By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Nov 28, 2017 at 7:03 PM

While our natural inclination this season is to bury our faces into our phones, the coveted "family time" is an opportunity to take a much more low-tech approach to entertaining ourselves together.

With our daughter, we’ve enforced a nightly family crafting time before bed. It’s a great way to unwind from an intense day, and other than posting our results to Facebook, it’s totally screen-free.

Currently, family crafting inner house is taking the form of a "family drawing contest," but it’s been many different artsy activities over the years.

When my daughter was a toddler, for example, we played a lot with Sculpey, the oven-baked clay, because she was asking for dolls that just don’t exist ("Daddy, make me a half bear, half monster and a Wonder Twin wearing a dress!"). As her tastes evolved, so have our family crafts.

Here are a few that I suggest to encourage your family to engage its crafty side:

Build a book

Kids love the exercise of writing books, and providing them with a blank hardcover one gives them a chance to work on storytelling, penmanship and drawing. It’s fun to assign the parents roles in the process, like illustrating (and having the child color it in) or vice versa. Either way, these blank books are a much better option than a bunch of notebook paper stapled together and shoved in a drawer.

Burn it

While woodburning obviously isn’t a safe activity for children, they can still participate in creating art that’s worth hanging on the walls. Have them draw with pencil on the wood, then let the adult trace it with a wood burner. For an even more polished approach with letters, I print them out, then trace onto the wood with graphite paper. Want to score extra points? Grab a cheap IKEA dresser, paint it to your child’s specifications, and wood burn a design in the top.

DIY neon signs

Real neon signs are both expensive and fragile, but there’s a much cheaper, safer, easier and more versatile option out there called EL wire. It comes in a variety of colors and thicknesses, which means even kids can create their own light-up signs that glow and blink, powered by just a small battery. EL wire is cheap enough that you can also buy longer lengths to wrap around clothes and conjure your own version of Daft Punk, which is very useful for family dance parties.

Print it and stick it

This isn’t low-tech at all, but I love the idea of teaching your child how to take purposeful photography. The Canon Selphy makes printing those photos super easy. We buy the photo stickers, so the best of the best goes on a cork board on the wall. What’s great about this printer is that it comes with a thermal ink cartridge and the corresponding amount of photo paper. There’s no guess work with ink replacement, and the archival prints don’t smudge or fade.

Mold your own action figures

Unlike Sculpey, InstaMorph is reusable over and over again, and it dries to an unbreakable state when dipped in cold water. It’s a little harder to work with than clay, but we’ve used it to fix broken doll arms, or to modify other toys in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. In fact, watching a child personalize an otherwise stock toy is pretty cool: it bring a level of self-expression to every project – and it doesn’t fall apart.

Just add glitter

I’ve amassed a diverse collection of sketching and coloring tools for our family drawing contests, because I want our kid to try out all sorts of media in making her masterpieces. I like watercolor pens, but they tend to be a little bit sloppy. These glitter pens are nice because they are precise, but also add a little razzle-dazzle to a project.

Erase with ease

I didn’t even know battery-operated erasers exist, but they do, and they’re very cheap. It’s important to encourage each other to dive into art, without worrying about errant lines, and this eraser makes easy work of even dark colored pencil scribbles.

Cast those tiny hands

I haven’t tried this kit yet, but I plan on it. Even kids with wiggly hands can create a beautiful, hand-holding plaster statue, then paint it as they see fit. Grandparents will love this one-of-a-kind gift.

Andy is the founder and co-owner of He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.