Embrace family life with creativity at its heart. The Creative Family Manifesto (Roost Books, 2017) is a guide to using the simple tools around you—your imagination, basic art supplies, household objects, and natural materials—to relax, play, and grow together as a family. When you learn to awaken your family’s creativity, wonderful things will happen: you’ll make meaningful connections with your children, your children’s imaginations will flourish, and you’ll learn to express love and gratitude for each other. This book is just what you need to get started.
There’s no greater source of creative inspiration, beauty, and art than the planet we live on. Nearly every artist will tell you that they draw great inspiration from the natural world—from the beauty in the falling leaves of a forest to the way a child’s toes dig into the sand. As adults, many of our favorite childhood memories are connected with spots in nature—a walk in the woods behind Grandma’s house, a neighborhood tree we climbed often, or a tree house we escaped to. Nature can be both our inspiration and our meditation. It can be a way that we connect with the earth and ourselves and, through that, find our creative spirits and energy.
I don’t think there is anything more beautiful or inspiring to me than watching children just be in nature. When they are able to be free in their environment—free in mind and free in spirit—their inherent sense of connection to the earth is strong and alive. As a parent, I feel blessed and inspired to watch this process unfold throughout their childhoods.
It is important not only to spend time outdoors, but to bring the outside in as well. The things we surround ourselves with have
a great impact on how we view our world. This is particularly true for our children, for whom everything is new and fresh. The beauty of the world around us—the changing color of the leaves on the trees, the smoothness of rocks at a beach, the acorns left behind in autumn—all of these objects are full of beauty and inspiration. Being around and in the natural world as much as possible should be a primary goal of childhood. But while that’s not always possible (we all need to come inside and sleep most nights, don’t we?), it is possible to bring a bit of the outside into our homes and, in effect, into our hearts and souls all the time.
The activities in this chapter are focused on our children and the creative ways in which they can and do connect with the natural world around them. I’ve also included ideas for incorporating the changing seasons within your home so that you can remember the outside world once you’re inside.
Finding Your Spot
I believe it’s important for everyone to have connections to a “spot”—or preferably, many—in our natural world: a special spot where you feel grounded in yourself and connected to the earth; a spot where you find peace and inspiration; a spot that brings you joy and peace in times of stress, sadness, and confusion; a spot you can conjure up mentally and emotionally, even when you’re not actually there.
Don’t let your financial or geographical circumstances get in the way of having a spot. You don’t need to live in a remote rural area to have one; nature can be found in the middle of the woods, the middle of a city, or the middle of your home. And your spot needn’t be an elaborate place; it can be anything from a house built in the treetops to a pot of basil standing in your kitchen. It doesn’t matter what you choose for a spot; what matters is the connection you are making to the earth, the natural world, and ultimately yourselves.
You probably already have spots in your lives that you just haven’t thought of as such, but I encourage you to do so. Start thinking of your spot as yours, and try to spend more time there. Close your eyes and try to hear, touch, and feel your spot so that you may know it as wholly as possible. Allow yourself to just be in your spot, both alone and as a family—I’m sure beautiful moments will be made. The following are some ideas of “spots” in nature that will hopefully inspire you to find or claim a spot of your own—one that speaks to you and your children.
- A large rock on a forest path. A rock that you come across often in your travels, that you can measure your children’s growing height against, that you’ve spent time with, and that you know the feel of.
- A child’s garden. A spot that is planned, designed, nurtured, and cared for primarily by your child. Where they will come to know the soil and what grows well in it. Where they can remember from year to year what was planted, where, how it grew, and especially what it tasted or looked like.
- A climbing tree. A tree that your child is able to climb higher and higher into each year. One that you study to find its species, size, and history; one on which you know the missing
- branches. One that you watch change through the seasons, and see the wildlife living in or visiting. A tree at which you sit and think and feel.
- A port city ferry terminal. A spot where you witness the meeting of nature and human beings. Where you can watch the ways in which people connect, respond, and interact with the vast ocean in front of them. Where you know the type of birds that will appear and can sense their behavior and patterns of flight. Where you hear the sounds of the waves, the harbor activity, and the birds.
- A flower box outside your window. A spot where you can watch seedlings turn into flowering plants. A spot that insects may visit, and where you can watch the changing of a plant with sun and light, and know what it will look like under the evening sky.
- A tree house. A spot in the trees that you build and play in. A spot where you feel as though you are one of the birds, up in the trees, watching the world around, above, and below you.
- A pot of basil grown in your home. A plant you can nurture and watch and know when it is just right for eating.
- A city park bench. A spot where you can hear the mix of people, animals, and nature coming together. Where you see people interacting, animals living, and nature thriving with lots of life around it.
- A lakeside dock.A place where you hear the peaceful lapping of the water on the shore. Where you anticipate the call of a loon, the jump of a fish, the splash of a beaver’s tail. A spot you see change from year to year due to more or less rainwater. A lake where your toes know the temperature before touching the water.
Feeling a connection to the earth and knowing a special spot in the world will nurture a deep love of nature in your children. It is only when we love the earth with passion and intent that we are able to care for, help, and heal it as well.
Seeking the Wild
It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a small patch of dandelions on a tiny strip of city grass or a remote, wide-open lake with room to explore. Whatever the size, whatever the landscape, children have an innate connection to their surroundings. It is when they are in these surroundings that they can find such beauty, enjoy such bliss, and create such imaginative and carefree play. I know I am not alone in having some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around playing outside, with my only toys being the ones the earth provided for me—building homes for the squirrels, running in and around the trees, building a forest of sticks and rocks, covering the ones I loved in sand. When I am with my children out in the world, I see them experiencing the same things. I watch them weave their way around the trees in a forest; jump into the ocean with abandon; and wrap their hands around a pine tree as they climb, getting covered in sap and loving the sticky feeling on their fingers. They aren’t worried about tripping on the roots above the ground, whether or not the water is too cold, whether they have dry clothes to change into, or how many days it will be before all the sap is washed off their hands. These details are the details of adults. It is the job of children to just be in the world. To know it and to fall in love with it. There are no rules in the wilderness; there are no right ways to do things and no limits on what their imaginations can dream up. It is this that makes the wild so critical to their creative growth: limitless freedom and imagination. Every child I have seen can certainly rise to the challenge of creating in the woods. They know how to do this; we just need to give them the space.
I would encourage you, if you don’t already, to create a space in your family’s life for time spent exploring the world around you, whether it is a weeklong backpacking hike in the deep woods or an afternoon trip to Central Park. Find what works best for your family and your interests, and make it a regular part of your lives. Not just the “annual” camping trip, but a regular part of your weekly and, if you can manage, even daily lives. Take advantage of the work of your local land trust and land conservation organizations to discover the woods right in your own backyard. Both urban and rural dwellers have many spots of wilderness to share. Let your children know them.
Our ancestors instinctively knew how to walk through the world—through a forest, through a desert, across a river—and “read” the signs around them. They did so in order to understand a new landscape, to find food, to remember their way home—they did so in order to survive. While the need for survival is certainly not the same today, it does seem that we instinctively want to continue searching, hunting, and seeking in the landscape around us. It’s fun, it’s imaginative, and it’s an adventure. When we are actively seeking, we are fully alive. All of our senses peak as we take in the world around us, and we become present in and full of our surroundings.
Questing is an old tradition that is growing in popularity in the United States and throughout the world. It combines elements of nature exploration, creativity, treasure hunting, community building, and place-based education. Following treasure maps, clues, and hints left by a network of other seekers, you travel through nature to find a hidden object. Through this process, you learn not only the details of a place, but also the spirit of that place. The energy, the atmosphere, the connection to the earth are tangible and experiential things in questing. This is a wonderful opportunity for families to spend time together in their natural world, seeking and searching as a team. It provides not only a connection to the earth, but to a community of fellow seekers as well.
I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.
—Henry David Thoreau
Most adults who garden discovered their love of gardening as children. If the idea of a garden sounds overwhelming to you— with all of the soil preparation, the seed selection, the weeding and watering—then start small. A garden doesn’t need to be elaborate and large to provide us with lessons and a chance for creative exploration. It doesn’t even need to be outside. A windowsill pot of basil or a basic basement plant are both great, easy ways to fit gardening into your life.
If you already garden, give your child a small plot of his own to play with. Let him choose what to grow and decide how to grow it and care for it. If you have a young child, some assistance is helpful, but never force a child to garden. You will probably need to do a lot of behind-the-scenes maintenance to a young one’s garden, so keep that in mind when determining the size, and try not to carry the expectation of them maintaining it if it’s unrealistic for their age. With young children, eliminate the expectation of getting lots of “real” gardening done. Gardening with children should be about exploration, questions, discovery, natural learning, and play. Move piles of dirt around, pull some weeds, watch the bugs, and catch a toad. Marvel at the mysteries of nature and gardening with them. Show them how much you love it, and they will surely follow along and find their own love. As your children get older, they can take a lead in gardening themselves, with you there to assist, guide, and join in their fun. But when they are young, it’s all about the play and fun of gardening. Plant vegetables they love and plants that you know will be successful and encouraging to a young gardener. Depending on your climate, sunflowers, zucchini, and pumpkins are all pretty much “sure things” that will bring smiles to your little ones’ faces as they help and anticipate them growing.
Gardening is truly a creative activity, and the best gardeners plan, design, and record their work. Give your children the space to record their discoveries about the world through gardening with their very own Garden Journals. Begin by giving them a blank, unlined sketchbook with thick paper (for lots of different art mediums to work on), and designate it their Garden Journal. Make this special book just for the purpose of drawing nature and recording the garden. A Garden Journal can be a way to record the growth of your plants/garden from season to season and year to year. Here are some suggestions for what you can include in this book. Don’t forget that these suggestions can just as easily be adapted to a pot of basil on your windowsill rather than a full vegetable garden. It’s all gardening!
Draw a garden plan
Let your imagination run wild as you picture what your plant or garden might look like. How will you set it up? How will you mark the rows? How will you water the plants? For an indoor garden, what pots or containers will you use?
Design plant markers
Use the Garden Journal to design plant markers for your garden. Cut them out and laminate them (our preferred method is covering labels in clear packing tape). Then place them on a stick to mark the garden or plant.
What's in the garden?
Draw the vegetables and plants you’d like to see. And don’t forget the garden “creatures” too! A scarecrow and its visiting crows? What about all those crawly worms and bugs and snakes?
Draw your observations
This could fill a whole book. Make it easy for your children to take their journal and some colored pencils out into the garden to sit for a spell and draw what they see. The plants, the insects, and the food are all good fodder for a young, inspired artist.
Draw the projected growth
What fun it is to draw what you imagine and hope the garden will look like at the end of harvest time and then to compare it to reality when autumn arrives.
Record the weather
This can be as simple as drawing a sun or a cloud for a young child. Soon, they’ll see the correlation between a day of rain and a sudden growth in their sunflower stocks.
That worm crawling through the zucchini plant? Surely he’s on some kind of grand adventure that you and your little one can dream up. Use your garden to inspire fun and creative stories.
Your child’s beautiful Garden Journal will document not only the growth of your garden, but also the growth of your child, who is perhaps a budding gardener himself.
One of my earliest memories is of being at my grandparents’ camp on a lake in Maine and building a home for the squirrels. My memory of everything else about that trip is vague, but I recall fondly and clearly the feeling of working alone for what seemed like hours, busily stacking acorns for a gate, pine needles for soft beds, and twigs for the house. I went to bed dreaming of what would happen to the home and woke excitedly to see if the squirrels had moved in. A few twigs had moved in the night, and I was sure the squirrels had rested there. Perhaps they had.
Years later, my children have discovered a similar love in building fairy houses. I’m sure that children have always built “homes” like this in nature, but there seems to be a strong presence of fairy houses these days. Here in New England, at least, I believe this can be credited to Tracy Kane’s book Fairy Houses, which tells the story of a little girl on vacation in Maine who finds a village of fairy houses and creates one herself. A dreamy and imaginative story, it has now been adapted into video and a live theater performance. In addition, more and more villages of fairy houses have cropped up throughout New England— spots where you’ll find a gathering of fairy homes in the woods, tucked discreetly along a trail.
You needn’t have a fairy village near you to make your first fairy house. With the fun nature of this activity, there’s a likely chance that you will have a fairy village before you know it. The youngest (and oldest) family members can enjoy this activity, and you need nothing with you besides time, imagination, and the toys of the earth. Please keep in mind when building your fairy house to have as low of an impact on the environment as you can. Keep your materials natural, don’t disturb living or growing plants, and keep your home natural-looking. This makes the fairies especially happy. This activity can be done in any landscape, as fairies really do go anywhere and everywhere on the beautiful earth—forest, riverside, desert, beach, and prairie fields.
In line with our local landscape, our fairy houses are often at the base of big tree trunks. There’s no limit to how elaborate you can make your fairy’s home—a house, beds, swings, gardens, furniture, hammocks, and so on. And all of this can be made from what you find around you: pine needles, pinecones, rocks, moss, shells, feathers, grass, acorn caps, sticks, leaves, and much more.
I think you’ll be amazed at how much time you’ll want to spend and how elaborate you’ll want to make your fairy house. Just like when you were a child, this is an activity that is easy to get blissfully lost in. There’s something special about making something so miniature and so magical as a house for the fairies. It’s an activity that’s a gift for you, your children, the earth, and those magical fairies too.
Changing of the Seasons
The decorating that takes place in our home is centered less on the traditional holidays that many people decorate for (such as Halloween, Christmas, or Easter) and more on the changes from season to season. This feels like a natural shift for us, and it seems normal that the decor and energy inside our home would change to match the changes outside. These changes are subtle but vibrant at the same time, and they’re also a reflection of how we’re spending our days. It may be a windowpane filled with leaves and waxed paper, a basket on our dining table full of shells gathered at the beach, a bedside table with a pile of pinecones next to the lamp, or a vase in each room filled with the dandelion picks of the day. It’s something that we all do as we go about our days, gathering bits of what we love and bringing them into the inside space we share. Except for the intentional scattering that I do, for the most part, this decor is the result of the children’s natural placement of things. A pocketful of acorns emptied onto their bathroom shelf at the end of a day seems more to me than just a mess—this little pile of acorns tells a story of how our time was spent and what my little one saw and valued as beautiful on our adventures.
Little bits of nature are scattered throughout the house for us to discover and reflect on, and they change often. However, there is one spot in our house that we use as a constant and consistent place for gathering these bits, and that is on our Nature Table. We began keeping a Nature Table when Calvin was just a young toddler. Some people like to keep similar tables as a display, but it was always important to us to make it something that was not only accessible, but also inviting for children to play with. For that reason, our Nature Table has changed greatly as our children have grown. In the beginning, we would keep it on a low shelf and keep large items on it for safety. As they got older and we didn’t need to worry about chokeable items, we’d include smaller bits. Then when we had both younger and older children, we started keeping two tables—one with the big objects for the youngest and another, up a bit higher, for the older children who wanted to include smaller things. I keep a basket full of Nature Table materials in storage—play silks, watercolor painting postcards, knit animals, felt gnomes, rocks, and shells. I clean out our table with each change of season, bringing the basket out and placing seasonal items on the table. But the table also changes from day to day as the children bring in their gathered bits of treasure. They spend thoughtful, reflective time moving things around on the table and creating scenes with the objects there. There are no rules about keeping a Nature Table, and yours can reflect whatever interests your family and whatever you have available for natural materials. To give you some ideas of what makes its way onto our Nature Table, here are some ideas based on the seasons.
In the spring, our Nature Table is full of signs of new beginnings and reminders of the growth and renewal that is happening all around us. If you saw our table in the spring, you might find a budding leaf in a vase, moss, shells from our first beach trip, a watercolor postcard of tulips, driftwood, chicks and eggs, a found and abandoned bird’s nest, a green play silk to represent the grass, wheatgrass growing in a container, or springtime felt fairies.
This is the most plentiful time of year on our Nature Table, when you might find: shells, rocks, and sand from our beach visits; a blue play silk to represent the blue skies above us; picked flowers in tiny vases; frolicking felt gnomes and fairies; rocks from adventures in the woods; sticks; and driftwood.
In the fall, our Nature Table is full of signs of the harvest with tiny gourds and pumpkins; felt pumpkins; a pile of fallen acorns; fallen wood; leaves of all colors; watercolors and paintings of the fall trees; and play silks in oranges, reds, and yellows to represent the changing colors outside.
The Nature Table is most bare and simplest in appearance in the winter season, as we use it to reflect the barrenness of what we see outside. For our New England landscape, this means white play silks to represent the snow on the ground; raw wool formed into snow friends; a single, small candle to remind us that the light will return; and perhaps red holly berries in a bowl.
One of my children’s favorite pieces of natural home decorating is the Seasons Tree. I don’t always have one out, but throughout the year at various seasonal celebrations, it makes its appearance. The Seasons Tree is something that sits in the center of our dining table and is a lovely mix of the outside world we love so much, as well as the inside handwork and crafting that we do. The basis of the Seasons Tree is as simple as a fallen and found tree, or rather a branch with lots of smaller branches on it. We place this branch in a glass, a vase, a jar, or a bowl filled with either dried beans, rocks, or shells, depending on the season and the weight of the branch. The filler will hold the branch in place in its bowl. Then the fun of decorating our Seasons Tree begins.
Here are some of the ways we’ve used a Seasons Tree in our house.
Fill the tree branches with heart ornaments. Use felt, paper, and lots of glue and embellishments to make hearts, and then place them on string or ribbon for hanging.
Springtime or Easter
The Seasons Tree is a perfect place to display your dyed, painted, and decorated eggs. Just glue a bit of ribbon, string, or fishing wire to the top of each egg, creating a loop for hanging on the branch.
For May Day and the celebration of spring, we decorate the tree in colorful pastels, with ribbons hanging from the branches (much the way a maypole looks), and if we’re lucky, bits of the first tulips found outside as a garland intertwined with the branches.
We don our bare tree with the colorful leaves of the fall season. With bits of paper, we draw or trace leaves, and then color or paint them in appropriate colors. We make a hole in the paper with a paper punch, and add string to hang. We’ve also made leaves from felt squares, hanging them with pieces of twine and string.
The Winter Solstice and Holidays
During the winter holidays, our Seasons Tree transforms into a small holiday tree of its own, covered with our handmade decorative crafts and ornaments. Another idea is to use the tree as an Advent calendar of sorts, with something hanging on the tree for each of the days leading up to your celebrated holiday.