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Giving Two Dimensional Characters a Push Off the Page—to 3D!

by Kathleen A. Hunter, MS
 | Apr 23, 2013
One of the many criteria for good fiction are characters that are so real they practically jump off the page and sit next to you while you read their story, voraciously turning the pages to see what happens next. But, what if those characters really did come off the pages in all their life-size glory?

I asked myself that very question and here is what happened:

My students and I were reading A WRINKLE IN TIME as a whole class; I read aloud while they followed along with their own copy of the book. As we read we also took notes about key story elements in the beginning, middle, and end; who the characters were and their particular traits; and the settings where the story took place. Each day we looked forward to our reading time together and spending time with Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin.

By the time we were finished reading the book we each had a deep understanding of the story as a whole. And then the fateful day finally arrived when we turned the last page in the book. We felt a melancholy that comes when all good things end. But we were not ready to leave our friends just yet.

That’s when I pitched the idea of making dioramas. The class was super excited about the project. But then I told them the dioramas would be life-size. “Cool!” and “Awesome!” were a couple of the many positive exclamations from my students. Yes, this does sound crazy and it is a daunting project at first blush—but trust me when I say it does all come together, and the end result is priceless in so many ways!

Below is a supply list and the process for completing the project from start to finish.


  1. Large box—think super-size shoe box. I got three from my local bicycle shop. They are constantly getting new shipments of bikes. You can also try stores such as Lowes, Home Depot, and other similar stores that sell large appliances.
  2. Paper Mache paste OR rolls of masking tape
  3. Newspapers or other larger pieces of recycled paper
  4. Poster paints (primary and secondary colors work best)
  5. Paint brushes
  6. Containers for paints and water for brushes
  7. Old towels
  8. Kids’ clothing and shoes
  9. Yarn
  10. Scissors
  11. Butcher paper in blue, green, brown (if you can’t find them locally, they can be purchased online here)
  12. Rulers and yardsticks

Divide your students into three groups. Each will represent the beginning, middle, and end of the book. I let my students choose their own groups because at this time of the year, they all knew the rules about how to choose—namely, no one gets left out. However, I know sometimes it is better for the teacher to assign the groups, for whatever reason. Use your best judgment for your class.

Once you have the three groups, each will write a short summary of plot points for their portion of the story. Then, they will select a scene from their summary to diagram on paper. This is their “blueprint” for their diorama. Each group will also create a list of items they need, i.e., clothing for their characters, colors of paints, yarn for hair, etc. Let your students know that it is better to have too much detail rather than too little. It is easier to take away than to add.


The students will let you know what color butcher paper they will want on the background of their cardboard box. All you need to do is cut the pieces to the size of your boxes. For example, for a sky you would like the top half in blue and perhaps the bottom half in green or brown for landscaping. The students will then paint on the paper any additional items to complete their scene’s setting. Perhaps a house painted in the background, some trees, etc.

Using the newspapers, instruct your students how to make limbs by rolling up newspapers into a tube. The feet and hands are created by bending the tubes at one end. Bodies and heads are created by crumpling newspapers into a ball and adding to it until you have a sphere the size you want, then secure the ends with masking tape. Some spheres and tubes will be smaller, for the child characters for example, and others for the adults will be larger. I had one group include the family dog so that required a little extra creativity on their part but they did a fabulous job!

Originally, I’d planned to use papier mâché for this part of the project, but then I realized that was not really necessary. Good ol’ masking tape was equally suitable, far less messy, and readily available. And the cleanup was nil!

Next, let your students select the colors of paints they want to use for painting faces and hands on their characters. Then they will select from the items of clothing an outfit for each character to wear. The yarn is used to create hair. Be sure to either use butcher paper or paint to create the “ground” or floor your characters will stand on. Some of ours were outside so the students made grass out of green butcher paper. Others were indoors so the students painted a pattern for a floor. Once the characters are fully dressed they are ready to mount onto the bottom of the cardboard box.

For mounting I used more masking tape to tape the feet to the box. I also used rulers and yardsticks to prop them up from behind. After each diorama is complete, ask the members of each group to reconvene to write a short synopsis of the scene their diorama is portraying.


Now is the moment you have all been waiting for—sharing your dioramas with the rest of your school! I was able to display ours on the stage, which was also in our cafeteria. They were a wonderful conversation piece for all the students to engage in while eating their lunches. When they were finished eating they needed to walk by the stage to throw away their lunch trash, which gave them an opportunity to see the dioramas up close and to read the synopsis for each.


Your students will have had a creative, hands-on lesson in many subjects and they won’t even know it! The level of engagement and learning for each student will be priceless. Not to mention, you will have covered many curriculum requirements before the end of the school year including the five components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), writing, art using a variety of media, cooperation, and organization.

After the dioramas have been on display, they will need to be dismantled. All the materials can either be recycled. Or, if your students are like mine, they will want to take their characters home with them. I happened to use the book A WRINKLE IN TIME, but this project can easily accommodate any book and grade level.

I hope you have as positive an experience as I did with my fourth graders and their life-size book characters!

Kathleen A. Hunter, MS is a literacy tutor and aspiring children's book author. You can visit her online at

© 2013 Kathleen Hunter. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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