10 Tips On Teaching Art To Young Children

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” -Pablo Picasso
My daughter exploring watercolor droplets on her tray, age 8 months

My daughter exploring watercolor droplets on her tray, age 8 months

I’ve been asked by several people on how to teach their children art, to the point that I’m seriously considering teaching an art class myself. But not just any art class - I’m thinking about teaching the youngest little artists, the toddler age group. While I’m also planning on teaching older children, there is a serious lack of art programs available for younger ages near me. I’ve seen music classes for babies. Dance. Sports (even swimming) for tots. We even participated in a pre-cooking class for the 2-4 age group. There was a point in my life when I wanted to pursue a career as an art teacher, and I had volunteered as an assistant art teacher in the past.

Not that you need a class to teach your child art (or any other subject for that matter). You’ve likely taught your kids some of the most important life skills they’ll know, like how to feed him/herself, or use the bathroom, or bathe, etc. If you have the right resources, a support network, and someone to help point you in the right direction, homeschooling of any sort becomes far less daunting. Yes, even if you’re just home with your kids during their preschool years, I still consider that homeschooling.

So here is where I come in! At least with art anyway. I’ve been teaching my daughter since she was 16 months old, and my 14 month old son has a sketchbook and baby crayons. I keep trying with him and will start as soon as he’s more interested in smashing them on paper than eating them. My daughter is nearly done with her 3rd sketchbook and will be needing a fourth soon.

  1. This was a tip from my high school art teacher, Mrs Marilyn Weinman, who taught for several decades and had quite the reputation as being an excellent art teacher in the area. I say taught because she’s since retired. I count myself extremely lucky to have had her as my teacher. She once told me she never buys her grandchildren coloring books. Why? Because they don't challenge one's imagination. It doesn’t teach them anything except how to color within the lines. That’s not to say that my daughter doesn’t have any coloring books, but I held off from buying her any until I felt that she had a strong foundation with drawing, using various art materials and her own creativity. Take away the pictures, and the child focuses on pressure, lines, scribbles, how different materials look on paper, are they bold or soft, can you smudge them, blend them, etc. They learn about colors, how they look together, mixing colors to make new ones. As they get older, they start connecting the lines to make shapes, shapes to symbolize people and objects and buildings and places. This knowledge that a symbol on the page represents SOMETHING is extremely important. We use symbols on a daily basis - letters to form words to form sentences, paragraphs, chapters, novels. We interpret these symbols as words which we use to gain knowledge. Symbols to work out the numbers for budgets and building measurements. Art is the basis for the written word. Cave paintings came before written histories. (Tip: If you want to make it easier for your child to pick up reading/writing, encourage them to draw on a daily basis.)
  2. Pick a good sketchbook with heavy paper, preferably one that is used for mixed media. It is incredibly frustrating to learn about applying pressure with your art tool and ripping through the page. Or essentially having it fall apart when you paint. We like to use this one. Unless you’re starting with a one year old, then a cheaper sketchbook is okay, as that will mostly be filled with scribbles and lines. We started exploring other materials after my daughter turned two.
  3. Get two sketchbooks. One for daily journaling - this should be notebook sized and primarily used by the child, try to not give into temptation to draw in there. Later when you look back on the work, would you rather look at your child’s scribbles or yours? (You can get one for yourself too to color together.) You don’t need to worry about them jumping around through the book, it’ll eventually get filled anyway. If you’re worried about keeping up with what was done when, just mark the date in a corner with pencil. The other is the biggest mixed media pad you can get. This is for those larger masterpieces that you can hang on your wall, for demonstrating various art materials, for collaborating. It also comes in handy when their friends come over. Break out the big art pad, the art supplies, and let them draw a picture together.
  4. Don’t worry about age appropriate art materials TOO much. I stick to the baby crayons and markers for the littlest artists because they’re easier to grasp, not to mention the whole mouthing thing. But once they’ve grown out of it, let loose! Get the watercolor crayons and oil pastels and chalk pastels. Get a set of decent watercolors (I think this one is an excellent quality for the price) and a starter brush set - skip the baby brushes. I’ve even let my 3-year-old paint with acrylics - we used them to decorate a birdhouse for the backyard. Charcoal is fun and smudgy. Explore what they do together! If you need a bit of inspiration on how to explore art like a child, I recommend the book Spirit of Drawing.
  5. Forget the art smock. Go to a thrift store, get some cheap shirts and pants, and use those for the messy art projects. Art smocks only protect what they cover, and it’s been my experience that unless it’s a full-body suit, it never covers enough. While you’re at it, pick up a few shower curtain liners from the dollar store and use those to protect your surfaces.
  6. Put away the tablecloth and cover your table with craft or butcher paper. Mealtime suddenly becomes more fun, and your child might actually want to stick around and draw instead of disappearing off to another room as soon as dinner is over.
  7. Explore different environments. Art can be done anywhere. Use bath crayons in the tub. Put a bit of food coloring in yogurt (you can purchase natural food dyes if that is a concern) and lay out a delicious palette on the high chair tray so your child can finger paint with food. Try coloring with a blindfold. Paint with the music on, and try out different genres. Bring the sketchbooks outside on a nice day. Or try to draw the night sky! (Tip: cover the paper in charcoal, then use a kneaded eraser to “draw” the moon and stars.)
  8. Read about artists. We have the Mini Masters board books as well as The Noisy Paint Box. There are many others available - ask your librarian.
  9. Go to an art museum. Ask your child what s/he sees in each painting. What does s/he feel looking at it?
  10. Teach and encourage your child to use a camera. If you have any older cameras sitting around after upgrading, show them how to use it. New ones are fairly inexpensive, cheaper than a phone and higher quality. Explain that artists often like to use a camera to record the things they see to use later as a reference or inspiration. Or just use your tablet. My daughter loves using the camera feature on her LeapPad. Added bonus: you get to look at the world through your child’s eyes.
Stained Glass Cat - I copied a stained glass template of a cat (from an image online) onto watercolor paper which my daughter, now 3.5 years old, painted.

Stained Glass Cat - I copied a stained glass template of a cat (from an image online) onto watercolor paper which my daughter, now 3.5 years old, painted.

I’m sure there are some things that I have missed, but this pretty much covers the basics and should get your child off to a good start. Remember, there is no right or wrong in art. It’s a form of personal expression. Encouraging art doesn’t necessarily mean that your child will be an artist someday; however, a strong foundation in art carries over into other aspects of life, including other subject matters - it builds creativity, prepares them for reading and writing, strengthens their hands for holding a pencil or pen, and teaches them to look at the world from different perspectives.

Does art play an important role in your home? What do you do to encourage your child as an artist?