Color Mixing is Not Always About Color



Though incredibly simple, color-mixing is one of my favorite experiences to offer infants and toddlers.


Water in itself is wonderful because it is such a basic element that children are familiar with, yet are still fascinated by – I assume for its complex properties and seemingly unpredictable nature when splashed or spilled.


Even though this is color mixing, I do not see this as a lesson about learning colors. As I observed the girls playing, it became clear to me that their play was largely about consequence. That is, they were using materials as if they were asking themselves the question, “What will happen if …?”


This is not a novel activity for my daughters and is, in fact, something we have done a couple of times before. Even though this was a repeated experience, I did not make much effort to add a lot of novelty. As I’ve mentioned before, I intentionally repeat art experiences and activities, and this was no exception.


The one element I did change was to use red and blue watercolor instead of our usual yellow and blue experiences.





Each used the same squeeze bottles in ways which challenged them. Though both girls squeezed, Moon was focused on exploring concepts of pressure while Greysen was interested in quantity and how that correlated to the measurements on the outside of the bottle.




The results were more varied than I expected.





The next time we mix colors, we will use jars so that we can save the colors they mix to paint with.  We ended up with a few random artifacts in the colors so we didn’t save any of them for later use this time.


June Art Group



I am eager to host an art group around one theme of materials. I think offering one material in combination with several other art mediums or to be used as several different tools would encourage the children to imagine more possibilities per object.


For instance, I’d like to host a reflective surfaces art group. As usual, I could not wait and offered the group this “paper” for painting. It as close to a mirror as any material I’ve ever seen.




One of my co-hosts brought homemade paste which the girls were compelled to stir.




Cornstarch and water, a staple in our art groups for the infants that attend, is colored with beet juice this time around.




Finally, I set up foil on easels as a fourth option. I typically offer 4 different experiences (this time 2 of the 4 were provided by friends) for a group of about 10 to 15 infants and toddlers.


Despite the slight night before prep frenzy, art in the park is one of my favorite things we do all month.


Rainbow and Watercolor

We came across this as we walked to the kitchen for breakfast. Just a little bit of sunshine on an otherwise cloudy day.


I set-up a morning invitation to play where the rainbow was.  Inspired by the rainbow, I offered more watercolor choices then Greysen has ever had at once.



I didn’t catch the fleeting rainbow in photos but Greysen captured its essence in paint.


It Is Probably Not An Open-Ended Art Experience If . . .

We love all things art. We stop by booths at festivals, attend local mommy and me classes every now, and visit our nearby children’s museum to play with whatever art materials others have to offer. I have experienced two classes of sorts with my daughters, in which the educators spoke of their strong support support for open-ended art experiences and then immediately provided the exact opposite.


I can only guess that open-ended art, just like so much about parenting-related phrases like “natural parenting” or “free range parenting,” is defined and interpreted by the implementer. Maybe to some people, an art experience is considered open-ended if the children can participate at some point without direction.


To me, open-ended means that children have access to art materials and use them as they see fit, as long as they are using them safely. Too broad a definition?


Here’s some things to keep in mind if you are trying to determine if the activity is open-ended or not. If these things are happening, then I think it’s more likely than not that the cookie-cutter approach to art-making is afoot.


This art is probably not open-ended if . . .

-You are giving directions or describing steps to complete the project.
Example, “Now it’s time to glue the leaves on.”


Instead, an open-ended art experience would have no directions. None.  The only possible exception is explaining the potential uses of tools if they are unfamiliar, such as, “This glue will make the paper stick together.”


-You have pre-cut or  pre-assembled any part of the art materials for convenience. Example: the teachers had the children making a wreath. The children had access to beautiful and various colored pre-cut leaves. The children, in this instance, were left to their own to glue the leaves to the plate – the open-ended portion – but by preparing the leaves in specific colors, the teachers determined what leaves looked like rather then the child determining the color, shape and/or texture.


-You determine when the art is finished (and there is no invitation to pick up another time if time has run out).  Example: the teacher tells the child that she has used enough paint/glue and encourages them to move onto another aspect of the project or something else all together.


Some children need to use too much. While the adult may see no space left for glitter or feel that the the painting that is now turning brown is now less than appealing, remember that the child is having an experience shaking, making brushstrokes, and seeing what will happen next. When the adult intervenes, it is likely because they are prioritizing the preservation of a product rather than preserving the child’s right to see what will happen if . . .


-The child can not tell their work apart from another child’s.  When the art is all laid out and it is time to take it home, the child cannot tell which one is hers or his because they are all so similar and made from the same materials/objects.



No two children are identical, so why would their art appear to be that way?  Children can make many decisions and thoughtful choices during an art experience. From choosing colors to deciding the types of marks to make, they most often remember which work they did when they are the ones making the artistic decisions. Just as a quick test, I laid these two watercolors out and asked Greysen which one was her sisters. She knew instantly, and so did I.



From scribbles to clay lumps, art is a record of the experience that children have had. When there are fewer decisions for children to make, there is less distinction between their work, and ultimately less ownership.


-The child points to the art and says, “My teacher did that.”  When I asked Greysen to tell me about something she had made, she readily told me what it was, as well as what contributions her teacher had made to the project.


Since there are no expectations for a final product in open-ended art experiences, adults have no need to contribute to the completion of a work.


Of course, there are many reasons and many people who choose not to provide open-ended art experiences. If, however, you are someone who believes in the value of open-ended art experiences, especially in the early years, and you contribute a little here and there, I hope this list will help clear up how a little help makes it less the child’s art, and more the adult’s.



An Artists Community


When I plan for the infant toddler art group, I try to keep the mediums intentionally simple. I lay out simple experiences for several reasons, but most relevant to art group is the idea that it is as important as a community as it is for the art experience itself.


Art experiences are valuable for developing creativity and self-expression, but the impact these times can have on social and emotional development are often tossed by the wayside.  Playing side-by-side, whether it’s experiencing art or building with blocks, has the potential for being the context for children learning about themselves and others.


Art at Home is Different Than Art in a Group


We have art experiences just about every day in our home. There are a few materials that are always available: crayons, paper, and of course – face paint. All others are only an ask away. Despite all these materials at her disposal at home, I think that Greysen, and now Moon, have some of their richest experiences with friends. This, in and of itself, is what spurred me to develop this playgroup.


During our most recent art group, Greysen watched, approached children familiar and new, negotiated for the possession of a bowl of watercolor, and tried to consider the personal space of a friend who prefers ample personal space. I don’t know for certain what she learned about color or the properties of water that day, but I do know that I can give her lots more time at home to learn about these things as they interest her. What I can not recreate at home are the unique experiences, skills, and ideas that other children generate when they are around art materials.


4 Things Children Can Get and Give to Friends Through Art:


1. Learning How to Use Tools- Watch any group of children paint and you are likely to see as many ways to hold a paintbrush as there are children. Seeing her peers use spray bottles gave Greysen ideas on how to handle them in ways that I never thought to show her. I don’t, for example, need two hands to carry the spray bottle.



2. Witness Other Children’s Inventiveness – Greysen makes cakes: birthday cakes, cakes with candles, chocolate cakes…. Cakes from sand, from clay, from dough, and from paper. Last week, her friend W came over and he made balls. How his ideas inspired her! At art group, she watched how her friend G used the pipettes before trying it herself.



3. Play Collaboratively –  At an age when tussles over “mine,” “yours,” and “mine next” can take up the bulk of playtime, experiences that allow for toddlers to maintain ownership over a brush, or a spray bottle, while still working collaboratively can be rare. Since these art activities are process-oriented, one child may paint something, while another may paint right over it.  Process art is unique in that it allows for children to simultaneously be possessive (as is age-appropriate) and work on the same thing.


4. Enthusiasm – Not every child is comfortable raking her fingers through puddles of paint. Seeing other children’s glee or inquisitiveness as their hands disappear under blue paint, as this child’s did at our group last month, may allow for more cautious children to gain a sense of cause and effect without firsthand experience.




The infant/toddler art group is one way I can create the context by which Greysen and Moon may (or may not) see other children’s ideas and hear questions around creative endeavors. How do you build community for your children? Are your communities centered around your interest? Theirs? Both?



[For this group, the sunny California weather inspired me to choose water as the unifying theme.  For an estimated group of 15 children, I set up four art activities. As always, I set up something specifically for the infants – this time it was water and sponges with paper. I also set up spray bottles filled with watercolors and also offered watercolor tubes, pipettes, tissue paper, and wet chalk.]



The Value of Repeated Art Experiences: Gluing Again!


As I admitted to the first time I offered Greysen glue, I was unsure how best to set up this material so that her learning would continue. I was fairly confident that she would enjoy gluing again, but how should I set things up to provoke a sort of next-step learning experience?


In their early years, keeping art materials simple and the tools few helps the child stay focused.  Repeated experiences with the same art mediums gives the child time to consider different aspects of an art material. To create a familiar yet interesting experience, I offered her glue exactly as I had last time, but added a few drops of food coloring to add to the experience.






Greysen has just started to explore glue, and I’m not sure at this point what she understands or remembers about it.  An atelierista that I studied under often remarked that a child’s first experiences with materials are predominately exploratory. They may handle the plaything or art materials in ways that are playful and superficial. It’s only after they become more familiar with the material that they come to get a sense of what it can do, and impart their ideas on what they want it to do.


Glue & Food Coloring
She immediately mixed the colors and continued spreading the glue.  Just as soon the glue started to dry, she returned her full attention to her hands and the bits that had begun to dry on them.




Suddenly, an idea! I could see it in her eyes.

Wet Glue!



Dry Glue!












Maybe a comparison test?


Interesting to Who?


In retrospect, adding color to the glue was of only minor interest to her. She is primarily interested in what happens to glue when it dries. I have been guilty of adding what I think may be interesting elements to clay that are not related to what her interests are at all.  She has, on more than one occasion, tossed them aside and proceeded as she wished.


I could give her things to collage and glue, but she is still interested in glue on its own. So for now, let’s do it again!  I’ll give her more glue soon, but perhaps in a different way. A bottle maybe? I do know one thing for sure – I’ll hold off on the color for now.

Self-Discovery, Transformation, & Face Paints

Face paints have never been a particularly favorite art medium of mine. When teachers offered face paints to the children in other classrooms, I have to admit that I cringed on more than one occasion. I was reminded of carnival booths where children were painted up as superheroes or with glittery butterflies across their cheeks. Fun? Yes. A worthwhile activity? I’m not sure the reasoning for offering face paints to children was ever grounded in an interest beyond fun, so what could be the value in young children painting their faces without any other particular reason?

Recently, however, my opinions of face painting have changed.

This Halloween, Mike and I used some face paint to create a ghostly effect on his face for a Halloween video effect we were making. We left the face paint in our bathroom, where Greysen found it the next afternoon. I explained to her what it was and demonstrated it for her by painting a nose and whiskers on my face.  She asked that I do the same on her. I meowed, and that was that.

A couple of days later, Greysen woke up from her nap while I was cleaning the tub. I finished up while she occupied herself at the sink. Usually she just brushes her teeth, so when I turned to see her painted face, I was quite surprised.

She had used the black face paint to darken her nose and draw lines across her cheeks to represent whiskers. “Cat,” she declared.

Over the next few days, Greysen asked to use these face paints again and again,  always choosing the black paint stick and always recreating the cat face.

I wondered and watched her play in hopes of figuring out whether this play was about transformation or exploration; that is, was Greysen using these paints to become a cat or was it more about using the paints, and this was her script for using them?

To support her fascination with these paints, Mike and I stopped by some Halloween stores hoping to find some additional face paint sticks at after-Halloween discount prices. Alas, the weekend after Halloween was too late. We did finally find a set that included several colors at Michael’s.

To test the transformation hypothesis, the next time Greysen asked to use the face paints and she had already begun to paint herself, I painted my face to resemble that of an owl using simple lines.  I hooted, and she responded, “owl.” I asked if she wanted an owl on her face. She did not indicate a preference either way so I let it go.

We took the paints into the bathroom and I asked if I could wipe the black paint she had already applied off of her face so that she could have more space to paint, which she was okay with. I watched and waited to see if she would attempt an owl or something else.

She drew one long arc from her eyebrow upwards across her forehead and laughed. This line was significantly different both in placement and in style then the marks she had been making over the last few days. She then said “tummy” and drew on her torso. She said “back,” and drew there as well.

Aha! Exploration. She was drawing on herself, identifying her body parts as she went along. This was in sync with her play recently, as she has begun to make comments of self-awareness.  I walked away after Mike came to take over, satisfied that she was using the paints out of an interest in herself, as well as the look of the paint on her body.

A little while later, she walked into the bedroom, where I was in the dark nursing Moon at the time – I was still painted as an owl. She pointed to me and said, “Owl sleeping.”  Aha, transformation! Or, could it be both?

Greysen paints her face nearly every day now, and most days she will paint mine as well. She seems quite satisfied and deliberate with her marks and so, respectful of her work, I leave her face unwiped as we go about our day, including out on errands. Though she encounters many puzzled expressions and looks very unkempt by the end of the day with smudged black marks across her face, I am determined to respect her interest and artwork by leaving her face painted until her bath time.

Exploration and transformation? How else can I support her interests? I’m beginning to think that there may be a long-term project emerging from this play.

Watercolors: A Medium for Fostering Engagement

With nature as a possible source for inspiration, I set up watercolors for Greysen underneath our lemon tree. We do not have an easel, so I hang an art board from our fence. I offer her two jars of watercolor, blue and yellow.


Today, I hung up her watercolor higher than I usually do with the intention of giving Greysen a different vantage point from which to paint.


Sometimes Greysen paints with long strokes and other times she splats, but today she did neither and instead painted in a small space right at eye level. I was intrigued by this technique, but not wanting to interrupt her painting, I held my tongue.


She painted for a few minutes and put her brush back in the jar and began to move on to something else. To encourage her to reengage with the paint without asking her directly to come back, I chose to comment on her efforts.



I noted aloud that there were many blank spaces surrounded by lines of watercolor and ran my finger over the paint as I spoke. I basically commented on the way she was painting.



This comment brought Greysen’s attention into the small details of her work. She ran her finger over the paint, and then picked up her brush and continued painting. I again pulled back and watched her.




Without praise and without commands, I was able to re-engage Greysen in an interesting activity. I tried to choose not only my words carefully, but also had to decide whether or not to speak to her while she painted.









Toddlers’ attentions can be fleeting, but as any parent who has tried to distract their child from something will know, they can also be determined and focused.


Today, I encouraged Greysen to stick with an activity a bit longer for the sake of supporting her developing attention span. Who knew that painting would be the ideal place to encourage Greysen to stick with something a little longer?

Including Infants in Traditions

Family traditions counter alienation and confusion. They help us define who we are; they provide something steady, reliable and safe in a confusing world.                                                                  -Susan Lieberman

Even though this is our second holiday season with a little one, Mike and are are still trying to establish some family traditions.  The one criteria that we are trying to uphold is for the tradition or activity to allow for the girls to be protagonists.

Painting pumpkins is a simple and appropriate way for the little ones to be active participants in some Halloween fun. Last year, I offered Greysen blue & lavender paint as a contrast to the orange of the pumpkin.

This year, I was inspired by Jean at the Artful Parent to use black paint on our pumpkins.

The Right to Use High Quality Materials

I chose to offer the girls acrylic paints so that the paint wouldn’t wash off should it rain as it could have with other types of “children’s paint.”  I love to use high-quality art mediums such as acrylics because the experiences are qualitatively different than lesser paints. Acrylics spread smoothly, and the results are bright and bold. Since acrylic can stain clothing, I covered the girls in their smocks. Greysen still somehow managed to get some paint on her diaper, however!

I poured a blotch of black paint on a small pumpkin for Moon, and she immediately rubbed the pumpkin, coincidentally spreading paint around the pumpkin.

I set up black acrylic, silver glitter paint, and paintbrushes for Greysen. The glitter paint was completely covered up by the black, so in the end it wasn’t really visible on the final painted pumpkin.

We set it outside that evening, and went outside the following afternoon to look at it again. We were surprised to find that the portions that had been painted were cooked by our warm California sun! Basically, any area that had been painted black and faced the sun had sunken in.

The pumpkin was still whole, but we were so curious as to what was going on inside the pumpkin. Though we were originally not going to carve the pumpkin because Greysen and Moon could not participate meaningful, we eventually decided to cut it open to see what was going on inside.

I didn’t get a picture of the it, but the pumpkin was totally fine inside. Even though the pumpkin flesh underneath the painted portions was soft it was otherwise okay. Regardless, I think we will stay clear of black paint next year!

As far as traditions go, I imagine as the girls skills and interests develop and change over the year so will our traditions. Now, what can Greysen help cook for Thanksgiving?