Nautical Flag Necklace

nautical flag necklaceThis project is a unique blend of literacy, non-fiction, and the high seas! I designed these personalized nautical flag necklaces for a Treasure Island event we hosted in 2010. In addition to being easy and fun to make, the inexpensive supply list won’t deplete your buried treasure stash.

You’ll need:

International maritime signal flags are flags of different colors and shapes that allow crews to send messages between ships. For example, Alfa, the flag for the letter A, also means “I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed.” Since there is a flag for every letter of the alphabet, I thought it would be cool to have kids spell their names…in flags!

Start by selecting the letters you need to spell your name. Next, fold the white box (i.e. the box with the alphabet letter in it) backwards. Hand the folded flag over a piece of string, then tape the fold to the back of the flag. Knot the string behind your neck to wear it like a necklace, or just leave the ends loose and hang it up like a banner!

nautical flag necklace stepsIf you’re doing this project for a big event like we did, I suggest you make a letter tray to put the individual flags in. This can be as simple as paper cups, marked with post-its, hot glued to the inside of a copy paper lid.

If you’d like to have a table top display sign with the complete flag alphabet (or you want to send kids home with their own copies), here it the alphabet as a full sheet of paper, and here it is as 2 half sheets.

maritime flag alphabetYou could also use the alphabet to decode my flag message at the top of this post. Heh heh. If you need a hint, check out our Instagram!


Flag images courtesy of Wikipedia

Run Cookie, Run!

run cookie runYes, that’s me. Dressed as a giant gingerbread cookie, on the run from some extremely determined children. We made adorable (and non-edible) gingerbread houses with a surprise inside. Pull the peppermint loop on the roof, and up pops a gingerbread person! However, in order to get one of those little gingerbread persons, you have to catch the BIG one first (scroll to the bottom of the post for the video)!

pop up gingerbread demoWe read The Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999). On a cold, snowy day, Matti and his mother decide to make gingerbread. The cookbook instructs them to bake the cookie for eight minutes without peeking, but Matti can’t resist. He opens the oven and out leaps a feisty Gingerbread Baby, who promptly bolts out the door. A merry chase ensues involving Matti’s parents, the cat, the dog, the goats, two girls, a pig, a fox, a milk & cheese man, and assorted villagers. But clever Matti has his own plan. He builds an enticing gingerbread house, leaves it in the woods, and the Gingerbread Baby dashes inside. Home sweet home!

You’ll need:

  • 1 small box (I used a 4″ x 4″ x 4″ box, a small tissue box works too)
  • 1 rectangle of tagboard for the roof (mine was 4″ x 9.5″)
  • 1 square of tagboard for the door (mine was 3.25″ x 3.35″)
  • 2 pipe cleaners (1 white & 1 red)
  • Gingerbread house decorating supplies (full list in the post)
  • Brown wrapping paper or packing paper
  • Tape, glue, and scissors for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue
  • Optional gingerbread person costume (more on that later!)

You’ll definitely need a box with a lid for this project. I’ll demonstrate with the box we used first, and then I’ll show you how to build the project using a small tissue box. First, fold a rectangle of tagboard into thirds to create a roof. Hot glue the roof to the lid of your box. Fold a square of tagboard in half, then hot glue it to the front of the box to create your house’s front door.

basic gingerbread houseTwist a red and a white pipe cleaner together. Circle the pipe cleaners into a loop, and twist them together tightly at the bottom. Tape the peppermint loop to the lid of your box, bending any excess pipe cleaner underneath the lid.

peppermint loopIf you don’t have a box like mine, no problem! Just use a small tissue box. Flip the tissue box over (so the bottom is facing up) and use a box cutter to cut a square lid. Then follow the same steps for the roof, door, and peppermint loop. Here’s what a tissue box version of the house looks like:

tissue box gingerbread houseWhen the basic house is done, all you have to do is decorate! We offered self-adhesive foam pieces (which I used to shingle my roof), white pipe cleaners, mini craft sticks, little squares of colorful paper, large gemstones, mini pom-poms, rickrack ribbon, construction paper we had cut into icing scallops, and striped paper straws.

finished gingerbread houseMarkers can also be used, especially if you want to draw a gingerbread person peeking out of the front door! We found that metallic markers worked best on the brown tagboard.

front door of gingerbread houseFinally, the gingerbread person that pops up when you tug the peppermint loop! Marissa and I prepped the gingerbread people in advance (we cut them out of brown packing paper and colored them with metallic markers). My only tip is to make sure the cookie fits neatly inside your house. In our early attempts, the cookie’s arms were too long. They jutted out past the roof, which, when closed, looked rather torturous for the cookie.

gingerbread cookie 2Attach your gingerbread person to the underside of the lid with tape. Done!

pop up cookieYou could stop there and be finished with the project. But we decided to take it one step further. In order to get that little gingerbread cookie, you had to catch the BIG one first!

gingerbread person approachesI used brown packing paper to create this stupendous costume (the thicker the paper, the better). The paper roll wasn’t wide enough to cover my full arm span, so we taped 2 long pieces of the paper together, reinforcing the seam with extra-wide masking tape. I didn’t photograph the step with the big taped pieces of paper, but here is a shot of a tape seam on one of the finished costume pieces:

masking tape seamSince you want the masking tape seams on the inside of the costume, flip one of the taped pieces of paper over. The taped seams should now face each other. Then lay down on the paper and have someone trace your body in the shape of a cookie. A couple things to keep in mind while doing this:

  1. Leave LOTS of room around your body while tracing. Otherwise, the costume is going to be too tight and rip very quickly.
  2. The paper isn’t very flexible, so your arms will have to be stuck straight out while wearing (and running in) this costume.
  3. Your feet will need to stick out the bottom of the costume. You don’t want to trip while running around in it!
  4. You’ll need a tall, round head to complete the look.

I’m 5’6″, so my costume was 81.5″ tall, and 68″ wide. Here’s the finished shape:

finished cookie piecesTo “stitch” the pieces together, we made a double seam of hot glue and staples. The hot glue goes first, and should be about 1″ from the edge of the paper. Really goop it on! The staple seam should be about 0.5″ from the edge of the paper. Each staple should be no more than 0.75″ apart.

IMPORTANT! While gluing and stapling the seams, you DO NOT want to close the area under the feet or inside the legs (outlined in red below). You need this part open so you can put the costume on.

no seams hereOnce the seams are done, have the person who will be wearing the costume slide it over his/her head. You will definitely need help with this step! Marissa stood on a stool and gently lowered the costume while I shimmied my arms into place. Then we marked where my mouth was and trimmed the excess paper from around my feet. That’s when this photo appeared on our Instagram. It was a bit claustrophobic in there!

Then Marissa, back up on the stool, slowly pulled the costume off. Using the mark we had made by my mouth, we cut an opening for my face, and added paper plate eyes with pom-pom pupils, masking tape icing, and pom-pom buttons.

finished cookie costumeThey’re hard to see in the above photo, but there are additional paper patches hot glued along the cookie’s armpits. When I tried the costume on the first time, the armpits ripped right away, so we added the patches to reinforce those areas.

We also figured the head of the costume was going to blow off while I was running, so we stapled a poster board head band to the front of the costume (right above the mouth). It worked, but only for a little while. The main problem was that once the head band slipped off, I couldn’t put it back on (my hand was encased in a paper mitten!).

head band inside costumeWhen it was time for the cookie chase, Marissa and I ducked out of the library with the costume, a stapler, and the cookie prizes. We hid behind a building, and, using some stairs to get some height, Marissa slid the costume over my head. Then she used the stapler to quickly close the seams along the insides of my legs.

When the kids were gathered outside the library, I walked out where they could spot me…and the chase was on!


The costume starting ripping right away, but the kids did not care. All they saw was a cookie in need of pursuit. It was like Lord of the Flies meets Candy Land! When the chase was over, all the kids were award a cookie and a high five.

high fives for all

Has this post made you hungry for some real gingerbread? Check out this truly astounding Strega Nona gingerbread cottage! Mmmmm…

Promoting Programs

U.S. 1 cover 2007_2

Image courtesy of U.S. 1

Q: Do you have any suggestions for promoting programs on a small budget?

Sure! I’ll start with the obvious ones first, and then move on to the not-so-typical. These days, the go-to promotional mechanism is online media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, etc. Lower tech options are to make door signs, or put out a stack of flyers so people can grab one and stick it on their fridge. Once, for a major event at a children’s museum, I took over an entire bulletin board, adding updates to it in creative ways. I would see families stop by during visits to see what was new.

E-mail notifications are also a great ways to get the word out. We run our e-notification list through a University listserv service, but you can use the Contact Group mechanism in Microsoft Outlook (go to Contacts tab > New Contact Group):

outlook contact group screen grabI believe Google has some Group Mail options too. One very, very important thing to remember when sending group mailings? Only insert the e-mail addresses in the bcc (otherwise known as the “blind copy”) field! Otherwise, everyone on the list is going to see the addresses, which leads to privacy issues.

Press releases to local newspapers (and online news sources) are also a great way to get the word out. Here are my 4 rules for press releases:

  1. Keep it short.
  2. Include your contact information in the release.
  3. In the subject line of the e-mail, include the date the program is happening. This helps the editor file it more effectively, increasing your chances of having it run.
  4. Send the release at least 3 weeks in advance. Newspapers have crazy publishing schedules. Give them time to put your press release in place.

But my BIG hint when it comes to press releases is to include a promo photo. Most newspaper calendar listings include a smattering of photos. Nab one of those photo spots! Your promo photo does not have to be elaborate. Here, for example, is the photo for a 2007 Harry Potter event.

princyclopedia harry potter promo photoThat’s a donated graduation robe, a witch hat from the Dollar Store, and some goop I bought from a gumball machine for 50 cents. The photo ended up running in 5 local publications. How about this one for a 2011 Lightning Thief event?

princyclopedia lightning thief promo photoI’m wearing a bed sheet tacked together with hot glue, an old curtain, some costume jewelry, and a fake ponytail I bought on Amazon (which made a comeback for my Victorian Tea costume, woot woot!). That’s a paper puzzle of the Empire State Building. Oh, and I’m 6 months pregnant.

If you don’t feel like being the subject in the photo, you can always ask your co-worker, significant other, relative, or neighbor to pose. Here’s my student assistant Katie McGee in 2009. Isn’t she an amazing Alice?

princeton packet princyclopedia alice in wonderland photo by Mark Czajkowski

Courtesy of the Princeton Packet, photo by Mark Czajkowski

You can ask kids to pose too (with parental permission of course). This lad is gearing up for A Day in Digitopolis, our massive math event, which you can read about here and here. If you do photograph kids, be prepared to take lots of photos very quickly. Kids can get wiggly, distracted, bored, or suddenly shy. Also, the fewer props kids have to handle, the better.

a day in digitopolis promo photoYou can also use objects for your promo photos. When we did a Richard Scarry creative car-building program in 2015 (read about it here), I couldn’t use an image from his books, nor could I pose a person as a car. So I sculpted Mr. Frumble’s pickle car out of an oatmeal container:

cars and trucks promo photoIt took some time to make (especially that fedora) but it paid off! The photo ran in quite a few places, including a highly visible pop-up box in Town Topics, one of our local papers.

Town Topics, February 25 2015 edition

Mr. Frumble enjoyed an encore performance when we took the program to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (you can read about that here). His final destination? Jeanne Birdsall’s studio in Northampton. I am pickle green with envy because he’s totally going to get to read the final Penderwicks book before I do. Lucky pig. Jeanne sent me this shot of Mr. Frumble happily zipping along under blue skies and puffy clouds.

mr. frumble in northampton

Photo by Jeanne Birdsall

By the way, the goat on the left is from Jarrett Krosoczka’s picture book, Punk Farm. It’s hand-painted by Jarrett himself (and as a quick aside, check out this fantastic timeline of his childhood artwork – wish I had saved mine!).

You don’t have to spend hours hand-crafting an object for a promo photo. Here, for example, is a photo for our annual 350 for 50 writing contest. I borrowed a typewriter from a colleague, put it against a red background, and voila! A lovely, bold photo.

350 for 50 typewriter pop

If you do send a promo photo to a newspaper, make sure the photo is high resolution (300 or higher). Anything lower will blur when they print it, and they won’t use it. If you’re taking the photo with your phone and it only captures images at 72, that’s OK. Just leave the image as large as possible. My phone shoots in 72 and the resulting image is 34″ x 45.” The newspapers can shrink a large, low resolution file down and still print it. But 300 is really the ideal.

If you’re having an event, starting a new initiative, or just have something of interest to the community, you can always call newspapers and pitch an idea for a story. That is how my student assistant Emily Garcia and I ended up on the cover of Central New Jersey’s publication U.S. 1. Michele Alperin wrote a fantastic feature article about the event as well, which you can read here.

U.S. 1 cover 2007_2

Image courtesy of U.S. 1

Another local newspaper, the Princeton Packet, would often (and very graciously) premiere our annual literary extravaganza with a “sneak peek” article. Like U.S. 1, they would send a photographer to take a couple of fun photos to run with the article. Sometimes, one of those photos would end up on the cover of TimeOFF, their weekend insert! Here’s one of their 2010 photos from an article on Treasure Island. Aye, that’s Katie McGee again, this time sporting an eye patch and carrying a old shovel from my neighbor’s garage.

princeton packet princyclopedia article photo by Mark Czajkowski

Courtesy of the Princeton Packet, photo by Mark Czajkowski

A word of advice…if you do decide to suggest an article to a newspaper, choose your topic wisely. Don’t call the editor all the time, pitching every single program you’re offering. Pick and choose, and don’t be discouraged if he/she declines.

One final bit of unusual promo? The windows of local stores. We have a stupendous family-owned local toy store called JaZams (here is pictorial confirmation of their awesomeness). In 2013, they not only agreed to host an activity table at our Journey to the Centre of the Earth event, they let us promote the event in one of their picture windows! Katie and I gathered all the dinosaur, geology, cave, Jules Verne, and night creature related things we could find in their store and put together a thing of beauty.

jazams princyclopedia windowIn 2015, JaZams let us use the window again, this time for our Very Hungry Caterpillar food drive. If you’re wondering who created that beautiful poster, it was our very own Aliisa Lee, artist extraordinaire.

jaZams food drive window

Food drive title and art inspired by the work of Eric Carle.

The nice thing about the food drive was that every donated food item earned the donator a chance to win that gigantic stuffed caterpillar. One generous little girl came every week with new groceries to give. Pounds and pounds. And she won, too!


I always love getting questions from you guys, so keep ’em coming! danas@princeton.edu