If you’re looking for an easy and low-cost craft for kids around the holidays, look to nature. Pine cones abound and are a blank canvas for young artists.
Pine cones are available in crafts stores, ready to use, but a walk outside — potentially in your own yard or a little further out into the neighborhood--is likely to net you a bunch for free (and it will help the neighbors clean up their yards). You’ll want to avoid pine cones that have been stripped by squirrels, though, as they aren’t as attractive to use.
If you’re collecting pine cones yourself rather than purchasing them, it does take a little bit of planning ahead, as you’ll want to take some time to prepare them before handing them off to the kids to transform.
“Put them in a Ziplock bag when you bring them inside, because it could be that insects have taken shelter inside a pinecone,” said Gina Jack, an environmental educator at Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in Delmar. “Then take it and release it outside.”
The pine cones may be wet and have traces of mold or mildew on them, so it is good to disinfect them also, rather than bringing those elements into the house. This goes for any natural element collected from outside. “Make sure whatever you’re using as natural objects has an opportunity to dry before you use it,” Jack said.
Jack reminds people, though that it is prohibited to collect anything from state land. Be sure that it’s legal to collect pine cones from where you’re picking them up.
Once they de-bugged (think spiders and ticks), the pine cones can be disinfected in a bucket of water with 1/2 cup of vinegar added to it. Water will cause the pine cones to close up, so you do not want to soak them too long. After 20 to 30 minutes, remove the pine cones, rinse them and drain them. At this point, depending on their size and shape, they can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to dry completely.
A way to dry them quickly and make them open up is to bake them in the oven. Line a baking sheet with foil and place the pine cones on the pan, making sure that they do not touch each other. Then heat them at anywhere from 200 to 300 degrees (different people recommend different temperatures) from 30 minutes to an hour, keeping an eye on them. Then set them out for a couple of days to rest, and they’ll be ready for crafting.
If you’re really planning ahead, gather some pine cones now, de-bug them, and then let them dry naturally. “Collect them one year and use them the following year,” Jack said.
The exciting thing about pine cones is that they will vary depending on the type of tree from which you collect them. It helps that there are over 100 species of pine trees. “There are different kinds of pine trees, and the cones they produce are different shapes,” Jack said. She suggests finding a shape that you’re interested in working with or simply providing a variety of pinecone shapes. Pine cones from the eastern white pine and the sugar pine are long, slender and oval-shaped, and they tend to have more sap on them. In contrast, the red pine nets short, round, squat pine cones. If you’re really thinking ahead, you could collect some pine cones from other places, providing even more of a variety for crafting.
As far as what to do with them, there are endless possibilities. “Personally, what I like to do is let kids have their freedom,” Jack said. “If I’m doing crafts with kids, I will present them with materials and let their imaginations run wild so that they can come up with whatever they’re inspired to come up with.”
Ideas abound on the internet, but basically, in many cases, the pine cone provides a body for whatever critter being created. With the addition of simple crafts supplies including chenille stems (what we used to call pipe cleaners), pompoms, felt, googly eyes, fabric pieces, paint, glitter, glue, beads, crafting gems, yarn, cotton balls, and small seashells, a plain pine cone becomes an animal or other character. Other natural items work, too, like twigs, leaves and the tops of acorns. For animals, chenille stems become limbs or antlers, pompoms become noses, and felt can become faces, wings, ears, feet, etc. Think owls (cotton balls make a snowy owl), spiders, porcupines, mice, reindeer, and penguins, to name a few. “There’s lots of different ways you can take a pine cone and turn it into some kind of critter,” Jack said.
Pine cones can become other beings, too, for example, elves (think painted bodies, chenille stems for limbs, wooden beads for heads, and felt to make elf hats; the internet offers dozens of variations, tutorials and templates), angels or fairies (with painted wooden faces and leaves or felt for wings), and skiing snowmen (different size pine cones painted white and glued atop one another with twigs or skewers for ski poles and felt scarves and hats).
“Let creativity be your guide and just have fun,” Jack said.
Aside from critters, pine cones can be glued to a styrofoam wreath base to make a natural wreath. A simple way to dress up pine cones is to put glue on the tips of the scales and then dip them in glitter. These can be simply placed in a bowl for a centerpiece or used to decorate a wreath.
The shape of the pine cone lends itself to turning a pine cone into a Christmas tree. Paint it green or white and glue crafting gems on for ornament.
A timeless classic idea is transforming a pine cone into a bird feeder. Kids love animals, so this idea is highly appealing in addition to being easy. Give kids a jar of peanut butter and a popsicle stick, and let them stick peanut butter into the crevices. Then roll the pine cone in birdseed and hang it outside. Jack said that you can also mix some oatmeal or cornmeal in with the peanut butter before putting it on the pinecone.
Jack warns, though, that pine cone bird feeders are only good for colder weather, because the peanut butter can go rancid in warmer temperatures. She also warns that pinecone bird feeders are prime targets for squirrels. “The squirrels have stolen the pine cones within a few hours,” she said.