Discovering Art with Toddlers

Happy Saturday afternoon! I can’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon than writing about the love of my life – art! I am very fortunate to have a “day job” that I love. I get to work in arts advocacy, administration, and education. I wear many hats in the arts field. Once a month I get to lead a special program called Discover Art. This is a workshop series for ages 3 to 5 and their caregivers. In this class we complete some fun creative projects and learn about art. But I also like to use it as an opportunity to teach parents about how to make art with their children so they can easily do it at home. So today I’d like to share some tips for exploring art with toddlers.

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My focus is on 3 to 5 year olds, but it’s never too early to start exploring art! I encourage you to start before the age of 3. Just be sure to use non-toxic, washable materials or edible materials whenever possible. Also prepare for a bath right after. That way your little one can just play and learn and there’s no need to worry about a mess! In general, I say prepare and plan for the mess as much as you can. The more our kids can dive in without worrying about spills or mistakes – the more they will get out of their art-making time. These tips can also easily apply to kids older than 5 as well.

Also, when we think of making art with our kids we all imagine this picture-esque scenario of everyone laughing and making these adorable little creations that we all love. Everyone is happy and calm and having a great time. But then we actually do it and stuff gets spilled. Their creation turns into a brown mixed up mess. And everyone is frustrated and stressed out by the end of it. That’s reality sometimes. It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong, and it doesn’t mean you have to avoid making art with your kids. It has happened to me and my own kids PLENTY of times, believe me. So these tips will focus on troubleshooting and helping you make your art time stress-free and enjoyable.

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  1. Finding the perfect projects: Finding a fun art project to do with your kids is easier than ever with the internet at your finger tips. But all of those options can also be a little overwhelming. So to help you narrow it down, start by taking inventory of your materials. See what kinds of things you already have to work with around the house. Or make a list of materials you could easily and cheaply pick up on a quick run to the store. You can also be creative and adjust projects you find online to suit your needs by substituting different materials. You don’t have paint? Consider if you could use markers or crayons instead. Using dry media instead of et media is also a great way to speed the process up because it’s less set-up and clean-up and there’s no drying time. Keep that in mind if you ever want a shorter project.

    One of my favorite resources for projects for this age group is the Artful Parent, the book or the blog. You can also easily come up with your own projects! I like to use books as a starting point. Get out your toddler’s favorite picture book and look at how the pictures were made. Were they drawn, collaged, or painted? What kinds of colors did they use? Invite your little ones to try to make their own pictures in the same style. This approach could be as simple as printing some color sheets in theme with the book, or painting your own papers and collaging them together in the style of Eric Carle. You can check out one of my own lessons here!

  2. Mentally prepare: As I said in the beginning, art time can sometimes go haywire and become a stressful, tear-filled mess. It has happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to other parents in my classes. So, prepare for this possibility by making sure you’re relaxed and calm before you begin. If you’re cranky and snapping at your child throughout the project – no one is going to have a good time. And it happens! We’re not robots. And sometimes it’s difficult trying to help little ones understand new concepts. Sometimes they don’t listen or follow directions. It can be frustrating, so please don’t be discouraged if you find yourself feeling that way. Instead just minimize the negative feelings by putting yourself into a calm, collected state of mind beforehand. Try a quick meditation or remind yourself why you think it’s important to have this time of creativity with your kids. Help your kids to mentally prepare to by getting started with a quick stretch and some deep breaths. Remind them to stop and breathe when they’re getting frustrated. They can always walk away and take a break if they need to (or if you need to). I like to remind everyone at the beginning of a project that we’re learning something new – so of course we may not get it right the first few times! But that’s okay – that’s how we learn! As with everything in teaching and parenting, they may not understand that concept right away. But again, that’s okay, we keep repeating it and giving them examples. Because that’s how they we learn.
  3. Consider the time: In that same thinking, it’s important to plan the timing of your projects carefully. Things won’t go well if everyone is cranky and tired. For toddlers, in between breakfast and nap at the start of the day is usually perfect. If that’s not an option for your schedule you can also try after lunch or dinner. Plan for the time of day your child is usually the least tired and moody. Always assume the project will take longer than you think it will, just in case. Don’t tackle big projects with lots of steps when you’re expected to be somewhere in a couple of hours. You want to give them plenty of time to get into their creative flow and finish what they started without being rushed. Tailor things to your schedules and lifestyle. If your child is notorious for being grumpy in the mornings – avoid complex projects at those times. Or experiment to see if art time actually puts them in a better mood when they’re grumpy!
  4. Gather all materials ahead of time: Toddlers are not patient people and are not going to tolerate repeated interruptions while you leave to hunt down supplies. Get everything together into a pile before you start. I recommend dedicating a shelf or a bin to your art supplies that you can easily access for art making times. But sometimes we have only one roll of tape or one pair of scissors that stays in a more general area. So just make sure you track all of those little things down ahead of time so it’s all organized and ready to go. You’ll want to give your little one your undivided attention. The more organized – the better.
  5. Work on the floor:
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    I LOVE working on the floor with this age group. It helps everyone to spread out and get comfy and have all the space they need. It also puts everyone on the same level. I love the energy in the room when everyone is spread out together on the floor much more than us adults hovering over the little ones shoulders. It gives everything a relaxed, playful, open vibe and sends the message that we’re all going to explore and create together – rather than us being in charge and just giving directions to follow. There’s no creativity in that. If you’re worried about messes you can put down a cheap plastic tablecloth. But sometimes those cause an even bigger mess as it gets pulled around. The easiest set-up is working on a hard floor with baby wipes nearby to wipe up potential stains and doing a big wipe down at the end.

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  6. Clean the work space often: The more cluttered your work space gets, the more stressful art time becomes. Keep all supplies at a nearby table or other type of station and only get out what you need for the next few steps. Make it a part of your organization and preparation process to plan out when you need what supplies. Put things away when you are done with them or won’t be using them for a while. Once a step involving cutting is done, get all the scraps out of the way. Only have paint water out when it’s being used – then it’s less likely to get tipped over. It’s always a good idea to get kids involved in the cleaning process too, especially for the big clean up at the end. Most kids this age love to help with cleaning tasks, and sometimes set-up too! But keeping the space clean is also a great task for caregivers to keep them busy and give the kids some freedom and space to focus on their projects. We don’t want to be so wrapped up in what their doing that we’re being controlling or over-bearing.
  7. Let them Learn and Be Creative: Remember this is not about what goes on the fridge or on social media at the end (though that is a nice perk). This is a time for our children to learn. On a regular basis in my classes I will see kids struggling to cut something straight and handing it over to their parents to do for them. And the parents will! It drives me nuts. How are they ever going to learn how to use scissors themselves if you do it for them!? I would rather have a crooked line from my student than a perfect one from the parent. Always encourage your children to push through and finish what they started, even when it’s hard. Remind them – that’s why we’re doing this, to learn. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Think of it as practice if that helps. And tell them that in art – there is no right or wrong. The objective is to CREATE. Literally any form of creating they do is getting it right – crooked lines and smeared paint and all. As Bob Ross always said, there are no mistakes in art. Only happy accidents. That spilled paint only makes their creation more unique and special. Now what can they turn it into? Does it maybe look like a dog? Let them do the art work, and you focus your creativity on helping them find their way through it.
  8. How to handle crying or whining: Learning new things is hard and can sometimes frustrate us to the point of tears. If your toddler cries, don’t feel like the entire art making time is ruined. Don’t get mad or say it’s time to quit. Find a way to work through it. Tell them it’s okay to have a hard time with it – that’s how we learn. If they’re upset because you’re asking them to draw a dog and they want to draw a cat, sometimes it’s totally appropriate to let them draw their dog! This is about creativity and imagination. We’re robbing them of most of the benefits of art education if we try to force them to do it a certain way. Let them explore and create rather than forcing strict instructions. This will help everyone to have a fun, relaxed time. But if it’s not that simple of a fix, keep a few ideas in the back of your mind for how to handle tears. Ask them if they need a break. Encourage some deep breaths and maybe even a quick stretch or silly dance. If you want to keep it art-related, have a big sheet of paper nearby and tell them to just go draw it out. Take a crayon or marker and just scribble all of your frustration out onto the paper!
  9. Divide up the time: With this age group, I love combining several shorter projects into one block of art making time. For example, we may start by looking at some example pictures or reading a book. Then we might do a warm up drawing or exercise. If paint or glue needs to dry we might dive right into the project and have a coloring sheet or short exercise planned to do during drying time. When toddlers are painting, you’ll notice they usually take their time on the first few sheets of paper and create really thoughtful pictures. Then it turns into mixing all the paints together, whipping paintbrushes around, slinging paint, and tearing holes in the paper. These could be signs that their attention span is up, and its also usually when the most messes are made. So put a limit on how long the paints will be out and plan to transition into a new material when you’re done. If there’s protest, just remind them their pictures need time to dry. You can kind of see an example of this in my Rainbow Trains lesson.

  10. Display their work: Whatever they create, be sure to show it off with pride! Help them hang it on the fridge or on the wall. Ask them if they want to hang it in the kitchen where everyone can see it or in their own room for decoration. Encourage them to show it to visitors! Post it on social media and share some of the comments with them. Let them feel all of the pride that comes with adding a new beautiful creation to this world. Let them know that it’s an important and special thing to do. It has nothing to do with making or spending money or getting something. This is all about creating something to share with the world. Expressing your feelings and ideas and showing them to other people. They’ll learn to be more intentional with this as they grow, but for now every little squiggle of color is an important part of themselves that they’ve expressed. Honor that!

I hope those tips help you to discover art with your toddlers! Again, I really wanted to emphasize troubleshooting potential problems, so please don’t be intimidated or discouraged by this list. You will have plenty of flawless, happy art making times with your little ones. But just in case problems do arise, these are great ways to navigate around them or avoid them all together. Please share pictures and stories about your art making times with me! I’d love to see what creativity looks like for you and your family!

Check out this Rainbow Trains lesson to get started discovering art with your toddlers! I hope you’ll give it a try with the little ones in your life! ~Mai

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