Process Art Projects for Mixed Ages

Since the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in mid-March, I’ve been home with my kids trying to make the best of a bad situation. For our family, that has meant making things. At first I was energized by the unexpected gift of extra time with them, stepping out of our usual routine and into long, fluid days at home. We went weeks without ever getting in the car. I turned to one of my favorite books a lot during this time, The Arful Parent by Jean Van’t Hul, picking out a handful of projects to try during the week and hunting down any missing supplies in our Buy Nothing group or online.

But as weeks turned into months, and the world bent under the weight of a virus that seems intent on staying a while, our creative pace began to change. In part because my energy began to go toward growing a new tiny human, finishing the school term, and planning a big move– and in part because we are adjusting to a more long-term new pace of life.

Now, for the past week, we have been entirely indoors due to toxic air in Portland. We thank God we did not have to evacuate from the devastating wildfires that have ripped through Oregon forests and communities. The smoke has been terrible. Even with the two indoor air purifiers we are lucky to have, my lungs feel constricted after a week of breathing air that registers off the AQI charts. It has been scary and sad to wake up to skies made white and brown with thick, dense fog and smoke, a reckoning of all that humans have done to bring this on ourselves and a harbinger of the future to come, if we don’t make drastic changes.

We spent a few days in our pajamas watching endless movies and obsessively checking the news. For me, though, what keeps me sane is to pick up our routine again, reduce screen time all around, and try to do things that make us feel good. A simple healthy meal from a recipe we haven’t tried yet. Putting on an old CD and dancing in the living room. Snuggling in the big bed with a pile of books. And making things.

In general, what I’ve noticed is that we are planning less, and finding our own ways to practice simple creativity alongside one another. Making things together has become part of our daily routines, just as I’d hoped it would be, but through a wildly different set of circumstances than I ever could have imagined.

This seems to be the way many things have unfolded this year: unexpected and long-awaited changes, glimmers of hope, taking painful shape alongside worry and fear. Blessings are almost always mixed, and I’ve come to embrace the changes in our family’s daily rhythm even as I mourn the thousand losses, big and small, that have come with them.

Handmade needle book and hand-sewing kit

Before the fires, and before our move, I started a course in mindful sewing, and started bringing my hand-sewing kit out to the backyard in the afternoon, trying to stitch a row or two on a project while my kids ate popsicles and splashed in the wading pool. I set out chalk and paintbrushes, or set up their easel outside with some diluted finger paints, and let them find their way to creating when they felt like it.

And they have. My daughter tends to gravitate toward her special case of gel pens, her colored pencils, and her stash of scratch paper at different times during the day. She has filled a plastic tote with colorful sketches of people, especially mommies with babies in their tummies, and ladies in full skirts and high heels. I gather up her stack of drawings at the end of the day and smile at how her work has progressed, over time, from big monochromatic scrawls to multi-colored scenes with more and more detail. (I often recycle a lot of her sketches because she is drawing more than we can keep!) At first light this morning I heard her tiptoe out of her room and found her sitting in her jammies at her little table, rummaging through her pencil case to draw before anyone else was up. For all that I worry about the impact of this year on my kids, I’m delighted to see the ways in which it is helping her nurture an inner creative life, all on her own.

My son invariably chooses a plastic butter knife, a large plastic yogurt tub of multi-colored homemade playdough, and an assortment of other objects: little cars, rocks, large beads or blocks. His experiments skew heavily toward the sensory. He also knows where our box of Do-a-Dots is kept, and when he sees his sister or me at work on our own projects, he proudly goes to get his own supplies and sets up alongside us. He likes to practice taking the tops on and off these washable paint pens as much as he enjoys making bold, loud splotches of color on paper. Sometimes he combines the two activities and experiments with coloring on the playdough.

Maybe you have small children and are experiencing a bewildering mix of emotions as you move into the school year. My daughter is starting kindergarten, and even though I’m sad she won’t have the experience I had imagined for her, I know I’m incredibly lucky to have the privilege of homeschooling her and her brother. I’ve stopped freelance writing and am taking a year off from school to focus on them and have this baby. I know so many parents who are facing the impossible challenge of trying to work a full-time job while supervising distance-learning. In our own ways, we are all trying to survive. If making things together is part of how you cope, here are some snapshots of some inexpensive creative activities we have liked, some that take a little extra planning and some that just take a few minutes. Use whatever is helpful here and leave the rest.

Glue resist/”batik” painting on muslin superhero capes

Building a recycled village with cereal and milk boxes

Salad spinner art on paper plates

Painted cardboard robots with Make Do cardboard build kit

Painting sugar cookies with frosting “paint” and paintbrushes

Painting with cars and trucks


5 thoughts on “Process Art Projects for Mixed Ages

  1. So beautiful, Melissa! I love all your mindful creations and innovative ways to bring joy and light despite challenging and scary times. Love you! xo

  2. Don’t know if I’ve told you how much I get out of these posts – you seriously never cease to amaze me, between your beautiful writing, the balance I find in the thoughts you share, and your apparent parenting wizardry. Thank you for these recommendations, sorely needed at my house! I adore you.

  3. Don’t know if I’ve told you how much I get out of these posts – you seriously never cease to amaze me, between your beautiful writing, the balance I find in the thoughts you share, and your apparent parenting wizardry. Thank you for these recommendations, sorely needed at my house! I adore you.

    1. I adore you right back Julia. Thank you for reading. Speaking of parenting wizardry, I often channel my inner Julia when feeling particularly frazzled. You are a wizard at finding the calm in the storm.

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