Making Faces, Five Ways

It can sometimes feel uncomfortable to talk with toddlers about emotions. In particular, I always worry that showing angry or sad faces will make my children mirror those “negative” feelings. But it’s also incredibly important to give toddlers the emotional vocabulary to understand their own feelings, and those of others.

Here are five fun ways to play around with faces and expressions – including those sad ones – to help demystify all those big toddler emotions.

Felt Faces:

For the first game, I relied on a felt set that we own to make round faces and pieces to mix and match as facial features. If you don’t own such a set, glue felt onto cardboard circles for each face, and cut additional pieces of felt into various shapes for eyes, noses, and mouths.

Ovals and circles were great for eyes or open-mouthed surprise. A crescent moon was a perfect smile, and then immediately became a frown once turned upside down!

After showing Veronika a few examples, I encouraged her to design her own faces. Of course hers weren’t always recognizable, but she had the idea. She said this one was wearing a hat:

Funny Faces:

For the next version, I cut eyes, noses, and mouths from a magazine until I had a varied collection. Ideally the images would have been larger, but even with small pieces, Veronika enjoyed starting to mix and match them.

I showed her how to combine the features into faces that sometimes showed multiple emotions, often with silly results. This one looked quite surprised!

She also enjoyed turning the game into sensory play, helping glue them down and then lifting them up again for lots of sticky mixing and matching.

Nature Masks:

For the next version, we first needed to head outside to gather some nature treasures. Once home, I cut two eye holes into a paper plate and then invited Veronika to arrange her treasures any which way.

We ended up with something vaguely human (and perhaps on the spectrum between happy and creepy!). Your child might also enjoy making an animal face for this craft, instead of a human one, thanks to all those fluffy furry nature bits.

Nature Mirror:

Mirrors are a fantastic way to let kids explore their emotions, so for the next round of face play we headed to the bathroom with our nature treasures. First, I invited Veronika to try out her expressions. Could she be happy and silly? Yes!

How about “slumpy” (her word for a mix of grumpy and sleepy)? Yup.

Now we made faces right over our reflections with shaving cream (you could also use washable paint). Now she could either play around with the shaving cream by hand or add a few more nature treasures to it, to alter the expressions.

Faces for the Trees:

Our final emotion game used nature, too, and this time we needed to make “forest putty” a.k.a. dirt mixed with water. We shoveled some dirt into a bucket and then Veronika watered it. Stir with a shovel or stick until your mixture looks a bit like brownie batter.

Now I asked Veronika if the trees had feelings, too! She decided yes, this tree was happy. We smeared on some of our forest putty, then gathered up treasures like dandelions and pine branches to give it a face. Our putty was a bit runny, so we had to make the face down low on the trunk, but if your mixture is more like clay, it might stick higher up on the trunk.

What expression will your favorite tree have? Please share in the comments!

Musical Teepee

Sound is often a neglected part of “sensory” outdoor play, since we focus so much on touch or sight. This was a great way to get Veronika’s ears buzzing on a spring morning.

First, we gathered a few large sticks (which were easy to find after recent wind storms!), and then positioned them until they formed a little teepee. The sticks propped each other up so securely that I didn’t have to do much more, but added a little string for extra insurance.

The first item I wanted to add was a small wind chime. I dangled this from one of the sticks so it hung just below the teepee. Veronika was immediately intrigued!

I also added a musical triangle, a metal colander, and a metal cookie cutter, then handed Veronika a mallet. Time to play!

She loved exploring all the different sounds, from the tinkle of the wind chines to the ping of the triangle, to almost a snare drum sound from the colander on top!

I plan to leave this up for at least a few days so she can interact with it differently every time we pop outdoors.

Natural Ice Boats

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I love finding ways to make the kids marvel at the beauty of winter, even on the coldest days, and these all-natural ice boats were the perfect activity! Technically you could make the boats any time of year, but the colder it is outside, the longer your ice boats will last!

To set up, freeze water in Tupperware containers until solid. Any size container is fine, although obviously smaller ones will freeze faster and cut down on waiting time if your kids are impatient. Before freezing, I added a stick to the center of each container as the boat’s mast; hold in place with a pipe cleaner twisted around the middle until the water begins to freeze.

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Once the boats were frozen solid, it was time to set them afloat! I considered driving to the nearest pond to set them sailing in a truly all-natural location, but couldn’t think of a way to keep the ice frozen in the car. Instead, we made a “pond” on a craft tray in the snow just off our back patio!

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For sails, we attached a few leaves from an evergreen bush, a nice pop of green against all the winter white.

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The kids loved seeing the little boats sail among the sea of snow.

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Even though it was below 30 degrees, the sun was strong enough that the boats melted on the patio once we set them down. That meant this turned into a little STEM lesson at the end as we watched solid turn back to liquid. And of course there’s zero cleanup with this activity!

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Water, sticks, and leaves all went right back to nature.

Depth Perception Walk

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It might seem like there’s less to seek and find on winter nature walks than in other seasons, but the opportunities to leran are still abundant! To wit, we had beautiful cold sunshine today, and used the walk to play with concepts of distance and balance for Veronika!

As we walked, big brother Travis and I took turns pointing out items that were either near (“These branches are so close!”)…

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…or far. “Those leaves are far away!” Travis said. “Let’s race to them!” I was so proud of his teaching, because the racing was his own idea, and helped highlight the difference between items close by and those we needed to get to.

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After that we played around with how fast or slow we could cover the distances. Travis loved leading Veronika with the trail of a stick in the snow, too, sometimes close to her…

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…and sometimes far up ahead. For some final fun on the return walk, we collected a few nature treasures (winter-brown leaves were the most readily available!) and lined them up like a balance beam in the snow.

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Veronika loved testing her balance as she walked along the line. Once the leaves scattered, she repeated the task but this time her footsteps took her in a zig-zag! All in all, these activities kept us warm and active on what could have been a frigid walk.

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Ice Jewels

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The next time there’s snow in the forecast, make a batch of “jewels” ahead of time so you can delight your little ones with sparkly ice treasures!

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To make the jewels, simply freeze water in the compartments of an ice cube tray and add a bit of all-natural food coloring to each. I like to fill the compartments only about half way so the colors stay separate; otherwise you risk having them splash together and result in brown gems.

When Veronika and I headed out to the back patio to explore the recent snowfall, I popped the treasures out of the ice cube tray for her.

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These are so fun to arrange in pretty patterns, as we did on the rungs of her slide. Your kids might want to make patterns along tree branches, the edge of a walkway or patio, or even just on top of the snow.

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Veronika also loved that pretty pockets of color appeared in the snow wherever she tossed them in. Then you can dig up your buried gemstones and start all over.

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Stone Paperweight

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If you’re looking for a gift your toddler can make for a relative this holiday season, the paperweight is it.

The best part about this gift is that it starts with a nature walk! It can be a harder to motivate kids for these once the cold sets in, so I loved motivating Veronika by telling her we were on a treasure hunt for the perfect rock.

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We came home with two that were the perfect size and shape, including one that almost looked like a heart.

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Now it was time to paint. Not only did we use sparkly paint…

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…but she wanted to dump glitter on, too. We used the recipient’s favorite color combo of orange and blue.

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Let dry, then spray with shellac for a shinier finish. (Note: that’s a grown-up only step).

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Wrap up and gift to someone special!

Dry Leaf Collage

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This is not the craft to make when the leaves are at their peak vibrant hues of orange and red early in the fall. This is the craft for late in the fall, when the leaves are dry and brown, and yet you’ll show your toddler beauty even in this underappreciated nature material!

Veronika and I came home with a bag full of just such leaves, and first we explored them on her sensory tray. She loved picking them up and letting them float down.

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I next showed her how to rip the leaves into tiny pieces. The dry crinkly November leaves are perfect for this because each rip produces a satisfying sound.

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As she tore them up, I traced two leaf shapes on construction paper and cut them out. Any fall color would make a nice background here, and we used brown and orange.

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Rub glue sticks all over the leaf shapes, and then press down your leaf “confetti”.

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As a bonus, these make a beautiful Thanksgiving decoration if you punch a hole near the top, thread with yarn, and suspend in a window.

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No Carve Nature Pumpkins

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It was a brisk fall morning, perfect for one of our nature walks to collect treasures. This time, I specifically kept my eyes open for items that we would be able to later glue onto pumpkins. We came home with sticks, leaves, pine cones, and acorns. I had hoped to spot some maple keys, but didn’t see any.

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I arranged all of our treasures onto a craft tray, and Veronika loved sorting through the items.

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As she simply explored with all her senses, I arranged the items with more purpose to see what would work where on each pumpkin as facial features.

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Our first orange fellow soon had acorn eyes, a stick nose, a leaf mouth, and a big branch of multiple leaves for hair.

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He was soon joined by a second orange friend, this one with acorns for eyes and nose, leaves for mouth and ears, and a fun little pine cone headdress. I tucked a few leaves behind the pine cone so it almost looked like one of those fancy fascinator hats!

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Veronika was clearly delighted when she saw that our pumpkins now had eyes, noses, and more.

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They look quite jolly and happy on our patio. As with our recent pumpkin mask craft, this is a great way to decorate pumpkins a ways out from Halloween, since they won’t rot before the big night.

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Leaf Scrunch

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Unseasonably warm and dry weather has meant the leaves are slow to change this autumn. Finally we’re spotting the first of the fall color, and we celebrated with a nature walk and leaf activity!

First up was a walk in the woods. We brought along a paper bag to fill with leaves, and Veronika loved dropping in our treasures.

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She also discovered the delightful crunch that the leaves made if she scuffed her feet through them!

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Once home, we dumped out the bag of leaves so they filled an old box. I showed her how she could simply scrunch her hands through the leaves…

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…or toss them out and then fill the box back up again.

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The drier leaves crumbled in her fingers, to her delight. Or, she could rip up the softer ones into small pieces, which kept her busy for quite some time.

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Thanks to a gentle breeze, she soon had the idea to toss the leaves off our patio. I loved watching the wheels of her brain turn as she discovered that leaves don’t go as far as other things she can throw, like pebbles and acorns!

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Then we picked up armfuls and tossed them over her head, where they scattered to the patio.

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Or landed right in her hair.

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As a final component of the activity, we took some of the prettiest ones inside and I showed her how to press them onto sticky contact paper.

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Fold the paper over itself, and you have an instant autumn placemat!

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In sum, there was so much joy to be had in this first batch of fall leaves!

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Nature Bracelet

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Turn any nature walk into a hunt for treasure with this toddler craft!

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As we headed off on a nature trail through a meadow, I wrapped a length of masking tape around Veronika’s sleeve, sticky side out. While we walked, I started adding small flower petals and leaves to the bracelet, and remarked how beautiful the items were.

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She very quickly got the idea and soon started gathering finds of her own, which I helped her attach to her “bracelet”.

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Big brother Travis thought it looked so fun that he wanted an armband of his own to decorate.

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And he was a big helper adding finds to his sister’s arm!

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The activity led to beautiful moments on our walk, like pausing by the strands from a milkweed pod, which looked like silk on her bracelet.

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Once home, I cut the masking tape from her sleeve and we mounted it on the wall as a gorgeous memento.

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