Permission to Play: Birthday Parties


Two of the most popular posts on this blog are: SuperMom: DIY Barbie Shoes and A (Few) Photo(s) a (To)Day: We Make Things. Both posts reflect to the DIY ethic we strive to embrace as a family. It’s a foundation of me and Dan’s relationship which dates back ten years to the first kid’s birthday party we planned for George’s 7th birthday.  I was still in grad school, had no kids of my own, and had never hosted a birthday party for a child before. I wanted it to be awesome. I had a subscription to a short-lived Martha Stewart publication – Martha Stewart Kids – which illustrated many of the things Lara Lackey found wrong with Martha’s ideas for kids in her 2002 NAEA presentation “Martha Stewart and Art Education: Is She a Bad Thing?” Step-by-step instructions, overly aestheticized displays of materials which an art educator or parent knows wouldn’t last five minutes around a group of kids, and examples that only an adult could replicate. But the article that’s relevant to this post wasn’t for kids per se, it was for parents. Parents who wanted to throw the best birthday parties on the block.

The section on building a backyard miniature golf course caught my attention. I showed it to Dan and George and they liked it too. Little did I know what I was getting us into.

Dan and I had been dating about ten months and this was the first big project we did together. It tested our skills (mostly Dan’s abilities to build things) and our creativity. We spent a lot of time figuring out a theme for each hole, using as many materials as we could find around the house as inspiration as possible. It was a creative challenge and we learned a lot about one another building through the process.

Dan motorized the windmill and we used baking dishes to create sand and water traps.

This weekend we marked our tenth year of planning birthday parties together with a Harry Potter-themed party for Cora’s sixth birthday. Our schedules are a lot busier than they once were so I did a lot of the initial planning and gathering of supplies. But as we hung out together the night before the party pulling together the potion making station, I was reminded of how much joy and satisfaction we’ve found over the years putting ourselves in the minds of the kids we’d be hosting and imagining how they would play with the prompts we set out for them.


While the point of the planning was the party, the process was equally important for me and Dan. We laughed as we made up names for the ingredients and shared high fives over one another’s ideas for potion combinations and other activities we’d be setting up. Making birthday parties has provided us an annual opportunity to spend time together, playing around with ideas and materials to create something.

Realistically we probably only have a few more years left of planning parties for children. When the time comes, we’ll have to find some other excuse to pick a theme and plan some fun and games for our own friends.


A Fire Dragon Bed for Azari

Cora would like to share a Lego idea she created. She said,

“I got inspired by the dragon’s foot pieces to put them on beds. I put those on just for decoration. So the original elf beds only had a pillow but my bed has a claw as part of the pillow and foot piece for the Elf’s feet to catch onto. These help them stay on the dragon but can also help them lay down without falling.”   

Cora is prepping other ideas to submit to Lego Ideas like the dragon trap below. She wants them to make her toys so other kids can play with them, and she can get free Legos.


Adventures in the Land of Lego

Parents of every generation spend time reminiscing, comparing memories of their  childhoods to the experiences of their children, worrying that something is missing. Oftentimes my friends and I lament our “good old days” when we ran around the neighborhood without hawk-eyed helicopter parents tracking our every move, when there was just one phone in the house–attached to the wall by a short cord–which everyone in the family shared, and MTV played music videos 24/7.

Like our own kids, we recall playing with Legos. The Legos of our youth consisted of a bunch of bricks in varying shapes and sizes and a few mini figures that we transformed into our own imaginary worlds. Today most kids purchase Legos in kits with themes, often tied to movies and other mass-consumed cultural icons like Harry Potter and Disney Princesses. There were few blueprints for what to do with Legos in the 1980s. Today, kids follow step-by-step instructions for what to make with them, and often that’s as far as they’ll go. They beg for a kit, build it once, and set it on a shelf to be admired like an architectural model.

This isn’t the worst thing in the world. Following printed instructions kids practice literacy skills, learning to read the visual plans and follow directions. In displaying the results of their efforts, they practice the skills of art collectors making choices about where and how to show their work. What they do not do is explore their own ideas.

When my step-son George was younger he was really into Lego Star Wars. He asked for large kits for birthday and Christmas presents. I remember him building the kits according to the directions upon receipt. But he spent more time using Sharpie markers and scotch tape to give each Storm Trooper its own color-coordinated uniform and watching YouTube videos to learn how to transform individual components into various types of weapons his troops could employ. Once, he made me a birthday card out of Lego. I know there’s a photo somewhere…

While I initially tried to keep Cora’s Lego collection to the classics while she begged for some of the Lego Friends kits, made and marketed for girls. She learned to follow the instructions to build the kits as they appear on the box, and she enjoys this so much that she takes some of the kits apart to rebuild them. I think she likes the structure this process provides, as well as the results. I can relate – sometimes it’s nice to follow a recipe, other times I like to throw a bunch of ingredients together to make a new recipe.

Cora seems to enjoy deconstructing the kits, piece by tiny piece, as much as she enjoys putting them together. This takes time and because she’s always been more of a big motor muscle skills kid, I know she’s learning just as much through this process – sitting quietly and separating the small parts with her hands.

She’s also been recombining pieces from the sets to create her own creations – some reflect a narrative in development while others are more like color field experiments in three dimensions.

While this can make it frustrating to find all the pieces when she wants to put a kit back together, that’s part of the Lego Adventure–sifting through the bins, looking for just the right brick. And when you can’t find that one, identifying and settling on a substitute. Problem solved, through creative reinvention.







Drawing Work

(This is a follow-up to my last post about drawing with Cora.)

Cora’s friend sent her a drawing of her baby chickens last week. It was sweet and simple. I suggested she send a drawing of our girls in return.

She dictated a message and I wrote it for her. She proceeded to make marks on the paper with glitter glue talking her way through. In the end, she had a collection of blobs haphazardly scattered around the page. 

After some discussion, I convinced her to give it another try. Afterall, she was trying to communicate an important message to her friend.

“Amelia…If you see a hawk put your hens away in the henhouse.”

We talked about where the chickens would be standing and where the hawk would be flying and she made lines for earth and sky. That seemed to be all she needed.  Something to break through the blank slate. She added a sun, grass, and a few hens. Finally, we talked her way through the hawk – head, beak, body, wings, feet, and her favorite part – super long, sharp talons. 

 I told her, again, how proud I was of her work. I knew she could do it. And I can’t wait for her to do it again.

Drawing Lesson: Home

My last post was about the picturebook Home by Carson Ellis.  At the end I set a plan to engage Cora further with the theme of home through art making. On a sunny day last week I got her to go outside with me for an observation drawing session.


I have long been a fan of a little book called Observation Drawing with Children. I’m sure I’ve written about it here before. The authors describe observation drawing as a responsive process by which “the viewer become[s] aware of the elusive as well as the obvious qualities of subjects,” (Smith, et al, 1998, p. 6). As such it is easy to understand learning to draw as part of learning to look more closely at and see the world around us. When I had a daily practice of drawing from observation I felt more connected to things around me, more mindful of my surroundings.

Cora hasn’t even shown much interest in making original drawings (realistic or imagined). You can imagine how sad this makes me as an art educator… She has made some incredible drawings over the years but it’s not really her thing. “You like to draw. I like to sing,” she tells me. Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised that she was a somewhat reluctant participant in my plans.

We started by looking at the cover of Home and picking the house that most resembled ours (a log cabin).  Then we talked about the shapes and lines that make up our house. Smith, etal write extensively and provide examples of dialogues with children to help readers plan for their own observation drawing sessions with kids. There is something about the back and forth between looking, naming, and drawing that helps make everything more concrete.

Cora had no trouble talking about our house. We named the major shapes we saw. We talked about what rooms are behind each window. But when it came to putting these ideas down on paper, she stalled. She’s afraid of “doing it wrong” and, I think, disappointing me now matter how many times I tell her I’m going to love whatever she does and remind her of the great drawings she has made in the past. I have to remind myself not to push her if she’s not ready for this.

In the end, We worked together on the drawing. I made lots of the big shapes (the fame of the house and windows, for example) and she drew the details (panes of glass and siding).

We’ll try this again soon. Like anything, I believe practice breeds confidence. My hope is that at some point she’ll take off on her own and find a love for drawing all that she sees – at home and abroad.



Our yellow door is a defining feature of our home.


Testing greens to find the best match.


Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 3, No. 6

It’s been a long while since I wrote one of these columns. It isn’t that we aren’t reading! We read like crazy this winter, but I was TOTALLY insane at work and didn’t have time to blog about any of it. That said, I dedicate this post to my department chair, Craig Roland, who recommended Home, by Carson Willis during one of the million and one meetings we had with students last month.

One of the greatest parts of my job is the opportunity to learn alongside my students. Sometimes they teach me things, sometimes I learn from my colleagues as they are teaching. Craig draws on a wide range of resources when speaking with students which I  appreciate. Home is a perfect example.

I don’t remember the exact context of Craig’s suggestion and it doesn’t much matter. The book is a good illustration of a work of art that explores a big idea. Big, or enduring ideas “comprise concepts that have drawn the attention of humans through the ages” (Stewart and Walker, 2005, p. 17).  We encourage students to build art education curriculum around big ideas throughout the Art Education program at the University of Florida and I plan to use this book in the future to help students better grasp the concept and consider ways to utilize it with students. Parents of young children and other educators might also find it inspiring.

Big ideas are often approached through the discussion of questions like:
What is a home?
How would it feel to live in that home?
What makes your home different from other homes?

The cover of Home alone could launch many questions, leading teachers and students in various directions as they connect the theme with their own experiences, books they’ve read, and cultures they are studying.


This is one of those picturebooks that could be given to an adult to read and reflect on just as easily as a child. The illustrations are engaging – visually and conceptually. Cora and I spent a long time looking at each one, talking about the content and the style. The one about The Little Old Lady who lived in a shoe was one of her favorites. This is just an excerpt….


We did take exception to this page:


The so-called clean home didn’t look clean to us so much as it looked boring or unoccupied. Everything seems to have a purpose and a place in the messy house, even the jump rope in the front yard, the bathtub in the garden, and the cinderblock holding up the front porch. But overall, the artist captured a wide range of homes (including her own studio filled with references to the book itself) and had us looking and imagining who lived in them and what it would like to join them.

After we finished reading, I interviewed Cora about our home and wrote her responses in a notebook we’ve been keeping this year to document her thinking and learning. Here’s excerpts from the interview:

Me: Cora, where is your home?
Cora: (thinking)
Me: Is it on the moon?
Cora: No. On Earth, you sil’. [Sil’ is her shorthand for saying silly.]
Me: Is your house in the city or the country?
Cora: The city. I think. Do you think that’s the truth?
Me: Yes. But what makes you think so?
Cora: Because it’s noisy. And there are lots of cars on High Street.
Me: What kind of house do we live in?
Cora: We live in a regular house. A house.
Me: What’s a regular house?
Cora: Just a regular house.
Me: So not a castle or something like that?
Cora: Yeah.
Me: What’s different about your house and Maya’s house?
Cora: We have a dog and she has cats. My house is darker because it has more curtains.
Me: What else makes our house darker? Look outside? What do you see? What would you see if you were at Maya’s?
Cora: Other houses closer together… Street lights.
Me: What else do you want to tell me about our house? What makes it special?
Cora: My house is very old because it used to be grandma’s. That what I like about it. She lives next door now and I like that too.

Next step, mapping our house and making some drawings of it.

Stewart, M. G. & Walker, S.R. (2005). Rethinking curriculum in art. Worcester, MA: Davis.