Pipe cleaner cake

Here’s a simple mess-free, preparation free activity for chilly wintery days. Or other days. It’s great for practicing hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

All you need are pipe cleaners and a colander to poke them into.

My 4 year old has done this before, though not recently. He was busy playing when Elly started this activity/insisted on taking a bag from the crafts box, but he was keen to get stuck in once he noticed and he spent longer on it than I had thought he would. He independently decided to sort the pipe cleaners by colour and arranged them accordingly too. He even asked for more pipe cleaners once he had used up all the ones Elly had taken out. He wanted to make it into a cake for Daddy.

Elly had a good go too, but needed help to get the pipe cleaners through the holes. As with most things, being only 19 months means his attention span is not very long so he wandered off pretty quickly.

Marble painting

A classic minimal-mess painting activity! We used marbles (!) a click-seal food storage box, yogurt pots for coating our marbles in paint and spoons for scooping them into the box.

I’ve tried this a few times before with Zeph but until now he hasn’t been super interested. This time round he got a lot of joy from shaking the box around, and Elly couldn’t wait to take a turn either – probably because big brother was having so much fun.

Here’s how we did it:

1 – Squeeze paint into the yogurt pots – for Elly, this is the best part, sometimes the only part, of any painting activity. It used to be the same for Zeph, but at 4, he has started to enjoy the actual painting bit too. Even when the painting is not on himself.

2 – Drop marbles into the paint.

3 – Put a sheet of paper in the bottom of your box.


4 – Use a spoon to cover the marble in paint and scoop it into your box.


6 – Open up to see what you made.

Here are our first two, done one after another using the same marbles and without adding any extra paint. Lots of red – Zeph’s favourite colour! I love using art like this to cut out shapes and stick on homemade cards or use as gift labels.

This is my favourite one – Elly shook the box mostly on it’s side which meant the paint stayed more towards the bottom of the paper.


For this one we tried mixing pom poms with the marbles… Zeph insisted we still use at least some marbles, so the effect isn’t all that different the way it came out in the end.

20180208_1947551550704925.jpgAnd finally, Zeph tried shaking the marbles in an empty box before taking them out and then putting the paper in on top of the paint. I guess he got this idea because we’ve done printing style paining things before. He actually got into the box and stepped all over the paper to get the paint onto it.

I should add a caution though… despite its potential to be a minimal-mess activity, if your kids are anything like mine, it will probably end up messy anyway.

Swamp small world

Up until now, I’ve done a lot of messy, sensory activities with my kids, many of which would at some point involve my oldest asking for his cars (if he didn’t already have them), and using them with any material to make little role plays and stories. What we haven’t done, and what I’ve recently been very excited to start exploring, is small world play.

So here was our first attempt: a small world swamp. The kids helped me make it first, which may or may not have been a good idea… I think they kind of had fun, but I had a particular idea of what I wanted to achieve before letting them loose on it so I was limiting their input and creativity in this stage.


We used food coloured cornflour gloop for the swamp (mix water and cornflour, super easy); borrowed some of the rabbit’s sawdust as swamp mulch; made some spiky swamp grass by sticking cocktail sticks into polystyrene balls; used green pompoms for swamp bushes; and added some lollipop sticks for logs (some real twigs and stones would have been great, but it’s been freezing and we’ve all been sick on and off… also, as much as my sons would like it, I don’t allow them to keep a stash of sticks and stones in the tiny apartment). Finally we added some insects, spiders and a crocodile.

The first thing both of them were interested in was the gloop. Elly started digging at it with a lollipop stick and Zeph started squishing bugs into it to make prints. Then, they pretty quickly moved on to sprinkling and then tipping the sawdust into the gloop. Zeph’s crocodile started eating sawdust, and after we tipped off the excess, they both had a go at making circle shaped prints with toilet roll middles.

At this point Elly retired for a long milk break. Meanwhile Zeph spent a long time tipping the messy tray this way and that to watch the mulchy gloop sliding around. Now, when I first said activity time and started setting things out, Zeph immediately went and got some cars and laid them out too. I think he was was a little bit confused when I wanted to put them aside for the beginning at least. The cars did get a look in at this point though. I thought it was the end of any kind of themed small world play, but actually they were only out for a couple of minutes before he set them aside again to concentrate on the crocodile and the wonderful swamp mixture he was concocting!

The crocodile went from gloop to sawdust and back again. It got buried, and stuck and sprinkled. It was force-fed sawdust. The spiky swamp grass got pulled apart and mixed into the gloop. Zeph asked for more water to make the gloop more liquid, and he asked for shapes that he used to scoop and tip. Until, finally, he had enough.

Did it stay a small world play activity all the way through? No. But was it lots of fun and a good activity? Yes!

What happens when….? Exploring temperature and conduction

What happens to metal when it comes into contact with a hot liquid? What about plastic? Or wood? What happens when they touch a cold liquid? What happens when you mix something hot with something cold?

Today we did an experiment to find out.

We started out with three pots of water: one was hot from the kettle (be aware of your child’s development and understanding if you want to do this – my 19 month old knows about hot and not to touch it, and I supervised closely), the second was lukewarm, the third had ice cubes in it to make it really cold.

Then we took our implements – three metal spoons, three plastic spoons, wooden spatula and a couple of silicone ones – and started dipping them into the different pots of water.

The handles of the metal spoons quickly turned the same temperature as the water they were in. The plastic ones took longer to feel any affect and didn’t get so hot or so cold, and the wooden and silicone handles didn’t really change temperature at all!

We found out that metal conducts heat better than plastic, which conducts heat better than wood or silicone. We did talk about the differences, but we didn’t get around to talking about why the free electrons in metals allow heat to transfer more quickly. My little scientists were more interested in mixing the ice and hot water to see the ice melt and the water become warm. In fact, that was definitely the best bit. Maybe next time.



We recently did a dig activity. I’ve seen this done by mixing damp sand and flour and leaving it to dry, but we just used soil from our (currently empty) flower pots.

My 19 month old quite likes dinosaurs, and although my 4 year old has never been terribly interested, he was having a minor phase. The older one also has an enduring enthusiasm for pirates and treasure, so I wanted to incorporate both ideas.

I buried a few dinosaurs and some silver coins made of shiny cardboard, used Shrek to make some footprints on the surface of the soil and left him in mid-discovery of a coin, just waiting for the kids to find and assist him. I also threw down a plastic sheet to catch spilt soil and make the clean up easier, and made sure to have an old towel to hand so I could wipe the kids down before rushing them through the house to the bath.

Once they noticed the box on the verandah they went straight for the invitation of nearby spoons and got stuck in.

Elly did a little bit of poking around, but was much more interested in the prospect of an impending bath. Zeph enjoyed it enough to tip it all back in and start over once he had finished digging all the soil out. He didn’t do a whole dig the second time round, preferring then to tip soil between the containers and climb into it.