Art is more than just a fun way to spend an afternoon with young children. Art projects are also an excellent way to build fine motor skills and encourage creative expression. If you're not that into arts and crafts yourself though, it can be hard to know where to begin.
Here are a few principles to keep in mind:
Embrace the mess
If fear of mess is holding you back from encouraging art projects in their house, remember that mess is an important part of the process. If you stand over your child telling them to be careful of spills the whole time they're painting, no one will have a good time.
Designate an arts and crafts area in your house or backyard, making sure you have a work surface that is okay to stain. Use an inexpensive rug or drop cloth to cover the floor in case of spills.
Make sure to show your child how to clean up messes as well—they won't be afraid of making a mess if they know how to clean it up and know you won't get mad.
Especially with toddlers, it's best to start with a very limited selection of art supplies. For example, if you're introducing crayons for the first time, try offering just 2 or 3 crayons. You can increase the number available as they become proficient, but this limited supply really helps them focus and not get overwhelmed.
Similarly, you might start with just two paint colors and a paintbrush when you first show them painting. This might seem boring to an adult, but it's just the right level of stimulation and challenge for a toddler who has never painted before.
Follow their lead
It's natural for adults to focus on the end product of an art project, but for a small child, art is all about the process. Choosing and gathering their materials, expressing themselves through art and cleaning up afterward—those are the important parts.
You may notice that your child works on a drawing for an hour and then leaves it behind, not caring if they ever see it again. Most young children don't care very much about their end product, so don't worry about helping them create a Pinterest-worthy project. Just embrace their artistic process!
Here are 12 art activities for preschoolers and toddlers that you can do at home:
1. Using stickers
Many little kids love stickers and creating a peel-and-stick collage with pre-made stickers is an art project even the youngest toddlers can participate in. Buy inexpensive stickers in bulk on Amazon and cut the sticker sheets so that your toddler has just 10-15 stickers available at one time. Take the backing off of the sheet for them so they can be successful. Peeling the stickers off is great for developing focus and early fine motor skills.
2. Finger painting
Not all children will want to finger paint, but it's important to give them the opportunity for this sensory experience. This is a good one to do at an easel since painting with their hands naturally invites big pictures and it might be hard to keep the paint on a smaller piece of paper. (Finger painting is also a great art activity to do outside… for obvious reasons.)
3. Sketching with crayons of all shapes and sizes
When you first introduce crayons, try using the large egg shaped crayons or finger crayons. These are perfect for children who haven't yet mastered the 3-finger grip used for crayons or pencils. Crayon rocks are also wonderful for developing the proper grip if your child is past the put-everything-in-my-mouth stage.
Note that if your child grasps a crayon with their whole hand, it's better to use other materials until they're ready, because that habit can be very hard to unlearn later.
4. Drawing in nature
If your child isn't naturally drawn to art, try taking the art supplies outside. Let them be inspired by the world around them and their interest may grow.
You might also want to sit beside them and paint and draw yourself. Try creating some abstract art inspired by your surroundings—little ones can be discouraged when their picture looks nothing like "the real thing."
5. Cutting on a line
Learning to use scissors is an important first step in enabling your child to do more complex work—the trick is to make learning this skill interesting.
You can cut little strips of paper and draw lines on them. Show your child how to use the scissors to cut on the line. They may want to save their little scraps for gluing.
If your child is uninterested in cutting, you may want to try something a little more fun like this Scissor Skills activity book to encourage them to practice.
6. Working with clay
Working with clay can be very calming and therapeutic for children. It is also excellent for developing their hand muscles.
Provide a simple tray with some clay and a few tools. If you keep the clay in an airtight container with a damp cloth inside, it will last for quite some time.
7. Print stamping
Show your child how to use simple objects to create their own stamps, such as a cut potato, carrot or apple, a piece of bubble wrap, a cork, a piece of a sponge or even an old toilet paper tube (just dip the edge to create circles). Then dip the object in paint or an inkpad, and use it to stamp shapes on paper.
Stamping can be a good art activity for children who are hesitant to finger paint—while a little bit of mess is inevitable, the mess and sensory experience of stamping can be less overwhelming than finger paints.
8. Making a collage
Use glue sticks or a jar of glue with a paintbrush to show your child how to create a collage. Cut shapes from brightly colored paper, old magazines or even some of your child's old paintings and let them make a collage from the pieces. Using a Montessori art mat will help keep glue off of your tables.
9. Using pastels
Pastels offer a whole new level of artistic possibilities, as children can learn to blend and smudge the colors.
Provide different colors of construction paper for your child to draw with using pastels. They will enjoy seeing how vibrant the pastels look on dark paper compared to crayons!
Start your child off with painting using just a few colors at a time, until they learn how to clean their paintbrush. You can give your child a small towel (a quarter of an old washcloth works well) and show them how to rinse the paintbrush and then tap it on the towel to dry.
Don't feel limited to painting on paper, either—your child can paint rocks, seashells, even a big box from a delivery.
11. Drawing with stencils
Stencils can allow children to draw something they may not yet be able to draw freehand. They are also excellent for developing fine motor control and focus. There are so many options available for stencils—from animals to fairies to dinosaurs—you can easily find a stencil set that aligns with your child's interests.
12. Creating with found objects
The beauty of encouraging your child to master simple artistic skills like cutting, painting and gluing is that they can use these building blocks to create whatever they want.
Once your child is proficient in basic art-making skills, take them on an art treasure hunt. Give them a basket or box and walk around your home, your backyard or your neighborhood to look for treasures they can use in their art work.
They might find a leaf to stamp with, some flowers for a collage or some sticks to glue together to form a structure.
Let them lead the way and unleash their creativity! They will start to view the whole world with an artist's eye.