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The Ultimate Play Date: Kids + Nature

10 fun things to do outside

Karen Z. —  June 23, 2014 — Leave a comment

School’s out. The first official day of summer has come and gone. Time for life to move outdoors.

For some kids (OK, some caregivers, too), heading out to the backyard, the beach, the parks, and the forest preserves can feel daunting—what do you DO once you’re out there?

“Hands in earth, sand, mud: building, digging, sewing, baking—these are what humans DO.”

PHOTO: A strip of astroturf is covered with an excercise course for ants made from twigs, stones, and other natural objects.

Build an ant playground out of sticks! Sue Dombro of the Forest Preserves of Cook County gave us tips for building one, adding this telling comment: “My daughter used to do this all the time, and now she’s a wildlife biologist.”

For fun, interesting, and education-based answers, we turned to a fun, interesting, and education-based crowd: the 190 teachers, home educators, day care providers, park district staff, museum employees, librarians, and just-plain-curious caregivers who came together at the Garden recently for our first Nature Play conference in May (sponsored by the Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago Wilderness, and the Alliance for Early Childhood).

That morning, opening remarks were short, but sweet. A few thought-provoking highlights are quoted here. Then we did what any group of early childhood-oriented people would do: We all went outside to play.

At our outdoor “playground,” 19 organizations shared their fun, interesting, and education-based ideas for playing outside. You may recognize many from your own childhood.

1. Pick Up a Stick

How cool is this? In 2008, the stick was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame! It’s in great company: the jump rope, dominoes, the Frisbee, Tinkertoys and, yes, the Easy-Bake Oven are co-recipients of the honor. The possibilities of the stick are endless—it’s a musical instrument, a light saber, a wand, a fishing pole, a giant pencil for drawing in the dirt, a conductor’s baton, the first leg of a tepee, and anything else a child says it is.

2. Learn to Lash

If one stick is interesting, a pile of sticks has real 3-D potential. The art of lashing teaches kids to turn something small—two twigs lashed together—into something big: a ladder, a lean-to, a stool, a swing.

3. Find the Art in Nature

Twigs + stones + leaves + “tree cookies” + seeds = a nature “painting,” a sculpture, an imaginary animal, backyard trail markers, or utterly simple, charming drawings like the happy face made out of seeds shown with our headline.

“For children, the most powerful form of learning is with their hands.”

PHOTO: A squirrel made from tree cookies, pine cones, acorns.

Imagination can run wild when kids are outside.

4. Nature as Paintbrush

Sure, you can use a standard brush to paint with, but feathers, pine needles, and arborvitae segments not only expand the creative possibilities but also feel wonderfully different in the hand.

5. Kid-Made Kites

Send the imagination soaring with a simple paper bag and a couple of kitchen skewers—in moments, it’s a kite! And then there’s the process of decorating it with ribbons and streamers…

6. Cricket Bug Box

Catch a cricket (or buy a dozen for $1 at the pet shop). Friendly and chirpy, crickets are many kids’ first experience with the insect world. Even little kids can collect the foliage, food scraps, and water-soaked cotton balls to accessorize a temporary shoe-box habitat.

“Nature is children’s real home.”

PHOTO: A log and magnifying glass.

What’s under that log? Life.

7. Lift a Log

One of the simplest of all outdoor projects: lift up a log that’s been sitting on the ground and be amazed by the tiny wildlife that lives­ underneath it! Don’t forget to bring your magnifying glass.

8. Make a Magic Circle

Tuck a few wooden embroidery rings into a backpack. Placed on the ground in the woods, or the garden, or the sand, they become magical circles for kids to explore. What’s in yours?

9. D.I.Y. Dyeing

Rainy days need projects, too. Natural dyes made from vegetables (beets, onions), fruits (grape juice), or spices (turmeric, chili powder) transform undyed yarn or fabric into a personal style experience.

10. Paint Chip Color Hunt

One quick visit to the paint store can send kids off to hunt for hours, as they try to match nature’s colors to the humble paint chip card. (Handy to keep in the car for unexpected delays, too).

PHOTO: A variety of paint chip cards with flowers that match the colors on the chips.

Simple but engrossing: match the colors in nature to the colors on a paint card.

Looking for fun things to do with the kids this summer? June is Leave No Child Inside month, so Chicago Wilderness/Leave No Child Inside has organized all sorts of ideas for you on Pinterest!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A circle, a ring, a wreath

Karen Z. —  December 22, 2013 — 2 Comments

“A ring speaks of strength and friendship and is one of the great symbols of mankind.”

Those are the words of Jens Jensen, the great landscape designer who celebrated the native and the natural and often included circular council rings in his garden plans.  

At the holidays, we hang wreaths on our doors as symbols of love, of welcome, of community. Twenty-nine wreaths, all handmade by our horticulturists and staff, are currently drawing visitors to the galleries at the Wonderland Express exhibition, and the detail and craftsmanship in them is amazing. (The answer to the frequently asked question “Can you buy them?” is yes—pick them up after January 5, the final day of Wonderland Express. Proceeds from the sale of the wreaths go to fund the Garden’s programs.)

Ring in the new year with our staff’s creative interpretations of the circle, the ring, the wreath.

PHOTO: Six types of colorful indian corn—husks facing outward as a fringe—create this wreath.

This is a BIG wreath—great for an outdoor wall.

Flint. Dent. Sweet. Flour. Pod. Pop. Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg celebrates these six major types of corn—and beautiful heirloom varieties with names like ‘Blue Jade’, ‘Glass Gem’, and ‘Golden Bantam’—in a seasonless sunburst.

PHOTO: An owl made from natural materials perches in this cotton boll wreath.

The French saying on this wreath translates to, “the moon is my light and my joy.”

Monica Vachlon (administrative assistant of horticulture) and Jacob Burns (herbaceous perennial plant curator) built a wintry vignette around a charming mascot dubbed “Mr. Who.”

Children’s educator Kathy Johnson used just one ingredient for her made-by-hand wreath: natural raffia. It’s hand-knotted into evergreen sprays and red berries, and crocheted into a life-like cardinal couple, nesting at the bottom.

PHOTO: A hand-crocheted raffia cardinal.

Even the branches of this wreath are made of raffia.

A nursery grower in our production greenhouse by day, Lorin Fox is an artist and woodcarver off-hours. A close look at his wreath reveals the mushrooms he hand-carved from tagua nuts and cedar.

PHOTO: Incredibly realistic hand-carved wooden mushrooms on a real piece of wood.

Everlasting mushrooms were hand-carved from wood and nuts.

Star-shaped flowers are made from milkweed pods, with a crabapple at the center.

Star-shaped flowers are made from milkweed pods, with a crabapple at the center.

The supersized fruit of ‘Ralph Shay’ crabapple dot the centers of milkweed pod “flowers” on this dramatic, dried Baptisia wreath by ecologist Dave Sollenberger. He foraged all of the materials from gardens here and at home.

PHOTO: Wreath of grapevine, cotton bolls, and hydrangea.

Cotton turned up as a natural and everlasting element in several wreaths.

Wonderland Express = teamwork. So thoughtfully did the team from the Development Department (spearheaded by Lisa Bakker) brainstorm, gather, and plan for their wreath that it took them just two lunch breaks to assemble and decorate it.

All summer long, assistant horticulturist Leah Pilon kept a sharp eye out for materials that dried well: the Carex seed pods, okra, millet, dried flowerheads (Green Ball dianthus), and Engelmann creeper vine (for the bow) were all collected in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

PHOTO: Wreath created from millet, with evergreens, carex seedpods, a lotus pod and a creeper vine bow.

Even okra works on this wreath made from materials in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

Horticulturist Ayse Pogue pays tribute to her Mediterranean roots with a fragrant wreath made of juniper and olive branches. Tucked in in delicate sprays, tiny spray-painted alder cones stand in for “olives.”

PHOTO: Wreath made of real olive leaves and faux olives.

Real olive leaves, with faux olive fruit (they’re alder cones, painted black).

PHOTO: Large, heart-shaped wreath made from grape vines.

Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, showers, weddings: proof that one wreath can do it all.

In simplicity is elegance. Made from grapevines growing in McDonald Woods, this heartfelt wreath by senior horticulturist Heather Sherwood can hang indoors or out. Leave it up straight through February 14.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Kids Get Crafty

Amy Wells —  May 21, 2013 — 1 Comment

My 3-year-old son and I have enjoyed many seasons of Little Diggers. We have learned new things together and have had  a lot of fun with the projects—but our favorite project so far this year was with insects. We got up close and personal with ants, butterflies, grasshoppers, and ladybugs. The instructor set up habitats in mesh containers where we could look at each group of insects with magnifying glasses and two-way viewers—the same tools real scientists use every day!

A friend investigating grasshoppers.

A friend investigating grasshoppers.

After looking at all the insects up close, we talked about all the different body parts an insect has, and why that makes an insect an insect and not a spider or another bug (even though they have a lot of the same body parts). All insects have three body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen), six legs, antennae, eyes—and sometimes wings! We remembered what the body parts were and where they go by building our own model insect. It was really easy—a fun and funny way to teach our little people about the different parts.

You can build your own model insect at home, too. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • An egg carton—Cut into strips of three eggs-worth. You can get four insect bodies out of one egg carton, so you can explore and make more than one kind of insect.
  • Coffee filters—Cut these each into six pieces for wings. You can see how to cut them from the photo of our completed insect below.
  • Pipe cleaners—Cut these into 3-inch pieces for legs.
  • Craft supplies to decorate and color your insect—Use feathers, googly eyes, crayons, gems, and tacky glue. Insects come in all shapes and sizes from simple black ants to very colorful, shimmery beetles. Have fun creating!
PHOTO: egg carton, crayons, googly eyes, coffee filters, feathers, pipe cleaners and glue.

Use these materials to build your own insect.

As we built our insect and decided what it should look like, we talked about the different parts of our particular insect. We put antennae and one eye on the head, a feather and another eye on the thorax, and wings on the abdomen—and this was fine by me! While he was hesitant to put parts where they should go, he said “head,” “thorax,” and “abdomen” out loud as we built and talked about our insect. He was very proud of this final specimen.

Every class we go to uses different activities to explore a different theme. We’ve used play dough, enjoyed circle time with great books, gone on Garden walks, and let’s not forget our favorite activity, planting! (This time we planted some Mexican heather as part of the insect theme. Butterflies and bees love the nectar from the flowers of this plant.) We planted our heather at home and are waiting to see if we get visitors this summer.

PHOTO: a small boy potting up a plant.

A friend plants some Mexican heather to take home.

The finished egg carton insect.

Our finished project!

We can’t wait until the fall season of Little Diggers, but if you don’t want to wait, you can sign up for My First Camp for 3-year-olds, and enjoy more hands-on science, art, food, and gardening.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Heart Felt

The story behind the Waud miniatures

Karen Z. —  December 31, 2012 — Leave a comment
A close-up of the creature's features from Elmer and the Dragon.

A close-up of the beloved creature’s features from the book Elmer and the Dragon.

The Waud collection of storybook figures are always a welcome treat at Wonderland Express—see them in the Lenhardt Library. While you’re there, tell the kids the story behind them:

Once upon a time (mid-1940s) there was a creative grandmother who wanted to give her grandchildren something special for the holidays. Knowing that they loved stories—nursery rhymes and fairy tales and the great books of childhood—the grandmother, whose name was Mrs. Ernest P. Waud (her first name was Olive), decided to make tree-ornament-sized figures of the characters that her grandchildren knew so well.

Now, Mrs. Waud was accomplished with a needle and thread. So she gathered wool felt (in many colors), jewel-like beads, and shiny sequins and seed pearls, and she began to stitch.

Like many characters, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is displayed with the storybook that made her famous.

Like many characters, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is displayed with the storybook that made her famous.

Her handiwork brought the characters to three-dimensional life, with incredible detail: the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland glances down, mid-scurry, at a tiny pocketwatch…miniature red beads mark the Through the Looking Glass lion’s claws…bits of wire are twisted into eyeglasses for the Three Blind Mice…and the chimney on Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater’s house tilts at just the right crazy angle.

Over the years, Mrs. Waud’s creations earned local recognition. An ornament-laden tree toured the Children’s Memorial Hospital annually in the 1950s. The Museum of Science and Industry included her figurines at the Miracle of Books fair in 1953, and the Art Institute of Chicago displayed her work around 1963. Finally, in 1998, the collection found a permanent home here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. More than 60 characters are on display every year, and some are sure to make your heart skip: Babar and Celeste…Pigling Bland…Peter Rabbit…

He's Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater.

He’s Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater.

Tell Mrs. Waud’s story, reminisce about your favorite childhood books, and smile as you explore the collection, on display through the first weekend of January.

"Mrs. Waud is such a perfectionist that she is not satisfied until there actually is character in the faces of her storybook images."  --Quote from a 1951 newspaper article.

“Mrs. Waud is such a perfectionist that she is not satisfied until there actually is character in the faces of her storybook images.” –Quote from a 1951 newspaper article.

Heartfelt wishes for a happy new year. ♥


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

While the construction crew and the railroad guys were busy laying out the trains and buildings in Wonderland Express, 28 horticulturists and other staff members were busy building their own creations—making the wreaths that now line the Greenhouse gallery walls.

The big “now” story is that they’re all for sale.*

The big “wow” story is that behind each wreath are the hands and hearts of our horticulturists, our maintenance staff, our plant healthcare guys, our security personnel, our managers, etc. Although each person started with the same thing—a wreath form and the beauty of the Garden—we are rocked by the imagination, talent, and joy that they brought to the project.

Here are a few of their stories:

It took Cindy Nykiel (tram driver) and daughter Stacey (security) 46½ hours to engineer a wreath loaded with fun details: birch bark train cars with pistachio shell trim, black bean “coal,” and tiny battery-operated lights twinkling within the ginkgo leaf/catalpa pod bow.

Cindy wreath

A highly-decorated wreath by a mother/daughter team.

The twisted palm frond rosettes are genius.

rosettes

A close-up of the palm frond rosettes.

 Senior horticulturist Heather Sherwood redefined starlight in three easy steps:

  1. Bamboo sticks duct taped together for a frame.
  2. Red tube lights zip-tied to the bamboo.
  3. Red twig dogwood, raffia-tied over it all.
Heather wreath

Red tube lights work straight through Valentine’s Day.

Nuts for the holidays? Plant Information Service Manager Kathie Hayden pairs nuts (oak, buckeye), beans (coffee tree), and pods (honey locust, sweetgum) with an appropriately amusing mascot. All but the walnuts (store bought) were collected from Garden grounds.

Kathie wreath

A wreath with a sense of humor.

Custodian Carlos García’s exuberant design is rooted in a vivid memory of a wreath he made in his fifth grade class in Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacan, Mexico. The construction was a family affair: his kids helped with the cheery and heartfelt decorations.

Carlos wreath

A great solution for a plain front door.

Horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg has a passion for seeds. Her stunning 11-bean-and-legume snowflake wreath celebrates the great variety found in just one species and hints at the fun we’ll be having at our second annual seed swap on February 24, 2013.

Lisa wreath

By the horticulturist in our Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

After cutting the birch trunks to size for Wonderland’s entrance hall, Exhibitions Manager Dawn Bennett took the leftover trimmings over to the carpenter shop…got out the chop saw…and turned waste into wonderful.

Dawn wreath

A wreath made from slices of birch.

*Priced at $150 each, wreaths are available for pickup after January 6.  Many were made with dried materials gathered at the Garden, which may last for many months indoors.


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org