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.