person assembling diorama
Live and Let Diorama

5 Tips for Helping Your Kid Build the Ultimate Diorama

When it comes to school projects, the diorama can be among the most difficult for kids. Sure, book reports are tough and macaroni art is no walk in the park, but building an entire world with nothing but some basic supplies and your own hands? That’s intimidating. But Tom Doncourt insists it doesn’t have to be.

An Exhibition Specialist at the American Museum of Natural History, Doncourt spends his days creating dioramas on the biggest stage of them all. He also teaches several “The Art of Diorama” classes for adults who want to up their shoebox skills. Basically, there’s no one more qualified to share some advice. Doncourt gave Fatherly shared five simple, but effective tips for helping your kid make a diorama that will put the rest of the class to shame.

Think Outside the Shoebox

Most people who build dioramas naturally think that old Reebok box is the way to go, but Doncourt suggests switching things up. “Shoeboxes are the default ‘stage’ for dioramas, but they don’t really do much for me,” Doncourt admits. “Instead, get a piece of styrofoam to use as your background and cut it in a U-shape. This will give you a curved surface, which is ideal because it gives the illusion of depth. You can do more with less. Most of the displays at NHM used curved surfaces.”

figurines for diorama

Get Good Materials

“Having good materials is extremely important,” says Doncourt. “If you can get a hold of wax clay, that can put your project over the top.” In addition to clay, Doncourt’s must-have material is aluminum wire. Especially if your kid plans on including humans or animals in their display. The material, says Doncourt, is fantastic for building wireframe ‘skeletons’ of whatever your kids are planning to build for their diorama. “Then you can add tinfoil to beef that up, and then add the clay to really make your display look great,” he says.

Stick to Scale

One of the biggest mistakes Doncourt consistently notices is people making items that are completely out of proportion with the rest of their protect. This immediately takes away the realistic nature of the project. To avoid this, Doncourt has a simple method.

“I always recommend going with the one foot equals one inch scale,” Doncourt explains. “Because if you don’t, you’re going to inevitably end up with stuff that is way too small or way too big for your diorama. As a start, have your kid make a 6-inch human figure. This is simple, and gives kids perspective.”

Narrow Your Color Palette

Kids love to add in as many colors as possible, assuming that quantity will lead to higher quality. But Doncourt advises exercising restraint. “Basic earth tones will get the job done.”

This is especially true for the background, and knowing what colors to use can trick people into believing they are seeing more than they are. “For the background, adding white and blue to colors will make things seem to have more depth,” says Doncourt. “Closer items should be darker. Farther items should be lighter.”

Don’t Forget the Little Things

It’s easy to get focused on the big picture, but Doncourt insists, “a great diorama pays attention to the details.” And focusing on those little things can elevate a kid’s display from passable to legendary.

Getting your kid excited about putting in the work on the less noticeable details might seem impossible, but Doncourt says you can do so by getting them to see it as an opportunity to use their imagination to build a universe. “You are telling a story,” says Doncourt. “Even if it’s just a moment standing still, build that world.”

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