Archives for the month of: August, 2012

Ingredients: Boxes and tubes of all shapes and sizes, bottle tops, bubble wrap, polystyrene, drinking straws, inner chocolate box packaging, some spray paints (kept out of child’s reach), stickers in all colours, winged pins, string / ribbon, different types of sticky tape (sellotape, masking tape, electrical tape, parcel tape), glues (PVA and Pritt stick), a tool that punches holes easily, possibly even a Makedo set, good quality scissors. All kept in an accessible replenishable box.

The Big Sell: Build me something the world has never seen!

Strategy: All parents do it – the roll of the eyes as you present your child with a rather expensive new Christmas present and they fling it to one side and spend the rest of the day playing with the large cardboard box. But what’s really going on here?

Children have an innate ability to be explorers – they haven’t yet learnt to be afraid of the act of creation (linking it to failure and disappointment as many of us do as we grow older). They often don’t want to be told what ‘should’ be fun (by an adult toymaker) but reject conformity to discover the world for themselves. If only we didn’t grow out of that state?!

If I were to choose one activity that has taken up 75% of my sons’ childhood so far, it would be the act of junk-modelling. And I believe it is seriously underrated as a lazy past time, an end of the day ‘that’ll occupy them for a few minutes’ second rate, cheapskate distraction before we get stressed by the mess and it’s tidied away.

But I think it is so much more. When I take a moment to watch my eldest at work with junk he is using so many skills – developing his maths by taking accurate measurements and creating symmetry; learning engineering by constructing strong platforms, pulleys, hinges, catapults; exploring critical and imaginative thinking by breaking down big dreams into the small steps towards realisation. He is also learning social skills – managing his expectations of what is achievable in a given time frame and with limited resources, recycling the useless into the useful, even demonstrating love by creating birthday presents (like a ‘tea-maker’ for me) when he has no access to bought things, and communicating his end product by providing a showcase. If I were to describe his best talents within the framework of his school curriculum, they would fall under ‘Science’ and ‘Visual arts’ – truly a Leonardo da Vinci of the junk-modelled world.

If you have a little inventor in your home, as well as supplying them with endless refuelling of interesting objects to occupy their minds and fingers, you can also encourage them with these challenges for Advanced Junk Modelling Fun:

  • The Transformer junk model – make something that turns from one object into another? (See Transformer Robot model above).
  • The Moving junk model vehicle – wheeled, flying, hovercraft (using semi-inflated balloons), floating (see Titanic model above – historically accurate as it really did sink!)
  • The Stage Set junk model – one previous effort was Harry Potter’s Chamber of Secrets complete with Chess set, Devils Snare (green wool), cardboard roll sewer tunnels, flying keys (hanging from thread). (The picture above is my son’s Harry Potter ‘Hogsmead’ stage set with working elevator).
  • The Garden Orchestra junk model – use old metal tubes, cans (with the edges sanded smooth), tins and pans with wooden drumsticks to make music outside.
  • The Marble Run junk model – weave all your old cardboard tubes into a taped maze.
  • The Make Do and Mend junk model – teach them about World War II and the impact of rationing on children’s experiences – invite them to invent a toy to take on an ‘evacuated’ journey (to a pretend Bunker den in the garden).
  • And of course, the Den junk model – reinvent the largest cardboard boxes you can find into an igloo / treehouse / teepee / other assorted living space of child’s choice.

The verdict: A junk modelling child is one that is following an ‘enquiry-based’ model of education, in which rather than memorising and recalling a set of facts they learn to form and test a hypothesis, use the world around them to spark an idea, pursue an ideal and visualise a transformation. A junk modelling child learns that truly creative practice can be explosive in terms of the unanticipated outcome, and that’s more exciting than any old bit of plastic from the shops.

Catchphrase: “Can I email the toy-making people, Mum, to show them my prototype for a real Harry Potter Hogsmead Play-set?”

Left wanting more?


From top to bottom: Painting alongside my children – finger painting with my three-year old; observing my seven year old start some abstract art (which I joined in with towards the end); the resulting finished painting.

Ingredients: A range of paints – finger paints, acrylics, watercolours, oils (and linseed oil), mark-making tools, and materials to paint on – wood, canvas, cartridge paper, collage paper.

The Big Sell: Let’s paint beside each other and see what we can make together.

Strategy: It occurred to me early on as a mum and an artist there was a big gap between mine and my child’s expectations of a painting. I expected them to sit quietly and to concentrate on forming a well composed painting with narrative and clear bright colours. They expected to swish some paint around a space (which included paper but also included the table, chairs, floor, their hands and feet) until a muddy blend plastered the area and they could run off half-decorated and leave me to clear up!

I wondered whether my boys would ever come to enjoy the tranquillity and focus of painting in the way that I did and what the steps were to this taking place. The answer was … yes they would, and here are some of the steps along that journey to my now seven-year old, who received mainly painting materials for his seventh birthday and loves abstract art more than any other style of painting.

  1. From 2 – 3 years onwards, make painting fun. Do it outside in the sun and paint on rolls of old wallpaper to make train tracks down the garden path. Paint hands and feet, toys, leaves, stones, feathers – anything that makes a print. Be well prepared with a bowl of warm water and wipes at the ready to clean them up and hang a washing line and pegs against a space wall if you are lacking in drying space.
  2. Introduce dialogue into their work from the word go. Once their paintings are dry (an hour or two later) reintroduce them to your child and using a fat marker pen show them what images you have seen in their paintings – turn a splodge into a face, a splash into a fish, a stripe into a stick man.
  3. Once your child starts to understand and enjoy ‘painting with mummy/daddy/carer’, try some tandem-finger painting. Pick the subject of their favourite book (such as The Hungry Caterpillar above) and show them how you can recreate the images using sharp shapes and clear bright colours with your hands, if you clean them in between with a wipe or bowl of water.
  4. Now turn to DIY toy-making. As they grow in confidence building images from shapes and colours, make their favourite cartoon character by giving them a basic outline to paint in, add finishing touches with black marker once dry, cut out and cover in sticky-back plastic so they can carry it around with them, attached to buggy.
  5. Alongside figurative art work, introduce elements of abstract art play – arrange patterned collage cut outs alongside swishes of paint and discuss what looks pleasing to their eye. Don’t be afraid to show them famous works of art to inspire them – any age can appreciate Matisse, Pollock, Picasso. Talk to them about the colours of their feelings and dreams and ask them to show you.
  6. As your child’s confidence and knowledge of painting grows, support them with increasingly interesting materials – by the age of five my eldest son was painting on wood and papier mache, and quickly progressed to canvas at six. Gather interesting mark-making tools – run down pens, bamboo scratching sticks, an old comb – and try using ink and wax to explore ways to build light and dark in images. By this age, they will appreciate a visit to child-friendly art galleries or sculpture parks. Explain that new materials are precious things to be considered and explored, parts of the rites of passage of becoming a skilled artist.
  7. Exhibit your child’s art work – not just with a magnet on the fridge – but by providing them with their own gallery space. If you can’t attach any permanent fixtures to a wall, just use a cork board covered in white or black fabric and lean it in a temporary space. Invite the child to be a curator of this exhibition and talk visitors through their paintings, rather than speaking for them.

Accompany this arts play with a culture of carrying sketchbooks on any long car or train journey, ready to play ‘Oops!’ – one person makes a ‘mistake’ (jabs a hole in the paper, creates a fold, line or squiggle) and the other has to turn it into something beautiful, before you swap turns.

The verdict: I’m aware that I may be making this arts development sound too serious and prescriptive, but that is possibly a response to the type of person my eldest son has become – a serious young man who craves authenticity and a ‘grown up’ approach. Other children may prefer to pursue a more freeform route, continuing to explore mess and mayhem indefinitely.

However, I don’t think there is any danger in exposing children to established artwork from a young age, nor from introducing this idea of dialogue and the closeness that comes from ‘drawing alongside’ a parent with their own style and artistic choices. And it goes without saying, NEVER describe yourself as ‘hopeless’ at art, no matter how lacking in confidence you are – to them you are wonderful and any poor self-esteem you display will only provide them with the weapons to be ashamed of their own efforts.

Differences between you and them as unique artists are a great gift to emphasize, as you journey towards a shared understanding of art as key to expression and freedom.

Catchphrase: I love painting beside you! It shows me what the world looks like to you.

Left wanting more?

  • Does anyone else remember the fantastic retro-joy of watching Bob Ross paint a laidback landscape?! Type his name into Youtube and enjoy watching him at work with your child!