Young at Art

by Christine Olson Gedye

Young at Art

Great ways to introduce your toddler to the fun of paint, crayons, and collage

Look, Mommy!” commands my 2-year-old as she points at her latest masterpiece. “Oh, how…green!” I stammer. What really has my attention is her tempera-drenched T-shirt, her paint-daubed face, the green footprints that have marched from the easel to where I stand at the sink.

Yes, a toddler plus paint equals a mess. But the benefits are well worth a little time spent cleaning up. Consider the physical upside: Painting, drawing, and working with paper and glue or clay can help boost hand and arm muscle control and strength, and support the development of hand-eye coordination, says Judy Press, author of The Little Hands Art Book.

And these activities provide a self-esteem boost too: “Often a crayon scratch is, quite literally, a child’s first permanent mark on the world,” says Christine Thompson, associate professor of art education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It can give him a tremendous sense of power and accomplishment.”

Plus, says Thompson, drawing is a precursor to writing: “The forms and shapes kids use in their first drawings are the same ones they’ll use to write their first letters.” Painting and manipulating play dough or clay will also help your toddler learn to grasp early the concepts of size, shape, and capacity.

GREAT BEGINNINGS When your toddler starts grabbing a pen out of your hand to try it herself  — usually at 12 to 15 months old  — offer her crayons or markers and a large piece of paper. Expect a crayon-munching stage, then a draw-and-run phase (little attention spans being what they are). Try a little bit each day, and keep your expectations low.

For kids younger than 3, art is about process, not product. At first, they’re just experimenting with making marks and handling the materials. Stop yourself from helping your child finish her work; your role is to be patient and to provide an environment where she can happily make a mess.

When you can, pull up a chair and doodle alongside her. Mimic what she’s doing, rather than sketching a landscape: “Don’t draw something that your child will want to emulate, but can’t,” says Thompson. When your little artist becomes fully absorbed, take it as your cue to just sit back and watch.

As for commenting on a child’s work, experts say it’s best not to say anything at all  — unless your child asks for feedback. Even then, chances are she just wants to know that you’re interested in what she’s doing. Instead of offering empty praise, be descriptive: Talk about her arm and hand movements, the colors she’s using, and how she might feel about her artwork. With more verbal kids, you can ask why they made the choices they did, or simply, “What’s happening here?”

To enhance your child’s delight in creating art, and to fine-tune her budding skills as well, consider the following ideas:

CHRISTINE OLSON GEDYE is the author of Ideas for Great Baby Rooms (Sunset Books).


Drawing is usually the first art “medium” a child will explore and probably the one most often worked in during childhood. (It’s no coincidence that it’s also the neatest.)

VARIETY IS THE SPICE Offer different sizes of paper, from butcher paper to index cards and Post-It notes. One way that kids learn control, says Thompson, is by “responding to the edge of the paper.” Smaller paper, smaller movements. Think about atypical surfaces, too: paper plates, with their bumpy edges; paper lunch bags, which can become puppets; cardboard, which bends and holds a fold. And offer ballpoint pens and not-too-sharp pencils (but only when you’re there to monitor); they make finer marks, and are a grown-up treat.

RUBBED THE RIGHT WAY Place a piece of thin paper on corrugated cardboard, a coin, lace, leaves, or other textured surface. Rub the paper with the side of a crayon, after removing the wrapper.

DRAWING A DEUX Trace your child’s hand, then yours. Put the paper on the floor and trace little feet too. Or let your child make a random pattern of dots on the page (“Can you make the marker hop-hop-hop?”), then connect the dots. What did you draw?

CHALK IT UP Sidewalk chalk lets kids work large. Use on wet or dry concrete or asphalt, and let the rain clean up the mess. Or try on paper, but intensify the color by first briefly dipping chalk in a bowl of sugar water; draw on black paper for more contrast. To preserve paper chalk art, spritz with hair spray (when your child isn’t nearby).

THE RIGHT STUFF Some teachers swear by CRAYONS: They’re neat and offer a great range of shades and depth. But WASHABLE MARKERS let little hands make a bold mark without pressing as hard. Offer both, in chubby, easy-to-hold sizes.

To make your own “DRAWING PAD”: Clip a stack of recycled computer paper in a clipboard, or punch holes in it and secure in a three-ring binder. Another stay-put idea: Tape a large piece of BUTCHER PAPER, sold in rolls, to a table (or use binder clips, which won’t leave a sticky residue).


Whether with a brush or fingers, on an easel or a table, painting allows kids to really make a statement: The colors are bold and blendable, and the strokes are large and free-flowing.

FINGER FANCIES While younger toddlers may still find paint-covered hands icky, it’s a sensory delight for those 2 and older. Use either premixed finger paints, or tempera paints that are mixed half with liquid starch or liquid bath soap. Put a tablespoon of one color on dampened finger-paint paper (it has a shiny, smooth surface), then see what happens when you add another color. Add a dash of sand for texture or salt for sparkles. Once your child has smeared the paints around, hand her a Popsicle stick, plastic fork, wine cork, or comb to “carve” designs in the wet paint.

ON A ROLL Small sponge paint rollers give little painters a clean line, and they cover a lot of territory fast. Tape old newspapers to the ground or the wall (you might want to do this one outside). Spread a thin layer of paint on a paper plate and show your child how to roll the roller back and forth in the paint, and then across the paper. Add another color to the paper plate to see how the two blend. Try watering the paints down a bit before using so the colors run together. Experiment by wrapping the roller in some bubble wrap or other textured material.

PRINT-N-PRESS Kids enjoy the repetitive motion of printing. Collect paper cups, cookie cutters, leaves, kitchen gadgets, cotton swabs, or sponges (cut into shapes). Make a stamp pad by placing folded wet paper towels on a cookie sheet; pour a layer of paint onto the pad, and let your child dip an object into the paint, press it onto a sheet of paper several times, and dip again.

3-D EXPERIENCE Before you recycle a large cardboard box, let your child decorate it. Kids love painting the sides of a big box, especially if it’s big enough to crawl into once it’s dry.

HOUSE PAINTING Get out a bucket of water and a large paintbrush. Let your child “paint the house” (or the sidewalk or driveway) with water. Talk about cheap thrills!

THE RIGHT STUFF Liquid TEMPERA PAINTS in red, yellow, blue, and white are good to start with (and can be combined to make orange, green, purple, and pastels). You’ll also need large (18 x 24) sheets of PAPER or a roll of butcher paper, and thick, rounded BRUSHES with chubby handles  — have one for each color, as toddlers can’t be expected to rinse between colors.

When your child is working on a flat surface, such as the floor or on a table, use PAPER PLATES or Styrofoam trays to hold the paint. If she’s at an easel, use small yogurt containers, or spring for NO-SPILL PAINT TUBS with snap-on lids, lower right.


No need to deal with sharp scissors and runny glue. Tearing paper is a good alternative to using scissors, and glue sticks are downright tidy.

CHOOSE A THEME Have your child pick a topic  — My Favorite Color, Things That Are Rough (or Shiny or Smooth)  — then rummage through your collage box (see “The Right Stuff,” for basics) or go on a treasure hunt through your house or neighborhood. Set out the finds, select a base, put some glue and a cotton swab on a paper plate, and let your child pick and choose, then dab and glue.

ON CONTACT Cut a piece of clear contact paper  — about 12 inches long and as wide as the roll. Tape the corners to a table, and peel off the backing (the sticky side should be up). Now let your tot arrange his tidbits on the contact paper, leaving bare a 1-inch border. Cover the finished collage with another piece of contact paper the same size.

SAND DESIGNS Let your child “paint” white glue onto a paper plate with a cotton swab. Sprinkle sand (or rice, or some small dry cereal) over the top, and shake away the excess to reveal the pattern.


Many HOUSEHOLD ITEMS are ideal for collage: used gift wrap and tissue paper; fabric scraps and ribbons; canceled stamps; cereal; old magazines and catalogs; old keys; cast-off snapshots; foil; food labels. And consider nature-walk finds: seashells, twigs, leaves, feathers. (Very small items are best saved for kids 3 and up.)

Some BASES to glue these treasures onto: shoebox lids, shirt boxes, file folders, cardboard of any type, or sturdy paper plates. Milk cartons and boxes make fun alternatives to flat pieces of paper and cardboard.