Totally Random

Writers! Get ready for something TOTALLY random, because this handy-dandy machine, constructed out of a simple pasta box, could house the perfect prompt for your next story. Pull the cardboard tab, and your prompt will drop out, ready to be elaborated upon!

You’ll need:

  • 1 pasta box with window
  • A box cutter
  • A bit of cardboard or poster board
  • A set of writing prompts
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating

This budget-friendly pasta box project was inspired by a mini claw machine in my own house, which is also stocked with writing prompt scrolls:

Why do I have a mini claw machine in my house? The short answer is: the pandemic. The long answer is that my kids and I didn’t take our annual beach vacation last summer. We always spend a couple days in Cape May, including fun evenings at the Wildwood boardwalk. It’s our one and only vacation each year. It didn’t happen, and spirits were low. So I surprised them with a boardwalk in my studio, which we visited nightly:

I had tabletop versions of our favorite games (claw machine, air hockey, skee ball). There was a mini roller coaster, remote control mini bumper cars, and balloon darts. I also decorated the room with string bulbs, flashing party lights, and blasted three kinds of music from three different places in the room (techno, pop, and calliope classics).

To be sure, this amount of stuff was a splurge for me. However, the most expensive item (the claw machine) is currently enjoying a second life as a writing prompt dispenser. Oh, and the remote control bumper cars have resolved many a sibling fight (TRIAL BY BUMPER CARS! THIS IS THE WAY!).

To make your own random prompt generator, you’ll just need an empty pasta box with a window! Use a box cutter to cut an opening in the front of the box, close to the bottom. This is where the prompt will slide out. Above that, cut a slot with a little, folded down ledge:

Next, slide a piece of cardboard (or poster board) into the slot so it rests on top of the ledge. This is the cardboard “floor” that holds the prompts in place inside the box. Make sure the cardboard extends well past the ledge, so kids can pull and push it back easily:

You’ll also need to tape a matching ledge inside the box to hold the cardboard floor steady (otherwise, the pile of prompts will just drop out). You can see the little white cardboard ledge I taped inside my pasta box below:

Finally, make your prompt scrolls! Here’s a list Katie and I put together to get you started. Just make sure the scrolls are thin enough to be removed from the bottom of your box! Slide the cardboard floor into place, and load the scrolls into the box from the top. Done!

To operate, pull the cardboard floor slowly outward until a single scroll drops down. Then push the floor back in. Grab your prompt, unroll it, and get writing! Reload new prompts into the top of the box as needed. You can also add a facade on the front of the box…just make sure it doesn’t cover your ledge or your windows:

If you would like some feedback on that fabulous story, we have an email editing service here, as well as a one-on-one Zoom program here. And 50 zillion bonus points if you recognized the final writing prompt on our list…yup, it’s from our annual 350 for 50 writing contest, which will be happening again this spring! So stay tuned!

Fly the Friendly Skies

When my son was younger wooooo did we read a lot of transportation and construction books. To this day, I still excitedly point out backhoe loaders, simply by reflex. I think we wore out not one but THREE copies of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, and my son was the inspiring mind behind this event. Today’s post is also my son’s invention…a simple zip line tram car!

You’ll need:

  • 1 large tissue box
  • 1 paper towel tube
  • String or yarn
  • 2 chairs (plus books to weight them down)
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Construction paper, markers for decorating
  • Hole punch

First, the tram car! Flip a large tissue box upside down, and decorate the side with construction paper and markers. Cut a paper towel tube down to 7.5″ then attach firmly to the roof of the tram car (I used hot glue AND tape).

Next, turn the box on it’s side and punch a hole in the back. Knot a 15-24″ string through the hole. This is the string that your kid will use to pull the tram car up and down the zip line. Otherwise, it’s going to be YOU doing it. Probably the very moment you are trying to get lunch on the table while answering work texts during a Zoom meeting while also searching for your daughter’s lost LEGO figurine.

Next comes the zip line! I used kite string, but we tested yarn and it works as well. We  rigged our zip line on stairs, but a tree in the yard or a tall chair & shorter chair works too. Two very important things: WEIGH BOTH CHAIRS DOWN WITH BOOKS. There will be quite a bit of kid traffic on and around the zip line. Weighing both chairs reduces the chance of nudging or tipping.

Next very important thing: if you are doing this on a stair case, SET BOTH CHAIRS BACK FROM THE STAIRS. Especially if you have two or more kids. You don’t want anyone falling down, or tripping up, the stairs. Below is the minimum I would set the chair from the top of stairs. More so for younger kids and.or multiple kids.

Once the chairs are set up and weighted down, thread the zip line string through the paper towel tube on your tram car, then tie the string to the backs of both chairs. Make sure there is plenty of tension in the string so your tram car really zips!


One more helpful hint…if you need to “park” your tram car for a moment, simply tuck the pull string into one of the books weighing down the chair, as demonstrated in the photo below:

Hello, World!

Everyone’s world feels a little smaller these days, and today’s simple project is a reminder of the blessings we have in the four walls around us, the family and friends by our sides, and the life that exists, beautifully, outside our windows.

We recommend The Hello, Goodbye Window, written by Norton Juster, and illustrated by Chris Rashka (Hyperion Books, 2005). Read here by Sankofa Read Aloud. A child fondly narrates Nanna and Poppy’s “Hello, Goodbye Window.” It might appear to be a regular kitchen window, but it’s so much more…it’s for waving hello, it’s a mirror, it’s for viewing stars, it’s for family to share, it’s for new discoveries, and it’s for special visitors who could come by at any minute. Maybe even the Queen of England…but more likely the Pizza Guy!

You’ll Need:

  • A window
  • A set of window crayons, or washable markers

While the Hello, Goodbye Window in the story appears ordinary, this project jazzes things up a tad…I draw a special window frame to gaze out of! Specifically, I used these awesome Crayola window crayons, which can be purchased for around $5-$7 (I snagged my set at Michael’s Craft store with a 20% off coupon).

However, I also tested regular markers (Target’s washable brand for under $4) and they work on the glass too (and most importantly, cleaned right OFF with a standard glass cleaner, no problemo).

You can draw your window frame just about anywhere…in draw as many as you like! Draw one for each family member, draw one for the dog! Best, of all, if you line yourself up juuuuust right, you can step outside to create a lovely portrait for your delighted viewers.

Norton Juster is also the author of The Phantom Tollbooth. I had the honor of interviewing him in front of a live audience in 2016, and you can find the full interview here!