Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

TPiB: Mexican Sugar Skulls Made Out of Clay (with links to a few other multicultural crafts)

As part of a Social Studies project, The Tween and her classmates had to create crafts to sell at a recreated “Mexican Market”. For our craft project, we created Sugar Skulls out of clay which proved to be very popular. Sugar Skulls are an important part of the Mexican Day of the Dead, or the Dia’ de los Muerto, which you can read more about here. There were also featured in the 2014 movie release Book of Life.

To make our sugar skulls we used a variety of materials until we found the combination that worked best. Because we are working with clay, this project is a two day project but the final product is epically cool and worth the time and effort.

For the actual skull, we tried both white air dry clay and colored Sculpy clay (which you have to bake). Both of the two types of clay were easy to work with. The Sculpy clay produced a cleaner and more polished looking product, but it was more expensive and of course you have to bake it. In terms of ease of use, the air dry clay wins hands down.

For decorating our skulls we tried a variety of applications:

Spray paint & carving (time consuming, a bit of skill required). See the black colored skull at the top left corner for an example.

Enamel paint (time consuming, more difficult to work with). Example not pictured.

Sharpies! – This one won hands down. They were easy to use and immediately dry which meant we could finish them quickly.

Easiest, cheapest & quickest combination: Air dry clay + Sharpies

Best looking, most expensive & most time consuming combination: Sculpy clay + Metallic Sharpies

So here’s the steps I recommend for completing this project in a library environment, which are not necessarily the steps I would recommend for doing this at home where you have more time and an oven.

Day 1: Sculpting your sugar skulls

Supplies: Air dry clay, some type of surface to work on (plastic table cover or place mat), clay or pottery sculpting tools, paper plates (to store the drying skulls on and remember whose is whose)

Time: As you get better, you can make 1 in about 10 to 15 minutes. So plan on making 4 to 5 per teen in a 1 hour period.

To make the skulls you basically manipulate the clay to get into the size and shape that you want. Starting off with a round ball helps. You’ll want to make sure that you kind of smooth it all over when you get it into the shape that you want so there are no rough edges.

Then set them aside and let them dry for 24 hours. You’ll want to make sure that your teens can identify their sugar skulls the next day so maybe have them place them on paper plates with their initials or names on a cart so you can wheel them out of the way to dry.

A note about colors: If you use just the plain air dry clay, your skulls will be a basic white. You can spray paint the skulls to add more color. To do this in a library programming setting I would preselect a certain number of colors – say 5 – and have the teens write what colors they want their skulls spray painted on the plate. A black skull with the metallic markers looks very cool. But a white skull with a variety of colors also looks cool if you want to keep it simple for yourself. To paint the skulls you’ll need to let them air dry for 24 hours then take them outside to spray paint them (in the grass or on say a flattened box) and let them dry for a minimum of 4 hours.

Day 2: Decorating your sugar skulls

As I mentioned above, using Sharpies to decorate the skulls turned out to be the easiest for us. We didn’t have to wait for a previous layer to dry. And those of us with less skill were still easily able to participate. And by those of us with less skill I mean me. After you look at a few pictures you can just be creative and go with it.

Remember that when dealing with crafts from a culture that is different than your own you want to do basic research to make sure you are being mindful of the meaning and history and sensitive to the cultures that you are exploring. Take a moment with each craft to make sure your tweens and teens understand the history and customs surrounding whatever craft you are making. You can make the craft for a specific program, like a Dia’ de los Muerto program full of stories and songs, that will help your teens understand this holiday.

Or you can do the craft as part of an overall multicultural craft day or series of crafts. I am including below a couple of other multicultural crafts that I have done over the years that might make for a great craft day or series. As always, you’ll want to do your research beforehand so that you are informed and can discuss the history and origins of each craft with your participants. Crafting can be a good way to engage tweens and teens in hands on learning while discussing issues of multiculturalism and diversity, the need to learn about and respect cultures different than our own.

Paper Fortune Cookies : Popularly associated with China, though these cookies are actually absent in China and may be based on a Japanese cracker. Also, you can make these cool fortune cookies made out of fruit roll ups.

Khamsa Hands : A Khamsa hand is a symbol of good luck from Morocco, Africa. It is often made out of various precious metals, typically silver, but for crafting and education purposes there are a variety of ways you can make these. You could go beyond the traditional paper format by making Shrinky Dink ones (blank Shrinky Dink papers can be bought at most craft stores and a toaster oven can be used for heating purposes).

Gyotaku : The traditional form of Japenese fish printing. You take a fish, and yes typically a real one though you can get fake ones for this, and rub it with ink and use it to make a print on paper, tote bags, t-shirts, etc. I first became familiar with this when The Mr. was an art major and him and his friends did it at an art party. He still has the t-shirt today he made more than 15 years ago.

Mini Pinatas : Pinatas are commonly associated with Mexico, though it’s history dates back to Europe. In fact, the word Pinata is a form of the Italian word Pignatta. It is believed that the Spanish brought the tradition to Mexico. For an edible variation, try these ice cream cone pinatas

More Resources
Simple Analogy: Multicultural Crafts for Kids
Multicultural Crafts to Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month
Make Candy Sushi

Comments

  1. I don’t know about this, Karen. We want to be more inclusive and reflect diversity of population(s), but crafts as a way of doing that for Native people is problematic. Dreamcatchers, little tipis, and the like inadvertently objectify and collapse diversity of Native people. Those material artifacts are not what people need to know about who we are… As the country realizes/recognizes the growth in the Latino/a population, I think that it is problematic to do crafts like this. It can be done well, of course, but it needs a LOT of instruction packed all around it.

    • Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says:

      Debbie, I agree that it has the potential to be problematic and tried to acknowledge that in my post. I think the approach definitely needs to involve sensitivity. But I also know that lots of libraries are looking for ways to help honor cultures that are not necessarily the predominant culture in their area and this can be a good educational experience. I think one way to handle potential concerns is to try and involve members of your community in the planning and execution process. Recently working at a library in Texas, we had a huge Latino/a population and dias de muertos programming was one of the most popular and successful programming at one of our branches. And as I mentioned in this post, this was a project assigned as part of the tween’s social studies class. I think that we can reach out and talk about multiculturalism in our communities with library programming if we do so with sensitivity and the input of our communities. The alternative is that our libraries become so paralyzed with fear surrounding multicultural programming that we go back to not talking about it at all and our programming become monolithic.

      I can honestly say that for my family this was a very fun bonding experience and educational project. I think it can be in the library as well. But I appreciate your concerns, which is why I tried to emphasize the needs to discuss the history of a custom or craft as part as the crafting/program experience.

  2. We’re definitely on the same page in terms of wanting educational activities/library programming that expands what kids know about those who are ‘other’ to themselves. Have you seen the anti-bias curriculum? There’s a part of it about “tourist curriculum” that I think is helpful in understanding how to avoid reducing people to craft activities. The first chapter of the Anti Bias book is online: http://www.naeyc.org/store/files/store/TOC/254.pdf

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    Sugar Skull Couple Plastic

    […] Sculpy clay produced a cleaner and more polished looking product, but it was mo […]

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