Archives for the month of: February, 2012

Ingredients: Some tracing paper, pencils and black felt-tips, (optional) air-drying clay.

The Big Sell: Struggling to get a group or individual drawing at all? Doodling is the safest place to start.

Strategy: We all doodle, don’t we? When I’ve been working with groups of teenagers or adults who say “I don’t do drawing”, they at least admit that they doodle – on their pencil case, on the pad beside the phone, on the backs of hands. It comes from that deepest part of our brain that refuses to be self-conscious and when bored loves to come out and play.

You can harness this harmless activity to free up people who will admit they actually find it quite fun, especially as it carries an unspoken attitude of recklessness when it comes to mistakes.

1. If you are working with a group, cut up small squares of tracing paper, and ask them to sit in groups of 4 or 5.

2. Ask one person to start doodling for 2 – 3 minutes, then pass on their doodle to the person on their right who adds another sheet of tracing paper on top and continues to add to the doodle. Keep going until everyone has doodled and there are many layers of paper accumulated.

3. Ask the group to consider their combined image by holding it up to the light – what symbol has emerged from their combined free-association? What would they like to edit? Where is the strongest part of the image?

4. Now ask them to take a black pen and each draw out the final image that the consensus agrees works the best. Alternatively, you could ask them to interpret this selected image by each carving it into their own lump of air-drying clay.

5. You will notice each person’s image is slightly unique, despite the fact that they are working from the same template. If they have made them into clay, these can be rolled with printing ink and made into stamps for comparison to be printed next to each other.

The Verdict:

Above all, this activity works well by bringing people together to work on a combined project. Even the most reluctant artist can be drawn in to contribute to the doodle. They must show sensitivity and engage critique by working on top of each other’s art work and by coming to democratic decisions.

They come to appreciate their own individual creativity and its’ part in this group effort– were they drawn towards curves, geometric shapes, text, decorative detail? The final symbol could be used to generate many things, from a brand for a club to a wallpaper pattern.

When I used this exercise in teaching students, I explored the deeper principle of free-association beneath the doodle and the psychotherapeutic roots with Jung who asked patients to undergo a process of confession through using the arts to expose the unconscious. I asked students to think about what youth work means to them as they doodled – we then looked at the final symbols and asked what it told us about their professional ideals.

Catchphrase: Don’t worry, just doodle…

Left wanting more?

• You can buy excellent doodle books from a bookshop near you – they are filled with half-finished pages to inspire you, such as Do you Doodle? by Nikalas Catlow, published by Buster Books.

• Look at Keri Smith’s blog for more ideas and books you can buy that encourage this type of approach towards creative stimulation:


Ingredients: A very sick family who, despite running sky-high temperatures and aching all over, still need some self-help entertainment after a week of being bored watching endless telly, necking paracetamol and hugging hot water bottles.

The Big Sell: Help! What can we make that requires minimal effort but provides some creative respite before we go out of our minds?!

Strategy: This was our family’s reality this week, and we came up with the following ideas to help us survive cabin fever during our plagued half term holiday.

1) Easy peasy treasure hunt. I wrote 10 rhyming clues leading the children all around the house on a treasure hunt which eventually led to a locked box with two cup-cakes inside. My son, who is currently Harry Potter-mad, particularly loved this clue:

I see I cannot trick you easily.

You are more cunning than Ron Weasley.

Next you must travel through a long dark tunnel

To find the clue where a ball meets a funnel.”

(they had to crawl through a play tunnel to their marble ball run where the clue was folded and hidden).

2) Home-made sock puppets – we added feathers, wiggly stick-on eyes, pipe-cleaners (for antennae), sticky spots, and pen embellishment on old clean socks to make our own unique aliens, forever more to be known as The Flu Specimens.

3) Origami and paper aeroplanes – an art of extreme dedication and concentration amongst the men-folk in our house, our corridors became littered with the ghosts of ingenious flying machines (my husband even tried attaching a light-weight motor to one effort!) It helped that we were given a marvellous book: “The Klutz Book of Paper Airplanes” by Doug Stillinger ( There are also some wonderful app’s for your i-phone for intricate orgami animals of every sort – put ‘origami’ into search in the App Store and have a go.

The Verdict: Even in a fog of flu-induced hell, we are one of those families who can’t quite switch off and ease into chilling out. I guess we have an exceptionally low capacity for boredom? If you’re the same, I hope these ideas give you some small distraction from the pain of being ill this Winter (which if you are a parent of little ones, seems to be every other week?!) If you aren’t like us, then please just PUT YOUR FEET UP!!!

Catchphrase: Cough, wheeze, sniff … that was fun! I almost forgot I was ill for a moment!

Left wanting more?

• Make a creative sketchbook by attaching together A5 sized sheets of interesting materials – foil, fabric, baking paper, old envelopes, bubble wrap – punching holes and tying ribbon through to bind. Your kids will have to find innovative ways to make marks on all these different types of media.

• 3D drawing paper – available from Amazon for around £4, it really works! Just use a black pen on this specially gridded paper and put on your 3D glasses to watch it jump off the page!

Ingredients: A cheap photo frame from a charity shop or a recycled box (in this case a pretty circular chocolate truffle box), watercolour or acrylic paints, brushes and thick cartridge paper, pretty wrapping paper, some quiet time with your child / apart from your child.

The Big Sell: I / we wanted to make something special for you.

Strategy: Working together with your child or being inspired by your child to make a piece of art is one of my favourite peaceful past-times. Above are two examples of custom-made gifts – one of which demonstrates how you can work with your child (in this case to create a painting for my husband for Valentines), the second shows how you can be inspired to create something for your child as I produced a painting for my son who has been going through a hard time lately, and was seeking some solace to help him work through his worries.

1) A Map of Your Heart – I drew out an outline of a heart on cartridge paper and boxed off irregular shapes. Eldest son then filled in all the boxes with our shared ideas for special items my husband holds in his heart … camping, chocolate, Star Wars, etc… I then painted in the boxes with watercolour paints and mounted it in a cheap frame from a charity shop.

2) The Watcher painting – all children go through their ups and downs, and so when my eldest recently went through a tricky phase, I was inspired to produce a small bespoke painting to hang in his bedroom within eye-line of the top bunk bed (and to limit the night-time visits!). I took an old round chocolate box, backed it with pretty wrapping paper and painted an eye with the text “I am the watcher. I am watching. I am watching over you”. He was so touched and said it helped it when he was struggling to drift off at night, filled with the day’s anxieties.

The Verdict:

This kind of creative upcycling costs next to nothing but produces something which tells the recipient that they are in your thoughts, they are unique and they are worthy of your time and effort. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t confident at drawing – you can cut (or paint over) images or text from magazines to make a collage. As someone who hates the commercialism of contrived festivities such as Valentines, and who objects to forking out lots of cash for something which ‘looks bespoke’ from sites such as, I much prefer this home-grown approach, which shows your child we can all make something of value from the resources we have around us.

Catchphrase: Don’t get buying, get making!

Left wanting more?

Make a DIY voucher book for your loved one (either partner or child) by stapling together long rectangular sheets of paper and filling each page with an I.O.U. to be cashed in for the future. I.O.U. one cuddle, one story, one bubble bath, one evening in which we switch off the telly and just talk, etc…

 Ingredients: Any large piece of fabric (or try an army camouflage net), a kitchen table / two chairs / bunk bed, etc… and any associated paraphernalia, a Makedo set

The Big Sell: We want to make our own hide-out!

Strategy: Show me a child who HASN’T made a den? They are the staple of childhood and most adults remember the thrill of making their very own special space – for me it was up-turning the rocking chair with my sister which instantly became Cinderella’s carriage or throwing a blanket over the wooden kitchen table where we giggled in the dark peering out at adults feet threatening to invade. Why are dens so deeply exciting for children? If we were to pursue a psychoanalytic approach we would probably relate them to recapturing a womb-like experience – snuggled in a warm, dark spot. I feel there is something crucial about children regaining a feeling of power by transforming an adult dominated space, shrinking and subverting it into some hidey-hole into which only they can crawl and peer out to observe and analyze a sometimes alien world.

There are lots of versions of the den in our house, which include:

  • The common living room blanket den thrown over two chairs turned back to back, in which they gather equipment in rucksacks and use a pop-up tunnel to travel inside
  • The garden den, in which they peg a tarpaulin sheet against the trellis to form a tent-like triangle and forage for berries, leaves and insects for imaginary subsistence
  • The high-tech cardboard den in which Daddy brings home large boxes from work and we supplement with a ‘Makedo set’ ( ) creating a rather bijou much-stickered interior design.
  • The bunk bed den into which both boys camp out in the lower bed with a camouflage net tucked into the top bunk hanging down, torches and stories at the ready.

The Verdict:

When I became an art student in my twenties I became entranced by installation art which seemed different to other art forms, because it echoed this accessible childlike playful approach to reinterpreting your world. When I climbed inside Tracey Emin’s Tent ( or Ilya Kabakov’s The Red Wagon ( I felt the walls of the white gallery disappear and any pretence of how I should be reacting to art dissolve, as instead my senses were heightened and engaged. Reminiscent of crawling into the rabbit-hole with Alice in Wonderland, the Tardis with Doctor Who or the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, here I was entering another world within a world – a metaphor for the imaginative potential hidden within all of us in our everyday mundanity – in which the possibilities were limitless. And isn’t that what childhood should be all about?

I have concerns about the degree to which children are allowed to feel they can create their own spaces at the moment. In the UK, youth clubs are under threat despite a wealth of research that voices young people’s need for safe, warm places to meet. I think there is potential for a link with politically-aware installation art with teens here – why stop making dens when you are six? Don’t we all continue to need to feel we can transform and lay claim over our own environment? In a few weeks, I will be starting workshops with children aged 6 – 7 in which we will use socio-dramatic play to try and invent our own worlds, and I’m hoping the walls of the classroom will melt away as we work as a group to reinvent our reality. I will be excited to report back on how this develops! In the mean time, let’s get building our own secret den…

Catchphrase: We’re going to need chocolate in here, Mum!!! You do know that Captain Scott packed chocolate when he went to Antarctica?

Left wanting more?

  • Read Russell Hoban’s fantastic Frances books and in particular ‘A Baby Sister for Frances’ published by Puffin, in which Frances runs away to under the dining room table and writes melancholy songs to deal with the jealousy of the new family arrival.
  • Try drawing an Imaginary House with your child as some special one to one time. Draw an outline of a large house on a blank sheet and then work together to fill in the floors with all the necessities – telescope in the attic, bouncy castle  room, looping tunnel from the bunk bed to the breakfast table, etc… letting your imaginations run wild together.