Guest Post: Use Explorer Notebooks for Location-Inspired Art

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I am excited to share a series of guest posts with you by other Artful Parents and teachers while I step back from the blog a bit this month! I hope you enjoy the new perspectives, different ideas, and fresh energy that each brings to this space. And I encourage you to leave a comment to continue the discussion, add your own viewpoint, or simply say thanks!

Guest Post by Katie Watson

ExplorerNotebook5Hello Artful Parent readers, and a big thanks to Jean for taking a shot on letting a new blogger share this space!  I’d like to share a project my son and I have been playing with recently—his Explorer’s Notebook.  We recently moved from the Midwest to Washington, DC, and we’re loving all of the exploring that comes with resettling.  I find all the new settings inspiring to my own creativity—and I’d been thinking about how to let my son express some of what he’s discovering, too.  Then I attended a DC Public Library Creative Class workshop where I made a little book using old maps and photos, and Toby was fascinated by it.  So we created his kid-sized Explorers Notebook together, and now he’s filling it with little scraps and scribbles of our life here.

This project is for parents and children to work on together.  Depending on your child’s age, there are some steps you’ll need to do all on your own.  But at any age, your kids can help you find papers to use, and, of course, once the book is finished it’s theirs to fill.

To start, you’ll need a handful of paper.  I used some plain computer paper, graph paper, colored parchment and tissue paper.  Then I found some bits and pieces that we’ve collected—brochures from local attractions, maps, and pictured below there’s part of a bag from a favorite pastry shop.  You’ll see that plastic window later.  Because we were using this book to record my son’s exploring, I tried to use papers that reminded him of places around our city.


Once you’ve got your papers, cut them to size.  To keep it simple, I went with half of a standard sheet of paper, making my cut pages 8 ½ x 5 ½ and my finished book 4 ¼ x 5 ½.  I cut down some maps and brochures to the same size.  For fun I also cut some graph paper extra long to make fold-out pages.


Above you see the parchment cut to the regular size, and the extra-long graph paper.  Below, you see how I folded the long sheet.


I found that about 10 sheets of paper makes a good sized book.  Cut them, fold them individually, and then stack them together.  If some pieces (like the pastry bag from above) aren’t as big as your other pages, that’s okay—the little tabs add interest and work themselves into your child’s drawings in fun ways.  I added a piece of brown cardstock for the cover, and then clipped the stack together to hold everything in place.


To bind the pages, I poked three holes in my book with a push pin.  Note the cardboard underneath to protect the table.  I sewed my pages together using, um, dental floss.  Don’t laugh, it’s strong and the waxy coating makes the knots stay in place.  I used a three-hole pamphlet stitch (step by step instructions here), with the knot on the inside.

I tried gluing a map to the front cover, but it wasn’t looking very sturdy.  So in the spirit of using-what-you’ve-got I pulled out that favorite Jr. High DIY trick:  packing tape.  I laminated the front and back covers with tape, and then handed the book over to my son.


The first thing he wanted to do was add more tape.  He added an event wristband with masking and scotch tape.


We also spent some time painting in our notebooks.  Here’s a shot of his work on the pastry bag page with the window.  He spent some time trying to paint on the window, but it didn’t really stick.


And just because I like it, here’s a picture of the fold-out centerfold.  My son loves subway maps, and I’m kind of surprised he hasn’t drawn on this page yet.


My son’s art is not yet representational—so I think this will be a fun way to explore location-inspired artwork.  Can’t draw local landmarks?  Scribble on top of photos of them.  Make rubbings of textures or tracings of leaves.  Glue in scraps of nature or wrappers & papers that we find along the way.  Or simply experiment with pencils or markers or paints while sitting at your favorite park or waiting for a train.

And yes, it doesn’t hurt that our Explorer Notebook also functions something like a coloring book.  The different pages and pictures serve as prompts that can encourage my son to work on his own during those times when it’s convenient to have him sitting still.  I’m planning to make another airplane-themed book for an upcoming cross-country trip.

There are so many ways to switch up these books depending on your child’s age and interests.  I’m now on the lookout for interesting shapes, textures and cutouts in the things we usually throw away.  What about sewing in a few pages of your child’s excess artwork?  Or photocopying some pictures of family members and sewing them in as pages in the book?  And, of course, there are countless ways to fill up the pages.  Location is a strong influence on all of our creative work, and having a location-based notebook lets kids (and adults) explore, record and share what they notice about their surroundings.


Katie Watson loves art opportunities that get art-phobic people creating.  She has used group art projects at community centers and churches to encourage groups to get to know each other and to explore their beliefs.  Now she finds herself pulling out those skills again as she tries to convince her very active 3 year old son to slow down and put a crayon to paper.  Katie has written church curriculum for elementary students, and just started blogging at

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  1. says

    Welcome to DC! Love your idea. If you’re looking for a great place to meet other moms/tots while getting into lots of creative art-making together, check out my ART IN HAND classes in Falls Church, Alexandria, or Herndon (not sure exactly where you are, but maybe one of those would be close enough). My website is currently out of commission (should be back up soon), but you can see my class listings at,, or and read more about my program and approach if you check out the interview I did with Jean a while back on this blog. Maybe we’ll meet in person!

  2. says

    What a great idea–I actually had a journal very similar to this for both of my European trips when I was a teenager– one to France and one to Ireland, and filled them to the brim! I simply never thought of doing this ‘kid style’. We are relocating in a number of months to a new country and this will be such a fun thing. I love exploring! :)
    Sarah M

  3. says

    I think the Creative Class workshop I attended was the first in a series, the is Saturday, Jan 21 — . Great idea, the workshops are all about how to use the library resources to inspire or do research for artwork. The one I attended showed us how to browse the collections of old maps and photos. And Julie, thanks for the invitation! I had heard of your classes, and we’ll have to give them a try sometime!

  4. Monica says

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful idea! And don’t feel bad about using dental floss. It is very strong! Mu mother-in-law uses it to hang picture frames on the walls! (she’s a dentist…)

  5. says

    I loved the post! I also live in the DC area and just recently started a blog, lol. I’ll definitely check our your blog, and will try making one of these books with/for my girls.
    I love the way that metro map looks in the book. There was an interesting article in the Post last summer ( ) about the graphic designer who created it…he’s been recommissioned to change it because of the addition of some rail lines. It’s an interesting read because that map is really an icon.
    Thanks for the great post!

  6. Lisa says

    This is cool! My son is a little young, but it would certainly make a great gift, too. Also, can you tell me more about these DC library classes. I’ve been here for 5 years, yet this is the first I’ve heard of them. I guess there’s always something new to be discovered, huh?

  7. says

    As a fellow Midwestern transplant to the greater DC area, welcome! :) This is a great post, I love the metro map included in the book. We will have to make some of these for sure, we got through book making phases, but haven’t included pre-printed stuff before. The brochures from the Smithsonian museums would be perfect! Also, love the dental floss idea.

  8. says

    I love this idea and I so wish I had seen before we went away for a month, my daughter would have loved it. We did make a journal together of our time away from collected bits and pieces and drawings.

  9. says

    What a fantastic idea, Katie. My sons are I will be ending the summer in Turkey visiting my in-laws. I’ve been thinking about ideas to help my kids record the experience and these explorer books look perfect.

  10. says

    I like how the notebook sort of functions as an interactive bulletin board — all the stuff you would save and tack up, but you get to scribble on it too. My four year old would love this. Great post, Katie. Glad you guys are having fun exploring :)

  11. Claudia says

    Great idea! We haven’t moved, or gone on a big trip, but my 3 and 5 year old and I just a couple of days ago started our “Secret Spring and Summer Adventure Club”, to begin explorations of our favorite secret spots and routes around our town (and further afield on weekends), now that it is lighter and warmer. We had a secret handshake for our new club, but now we’ll have books too, thanks to your post! I made one for each kiddo today–love the dental floss and tape lamination– and my 3 year old fell asleep on the drive home clutching his ‘adventure book’; the 5 year old came home and started drawing and writing up her adventure in hers. Thanks again!