Paper and Paste: Making Stuff With Children

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Self-made Star Wars gear out of papier-mâché.

Our first self-made mask out of papier-mâché had initially been met with a certain dose of skepticism by child #1. Wasn’t this Halloween mask funny rather than scary? Wouldn’t a “self-bought” rather than self-made mask have been cooler? Would he be made fun of? But the god of makers had mercy and led our steps to the house of an elderly couple that responded to his trick-or-treating with admiration for the somewhat special mask and even took some photos. Since then, child #1’s answer to “Make or Buy” when it comes to masks and costumes has been a clear “Make!”

I have found papier-mâché to be an ideal material for making stuff together with children. The basic principle: to build a shape, you must find a way to form the wet papier-mâché into that shape and have it dry. A good way to achieve this is to build a carrying structure that is then coated with papier-mâché: balloons, paper, and cardboard brought into shape, e.g., with duct tape, work well. Once you have built such a structure, even very young kids can join in and help applying layers of wallpaper paste and sandwich paper. You may have to even out the numbers of layers a bit, though; my kids, at least, tend to put down a dozen layers at on place, while someplace else the supporting structure is merely covered.

Any wallpaper paste will work, but there is no paper like sandwich paper for making papier-mâché. Newspaper will tear and stick everywhere except where you want it to stick. Sandwich paper, on the other hand, will not tear even when completely soaked. As added bonus, you can make beautiful lanterns with sandwich paper: applied in just a few layers (four to five already suffice for a self-carrying shape, once the paste has dried), the translucent paper lets light shine through.

Lanterns are nice, of course, but my kids have their mind set on Star Wars gear most of the time. Some time ago, they required helmets. So we started out with cobbling together suitable supporting structures. Here is the supporting structure for a clone-trooper helmet:

carrier_structureCoating the structure with papier-mâché and letting it dry for a couple of days, yielded the basis for a helmet in stylish clone-trooper white. (If there are balloons in your structure, be sure to puncture them after a day, so as to let the papier-mâché dry also from the inside.)

dried_helmetAfter I had cut out a shape for the visor (colored foil from a file folder serves nicely), it was the kids’ turn again: the helmets required some paint. Finally, we were ready to fight our first battles in style at the nearby playground.

finished_helmetFor carnival, a full clone-trooper suit was required. We used cardboard to form the armor for the torso and sturdy paper from an old wall calendar for the pieces covering legs and arms.

Carrying structures for the clone armor: front armor for the torso on the left, armor for upper and lower arm on the top right; armor for the thighs on the bottom right. Not shown: back armor for the torso and for the lower legs.

We then produced our brand new, self-made clone-trooper suit: application of paste and paper (something we can now do with our eyes closed), a day for drying, and some fiddling with velcro strips to keep the pieces of armor in place. Granted, the armor is ill-suited for any sweeping gestures or, God forbid, dancing the Macarena during the carnival party, but it’s pretty cool. At least child #1’s friends thought so–and that is what really counts, after all.


This post original ran in 2015, but is still a great primer for upcoming geek family projects.
Papier-mâché has been at the heart of many of our weekend projects. If you are looking for a fun weekend project to make stuff together with your kids, pick up some sandwich paper and wallpaper paste, and give papier-mâché a try!

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