Here I’ve tried to approach sleep and dreams from a variety of angles: through science and fantasy, art and experiment. These explorations begin with the science of sleep, for humans and animals both, and move from there to relaxation techniques, food and drink tastings, music, fairy tales, and surrealist art. And there are so many wonderful dream-inspired children’s books worth exploring together. There’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, of course, but plenty of modern children’s books are influenced by dreams, too, by way of the surrealists (find all of these below).
Dream journals are a terrific way to talk about dreams with children — and many children (and adults) love recounting their dreams to an attentive audience — but they only scratch the surface of what you can do with this topic. My own children were fascinated by surrealist art and games, for instance, and we laughed until we cried over our Dadaist poems. I hope you enjoy these ideas.
What Kids Will Do
In these explorations, kids might…
- Build and test hibernation dens
- Explore meditation and yoga
- Sample foods that might help with sleep
- Make a surrealist hat
- Keep a dream journal and draw or sculpt an object from it
- Listen to sleep music, then create their own
- Create a Dadaist poem
- Build a fairy tale bed
- Collage a surrealist self-portrait
- and more
Designed for preschool and lower elementary students, but many parts will be enjoyable for older children and adults, too.
The Magic of Sleep: A Fascinating Guide to the World of Slumber, Vicky Woodgate [Amazon | Bookshop] — There aren’t too many comprehensive books about sleeping for kids, so it’s lucky that this is a good one. An adorable (and sleepy) black and white cat accompanies readers through the book, as it tackles sleep from all sorts of angles: scientific, cultural, mythological, historical, animal, practical. And there are quizzes, a guide to dream journaling, and loads of (actually interesting) trivia and tidbits. “Sleep” as a topic might seem like a boring dead-end, but this book makes it fun and fascinating.
Dream Machine, Joshua Jay and Andy J. Pizza [Amazon | Bookshop] — In this terrific interactive book, kids can move dials and spinners to choose their dreams and prepare for bed. While the dream choices aren’t extensive, they’re broad enough that kids can elaborate on what an “adventure dream” or “flying dream” will be for them, or which exact co-star they’d like to have in their dreams tonight. It’s so cleverly designed, with a satisfying switch to turn on the dream machine, a snoring meter they can crank to 11, and a bear that looks pretty cool in a sleeping mask. It’s a brilliant idea, so charmingly done — witty and cheerful and fun.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll with art by MinaLima [Amazon | Bookshop] — This edition of Alice is terrific for younger children. It’s all the same text, but most pages have at least some little decorations, and there are plenty of big, beautiful illustrations also. But the interactive elements are the most exciting part: pull Alice’s hands and feet to make her grow or shrink, unfold a letter, or peep inside all the doors and windows of the White Rabbit’s house (Alice is, of course, crammed inside it). If you’re reading to a younger child who still longs for illustrations, this is a great one to read together.
Puppy in My Head: A Book About Mindfulness, Elise Gravel [Amazon | Bookshop] — For children who might be too young for many other books about mindfulness and breathing, this is a great one. Gravel represents thoughts and feelings as a puppy — and when this puppy gets worried, excited, or frightened, it’s helpful to breathe in and out, slowly, and to pay attention to what the puppy is trying to tell you. It’s very simply presented, with adorable illustrations, and children are invited at the end to pick their own puppy and name it. It’s a great trick (and will like play well with the same kids who love the podcast Peace Out’s monkey breathing exercise).
May All People and Pigs Be Happy, Micki Fine Pavlicek and John Pavlicek [Amazon | Bookshop] — This introduction to loving-kindness meditation is wonderful even for very young children. After a fight with her friend Molly, Claire feels hurt and angry, but her stuffed pig, Pigalina, offers her some advice: breathe and practice a simple set of loving wishes. Claire begins by saying these wishes for herself and her family, but soon she’s saying them for strangers, for Molly, and for all creatures everywhere. This is a lovely introduction to a terrific meditation practice for children, to deal with feelings of anger and to help them feel calm and safe.
Out of This World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington, Michelle Markel and Amanda Hall [Amazon | Bookshop] — This is a fairly straightforward artist biography of the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, though it’s remarkable for its feminist perspective on surrealism, which is typically discussed only in terms of its male superstars, and for its wild and beautiful illustrations. Younger children might not be terrifically interested in the nitty-gritty of the biography, but the illustrations convey the style and subjects of surrealist art wonderfully for children.
Magritte’s Apple, Klaas Verplancke [Amazon | Bookshop] — An absolutely terrific book about Magritte’s art. Unlike many books about artists, it doesn’t delve into Magritte’s biography. Instead, it just focuses on the art — what you can observe about it and what makes it special. It’s cleverly and beautifully drawn, with wonderful surrealist touches and loads of winking nods to his work. There’s even a little treasure hunt at the end: look at the reproductions of Magritte’s paintings here and then find these images in the book. A fantastic book to encourage art appreciation.
Magritte’s Marvelous Hat, D.B. Johnson [Amazon | Bookshop] — This playful and inventive book stars a dog artist named Magritte and a cheeky, boisterous hat that leads him on adventures. The book plays off Magritte’s most famous paintings and features transparent pages that cleverly alter the illustrations as you turn them. You won’t learn much about Magritte the artist here, but it’s quite fun to read it after looking at some of Magritte’s work. (Kids will feel in on the jokes!)
The Nonsense Show, Eric Carle [Amazon | Bookshop] — A pleasing and simple book that uses a variety of surrealist imagery, from beloved children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle.
Lost & Found, Shaun Tan [Amazon | Bookshop] — The first two stories in this collection, The Red Tree and The Lost Thing, feel heavily influenced by Surrealism. The Red Tree explores depression and hopelessness through a variety of emotional, dreamlike images — and although the book is a little heavy, there’s beauty to it and flashes of brightness and hope, too. The lost thing in The Lost Thing feels like something from a Max Ernst painting, and the book has one spectacular surrealist spread near the end: a vast and dreamlike landscape filled with odd things.
Sato the Rabbit, Yuki Ainoya [Amazon | Bookshop] — This collection of very short tales is an offbeat visual feast. The premise is explained matter-of-factly: “One day, Haneru Sato became a rabbit. He’s been a rabbit ever since.” This kind of dream-logic pervades the rest of the book, as Sato goes boating on a watermelon, drinks colors, finds a world inside a walnut shell, and opens puddle-doors into the sky. You can read the whole book in just moments, but it sticks with you and invites re-reading, as many of the most visually-startling books do. It’s immensely charming and refreshing — in a wholly different world from most children’s books.
Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls, Usborne [Amazon | Usborne] — This collection of fairy tales retells lesser-known stories featuring girls as active heroes. “The Daring Princess” is an adaptation of the Grimms’ “The Iron Stove,” for instance, and “Fearless Fiona and the Spellbound Knight” is based on the Scottish ballad “Tam Lin.” Here you’ll find plenty of princesses and even some love and marriage, but not all of these young women want to be married — many simply want to keep adventuring. It’s a nice and rare thing to have a collection of tales with clever female heroes. (Usborne has a few more similar titles on their site to check out, too, if you like this one.)
Watch: Why Do We Sleep?
Why Do We Have to Sleep?
Read: “The Body,” “Stages of Sleep,” The Magic of Sleep: A Fascinating Guide to the World of Slumber, Vicky Woodgate [Amazon | Bookshop] 10-13
“Larks and Owls,” The Magic of Sleep 8-9
Activity: Make dream journals
Some good questions to keep in mind when journalling dreams.
Read: “Beds Through Time,” The Magic of Sleep 22-23
Look: Where Children Sleep (photograph series by James Mollison)
Sleep and Animals
Watch: Can You Be Asleep and Awake at the Same Time?
How the Animal Kingdom Sleeps
How Does Hibernation Work?
Read: Bear Snores On, Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Meet a Bear Scientist
Watch: Invisible Nature: Return of the Wood Frog (Many frogs hibernate underground, but the wood frog freezes solid!)
Activity: Design a hibernation den
Using natural materials, build a few outdoor hibernation dens and measure the temperature of a “dormouse” inside to see which den kept the animal warmest. Full instructions here. If you live in a colder climate, you can try this version with a gelatin “animal.” You can do this with a simple thermometer, but it’s perhaps a bit easier if you have an infrared thermometer (like this one).
Read: “Dreams,” “Nightmares,” The Magic of Sleep 14-15
Watch and do: Twilight the Unicorn of Dreams (Cosmic Kids Yoga)
Read: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll [Amazon | Bookshop]
And, if you like, there’s a Cosmic Kids Yoga routine for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, too.
Read: Puppy in My Head: A Book About Mindfulness, Elise Gravel [Amazon | Bookshop]
May All People and Pigs Be Happy, Micki Fine Pavlicek and John Pavlicek [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch and do: Yoga to Help Kids Sleep (some yoga and then a guided meditation)
The Body Scan Meditation
Listen: “The Little Monkey” from Peace Out (podcast)
Or you can start with Peace Out’s season 2, following Kaala, the Red Panda. Episode one is here.
Activity: Relaxation pod/dream palace
If you like (and if you have supplies), you can build a fort for relaxation, meditation, or sleep. We made one using a fort builder and relaxing lights. (Then we added blankets and pillows to make it comfortable.) I found this made relaxation exercises much more appealing to children who usually resist even sitting still!
Music for Sleep
Listen: Montserrat Figueras, Ninna Nanna (lullabies from 1500-2002)
Listen: Fumio Miyashita, Stress Kaisho! Yoru Ni Kiku Nemuri No Tame No Healing
Listen: Max Richter, Sleep
For more on this 8.5-hour album, see here and here.
Listen: Jeff Bridges, The Sleeping Tapes
Activity: Compose your own sleep music
Bloom and/or Bloom: 10 Worlds (ambient music apps from Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers)
Bloom is quite simple but very effective at making relaxing ambient music. Bloom: 10 Worlds has 10 different soundscapes (with different visuals for each one) and produces a wider array of types of music. It’s altogether more surprising and exciting.
Sleep in Fairy Tales
Read and compare: “Kate Crackernuts,” from Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls, Usborne [Amazon | Usborne], and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” or “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces” from the Brothers Grimm (I used this edition, but there are many, of course)
Read: “The Princess and the Pea”
For a lovely and interesting interpretation of “The Princess and the Pea,” you can go here (follows the retelling). See also Dulac’s illustration.
Activity: Construct a mattress that successfully conceals a pea
Out of a range of materials (bubble wrap, sponges, cloth, paper, a bag of marshmallows), build a mattress through which you can’t detect a “pea” (a small bead works well here). We used a doll bed as the base, but you could also use a small box. You can find more instructions here. Can also do body sensitivity measurements, as in Teach Kids About Touch (see “2-point discrimination” under “Skin and Skin Color”).
For further reading: Other fairy tales with sleeping elements from from Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls are “The Daring Princess” (based on “The Iron Stove”) and “The Sleeping Prince” (based on “El rey durmiente en su lecho”)
The surrealist activities here are ones that the surrealists themselves often played together. The source I used for these is A Book of Surrealist Games [Amazon | Bookshop], but although some of these games are quite fun to play with children, the book itself is in no way appropriate for children (and I don’t recommend it for use here, though it’s useful as a catalog of surrealist exercises).
Watch: What Is Surrealism?
Look: A slideshow of Surrealist art
For a concise explanation of the connection between the surrealists, dreams, and the subconscious mind, as well as automatism, see here.
Look: Exhibition objects from The Met’s/Tate’s Surrealism Beyond Borders (some images of nudity/anatomy)
Activity: Make a surrealist painting with the Wombo web app
Enter a prompt, select “S. Dali,” and generate a surrealist painting on any subject you like.
Read: Who Is Salvador Dalí?
Activity: Automatic drawing
A simple and classic exercise with children. Simply keep a pencil on your paper and try to avoid consciously controlling it. Children can choose to close their eyes if they like, and many enjoy coloring in what they’ve created afterward.
Activity: Torn paper collage
Tear up paper — either blank paper or paper that already makes an image — then let it fall onto a piece of paper. Glue it down as it has fallen.
Activity: Ghosts of my friends
Write your name or signature with paint, then fold it in half while still wet and analyze the image — what do you think it says about you?
Read: Who Is Eileen Agar?
Look: Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse
Activity: Make an Eileen Agar hat
Make a surrealist hat for a mood or an activity. (To the right: A Hat for Watching Clouds and A Hat for Making Art.) You might want a glue gun for this wonderful activity. I used these hats, which are too small for adults but just managed to fit on the heads of my 5- and 7-year-olds (they also have an elastic strap).
Read: Who Is René Magritte?
[Be sure to look at some of Magritte’s works before reading the books below]
Look: La Clef des songes
The False Mirror
More Magritte paintings
Read: Magritte’s Marvelous Hat, D.B. Johnson [Amazon | Bookshop]
Magritte’s Apple, Klaas Verplancke [Amazon | Bookshop]
Optional activity: Objects found in dreams
If you’ve been keeping a dream journal, draw an object from your dream journal or make it out of clay.
Read: Out of This World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington, Michelle Markel and Amanda Hall [Amazon | Bookshop]
Look and listen: Audio discussion of Leonora Carrington’s Green Tea, from MoMA, here (kids audio at bottom).
Look and listen: Audio discussion of Remedios Varo’s The Juggler, from MoMA, here (kids audio at bottom).
See more of Leonora Carrington’s art here.
Activity: Draw a surreal creature (inspired by Leonora Carrington)
Activity: Make a surreal portrait in the style of Rafael Silveira
Take a portrait, cut out the face, and collage in images. I whited-out the faces digitally in an image editing program, then printed them in black and white. You could collage with pictures from magazines, or you could use vintage-inspired sticker books like this and this (which we have used to many projects). See Silveira’s work here.
Activity: Dadaist poem
Cut out words from a single article or a collection of articles. I found that using short phrases from headlines worked well (the larger typeface makes them easier to handle, and using phrases helps the poem to read better). New Yorker and New York Times Magazine headlines are fantastic for this. Put all the words in a bag or box. Draw them out one by one and write or glue them down in the order they were drawn.
Quiz: Which Surrealist Artist Are You?
Read: Picture books inspired by surrealism
The Nonsense Show, Eric Carle [Amazon | Bookshop]
Lost & Found, Shaun Tan [Amazon | Bookshop]
Sato the Rabbit, Yuki Ainoya [Amazon | Bookshop]
In the Half Room, Carson Ellis [Amazon | Bookshop]
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