Pond Play Dough Redux

This is an activity I did when Travis was a toddler. Today it was Veronika’s turn, but it looked so fun that Travis wanted a repeat, too!

To make the play dough, place the following in a bowl (do not stir):

2 cups flour

1/2 cup salt

1 and 1/2 tablespoons cream of tartar

3 tablespoons canola oil

3 drops tea tree oil

Add 1 cup boiling water, pouring directly over the salt. Knead the dough until smooth, adding about 2 tablespoons more flour if it feels too sticky.

We divided our dough into 3 portions to color it the various hues of a pond landscape. Some was green for grass, some was blue for the water, and some was a yellowish-brown for stones or earth.

I set out all three colors on a tray, adding a few plastic frogs and lizards, and Veronika immediately came to see what it was all about. And Travis too!

Veronika loved just moving the toy animals around on the dough.

She clearly enjoyed the sensory elements, whether the way it smelled (the tea tree oil is so authentically earthy!) or the feel of pulling large portions of play dough into small pieces.

Travis enjoyed the imaginative elements that this particular play dough lends itself to. He made little “rocks” from the yellow dough, and set out the turtles and lizards to “sun”.

Next, he built a tree for a frog to hop up! I loved seeing his creativity.

In sum, this simple homemade play dough will be a hit for all ages.

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!

Nature Soup Sensory Activity

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Here’s a beautiful activity that will engage the senses and fire up the imagination, making it accessible for multiple ages. I told the kids they were going to open a nature restaurant on the back patio and serve up nature soup. Let the excitement begin!

First we needed to gather “ingredients” from all around the yard. I armed the kids with zip-top bags to put in any treasures they found. Veronika loved little flowers and bits of grass, while big brother Travis preferred large finds like pine cones and bark.

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We’re ready!

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Back on the patio, I had filled a storage bin with a shallow layer of water and added plastic plates, bowls, and spoons. We dumped in all the nature treasures and it was time to cook!

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For Veronika, this was mostly a beautiful sensory experience.

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She loved feeling the cold water and the texture of all the nature items, as well as smelling the sweet pine scents of the pine cones and needles.

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It was great practice for her pouring and scooping skills. She even was scooping up bits of bark with a spoon and transferring to a cup so steadily.

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For Travis, it was much more about imaginative play. He loved making me new “drinks” to try and even provided me with a stick “straw” in each cup.

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He was so proud of his culinary creations!

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Meanwhile Veronika was busily splashing in the water, simultaneously keeping cool and learning.

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I would highly recommend this activity on any warm day.

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Feather Painting

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It’s fun to give toddlers something other than a paint brush to paint with, whether a cotton ball, an ice cube, or even just their fingers. Today, Veronika got to try painting with feathers, plus a few other items from nature!

I had some brightly colored feathers from the craft store that were perfect for this activity. To set up, I filled three cups with different colors of paint and added a little glue to each, making the mixture slightly sticky.

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Veronika loved dipping the tips of the feathers in the cups…

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…and then transferring over to her paper. She loves to say “dot dot dot!” as she paints and watches the color appear. The feathers themselves fascinated her, too.

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Whenever one became too limp and saturated with paint, we simply added it to the painting and grabbed a fresh “brush”. As the gluey paint dries, the feathers will stick and become part of the final masterpiece.

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We then decided to try the activity with other items, this time truly from nature and not a craft store. In the yard, we found “brushes” from pine needles and leaves.

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Time to repeat the process! Dip the edges in the paint, use them as your brush, and whenever one gets too painty, it becomes part of the artwork!

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These turned out so pretty! I loved that the tactile feel of the different nature items was just much a part of the activity as the paint was.

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Toddler Nature Walk

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This game can grow with your child. Initially, it’s a fun way to teach the name of nature objects. Later, it can become a guessing game or a sorting game, once your toddler firmly has a few of nature words under his or her belt.

For the easiest variation on a nature walk today, I asked Veronika to pick up treasures and fill a paper bag we’d brought along. Of course she didn’t entirely understand, but she certainly loved bringing me sticks and dropping them in!

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I rounded out the collection with other items we spotted, like leaves, tall grasses, pine needles, acorns, and seed pods.

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Once we were home, we took our treasures to the back patio. For older kids, have them reach into the bag and guess what they are feeling; you can even use a blindfold, if your child wants to! At seventeen months old, it was easier to dump the bag out in front of Veronika and hand her one item at a time.

“Leaf,” I could say, for example. She is a parrot these days, and loved practicing new words right back to me, as we then discussed the color or texture.

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When I gave her grass, she immediately grabbed it…

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…and ran to return it to the grass just off our patio, an amazing insight to her little brain!

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There was definitely some new vocab here, including words like “acorn” and “bark”. I sorted our items into piles so she could better understand each new word.

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In sum, we got a nice pause in the spring sunshine, and a little lesson all in one!

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Easy Nature Sensory Bag

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You could do this easy sensory activity with a toddler in any season, but it was particularly nice to fit in a little bit of nature in the winter. An unseasonably warm day meant our snow melted and Veronika and I headed outside briefly to find wintery treasures.

We returned inside with a pine cone, pine branches, a few leaves, and acorns. I filled a gallon-sized zip-top bag with just a bit of water, then added our treasures.

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Veronika was immediately intrigued when I handed it to her at her high chair tray (older toddlers might liked this taped down to a table). We talked about the different textures, especially the hard, round acorns.

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Because the colors were a bit drab this time of year, I ended up slipping inside a few tiny red jingle bells to mimic the look of red berries. Ok, so they were not really from nature, but they added quite the pop! She loved poking these around through the water with one finger.

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We can’t wait to do this activity in the spring, and see how different our nature bag looks!

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Leaf Canvas Craft Challenge

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What was this month’s craft challenge from Highlights magazine? To use a leaf as the canvas for painting! You’ll want to use acrylic pants for the craft, which will hold up better than tempera paint.

No doubt there are fantastic artists who could create a whole miniature scene on their leaf. For my kindergartner, the project was more about the novelty of using nature as the canvas.

We found some giant leaves on a nature walk and knew those were the ones to use!

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At first, he painted along the lines of the leaf’s veins, which was great for reinforcing a recent science unit on trees and nutrition.

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Then he had fun blending colors and seeing how they mixed on the leaf.

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At the end, he liked making big blobs of paint.

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Whether your little Picasso makes something abstract, something highly detailed, or just has fun smearing paint, this was a simple and fun alternative to painting on paper.

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Stick Letters

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I recently made sure to collect a variety of sticks: some long, some short, some very straight, and some slightly curved. Because I knew Travis and I had stick letters in our future!

The following day, I dumped out the bag of sticks on the floor and told him we’d be going through the alphabet.

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Now, this was a real test for Travis as we prep for kindergarten, because I knew it would require patience to work through all 26 in one sitting, plus he had no guidelines to follow for the letters. I am thrilled to report our summer work is paying off; he was fascinated and focused the whole time.

Part of the fascination is that we turned it into a challenge: which letters would take the fewest sticks, and which the most?

He started confidently with 3 sticks for A. But then B really gives him pause; I pointed out that to make curves, we needed more sticks, but they had to be short ones. That meant a total of 6 sticks for B!

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He began working his way through the alphabet and this was a great way for me to notice which ones gave him pause. At first he boldly clustered the lines of E together. I helped him see one went at the middle, one at the top, and one at the bottom.

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M and N were a little tricky. We focused on a vocalizing an “up down up down” pattern to help him get there.

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Could he turn P into an R by adding only 1 stick? He could, no help required!

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Curvy S needed so many sticks.

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But the winner for the most sticks was the curviest – Q, requiring a total of 8.

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Meanwhile, he aced the ones that used only 2 sticks: L, T, and V.

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We loved everything about this activity, from the nature walk to collect the sticks, to the feeling of accomplishment, to the fun of making each letter.

Make a Natural Wind Chime

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I’ve wanted to make this art project for Veronika for quite a while but wanted to wait until we were in our new home before doing so. With the unpacking done, it was time to get crafty!

Some of this wind chime was trial and error, but an eight-month-old baby doesn’t mind a few quirks in the end result.

To make the chime, first make a hole in small shells, whether those collected at the beach or ones from the craft store.

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Instructions suggested that I could do this by twisting a pair of sharp nail scissors against each shell, but they were far too tough. Next I tried tapping them with a screwdriver, using gentle pressure with a hammer. But I wasn’t gentle enough, and any open-faced shells like clams shattered.

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Turns out the screwdriver method worked great with any curled snail shells, though!

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Once I had enough shells with holes, I threaded them onto gold string. Tie these to the arms of a decorative starfish. If you don’t have a starfish, a piece of bamboo or driftwood would be pretty, too.

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I suspended the star fish from a low branch of a tree outside, and clicked the shells together for Veronika to hear the beautiful sound.

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She was immediately entranced and wanted her own chance to clack the strings and shells together.

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Next we lay down on a towel underneath the tree to enjoy way the shells looked from up above. We could watch the strings move and the leaves dance in the tree, and I talked about everything she could hear and see. All in all, this was a beautiful project!

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Nature Game

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The outdoor challenge this week in Travis’s summer workbook was to create a game using items found in nature. Not only was Travis up for the challenge, he requested an extra long nature walk to make sure we had enough materials, turning it into a fantastic opportunity to get outside.

First, he gathered up any items that caught his eye. Soon we had a collection of leaves, sticks, and two pebbles.

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I laid everything out on a picnic table and challenged him to think of how he could combine the items into a game. At first he was at a loss. Lining up the sticks helped provide a bit of direction. Since there were two pebbles, it made sense that those would be our playing pieces.

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Aha, now an idea was forming. With each turn, we could jump our piece forward over one stick. He still had to decide what we would do to earn that move forward. Looking around, he settled on spotting any animal or bug; the same animal could not be used twice.

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Soon he was finding birds, butterflies, ants, spiders, and more. With each new creature, his stone jumped forward. He was delighted when he was ahead of me!

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The first player to reach the leaf “jackpot” wins. I was so proud of him; this activity involved a bit of nature, a bit of creativity, and lots of problem solving. He truly came up with a game that can now be our family pastime almost anywhere outdoors!

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