The great British author, speaker, and education advisor, Sir Ken Robinson, once said, “Creativity is as important now in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status”. As an artist and parent, I couldn’t agree more. Creativity helps you become better at problem-solving in all areas of your life.
It also allows you to see things from different perspectives and deal with uncertainty. In light of this, we should be encouraging our kids to pursue creative activities such as painting and crafting every day. But what types of paintings can kids do?
How we allow our kids to get their hands dirty with paint depends very much on their age and interests. We will look at types of paints for kids and some ideas about how to spark creativity. But before we do that, let’s look at why we should do this and prepare for a painting session.
And while you’re at it, feel free to get your hands dirty with some paint, too – it is excellent for bonding with your little ones.
Why Teach Our Kids to Paint
Absolutely everyone can benefit from painting. Painting is great for creativity, which we mentioned earlier. But in addition to that, it increases fine motor skills.
It also teaches color recognition and the basics of color theory. Spark creativity by encouraging your little one to be experimental and use fingers, a paintbrush, or other creative painting materials. We will share some of these ideas soon.
How to Prepare for a Painting Session with Your Kids
Allowing your kids to paint is a messy experience. Heck, it’s messy for adults too. Here are some top tips to ensure that your kids have the best time.
- Give them a designated space to allow them to express themselves freely. Move anything that you don’t want to be ruined out of their way. Part of getting lost in the creative process means getting messy and having fun. You could make space for this in your garage, basement, or patio.
- Put down some newspaper or garbage bags to protect their work surfaces.
- If you have access, easels or prop up canvases are great for your child to paint on.
- Wear paint-friendly clothing that you don’t mind getting messy in. One of mom or dad’s old t-shirts is perfect for littlies.
- Choose child-safe paint. For children under the age of 12, only use paint that conforms to ASTM D-4236. You should find this detail printed on the label, and it means the paints are tested and approved as safe for children to handle.
- Avoid adult grade paints when painting with smaller children as they may contain dangerous pigments.
- For littlies – avoid acrylics for now – they’re a bit on the expensive side for early experimentation.
- Give your child four to five colors of paint to allow them to mix colors. The primary colors (red, yellow, blue) and some secondary colors (green, orange, purple) are a good start.
- Give them large sheets of paper to play and experiment with. Canvas is also an option if you want to hang your child’s artwork.
- Give them the tools – paintbrushes and a mixing palette. We will go into some alternatives to paintbrushes below. As for the mixing palette – use things from around the house. No need to buy expensive equipment. Squeeze bottles and popsicle sticks are also helpful. Also, have some other interesting materials and textures available, like marbles, feathers, bubble wrap, and yarn. Be open to letting your child experiment with these different materials and textures.
- Depending on their age, you might want to guide them on how to use a brush. If you have enough space, you can also lay down plastic table cloths or paint cloths and show your child how to do drip painting, where they can hold a popsicle stick dipped in paint over the paper or canvas and let the paint drip onto the surface. They can then move the popsicle stick to make different drip patterns.
- Feel free to suggest some themes or give them ideas but let them play. And let them choose their colors – nothing stifles creativity more than telling them that the sky and grass can’t be absolutely any color they want it to be.
- Depending on age, you might want to explain a bit of color theory and teach them how to mix primary colors. Once they’re confident with mixing colors, you can show them how to add white to make lighter shades. We will explain this in more detail later.
- Be patient – they’re probably going to spill water, mess paint on the floor and themselves. It is part of the fun.
- Don’t expect them to be the next Van Gogh without practice and sincerely compliment everything they do.
Okay, so now we have the basic guidelines for a fun arty session with the kids, lets look at some cool ideas.
Homemade Edible Paint (And, of Course, Finger Painting)
This super fun paint is made of only a few ingredients, and you probably already have them in your pantry. It is perfect for toddlers who are just getting started with arts and crafts. Edible paint is ideal because, at this stage, you’re going to battle to get them not to put their fingers in their mouths.
This paint has a lovely gel consistency, and you can use it on paper, tabletops, and even in the bath because it just washes right off.
Here’s what you need:
2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
2 cups water
Heat the sugar, cornstarch, and water in a medium saucepan, constantly stirring to avoid sticking. After a short while, it should change consistency and become quite gel-like and translucent. Take it off the heat and divide it into as many paint containers as you need – at least one container per color.
Add the food coloring and stir well. When the paint is cool enough to touch, then you are ready to paint! Add more food color than you think you might need, especially if you will be painting on paper. And use as soon as possible, because it doesn’t keep well.
Edible homemade paint is excellent for teaching your kids creativity and expression and practicing their fine motor skills. They will also learn all about cause and effect. All in all, it is great for sensory play.
Closely linked to the edible gel paint above is painting on cookies (or any other snacks, for that matter). This clever DIY edible paint hack is perfect for engaging all the senses. It is a bit like working with frosting without the eggs and vanilla. And it really is finger-licking tasty.
You will need:
1-14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
Gel food coloring
Snacks to paint (cookies, rice crispy treats, etc.)
Divide the condensed milk into a few small containers, one for each color. Add food coloring and stir well. Paint onto all the goodies with a clean paintbrush, and enjoy eating the creations.
You can also let your little ones have a go at finger painting on a baking sheet or baking paper.
Everyone is familiar with those watercolor sets of bright, dry paint cakes in a plastic (or metal case) and a thin round watercolor brush. They’re easy to use and clean up, making them the perfect paints for beginner artists. The best thing about watercolors is that they’re super cheap to start with, and they will keep the kids busy for hours.
The paints are activated by adding water. Adding more water creates a translucent wash of color, and a small amount of water creates a saturated tone. It is always best to use proper watercolor paper, which provides the best results, but little ones will not care too much about paper quality.
Watercolor pencils are also quite fun for kids – allowing them the control of a pencil and then creating the effect of a watercolor painting by adding water.
Aside from straightforward watercolor application on paper, experiment by sprinkling salt into the wet paper or using wax crayons to create resistance against that wet paint.
Another all-time favorite watercolor painting trick is a 3D salt painting.
For this, you will need:
Any stiff paper or cardboard (paper plates will also work well)
A squeezy bottle of glue
Liquid watercolors (or food coloring)
Paintbrushes or droppers
Squeeze a glue design or picture onto your cardboard and sprinkle liberally with salt. Carefully tip to allow the excess salt to fall away.
Add color – dip a paintbrush into the liquid watercolor paint, gently touch the salt-covered glue lines with the wet paintbrush, and watch the paint move in all directions! You can use a dropper or pipette to add your watercolor paint.
Allow the painting to dry thoroughly – this might take a day or two.
Another fantastic paint choice for kids is tempera paint. It’s easy to apply and comes in bright, vibrant colors. It also dries quickly, without cracking or flaking.
You can get tempera in matte and glossy finishes, and it works well on paper and cardboard as well as wood or canvas, but it won’t stay on surfaces for the long term.
You can find tempera in liquid and powder form. Be careful not to mix the powder around children, as the dust particles are dangerous when inhaled.
They also usually don’t blend well. They are, however, an excellent option for washable paint.
Tempera paint is perfect for toothbrush splatter painting – here is what you will need:
White drawing paper
Old clean toothbrushes
Tempera paint in an assortment of colors
Cut out a few paper shapes from construction paper. Put some tape at the back and stick the shapes firmly to the white drawing paper. Thin down a few colors of your tempera paint on your palette with some water.
Dip the toothbrush in the watered-down paint and then point the brush’s head down toward the paper. Using a finger, pull back on the toothbrush and then release to create a fine mist of paint. The faster that the bristles are flicked, the more splatter you’ll make.
Rinse the toothbrush in water when it’s time to change colors. Or have a different toothbrush for each color. Once the painting is dry, carefully remove the shapes to reveal your splatter design.
Painting doesn’t need to be limited to paper, canvas, or cardboard. Fabric painting is super fun for kids, and they get to enjoy their creations as functional items of clothing or decorative pieces.
To get your kids going with fabric paint, here are a few tips:
- Place a piece of cardboard underneath the cloth, which will be painted on.
- It is always best to wash and iron the fabric first. But don’t use a fabric softener – it may stop the paint from adhering to the material.
- Once dry, place in the sun for 5-7 days and then wash it.
Stencils can make lovely designs on cloth. For this, they will need fabric, appropriate fabric paints, a paintbrush, masking tape, and any designed stencil.
Place the stencil on the fabric and paste its corners to the fabric with masking tape. Dab the colors with the paintbrush over the design and allow to dry before removing the stencil. Allow to dry completely, as explained above.
Another fun idea is to use vegetables to apply paint to fabric. Cut a potato in half and carve out a design or shape using a sharp knife (always with your supervision!) Dip the vegetable shape into the paint and stamp it onto the fabric (or paper). Allow to dry as suggested.
Now let’s move on to paints for the older kids. Acrylics are your go-to for beautiful rich results, as they are thick and highly pigmented and mix well. They are also water-resistant, making them a permanent option. They dry opaquely and can be glossy or semi-glossy.
Acrylic paints can be used on paper, canvas, wooden boards, and other materials. Although they may be labeled as “non-toxic”, it’s probably best to keep them away from small children who don’t know better than to put their fingers in their mouths. Pigments and special binders give acrylic paint the ability to adhere to canvas, making it perfect for keepsakes that you will want to last a long time.
If your kids are ready to move onto acrylic paints, how about letting them do some “rock drops”:
The idea behind a “rock drop” is to paint rocks and then leave them in a public place for someone else to find. You can take photos of your hidden rock creations and post them online in your local rock drop Facebook group. Someone else can then find your rock and rehide it in a new spot, or drop a few new rocks, and round and round, the fun goes.
Check out these hashtags on Instagram to see the fun that families get up to with rock dropping:
If you want to get involved in the fun, you will need:
Rocks – smooth, flat, light-colored, palm-size rocks work best, and if you cant find them in nature, just pop into your local hardware or garden store.
Paint – acrylic paints or paint pens.
A permanent marker for outlines.
Brushes – if you are using acrylic paints, you’ll need brushes. The smallest brushes usually work best.
Sealant – because the rocks will be left outdoors, they need a sealant if you want them to last. An external weather varnish will probably be the best.
Water – if you are using paint.
Start by giving the rocks a good scrub and allow them to dry completely before painting.
If you want, you can paint a base coat, but that’s not necessary. On the bottom side of your rock, it might be a good idea to leave instructions for the next person who finds it.
Allow your rock to dry completely before using the sealant, and be sure to follow the instructions on your product.
Rock dropping is such a fun way to get the kids outdoors and do something kind and creative. Even if you don’t want to participate in a rock drop formally, you could just paint some kind words on a rock and leave them somewhere random for anyone to find – and of course, you can keep a few treasures in your own garden.
A brief word on oil paints. Oil paints are absolutely wonderful to work with for older kids, although they come at a price. They appear to be challenging at first, but many professional artists prefer oils to acrylics for ease of use.
Their rich, brilliant colors, the dreamy ability to blend, and the versatility of texture make them a great learning experience for older kids. But be aware of the ingredients within the paints and the need to use solvents. Only expose kids to this sort of paint when they can understand the dangers and how to work with them safely.
You, or rather your young artist, will need:
Student-grade oil paints – we suggest a selection of warm and cool primaries and a neutral brown, like burnt umber or burnt sienna, lots of white, and a small amount of black. Encourage mixing to really get their heads around color theory.
Brushes – Have a variety of flat and round oil (or acrylic appropriate) brushes in different shapes and sizes.
Palettes – oil paints can stay fresh for days if covered, so a palette with a lid is a great idea. Palette paper is also a good idea because oils are hard to remove later.
Palette knives – for mixing paint and for different painting techniques.
Gesso – this is a primer for raw canvas or practice paper
Solvents – to thin paint and clean brushes. These typically have strong odors and can cause respiratory issues, so odorless mineral spirits or odorless turpenoid is probably best. You can also use linseed, spike lavender, or rosemary oils, but they come at a price.
A lidded container for storing the solvent.
You might also want to have brush cleaner, painting mediums, and an easel.
If cost is a concern, use waxed paper or magazine pages instead of palette paper.
Popsicle sticks can be used instead of palette knives.
Gesso-primed cardboard in place of canvasses.
Acrylic house paint can be used instead of a more expensive gesso.
Baby oil is an alternative to brush cleaner.
Teaching Kids Color and Color Theory
Even the youngest child can be taught the basics of color theory. Color theory is an important skill that will be useful throughout the child’s life, no matter whether they pursue art at a higher level or not.
When they’re very little, paint is a great way to teach very basic color recognition. And then, at preschool age, around four or five – they will likely know their basic colors, and they can be taught that red, yellow and blue are primary colors.
You can then allow them to start experimenting on paper to see what happens when these colors are mixed and what colors combinations they can create. Don’t go too deep at this stage; just let them experiment for themselves.
From kindergarten age and up, you can start teaching a bit more about color theory. At this stage, you can explain the concept of primary colors and how they can be mixed to form other colors in the following combinations:
Red + Blue = Purple
Blue + Yellow = Green
Red + Yellow = Orange
And then, let them experiment with primary color paints to see how they work.
Elementary school children can begin to understand the concept of different tints within a color family. This is a great time to introduce the color wheel to help them figure out what colors should be mixed to create a specific shade. High school is a great time to introduce and discuss tertiary colors.
And When the Painting is Done
Don’t forget to have your littlies learn to sign their work (and date them!). Their little artistic creations will be priceless memories in years to come.
Tinkergarten: Why Creativity Is Just As Important As Literacy
Kiwi Families: 19 art activities for 3, 4 and 5 year olds using paint
Five Star Painting: Safe Craft Paints for Kids to Use
Learning 4 Kids: HOMEMADE EDIBLE FINGER PAINT
wikiHow: How to Paint With Children
TinkerLab: Homemade Edible Paint for Kids
Life Over Cs.: Kid’s DIY Edible Paint for Cookies
The Artful Parent: How to Make Raised Salt Paintings
FirstPalette: Toothbrush Painting
SchoolMyKids: Fabric Painting Art for Kids- Easy Fabric Paint Ideas
The Art of Education University: An Art Teacher’s Guide to Using Oil Paint in the Classroom