Learning to Use Art Tools

color mixing 4

At first glance this may look like there may have been some learning about what happens when yellow meets blue. I think that might have been going on as well, but the real fascination was with trying to get the water into the pipette.



After some struggle, Greysen is pleased with finally getting some color in there . Although I was kind of thrilled that different greens were coming together, Greysen’s joy came from the accomplishment of filling up the pipette. No conversations about color mixing today, just this scene of competency.



When children encounter a new tool, however seemingly simple, it can be helpful to give them a few minutes to explore the tool on its own. After a brief introduction, such as explaining expectations (e.g., “these sharp sticks need to stay at the table”), allow a few minutes for children to hold and explore the tool itself. With tool in hand, children may imagine the possibilities, exposing a tools potential.  After they have had time to examine the tools, provide the art medium.


In this instance, I gave Greysen a pipette. She squeezed it, turned it around and pretended the pipette was a medicine dispenser for a bit. When I sensed a lull in her ideas, I asked if she was ready for the watercolor.


In most artistic endeavors, it can be challenging for adults to set expectations aside for the entire duration of the experience. This is especially true for art tools. We generally want the paintbrush to be dipped into one color at a time, the pipettes to hold water, the rolling pin to roll rather than stamp into the dough…  We have expectations.


Just as children are learning about the potential and limits of art materials, they are also learning about the tools and deserve time to understand the possibilities of each in their own time. 










How Sensory Play is Different Than Art


When I think of sensory play and art, I don’t think of them interchangeably because each is so uniquely valuable. I guess that this distinction is not really an important one to make in most circumstances. I do think it is useful for adults to consider the two separately because the expectations of the two can be very different, especially when they are set out for infants.


Aside from the benefits of experiencing different textures, smells, sounds, sights, and yes – even tastes – sensory play is great for babies because of the way we adults think about it.


Children will outgrow finger painting but not outgrow playing with sand.  I think its fair to say that adults believe that children will eventually use art materials to express ideas (draw something, paint something, make something).  While adults may accept and even encourage some exploration with art in the early years, such as letting children paint themselves or squish play dough between their toes, the expectation is that this type of exploration will evolve as children age.


The same is not true of sensory play. The expectations are different.  Sensory experiences encourage children to sift through sand or wade through water and to ultimately use their hands to play.  This expectation stays the same throughout childhood and in some cases across a lifetime (I’m thinking sand castles).

In sensory play there are no final product expectations. Even in simple open-ended art experiences such as watercolor and paper, the result is some record of a child’s play, something most of us – including myself – want to share, frame, save, or somehow keep as a token of this time and experience.  I keep all of the daughters’ art and file it or save it for them to use another time but preserving their efforts in this way doesn’t even cross my mind with sensory play.


When we offer children sensory experiences, like a tub of water, there is really nothing to save. There is less of an expectation for a “finished” product with sensory materials. While a cornstarch/water mixture and paint may both spread by fingers or brushes across paper, adults less often influence the final look of something that is not likely going to hang on the refrigerator.



If a baby eats this . . . well, at least it is natural.  I prefer not to offer infants art materials that may eat because I’d rather wait until they no longer taste things instead of interrupting their play to keep them from eating art materials. From natural clays to beeswax crayons there are many natural and non-toxic art materials available for children. With infants though, who may try to eat paint by the fistful, I feel far better knowing they ate a natural material like rice, even if if is something they should not eat.  For toddlers (or children that are no longer tasting everything) dried beans, rice, peas, corn, birdseed, sand, cornmeal, dry corn, sand, water – to name just a few – can be fascinating to play with and not made with unpronounceable ingredients.


Sensory materials can be used again and again.  Caring for the materials in the sensory bin offers my children one more experience with learning to care for something that they value. Sensory materials are a limited resource that will run out or need to be thrown out if they are not used with care and stored responsibly.  As I just mentioned, I offer natural materials whenever possible and don’t really bother with one time use materials (shaving cream) for that reason.


When I first read about water beads here, I was on the fence about trying them out. They looked so great that I was eager  to give them to my daughters, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to buy something synthetic.  Even though water beads aren’t natural they can be used multiple times.  This batch lasted more than a few months.



For a natural alternative try this.


Sensory play is the one exception to my “no food in art” rule.” Since this isn’t art, I guess it all falls into place. I don’t worry about using food when it gets used multiple times, because then at least it doesn’t seem as wasteful as a one time activity (e.g., fruit prints).



Sensory set-ups are a conduit for play.   Sensory materials are intended to be used but not in a prescribed way. As much as I  like to provide open-ended play experiences for children, few materials lend themselves to allowing a child to determine their worth and purpose. Will it be poured or fill different types of containers?  Can you bury your hands in it or let it run through your fingers? Can it be dripped, sifted or piled? Does it become incorporated into other aspects of the child’s existing play? For this reason sensory materials are uniquely beneficial to play.


All this being said, I have not set out sensory play experiences as often as I have art. I find it harder to think of things to set-up and simply do not stock up on these types of materials like I do with art. How about you? How do you balance sensory play and art with your children?

Self-Awareness and Art


Where there’s a will, I’ve got to find a way, especially when it comes to encouraging child-generated ideas.


On this day, Greysen was trying out new ideas with a familiar medium. She was experimenting with her face paints by trying to mark new things from her tongue to her feet. She eventually tried to paint her reflection on the glass, but even though it is harmless in intent, I was hesitant.

Experimenting with Face Paints


Would she generalize this play and draw on the mirror or other walls with other drawing tools? I decided, instead, to offer her another drawing surface.


We borrowed this piece of Lexan from Dad’s studio and I propped it up against her closet mirror. I kept the Lexan in our bedroom so that when she showed an interest in her reflection at some point, I’d be ready.


As is typical of children between the ages of 12 to 24 months,  Greysen is increasingly self-aware. She notices, rather randomly, things about herself. Within two days of the face painting play above, she noticed her “black eyes” again.



Perfect time to pull out the “glass.” To prompt her drawing without giving direct instruction, I asked her to stand against the Lexan so that I could draw her silhouette. Unfortunately for Greysen, I made a very crude outline (I took this picture later while she was napping).



She eagerly added details while she described her own features, such as “black eyes”.  This setup worked really well for Greysen. She could refer to her reflection and continue to draw features wherever she felt inspired to do so. Can you spot her drawn eyes?



When she had drawn to contentment, we asked her sister to pose for an outline sketch. She kindly obliged, and Greysen then drew details of her sister.



She had to squat a bit for these drawings.


Emergent Curriculum & Self-Awareness


As Greysen becomes increasingly aware of herself, I am making more of an effort to encourage her ideas in general, as a way of acknowledging her developing sense of self.


Her play with face paints continues to be the one interest that I am trying to develop play possibilities for.  By setting up materials that are based on her interests and suggestions rather than mine, I hope to provide her with play opportunities that are meaningful to her and her developing skills.


What inspires your children’s play? Do you find a difference in their attention span on an activity if the idea is theirs versus yours?




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.