Introduction: The Tide Pool Diorama

About: I'm a life-hacking reuse junkie who loves to create, even if all I'm making is a mess. I love hammers and rocks and history and hand planes. I hugged trees before it was cool but can still operate a chainsaw. …

When my son was in 3rd grade he had to build a Native American longhouse diorama to complete the year's final unit. He was given a full six weeks to finish the assignment.

He splits time between his dad and I, and he decides Dad's house will be home base for the construction. I check in with him frequently and am assured construction is progressing as scheduled.

On the eve of the deadline, I go to pick up my son.

"Reece!" calls Reece's dad, "Don't forget your diorama!". Then turning to me, "I guess he still has a bit to finish."

My sheepish son emerges with a piece of cardboard and a pile of Popsicle sticks.

The car ride home isn't what you'd call a delightful one. There's a lot of lecturing about responsibility and the importance of time management and not failing the third grade. There's a little bit of yelling. I pull into a Starbucks and order 2 coffees.

"Uh, Mom... I don't drink coffee."

"You're going to probably want to start. Do you think I'm staying up all night building your longhouse by myself?"

And that's exactly what happens. I stay up all night building a Native American village by myself.

It was an awesome longhouse, to be sure, but I vowed then it would be the last time I lost sleep over a diorama. As a parent, I find myself making and breaking a lot of these kinds of vows.

Fast forward four years. I arrive to pick up my son.

"Oh, Reece! Don't forget about your project", calls Reece's dad. Then turning to me, "Yeah, I guess he still has a bit to finish for a tide pool diorama."

I think you know how this one turns out. 

Step 1: Gather Tools & Materials

Air-dry clay
Plastic tub
Cereal bowl
Caulk gun
Tube of construction adhesive or similar
Spray adhesive
Clear hair gel
Small piece of sponge
Any other tide pool appropriate whatnots you have around (I found a plastic spider ring and some lichen)
Xacto knife
Paint brush
Spoon, toothpicks (or your preferred clay tools)


A son who's primary objective is clearly unrelated to passing the 7th grade (optional)

Step 2: Model Ocean Citizens

Model a handful of tide pool creatures using air dry clay. Use your imagination or the internet for guidance.

Anemones: roll a tiny bit of clay between thumb and index finger, tapering each end. Make several of these tiny worms, then fold each in half around another tiny clay ball

Starfish: roll clay into a ball, then flatten. From the resulting pie, cut 5 slices, leaving a star shape. Round the lower part of the "legs" of the starfish between thumb and index finger, and pinch up ridges on upper part.

Barnacles: roll a tiny clay ball. Flatten one side, slightly taper the other to form a blunt cone. Put a small hole in the tapered end with a pencil tip. Cut radiating striations using toothpick.

Create slugs, urchins, and other sea life as desired.

To speed up the air dry process, bake the animals at 200°F until dry.

Allow to cool to room temperature.


Step 3: Make a Scene

Coat the bottom of the tote with spray adhesive.

Throw in a handful of sand and shake the tote around until the bottom is covered with a thin layer. This is our ocean floor.

Place the bowl, which will act as the tide pool floor, in the center of the plastic tote, and fashion a rock wall between the bowl and the ocean side of the container, using the construction adhesive to secure the rocks as you build. Also fill in any gaps with the adhesive.

Note: a tube of gray adhesive or sealant like Vulkem would be ideal, but white TX1 was what I had, so that's what I used. To help obscure the color, I stuck sand to it while it was still wet.

Fill the beach side of the container with sand, using shaggy moss (our seaweed stand in) between the sand and bowl to hide the rim.

Place a few rocks in the bowl. Spray a small amount of adhesive in the bowl and sprinkle a little bit of finishing sand where needed.

Fill the ocean side of the container with clear hair gel. Not only is the hair gel less likely than water to slosh out on the way to school, but the bubbles and ripples make for great seawater. Just try and get a low-odor variety, as a pool of hair gel can be a pretty smelly proposition.

Step 4: The Finish

Glue the sea creatures you made into the tide pool. Once you are satisfied with their placement, fill the tide pool bowl up to low tide level with hair gel.

Viola! Nice diorama! You'll get an A for sure!


When your son wakes up and nonchalantly says, "'Morning Ma, good job on the tide pool", try to remember that people go to prison for murder.

Vow to never again pull an all-nighter doing your ungrateful kid's homework.

Realize that vow is worthless because you'll always help your kids, be they grateful or not, whenever they need you to.

Take comfort in the fact that your teenager will likely have a child of his own one day to lose sleep over and will be truly sorry for every time he tortured you.

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