I made arrangements to borrow my 5 year old grandson for the weekend. Actually that little arrangement does not always come easily, much to my dismay, because he lives about six hours from me. But I desperately needed him so I could write this article.

I have been retired from teaching for about 3 years now, and I was chomping at the bit to try out an idea on a little kid, I wanted to teach him what I thought was a really fun craft idea, and it wouldn’t cost a thing even if a few mistakes were made. I had worked all week to craft my lesson plans, sat up long hours and organized the project to get the greatest creativity from my little guy.

So he arrived at my house, his little red suitcase crammed full of clothes and toys, and he jumped in my arms nearly taking me down with his greeting.

“Hey, Nana, I’m all ready to start. Do I get to paint? What am I painting? I am a good painter, you know, but I need to borrow a paint shirt, cause I forgot mine. Can we start now?”

So I found for him one of my old tees, and it very nearly fit him, but it was just big enough to cover his good clothes. We sent his dad on his way, and Ethan and I gathered round the kitchen table where I had placed a cardboard box. As a part of my plans, I’d already gathered up some small sticks and stones, including a great pieImagece of driftwood, and a piece of curling bark from my river birch tree. I had brushes, acrylic paint, paper plates, a cup of water, and a tube of waterproof glue. It was all together in the cardboard box.

He listened intently as I gave him directions in my best schoolteacher voice:

“Ethan, an assemblage is one object, but it is made by gluing many objects together to create the single object. We are going to take these sticks and stones, objects of nature, and we’ll paint the little stones to look like insects and butterflies. Then we’ll arrange some sticks and bark on the driftwood, and when the insects have been painted, we’ll glue them on to the sticks and make what we call an outdoor assemblage. Do you understand what an assemblage is?”

“Can I play with it?”

“Well, not really, but we’ll build it, and then we’ll put it in the garden as a decoration.”


“Would you like to start by deciding on an insect you want to paint?”

“How ‘bout if I paint an animal?”Image

“Well, the stones are really small pebbles, and I was thinking insects might be better at climbing on sticks than animals would be. See, we can attach the sticks like this to the driftwood, so they’ll look like small trees. It will look like the insects are climbing up the little trees. What do you think?”

“How bout if I paint a Tyrannosaurus rex, Nana, I bet they climbed trees. Oh, lookit that, it looks like a boat. I bet it could be a boat, Nana, and we could put that bark on the stick and glue it on and have a sail, and we could launch it on the lake. Let’s build a boat, Nana, and have dinosaurs on the boat!”

“OK, we’ll paint dinosaurs later, but first how about painting a red lady bug?”

“Tell you what, Nana, you paint the red ladybugs for your stick, and I’ll build a boat and paint dinosaurs and ‘maginary animals, too, and I’m gonna build a Noahs ark and all my ‘maginary animals and super heroes will go on the ark. Howzzat?”

Now I am finally old enough to know when to pick my battles, and which battles to fight. This wasn’t one of them. I collected my pages of lesson plans, and very discreetly tossed them in the trash. I painted red ladybugs. Ethan built Noah’s ark and filled it with ‘maginary creatures, great glorious ones in vivid colors. We have had a wonderful weekend.Image

Simply stated, we used whatever we could find in my yard, only limiting ourselves to size. We were going to build small assemblages from found natural items to decorate the gardens he had helped me plant. Kids love things like this, but I had forgotten just how very creative a 5 year old can be when he has an idea, and a Nana who loves him.

We had small pebbles, some pieces of old cypress mulch which came with the house a long time ago, birch bark, small sticks, and a blue feather that we haven’t used. Yet.

I painted red pebbles to look like ladybugs. I had everything I needed in one paper plate: red acrylic paint, and 6 little pebbles.

Ethan painted cypress mulch and pebbles and sticks, and he had red, yellow, green, silver, gold, blue and magenta paint on as many paper plates as his side of the table would hold. We set to work, and talked while we painted. He told me all about dinosaurs and 'maginary creatures, and when I asked about the silver and gold paint he requested, he assured me that Noah had super hero snakes and dinosaurs on the ark. Super heroes must have gold and silver on their clothes. He did not think there were any super hero red ladybugs. I didn't get to paint with gold or silver.

That was last night. Today we spent some time assembling our creations. I was only in charge of glue, since we were using strong adhesive that is weather proof. Ethan was in total control of everything else.Image

Assemblages really are fun, and can be great to use in the garden. I use indoor outdoor acrylic paint, and since these assemblages are all in fun, I don’t put a finish on them. Sure, they’ll deteriorate, but does it really matter? By next summer, Ethan will have outgrown Noah’s dinosaurs and perhaps super heroes, too. One thing is for sure, I’ll never outgrow him.

Here’s what I used for our assemblages:

small sticks and stones

old driftwood


indoor outdoor acrylic paint

coated paper plates (so they don’t absorb the paint)

small brushes

permanent black marker for detail

waterproof adhesive

and the imagination of a 5 year old


When my son came home this evening, Ethan met him at the door with these words: "Hey Dad, me and Nana made semblages, and I made Noah’s ark and 'maginary animals and super heroes, but Nana couldn’t paint a thing ‘cept red lady bugs.”

All photos in the article belong to Ethan and me.