An Alphabet with Spice

Handcrafted Letters using Beans and Seeds

Modeled on traditional Montessori Sandpaper Letters

The idea for sensory handcrafted letters came to me during a conversation with my sister.  She was expressing concern that her daughter was having challenges learning the alphabet. They had been working on it for about a year – and because she was 6 and still had not learned them, my sister was wondering if she should explore other possibilities.

Some background information will provide a context: she is being home-schooled using a Waldorf-inspired curriculum.  The Waldorf philosophy actually holds off on teaching literacy even longer – until children are about 7 years old, believing early childhood is a time to soak in rich language through stories, poems, and songs. When the letters are first introduced, they are introduced in association with stories, and through elegant illustrations in story-context. Waldorf advocates a whole-language method.

At first I suggested that my sister purchase Montessori sand-paper letters.  Montessori students are often precocious in literacy, and this may be due in part to learning the letters through touch as well as sight. Children are taught to trace their two fingers on the sandpaper letters while voicing the sound of the letter.

A New Idea Sprouts

A few months later, it struck me that sensory letters made with beans, seeds, edibles, and plant material would be a perfect blend of Montessori and Waldorf – Waldorf in that it embraces the natural world and includes a literary context (through an alliteration poem), and Montessori in its combination of tactile and visual sensory input. These spice letters included another sensory input as well – smell!

My mom  and I enjoyed brainstorming seeds and beans to go with each of the letters in the alphabet – preferring edibles that my niece might be most familiar with.  We had to bend that rule with a couple of letters (like jujube seeds that we found at a local Iranian market), but for the most part, we were able to follow it.  Most of the seeds and beans we already had on hand in the house – and just a few we had to purchase. For some of them we decided to combine two or more seeds that had the same beginning letter.

The final list was as follows: a (allspice, anise, apple), b (black beans), c (cloves, coriander), d (dill), e (eggplant), f (fennel, fenugreek), g (garbanzos), h (hemp), i (iceburg lettuce), j (jujube), k (kidney beans), l (lentils), m (mustard, millet), n (nigella, navy beans), o (oats-steel cut, orange), p (pumpkin, peas, pistachios), q (quinoa), r (rice), s (sunflower, sesame), t (teff), u (urad dal), v (vanilla pod), w (wild rice), x (xanthen gum), y (yard long beans), z (zucchini).

After contemplating background colors for the letters, I decided that it would also be fun (and of course challenging!) to have corresponding background colors to match the letter as well.  And so, a became aqua, b-blue, c-coral, d-dove gray, e-emerald, f-fuchsia, and so on.

I have to admit, this is a long and time-consuming project! It took more than 2 weeks  – although a lot of that time included brainstorming and experimenting.  A second time through would be faster – but still it would take several full days of work . There are ways to simplify the project, however, such as purchasing already cut boards or forgoing the coloring of the boards and using Montessori sandpaper letters as the base and gluing the seeds and beans on top. I do have to say, though, that the multi-colored boards are quite stunning!

The Project Step by Step

Step 1 (half day):

Cut the board (or purchase pre-cut board). I used a Lauan veneer from HD (in 4×8 sheets) and cut down to 6×9″ size on my table saw. I needed less than half the sheet for this. Then I had to sand down the edges afterwards.

Step 2 (one day):

I have stained wood with oil-based stain before, but painting with a watery acrylic was new to me.  This created the beautiful colors even while allowing the wood grain to peek through. Just adding 1/4 to 1/2 tsp of water to a daub of acrylic works well. I didn’t have all the colors in acrylic so I mixed white with food coloring for some of the colors.

It took a bit of trial and error to get the exact colors I needed.

After painting on with a brush, I rubbed it down to reveal the grain.

Step 3 (half day):

On the backs of all the boards I used an earth tone – also in acrylic – and also rubbing down after painting each one.

The letters were printed on a heavy card stock – probably 100 lb paper – although that is a guess – I used a glossy non-photo paper that has been sitting in the closet for about 20 years. I printed it using Illustrator software in Myanmar and Kaiti fonts, the latter to get a more handwritten ‘a’ and ‘g’ style font. I did have to narrow the ‘m’ and ‘w’ and shorten the ‘j’ by 75% to get them to fit on the boards. Otherwise I used a 670 pt. font. (In retrospect, I would have changed the ‘t’ and ‘q’ to look more like handprinted letters.)

Step 4 (one day):

Then I cut them out – both the outside and the inside.

Using a combination of scissors and a box-cutter – and for the straight edges I often used a ruler and box-cutter.

Step 5 (one day):

Gluing the letters down to the boards was next. Regular white glue – a small bead on the back, and then spread evenly with a brush. Laying it down was more challenging than I expected as the letters warped a bit because of the wet glue.  I found it helpful to trace the inside of the letter lightly with a pencil before adding glue to the back. Extra hands also helped to keep the letter from falling down all at once in the wrong spot. So my mom held part of the letter while I slowly laid down one section at a time following the pencil outline. Later I managed to do it alone by resting part of the letter on another object (the glue bottle in this case).

Step 6 (one day):

Arranging the spices and seeds. This took a little artistry and a lot of patience! We tried different techniques – but generally glued large beans down individually, and smaller seeds down by brushing or beading the glue first and sprinkling the seeds on top. Tweezers and a letter opener sometimes came in handy to manipulate the seeds and beans.

Although I was quite pleased with my mom’s design of the ‘a’ I did later add a few apple seeds to the mix – because I wanted at least one of the seeds to represent the short ‘a’ sound.

Some of the letters were quite simple, like ‘d’ for dill and ‘b’ for black beans:

 

It did look better to try to line up the beans and seeds so they faced the same direction – although extremely time-consuming.

For others, we got a little fancy:

Cloves and coriander for ‘c.’

Fenugreek and fennel for ‘f.’

Sesame and sunflower seeds for ‘s’ on saffron board.

The sesames remind me of a bracelet.

Pistachios, pumpkins, and peas for ‘p’ on a pink board.

This one came out quite elegantly!

For some we beaded the glue on and sprinkled the seeds or powder on top – such as for hemp and xanthan gum.

 

The fragrance of the various spices and seeds adds a wonderful aroma to this work activity.

This last one was multi-colored lentils for ‘l’ on a lavender board. This one turned out to be problematic as the orange lentils (only) started splitting in half after gluing. I might split them first and glue down only half next time.

This is a new seed for us: jujube – we bought it dried at an Iranian market but apparently it is common in Chinese and Korean cuisine as well. It supposedly has many health benefits – we boiled them to make a sweet tea. It tastes somewhere in between a date and a plum to me.

White and brown rice for ‘r’ on red.

Wild rice for ‘w’ on white.

Step 7:

After my mom and I composed an alliteration for each letter, I printed it on  label paper and stuck it to the back side of the board. I know both my niece and nephew, ages 6 and 3, will relate to these letters much better when there is story imagery associated with them. They are not really stories but just word images – like a haiku poem…but not metrically perfect.

I’ve included the alliterations for each letter at the end of the blog in case you’re interested.

That’s it!

We are planning to gift it to my niece on her 7th birthday!

Here is the packaging part:

A sealed box for storage (to keep the spices fresh).

 

We bought a stand as well that holds three letters at a time.

Plus spare seeds and beans for each letter (when they fall off) – I figure repairing the letters will also be a way to learn them better.

My Niece Opens Her Birthday Present

Here is my niece opening her spice letters gift. The letter stand ended up being used as a seat so her dolly could watch instead:)

 

 

 

She decides to lay each letter out on the table.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then she takes each one to her mommy to read the alliteration story on the back – all 26 of them!

 

 

 

In the meantime, my nephew begins exploring the letters as well. He’s 3.

 

 

 

 

 

After each letter is read, my niece lays them out on the floor.

 

 

 

An hour later the family is exhausted and ready for breakfast! But, my niece is still at it. I think she liked them:)

Here she is, resorting them by color.


Alliteration Poems

Okay, most of these are wacky as we were trying our best to use words starting with each letter and wanted to include both the corresponding color and seed in the poem as well! But they were so much fun to create! My niece wanted to listen to each one – despite having no idea what they meant. But I’m sure she gained a lot from just hearing the initial word sounds repeated again and again.

Enjoy:)

…and try to write your own – it might make your head spin:)

Aqua Anise, Apple & Allspice
Ask me about anise, allspice, and almonds
About the aroma of apples in autumn 
About acorns, alpines, and amber aspen
And afterwards ask of arctic astral auroras  
       where angels appear with aqua auras.
Blue Black Bean 
Bring black beans, brown beans, and blue berries
Bring baskets of bread and butter
Bring the bamboo barrel beside the birch
Buzzing bees and bubbling brooks beckon.
Coral Cloves & Coriander
“Caw” crowed clever crow at crazy cat
Capturing cream cake close to the crowd
Click, clack, came the colorful cart 
Carrying cargo, cloves, and coriander to coral castle
While the clandestine crescent coyly courts creation 
    from her cosmic canopy.
Dove Gray Dill
Deep into the dark dream dove the dreadful dragon
Deep down by dizzying depths he dwells
In dim dungeons drinking dross from dusk to dawn
Ding-dong, its dawn, the day draws dainty doves 
    to dine on dill.
Emerald Eggplants
Empress eagle embraced her earthly empire
Encompassing the endless expanse of emerald elms 
Of elephants and emus in earnest endeavors
Eating eggplants and eyeing each other’s eggs.
Fuchsia Fennel & Fenugreek 
In forgotten forests, where furry foxes feed on fish 
And fireflies flutter festively amidst fuchsia flowers 
Frivolous fairies, feeling fantastic in feather finery, 
Feed on fennel, fenugreek, and forbidden fruits 
    then fool frogs to fall into frozen fountains.
Garbanzo Green
Gaggles of giggling girls gather grapes growing in gardens 
Gleeping and gossiping in gorgeous golden gowns
While goats graze on green grass and garbanzos
And gnaw gingerly on grandpa’s glove.
Heliotrope Hemp 
In a heliotrope hued horizon a happy hermit hikes a hill
To harvest hemp, hazelnuts, and hibiscus.
Hoisting his harness, he hops on his horse
And hurries in haste homeward to his hidden hamlet.
Iceburg Indigo    
Impish illusions itch idly
As ice inflames indigo into iron
Inquire into inner ideas and
Inhabit the iris of infinity.
Jujube Jade
Jolly jugglers and jovial jokesters journey in July 
Through a jujube jungle in a jolty jade jeep
While jubilantly juggling juicy jackfruits 
And jokingly jinxing jumping jackrabbits.
Khaki Kidney Beans
Kaya keeps kidney beans, kale, and kiwi in the kitchen
But kernels & a key are kept in her knotted khaki kerchief,
Knowing of a keyhole to the kingdom of kings and knights, 
Of koi and kingfish in a kaleidoscope of keeling kites.
Lavender Lentils
The lunar lantern’s lustrous light lures lovely ladies 
    into lush lagoons
Leaving them languishing amidst lavender lilies 
    and leafy lentils
With laughter and lilting lullabies lingering on their lipsYet, lean leopards and lions lurk, 
    lustily longing for lunch.
Mauve Millet & Mustard Seed 
Mommy makes millet with mustard seed and mango mousse  
A meal for misty meadows in the majestic mauve mountains
But a mob of mad monkeys mess up the marvelous morning
Mixing maple, maize, and mushrooms with milk and mint
In their midst, in a magical moment,  
    a merry meeting of migrating mermaids mystifies me.
Navy Blue Nigella & Navy Beans 
Nineteen nails and ninety needles, 
Nine navy beans and numerous nigella, 
A number of napkins and nine hundred noodles 
Is nothing next to the needs of napping newborns 
Nursing nonstop in a nebula of navy blue nights.
Orange Oats
An outlandish owl who can outfox an ocelot
And occasionally outwits ostriches too
Offers oranges, oats, and olives  to an old oxen
Over by the ocean under the old oak.
Pink Peas & Pumpkin Seeds
Painters painted the palace in pretty pinks and purples
While pirates plundered the pearls 
       of proud princes near the pier
Pigeons in the plaza pecked at picnic peas 
       and pumpkin seeds 
And puppies played with plucky ponies in the poppy patch.
Quinoa Quartz
The queen quipped about her quintessential quandary:
Either a quixotic quest for quantum quark 
    in the quartz quarry
Or quality quiches, quinoa, and quesadillas 
    on the quilt in her quarters
Her quetzal quills were queued in her quiver
But the quarreling quibbling quail quacking in the quad  
     make her queasy.
Red Rice
Rowan relishes rutabaga rice while riding his racy rocket 
With rusty robot, rowdy rooster, and romping rabbit
Over rugged red rocks, ragged ravines, and raging rapids
Then rises to rarified regions of relativistic realms 
By reading riveting and revealing rhymes.

Note: Rowan is my nephew and Kaya (in the ‘k’ alliteration) is my niece.

Sunflower Sesame Saffron 
Sally Salamander saw...
Six silent strangers sipping sweet strawberry smoothies
Seven slick swimmers savoring sesame 
     and sunflower seed sandwiches
Sixteen soft sheep sleeping in the sunshine
And seventeen smelly skunks scrambling 
     in the saffron sunset sky.
Tan Teff 
There in the tranquil tall trees is a taut tan tent
In a thicket of teff and tomatoes, 
The tiny twin toddlers together take
Terrible tiger and timid turtle toys 
Through a train tunnel trip
Time for tea for two.
Umber Urad Dal
The urchin in umber undies unfurled an umbrella underwater 
Unleashing an unforeseen undercurrent undulating upward 
That ushered in an unearthly unicorn into an unknown utopia
Of ultrasonic ukuleles and unblemished urad dal.
Violet Vanilla
The verdant violet and vanilla valley was the venue 
    for the vendetta
A venerable vulture vowed vengeance on the venomous viper 
Yet a vortex of vapors veiled the vicious villain
Vexing the visage of the valorous veteran.
Wild Rice White    
The wondrous world welcomes 
The weeping willows and white wildflowers,
The wagons of wonderful watermelons,
The whimsical west wind, who whispers in the wild rice,
And the warm waters that wend their winding way.
Xanthic Xanthan Gum
Xenophobes x-ray xenophiles playing xylophones on X-mas
And xylophonists eat xanthan gum while Xeroxing 
     xeriscapes along the xanthic xyst.
Yellow Yard Long Beans    
In Yosemite a young yogi does yoga in a yurt 
     with his youthful yoghurt-yielding yak, 
Yet he yearns to be a yuppie on a yellow yacht
Eating yummy yams and yard long beans.

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