by Toni Albert
For me, the holiday season begins with a long, leisurely walk. Leisurely but not inattentive. I am paying close attention to anything that catches my eye (or nose) because of its shape, color, texture, fragrance, or interest. It’s a gathering expedition.
I return with sprigs of hemlock and tiny pine cones, long needles of white pine and short needles of douglas fir, yellow and orange bittersweet berries, blue-black privet berries, red berries from the burning bush, rose hips, wild grape tendrils, acorns, hickory nut and walnut halves, shelf mushrooms, large pine cones, and dried grasses, seedpods, and flowers. Then I lay them out on a large table.
One year, I left my treasures laid out on a table in the basement while we went away for a Thanksgiving vacation. When we returned, all of the things I’d gathered were gone! It was baffling until we found several beautiful mouse nests made of dried grasses and pine needles and filled with berry snacks and nuts. It was my unintentional gift to the mice that live with us. (To be fair to my husband and our cat, the mice are not invited to live with us.)
Gathering nature treasures
Children love the gathering process and they’re very good at spotting interesting nature treasures. It’s against the law to collect anything from state parks or national parks, but there are many places, including your own backyard or school yard, where kids can explore and collect – collect with respect.
Once they have their materials laid out, they’re ready to make any number of nature gifts and holiday decorations. I have some ideas to share, but they’ll come up with their own, too.
Nature gifts that kids can make
Bath teas – Fill paper tea filters (little semi-transparent paper bags for filtering tea) with pine needles, bittersweet berries, or anything you gathered that has fragrance. Tie the filters at the tops with twine, leaving a loop, so that the bag can be hung from the faucet while filling the bathtub.
Decorative potpourri – Fill a glass jar or other container with a mixture of pine sprigs, winter berries, small seedpods, and dried flowers. Add cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, or dried orange peel for fragrance, or add a few drops of scented oil – orange, cinnamon, or pine – which can be bought at a craft store. Cover the jar with a circle of bright-colored fabric. Then tie a narrow ribbon around the rim to secure the fabric covering.
Simmering potpourri – The potpourri above can also be simmered in water to disperse the fragrance. Children can include directions for using the potpourri if you want them to practice writing directions. (A very good writing exercise, believe me. I’m doing it now.)
Nature scarves – I once paid three times what I usually spend on a scarf, because it had little twigs tied into it. I love it! Choose a long narrow scarf, silky or woolen, it doesn’t matter. Bundle lengths of an interesting yarn (multi-colored, metallic, fuzzy, or textured), a narrow matching ribbon or cord, and any other matching trims together. Then tie them around the scarf in several places, as if you’re cinching a waist and then another and another. Then tuck and tie a twig or artificial berries behind each length of yarn.
Nature gift wrap
Dried flowers and leaves – Add dried flowers and leaves inside a gift box to enhance the gift. This is especially pretty on top of tissue paper. (For example, a sweater might be wrapped in tissue before being placed in a gift box.) To dry fresh flowers takes about two weeks, but at this time of year, some dried flowers can still be found outside on their stalks.
Natural additions – Tuck sprigs of holly, mistletoe, grape tendrils, or winter berries under the bow that you use on a bag or box.
Print your own paper – This is a creative project for children, which almost always produces more colorful, exciting wrapping paper than you could buy. Have kids use natural objects such as pine cones, twigs, nut halves, even pine sprigs – almost anything will work – to print sheets of colored tissue paper. They simply press the objects into a styrofoam meat tray that contains a shallow layer of tempura paint. Then they can press the paint-drenched object onto the tissue paper to create a design. When the paint dries, the paper is ready to use for wrapping.
Nature napkins – Tuck something interesting from nature – gum balls on their stems from a gum tree or sycamore balls or seedpods, etc. – into a napkin ring that is holding a napkin. Or wrap silverware in a napkin, secure it with a pretty cord, and tuck something natural behind the cord.
Decorate a small tree – Let children decorate a small Christmas tree or a bare dogwood branch (ideal because it has an intricate branching and tiny buds already set at the branch ends) with the treasures they collected outside. They can tie, balance, or glue the decorations on the tree.
Nature ornaments – Some treasures can be placed inside an empty clear plastic ornament. These couldn’t be easier and they’re very pretty.
Acorn ornaments – Remove the cap from an acorn. Then glue a round wooden bead to the acorn to form a head (the acorn is the body). Paint a face on the bead-head. Glue the acorn cap to the bead to give the acorn figure a hat. These acorn people can be used as tree ornaments with a length of thread or colored cord for hangers or they can be added to any holiday decoration or centerpiece. Acorn families (using different sizes of acorns for adults and children) are especially cute. You could make an acorn family to give as a gift to a favorite family of relatives or friends with acorns painted to represent each family member.
An enhanced wreath – Buy a plain wreath of fresh greens. Then decorate it with the nature materials you gathered. The easiest way to attach them is with a hot glue gun (children need careful supervision), but white glue or florist wire will work too. First attach the larger things, such as pine cones, shelf mushrooms, and nuts. Then add bright clusters of berries. Finally fill empty spaces with dry weeds and flowers. Keep working until the wreath is filled with interesting and beautiful details. Add a big bow. If you hang the wreath outside in the cold, it should last through February.
Reprinted with permission from Toni Albert’s Splash!, a short note with nature news, a nature activity for kids, or a moment of inspiration. Subscribe at Trickle Creek Books, which is committed to “teaching kids to care for the Earth.”