What do you wish you had known about kids art projects? This is a question that I asked my team of expert parents and teachers as a way to help the next crop of parents learn from our mistakes and wins!
As a mom and as an arts educator who’s buried deep in the process of writing a book about children and the creative process, I often think about which tools other parents could use as they begin their journey into making and experimenting with little people.
Although I’m happy to share my opinions (I have a blog, after all!), I also believe in sharing the perspectives of other parents and childhood experts. Your home, point of view, schedule, and situation are not mine, and while you may respect my perspective as a parent and seasoned educator, if I can present you with multiple voices you may hear one that resonates with you or you may take comfort in hearing the same idea repeated from more than one source.
In this spirit, I asked the following questions of my circle of preschool teachers, parents, bloggers, and Facebook friends:
What do you wish you had known about making art with children? What tips do you have for parents who are just starting out?
I received over fifty thoughtful responses, which led me to collect them into one useful spot and group them into categories that could help us learn from each other. If you have something to add, won’t you please share it in a comment so your experience can inspire other parents or teachers as they begin their art-making journey with children.
So, let’s get started…
You Don’t Need Special Skills to Guide Kids Art Projects
Anyone can set up and facilitate art projects with young children — special credentials or experience are not a prerequisite!
Not to avoid it or be intimidated if you yourself are not artistic (like me). Learning that the process is more important than the outcome has been important for me in doing art with my kids. — Jennifer F.
You don’t need to plan art projects–just get the supplies! And be sure to create with them too! — Megan S.
Art, for me, is all about the process and treating everyone as an artist. With kids this really develops their own inate creativity. So it’s about supplying the materials and standing back and supervising. — Lesley Ann, Early Play
You don’t have to be a great artist to do great art experiences with children. I was really fearful of doing art with children at first because of doubts about my own art abilities. Fortunately I was put straight by a lecturer during my studies who assured me that all I needed to do a great art program was learn a range of developmentally appropriate art activities and techniques and implement them through play – whether I was a “good artist” was irrelevant. She was right and it was some of the best advice I’ve ever got! — Alec Duncan, Child’s Play Music
Process Art is more Important than Product
Focus on open-ended, process-driven projects rather than projects that have a specific outcome in mind.
Enjoy the process and don’t worry about the end result. — Helen, Curly Birds
The process is the most important, not the result. I enjoy taking a few photos during to look back on the various stages. Also bear in mind that most but not all kids like messy. My son has autism and doesn’t like painty fingers or toes so brushes or sponges are a must for us. Fun to ‘paint’ using a computer programme too — Amy G.
Process over product: show them HOW to use materials when necessary (to show respect for things) but don’t show them WHAT to make. It breaks my heart whenever a new preschooler tells me, “I don’t know how. Will you do it for me?” or asks, “What should I make?” during art. They are so used to being bossed around and having things done for them that it takes awhile for them to trust me when I say, “This is your art. You get to make it however you want.” Once they do they can’t get enough! — Christina H.
The process is what’s important…if you had planned on your project looking like “x” and it ends up looking NOTHING like “x,” who cares!? While there is a time for learning to follow directions there are no rules in art! — Alyson H.
It’s very easy to try and make them (art) turn out how you want/expect it to, which (this) takes the creative process (away) from them. You may just end up with 10 pages of paintings that only have one brush stroke- but it’s their creative process! I found it incredibly hard to stand back and let him go at first! — Kara P.
I wish I had known about process vs product and about open-ended projects where materials are presented as an invitation to create with no particular end project in mind – just letting my child explore the materials in whichever way he wanted. — Ness, One Perfect Day
Think process not product. Allow your child to experiment with materials without the end in mind. When they ask if you like it, answer with a question like, “Do you like it? Because you’re the artist!” Give compliments that withhold judgement, “Look at all the colors of the rainbow you used” versus “pretty colors”. — Melissa Taylor, Imagination Soup
Make it accessible to them, create alongside them, and don’t be worried about the final product. The process that got you to the end (exploring, imagining, creating) is the part that really matters. — Kristen, Busy Kids Happy Mom
Debbie from Pre-K and Sharing wrote this very popular post on the difference between process-based art and product-based crafts, Children’s Art: Process versus Product.
When my daughter was a toddler, I fretted too much when she only wanted to watch me create rather than picking up the material and exploring with it herself. Now I realize that I didn’t need to worry. Observing a process is her way of learning. –Rebekah, The Golden Gleam
I think the biggest tip is that projects aren’t an hour long especially with really young kids. Many are 5 minutes and that’s ok they are still benefiting from it. –Allison, No Time for Flash Cards
I wish I had thought to tell my oldest that art can’t be wrong. Everbodys’ art looks different…that doesn’t make one right and one wrong…just unique. That would have taken the pressure off of him and off of me. I was going for “perfect”. — Becky
Embrace Messy Kids Art Projects
Art-making can be messy, but the mess is worth it and there are strategies for managing the chaos.
Kids are washable, creating memories is more important than clean hands and clothes, and a vinyl table cloth on the floor will contain just about any mess a kid can make anyway. 🙂 I do all of this with my daycare kids, but I wish I’d thought this way when my own boys were little 10 years ago! — Jackie, Happy Hooligans
A mess is what’s BEST! It’s all about the process, not the finished project. — Tiffany K.
That it will be 100% messier than you think, the time taken will range from seconds to hours, and as long as the children are having fun then consider the experience a success regardless of end product and mess. — Zoey S.
Embrace the mess! And be okay with them being done with a project much sooner than you had planned. — 365 Great Children’s Books
Mess-proof your house, or do art in the bath, then you wont worry about anything and you can both freely enjoy the creative or sensory process. — Katherine, Creative Playhouse
Set up and sit down. Enjoy the show and be ready for a bath after. — Leslie, Cute and Peculiar
Art does not have to mean “messy”! Mainy parents I know are scared of paint. If you are one of them, that’s ok, but don’t let that stop you exploring art! There are so many other ways too… Pencils, pens, crayons. Sculptures from wood, junk, clay. Collages from magazines, fabrics, photos. Tissue paper and newspapers.– Maggy, Red Ted Art
I wish I had thought to set messy art activities up in the bath from the beginning. The bath is a fantastic place to let children engage in painting and other messy creative activities (as is the kitchen floor) When Rosie first began creating, I set the activities up at our easel but Rosie’s creative space was limited and I had to worry about the surrounding surfaces. Now, I mostly set messy activities up outside or in the bath so that she can explore freely and I don’t need to worry about stains or getting paint in the carpet. Then, once Rosie is done, she is right where she needs to be to get clean. — Crystal, Growing A Jeweled Rose
Painting for kids is sensory play so it’s ok if all they want to do is empty half a ton of paint onto the paper and squish it with their hands. It’s not a waste of paint and its not a creative fail, it’s just not YOUR idea of art. But that’s ok. — The Monko, Taming the Goblin
Consider your Art Materials
Choose quality, child-friendly materials and display them attractively in an easy-access location.
One of the most important things to do is also the easiest — simply make art materials available to your children. If markers and paper are out and accessible, kids will use them. Same with playdough, paint, tape, scissors, anything. You don’t have to have a “project” in mind. Kids have fun and develop creativity when they have the freedom to explore art materials and ideas in their own way. — Jean, The Artful Parent
For young children it is all about investigating and inventing using a range of open-ended materials with no end-purpose in sight. Free range access to a variety of textures, colours, shapes, media and tools will promote creative thinking and the freedom to experiment without any pressure. Keep materials in easy access baskets and buckets in a specially designated making area, and find wall space for displaying their finished masterpieces with pride! — Anna, The Imagination Tree
I wish I had known, you really only need the primary colors, white, and black paint for little ones. — Rebekah, The Golden Gleam
Put your age-appropriate art supplies so they are accessible for the kids to get at! That means different supplies for different ages and stages. Start with basics (crayones, markers, blank paper) and as children grow, add more variety (glue, scissors, paint, etc). Then buy a bunch of magic erasers. You’re more likely to do art everyday if everything is visible and accessible. — Miss Allison’s Art
i think its important to spend a bit more money on a bit better products, it safes you children from frustration, cheap crayons dont give off color easy, same goes for cheap watercolors and markers, also if you use cheap paper it fast becomes a mess, just a tip from an arts and crafts teacher! see my page. — Luna H.
Not all “washable” markers really are. Don’t bother with place mats as table protection, the kids can’t seem to keep their work there. Just have a vinyl tablecloth for art time and use it for every project. — Gina S.
Go to a beach if you can! It’s like one big giant interactive canvas! So much fun and sculpting goes beyond sandcastles. — Juliet, I’m a Teacher, Get me Outside Here
Let children choose what they want to do. Give a limited amount of supplies because with too many they may lose focus. Keep it simple….kids like materials like pens and paper. Once in awhile throw in some fun materials like google eyes or glitter. Adding in a magic supply makes all the difference. — Melissa , Chocolate Muffin Tree
I wish I had known earlier how important those moments with my littles – drawing, coloring, cutting, just being next to one another creating – would be to me. Making art together is by far one of my favorite past times and theirs as well. I added a planter box full of crayons, a galvanized tin for pencils, markers and scissors, and an old crate for holding papers to our dining room. Hands down the best addition to our house as a whole. I highly encourage others to do the same and take full advantage of all the opportunities this will create for you to connect with one another. — Stacy of KSW
I wish I had just set out the materials and let him create more often. My son has great ideas. –Deirdre, JDaniel4’s Mom
Buy an easel early as possible – we’ve only got ours this week and I regret not getting it earlier – to have a space always set up for art to take place means that they will go and create – with chalk with crayons, with pencils and with pens that are all set up. In 1 week our drawings have gone from squiggles to circles with eyes, nose, nostrils, mouth and sharp teeth with legs, arms and sometimes even ears – My 17 month also uses it to start creating on as well (Rainy Day Mum) — Cerys, Rainy Day Mum
Be the Guide on the Side
Your role is to facilitate the art-making process by drawing out your child’s best self without telling your child what to do.
I have always encouraged parents to sit and observe their child in the act of the process. Being present is in itself a support. Parental observation is in itself encouragement. There is an ‘art’ to offering support and encouragement to a child that comes from genuine and sincere questions and interaction. “Tell me how it feels to have your hands in that _________.” “I notice that your crayon is going round and round and that the circles are getting bigger all the time in this part of your project.” Open ended questions always work well. “What is your favorite part?” Of course it goes without saying that having ‘art-supplies’ available in the home is an asset. Using ‘supplies’ that are on hand – ads from junk mail, a pair of scissors and scotch tape can also yield informative exploration, when coupled with permission, support, time and interaction. Just like children who see their parents reading in the home become readers themselves, so it is that children that are surrounded by parents/adults who are creative and creating — see the artistic process as similar to breathing. It’s what we do. We create. — Debbie, RainbowsWithinReach
Let them lead – have the materials of choice there on offer and let your child(ren) tell you what they want to use and what they want to do with it. Guide them, but don’t get stressed if they don’t want to follow the ‘normal’ rules about what happens with a paintbrush or a crayon! (within reason, of course…). — Michelle D.
Be quiet! Sometimes it is best to silently observe. Too much feedback can encourage/create praise-junkies and it’s easy to say the wrong thing, like guessing what the picture is when a child is simply experimenting with textures and colors. If you cannot control the urge to say something, be sure to just make simple observations, not judgments. –Liz S.
Be enthusiastic about creativity and making art – it’s contagious. — Chrissy, The Outlaw Mom Blog
I’ve taught art for many years in a preschool setting, and I also work with toddlers (18 mos the youngest). All of the advice I see here is accurate. I’d also encourage you to use open ended words or questions when inquiring about your child’s art (if you must)..”tell me about your picture/painting/sculpture”…compliments such as “that’s very colorful!” “I noticed you were using the paintbrush gently, etc”. instead of “oh how beautiful”;” that’s pretty”. I use quality materials and I do demonstrate with the little ones so they gain a respect for the materials. For instance, we talk about having our paintbrushes “dance” across the paper, rather than “scrubbing” the paper. Often times, a child will push so hard it creates a hole. While I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, sometimes it makes them upset. — Anastasia F.
Don’t help them. Don’t ‘fix’ their art work. If you do that, they don’t feel any ownership of it. It’s the process that matters, not the product or ‘end result’- resist the temptation to interfere! — Candy. Aunt Annie’s Childcare
I wish I had realised it didn’t matter if it didn’t turn out how I wanted it to – they are still proud of a brown mess because they did it themselves! My mantra is ‘step away from the paintbrush mummy’ — Sarah, Mummyology
Be patient, flexible, and open minded. Relax. Let go of control and go with the flow. It is supposed to be fun! If you or your child are not having fun, you need to stop and evaluate. — Katie, Playing with words 365
Take some deep deep breaths, let go of controlling the situation and believe 100% in that what the children are doing! — Angelique Felix, The Magic of Play
I was glad when I learned to talk to my children about heir art in appropriate ways, asking them to tell me about what they were making instead of making value judgements and always trying to “name” what they were creating. — Amy, Mama Scout
I’ve known people who would go back and color in after the child has already colored, because they don’t want to be embarrassed by someone seeing the end result and not thinking their child did a good job. My response has always been, “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be perfect in their eyes.” Likewise, I have to agree with the above comments. Don’t get the kids ideas; they’ll come up with them on their own. Use good quality products.– Leann, Montessori Tidbits
Let them have fun, don’t worry about the end result. –Ticia
Organize Your Art Materials
An organized art space will give you a greater chance for success as well as peace of mind.
I think organization tips- start early so you dont end up with a pile of art. –April Z.
I really wish we would have made our art center a part of our play area sooner. The kids make the neatest additions to their play on a daily basis and I know it’s because everything is accessible. — Jillian, A mom with a lesson plan and author of Raising a Creative Child
Give children the opportunity to revisit their art. Create a space where you can leave ‘work in progress’ and place simple documentation, photos with the pieces to inspire the child and to allow opportunities for reflection. –Shona S.
Make a Plan for Success
Once you have your supplies and a space to create, these questions can guide you through the art-making process with your child.
There is a difference between craft and art. Choose projects that allow your child to express themselves and their own ideas through the exploration and manipulation of open ended materials. The five questions shared in this post aim to help parents to choose the best creative projects for their own child/ren — Christie, Childhood 101
I wish I had never been shown how to make a paper plate apple so it didn’t take me so many years to look past the paper plate apple and into what really matters when it comes to inspiring young children in the realm of art.
My advice would be – as you choose what you want to do with your child, use these four questions to guide your decision-making…
- What will my child actually get to do (not make)?
- What art products will my child actually get to use or explore?
- What art tools will my child actually get to use or explore?
- Will my child find any of these tools, materials, and things to do interesting?
If these four questions can be considered as you plan, then you will find art to be far more than a paper plate apple, but instead art will be an engaging and enriching experience for you and your child. — Deborah Stewart, Teach Preschool
When I first started out, I was told that we had to “teach” children “how” to use materials. Now, I often put a variety of materials out and let them explore and create without any of my preconceived notions. We only have 3 rules:
- Wear a smock
- Use a tray. (For smaller projects we work over large trays that can be dumped and washed easily by little people. Also, more fragile projects can be moved in situ to dry, without disturbing the project.)
- Help clean up when you are done.
I am continually amazed and surprised by the art the children generate on their own, without adult expectations of an outcome. Even for “projects” that we do as a group, I may put out materials that will probably be needed, but the children know they are free to use any or all materials in our art center. Anything and everything goes! Ayn, Little Illumunations
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