Art in the Classroom: A Special Part of Every Day


Published in Young Children,  January 1990; Slightly revised by the author, 1999.

Art has the role in education of helping children become more themselves instead of more like everyone else.  Each child’s inner existence calls for expression and takes pleasure in such expression.  The arts can be the medium for this expression if children have access to materials, the time to explore them, and respectful encouragement in their exploration.

A daily program that immerses children in the arts is developmentally appropriate.  Thoughtful teachers are wary of imposing a set standard that children can’t hope to reach; and instead help them discover that each presiding art is expressing his or her own feelings, making them come alive and communicating them uniquely.

I offer children artwork as a preventive measure, a benign alternative to letting them express themselves in destructive ways.  I offer them art because they love it.  I offer them art because it makes my survival in the classroom more likely.  What we hear from the worst people in our field is that you have to control children, you have to make them behave.  The best people will tell you that if you give children interesting choices, your class, home, or life will run more smoothly.  For all these reasons, art takes a prominent place in my daily class.

Offering the Materials

At home or at school, children three and up should have easy access to basic art materials.  We regularly offer paints and markers, blocks, fingerpaints, bubbles, collage materials, cornstarch and water, and clay, believing that young children learn best by repeated experience with basic materials.  Some teachers feel they must give children something new and different every day. Their children, it seems to me, never get the chance to explore in depth. With repeated exposure to good reliable materials, children experiment with how they use the materials, finding styles that repeatedly give them joy or comfort.

Since not everything can be set up every day, we tell the children that if they ask for an art activity they will be able to have it either that day or, at worst, the next.  If it must be tomorrow, I write a promise on the board: Terry will have corn-starch and water on Wednesday.  This is one way of telling children that the school is there for them.

Most activities we don’t set up until children request them or we decide to feature them.  The easel, markers, and blocks, however, are always available. Harrold arrives in the morning, knowing he will get to paint today.  I think that’s as important as having the bathroom there.  You don’t need to change the shapes of paper and the colors of paint to stimulate children’s painting — the painting stimulates itself.

Why no precut or patterned activity?  It doesn’t promote creativity for us all to make the same product.  Each of us needs to make a different statement about who we are and how we see the world.

How about giving children a circle for the cat’s body and another circle for the head and a tail and having them glue the pieces together?  Is that an art experience?  Projects of this sort are designed to please adults.  What they teach children is that their own work is not valuable.  They could never make a cat as tidy as the one you precut.  They could never draw a house as realistic as the one on the ditto. So, little as they are, in the face of these projects they give up, knowing they can’t do art for themselves.  Child-centered teachers avoid such projects.

Knowing that freeform art is a wonderful means for people to express and heal themselves, we make sure to give children materials that will take any child’s imprint and rejoice with the children over the beauty and differences in their creations.

Look around you in a group.  One person may wear neutral colors, another a vivid blue, a third sunny yellow.  Each of us is making a different statement in what we wear.  The atmosphere is vastly changed when all wear uniforms. Creativity isn’t an exploration of how we are alike.  It celebrates how we are different and special.

Give children beautiful materials, give them fresh materials.  Give them enough time.  Let them stay with what they are making until they feel it’s done.

Paints and Markers

Children make good use of daily access to the easel, set up always with five basic colors.  Buy red, yellow, blue, black and white paint — more white and yellow because they get dirty faster — and offer clean paints to the children.  Teach the children that if their paints are dirty or depleted they simply have to ask, and they’ll get fresh paint to use.  The child who dirtied the colors can’t afford a mean lecture: a gentle reminder is what’s called for here: “It helps to keep the red brush in the red paint.”

As children become interested in mixing colors we offer an alternative setup for paint, one where they are free to do what they like with their colors and satisfy both curiosity and artistic longing.  Remember those glass coasters under the wheels on the furniture in your grandmother’s living room?  They make good containers for five paints on a tray.  A spill-resistant, unbreakable cup of water and a paintbrush complete the tray.  Children can use the tray as a palette, mixing until they have the colors of their dreams, and then painting onto their paper.  Children use the tray outdoors on pavement or grass, or at a table or on the floor.  Give them small enough amounts of paint so they can wash up their own trays.

If your children use paper like water, as mine do, then you will probably use newsprint for painting.  The younger the child, the bigger the paper and brushes, so twos, threes, and fours usually paint on paper 24″ x 36″.  After they have used larger paper and brushes for a few months and begin to exhibit good control over their tools, you might offer higher quality paper sized 18″ x 24″ and then ask the children which they prefer.

Don’t tell children what to paint, and avoid asking what the painting represents, but comment on what you experience in the painting.  Be a learner like the child in her creative process.  Asked what their paintings are, children often create stories to please those who ask.  When I’m set on helping a child find true expression, it is enough to comment that ‘”Marty painted for a long while,” or that “the blue is next to the green,” or that “it makes me feel cool and quiet.”  Many skilled teachers simply ask, “Do you want to tell me about the picture?”  Of course with this question, like all questions beginning do you want to, “No” is as acceptable an answer as “Yes.  “Anything worth doing with children merits repetition.  Think about the baby learning to stand in the playpen, who pulls himself up and falls and pulls himself up and falls.  Make sure with painting — as with any activity — to ask children, when they complete a picture, if they’d like to paint another.

Nothing is more important about art than that it reflects our feelings about ourselves and the people in our lives.  I hope you will find some way to heighten interest in drawing people.  In late November I introduce the children to my supply of small mat boards, giveaways from a retail picture framer, available to the children only if they draw people on them.  A child who wants a mat asks for one, and gets it.  That’s what language is for. There is other, less wonderful paper, shelved low for them to use when they want to draw anything.  We all win this way, since the mat board is reserved for people, the children covet the material, and I think drawing people is important.  A special bulletin board features these portraits.

Many adults think markers are wasted on children.  I find that crayons are a more difficult medium, and less attractive to all of us.  As an experiment, I supplied both crayons and markers to a class of adults.  Every last one chose markers to draw with.  How much more important to give good stuff to children, who also prefer markers to crayons — since their coordination is less advanced than ours!

Convincing the children to keep the markers capped is a problem.  Here is a solution: You can make a mound of plaster of Paris, take the caps off your markers, and sink the caps upside-down into the wet plaster, so their open ends are flush with the surface.  After the plaster dries, the markers, inserted into their caps, stick out like porcupine quills.  Children easily learn to return the markers to the mound when they are not using them, capping and storing them in one operation.  If you prefer to buy a rack, CrayolaTM now makes a wooden one that works on the same principle, for storing their very usable brand of markers.  Buy washable markers to help keep peace in the children’s homes.

If you find a dried-out marker, try to revive it overnight by putting a drop of water in the cap.  If it doesn’t work next day, throw it away. As you throw away poor equipment, let the reason be clear to your children:” This isn’t good enough to give to you.”  The poorer your children, the more important for them to hear this statement, to feel prized.  Only the very best is good enough for them.


The younger the children the larger their first blocks should be, with smaller ones coming later when the children have felt some need for them to supplement the larger ones.  If you give too many small blocks to the children early in the year and insist that they re-shelve them neatly, the children come to dislike blocks, defeating your purposes in having them at all.  Aside from this trap, block-building is a tremendously satisfying activity that nourishes children’s minds and imaginations.

If your class has too few blocks, keep looking for ways to get more ÷ this is a really good reason to have a bake sale.  Meanwhile, if your block area (or any other area) is popular and children must wait for turns, make a waiting list — printed neatly for children to read — and set a timer.  When you use a timer the children discover that the turns are coming around in a fair way.  Post stick figure pictures indicating how many children can be in the area at once.  Using these objective symbols — pictograph, waiting list and timer — rather than your says, puts attention on the problem of crowding, not on the teacher’s power.

Blocks, along with painting and drawing, we offer daily.  The remaining art activities we introduce early in the year and make available to the children as they request them.


We offer fingerpaints by the second week of school.  We let as many as six children paint at once, and know that an adult supervising six children fingerpainting must have no other responsibility.  We give children liquid starch (about two ounces, VanoTM is good; see Recipes ) on a tray about 18″x24″.  Each child chooses one color of powdered tempera paint and puts about a teaspoon of it into the starch.  Our children paint directly on the tray, usually for five to fifteen minutes.  First they blend the color into the gooey starch and then they examine the shapes their hands leave in it, and, finally, they wash off their trays in a low sink nearby.  When there is no sink, I have children paint directly on a Formica TM table, and later help wipe off the table.

Most children age four or so enjoy the feeling and movement of their hands in the paint, and they don’t want or need a picture.  If, on occasion, they request a picture to take home, we tell them to get the paint just right, and then lay a piece of paper on the tray, pat it, and lift a print.

Sandy says she doesn’t want to play with such messy material.  We will not force her.  Our strategy is to offer the material first to children like Harrold who will enjoy it.  Once Sandy sees and hears the pleasure the material brings him, she’s far more likely to think that she would like a turn, too.  Some children take a very long time getting ready to take any risk.  Let them, but meanwhile, tell them what you expect: that after a while they will be ready to try.  A good thing for teachers to say is.  “Maybe later.  Maybe later you will want to try.”


What do you need to make bubbles?  A top quality brand of detergent (e.g., Dawn TM) works best.  Mix a gallon of water, a cup of detergent, and 50 drops of glycerin, which you can buy at the drugstore.

Bev Bos suggests making a bubble around a child using a hula hoop in a wading pool with bubble liquid in it.  The child steps into a hoop and as you pull it up she finds herself in a bubble.  If you do this, for safety in the slippery glycerin soap solution, put a towel on the bottom of the pool.  Anything with a hole in it is wonderful to make bubbles with.  The plastic holders that link six-packs of sodas together make six big bubbles.  Plastic berry baskets create lots of little bubbles.

My friend Isobel Cerney cherishes the memory from her childhood 70 years ago of blowing soap bubbles from a clay pipe while sitting in front of an open fire, watching the colors change.  Let’s give our children such memories.

Collage Materials

Before we ask children to cut on lines, (more appropriate to first grade than earlier) we let them cut magazine pictures approximately, and before we have them cut, we have them tear.  Here is a basic collage activity, involving tearing: From a display of construction paper the children each choose two colors they think look well together.  Then they decide which paper is for the background and which paper is to tear.  We store the background paper for them for a while.  When they have torn the paper and have some shapes they like, they get their background paper and arrange the shapes on it.  When they have them just the way they like them, we give them white glue.

Children can tear newsprint, construction paper, wrapping paper, wallpaper, cardboard, and tissue paper.  They can do this project many times and learn more and more each time about how to make the materials do things they like. After they have mastered tearing, some children may want to do their projects with scissors.  When you introduce scissors, offer them as a choice, but leave the tearing option as a legitimate one.

Young children will show you one plan and then glue the pieces differently.  Even if they put their pieces of collage on upside down or backward or in adifferent place, the experience of arranging them first is valid and should be encouraged.  In a workshop, one of my adult students repeated the activity, and “cheated” the second time, blurring the stages, pasting pieces as she tore them, taking no time to lay out her design.  She reported her surprise: she liked both her result and her experience better when she did it in stages.

The best way I’ve seen to give children glue — so it is under control, handy to use, and easy to clean up — was shown to me by Jennie Velez, an artspecialist in Puerto Rico.  Put a blob of white glue on a piece of paper towel taped to the table on the right side of a right-handed child, or left side of a left- handed child.  The child applies the glue with her finger.  When she is all finished, she wraps the paper the way one wraps a spent piece of chewing gum to throw it away.  You can provide a damp sponge at the table to finish the cleanup.

Collage is fun.  All the finished products are satisfactory.  It makes good use of available resources.  You don’t need to use scissors if you’re not comfortable with them yet.

As I observe her, Sandy makes some shapes on purpose.  But other shapes that she likes are the negatives of something she meant to make, and these also look nice, so she uses them.  Lots of the artwork, children do is unforeseen, and how else would a person discover what the materials can be made to do?

Cornstarch and Water

In this activity it’s best to let the children discover what you’re doing step by step, not to tell the whole story ahead of time.

Let children handle the dry cornstarch.  Listen to their language — squeaky, silky, soft, scratchy, gritty .  Now add a little water and let them mix and feel it again.  After this lumpy stage you can add a little more water until it’s all moist.  It forms an unstable material, which makes people smile and giggle at its unexpected behavior.  It breaks, but it also melts.  If you pick up a chunk can you hold it?  Give a child a lump of the material.  What happens to your gift? Some people find it vaguely scary, other people find it freeing. Children are interested in it because it’s funny stuff.  It doesn’t behave like glue or like milk or like wood; it’s a liquid and it’s a solid.  Working with it develops the hand and stimulates language.  After playing with it your hands feel nice and soft.

If you rest your fingers lightly on the surface of the cornstarch-water mix, it will let your fingers drift down to the bottom of the container.  If you try to punch your way to the bottom it will resist you, like some other encounters in “real life.”

Your pacing during the introduction of cornstarch really matters.  Once a child wanted to leave while the stuff was still lumpy and I told her no, because I didn’t want her to miss just how much fun it can be.  I hurried to add enough water to make it nice.  As soon as it was goopy  and she had tried it, I gave her permission to leave.  By then, of course, she didn’t want to leave.

I saw my responsibility as making sure that she had the experience.  I would have overstepped what I think of respectful teaching had I held her at the activity, after it was in place.  I can lead her to water, but she herself must judge her thirst.

Cornstarch works well in a baby bathtub set on a table, with a limit of two or three children using the whole pound.  If you leave it in it’s tub overnight, by morning it’s dry.  Now add some water and it becomes the wonderful stuff again.  Be sure to invitae the children to watch this event.

It’s a clean sort of messy play.  The white, powdery mess on the floor can be picked up with a dustpan and brush, or a vacuum cleaner, or you can rub it into the rug.  Hanging around with little children you’re always going to have cornstarch or something on your trousers.

You can add food coloring to your cornstarch, but you might not want to.  I don’t, since my feeling is that to change its color is a side trip, a digression.  This stuff is about texture and feel, not color.  The children come back to it again and again because it feels good and behaves in an interesting way.


A material fundamental to the human species, clay interests and absorbs children.  Playdough (home made or store bought) is not the same, plasticene isn’t either; both are pleasant but less basic to people historically and functionally.  If you can go with children to dig out your clay from the earth, so much the better.

But whether you can dig it or not, use real clay, from the earth.  It will keep well, once it is “right” (just moist enough to work, neither too dry nor too wet) in a tightly lidded plastic container, like Tupperware TM.  Give children large amounts, at least grapefruit-sized chunks, so they can work with the mass of it.  As with fingerprint, we use clay with young children for the process, the feelings, the pleasure of discovery, putting one’s mark on it, making it change.  It is rare that we make something to keep, and I do not introduce that idea to fours.  Rather, clay is to work with at a table with others, and to make back into a ball once you’re through, storing it in the crock and washing up.

If, during any of these activities, children say, “I don’t know what to do,” they are trying to find out how to do the activity right.  You might tell them, “Just play with it and see what happens.”  What we are fighting here is a stereotype children often adapt, that there is a right way to draw or paint or sculpt — which, of course, there isn’t.

Note 1999:   For more information on working with children with clay, there isn’t a better book than Children, Clay & Sculpture, by Cathy Weisman Topal, Davis Publications, 1983  (still in print 2001; around $35,  but worth it.)

Displaying Children’s Artwork

Set up your displays to accentuate the ways different people use a medium. Let the room reflect the children’s diversity and their passions, the way a well-decorated home reflects the interests and skills of the people who live in it.  We don’t want children to grow up as clones, or steeped in competition.

Visiting schools, I’m dismayed if I see 25 identical “works of art” on a bulletin board with different names on them.  How is the creativity in these young children to come out?

Take time at the end of the day to show artwork to the children, letting them talk about each other’s and adult artists’ work.  Model for them how to make a positive comment, and send the artwork home in a fashion that shows your respect for the artist and the art.  Paintings folded rather than rolled, or rolled when wet and therefore stuck together, tell children their work doesn’t matter.

Robin Brooks’ suggestions (2008):

Dear all,
I’ve enjoyed hearing about your experiences with offering tempera paint to children in a self-serve fashion. 

I have found the most efficient and economical way to purchase liquid tempera is in 32 ounce (quart-sized) jars. The gallons are just too cumbersome and take up too much counter space. Also, because the pigment tends to separate from the binder, they are way too cumbersome for me to to shake up. I always give my tempera jars a good shake each morning. I can see where some people might prefer the gallon with the pump, and Blick makes a great tempera (not washable, please) that I have used with the pumps.

As for colors, PLEASE consider offering more than the standard red, yellow, and blue to children. Magenta and turquoise are rich and wonderful mixing colors. I also have fun offering, from time to time, gold and silver liquid tempera for decorating such things as clay bowls and masks. I try to have a smaller quantity of the secondary colors such as purple, orange, green, and also brown. And please don’t forget black and white. Many choices offer a multitude of possibilities. One doesn’t need to make all colors available at all times but…

If you only offer red, yellow, and blue, the young ones will get discouraged with the muddy mixtures and may not discover the joy and magic of rich color combinations!

Unsafe Art Supplies:

  • Powdered clay.  It is easily inhaled and contains silica, which is harmful to the lungs.  Use instead wet clay, which can’t be inhaled.
  • Paints that require solvents such as turpentine to clean brushes.  Use instead water-based paints.
  • Cold-water or commercial dyes that contain chemical additives.  Use instead natural vegetable dyes, made from beets, onion skins, and so on.
  • Permanent markers, which may contain toxic solvents.  Use instead water-based markers.
  • Instant papier-mache, which may contain lead or asbestos.  Use instead black-and-white newspaper and library paste or liquid starch.
  • Epoxy, instant glues, or other solvent-based glues.  Use instead water-based white glue.


Fingerpaint #1

3 c. Vano Starch TM
powdered tempera

Add child’s color choice of powdered tempera to the Vano starch.

Fingerpaint #2

3 c. Vano Starch TM
1 c. soap flakes
powdered tempera

Mix and boil to dissolve.  Then cool until comfortable to use.  Then add the child’s choice of color, in powdered tempera.

Fingerpaint #3

1 c. Linit Starch TM
1 c. cold water
1 c. Ivory flakes TM
3 c. boiling water

Mix starch and cold water to smooth paste.  Add boiling water and cook until thick and glossy, stirring constantly.  Add soap flakes and beat with eggbeater until smooth.

Powdered Paint Extender

1 c. Bentonite
1/2 c. Ivory Flakes TM
2 quarts warm water

Mix well and let stand in large jar about three days.  Stir each day.  This will be like jelly and can be thinned with water to right consistency when ready to use – and to use again!

NOTE: You can cut your paint bill in half by using this recipe.  [1999 note: Buy Bentonite at a ceramics supply house.]

Easy Art Apron

Use a large old shirt and cut sleeves short; wear back to front – button down the back – kids can dress each other.  Or, cut a rectangle from an old sheet with a large enough hole for the head in the center.  Machine sew some plastic to the trunk section.

Cooked Playdough

2 c. flour
1 c. salt
2 c. water
2 T. oil
2 t. cream of tartar
food coloring

Cook three minutes to the consistency of mashed potatoes.  Turn out on waxed paper to cool.  Knead a bit.  Store in a plastic bag or other airtight container.  The cream of tartar gives this mixture a “bounce!”

No-Cook Playdough – Make this one with the children

1 c. water
3 c. flour
11/2 c. salt
1/4 c oil
food coloring or 1 T. powdered tempera

Combine ingredients and mix.   Add more flour if mixture is too sticky. Store in plastic bag.

Cornstarch & Water

2 c. warm water
3 c. cornstarch

Feel it each time you add water.  You do not want the water to make the cornstarch into a liquid, rather the consistency of ice cream.  You can only give the water to the children to control if you give them a limited amount and get them to understand that too much water will ruin the mixture.  Children will get mad at a child who over waters and spoils the starch.



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June, 1998: An astute reader had these suggestions about bubbles, markers and clay: I use a half cup of glycerin to a cup of Dawn to a gallon of water.  The extra glycerin seems to improve the longevity of the films.

I like to make 3D forms out of coat hanger wire and dip them into the bubble solution.  The resulting minimal energy state film forms can be both beautiful and surprising even without blowing a bubble.

Dried up marker pens.  Some are not up in polar (water-based)  solvents.  These may respond to a drop of alcohol in their cap overnight.

Found clay. I’ve had trouble with inclusions of sand.  they not only  feel gritty but they tend to make things crack as they dry.  I had good luck with dissolving the raw clay in a large amount of water, letting it stand for about 15 min. (to settle the sand) and then  carefully decanting the clay (suspended in the water) and  allowing the water to evaporate off.  After a couple weeks I  have the finest quality clay for throwing or hand forming.  And it feels great that I had a part in the whole process.


Katie Farley Writes About Coloring Books

Note from Sydney:
We were having a discussion about coloring books on the Creative Curriculum listserv,
and this wonderful posting came from Kate Fairlie in Australia. I think it is important
for early childhood people to have, so I got her permission to post it here.

Kate wrote:
I was reading all the posts of coloring books and funnily enough, today one
appeared out of a child’s bag.

I didn’t run screaming and tell them ‘never bring that terrible thing here again’
although I am not the least bit interested in providing coloring activities of any type
to our program, and I would never want anyone to get the idea that coloring
books or similar activities are ok with me, or that I feel they are
developmentally appropriate.

BUT … an interesting thing happened … we had a lovely time looking at
the pictures in the coloring book and the child who brought it in had not
colored in a single one, nor did she want to. In fact when asked by a friend
if they could colour in her book she looked shocked and replied “books are
not for drawing on … get some paper!” so they sat down together with plain
paper and looked at the book, they choose a picture of dolphins and started
to draw, almost copy the pictures, then added items from their own
imagination. They both drew amazing pictures with lots of life and color
then set about learning to write ‘dolphin’ and various other words. So the
coloring book, like so many other books we have in our room became a
resource, something the children could look at to stimulate ideas or to help
their own ideas become clearer.

The coloring book wasn’t nearly as good as if we had had a book with real
photographs of dolphins, but I think it was the differences between it and
our regular books that intrigued the girls. The clear, neat lines and pictures
seemed to inspire a different kind of drawing. One said to the other “see this
picture has all black lines … I am going to draw all the lines first and then
color them.”

Even though today’s activities were interesting and very intriguing for me,
I still don’t see this story as justification for bringing in coloring books. I can
see we might have a few coloring books brought in by the children this
week, and that’s ok, but I can’t see reason to supply them myself. What
purpose do they serve? Why waste my time and money on copying sheets or
buying books when it is better spent on copying the children’s drawing and
buying new markers and pastels? There are soooo many other drawings we
never have time to make on our own, why waste time filling in a drawing
made by somebody else?

But then that magical phrase ‘it depends’ comes in … and I can see
despite my dislike of coloring books how one might help a child with special
needs practice fine motor control… but then I can also see a million
other ways to accomplish that without diminishing creativity! I guess I
just hear too many refrains of “I can’t draw it right” or “It doesn’t look proper”
at my drawing centre to let me see anything good about coloring books!

I guess one thing I picked up the sort of disappoints me … that teachers are
being dictated to by their supervisors … being told “ban coloring books”. I
think that’s scary. I agree with the no coloring books idea, but what good is
it to just dictate the rules without any discussion or understanding as to why?
Well, I guess this is where the list comes in!

Hmmm … an interesting discussion … sorry to ramble on!

That’s Kate’s wonderful explanation about why she doesn’t use coloring

Another member of the listserv gave us a list of teacher
consciousness levels she learned at the Leading Edge Training
sponsored by NAEYC:

Unconsciously Incompetent,
Consciously Incompetent,
Unconsciously Competent, and
Consciously Competent.
We must all grow toward Conscious Competence, and we all can!

An Additional Link:

Staying Within the Lines
A remarkable article about young children and art (with illustrations) from Canada, written 2000.

A short video about art, materials, and “getting out of their way”:


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