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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, and fingers.
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.
Social 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 materials.

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 when finished.
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 , 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 that.”
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.