Let Them Grow: Four Steps to Support Toddler Art

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Art Under Three

Creating art with children under three years old can be challenging if you don’t remember that it is not about the artwork itself. For a toddler there is no end result in sight. Rather it’s the process; it’s the doing. Art with this age group is the art of creating and mushing and mixing and smearing. It is the art of identifying colors and textures. It’s a depth of imagination that many of us have forgotten about.

Art with the under three crowd is messy and scattered. Projects at this age are never finished – well, until they are crumpled, ripped into pieces and thrown at the walls. That’s why when we introduce art to children in this group it is important to have age appropriate expectations and to be prepared…


Toddlers do not want to make the best and brightest. They just want to make. They want to explore, touch (sometime taste) and feel art, like art is supposed to be felt. Try to not imagine an amazing piece of art that you will frame and keep forever. Try to not expect the perfect handprint, or a beautiful ornament (but if you’re lucky you might end up with one!). Just try to let go and have fun. Expect that your child will make a mess and that cleaning will take longer than the project itself. Expect that your child will be more in tune to colors, textures and their own imagination because of this “mess.” Expect that your child will eventually become bored. In order to prolong the project, try introducing mediums or tools one by one, instead of all at once. Start with the paintbrush, then try a roller, then a sponge and so on. Also colors: introduce them one or two at a time during the project. These expectations will change as your child grows, their creativity and love for the arts will grow too.


Have everything you need before getting started. Including painting or art supplies, several different utensils or tools, wet rags and your imagination. If your child is still putting things into their mouth, try edible paints (print recipe) or dyed yogurt with which paint. Set up the space in advance with a good table cover (newspaper will do), an art smock or old shirt, and an open mind. A great tip is to have a bin of warm water ready to help with clean up. Let your child wash their hands, the brushes and other tools themselves. Switch out the water as it gets murky so that while your child is engaged you can finish cleaning up.


You do not have to spend a fortune on store bought supplies to introduce art into your child’s life. Be creative, be thrifty, and reuse and recycle. Remember, it is about the process. Talk about that process and the creations that they have made. Teach your child how to properly treat art supplies, how to hold a brush and hang their art to dry. Teach them to respect and honor others’ art. Use art vernacular: words like “brilliant” and “exceptional.” Tell your child you like their use of shadow and color combinations. Let them experience their art through your eyes and words. Engage your child by being engaged yourself.


Printing and Stamping: Stamps are a fun way to allow a toddler to explore different shapes and textures. Try using found objects like fruit, blocks, egg cartons, leaves, sticks or anything with a shape or texture. Cut sponges into shapes, or make your own stamps by gluing object to small wooden blocks. Toddlers love bingo daubers as they create a sound when applied, allowing one to actually hear art being made. Other store bought stamps are often expensive, however they are durable and a good investment for a toddler’s art box. Alphabet stamps are a great way to help early identification of letters while having fun.

Rolling and Smearing: Toddlers love to paint, but keeping them engaged is the hard part. When painting, first try a paintbrush, then a hair brush, then a feather. Run cars through the paint, roll balls in it, or just use fingers. Paint with chopsticks, cotton swabs or cotton balls. Start with red paint then add orange paint. Talk and discuss the colors mixing, the giant lines, or small circles. Paint on paper, the sidewalk, cardboard, Plexiglas or anything that will hold the color. Use a textured surface under the paper to create an even more interesting piece. Help choose colors that wont just meld into brown. Explain how colors blend and enjoy your child enjoying art.

Gluing and more Gluing: This is a messy one, but boy do they love it! Have things ready for your child to glue to the paper before they start squeezing away. Fill glue containers only partially, as a toddler will use it all. Use magazine clippings of all things green or tissue paper in shades of yellow and orange. Try gluing leaves, small sticks, feathers and acorns. Add food grade dye to the glue and use the different colors to glue broken toys or bottle caps into the mixed media masterpiece. Toddlers will put down and pick up whatever they are gluing – that’s ok. That’s the process.

Spray Painting: By recycling used spray or squirt bottles you can give your toddler fun new ways to explore color and pattern. Fill the bottles with food grade dye and water, use large sheets of paper, a fresh pile of white snow or the bathtub walls and allow your little one to spray away. You can also do this on a smaller scale with different sized recycled medicine droppers. Fill containers with different colored dyed water and watch the focus that a toddler has. Use cotton balls, fabric or absorbent paper to drop on. This is a great fine motor activity.

Creating art with toddlers is an easy way to open a dialoged about mediums, textures, and techniques in the art world. Coordinate art projects with your favorite books, artworks, or a trip to one of our awesome local museums. If your child loves horses, visit a farm with a box of crayons. Keep a scrapbook of your child’s favorite works and use them to create reproductions. The act of encouraging the art process relays to your child the importance of an art filled life. Once you start creating and taking about art you will see your child’s imagination expand exponentially, allowing her to see and feel art as an aesthetic experience.


Candice Chouinard has worked with youth of all ages and backgrounds, creating and implementing programing for children. She revels in hand-on, long-term, messy projects that are both fun and educational. Candice comes from a background in creative writing, as well as, child development and psychology. She owns and operates a day care in Northampton, MA.

[Photo credit: (cc) Christopher Vu]

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