artsy ideas for kids and families

Tempra Paint, Invented Colors

I always ask the kids of HappyLittleMesses, “What is your favorite art material,” and “what would you like to do next week?”
While, I don’t find it hard to please these little artists, I want to make sure we’re doing what they like in class. Most answer, that they love to paint.
Last week, we took out our paintbrushes, large paper and our little glass baby food jars and filled them with paint.


The 5+ class is asked to paint a picture or design using black paint. As the black paint dries, the kids are challenged to “invent” their own paint color.


We have white red, orange, yellow, green and blue-filled paint jars and pipettes lined up on the table. The kids are each given their own empty glass jar to fill and mix. Many kids make different shades of green, grey and brown. They use and share their invented colors to finish their paintings. One child compared her invented color to her mom’s morning coffee.


The 2-4 year old class, is given free range of many colors. Some choose to focus their work on one corner of their paper. Some are intent on seeing what happens when 2+ colors mix, some keep their paper organized into varied colors and paint brush strokes.
One little guy, this being his first class ever!, makes small marks between observing every little thing that’s going on in the class. We add pencil marks towards the end of the 30 minutes of class


Friend O paints a design in black. He “invents” two shades of green (olive and lime.) He uses these colors, plus more black and some borrowed colors, invented by friends, to fill in all the spaces on his paper, leaving only a small window that peaks into the original design underneath.

Jello Play Dough is Dope

At HappyLittleMesses, we test out a new play dough recipe from modern parents messy kids.com.


white flour – 1 cup
warm water – 1 cup
salt – 2 tbsp
cream of tartar – 2 tbsp
cooking oil – 2 tbsp
Jello – 1 3oz pack

Mix all ingredients in a pot on the stove, medium heat, until thick dough forms. Set dough on a floured counter to cool, then knead.

We brewed up 3 batches of jello play dough, using cherry, blue raspberry, lime and orange flavored jello. The colors were vibrant and the smells were so fun. I’ve tried lots of a play dough recipes as a teacher and mother. This recipe is a winner.


I knew the kids in happylittlemesses would LOVE these people play dough mats, from picklebums.com, so we printed out a bunch of copies and laminated them for class. We also threw some googly eyes on the table because google eyes make everything more silly. The laminated pages have now become a permanent part of our play dough tool collection. I love reusable supplies.


Friend K used the head and shoulders play mat to make a portrait of his dad. He took the play dough off the mat when he finished showing off the portrait, and made another of his mom. Takes, “mom has eyes on the back of her head,” to a whole new level.


The 2-4 year old class enjoyed the feel of the dough without using the mats as much. They rejoiced in the addition of google eyes, mixed colors and shared tools across the table like they were at Thanksgiving dinner.

Hot Chocolate Cupcakes

Little K’s friend birthday party needs some favors and some good cake, so we come up with this idea to make hot chocolate mugs filled with delicious devil’s chocolate cupcakes, frosted with italian meringue.


I score some small coffee mugs from a used restaurant supply store for $1 each.

We make devil’s food cupcakes following a recipe from Martha Stewart.


Using a glass paint pen, I draw a snowman on each mug. We cure the drawing for 8 hours and bake at 375 for 40 minutes to make the drawings permanent, following the instructions on the pen.

When the cupcakes are cool, we pop them into the mugs, frosting with an Italian Meringue, adding 3 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa, dolloping with 2 marshmallows each, to make it look like hot chocolate.


Italian Meringue Icing
1 c (200g) caster sugar
*(you can use granulated sugar that been put through a food processor)
1/3 c water (80 ml) water
2 egg whites
3 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa

1. Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan, and stir over heat without boiling until the sugar is dissolved.
2. Boil uncovered without stirring until the syrup reaches 116 degrees on a candy thermometer. The syrup should be thick but not coloured. Remove from heat and allow the bubbles to subside.
3. Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer to soft peaks. With the motor running, add the hot syrup in a thin, stead stream.
4. Beat on high speed for about 10 minutes, adding the cocoa while beating, or until the mixture is thick and glossy.

We attach some simple instructions for hot cocoa and a sharpie so kids can add details to the snowmen. You may choose to bake the sharpie drawings, much the same way you would cure and bake the glass pen marks. You may choose to allow the sharpie drawings to wash off so you can redraw/redecorate your snowman over and over again.


Spooning Muffin Batter

We made banana muffins today. Whenever we make muffins, my little K wants to help with every step. He’s got the measuring and dumping down, as well as cracking the egg and managing the controls of the mixer. The trickiest part for him is spooning the muffin batter into the tins.


I could just let go and not care about the messes he makes in his efforts to aim with accuracy. Sometimes, I do let go. Today, we really wanted muffins, but only had an hour to accomplish the mixing and baking, so letting go wasn’t in the schedule. We came up with a compromise.


Little K helped with every step, then when it was time for me to spoon the muffin batter, Little K, in the sink, spooned a mixture of flour and water, the same consistency as the muffin batter, into a mini muffin tin. Little K was given the chance to practice his spooning techniques.


In the end, his hands ended up totally submerged in the flour/water batter. He pretended he was a monster. The sensory experience kept him busy while the muffins cooked. The flour and water mixture can also be used to paper-mache after batter spooning practice.


A Chore Chart that Works.

We have a chore chart that’s been successfully piloted and sustained for about 6 months.
A parent that has household chores to tackle, knows well the balance involved in “getting stuff done” while spending quality time, connected with the children in the family.
This chore chart fills the needs of a couple of daily family challenges.


This is how our chore chart works:
I make a chart, 20 chore squares for each child.
Chores are chosen as a team, knowing the child is capable of completing tasks independently.
In the beginning the boys needed help learning how to accomplish the chores.

These are the chores we chose together.
1. take out garbage
2. take out compost
3. feed cats
4. wash the dinner table
5. empty clean utensils out of dishwasher
6. bring wood into the house for wood stove
7. help with cooking
8. switch out laundry machines
9. putting away their own laundry after I fold it
10 cleaning up toys after friends have come over to play


When a chore is up for grabs (the dishwasher just finished a cycle and the utensils need to be put away) I offer the boys the chance to complete the chore to earn a sticker. They have the option to “work” and earn or turn the job down. They have to finish the job to earn the sticker. I check on their progress. If after taking out the garbage, they haven’t put a new bag in the garbage bin, I have the option of taking the sticker back. The boys get “paid” for said chores when the chart is full. They earn a toy within an established budget, usually $10-$20. They can earn money to save or they can choose a fun family activity, like ice skating or a trip to the movies.


Sometimes the boys will eat all their veggies without having to be reminded, and they’ll ask, “Do I earn a chore sticker for that?” The answer is no. The boys don’t earn stickers for things they should be doing already: hygiene routines, being nice, eating healthy food, completing homework or cleaning up their messes.
The chores are specifically meant to help the family team with house chores.
Chores get done without it being one person’s burden.

…They offer a chance for kids to learn how to take care of the home
…they offer a chance for parent and child to work together accomplishing a task
…they help parent connect with child
…chores completed faster = more time to play a game, go for a walk, read a book together
…chores also give the children a chance to know what it is to want something and earn it


My boys are 5 and 6. The chores and rules are tailored to who they are and what they are capable of developmentally, and with thought to their schedules and needs. For example, sometimes play is more important, so I will not offer a chore if I know they’ve been in school all day and are engrossed in a project. Young children would be given simpler tasks, like helping to fold a couple small towels and stickers may be enough of a reward. As the kids get older, I can see the chore chart growing with them. Maybe, the chores themselves change. The boys will be able to help more with more complicated jobs…helping with whole meals, doing dishes, mowing the lawn etc. Maybe, the chores become a required part of their routine.

There hasn’t been a lull in chore interest so far and the kids take pride in accomplishing their little jobs. I always make sure they know how much we appreciate their help and hard work.

Blueberry Picking and Cookies

We love going berry picking, through the heat and bugginess of the summer, nothing can stop us.
We make an effort to choose a simple farm that’s both organic and locally owned.
Often going overboard, we try to put all our berries to good use.


Here’s a recipe from my Grandma Olga, fraternal, of French Canadian accent, loves her sweets and cooks with shortening. The cookies aren’t much, but I’ve been enjoying them since I was a little girl. The taste is more to me than flour and berry. This is the first time I cook them for my family, probably the first time the cookies are made with 100% whole wheat white flour and organic evaporated sugar cane sugar.


The recipe on the card forgets to mention how to use the 3/4 cup of milk and the berries.
As you add the dry ingredients to the creamed sugar and shortening, alternate with milk.
When everything is mixed, fold in your berries.


The cookie is scone-like in taste and texture. Traditionally, we top the cookies with a glaze made by mixing confectioners sugar and water, glazing cookies once they’ve cooled. I drizzle the sugar water over the cookies, my mom and grandmother use more. My mom likes to dip the cookie in the glaze. The way you glaze is to your taste.
To store the cookies, layer in a container with wax paper in between layers. Keep in the fridge.

Snow and Seeds


The longer days has brought with it more outdoor play. There are puddles to play in, the sun is out, there is a foot of snow covering the grass after what might be the last Nor’Easter of the winter, allowing us still to do some sledding. You never know what the spring will bring in the North East of the United States. We’ve had a record breaking snow storm in April before, it could happen again. Yesterday was the first day of spring and we can feel spring everywhere.

Little J: The puddles in the driveway remind me of summer.
I heard a bird singing like it’s spring.

We open windows in the house and in the car on these warm days and can here the snow melting and trickling from everywhere, like it’s raining, but the sky is blue, the sun strong.


It’s time to plant some seeds for this summer’s garden: tomato, broccoli, kale, peppers, carrots and beets.
We follow these instructions to plant our seeds indoors, using recycled egg cartons.


finger paint and life/blogging crossroads

We’ve been trying to keep things light and simple around here lately. Life and schedules can quickly get complicated. I am guilty of being seduced by exiting plans/activities that make our days as thick as the very best peanut butter. Like the very best peanut butter, which is delicious, if you eat too much, too rich. Days become so tight, we lose free flow time. When this happens, we all get restless. There has to be a balance, and right now, for us, that means picking our most important activities and keeping time for chilling as a family.


One way we’ve been keeping it simple is by choosing basic, open-ended activities, where there is no specific outcome, the activity unfolds as we go…a hike, a snowy hill, some dirt, paint etc. We like finger paint. We put out all the pots of color. The kids empty them with their fingers one by one, and smear the colors on paper, blending, scraping and filling the space.


The pots are empty now. We hope to mix up a batch of homemade finger paint.


Little J goes to Kindergarden full time this year, and we miss him terribly. We had him signed up for karate that met 2-3 times a week and swim lessons. This didn’t seem like much compared to my friends and their families, but it was too much for us. We sometimes, take care of other kids, I work 3 evenings a week and some Saturdays. We also try to fit in exercise, date nights and managing the house…laundry, cooking, cleaning. All this combined made us feel like we were in fast forward and increasingly estranged from one another. So, we dropped karate, I’m being careful to not over schedule us with extra kids and unfortunately, the blog has taken a hit. Stepping away from the computer during family time has been a great thing for us.
When I started blogging, I had 2 small children all day. They napped, I blogged. It was a creative outlet, a way to socialize, but now, I need to carve time out of my day to make it happen. I can’t always afford the time, especially when it involves keeping up with and learning a technology, managing its quirks. Sometimes, instead, I choose to run or take a yoga class or have a sit on the couch with my hubby, or joining my kids in their play without a camera or a bloggy agenda.

For now, my posts will be sporadic.
We’re still having lots of fun making messes and will share when it’s a good one.
Comment if you can relate.
Jena @ HappyLittleMesses

simple water play

The power of simple water play never gets old.

Whether you have the kids working in a process table, standing on a stool at the kitchen sink, the bathtub or the beach, there is a giant value to this activity.


Water is a huge part of the human world. Playing and experimenting with water develops and builds relationship and comfort level with the basic element. Children are able to practice pouring and dumping, basic concepts of math and measurement.
The options for tools you use in the water are endless.
What stands out for me the most about open play with water is the story-telling that’s born from the interaction.

I add some dish soap to the bottom of a process table, add warm water in a shower spray to activate the bubbles. Here is a bit of dialogue I overhear as my 2 boys play in the water with cups, large spoons and medicine dispensers.


“pretend this is bubble soup that you always wanted
i made it cause you wanted it for a whole day, such a long time
so i made it for you

I don’t want it, it’s too yucky
someone told me it was yucky

what about pineapple soup

no answer, kiki is focused on his own work.
this is chicken juice for me to make for a customer
this one is blueberry, i made it for myself

friend, i made some pineapple

sorry i already made blueberry
pretend i wanted to drink it for a whole week.
happy face, dump it back,
i already drinked it all

do you want me to make more


I’ll make more tomorrow.
pretend you the chef and I make the soup

this store is closing

mom, the store is closed now
time to rest up for tomorrow.

pretend all the customers are leavin’
pretending to lock up the doors of the kitchen.

cock a doodly doo
time to go back to the store.”

Winter Hike: a seasonal sensory experience

Having boys is like having puppies…you’ve GOT to take them for frequent walks, in all weather.


Winter in New England can be long and cold.
Taking a walk outside can freeze you thoroughly and fast.
But if there is snow, it changes everything.
Taking a wintery hike is a seasonal sensory experience; crunchy, impressionable snow.


Crunchy, brittle ice, some white, some clear, all of it slippery.
We don’t run or jump onto the ice because we fall hard.


We’ve had some unusually warm days here, mixed with the regular NE weather, so there’s lots of ice and snow. We find the edge of a lake today, on our wintery walk, and break off pieces to throw onto the frozen lake. The thrown pieces of ice shatter like glass and slide across the slippery surface like they’ll never stop. This project, involving breaking ice, pulling it up and throwing it, keeps the boys employed for about an hour.

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