When my children reached elementary school age and we enrolled them in programs that had art classes, we were amazed at how few natural materials were used for art supplies and just how much of it was plastic: glitter glue, colorful plastics for mosaics, acrylic-coated feathers, various items to be “recycled” through art like yogurt cups and plastic straws. The myriad cut-and-paste-style art projects they did were primarily made of art supply store plastics. All too often schools and art classes are cutting corners and can only afford cheaper plastic materials for art supplies.
I would’ve preferred sticks, stones, leaves, sea glass, natural feathers and wood over the pre-fabricated plastic materials my son and daughter were exposed to. These plastics were simply mimicking what’s found readily in nature. I also believe the color palette children are exposed to in those early years, through day-glo style plastics, can affect their color choices later in life. Gone might be an appreciation for natural greens, browns, blues and purples found regularly in the environment. We started to opt out of the popular kinder art projects in preference to doing our own art, making an effort to learn from traditional artists who work with stone, wood, glass, wool, and ceramics. These experiences, for our children, were enriching as they learned quickly that they could create things of beauty from resources found in the natural world, as people have done for millennia.
A coupling of leaves, feathers, and flowers could become a miniature nest or fairy’s bed from a 7-year-old’s imagination.
Or a piece of wood might be whittled into a boat, a stone carved into a work of art. Exposing children to traditional folk art from around the world is a great way to teach them how natural materials that are readily available can be turned into works of beauty.
On a recent trip through South Korea while we were in transit, we took part in a program at the airport in Seoul that teaches traditional art forms. Every time we pass through this airport our children learn a new form of art made from a surprising material. They’ve worked with rice paper to make stone carving prints onto them, they’ve made paper lanterns, they’ve hand painted fans, and they made a tapestry necklace. This time, they learned the Na-Jeon art form, working with mother of pearl-colored shells and shellac from the lac tree.
This highly sophisticated ancient Korean craft utilizes iridescent abalone and conch shells in contrast to a lacquered black wood background, creating a sense of balance and harmony in this mariage of opposites.
The children were given hand mirrors to decorate in the Na (which means “pearl”) Jeon (which means “decorate”) style. The focus and concentration the craft required was mesmerizing for us to watch. And the mirrors will be treasured for years to come in our family.
If you’re looking for some ideas for arts and crafts less plastic, we came up with a list of 20 traditional crafts from natural materials found in and around your home that are easy to try. Copy this list or share the link with your art teacher at school. No need for spending money on cheap plastic art supplies when there are supplies we can contribute from our own homes and backyards: scrap fabric, acorns, sticks, scrap paper, wool sweaters, leaves and sea shells are just a few. Incorporate information about the cultures that started the folk art form you’ll practice so your children appreciate the history behind their craft and how interconnected we all are through our art forms:
1) Doll-Making: Fabric Scrap Dolls have been made for the children of many cultures for centuries.
2) Vegetable Stamps: My favorite veggie to use for stamps is okra. But you can also carve stamps from a potato with excellent results. And the celery rose stamp is absolutely beautiful.
3) Fabric Scrap Mosaic: Reusing fabrics is an art unto itself and certainly has been passed down for generations. Try making a pretty mosaic from your leftover scraps.
4) Embroidery: Try your hand at embroidery. You can even embellish a tired old lampshade to create color in a room.
5) Twig Basket: Collect some long green twigs and make a freeform basket out of them.
6) Origami Tea Bag Folding: Learn the traditional art of origami paper folding using the paper the covers tea bags! If families saved up their tea bag covers, a school art program would have plenty of paper to work with and couldn’t complain about budget constraints.
7) Scrap Paper Flowers: Art classes should save all scrap paper to make these beautiful flowers. Or toilet paper rolls are all you need to make these flowers.
8) Fallen Leaf Art: There are many beautiful artistic creations you can craft from leaves.
9) Scrap Paper Tree: This pretty craft utilizes tiny pieces of your favorite scrap paper as well as sticks collected from outdoors.
10) Seashell Arts: We’ve made mobiles from sea shells and endless mosaics. These seashell koalas would make any child happy.
11) Tin Topiary: Use pie tins to make these beautiful tin flowers.
12) Knitting: With some saved-up chopsticks, you can teach anyone how to knit.
13) Felting: Learn how to felt your wool sweaters.
14) Rubbings: Make rubbings for things natural or extraordinary.
15) Weaving: DIY weaving is easy and a great craft to do with scrap yarn and fabric strips. You can even make your own loom.
16) Phone Book Paper Painting Meditation: Teach the kids meditation by doing phone book paper art.
17) Sock Crafting: If you’re in need of a stuffed animal, try making one from a sock.
18) Hand-Made Valentines: Valentines are an original folk art scrap hack.
19) Stencils: You can make stencils from food boxes and use beets as your ink dye.
20) Driftwood Sculptures: If you collect enough of a variety, driftwood lends itself to creative art from their smooth appealing shapes.
What crafts from materials readily-available can you add? We love to make things from what’s abundant around us!