With bright, shiny things that pull at our attention and dollars, a visit to the craft store can be an overwhelming experience. That’s why I’m breaking the basics down for you today. If you’ve already set up your creative space, this list will help you sort out the materials to fill it.
Start with the Basics
My best advice is to keep it simple. When my first child was about 18 months old, and just starting to make marks on paper, I was over-the-moon excited to invest in gallons of paint and reams of paper. I have to admit that I went a bit overboard (we still have rolls of that first order of colorful tape…six years later), and I’d like to spare you some of the trouble I went through.
My best advice? Start with the basics. Once you have a few things in place, build from there as your child’s interests and your comfort level with making at home grow.
With young children, too many options can create a paralysis of choice, and simple is usually better than too much. When we limit the number of choices, we also set our kids up to think more imaginatively and creatively.
This list of supplies will get you started. Feel free to add other items that strike your fancy and visit our resources page for more products that we love.
This list contains affiliate links.
1. Tempera Paint
Tempera Paint is your basic creamy paint with a consistency that reminds you of mustard or house paint. It comes in stand-up bottles that look shampoo containers. These bottles can be squeezed onto a plate or an ice cube tray and then stamped with sponges, cotton balls, pine cones, paintbrush, you name it. I like to use washable tempera paint, for obvious reasons 🙂
If you want to go DIY on this, you can also make your own egg tempera paint with this easy recipe, which I highly recommend trying at least once.
Make an interpretation of modern artist Jasper Johns in this whole body painting experience (above).
2. White Construction Paper
Big sheets of paper are a blank canvas for multiple ideas and projects. We have plenty of 8.5″ x 11″ paper in our home, and that stuff is both easy to find and useful, but toddlers and preschoolers do better with larger paper. They don’t have the fine motor skills nailed down and their big, sweeping arm movements are more satisfying on large canvases.
3. Paint Brushes
If you’re painting, you’ll need some brushes, right? Of course, you can use all kinds of kitchen tools and found objects for painting, but let’s chat brushes for a sec. I have a few favorites:
This set of 5 brushes from Crayola can be used with watercolors, tempera, and acrylic paint. It’s inexpensive and versatile!
Crayons are a childhood staple, no? My children now go back and forth between colored pencils and markers, but crayons were their go-to mark-making tool for years and often make an appearance on our current art table for projects such as camouflage coloring and melted crayon drawings. Just for fun I set up this poll on my Facebook page on crayons vs. markers that you might enjoy reading.
After trying a range of brands, Crayola crayons are hands-down my favorite and short crayons like Crayola Palm Crayons are good for supporting pencil grip for little hands. You can also break your crayons in half to make them more manageable for the preschool finger grip.
We enjoy bright markers for loads projects such as drawing art critters or a cool chromatography exploration with black markers. As I sit here typing this, there’s a container of markers sitting across from me on the coffee table, brought out for a recent card-making session.
From a pretty early age, my children preferred markers to crayons and I suspect it’s because the color from markers is much more vibrant and gratifying. For that reason, I suggest having a few different mark-making tools around to experiment with.
6. Liquid Watercolors
Liquid watercolors get used in so many different projects from coloring playdough to squirting it on coffee filters to homemade Goop (above) that they are easily the most used art supply in our house next to paper and markers.
The come in toothpaste-sized bottles and squeeze out of a bottle like ink or food coloring.
I love this set of 8 assorted colors made by Sax.
7. White Glue
I have a love affair with Elmer’s Washable School Glue. I’ve tried other glues, but I’m incredibly loyal to this brand. It’s reasonably priced, non-toxic, and works like a charm.
8. Tape and Stickers
Washi tape, paper tape, clear tape, stickers. We love it all.
I love this set of colorful paper tape from Discount School Supply, and comb the aisles of the craft store for tapes that make me smile. Especially when I have a 40% off coupon 🙂
This one is pretty straight forward. Fiskars is my absolute favorite brand:
And here’s a little trick for helping young children use scissors that I learned from Mary Ann Kohl’s awesome book, First Art for Toddlers and Twos: offer them fat worm forms of play dough to cut up (above). It’s much easier than cutting paper, and a rewarding experience!
10. Play Dough.
Play dough is a staple! I probably should have put it first on the list because it’s just that good and useful. There’s a sensory experience around playdough that children adore. You can squash it, roll it, build with it, “cook” with it, and add toys to it as seen in this post.
I’m pretty sure I learned how to make the Best Play Dough Recipe from First Art for Toddlers and Twos (see above), and have since seen this same recipe used by every single preschool teacher I know. It’s amazing, pliable stuff that lasts for ages and it’s completely non-toxic. If you’re interested in buying play dough, I really like this eco-friendly plant-dyed option from Eco Kids.
Treasures are objects that delight such as feathers, sequins, and pom-poms. This is probably stating the obvious, but please be cautious when using small objects with young children. I don’t want your child to curiously poke a bean up her nose in the name of creativity. 🙂
I fill clear plastic jars (so that we can easily see what’s inside) with things like buttons, beads, pom-poms, and feathers.
Recyclables are FREE, don’t require a trip to the store, and help us do our bit for sparing the environment from new materials.
What to collect:
- Cardboard boxes — make a marble run
- paper tubes — make stamps
- yogurt containers — make a water wall or entertainment for your toddler
- plastic lids (they make great paint palettes)
- plastic Easter eggs – great for rolled painting
- milk jug — make a shovel
13. Low-heat glue gun
If you have a child who likes to build things, a low-heat glue gun is a tool you will love having. The tip doesn’t get enormously hot and it can be used to easily and quickly attach sculptural items together. You can start with making recycled art sculptures and work your way up to making found object critters.
When young children are invited to paint, they’re often more comfortable working at an easel where their arms can have a full range of motion.
We love our reasonably priced IKEA Mala easel (above), which we painted to give it a little bit of personality. I also like the Melissa & Doug Deluxe Easel includes trays on both sides so that two children can create simultaneously.
With the easel you can either use a roll of paper or the large 18″ x 24″ construction paper mentioned in the paper section.
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed putting it together for you! For more ideas on basic tools and tinkering supplies, I’m sure you’ll enjoy my book: TinkerLab: A Hands-on Guide for Little Inventors.