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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Experimenting with Natural Dyes in our Toddlergarten class

As some of you may know, I have been running an in-home toddler group on Monday mornings, which we call "Toddlergarten".  I would love to do a whole post about it soon, and in fact I would really like to start using this space to record more of our learning-at-home adventures. So today I will share our project from last Monday, when we experimented with natural dyes and baking soda. We had a total of five children, all 2-years-old except for one who is 4-years-old.
Millie and I prepared the dyes the night before (if the group was meeting more than once a week, I would probably have the children help cut up the dye-stuff one day, then paint with it the next, so they could really see the whole process). To make the dyes, you simply cut up the dye-stuff (vegetables, fruits, spices listed below) into small pieces, add water to cover, boil, then simmer for 30-60 minutes. Strain the dyed water into glass jars. Ideally I would have liked to have used less water (therefor making a more concentrated dye), but I was also using this batch to dye silks so I needed enough to cover that project. I poured some of the dye into empty baby food jars (see above photo) and made drawings to go along with each.
Here are the ones we made:
spinach = pale yellow
strawberry = light orange-y pink
turmeric = bright yellow
blueberry = violet
red cabbage = blue
red cabbage + vinager = pink
red cabbage + baking soda = green 
I have also made successful dye batches with marigolds (buttery yellow on silk), blackberries (gray-ish purple), and beets (rosy pink on silk). Some other ideas to try are paprika, coffee grounds, tea, onion skins, raspberries, dahlia flowers... I'm sure there are many more.
I gave each child a 9x6 piece of dry watercolor paper (cut down from a 12"x18" 140lb cold press watercolor pad, which I get at the craft store using a 40% coupon). You want the paper to be small because the dye is not that strong, so it gives a better result when concentrated to a small area. I cut the corners off the paper to make it rounded (this encourages them to spread the paint around and let it flow, as opposed to trying to "draw" a picture with it). I made sure to have extras in case anyone needed a second piece, which three of them did.
They had fun guessing what had made each of the colors before I showed them the cards. We passed the jars around and smelled them too- the strawberry smelled sooo good! The cabbage and turmeric had really strong smells as well.
We started by using child-safe q-tips to soak up the dye and apply it to the paper. I put out little glass dishes of baking soda, and they used their pincer grasp to pick it up and sprinkle it on the paper. Then of course my child found the spoon I used to transfer it, and used it to dump big scoops onto her paper :)  About half way through I introduced the pipettes as a tool to pick up the dye. Two of the children had left the table, but came back to do more when they saw this. I was surprised how quickly they learned how to use them. The colors mixed together to make new unpredictable colors, and the baking soda changed the pH level and added another dimension to the experiment. As the papers dried, the colors continued to change! It was truly fascinating, because they don't necessarily mix to the "correct" color wheel combinations. An interesting rust-red color appeared on some of the dried papers that had not been there while we were painting.
Afterward, we poured the leftover dyes into clear plastic bottles and placed them on the windowsill (I glued the lids on). Here are some of the children's predictions about what would happen to them:
"The sun will turn them yellow"
"They will get bright"
"They will change colors"
So far Millie and I have observed that the turmeric has settled to the bottom of it's bottle, the green has turned yellow-ish brown, and the purple has faded to pink. On Monday we will see what other changes have happened.
I used the rest of the dye we made to color some playsilks (which are a must-have toy in our house and get played with daily). We are giving a couple of big ones as Christmas presents, and the little 11x11" squares shown below will be in Millie's stocking. I "set" the dyes and did a whole big process to try and preserve the color in them, but that's another post altogether. Here my sweet Millie is folding them on the bed after I ironed them. 
{colors starting with pink in top center: strawberry, red cabbage, blueberry, red cabbage with baking soda, cool batch spinch (pale yellow), hot batch spinach (green-ish yellow), turmeric}

I hope you enjoyed reading about our experiment. If anyone out there in blog-land gives this a try, please let me know how it goes!


  1. I did enjoy reading the post. Thank you so much for taking the time. I look forward to reading more about your toddlerGarten!

  2. I'm so glad Emma could be a part of this! The natural dyes are especially beautiful in the silks, so delicate. Looking forward to hearing about next weeks adventures :-)