Let Them Grow: Messy Process of Creating Art Brings Creative Free Play

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

The Convenience of Crazy

Paint brushes

Bringing a bit of order to creative free play.

Well, I am officially a mother now. Not just a care provider from 8-5, I am a Mama. I can’t send my daughter home after I have cleaned up and waved goodbye to all the other children. She stays – always.

I have historically been enthusiastic advocate for the arts and as my Bio states: “I revel in hands on messy projects.” But now, I see why some parents avoid it. The ‘messies’ are not convenient. Messy projects do not fit neatly into the nightly routine, the bath, the story and bedtime. It throws a big greasy wrench into the nice white mix of the night and clunks around in there distracting you. It distracts us from the dishes, the laundry and that book that you have really wanted to start. So how do we as parents, balance those projects with the rest of our lives?

Art projects with infants, toddler and preschoolers are not convenient. We all know this. They are not the clean little thumbnails of happy children finger painting on Pinterest. However, they are a significant part of early childhood education, they are the lifeline to artistic expression and abstract thinking. They give children and outlet, a way to see the world through color and creative thought. Besides, they are fun and they don’t have to as intimidating, messy or as inconvenient as they appear.

Tips for Convenient Mess

Set the rules:

For yourself and your child, set rules on where art happens, how we treat our tools, and where everything goes, are just a few guidelines to set up. By storing art supplies in the same area and retaining the same supplies regularly, it will help keep the organization under control. Children even at the age of two are capable of understanding the rules and gaining ownership and respect over supplies. However, it is often the adults that veer off the path and make exceptions. There should be no exceptions to the art area rules. Supplies are to be treated with respect and care. By sticking to your own rules, arTh will eventually be less and less inconvenient and more and more fun!

Set up before you start:

Having the art area “set up” before you child sits down each time will really minimize the process and mess. Set out the supplies you are allotting for that project. Have the table lined with paper, the smock laid out and a wet face cloth for intermittent clean up. Set up the project before your child sits at the table and then explain it. Discuss each time with your child, the project, the process and the timeline. A good way to communicate with a toddler is in three simple steps:

  1. We are using play dough
  2. You can uses all of these supplies
  3. We will clean up the dough when we are done

Keep to the project you have set up. Avoid taking out more supplies in order to keep it manageable. Once your child is engaged, you can work on dinner or sit down and enjoy the fun!

Self-serve arts are toddler friendly arts:

By having art supplies accessible in your child’s own “art area” they can access them with little help. The supplies that are available regularly should be those that require little or no clean up. They should also not be an overwhelming quantity, but just enough for your child to work with. Supplies like dough, scrap paper, stickers, colored pencils and crayons are always great to leave out. However, you do not need two hundred crayons, just one of each color. Same with the pencils and stickers. Less is more.

Younger children love to color found objects. Egg carton pieces, chunks of cardboard or other recyclable are also fun to add in the self-service area. Label each supply bin clearly with pictures and have your child be sure to put them away properly each and each use.

Know your child. Don’t give them markers if all they do is bite the tip off. Find age appropriate supplies. Use Crayola Color Wonder products if you are worried about markers everywhere, or Crayola My First Stamps for your 18 month old. You can have supplies in the art bins that require supervision such as stamps, glue, and paints that are only used when you are around. These activities may take longer to set and clean up, so these are not the supplies you want freely accessible.

Clean up before it’s over:

Make cleanup a part of the project that your child cleans up each and every time. If you let them leave the supplies out even once, they will continue to avoid clean up like the plague. Give your child a five -minute warning, or have them give you a warning when they are almost finished. From there, be sure to have the containers for clean up there and ready to be loaded. If it is a messy project like paints, begin washing the brushes before you child is fully finished. Work around them while they are occupied. If it is really messy, start filling the tub! Your child is capable of cleaning up as much as they are of making the mess; it just takes practice.

Soon arts and crafts could be a significant part of your evening routine, it could even replace the iPad.

[Photo credit: (cc) Karin Dalziel]


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.

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