I was recently hired to help convert a family garage into an art space for 3 children ages 4 to 10. It got me thinking about why every parent doesn’t just dive right into art activities with their children. After all, it’s so much fun. Here’s what I came up with. A lot of parents don’t want the mess AND it’s hard to even know where to start.
Drawing on paper is one thing, but beyond that, I think a lot of parents are just overwhelmed and afraid that before they turn around there is going to be a new mural all over their living room couch. I’m here to let the cat out of the bag. Art with your kids does not have to be scary and it doesn’t even have to be messy. It can be fun, engaging, confidence building, therapeutic and contained. Your kids will thank you for it for sure and you might find out that you are more comfortable with a little mess than you thought.
So, in honor of all the parents out there who want to bring a little more art into their children’s lives, but aren’t quite sure how, here are 10 Art Secrets I want every parent to know, plus five bonus art tips just because. I’ve also included a bunch of pics from my friends art space in hopes that they inspire some ideas.
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Simple Art Tips For Young Children
1. Use a tray.
Trays offer a contained work space for kids to work on. You can get flat trays, round trays, cheap trays, fancy trays, ikea trays like the ones below, whatever you like. They will create the perfect little working space for tons of art activities. If you want to first cover your table with butcher paper and the floor with a drop cloth (ha, I pretty much never do that but my husband would really like it if I did) you can be doubly protected by keeping things on a tray. There is something about a tray that makes art supplies look beautiful and inviting. Kids understand that what is on their tray is theirs to work with. (Awesome for siblings!) Trays offer a great framework for art activities, especially with young children.
2. A little effort goes a loooong way
This is a big one because it can increase you and your child’s art enjoyment in a major way. If you take the time to set something up, I’m talking 5-10 minutes tops, you will see a noticeable difference in their experience. This is especially helpful during the witching hour. Consider setting up a tray with watercolors and paper squares on a tray, or some tinfoil and sharpies, or pom poms and glue, while your kids are either napping or at school. The wow factor when you bust out the trays is priceless. You may score and get 20-40 minutes out of it and your kids will get a whole lot more, I assure you. I’m not saying every activity you place on a tray they are going to fall in love with. I’m just saying that when you work on preparing something special ahead of time, they can sense it.
3. A simple set up is the best set up
Since we’re talking about trays, I think it’s important to mention that a simple set up, often referred to as an invitation to play (here are some favs of ours) or in the Reggio world, a provocation, (here are some great examples from an An Everyday Story) is often the most engaging and satisfying for kids. In the pic above, my girls are playing with a few play dough patties, and bowls of dried pasta, googley eyes and straws. It’s nothing fancy and they love it. I prepared it while they took their naps. This was a great invitation to wake up to.
4. Young kids freaking love glue
Kids from the age of about 1.5 and up can work wonders with a simple bottle of glue or a glue stick. Art and creativity doesn’t have to be complicated. When kids are young, it’s more about exposing them to new materials and honoring their process. Set up a tray with some glue and paper and some beads or pom poms and see what happens. Know ahead of time that as long as they stay on the tray, they can use the whole bottle or the whole glue stick. This way you don’t spend your time saying, too much, too much! Though, if you want to introduce them to my favorite glue song feel free, but you’ll have to make up your own tune. – A little dab’ll do ya : )
5. Buckets of water are your new best friend
If you’re doing art outside, keep a bucket of water nearby. It doesn’t have to be big, but it certainly can be. Kids love to get messy, but they also love to get clean, especially if the mess is a little over stimulating. With a water bucket, kids can go back and forth from the activity to the water as part of the play. This is especially great for kids who are highly sensitive to certain materials. Sometimes, the “out” of the water bucket is just what they need to feel more comfortable with certain art materials. Wash a little, paint a little, wash a little, sculpt a little, wash a little, wash a little.
Now, a few trade secrets. Let’s party.
6. When working with tempera paints, add some water to the cups to make the paint last longer
This is great for two reasons. One, your paint lasts longer. Two, kids think they have a lot of paint and kids like that. Also, when you set down the paints, you might say something like, “This is all the paint you will be getting so make sure to use it wisely, carefully, slowly, etc.” and stick to it! Before you know it you’ll have kids who are quite conscientious about wasting paint. I like to store paints in baby jars, recycled containers, squeeze bottles and no-spill paint cups.
7. When using glue on paintbrushes, make sure the bristles are plastic
I wish someone told me this sooner because I’ve wasted A LOT of paintbrushes. There are a lot of projects that call for glue and water applied by a paintbrush. Here’s a great example. If you use regular brushes with natural bristles and don’t wash them fast enough, the glue will dry and the bristles will harden. If you use nylon brushes like these, you won’t have that problem ever again. Yay.
8. Your child is (most likely) not too young to use a scissor
Don’t freak out but I let my almost two year old use scissors. Yes, it’s true. Don’t report me. She is determined to be as skilled as her 3 year old sister who is a master paper, straw, play dough, kinetic sand and felt cutter and super proud. The scissors are not very sharp. We use these. We only use them sitting at the table. We talk about never running with scissors and holding them properly. I know both my girls will go to kindergarten being expert paper cutters. Knock that one off the list. I know this isn’t for everyone by the way. Your child may not be ready for scissors. Do what feels comfortable for you!
9. Spray bottles and squeeze bottles are a fantastic kid friendly way to store and use art supplies.
We use spray bottles and squeeze bottles all the time. You can keep liquid watercolors (we love these) or water and food coloring in spray bottles for all kinds of art. Here’s a great example. You can fill squeeze bottles with glue or tempera paint, as well. If they get stopped up, just cut off the tip.
10. White Gesso ( a thick white paint) and white spray paint make just about everything reusable and super pretty
We do a ton of painting on cardboard and wood. It’s really nice to give kids a clean white slate to work on, which can easily be achieved with spray paint or white gesso. If you’re anything like me you have a ton of cereal boxes, toilet paper rolls, and cardboard pieces you’re saving for some art project. Try spray painting them or covering them with gesso next time and see what your child comes up with. You can also use gesso to cover used canvases, making them reusable. To read about evolving canvases, a favorite in our house, click here.
Now, for some Meri Cherry favorite BONUS TIPS
11. Collaborative art/teamwork art/family art is one of the best ways to connect with your child
Sometimes it’s really nice to just sit down with your child and do a painting, sculpture, or drawing together. How about this time you let your child make all the decisions and you ask a lot of questions while following their lead. You can say things like “Where should I paint? What color should I use? Is this right? I really like the lines you’re making over there. Can you show me how to do that? It’s really nice creating with you. I wonder what you’re going to paint next. I notice you’re really concentrating while you’re working. This is fun! Thanks for spending this time with me. I really enjoyed it.” You can click here and here to see examples of our family process art.
12. Art doesn’t have to be fancy
Like I said above, kids just want to spend quality time with us. Get a piece of oversized paper and a watercolor set and have some fun. That’s how we started this collage project and it’s been something we’ve repeated over and over. Or how about a big piece of cardboard and make a collage? Maybe you can gesso it first.
13. Hanging your child’s artwork is everything
I can’t stress the importance of displaying children’s artwork enough. When you hang your child’s art you are saying, your work is important to me. It has value. I am proud of what you are doing. Plus, there are so many great ways to hang art work. You can do an art wall. You can get this great wire situation from Ikea. Or just hang a string from some nails and use clothespins to hang up your child’s art. It’s all great.
14. Move things around
I’m not sure why, but moving art activities out of their normal area and into a different area, is like introducing your child to a brand new ice cream flavor. All of a sudden they are totally into it. We keep painting easels in our backyard all the time and they rarely get used by my girls. I moved one into the girl’s bedroom and look out. They couldn’t get enough. So get creative and shake things up a little bit. This goes for toys too by the way.
15. When storing art supplies, keep them in clear containers.
If you don’t see what’s in your container, you likely won’t use it. I know I don’t. Mason jars are my favorite way to store art supplies. I know some parents see mason jars and think “Eek! Glass. Kids. No way.” But think about it for a minute, there are tons of things in our homes that can break and we still use them. If we spend some time training our children about materials and how to use them, they will recognize their value and rise to the occasion. In the three years I’ve had our supplies in mason jars, and tons of toddlers coming in and out of our house, two have broken. We quickly cleaned up the mess and used it as an opportunity to talk about how important it is to be extra careful with our materials. Here is a whole post dedicated to organizing art supplies if you want to check it out.
So, those are my secrets. I hope there is at least one, if not more, that you can take home with you. Do you have any secret art tips that work for you and your family or students? I’d love to hear them. Please leave them in the comments below. Above all else, thanks for reading along and have fun!
And if you’re still not sure what to do, try this pinterest board. It’s full of awesome art activities to do with your kids.
Great tips Meri!!! #10 is a new idea to me and I’ll definitely be using it, thank you. To add to #6 (if I may?), you can also add liquid soap to tempera and finger paint to make it stretch more and wash off super easy. Adding water + flour to glue is good for stretching the budget too.
The family idea is great too. My 2-yr old recently woke up from nap while I was using my grown-up watercolors and she jumped right it painting her own piece- she was so careful with them because she could tell it was extra special 🙂
Thanks for the inspiration, Helen
Love, love, LOVE this post!!!! I have 3 young grandaughters (4, 6 and 9) and have been doing art with them before they were even two. A year ago, I bought a huge canvas with a scene on it from the Goodwill and gesso’d the canvas, then had the girls help me paint a grass and sky background. I tweaked it a bit and we used bubble wrap and lots of other things to add texture. I then created some houses and trees out of scrapbook paper and had the girls draw themselves and we put them in the scene. Every time them come visit, I have them add something else… It now has butterflies, hummingbirds, a cute drawing of me with one of my grandaughters, etc. It’s one of my most prized possessions and some day, I will give it to their mommy so that they can have it hanging in THEIR home…. but for now… it hangs in mine *Ü*
Debi, this is so fantastic. I would love to see a picture! How beautiful it all sounds and I just love that your granddaughters keep adding to it on every visit. What a treasure. Thank you so much for sharing.
Thank you so much Helen! This makes me so happy. Your tips are more than welcome! I never added liquid soap before. Good one! And love hearing about your little one joining in. Sounds wonderful. Thanks so much for reading along.
this is such a beautiful, well thought out post. thank you!! i just seriously learned some stuff that i didn’t even know! like watering down paints…wow! my kids have also used scissors from a young age, it really is fun for them. like…WOW! I can cut paper! i got the squeeze bottle ideas from you and it has been a HUGE hit. and glue? SO TRUE! my kids love glitter glue, could squeeze it all day long. i also LOVE what you did with your friend’s space…lucky her to have you as a friend!! xo bar
You’re the best Bar. Thank you so much. And yes, squeeze bottles are the best for paint and glue! I forgot to mention how awesome a lazy susan is too! xoxox
🙂 I love this post too. I also let my son use scissors and I think you are an arty smarty with the tip about the white gesso and paint brushes. 🙂 Pinned and will definitely share this post on FB next week!
Thank you Leslie! Yay for scissors! My kids get so much pride from using them (safely of course : ) So glad some of the tips were new for you! xoxo
Great tips. I love using glass baby food jars for smaller things like crayons. I worked in a preschool for 3 years with 16 preschoolers at a time and an open art shelf that they could access themselves. We only broke 2 jars (and I personally broke one of the two, oops). I find not only are the children more careful with the glass because of the responsibility but the glass is heavier and more stable than a light plastic container would be.
I couldn’t agree with you more Shannon. Thanks so much for commenting. I think if we raise the bar for kids, they’ll rise to the occasion almost every time. And yes, the jars are crazy durable!
Great post!! I am a K-5 art educator. I see so many children who have no art experiences at home. Some have told me that their parents don’t want them to make a mess. I love the tray idea and the easels in the back yard. I also love that moving it to another place sparked new interest. I love the term ‘invitation to play,’ which is similar to the ideas behind choice based art education/Teaching for Artistic Behavior.
Hi April. Thanks so much for commenting. It’s so sad how much art has been removed from public schools. I hope the parents that read this are inspired to do more art at home. Trays are definitely helpful with the mess factor. So glad you got some new ideas here!
Yes, yes, yes! So true about scissors and glue!
Agreed!! Thanks for stopping by!!
Hi there! Great post.
This is my first time reading your blog. I’m also a K-12 art educator and I’ve used most these techniques with my own 5 and 4 year old.
Hi Marina! Thanks for stopping by. I would love to hear some of your favorite art secrets!
Hi Merri, thanks for the response, I’ll keep you posted as I embark on blogging more 🙂
To clean natural brushes of glue dip them in hot/almost boiling water for a minute then wash with dish soap. If there is alot of glue you may need to repeat a few times. We have a Kid kraft table and I can dip a rag in boiling water, with tongs of course, and soak the dried up flubber on the surface for a few minutes and it wipes right up without damaging the table.
Thanks Emilie! Good to know!!
Great idea Emile!
This is a very comprehensive and well thought out post! Especially like the tip on using Mason Jars to remind ourselves to use stuffs and training the kids to use the glass jars! : ) It’s been great following you.
Thank you so much Angelia. I appreciate you following along! Mason jars are my absolute fav. You can recycle pasta sauce jars too. They work just as well but aren’t quite as strong as the mason jars. Have fun!
Do they still sell those safety scissors we used to use as children,rounded ends small finger holes and had a woody wood pecker or what ever cartoon was popular at the time? i can not find any i have looked every were
I think I remember those. Sounds like an ebay find!
I love your Name it s wonderful )) Thank you for sharing your great tipps…my 6 yr old son Lucas is getting very creative lately i have been buying him watercolors ,,,paintbrushes….we paint draw together often as i like it as well …so true it really helps with all kinds of things ,,,Colors are wonderful they make our earth brighter …i intend to sign him up for an art class once he starts School in September!!
Lucas sounds like a lucky little boy. Art is the best gift to give a small child. Thanks so much for stopping by!
Fantastic post Meri! Scheduled to share later today! Pinned!
Thanks so much Meredith! Hope there was something in there for you! xo
I love Number 4 (young children love playing with glue). I used to be an early years teacher and one of the most learning intensive scenes I’ve ever seen was a 2 year old playing with glue. All the children had been given glue to use on paper, card, foil and a few other items and they were most enthusiastic about the sticking activity. However, one 2 year old girl spent the whole session just “playing” with the glue – she had a great time and packed in a lot of pre-science learning activity. As parents and care givers, we all need to remember that the finished item is not the important factor – the most important thing is being given the opportunity to participate and do your own thing.
Isn’t it incredible, Debbie? They can play with glue for longer than most toys. It’s truly amazing. Thanks for stopping by!
I just love this post, Meri and see that I’ve posted it to Pinterest before even hoping down here to write a comment. This is such a gold mine of valuable information that I completely agree with! Completely… right down to the water. (I used to give the kids a bucket os soapy water and spongest to paint with on the terrace when we were living in the city and had a city terrace and they could go for hours!) Also, I love the tray idea. I actually didn’t exactly do this, I always used (and still use) work mats but, often end up moving the kids work to low sided containers… the tray is a better solution and I appreciate the smart advise. I realise that water is ice but, way up here in the north, the only extra I can add that has been an invaluable material for the kids has been ice + snow! .-) This is just a fantastic, fantastic post – PERFECT!
You’re the best Gina. Thank you! Ice is pretty hard to come by these days in sunny California but I know my girls would LOVE it. We’ll have to visit you and introduce them to this fascinating substance they’ve never even seen before. Can’t wait for us all to create together!
you’ve inspired me. thanks from my kids!
my pleasure!! hi to the kids from meri cherry : )
My children, and many of their friends, have really enjoyed squeeze bottles (old baby wash, shampoo, etc. keeping the screw on top, but breaking off the flip lid) filled with watered down paint to squirt on the snow in the winter. This has been fun for them over the last five years and I don’t see my youngest artist outgrowing it yet.
I finally got a system: put a small amount of paint/powder in the bottle the add water using a pitcher. I usually only buy the primary colours plus black and white, so every bottle can be a different mixture and we wind up with a rainbow on the yard.
Depending on the number of kids and the number of bottles (even though I have at least a dozen) more than once, I have not been able to refill them fast enough!
The artwork seems fun for the kids to do and is equally enjoyed by the parents when they pick the kids up at the end of the visit.
What an great article! Thanks you for the tips.
I’m always looking for nice activities to do with my sons. My oldest son Joep likes it very much in my work space/atelier (another area;-).
Just a box with buttons is his favorite. And automatically I use a tray but I didn’t realise that it works so well for him.
And I have a box with “men stuff” like old light switches, dimmers and other construction material. That’s very interesting for kids because it is real stuff;-)
Creative greetings from Lucie
Okay- You had me at “I was recently hired to help convert a family garage into an art space”. Do you have any design plans or pictures of that!? That is my dream to do and any info on that would be so cool! I love your ideas! This is so helpful! Mason jars!!!
Ha! Here’s a link to a garage space I did. Hope it’s helpful : ) http://www.mericherry.com/2014/06/19/art-studio-kids/
Love the article! We get a lot of broken balsa boards from our local taekwando studio to use for art projects and I never thought about putting Gesso on them. (My group of little ones has just been painting directly on the wood.) But my favorite part of the article is the photo above Tip #9. I’m trying to figure out if we can get a disco ball in an NYC apartment.
Disco balls are the best!!
What a wonderful list! So real, helpful as well as affirming of some things we already do. Thank you!
Great! Thanks so much Sarah!
I am guilty of not getting craft stuff out for my kiddos because I didn’t want to clean up the mess. Currently I have all our craft stuff in one box. I set it in the middle of the table and let them have at it! I know its just asking for a great big mess and that is what it usually turns into. But, they have so much fun! I think I will get some tray and just put a few things out from now on. I love that idea! Also storing everything separately in clear jars. I can’t give up my beloved mason jars (we do a lot of canning). But, I think I could start saving jelly jars and other glass jars to put the supplies in. Thanks for all the great ideas!
Incredibly helpful! As an artsy mom, I must confess I’m quite hesitant to dive into the art project with my toddler. Thank you!!
Well, then I hope I did a good job of convincing you to just go for it. Baby steps. A little goes a long way : ) Enjoy!
I am definitely bookmarking this! I absolutely loved it but when I was scrolling down to comment I saw EVEN more amazing things to read. Too bad my reading time is up or id totally have made this blog my little playground. Love what you’re doing and I’ll definitely be back for more!!
Thank you so much! I’m so glad you found my blog. Hope the secrets are helpful!
Wish I found you a year ago!! I run a home daycare with ages ranging from 6 months to 12 years old. Most between the ages 2-5. You have provided some fabulous tips on art and creativity. I want to say thank you for offering those tidbits you provided in 10 Art Secrets. Printed and will be put to good use!!
Have a fantastic day!!
#6 Also add a squirt or two of dish soap to your paint and it will be much easier to wash off of the body, and out of clothes.