Why I Dislike Guardian-Accompanied Playgroups

When we first moved to Hong Kong, it was a rude-awakening to discover that daycares are not popular. Many working parents have grandparents or live-in nannies (they’re extremely affordable in Asia) for childcare, so guardian-accompanied playgroups are more prevalent for non-school aged children. They were a regressive step for the Dumpling because she has attended a drop-off since she was six months old back in the U.S. As we waited for a spot to open at an unaccompanied program, however, accompanied playgroups were our only immediate options at the time.

The one we joined was typical. For two hours, one to three days a week, parents or caregivers bond with their toddlers through engaging, educational activities, such as circle time, singing, dancing, arts and crafts, and sensory trays, led by an experienced teacher. The children will have opportunities to develop social skills, confidence, and independence—soft skills needed for an easier transition into drop-off classes.  

Sounds promising, right?

I hated the fact that I needed to be there—not because I did not want to spend time with my daughter, but because I did not want to be her security blanket. This particular program allowed kids to join and unjoin any time, so the lack of continuity and familiarity made friendships difficult to form. The Dumpling naturally gravitated toward me instead of exploring on her own because I was the easier option.

The teacher functioned more as an activity prompter than a leader—she would not intervene when a child was disruptive, acted inappropriately, or did not participate. Adults were solely responsible for their children, which was problematic as each toddler saw his guardian as the main authority figure instead of the teacher.

With a dozen adult-child pairs in class, it seemed like everyone operated under different “playground rules”. When the Dumpling snatched a toy from another child during one session, that child’s nanny lunged and aggressively snatched it back from the Dumpling before I could react. I was shocked that a grown-up behaved this way. I guessed she believed in “an eye for an eye”.

The differences in everyone’s parental values and styles were apparent. During an arts and crafts activity, the teacher presented a cherry blossom painting created by dotting pink paint on a tree silhouette—an example of what the class was to replicate. I did a demo for the Dumpling on our sheet. She dotted maybe three or four flowers before she smeared the paint around with her hands instead. I shrugged and looked around to see what other pairs were doing. Most adults were taking their kids’ fingers and dotting for them; the rest were completing most (if not all) of the activity on behalf of the children, who either lost interest or did not want to touch paint.

When the paintings were placed on the table to dry, I noticed that all of them fell within the spectrum of the teacher’s sample…except for the Dumpling’s. The others depicted delicate, tranquil blossoms blooming, while my kid’s tree looked like a typhoon bulldozed its way through.

The Dumpling was so proud of her work, and I was proud of her. I was proud that her piece was different…that she was different. She was not afraid to explore, completed the painting on her own, and did not mind getting dirty along the way.

I often reflect back on this moment. In an age where “over-parenting” is normal, I was glad that I did not interfere. But did I overvalue her independence and creativity? Under different circumstances, these traits could be viewed as insubordination or arrogance.

Painting a cherry blossom was trivial in the greater scheme of things, but what if it metaphorically represented a different activity (say baking or playing a team sport), could the Dumpling’s “tree” be viewed as a failure?
Was the process that much more important than the result? Should I have encouraged her harder to follow instructions? Or guided her fingers (like what some adults did) instead of letting her go rogue? If she had refused to paint at all, would it have been acceptable to return home with nothing? If the stakes were higher, would I have completed the project for her (like what a few others did)?

The other adult probably judged me as I had judged them, so only time would tell whom made the right parental choices. We strive towards grooming our kids into happy, smart, successful, good people, but even our best intentions could produce a variable of unforeseen effects.

I left this playgroup after a few weeks and tried another one—it was just as chaotic and dysfunctional as the first. My biggest critiques with the accompanied programs are their continuous open enrollment and the mandatory presence of a guardian, which in combination hindered the development of soft skills they claim to foster. Luckily a spot opened up for the Dumpling at a drop-off class soon after. (Hallelujah!) In the end, she did not benefit much from attending accompanied playgroups, but at least I learned something about my parenting values.

Seven Summer Fruit Art For Kids

To celebrate the arrival of summer, the Dumpling and I created an art series featuring a few of our favorite summer fruits! We experimented with a different technique for each—from making paper mosaics to coloring with makeup to stamping prints out of various household materials. While we did the activities side-by-side (with me adding the finishing touches), the dissimilarities in our work are quite telling of how differently we approach each task!

1. Paper Cutout Watermelon

Paper cutout watermelon.

Directions:

Although this was a straightforward activity, working with my two and a half year old brought an interesting twist because her imagination isn’t yet fully bound by how a watermelon (or anything really) is supposed to look like. As a result, our compositions were as literal or abstract as we wanted it to be.

2. Paper Mosaic Pineapple

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Paper mosaic pineapples.

Directions:

  • Print the pineapple template.*
  • Cut yellow and green colored paper into approximately quarter inch tiles. Optional: Use different shades of the same color to create contrast.
  • Glue or tape colored the pieces on. (I used double sided tape.)

This was a perfect example of how the Dumpling and I diverge in interpreting directions—of me giving them and of her following. Instead of placing the pieces one-by-one, she just dumped everything on. It didn’t create the pixelated effect I was aiming for, but she did complete the activity…and it does look like a pineapple.

3. Thumb Print Strawberries

Thumb print strawberries.

Directions:

  • Apply lipstick (paint or stamp ink would work as well) on your thumbs and stamp to create heart-shaped prints.
  • Outline the prints with a mixture of rounded triangles and hearts.
  • Add leaves and speckles for seeds.

4. Wine (or Juice) Stained Grapes

Wine stained grapes.

Directions:

  • Download the grape template* and color each grape with blue, red, and/or purple watercolor pencils.
  • Blend colored grapes with a brush using red wine or juice (instead of water).
  • Drip red wine or grape juice onto the drawing for added effect. If you don’t have a dropper, soak a cotton ball and squeeze the liquid out onto the paper.

(This was a solo activity because I was that possessive of my wine…and I didn’t have grape juice.)

5. Bottle Cap Stamp Cherries

Bottle cap stamp cherries.

Directions:

  • Apply red paint on water a bottle cap and stamp.
  • Add stems and leaves on the berries after the paint dries.

Midway through our fruit series, I realized that I’m learning from the Dumpling as much as she’s learning from me. While I was carefully laying the cap on my sheet of paper in attempt to create perfect circles, the Dumpling just slathered a ton of paint on and stamped away. She used both ends of the bottle cap, creating a combination of outlined and colored-in circles—it was something that I didn’t think of until she showed me!

6. Pom Pom Smash Blueberries

Pom pom smash blueberries.

Directions:

  • Soak pom poms into blue and purple paint and smash them with a toy hammer. To limit the splash radius, cover the pom poms with clear plastic wrap.
  • Draw star on the berries to from the calyx once the paint dries.

7. Bubble Wrap Print Raspberries

Directions:

  • Cut a piece of bubble wrap into an oval-ish shape and glue onto a large beverage cap.
  • Apply pink and/or red paint onto the bubble wrap and stamp.
  • Draw circles to form drupes once the paint dries.

Like the cherry bottle cap printing exercise, the Dumpling’s unstudied approach uncovered another technique that didn’t occur to me. She just stamped and re-stamped over and over again—often on the same spot, which gave her raspberries a layered effect!

This project taught me that I should act more like a kid sometimes. I tend to over-think, over-plan, and over-analyze…while my toddler just does it. She keeps trying and experimenting until she runs out of paper or paint, whichever comes first. While my artwork often turned out as expected, the Dumpling’s carefree method often led to serendipitous effects. In the end, it was my toddler who taught me a thing or two!

* The printables look differently than my photos because my fruits were all initially free drawn; the templates were created after.

Inside My Two Year Old’s Toy Box: Quality Over Quantity (Part 2)

Despite my love for wooden toys, it’s not realistic for our family to escape plastic ones entirely. They are everywhere because the truth is that there is a lot to love about them—they’re affordable, easy to clean, and come in so many vibrant colors and shapes. These are the ones currently in our toy rotation because the Dumpling and I play with them so often!

Plastic Pit Balls

They are a huge crowd pleaser when we host play dates, but I normally keep just few out and hide the rest…otherwise they end up everywhere—under the couch, on the beds, inside the washing machine, etc. The balls are great for gross motor skill activities: we toss, roll, and kick them around the house since they’re too soft to do any damage.

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Play Idea 1: Paint the balls. This was a recent Earth Day activity we did with a blue ball and washable green paint.

Play Idea 2: Scoop the balls with a ladle. Variations of this busy activity include color sorting and walking across the room without dropping the ball.

Play Idea 3: Roll them down the stairs. I know this sounds asinine, but it kept the Dumpling entertained for solid 30 minute blocks when she was between 18 -24 months old. We also included other sensory balls of different size and weight and observed how differently each one moved.

Magnetic Doodle Board

I don’t let the Dumpling have free access to crayons or markers (for good reason), so we have a magnetic doodle board instead. It is a staple and has never left our toy box (our second one is currently on its last legs). We use it to free draw, review shapes, letters, and numbers, and have drawing contests!

Magnetic Foam Alphabet

Given the Dumpling’s obsession with the alphabet lately, we use this to review letters quite often.

Play Idea 1: Use the base board as a shape sorting puzzle.

Play Idea 2: Because the pieces are made of foam, they float and make great bath toys. Once they are wet, they also stick on glass!

Play Idea 3: Use the magnets as stamps on a magnetic doodle board.

Water Drawing Alphabet Flash Card Book

I love these water “magic” pens because they also provide mess-free coloring. While the Dumpling initially didn’t pay attention to the alphabet on top, she “colored” the pictures so often that they were always in her peripheral vision.

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Play Idea 1: “Clean” the animal/object. I give the Dumpling a wet sponge, and we make a game out of wiping the cards.

Play Idea 2: Match uppercase and lowercase letters. Did I ever mention that I love flashcards? I can arrange them any way I want and use however many I want. I usually start with four or five so my toddler doesn’t get overwhelmed and build up the difficulty level from there.

Duplo Sets

We love open-ended toys because our imagination is really the limit. The Dumpling just builds and builds and builds…I’m pretty sure she constructed something like the double decker couch once.

Cutting Food Set

The Dumpling loves pretend play in the kitchen, so I’m looking to replace the set (which was a hand-me-down) with a wooden alternative since she actually tried to lick some of these.

This wraps up what is currently in our toy box. I will continue to update what is in our rotation once we shake things up a bit!

When we have guests over, all of her toys slide neatly into our corner side table. Clean up is easy peasy! (Psst, our Grimm stacking rainbow is new!)

Inside My Two Year Old’s Toy Box: Quality Over Quantity (Part 1)

I recently purchased two sets of barn and jungle animals from a mom-and-pop store in Tsuen Wan. From the outside, they looked like the plastic toys used in zoo/farm/safari “pretend play” activities that I’ve been seeing all over Instagram, so I was pretty excited to open them when I got home. The moment I ripped off the packaging, however, I was overcame by a terrible chemical odor. Luckily I was able to toss everything out before the Dumpling knew of their existence. (I normally buy toys behind her back and always examine everything behind closed doors before letting her to play.)

After this debacle, I decided to phase out most of our plastic toys because I’m tired of researching whether something is BPA, PVC, or [insert whatever chemical name]-free. Even if the Dumpling is past the phase of putting everything in her mouth, anything that’s radiating a chemical odor cannot be good.

My goal is to slowly replace the Dumpling’s toy box with quality wooden toys. Although the market is smaller and more expensive compared to its plastic counterpart, I’m only looking to purchase a few sets—specifically those that are multi-functional, offer replay value, and, if possible, have resale value as well. (I purchased two used sets that are in great condition; one of the sellers disclosed that she bought it used from someone else!)

Our household has always enforced a strict toy rotation system where the Dumpling is only allowed two boxes of toys—I cannot stand the clutter, so it forces me to be more thoughtful of my purchases and makes the Dumpling’s responsibility of cleaning up more manageable (and therefore, she’s more likely to do it). Most importantly, it challenges both of us to think of playing with existing toys in new, creative ways. This ensures that everything in our toy box gets play time; those that don’t get replaced with “new” ones until they find their way back in rotation or get stored away once she outgrows them.

These are the wooden toys currently in our collection and the creative ways we play with them to ensure that we get the most mileage!

Wooden Threading Beads

The Dumpling currently has zero interest in learning to lace, so we have been using the beads as stacking blocks and puzzles.

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Play Idea 1: Use the beads as building blocks. I like the design of this set because of the flat surfaces (some beads are curved all around).

Play Idea 2: Create a pattern matching puzzle. I printed various pattern arrangements and tasked the Dumpling with finding the pieces to match. While I used Photoshop to create the puzzle cards, you can just take pictures of your own arrangements and print them out as 4″ x 6″ photographs (they’re perfect flashcard size for little hands).

Play Idea 3: Create a block puzzle. I cut a picture into squares to the size of the block and taped them on.  (Warning: The tape could ruin the paint!) The level of difficulty can be adjusted by customizing the number of blocks used—we started with four. Technically, I can also create up to six puzzles with a different picture on each face, but I kept it to one since we’re still on easy-mode. (Picture of animals from Freekpik.)

Wooden Animal Shape Sorter Pull Along Truck

This is the Dumpling’s favorite at the moment because the animal pieces are so cute!

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Play Idea 1: Set up a “farm” and “safari” pretend play with other toy sets. (Yay, I finally did one!).

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Play Idea 2: Create [more] shape puzzles by tracing the animal outlines onto a piece of paper.

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Play Idea 3: Form an animal tower. Stacking the pieces is actually very hard because of their shape and weight! The Dumpling could only get to second row before knocking everything down in aggravation.

Wooden Magnetic Animal Puzzles

This was my first impulse wooden toy purchase, and in hindsight, probably my least favorite because there’s not much to do beyond solving the puzzle. It took the Dumpling a full afternoon to learn that she needed to flip all the pieces to face the same side, but she can now assemble everything in minutes. I guess that’s the problem with puzzles: they cease to be fun once the challenge is gone.

Play Idea 1: Create Frankenstein animals. While I like the silliness of the game, the Dumpling isn’t amused and “fixes” it every time.

Thats it for now, but I’m still looking to add two or three more sets. In the meantime, I will continue sharing new ways we play with our old toys…including the plastic ones I tend to keep in my next post!

Make a Doggy Layer Puzzle

These were the instructions that someone once used to teach me how to draw a dog:

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My ten year old self thought it was the most awesome drawing tutorial ever! Actually, it’s still awesome because it’s the same set of instructions I give myself whenever I draw a dog today…which is often since it’s a regular request from the Dumpling.

I wanted to share the story with my toddler because this wisdom must be passed on to future generations! Having been tinkering with layer art recently, I thought making a layer puzzle would be a fun way to get her involved.

Materials

  • Printable template
  • X-Acto knife
  • Scissors
  • Seven sheets of cardstocks (Color choices are based on preference; I used black, beige, blue, white (2), light brown, brown)

Instructions:

Step 1: Print the template onto the cardstocks. 

  • Black: Layer 1 (Please note that I just hand wrote the title in with a marker.)
  • Beige: Layer 2
  • Blue: Layer 3
  • White: Layer 4
  • Brown: Layer 5
  • Light brown: Layer 6
  • White: Layer 7

Step 2: Use an X-Acto knife to cut out the shaded areas. I’m not that dexterous so I used scissors to clean up the frays and trimmed off any borders peeping from the previous layer(s).

Step 3: Layer the cutouts in numerical order and share the story! I also numbered the sheets so that the Dumpling can solve the puzzle on her own by applying her number sequence knowledge.

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My Toddler Tells Me a Bedtime Story

The Dumpling’s imagination has been developing rapidly in the past month. Instead of only seeing objects as they are, she can now envision them as something else in her make-believe play. For example, she played with an iPhone box as if it was a car, saw a train in the shadow casted by our curtains, and re-enacted a scene from the Minions movie with a dinosaur cookie cutter and play dough.

Imagination is an important skill for a child to acquire because the ability to think creatively and differently builds a world of infinite possibilities—there’s always a new idea, invention, or method waiting to be dreamed up. While I don’t think there’s a surefire method to teach imagination like the way shapes, colors, letters, and numbers are taught, creativity is like a muscle—the more it’s used, the more it develops. Therefore, the best I can do as a parent is to look for opportunities for the Dumpling to exercise it as much as possible.

I have shared in my past entries that reading with the Dumpling has been an ongoing challenge in our household. Instead of forcing her to do something she didn’t want to, I actually packed her books away (quite literally since we were moving) and stopped bedtime stories for a few months. I recently reintroduced them back into our nightly routine…with a new twist. Instead of me doing the reading, I asked the Dumpling to tell me a story instead. She obviously cannot read yet, so I helped her string together a simple narrative by digging deep into our imagination.

We first created the characters using illustrations from “Goodnight Little Remy,” a personalized book that depicts various animals wishing the Dumpling a good night. The actual story, as the author intended, was entirely irrelevant; we just needed the visuals as a starting point. I facilitated by asking the Dumpling a series of questions about what her characters did or intend to do, how they feel, and what their relations are with each other…essentially anything that is not shown in the artwork.

The questions were all relatable to the Dumpling’s everyday life and her responses often reflected that. If she couldn’t answer (which was often the case at the beginning), I presented her with a list of choices to pick from until she nodded her head in agreement. Below are sample questions based on a spread featuring owls in the book.

  • “What is the owl’s name? Is it Bob? Kevin? Stuart?”
  • “Does the owl have a Mommy? Daddy? Brother? Sister? Friends?”
  • “Are the owls and birds neighbors? Are they friends?”
  • “How are the owls feeling? Are they happy? Sad? Hungry? Angry?”
  • “What did they have for breakfast? Banana? Apple? Kiwi?”
  • “Did the owls ride the train or go to the playground?”

Once we gathered enough details, I pieced together a story based on the Dumpling’s answers. After repeating this activity for a week (with multiple rounds of revision on her end), she was even able to tell me bits and pieces of her own story!

As I mentioned previously, the real story was not important. I never corrected the Dumpling by reading what’s printed on the text. My goal was to nurture her imagination, therefore, it didn’t matter if her tale defied the rules of physics, space, and time. I’m pretty sure there will be many people in her lifetime that would tell her that her ideas are impossible—I’ll try not to be one of them.

Goodnight Little Remy
Retold by the Dumpling (with help from mommy)

There was a sleeping bird who flew across the night sky, over an empty house where an old grandpa once lived. The sleeping bird watched fireworks and visited a bird family. There was a Daddy Bird (because he’s big), Mommy Bird (also because she’s big), Brother Bird, Sister Bird, and Baby Bird. There was also a Friend Bird who will grow up to be a dinosaur. RAWR! The Friend Bird was very popular because he had multiple girlfriend birds.

The Baby Bird lived in a nest with two other eggs, but the eggs would become the Dumpling’s snack when she gets hungry. Nom! Nom! Nom!

All of the birds like going to the playground and down the slide with their friends and neighbors, the owls! The owl family has a Daddy Owl, Mommy Owl, Brother Owl, Sister Owl, and Baby Owl. The owls were not happy because they didn’t love each other.

The end.

Tissue Paper Cherry Blossoms

It seems like I’m have developed an obsession with tissue paper lately. When I saw this pretty cherry blossom piece on Pinterest, I knew the last of my tissue paper tiles leftover from my suncatcher project will have ANOTHER life…just in time for Chinese New Year and spring too!

This turned out to be a great “big kid” project with the Dumpling because it involved multiple steps (technically two, but that’s double the number she was used to following!). Each step also allowed room for exploration (read: deviation) and the end result would still look fabulous. Below is my tutorial modified specifically to working with a two year old.

Materials

  • Printout of a cherry blossom branch (Note: I hand drew mine because I still don’t have a printer yet. I used brown and black washable markers, then traced the drawing with a wet brush to replicate a watercolor vibe. The link of the printout is to an external website.)
  • Red, pink and/or white tissue paper cut into approximately 2-3 cm tiles
  • Glue
  • Plastic tray (optional)

Step 1: Crumple the tissue paper into little balls

I showed the Dumpling how to crumple the tissue paper with her fingers and in the palms of her hands. Unlike the tiny beads needed for the mosaic hearts, the balls can be tight or loose for this activity—both work and produce different effects.

Step 2: Glue the crumpled tissue paper onto the branches

To prevent the Dumpling from going overboard with the glue, I poured a thin layer into a plastic plate, asked her to dip the crumpled tissue paper in, and replenished the glue as needed.

It was a game of chance where the Dumpling pasted on the flowers but I did try to direct her attention to the branch ends where they would naturally cluster. When she missed the tree entirely, I complimented on how lovely the falling petals looked. I also occasionally rotated the paper so she didn’t concentrate too much in one area.

When I felt there were enough florals on the tree (which was entirely based on personal preference), we concluded the activity by admiring the tree in full bloom. Yay!

Happy Chinese New Year!

Colorful Ice Hearts

The Dumpling recently painted on ice as an activity in one of her playgroups and absolutely loved it. To replicate the activity at home with a Valentine’s Day twist: I set out to make heart shaped ice. I didn’t have ice molds, so I experimented using my trusty cookie cutters instead—seems like I have done everything except bake with them!

Materials

  • Shallow plastic tray that is bendable (I upcycled a plastic food tray)
  • Plastic heart cookie cutter
  • Water

Instructions

Step 1: Pour several millimeters of water into the plastic tray with the cookie cutter inside. Please note that using too much water will make it hard to break off the excess ice later.

Step 2: Freeze on a flat surface.

Step 3: Gently break off the ice along the outside edge of the cookie cutter. The entire sheet of ice should come off the tray easily but be careful not to remove the cookie cutter.

Step 4: Put the cookie cutter back in the tray and add more water to the inside of the mold. It’s okay if some water leaks out. Optional: Add the ice that was broken off from the previous step to create a jagged effect.

Step 5: Freeze on a flat surface.

Step 6: Clean off the ice around the heart and gently wiggle/bend the mold free. If it’s stuck, wait a minute and try again.

Activity Ideas:

Color the Ice

Instead of painting directly on the ice, I also sprinkled salt over it at the start of the activity. Salt lowers the ice’s freezing temperature, so crevices will form where the ice starts melting. When the Dumpling painted food coloring on, the colors ran into the cracks for a beautiful effect.

Once the ice started turning brown, I rinsed it with water for a clean slate again.

Color with Ice

Once the ice soaked up enough food coloring, I asked the Dumpling use it as an “ice crayon” to color with it on paper.

Or just add food coloring before freezing.

Making Tissue Paper Suncatchers With a Toddler

I love asking for the Dumpling’s help in my arts and crafts because it’s a great way for us to work together…even if she’s more troublesome than helpful most of the time. Now that she’s older, I began involving her in more steps throughout the process whereas in the past, she was only responsible for only one task (or the entire activity consisted of only one task).

One of the first “big girl” projects we did was making suncatchers out of tissue paper for Valentine’s Day. There are many tutorials online—I just tweaked and combined steps from various ones to suit the needs of working with a two year old.

Materials

  • Tissue paper cut into squares
  • Scissors
  • Plastic tray or plate (make sure it’s bendable)
  • Elmer’s glue diluted with equal amounts of water

Notes Before Starting

Whenever the Dumpling is involved, I always do the prep work behind the scenes beforehand. For example, I had the tissue paper cut and the glue diluted at the start of the activity to avoid dealing with my daughter growing impatient.

I brought out only the supplies needed at each step. For example, I had the tray and tissue paper out during step one and kept the glue hidden until step two. Otherwise the Dumpling would fidget with the glue prematurely.

I also learned that activities often don’t go as planned with a toddler. If I ask the Dumpling to do X and she ends up doing Y, then Y it is! Even though it’s frustrating at times, I have come to accept that exploration is more important than results at this stage.

Step 1: Layer the pieces of tissue paper onto the plastic tray

This was actually a good exercise for the Dumpling to practice her fine motor skills since the tissue paper required gentle handling—she crumpled and ripped a few, but casualties were expected. I was on the sidelines spreading clumps apart, filling in thin areas, and putting the pieces back into the tray because she kept taking them out after she was done.

Step 2: Drench the tissue paper with the glue mixture

I put the diluted glue in an old plastic sauce container for the Dumpling to pour in. To prevent her from taking the now wet tissue paper out (yep, she was still at it), I took the tray away immediately and thanked her for a job well done. Yay!

Yes—that’s it. She helped with two steps.

Step 3: Let the tissue paper dry completely and peel off

The entire sheet should come off easily without tearing.

Step 4: Cut into hearts or other desired shapes

The Dumpling was quite pleased with the results, but it took her a while to realize that these are fragile (the epiphany came after destroying the fourth one) and needed to be handled with care.

Craft Idea #1: Instead of taping the hearts on a window like traditional suncatchers, I strung them into a mobile and hung it inside the Dumpling’s tent.

Craft Idea #2: Use them in Valentine’s Day cards.