My mother was terrified of flying when I was a child. As a consequence, my brothers and I spent interminable hours of time on trains and cross-country busses. Back before Gameboys and cell phones, my mother became the main source of our entertainment. These quick art activities for car rides and the grocery store line, were inspired by her—a woman who could wrest an hour’s worth of diversion from a paper clip, a dime, and a gum wrapper.
In the Car
Draw over a magazine photograph. Ask your children to transform the original photograph into something completely different. You might want to do the first one. Felt tip markers work best, but any pen or pencil will do. Cats can become dogs and cars can morph into airplanes. We could change the dress of a model. (When I was little, my mother reworked the expression of wistful delight on a man’s face into an unpleasant grimace. Then she doctored the original ad copy, which originally read, “Your wind song stays on my mind” to say, “Your wind stays on my mind.”) Unfortunately, my six-year-old, Murphy, tried to morph himself into a grown man by drawing whiskers on his face with a brown marker. I now consider this an occupational hazard of this particular activity.
Imagine who lives in that house. I used to entertain myself on walks and car rides by imagining who lived in a given house. I would ask myself, “Who is the person who painted their front door green and drives a car like that?” Now my children love to make up stories about families in various houses as well. We check out the yard. Are there any toys lying around? What kind of car is in driveway? I had to laugh when my nine-year-old Spencer gave me his theory on naming a house’s fictional inhabitants. “A tall businessman in a suit,” he told me, “should be called ‘Tom’ and a ‘Home Depot guy with a buzz saw’ should be named ‘Bob’.”
Change your emotions. This activity takes seconds, builds the kids’ acting muscles, and usually sets off tons of laughter. Choose an innocuous phrase like, “I like gummi bears” and ask your children to say it with different emotions that you supply. You will probably find it is easy for the kids to say phrases angrily or happily but do not forget states like “helpless” or “sneaky.” These tend to bring out more color and interpretation from the little actors. After I supply a few ideas, I ask the kids to choose and perform their own for us to guess. This is how I found out, after a half hour of fruitless guessing with my youngest, that he considers “waiting for a play date” an emotional state.
In Line at the Store
Eye-catching packages. There is a hidden benefit to this particular activity which is I find that talking about the packaging tends to distract my children from actually asking to buy the products. It has been interesting to hear what draws their eye. My youngest tends to respond to animated images, while my oldest is drawn to contrasting colors and detailed photographs of the products—particularly the glossy photo of his favorite cereal. Of course, maybe he's simply drawn the sugary cereal itself.
Make up a commercial. When I asked my sons to choose an item from our grocery cart and do a quick commercial for it, I was surprised by the results. They both seemed quite familiar with the format of commercials. They also understood that they were actually “selling” something. This became clear when they immediately stated that a particular box of crackers were low in fat. This emphasis reflects how much shopping they have done with their mother. And what about this; Can they make up a commercial for an imaginary product?
Make it Happen
When it comes to quick, arty activities like these, it’s best to strike a balance between being spontaneous and being prepared.
• Be prepared to start off any of these activities yourself by imagining who lives in that house or by quickly making up a commercial, for example.
• Keep it spontaneous by allowing the children to add to the activity and transform it. Maybe they’re not as interested in drawing on a magazine as they are in marking out words in an article to create an instant poem.
• These activities are about stretching young imaginations, the end result is not important.
• Have fun.