Crafts to inspire Imaginative Play – Ideas from StoryHug Family Workshops

Simple craft activities can be a way of inspiring new stories and encouraging creativity in play. Sometimes a way in is needed to great ideas, an indirect unconscious pathway into the secret nooks of the imagination, to stories quietly waiting to be found and brought into the open.

Unique wonderful worlds can arise from cardboard and glue and Lego and any small toys – worlds that once initiated will be intricately put together for hours, played with for days, weeks…

A favourite material at StoryHug workshops is safe, cheap, incredibly tactile SALT DOUGH!Making with our hands: holding, breaking, cutting, choosing, colouring-in even the most simple creations can bring about the magic of inspiration, a sudden burst of vision, a new story idea to coax into shape.


In the workshops I asked the children to make items for our puppet show later – here it was: ‘something nice to eat’! The instructions provided a focus which inspired a vast array of fantastical creations, for creativity really does thrive on restrictions and constraints (as discussed in this intriguing Ted Talk here).

Later, for the puppet show, I had a rapt and delighted audience when the children’s creations made their appearance on the tabletop puppet stage, and even helped to appease a hungry tiger!

Salt dough is so soft and pliant and mouldable, it warms in your hands… it appeals also to older children who linger longer, making more detailed creations…

And grown-ups too can play… salt dough is perfect for making quick and simple items for doll houses and props for Woodland Puppet shows, such as bowls and vases:

Salt dough beads (when hard) can be strung to form magical necklaces…

…for a puppet show perhaps (here two woodland characters make a necklace for a doll princess!), or they can be used when dressing up by children…

Of course Fairy Babies can be made of salt dough too!

The dolls are made in advance, and left plain and unpainted so that the children can colour in faces, hair and clothes with felt-tip pens. The cradles are made from egg-boxes and covered by the children with torn strips of bright tissue paper glued on with PVA glue which dries harder and makes the cradles feel more solid – or glue stick for less mess! Then we add pastel-coloured cotton wool balls for soft bedding:

Making people is the best beginning for making new worlds: homemade dolls always feel more alive than bought ones!

Plain wooden PEG DOLLS bought from a craft shop can be coloured in with felt tips and given felt clothes attached with a glue such as Copydex glue:

…and given homes of boxes decorated in origami papers and scraps of fabric:

Miniature houses are always of interest – and, it seems the more handmade and (ahem) quirky they are, the more they inspire children to enter into the lives of inhabitants.

This is a cardboard house I made for a simple wooden doll I carved, with a few items of ‘rustic’ dolls house furniture found on eBay:

‘People’, of course, come in all shapes and sizes… these were made with scrunched up newspaper , old socks and furry fabric and buttons by my eight-year old assistant:

All combinations of materials can be used:

Here Plasticine and conkers:

FELT is easy to sew into simple little people with wool hair and minimal expressive features:

Even in 2D making ‘people’ can result in the most intricate characters:

CARDBOARD puppets can be drawn simply and quickly in pen old packaging or onto white printer paper then stuck on, or traced out of books, and coloured-in with felt-tips. The puppets will come alive in stories when stuck with glue stick onto wooden lolly sticks or coffee stirrers…

Cardboard puppets can also be collaged with leaves and petals and grasses…

Collaging with natural materials leads to highly original responses as new characters are defined by the unique shapes and colours of the leaves and petals.

For the Grimms’ tale of Jorinda and Joringel we made birds to hang on a string tied around the trees in a woodland corner:

Responding to the organic natural forms of plant materials can lead to intriguing drawings: here are fabulous elves and fairies and strange sweet magical tree-people made by children who stood silent for a while, then wandered around a community garden finding their plant sources, glued them onto cardboard with total concentration then started to draw…

Here we collaged scrap cardboard to make masks:

Using the art we make in imaginative play and the making of stories brings a deepening engagement to the story circle at the end of the workshop where we make up a story together spontaneously before I perform a short table top puppet play with the same story elements.  Here, with the beautiful masks, we recreated a Palace Ball where a thief finds himself transformed by his own goodness and finds love with a wise princess. Throughout the telling of the story, my (mostly) involved and highly attentive audience held on to those masks, listening with new understanding!


Home as a Way of Being: The Story of Sealskin Explored in the Project ‘Displacement Dwelling Home’ at Sydenham Garden, Lewisham

Sydenham Garden is a magical place…

… a shelter, a forest,

…a sunlit glade,

…a place where art and nature are embraced in activities to promote healing, creativity and community. It embodies the concept of home as a way of being, a place to be free and true and vital, as is contained in the story of Sealskin.

Sealskin is the magical tale of a seal-woman forced to assume a conventional land-bound existence until her physical decline compels her to relinquish the life she has built and return to her wild home beneath the sea. It is a tale of freeing oneself of social norms and attachments and finding a way back to a place of nurture and understanding.

At the beginning of the story, the seal-woman and her friends shed their skins to dance in the moonlight. When the seal-woman’s skin is stolen by a lonely fisherman who disturbs the dancing women, the seal-woman’s friends are able to leap back into the protection of their own sealskins and return to the safety of the sea but the seal-woman is left trapped on the rocks, exposed and terrified, compromised into agreeing to live with the fisherman until he returns her skin to her.

There is a seeming conflict in the significance of the sealskin this story, as initially it is shed to allow the seal-women to dance freely, but a different freedom comes with wearing their skins which allows them to escape into the depths of the ocean, a truer realm.

“The pelt in this story is not so much an article as the representation of a feeling state and a state of being – one that is cohesive, soulful… The return to the wildish state periodically is what replenishes.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes in ‘Women Who Run With Wolves’

The dilemma of the seal-woman is perhaps indicative of the conflicts of living a full and creative life: there is a time for shedding one’s skin, for revealing talents and beauty, but there is also the need to go where we are safe to make our art and connect with ourselves, to  draw, paint, write, dance, sing alone and in the company of others like ourselves who support and understand.

Without her skin, the seal-woman lives on land as a human, but as the years pass she begins to decline. When she finally gets back her skin, its containment frees her, enabling her to return to the depths of the ocean where she is truly herself, wild and free. The resumption of the skin thus enables her return home, to a home that is neither place nor building; home as a place of rightness.

When we swim down deep into our thoughts and feelings and imagination we find our own wildness, our truth and we are able to nourish ourselves.

“It takes will and force… but it can be done…one will awaken to the voice calling from home, calling one back to the core self where one’s immediate wisdom is whole and accessible.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes in ‘Women Who Run With Wolves’

We all need such a home, a place for aloneness and togetherness, for making our own art and sharing it with others.

Small gifts were brought in spontaneously – on this occasion, a ring of shells, uncannily appropriate to the under-water theme of the workshop!

Sometimes in our workshops there was total silence, a warm gentle deeply-focussed quiet out of which playful exploratory unique personal artworks grew. 

We used watercolour resist-techniques to make concertina books (also known as leporello books) inventing characters who are transformed underwater into wild and fantastical selves.

“Stories awaken a sense of movement and colour and design that helps the conscious mind to contact the essence of a scene or character.”

Nancy Mellon in ‘Storytelling and the Art of Imagination’

The period of making art prior to sitting in our story circle was vital to creating the feeling of freedom and generosity, the expansiveness to dream and invent from which good stories are made. Out of the circle of talk and laughter wonderful stories emerged, playful, sweet, true.  

Even after participants went home, they carried on working! Exquisite, heart-felt poems and short stories appeared in private hours, were written down and read out the following week – stories seemingly born out of the simplest of fairytale prompts.

“The imaginative world, though an unstable region, is a profoundly real one. In it is constant motion and transformation… gradually you can orient yourself and interpret what is happening there.”

Nancy Mellon in ‘Storytelling and the Art of Imagination’

Making art and making stories together, exploring the old tales with their simple words and strange images, their layers of meaning, messages, ideas and solace – it is a way to releasing the imagination and letting it lead us to creativity and connection; a way to being at home in the world.


A StoryHug Workshop at Barnardo’s – Making Dolls and a Story

StoryHug workshop
StoryHug paper doll workshop

We made paper dolls for a story, with an envelope house where they could live, secret and out of sight, living the quiet mysterious magical life of dolls.

StoryHug workshop
Baba Yaga and her Hut in the Woods from the story of Vasalisa The Beautiful- (source unknown)

Using story prompts: a girl, an old woman, a doll – the same prompts that might give us Vasalisa the Beautiful…

we made up the following fantastical tale, just me and the fantastic little storytellers in our story circle:

Once upon a time there was a doll who lived in a castle. She had been left in a cupboard long ago, in one of the many forgotten rooms of the castle and no one knew that she was there. All day long the doll talked. She talked and talked but nobody heard her – except for an old woman who came to sweep the floor of the room.

“Fairy party! Fairy party!” The old woman stopped her work and listened to the tiny voice.

‘I wonder where that sound is coming from – I think it’s coming from that cupboard over there,” the old woman said and opened the cupboard door.

She peered into the darkness, but her old eyes saw nothing. But as she stood listening to the voice go on talking, a little girl who lived in the palace went past and the old woman called her into the room.

“Can you hear that noise?” the old woman asked.

The little girl listened.

 “It’s coming from that cupboard,” she said and they opened the cupboard door again and looked inside.

Well, the little girl always ate her carrots so she had very good eyes.

“There’s a doll in there,” she said at once and reached deep into the shadows at the back of the cupboard, bringing out an old doll.

“At last!” said the doll. “There’s a fairy party in the garden tonight! You’ll be allowed in if you take me with you.”

 “Ooh let’s go!” the little girl cried.

“Yes, let’s!” The old woman grinned. She had always wanted to go to a fairy party, ever since she was a little girl.

So that night, when everybody else was fast asleep, the old woman and the little girl holding the precious doll crept down the great stone stairs of the palace and the old woman opened the door to the garden. Far away, down at the bottom of the garden were sparkling coloured lights: pink, green, blue, yellow. They walked over the grass towards the lights and suddenly there were fairies fluttering around everywhere, beautiful fairies in floaty dresses, who they smiled at the old woman, the little girl and the doll and offered them lots of tiny delicious cakes and teeny biscuits.

The fairies had a lovely ball

Then they  danced and sang and played games with the fairies until the sun rose and the little girl and the old woman went with the doll back to the castle, to bed and wonderful dreams.

After that the doll was never lonely. The little girl took very good care of her and every time the fairies had a party they told the doll and she told the girl and the old woman and all three would go down to the bottom of the garden again to join their fairy friends. Each time they had a wonderful time, singing, dancing and eating fairy cakes all night long until the sun rose up in the sky.

Making, Moulding: salt dough sculpture in StoryHug workshops at The Mother House and Grow Mayow Community Garden Project

Salt dough bowls and platters for Ena and Tib and our tabletop puppet plays!

We often make props for our puppet plays using salt dough which is non-toxic, easy to prepare – no cooking required (recipe in my ‘beads’ post here), immensely tactile and can be dried very hard to create items for dolls houses, pretend play and, of course, puppet plays.


The most detailed objects can be made with salt dough :

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In play therapy, clay is often used because:

[it] is malleable and three dimensional and it can become anything a child wants it to become. It can embody a representational form or an abstract one… once form has emerged … it may become fixed and permanent, or be crushed and rolled back up into a ball. Creating different forms can help a child find a way of expressing their inner emotions and thoughts.

Julie Meighan

(See her full article here.)

As with clay, playing with soft mouldable matter such as salt dough can benefit children in many ways:

img_4038For young children, the many varied actions of moulding eg rolling, squeezing, pinching help develop fine motor skills and dexterity.

The simple malleability of the dough allows self-expression through mark-making and by adding new materials such as soil, sticks, petals, food colour.

In our StoryHug workshops, we are usually creating props for our puppet play and there is great focus throughout the session, with each child able to give form to their ideas. Often children talk through their plans, enjoying the freedom within the brief to make whatever they envision.


Play is a vital part of being yourself, of making space for ideas and the need to make, to imagine freely, and connect. This little poem says it well:

Play Therapy Poem

I tried to teach my child from books

He gave me only puzzled looks

I tried to teach my child from words

They passed him by, often unheard

Despairingly, I turned aside

“How shall I teach this child?” I cried

Into my hand he placed a key,

“Come,” he said, “And play with me.”  Anonymous

In these StoryHug workshops we made favourite foods to feed a hungry tiger – the villain in my re-telling of The Three Little Pigs and their encounter with Ena and Tib, two little children who live in the woods!

There was much discussion and many ideas tried, re-tried, abandoned, new ones begun and expanded as items were prepared for the play. There was improvisation using materials to hand: in beautiful Grow Mayow Community Garden there was ‘salad’:





…and, through the magic of a little boy’s imagination: ‘dumplings and noodles’:


At the Mother House artist project , there were bananas and lemons and “chocolate cookies” made with woodchip gathered from around Paradise Yard: 


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Making props for storytelling ensures a sense of ownership of the story and I can luxuriate in the rapt engagement of my audience as our play unfolds – especially when the tiger is discovered to prefer eating the delicacies offered by the children to gobbling up the Three Little Pigs!



(He rather likes my post-workshop coffee too!)


Studios and Monsters – Stories and Art at V22 Louise House


My studio is my nest, my hut, my secret woodland clearing; it’s my place for dreaming, playing, rearranging objects, for making stories, pictures, things: nests, huts, secrets…

What happens in a room of your own? What do you do there, what do you make inside it?

Imagination in miniature is natural imagination… one could say, in the manner of Schopenhauer: ‘The world is  my imagination’. The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it.

Gaston Bachelard, ‘The Poetics of Space’




From empty boxes, card, pens, tissue paper whole worlds emerged, with drapes and pull-out panels to screen an occupant:

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A shrine, a place for reflection:




… by lovingly crafted characters:

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One must go beyond logic in order to experience what is large in what is small

Gaston Bachelard, ‘The Poetics of Space’

Stacked, these fantastical rooms created a house of many lives, of reverie and work and creativity…

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…where a monster girl (made by my fabulous assistant, my daughter aged 8!) lurked,


disrupting the peace.

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But the story ended happily: the lonely wooden girl found a friend; the monster was found by her mother…


…and order was restored to the house of fantastical rooms where people could dream and play and make stories again!




Ena & Tib Puppet Shows in Grow Mayow Community Garden this Summer!


Ena and Tib, the two little children who live in the woods in their little wooden house,  have been updated for our puppet plays this summer, made up as proper table top puppets with weighted bases so they do not fall over (as much)!

Here are some photos of how I put them together if you fancy making characters for your own productions:


The bodies were filled at the base with dried lentils and topped up with natural wool stuffing. The head is a ball of wool stuffing with stretch fabric held tightly together with a rubber band then sewn into place. The hair and eyes and mouth were stitched in wool.story hug ena and tibs

Making up stories becomes so much easier when you make your own characters, choosing colours, shapes of hat, decorations, clothes, all lead you further into the possibilities of the doll you are shaping – every scrap, every toy left lying around the house can lead to a new idea forming…

The newly stable Ena and Tib will be appearing at the lovely Grow Mayow Community Garden Project in two new stories I have been thinking of for some time! We will make props together for the puppet show, which you can then carry on playing with at home! Hope to see you there!





Art and Craft and Making Stories – StoryHug Workshops

beautiful petal bird

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” Albert Einstein

Making things in StoryHug workshops is all about story – an art with intent, purpose. We make props for our puppet shows:





… and create characters from the wonders of our imagination…



…to present themselves in the stories we make and tell.

“Creativity takes courage.” Henri Matisse

Art is a way into other worlds, into the minds of other people, and when making our characters speak we find our own voice, our own story and show ourselves. It is terrifying and freeing. But children are not afraid; in acts of the imagination children are trusting and fearless.


Whenever I show my story prompt dolls and animals and ask: “whom shall we have as the main character?” there is always the shout, sometimes several: ME! How gladly they declare it!

We are all at the heart of our stories. Art offers us a way in to that place of playfulness and safety where true good stories begin.


“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They  can make the heart bigger.” Ben Okri



Fairy Babies


Last week we made fairy babies!

The babies were made from salt dough (see this post for recipe) and dried fully – in the oven for an hour then left for a couple of days on a radiator.

The children (with a little help from the adults!) drew in faces and coloured in clothes with felt-tips.


The cradles were made from egg-boxes covered in tissue paper and lots of glue-stick which dries very hard.

A coloured cotton wool ball was added for each baby to snuggle into!


It was very sweet to see the great care and tenderness with which the babies were handled and carried around the woods.


Later all the babies made an appearance on the puppet stage for a grand fairy party!


“…imagination in miniature is natural imagination which appears at all ages in the daydreams of born dreamers… the cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it.”

Gaston Bachelard in ‘The Poetics of Space’