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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.