How to paint with small children (mess free!)

Children LOVE to paint.  Most home daycare providers want to introduce children to the world of art but are reluctant because of the length of time it takes to clean up afterword.   The younger the child the more likely it is to have painting end up in a huge mess.  If you only had one child to supervise during painting projects it might be manageable. However, most home daycares have multiple young children who are brand new to painting.  The possibility for disaster is endless! Here are a few tips to help you welcome painting into your home daycare.

1. My  5-5-5 rule

Any painting project that you do with a child under the age of five should only take five minutes to set up and five minutes to clean-up. If you only invest five minutes into the set up then you won’t be upset if the child only paints for five minutes. Young children have short attention spans so approach the activity with this rule in mind. If the children spend more than five minutes painting, consider it a bonus! Remember, they are just learning about this activity and they need repeated exposure to learn the boundaries (i.e., we paint on paper, not on the wall). Five minutes is a good starting point for children under age five.

2. Be organized

Consider having all your painting materials together in a basket or drawer in the kitchen (or wherever the children paint).  The kitchen is a great spot because the floor is washable and the sink is only a few steps away.  Assemble brushes, paper, paint, paint smocks, plastic tablecloths and rags together in your painting basket. If you have everything in your basket ready to go, set-up will only take five minutes each time you paint.  Think through the activity before giving out brushes to tiny hands.  Do you have a clean up cloth in case of spills?  Is the sink filled up with warm soapy water for washing hands after painting? Is the drying towel beside the sink? Where will you dry the painting? Is the drying rack empty and ready? Mentally go through the whole painting process and make sure you have everything laid out.  It only takes a child a second to dump paint over their head, or over another child’s head. Ensure everything is within arms reach so that you can provide the supervision and tools this age range needs.

3. Contain the mess

It is best for children to stand up while they paint. It is easier for them to use their whole arm in large movements while standing. Unfortunately, standing up with a paint brush opens up a whole world of possibilities for messes. They are armed and can travel! When children are very young (12 months to 18 months), I introduce them to the world of paint contained in their high chair. They wear a smock to protect their clothes and I tape the paper to their tray. This stops the paper from sliding around and covers the tray. I give them paint on a brush but not the whole jar of paint. They get a chance to experience painting in a mode they can handle.

At about 18 months they start to paint standing at the easel with me sitting on the floor beside them. I’m there to redirect them back to the paper if they start to wander onto the wall or paint themselves. Giving them boundaries helps them understand the expectations that are involved with painting.  The younger children in their high chairs watch the older children painting at the easel.  They learn many of the painting rules by imitation.

4. Begin one-on-one 

When the children are about 18 months and beginning to paint at the easel, I’m right there the whole time they are painting.  At no time are they left with a brush and a jar full of paint.  The other children who are painting at the same time are either old enough to paint unsupervised or are young enough to still be strapped into a high chair.  This means you will need to take turns at the easel if you have more than one child in this age range. The downfall is, the painting activity takes longer. On the positive side, the children learn how to paint without creating a mess. Depending on the particular child, I will sit beside them for several months one-on-one while they paint. Gradually, I will step back and watch as they paint. Once they have grasped the concept that paint goes on paper, then I will introduce creative painting projects (about age three).  They can paint their hands and feet and make prints or paint with toothbrushes.  At age three, children are ready to expand their painting repertoire and have the ability to stay focused on a task.

5. Give them a wipe-up cloth 

At the age of two and a half or three years old children are developmentally ready to notice small spills.  I give them a wipe-up cloth with their paint supplies and paper. This puts the responsibility on the painter to first notice a spill and then wipe it up. Young children like to clean and trusting them with this task is empowering for them. Of course, we need to remember their clean up skills are just developing as well. The ability to notice a spill and attempt to wipe it up is the goal for this age.  Once a child is four or five years old, they will be a pro at clean-up.

6. Put on some peaceful music

Children internalize music quickly and adjust their inner state to match the melody.  A quiet, mellow piece of music will help young children stay calm and focused on a painting activity.  I have been in a kindergarten class where sixteen four year olds calmly painted with water paints as their teacher sang a beautiful song.  It was an incredible sight to witness and it stuck with me for a long time.  The teacher moved around the room and attended to anyone who needed help without speaking a word.  She held the whole class in a focused state of peacefulness, as well as purposeful activity with the melody of her song.

Painting is a wonderful creative activity for children of all ages.  The majority of children really enjoy painting but don’t get enough time to do it.  The number one reason they don’t get access to paints is because of the mess left behind.  When children learn gradually how to paint in a responsible manner they can be trusted with the medium.

If you haven’t incorporated painting into your daycare, try it and have fun watching your daycare children paint to their hearts content!