Preschool painting: A primer
“Wow! I see greens, reds, blues, and yellows,” says
Ms. Eloise, looking at 4-year-old Darrell’s easel painting.
This will be a nice addition to his portfolio, she thinks to
herself. She turns and reaches for the drying rack so he can
hang the painting to dry.
Mandy interrupts: “Can I paint now?”
“Yes, in just a moment,” says Ms. Eloise. She sets up the drying
rack, turns back to the easel, and stops short. Darrell has just run his paintbrush
through all the colors on the paper, making it a mass of brown.
“There, I’m done!” he announces.
As experienced early childhood teachers know, preschool painting
is about process, not product. Whether a child’s painting
turns out to be a neatly formed rainbow or a brown muddle,
the learning takes place in the doing.
Painting—and indeed all art activities—promote children’s
learning and development.
But some teachers may regard painting as academic dessert to
be enjoyed only after the children have finished the main courses
of letters and numbers. Other teachers may hesitate to set up
painting activities because of the mess.
Planning can minimize the mess, and an understanding of painting
as a process can embellish learning objectives. In addition,
teachers may find painting a big help in managing the classroom.
When children are restless or irritable, for example, painting
can help soothe and calm them.
How painting fosters learning
Painting is a nonverbal experience. It uses a different part
of the brain than reading or math. When painting, children
express themselves in lines, shapes, and images (Beal 2001)—a
kind of visual thinking. The experience fosters growth in all
areas of development.
Physical. When children spread paint on paper, whether with fingers
or brush, they are developing muscular control in the arms, hands,
Cognitive. Painting is a sensory experience. Children see the
colors and shapes, hear the brush swishing in water, smell the
paint and newsprint, and feel the paper’s crispness, all
of which inform them about their world. They experiment with
colors, shapes, lines, and designs. When they think about which
colors to use and where to put the colors on the page, they are
planning and organizing. When they mix colors and try different
brushes, they are learning about cause and effect.
Language. As children paint, they learn names for colors and
shapes. They talk with teachers and playmates about what they’re
doing. They may dictate descriptions of their work to the teacher.
and emotional. Children develop social skills by taking
turns at the easel and helping with cleanup. They express their
feelings through colors they select and the marks they make on
the paper. They enhance their creativity by playing with shapes
and colors. They decide when they are finished and whether they
like it. In the process, they develop feelings of confidence
and self-esteem: “I’m making this.” “I’m
doing it all by myself.”
Create the environment for painting
Painting is a fundamental activity in the art center that children
can choose during free play time. Ideally the art center is
in a quiet area of the room, out of the path of traffic. For
easy cleanup, locate it close to a sink and running water,
and provide paper towels and liquid soap dispensers. Protect
the floor with newspapers or an old plastic shower curtain.
Because toddlers have limited wrist control, they may find it
easier at first to paint on the floor or while standing at a
table. As they gain control, children will enjoy standing at
a wall or an easel to paint. The amount of space in your classroom
will determine how many children can paint at a time. Two or
more paint surfaces will promote socializing.
Educational suppliers offer sturdy easels with rubber feet to
prevent sliding and trays to hold paint cups. You can make a
tabletop easel out of a cardboard box. If space is limited, you
can tack plastic to a wall and mount newsprint on it at children’s
height and nail a narrow shelf underneath.
Introduce toddlers to painting
With toddlers, painting is a simple activity. Limit it to one
or two children at a time. Dress each child in a larger child’s
T-shirt or plastic smock. Place a small dab of finger paint
on a washable table top. Invite the children to spread the
paint around. Talk about the color, the hand movement, how
the paint feels, and how the children feel. Continue until
they lose interest.
Instead of a table top, you can provide each child with a cafeteria
tray. This defines a work space for an individual child. Start
with only one or two colors of finger paint. Vary the experience
by offering non-toxic shaving cream, colored with tempera.
Children can also finger paint on a large piece of paper taped
to the table or the floor. Many teachers prefer coated paper,
but it can be expensive. For variety and enrichment, offer different
kinds of paper—butcher paper, brown paper from grocery
bags, typing paper, construction paper, newspaper, cardboard,
poster board, waxed paper, and aluminum foil.
As children develop greater control in their hands and fingers,
introduce brushes. Dip a short-handled paintbrush into one color
of tempera paint and show children how to move the paintbrush
across the paper. Allow them to try. When they lose interest,
encourage them to help wash brushes in water and put away the
Introduce preschoolers to painting
One way to introduce younger preschoolers to painting is to prepare
a tray for each child. Each tray holds a brush, wet sponge,
a plastic container for water, and two or three shallow containers
(such as jar lids) of tempera paint. Start with the primary
colors and later add white and black. Tape paper to the table
or floor, or use an easel. Hang a smock by each painting surface.
The number of smocks limits the number of children who can
choose painting at free play time.
At group time, explain that children will choose a tray, fill
the water container, and place the tray by the paper. If children
have no experience with painting, show them how to put on a smock
and explain why it’s necessary. Demonstrate dipping the
brush into the paint and moving it around on the paper. Explain
how to wash out brushes, and emphasize that this keeps each different
paint its original color. Show them how to clean up their trays
If only a few children have never painted before, they can usually
figure out what to do by watching other children. The teacher
can briefly review instructions with the entire group and then
stand close by and gently offer encouragement and reminders.
Watercolor offers another enjoyable medium for painting, but
it requires a bit more control. It’s best to use a paper
thicker than newsprint, one that will absorb and hold water.
Educational suppliers offer a watercolor paper, but it’s
a bit expensive. Coated finger paint paper and coffee filters
are other options.
Demonstrate how to fill the paintbrush by dipping it into water
and a color several times. Children apply the paint, allowing
the color to flow on the paper. Expect drips and blurred edges.
Encourage children to change the water often for true color.
A popular watercolor technique is wet-on-wet: wet brush on wet
paper. First dampen the entire sheet of paper with a wet sponge,
a water-filled brush, or water from a spray bottle. Then apply
paint. This produces a wash, or a thin coat of paint, which is
good for large flat areas like the sky or ground.
Store all paints and brushes with other art materials on low
shelves, easily accessible to children. Demonstrate how to remove
their art work from the easel, hang it to dry, and clean up so
another child can paint.
Make painting part of the curriculum
Children move through various stages of painting. At first, they
tend to make broad, sweeping strokes. In the next stage, they
move the brush in a circular pattern. Later the circles will
sprout legs and arms, and then a head and body will appear.
Children will also experiment with shapes, lines, and patterns
and create landscapes with a sun at the top and ground at the
bottom. By school age, they become more intentional, trying
for more detail and realism.
The goal is not to move children to painting landscapes and portraits
but rather to help them get comfortable with the materials. Setting
standards about what a painting should look like puts too much
pressure on children. A house with a chimney is not inherently
better than a hodgepodge of lines and circles.
Many teachers plan painting activities as part of a theme or
curriculum unit. In a unit on friends, for example, a teacher
may suggest that children “paint how you feel when you’re
playing with your best friend.” One child may paint a smiling
face, while another may paint purple squiggles. This activity
allows children ample room for freedom of expression.
In some units, a painting activity may be used to teach a concept.
In a unit on trees, for example, a teacher may ask children to
hold a leaf on paper and splatter paint on the page to reveal
the leaf’s shape. One child uses an oak leaf, and another,
an elm. Children not only learn a concept— that leaves
have different shapes— but also enhance their ability to
recognize shapes and patterns.
Whatever the objective, the key is that children experience painting
as a process. If every painting activity results in every child’s
work looking the same, then painting has become a craft. It has
lost its exploratory nature. Instead of constraining children
to paint a given object or paint in a certain way, we want children
to paint for the surprise, the joy, the discovery.
Ordinarily painting is a self-directed activity. “The paint
is in charge. The paint is teaching them” (Beal 2001).
Children need time to feel the flow of the paint, to mix colors,
and to learn about drips and absorption. The teacher’s
role is to follow, observe, and encourage.
Avoid judging a child’s work, even when a child asks you
if it’s good. The child is the only one who can evaluate
the painting. Avoid trying to identify what the picture represents.
Chances are you will get it wrong anyway. Instead, focus on what
is happening. Some suggestions:
Imagine what the child is feeling. “Ollie, you’re
having a lot of fun with the finger paint.”
Talk about the colors, sizes, and shapes. “T.J., you
used a lot of red in your picture.” “Wow, what a
big yellow circle!”
Notice what seems to interest the child. “Graciela, you
made lots of lines on this side.”
Encourage the child to reflect on the work. “Chris, tell
me about your painting.”
Acknowledge effort. “Alyssa, you really worked hard on
A curriculum unit may include having children dictate a description
of their paintings. If so, write the dictation on a separate
sheet of paper. Remember that the child owns the painting. You
can write the child’s name and date on the back for documentation.
But never write or draw on the face of the picture, unless the
child gives permission. And never suggest how to “fix” a
painting to make it “look better.” If Marissa doesn’t
like her painting, suggest that she try again tomorrow.