Discover: the Art of Alphabets – Mark-Making with Kids

It’s been raining for the last few days here, reminding me of all the indoor recesses I spent hanging in a corner with my friends making up our own handwriting. Do the kids still do that these days, or am I just a billion years old? A few years ago I saw a beautiful interactive video installation by the artist Xu Bing about the history of Chinese Characters. Now, whenever I spend time writing with pen & ink, my thoughts drift to sitting in that gallery – silent but for the sound of a bamboo brush dragging ink across paper.

Did you know that the strokes used to make the symbols were originally styled after bird tracks and shadows cast by trees? Such a striking way to honor nature, no?  Xu created an insanely fun calligraphy lesson that used Chinese calligraphic principles to write English. Using brushes and ink to make expressive marks,  he wrote English words in squares, writing left to right, top to bottom, and outside to inside.

Xu Bing has written a fantastic interactive picture book you can pair with this activity called “Look! What Do You See?” that includes his own English character set. And here’s a quick explanation and introduction of the concept from Xu’s Exhibit at The Met in 2014.

Seeing his work reminded me of how beautiful written languages are, and the care put into every letter in other cultures & practices. This exercise in handwriting isn’t so far removed from the doodled and scrawled words and coded alphabets my friends and I drew in notebooks throughout elementary school. It gave me an instant reference point and a better understanding of how Chinese characters are combined to create words. It also encouraged me to explore my own alphabet in a different context, considering each and every letter with a new degree of TLC.

Kids just learning how to write may actually already feel familiar with this approach – it’s amazing how quickly we forget the individual marks that make up each letter. Each one its own work of art!

This activity made for an incredible afternoon of connection/reconnection with written languages, and wow…this was SOOoooooo relaxing…

To try this mark-making alphabet activity you’ll need:



  • Cardstock
  • Coffee + Coffee Grounds

Alphabet Activity Tips

As we spent an afternoon with this activity, I thought I’d share a few tips we learned along the way. We found that a good way to start this project was to begin with a bit of free mark-making. Get a feel for the brushes and ink, make some lines, squiggles, and dots. Play around with the use of different pressures and arm movements. It’s a wonderful way to loosen up, relax and just get to know the tools!

Note: The kind of ink I used is incredible to work with, but definitely leaves a very permanent mark. If you’re working with younger kids, you may want to use liquid watercolors or tempera cakes instead.

Practice mark-making with kids while learning about the art of Chinese Calligraphy - an art and language discovery project inspired by Xu Bing.

Once you feel comfortable with the brushes and ink, you can move on to creating letters. The Met’s website has a downloadable/printable photo of the English alphabet characters that Xu Bing created that you can use as a reference.

Practice mark-making with kids while learning about the art of Chinese Calligraphy - an art and language discovery project inspired by Xu Bing.

After practicing individual letters, move on to creating words, then sentences, in one of the traditional styles of character writing. This means creating words within a square shape that will be read left to right, top to bottom and outside to inside, largest letter to smallest letter. Sentences are formed by making a column of words,  writing, and reading from top to bottom. Making variations on letters and words is part of the fun – as well as trying to figure out.

Once your kids have formed some words and sentences, you can exchange them and try reading each other’s work – kind of like cracking a code!

Practice mark-making with kids while learning about the art of Chinese Calligraphy - an art and language discovery project inspired by Xu Bing.

Traditional Chinese calligraphy is typically done on beautifully fibrous papers – we didn’t have anything similar, but wanted to make some special paper for our messages. We opted to give our paper some textured color and used coffee + the coffee grounds to give our cardstock some grain. If you’d like to try the same, brew some coffee (1 cup per sheet of paper), place your paper on a cookie sheet, cover with coffee, then sprinkle with the grounds.

Let sit for about 5 minutes, then use a paper towel to dab off any excess coffee. Pop it in the oven for a few minutes (you’ll want to stand there and watch it, as it dries very quickly and can be flammable if left too long). The edges will curl up and there will be some bubbles, so quickly flatten it by placing it under a towel and ironing on a low setting for about a minute.

Not only does it create a beautiful effect – it smells DELICIOUS! 🙂

For background and context, you can learn more about the history of Chinese calligraphy from The Asia Society or the China Online Museum. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is a good resource for information about the different types of scripts.


Amanda Eldridge
Amanda Eldridge

With a passion for cultivating imagination, Amanda aims to help kids and families discover their creative potential through art, play, adventure, activism, conservancy, and community. Amanda has a background in graphic design, environmental design, and art curation. When not playing with ideas and designs for barley & birch, she enjoys working in freelance design, art, and illustration.


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