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Let There Be Light

Age: 3 to 8+ Time: 1 hour+
Materials: glass jar per child, glue, water, tissue paper
Skills: Naturalist, Fine Motor, Sensory, Self Esteem, Focus & Self Control, Creativity

A few years ago, we stumbled on this lovely way to flip the script on “fall back”— make lanterns to light up the first night of darkness.

If wildly different cultures share fall lantern-lighting festivals, from the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated in China and Vietnam to Germany's St. Martin's Day festival, there must be some magic to the practice. Here's our perspective: the frustrating loss of daylight we used to rage against each time daylight saving time ended (aka “fall back”) is actually an incredible opportunity to stop and be mindful of the cycles of nature. It is also a chance to teach kids not to fight but to make the most of change—habits of mind that will help them navigate life. And, what better way to construct a learning moment than to take children outdoors at night with a colorful lantern that they have made?

Not to mention, the act of making a lantern helps kids to develop self control, fine motor skills, creativity and sense of self. With or without help from an adult, depending on their ages, children can create their very own lantern. Your job? Support the making and add a handle so they are ready for a good evening stroll. Then, get out there at dusk, light the lanterns and watch darkness fall. It’s quite amazing, really. If you are lucky enough to live near a Tinkergarten leader, join his or her Fall Lantern Walk!

The Guide

There's no shortage of ways to make lanterns. We really like this method and love doing it outside.

  1. Get an empty jar: Mason jars are ideal, but you can use any jar that has a screw-top lid.
  2. Cut tissue paper pieces: Cut up sheets of tissue paper of various fall colors (color palette varying by your climate) into squares, rectangles, triangles, leaf shapes and other random shapes.
  3. Prepare glue mixture: Make a 1:1 ratio of water and Elmer's glue (or equivalent) and make sure you have enough containers (e.g. yogurt cups) so everyone can reach a some with their paintbrushes.
  4. Demonstrate how to apply tissue paper: Use a paintbrush to apply the glue/water mixture to a small portion of the glass jars. Then, they pick a piece of tissue paper and press it on top of the gluey glass surface. Keep doing this (brush on glue, stick on tissue) until you’ve covered the jar. I encourage kids not to paint glue on top of the paper. Most kids glue with such gusto that they drench and rip the paper. Ultimately, though, they should (and will) do it their way.
  5. Let the kids do their making...and let them make a mess! The product should look like a little kid made it, and it will still look gorgeous all lit up!
  6. Dry, then seal the lanterns: Let the lanterns dry for a day or two. If you want them to last, use a brush to generously but gently apply either the same type of glue and water mixture or a sealer like Mod Podge outdoor formula onto your child's lantern. If you can, let the lanterns dry for a few days before the big night.
  7. Attach a string handle: If you have a mason jar, remove the center of the lid, leaving only the metal rim. Tie a knot around the lid on two opposite points (i.e. at 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock). When you twist the rim onto the jar, hold the two knots of twine, and the lid should twist on and secure them in place. If you are not using a mason jar, tie the string tightly around the neck of the jar, under the rings. Take another piece of string and tie a knot on two opposite sides of the jar (again, think 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock).
  8. Walk the walk: When it's finally time, take the lanterns outdoors and bring some extra string, tea light candles (at least two per lantern, since some die out quickly) and either a long match or fire starter. Hit the local park, backyard or favorite green space. Wait until the sun is about to set, then prompt your child to notice how night begins to fall as you light the lanterns. Stand still or walk, or form a circle if you have a group. Be quiet. Look. Listen. Smell. Feel.
  9. Make it an event: You can keep this in the family or organize a lantern lighting walk in your hood. If you are the cruise-director type (or have that friend who just loves to play that role), team up and gather friends to meet up outdoors on that first Sunday evening after we’ve turned back the clocks. If you have a Tinkergarten leader nearby see if he or she is organizing a Lantern Walk in your area and join in!

Why is this activity great for kids?

In addition to helping your kids learn to embrace and even celebrate life's inevitable changes, this activity helps kids develop several critical skills.

As kids hold and use a paintbrush, pick up delicate tissue paper squares, and press the paper firmly but gently into place, they develop fine motor control in their hands. If you know that your child struggles with this, work “as a team” with him or her on the frustrating parts. Working with tricky materials like glue, tissue paper (especially outside in the fall breeze) and a round jar requires that kids attend to the task at hand. Plus, they have to resist the temptation of other pursuits and stay focused until the task is complete. Kids also have to pay close attention to their lanterns once lit, or they could easily blow out!

Provided you let kids do as much lantern decorating on their own as they can, their approach to lantern-making is also a window into who they are. We have seen it all, including: “I will only use brown today”; “I will add the most so my lantern stands out;”and even “Okay, looks good, now can I collect sticks?” Kids make their own choices about the colors, shapes and placement they use, expressing their tastes and sense of design. When a finished product feels to a child the true result and reflection of him or herself, then he or she develops a sense that "I am capable" and that "I am worthy." These are aspects of a positive self concept that kids will need to tackle academic and social challenges as well as to find and maintain happiness in life.

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We think all families should be learning outside. Try this activity with your child and begin to see the power in outdoor, play-based learning. Have fun!

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