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Setting a Space for Inspiration: Materials Play

Sara Ottomano
In planning for the Materials Play Program, we specifically design art experiences with our toddler guests, and their caregivers, in mind.
I have been really interested in continuing our thoughts about setting a space for inspiration by re-imagining the back part of our Art Studio for whole body exploration. In other words, I wanted each art experience to be immersive, focusing on limited materials, and tailored to toddler interests. Below is a round-up of the past sessions, I hope it inspires you to re-imagine your spaces based upon your art-maker’s interests! 

Bubble Wrap Explorations

One morning involved an appreciation of bubble wrap and its many qualities. To prepare for this, I thought about the different qualities of bubble wrap, and designed a quiet space (stamping), a slightly louder space (popping bubbles on the window) and a loud space (popping bubbles on the floor.) Depending upon your learners in your space, you might want to take certain steps to prepare participants for the loud popping noises, or mitigate the sounds by having the popping happen against a soft or carpeted surface.

Stamping with Bubble Wrap

I thought that the young learners might enjoy stamping with various-sized stamps. So I cut out shaped pieces of bubble wrap and hot glued it to the bottom of different yogurt cups, snack containers, and empty stamp bases. I put out our homemade stamp pads with blue paint for guests to stamp with.

Popping Bubbles on the Window

Taped on the window, we saw how the many different types of bubble wrap caught the light. When popped in large groups, the bubble wrap would get noisy. But when there were fewer guests, young visitors had quiet moments gently popping individual bubbles against the glass window.

Popping Bubbles on the Floor

Taped to the floor, it provided an opportunity to jump and crawl across it, creating loud pops. This did get quiet noisy and if I were to do this again, I would not put out the large air pillows as they made a startlingly loud sound when popped! (The young guests who popped them were thrilled by the sound, but it was a bit too loud for me.)

In thinking about the sustainability of this project, we considered how to re-use the bubble wrap as much as possible before disposing of it. Popped bubble wrap still stamps very well, and deflated sheets can be used as painting drop cloths. Our colleagues in the Early Childhood Education class at Holyoke Community College shared with us great ways to reuse the bubble wrap in dramatic play. They created a post office setting with their learners and provided the used bubble wrap (amongst other materials) to package objects for shipping!

Once the bubble wrap has been used many times and is ready for disposal, there are many specialty recycling stations that accept it, check the Plastic Film Recycling website for more information.

Immersive Tissue Paper Play

The next week, I was inspired to create a whole-body experience with tissue paper after seeing many toddler guests find great joy in tearing paper. I taped strips of tissue paper under two of our tables which created an inviting environment for guests to crawl under the tables and tear pieces off of the strips to use in a collage on contact paper.

A table with colorful strips of tissue paper taped underneath it, catching the bright light from the large studio windows.
After tearing the tissue papers, guests carefully placed their pieces onto the sticky material.
Two guests noticed that we had a display in the windows which was quite similar to their explorations, and were delighted to add their pieces to it.
Colorful tissue paper collages on contact paper shine brightly in a window display.

Watercolor Pencil Waterscape

The most recent Materials Play exploration focused on a favorite material in the Art Studio at the moment, watercolor pencils. Wanting to encourage collaboration and usage of the watercolor pencils on a large-scale, I transformed the back of the Art Studio into a waterscape, complete with a paper pond, waterfall, and rivers.

Paper taped to the windows and drop cloths on the floor, placed in ways to resemble a waterfall, rivers, and lakes.
The paper was a re-use of the display wall background for the past two EAPs and I added new color diffusing paper onto one window.
Drawings of fish and whales amongst a backdrop of watercolor pencil waves.

Using our favorite watercolor pencils, Stabilos, guests drew lines and aquatic creatures into the paper waterway. They then added water with a wet paintbrush overtop of their lines to blend and mix colors. If you’d like to try this, you can purchase watercolor pencils and crayons that are both drawing and painting tools in one! 

I hope that this post inspires you to focus your art explorations on one material within your creative spaces!


Sara smiling in front of Art Studio display.

Sara Ottomano

Art Educator from 2016-2023 at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Sara (she/her) is enthusiastic about helping others approach art through exploration and experimentation.

Explore Further
Making Art Together
Read about how we involve our guests in the creation, and deconstruction, of displays.
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Art Educators share some of their favorite materials in the studio with accessibility in mind.
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See the Art Studio through the lens of a small child and how it influences the team of educators to design the space.
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Create natural material collages with toddlers using contact paper and found materials.