Full disclosure: I did not come up with this idea. There are many tutorials floating around the internet, and I read through lots of them in my planning. But none of them quite worked out how I wanted, so I thought I’d share what I did that worked well.
February is a hungry time of year for our foraging friends. The scattered seeds of Autumn are long gone, the first tender shoots of Spring still weeks away. It’s a good time to feed the birds, to share some of our stored bounty with them as we watch the light return and feel the ground start to wake up. This is also the time of year when, proverbially, the birds start looking for their mates—an observation that forms some of the basis of our modern celebration of Valentine’s day.
At the beginning of the year, a lot of the kids in our playgroup were working through separation anxiety. When they would cry at their caregiver’s departure, I would often take them outside—the fresh air was amazingly soothing and they would quickly be distracted by all the plants and birds and feel safe and secure in themselves and the space. Eventually I transitioned to just looking outside the big window at the birds. Even now, though most separation anxiety has dissipated, they love to go and watch the birds first thing in the morning. For a city backyard, we have so many kinds! Morning doves and bluejays, cardinals and sparrows, and even the occasional hawk all grace our yard.
As I thought about how we’d celebrate Valentine’s day with the same simple, nature-centered approach we take with all festivals, I immediately thought of doing something for the birds—some gesture of gratitude for these beautiful creatures that have brought the children such peace and joy throughout the year. Of course, these don’t have to be Valentines, they can just be regular bird feeders. But I thought that tie-in was cute and a nice way to channel the holiday excitement.
About the ingredients
Millet is a great protein rich grain that lots of birds love and that’s easy to buy in bulk (an important consideration as we try to minimize our waste. Bulk millet I can buy in my reusable cloth bag, bird seed I’d have to buy in a plastic one). If you have a small-grain birdseed that would likely work too, but something like sunflower seeds wouldn’t. Unflavored gelatin is fine for the birds—just don’t get actual Jell-o. It has lots of essential amino acids and is actually a very similar product to the collagen peptides I put in my coffee. When you hang the finished Valentine, make sure there’s another branch right beneath it so the birds have something to stand on while they eat. Also: these might become squirrel Valentines, which is fine IMHO, but something to be aware of.
A few notes before you start:
Set everything up before hand. I always skip this step at home, but I can’t overemphasize how helpful it is when working with children. I like to keep my project supplies for something like this in a basket, all ready, covered with a cloth. This helps build some anticipation for the project and will help “hold” the activity more than if you’re constantly getting up and running around to get another ingredient.
Find a low table over a hard floor so they can use their full range of motion as they help.
Most of this, except the boiling water and the careful removing from cookie cutters, can be done by toddlers. The pouring, stirring, scooping, and stringing are all great activities to help them develop their dexterity, practice hand-eye-coordination, and do a whole lot of other developmental movement. Let them take a long time with things and spill a little, it’s all okay. And hot water gets gelatin out easily.
This will make about 4 bird feeders.
Prepare the gelatin:
(I did these first two steps right in a glass measuring cup with a handle, which made for less cleanup and easy pouring.)
Dissolve 1 packet gelatin in 1/4 cup water. Yes, you need to actually measure, I learned this the hard way. Kiddos can stir as the powder dissolves.
Add 1/4 cup boiling water and stir. Obviously be careful not to burn anyone.
Mix in the millet:
Put some millet in a larger bowl. This part I didn’t measure—maybe 2 cups to start? Have more on hand so you can mix until the ratio looks right.
Slowly pour the gelatin mixture into the millet, stirring as you go. Add more millet until the mixture looks more like wet millet than like millet soup. There should be a little bit of liquid at the bottom of your bowl if you scoop a spoon across it, but not much. Stir!
Shape the hearts:
Put some cookie cutters on parchment paper on your tray. The parchment paper is really key here, don’t skip it.
Fill the cookie cutters with the millet mixture, all the way to the top.
Now, this is essential, put another layer of parchment paper on top and smoosh the millet down into the cookie cutters. Really smoosh it. Kids are great at this, remind them to use their palms rather than their fingertips. If the level of millet sinks down a bit below the top of the cookie cutters as you do this step, you can add more and repeat.
Once they’re nice and smooshed, take a stick or a screwdriver or a pencil or something and poke a hole down through the middle. If you do this too close to the side the whole thing will break when hung. With the hearts, I did it in the middle of one of the lobes at the top, which worked well.
Put them in the fridge for a few hours, preferably longer. Don’t use the freezer to speed it up.
When you take them out, remove the cookie cutters carefully. You also might have to re-poke the hole a bit.
String some string through the hole and hang them on a branch for the birds to enjoy!