Building Fairy Houses Promotes Learning, Creative-Free Play & Citizen Science

Building Fairy Houses Promotes Learning, Creative-Free Play & Citizen Science

By Andrea Caluori-Rivera
MassLIFT AmeriCorps Member at Hilltown Land Trust & Kestrel Land Trust

A few weeks ago kids gathered at Hilltown Land Trust’s Bradley Sanctuary in Williamsburg to explore the woods and build fairy houses for future trail visitors to see.

The task was simple: head out into the woods, collect items, choose a spot and start building.  Two hours later, the entrance to Bradley’s woods featured creative structures leaning against tree trunks, hiding behind rocks, or settled right on the trail.  Each house was unique and showed an innovative use of materials: sticks, acorn caps, fallen leaves, moss, lichen, birch bark and more.  While we were out collecting materials, we came across salamanders, heard birds, and observed the different textures and colors nature offered to help us create our little structures.  It was a great way to spend a Saturday morning and wonderful activity that fosters skills such as teambuilding, creative play, engineering, design and citizen science. Hilltown Land Trust’s Bradley Sanctuary is open to the public and available for you and your family to build your own simple fairy houses! Read the rest of this entry »

DIY Cinnamon Ornaments for the Holidays

Cinnamon Ornaments. A Simple Craft for the Holiday

During a time of year when mass produced, environmentally unfriendly, and personality-free items are consumed more than ever, it’s incredibly refreshing to keep things not only handmade but simple! This becomes especially important once kids are involved, due to the unique combination of immense creativity and short attention span that the youngest of us often have.

Homemade apple cinnamon ornaments make a great craft for families with kids, and are particularly fun for young children – they’re simple to make, easy to personalize, don’t involve glitter or glue, and the dough is harmless if it’s accidentally ingested. An added bonus of this DIY project is that the ornaments smell fantastic, and will continue to add cinnamon-y goodness to your home during the holidays for years to come… Read the rest of this entry »

Expressing Appreciation to Teachers & Administrators as the School Year Draws to an End

End of the School Year Gratitude & Appreciation

Do you have suggestions on gifts to give teachers and administrators to thank them for the past school year? Add your ideas to our reader recommend list!

End of the school year is fast approaching and many families are looking for creative ways to express their gratitude of the teachers and administrators that educate and support their children throughout the school year!

Gift ideas can range from making something from scratch in your kitchen, to pairing up store bought sweets for a fun association that expresses your appreciation, to a summer themed gift basket for enjoying their time off, or a clever presentation of a gift card. Check out these terrific ideas!

As always, Hilltown Families’ readers are a great resource for ideas! Take a look at their recommendations shared in our post, End of the Year Teacher Appreciation Gifts, get inspired, and share your own ideas too!

DIY: Repurposed Planters for Paperwhites For Giving

DIY Pictorial: Yarn Wrapped Tin Can Planters

By Amber Ladley

When Hilltown Families asked Knack: The Art of Clever Reuse to come up with a creative (and decorative) way to help families plant Paperwhite bulbs donated by Hadley Garden Center at the first ever Hilltown Families’ Family Community Service Night, we put our clever minds to work. Our goal was to have an activity that was easy enough for people of all ages, and messy wasn’t an option. Families would be traveling with their Community Passports to help out at a total of five volunteer stations, so we wanted to keep things simple yet creative. Our solution was yarn wrapped tin can planters… and it turned out to be quite a success!

Yarn wrapping tin cans is the perfect small group activity. After decorating the cans, families filled them with one-third gravel, set a Narcissus papyraceus bulb on top, and attached an eco-friendly gift tag & care instructions. Families got to take home lovely decorated tin can planters to donate to a community center or give to a person of their choice. Everyone really loved the activity and Macey and I enjoyed facilitating the Winter Blossom Station, answering questions and seeing all of the colorfully wrapped cans that went home with participating families.

If you don’t have any bulbs to plant, you could also make cans to be used as an organizer for the…kitchen (chopsticks)…office (pens, pencils)…kids’ creative space (crayons, markers)…craft space (buttons, corks, glue sticks, paint chips)….share any other thoughts or comments you may have below. Also, you don’t have to stick with yarn– try fabric scraps, twine, or ribbon!

DIY Tutorial: Yarn Wrapped Tin Cans

Here are the instructions, so you can do-it-yourself (DIY) or with your friends, family, or classroom. Enjoy!

Materials Needed

  • Clean & empty tin can*
  • Yarn (great project for leftovers!)
  • Double-sided tape
  • Scissors
  • Gift tags (optional)

*Be careful when handling can, edges may be sharp. It is helpful to grind down the inside rim with a grinding stone or dremel, or you can pinch the rim with needle-nose pliers, or cover it with duct tape. Adults should handle removing sharp edges before giving the can to a small child. Older children should be reminded not to stick their hand in the can to prevent getting cut.

Amber Ladley – Amber enjoys creating everything from food, to crafts, to websites. She is a mom of two young boys, Jack and William, who are currently being homeschooled by her husband, Tim. Amber and her friend, Macey, are co-founders of Knack: The Art of Clever Reuse, a new socially responsible for-profit business on a mission to open a creative reuse center for the Pioneer Valley.

Little Homes for Little Folks: Make Your Own Gnome Home

Little Homes for Little Folks
By Alethea Morrison of North Adams, MA

(Photo credits: Mars Vilaubi)

As a child, I would try to make gnome houses out of twigs and moss, always with rather disappointing results, but one of the best things about being a parent is getting to relive parts of your childhood with the skills of an adult. The opportunity to try my hand again at building a miniature house presented itself when our favorite neighbor cleared some trees in the woods. My son Xavier was distressed for the scores of Bwidgewits who were surely displaced. We sprang into action, building a lodge for them out of scrap bricks and slate and covering it with moss. It wasn’t half bad for a first effort.

Then I discovered the Storey book Nature’s Art Box, which has projects for crafting things from natural materials, including directions for some little houses made from bark and twigs and moss. This was going to be a dream come true for me. At the first blush of spring, my son and I collected materials, then dried the soggy wood in the garage for a few weeks. When it was ready, we assembled our toolbox, including the secret weapon not available to me as a kid — a hot glue gun.

  • The first step was to cut the walls. The directions indicated garden clippers should be used, but my bark was pretty thick, and I ended up using a bow saw.
  • Then I used my friend the glue gun to bind the walls together. Bark doesn’t have very straight edges, so for a greater area of contact, I taped the joints using thin sheets of birch bark.
  • Twigs, also hot-glued for adhesion, make a roof.
  • A carpet of moss over the roof makes it look so much homier.
  • The pine-cone chimney was Xavier’s idea and, in my opinion, was a stroke of genius.
  • The moss door makes the house Greyling-proof, since they are afraid of moss and other lovely things.
  • We added a pine-cone door knob, too.
  • Xavier wanted the door to be able to swing open, which I thought was a pretty tall order, but the moss was already attached to thin, flexible bark, and it wasn’t so hard after all.
  • Nature’s Art Box also had directions for some miniature furnishings, which we made to fit into the house.

Within a week, we were very gratified to see a bunny come to visit the house and whisper through the walls to the Bwidgewits. Was he soliciting advice and protection, passing along gossip, or maybe just asking permission to eat the hay we lay in front of the little house over new grass seed? If only we knew.


Alethea Morrison is the Creative Director for Storey Publishing, a local publisher based out of North Adams, MA.  Storey has been publishing wonderful how-to books on do-it-yourself titles that are down-to-earth and always inspiring for over 25 years!  Topics range from gardening, cooking, crafts, nature science, animal care, farming, traditional skills and home improvement.  Read Alethea’s other blog posts at Inside Storey, the online community of Storey Publishing.

DIY: Mexican Sugar Skulls

A Culinary Folk Art for Day of the Dead
By Sienna Wildfield

Making Mexican Sugar Skulls-52.JPG

In the studio with Hilltown Families Guest Artist Marie Westburg of ArtStar in Williamsburg, MA making Mexican Sugar Skulls for Day of the Dead.  (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

What better avenue for children to explore and discover different cultures than FOOD?!  Right? … We all eat.  And whether it’s a yearly birthday cake, fish on Friday, pancakes on Sunday, or a couple of loaves of challah on a Friday night, most of us routinely and joyfully participate in different food traditions.  The culinary experience of exploring food customs from around the world can bring families an integrated course of study on cultural traditions and arts.

This time of year in Central and Southern Mexico, in preparation for the Mexican holiday El Diá de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), mounds of Sugar Skulls are sold in open air markets.  The Day of the Dead is on November 2nd and we’ve explored this Mexican holiday in a previous post: El Diá de los Muertos (Video & Resources).  Making Mexican Sugar Skulls with your kids is a creative hands-on project that can aid in the exploration of this traditional Mexican Folk Art while affording an opportunity to discuss and participate in one of the various customs of this Mexican celebration.

Hilltown Families Guest Artist Marie Westburg of ArtStar, an art enrichment studio in Williamsburg, MA, recently invited us over to make this sweet Mexican culinary folk art.  In her cozy studio our kids got together and crafted skulls out of sugar and meringue powder and decorated them with bags of colorful icings, beads and sequins.  It’s a fun project to make with a group of friends, but give yourself enough time.  The skulls take 12-24 hours to harden before they can be decorated. To follow is a DIY for this fun seasonal activity:  Read the rest of this entry »

Create an Eco-Savvy Basket for Spring

DIY: Halloween Paper-Maché Piñatas

In the studio with Hilltown Families Guest Artist, Kara Kitchen

Halloween Pinata (c) Hilltown Families

Halloween Pinata (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

The history of piñatas is rich, with historical traditions found in China, Europe, and Mexico, and are made out of a variety of materials, including clay pots, tissue paper, ribbons and paper-maché. In Mexico, piñatas were originally clay pots filled with sweets and treasures, later transformed into a seven-point star with religious symbolism. In today’s modern world, piñatas come in a menagerie of traditional and commercial characters and icons.

Families from the Hilltown Families Listserv gathered two Sunday afternoons in a row to make paper-maché piñatas with balloons for Halloween (click here to see more photos). In this two-day workshop kids made paper-maché piñatas the shape of traditional Halloween icons, including a carved pumpkin, a skull and cross-bones, and a black bat. And one child made a kangaroo piñata to use at her birthday next summer.


Making a paper-mache pinata. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Making a paper-maché piñata is a two-step process. The first is to create a hollow paper-maché animal or shape and then allow it to dry. The second is to glue, paint and tie it all together.


Gather your supplies. You’ll need:

  • White flour and water (wheatpaste)
  • Large plastic bowl
  • Newspaper strips
  • Balloon
  • Large drinking glass
  • Tape
  • String

  1. First make your wheatpaste. The recipe is simple: Combine one part white flour with two parts water in a large plastic container, adjusting amounts to get the right paste-like consistency. Mix well until all the lumps of flour are gone. If you store the paste, add a few tablespoons of salt. We discovered later, after the lid blew-off, that wheatpaste doesn’t keep for a week otherwise.
  2. Prepare newspaper strips by folding a newspaper in half and tear into strips. Then, unfold the strips and tear in half. Make enough strips to cover the surface of your balloon twice, at least.
  3. Blow up a large balloon. Place the tied end into the opening of a large drinking glass to hold it up-right while adding paper-maché strips.
  4. To add paper-maché strips of newspaper to your balloon, dip strips into the paste and then squeeze off the excess with your fingers. Add enough layers of paper-maché strips so the color of the balloon is not visible through the newspaper.
  5. Tie string to the top of the balloon and hang until completely dry.


Halloween Pinata (c) Hilltown Families

Making a kangaroo paper-mache pinata. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Gather your supplies. Depending on what you’re making, your supplies may vary. To make any of the designs we chose, you will need the following:

  • Paper & pencil
  • Tempera paint
  • Small sponge brushes
  • Glue gun
  • Old button down
  • Hair dryer
  • Cardboard
  • Scissors
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Twine
  • Matte finish spray

  1. Halloween Pinata (c) Hilltown FamiliesFirst draw out your design to determine the cardboard cut-outs needed. For a kangaroo we needed to cut out legs, a tail, face and ears. The bat needed a pair of wings and the skull and cross-bones needed two bone cut-outs. The classic Halloween Jack-O-Lantern was the simplest of the four designs.
  2. Once you have your design, use the edge of your balloon to trace the curve of the balloon into your cut-out template, then cut out your pieces.
  3. Cover your surface with newspaper and warm up your hot glue gun. Glueing the card board pieces to the balloon is for adults to manage. The glue is way too hot to let the young ones use. Ask any of the adults who got hot glue on their hands during this process. Ouch!
  4. The glue dries pretty quickly, so just hold steady with your cut-out while waiting for it to adhere. Add any extra glue if needed. Note: The glue will not adhere to a wet paint surface, so make sure everything is well glued on during this step to avoid ears or wings falling off during the painting process.
  5. Halloween Pinata (c) Hilltown FamiliesNow the fun begins. Get your vats of paint ready with small sponge paint brushes for each color and put those old button-down shirts on the kids, backwards. They make great smocks. Once your child has put a base coat on, go over again to smooth out the paint and patch up and missed spots.
  6. Use the hair dryer to speed up the drying process. Paint and glue on any details. Use pipe cleaners for eyes, leaves, ears or even a pouch.


Halloween Pinata (c) Hilltown FamiliesAnother decorative option is to cover your unpainted paper-maché piñata with fringed tissue paper as illustrated in the pictures below. We used recycled tissue paper saved from last year’s holiday season. These fringed piñatas look like colorful eggs and would make great Springtime decorations.

  1. Fold strips of tissue paper in half and seal with a line of paper glue.
  2. Cut fringe just 1/2-inch shy of glue line.
  3. Place another line of glue on your strip of tissue paper.
  4. Adhere to your paper-maché piñata, repeating with another layer just above, slightly overlapping. 

[Photo credits: Sienna Wildfield]

Kara KitchenKara Kitchen is a public high school art teacher with a BFA from Mass Art and MEd from Lesley University, currently offering art workshops and individual instructions at her barn art studio. She is a mother of twins and lives with her husband in Plainfield, MA.

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