodding your head yes, I want to pass on something I’ve found amazingly helpful. Last winter I discovered Tinkerlab, a brilliant little book that inspired me to make a “self serve zone” for the potami to create and experiment on their own terms. You guys, it is the best. thing. ever.
I’m not just saying that because it keeps the potami occupied while I catch up on things, although that’s definitely a plus. What won me over about this approach is best summed up by Alvin Rosenfeld, author of The Over-Scheduled Child:
“Parents worry about kids’ boredom, so they schedule their lives to keep them busy . . . But empty hours teach children how to create their own happiness.”
Encouraging children to become completely immersed in projects – a paper doll with a fascinating backstory, handmade presents for visiting grandparents, jewelry, “wobots” (robots), etc. – is about so much more than just keeping them busy. As Fred Rogers, who played Mr. Rogers on PBS, once said.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
Today I’m going to share a peek into my setup for encouraging self-serve creative exploration, along with some project ideas to help kids get started.
Setting up your tinker lab
If you’ve ever watched a child unwrap a toy and then gleefully play with the paper, you know that entertainment value is relative. Our setup includes an eclectic mix of purchased items and stuff that’s usually thrown away:
- Paint (these are made with pigments from fruits, veggies and spices)
- Toilet paper rolls (You will not believe how many uses they have. Sorry to disappoint if you thought we did family cloth!)
- Tissue paper that came with a book shipment
- Homemade play-dough with natural dyes
- Air dry clay
- Random buttons
- Crayons (Recipe for a homemade version using only food grade ingredients coming soon!)
- Play dough (We make our own but this is wonderful pre-made, gluten-free option)
- Cookie cutters for play dough (We have these)
- Colored pencils
- Tape (We have regular clear tape and colored washi tape)
- An old t-shirt to put over clothes so they don’t get stained
- Natural sea sponges for sponge art
- Colored beads for stringing (I love these brightly colored wooden ones)
- Paper plates
- Child-safe scissors (My seven year-old also has access to crinkle cut craft scissors)
- Glue (I’ll be sharing a homemade version soon!)
- Reusable squeeze bottle for homemade glue, paint, etc. (I like this one because it’s easy to clean)
- Egg cartons
- Kits that focus on a particular skill (Like bead art or needle felting)
- Kinetic sand
- Measuring tape
- Sidewalk chalk (Wellness Mama has a great recipe)
- Shoe boxes
- Glitter (I usually buy it once a year to make Christmas ornaments with the potami and they use the leftovers for crafts.)
- Marshmallows and toothpicks (To Create 3-D structures – I prefer to make a batch of fresh homemade marshmallows that the kids can eat when they’re finished building)
- Colored paper
- Plain paper
- Clothespins (We have these – I love the bright colors!)
- Rolling pin
- Hole punch
Seriously, just gather random stuff you think your kids will be interested in and pair it with art supplies you already have. Then, as you are able, add more items from this list (or your own list) to their self-serve zone.
Here’s a little peek into our setup. If you’ve been reading for long you know we bought a homestead a few years ago. We’re planning to build in the future, but for now we’re learning to live with about half the square footage of our previous home. It’s snug, but doable! They have built-in desks with supplies on the shelves above, and a roller cart full of additional supplies that we bring out when the toddler naps.
A few books for inspiration – I highly recommend Tinkerlab!
Art caddy for storage
When we first moved to our homestead, I was over-the-moon excited to let the potami run free in our great big yard. The potami, however, were not so excited. Our new place was overwhelming to them, and when I sent them outside to play they refused to leave the deck. In fact, I’d most often find them with their faces smooshed against the screen door, asking if it was time to come in yet. Now, I can barely get them to come inside!
Sometimes it takes awhile for kids to embrace something new. If after setting up your self-serve zone your kids seem a bit lost, it might be a good idea to get their creative juices flowing with some of the ideas below. Some can be self-directed by children, while others will need your guidance. If you’re like me, you may find yourself reliving some fun childhood experiences. Enjoy!
50+ Boredom Banishing Activities for Kids
1. Homemade play-dough sculptures, food, jewelry, etc.
2. Grab some air dry clay and get creative! You can make something useful like a beautiful diffuser necklace (either to wear or give as a gift), a butterfly, or a bowl. I love these stamped bowls. These heart bowls are cute, too, although I can’t find the original source where they were posted. However, they could easily be made using the technique described for the stamped bowls.
3. Nature prints made with air dry clay.
4. It’s squishy yet crumbly. Little hands can mold with it or smash it to smithereens. What is it? MOON SAND! Kids can help make it, then play with it for hours. Only three ingredients are needed – arrowroot starch or cornstarch, oil, and natural food dye. Here’s the recipe.
5. Terrarium – They can be made in under an hour, and they’re incredibly easy to care for. Ideas in the post for using them to learn about geology, botany, ecosystems, etc.
6. No-sew t-shirt tote bag – This project may require supervision because real scissors are needed, but it’s a great opportunity to talk about recycling/upcycling. Plus, you end up with adorable farmers market-style tote bags!
7. Salt-dough ornaments – My six year-old did this entire project by herself (except the baking), and my four year-old only needed help a few times. They make great keepsakes and gifts for the grandparents.
8 .Yarn ball ornaments – These can also be made in the shape of eggs with prizes inside.
9. Edible finger paint (Just two ingredients!) – Make handprints, drive monster trucks over the paper to create different patterns, or eat it. Whatever sounds good.
10. Homemade maracas – Ours are going to be funny looking because we don’t have water bottles but we do have mustard bottles!
11. Stamps made with regular paper and gelatin as an adhesive.
12. Coffee can drums
13. A homemade catapult constructed with cardboard tubes, a wooden spoon, and rubber bands.
14. Homemade crayons using 100% food grade ingredients – tutorial coming soon! This project can be paired with a lesson on how spices, fruits and vegetables have been used as pigments throughout history. Because it requires working with hot wax, this project needs to be led by an adult. I did all the melting and allowed my kids to add the pigments, then placed the crayons out of my toddlers reach while they cooled.
15. Cardboard binoculars (These could be made with toilet paper rolls)
17. Paper plate mask – Wouldn’t a butterfly design would be adorable?
19. Homemade sidewalk chalk (Wellness Mama has a great recipe)
20. Pinecone bird feeder
21. Homemade bubbles – We use about 1/4 cup castille soap mixed with 1 cup sugar water (1 tablespoon sugar mixed in 1 cup water) and 2 tablespoons glycerin. Can be used with a wand or blown with a straw.
23. Toilet paper roll tree – These are super cute and would be fun to play with alongside toilet paper roll dolls, but when I share the idea with my kids I’ll suggest paint instead of Fruit Loops. This one made with bubble wrap is also pretty. I don’t buy bubble wrap, but sometimes it comes in packages of supplements, etc. ordered online.
24. Thanksgiving turkey made from a toilet paper roll and paper plate
28. Clothespin safari animals
29. Potato stamps – Press cookie cutter shapes into potatoes, then trim away some of the potato and use them as stamps! Adult assistance will be needed for the trimming.
30. Make a ring toss game with paper plates and toilet paper rolls.
31. Build a marble run from toilet paper rolls.
32. Make a kazoo out of a cardboard roll, wax paper and a rubber band
33. Make a guitar out of a shoebox..
34. Create a colorful yarn-wrapped vase.
35. Make a hipster yarn beard. Chances are your help will be needed, but seriously, just imagine the photo opportunities that will result. Here’s another version that would require more parental involvement but looks awesome.
36. Build a cardboard roll space shuttle.
37. Make a toilet roll castle.
38. Experiment with Rorsharch prints/mirror image painting.
41. Paper plate hats
42. Toilet paper dolls. There are a lot of tutorials for fancy ones out there, but I like these.
43. Toilet paper tube bowling pins
46. Toilet paper owl
48. Naturally-dyed eggs – No need to restrict the fun to one time a year!
For Little Scientists
49. Make a naked egg
50. Or a vinegar volcano
51. Play “catch an ice cube”
52. Learn about the magnetic poles with this homemade compass (for older kids)
For Serious Cases of Wiggles
55. Make a fort!