How Toddlers Explore Art Materials (and Their World)

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Everything is new to a toddler; everything is fair game for exploring in every possible way. It's how they learn about the world around them.

Art materials are no exception.

Yesterday Daphne came across some watercolors that I had set out for Maia and wanted to use them. Now, if you know me, you know that I don't generally consider watercolor cakes to be ideal for toddlers. Kids under three just tend to mix the colors all together and don't understand or remember to wash out their brush between colors. Also the colors are faint unless you know how to use them, so it's not terribly satisfying.

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With toddlers I either use liquid watercolors or make my own by mixing watercolors from tubes with water. There's one color per dish and one paintbrush per color. Easy peasy. The color is vibrant and they are very satisfying for the little ones to use. (This is a photo from a recent toddler art group.)

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But… Daphne came across these watercolor cakes meant for her older sister and wanted to explore them herself. Of course. She doesn't know that I think cakes are an inappropriate art material for toddlers. She just sees a fun, colorful, new art material to explore. And explore she did.

Here, she is moving the brush from color to color, mixing them all together.

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Now she's using her fingers to paint with the watercolors.

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Exploring the water dish and rinsing her fingers off.

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Multitasking?

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The inevitable "paint the body" experience.

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Now she's exploring the case and how it opens and closes.

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And last of all, she puts the watercolor cakes back in their case.

Whew! That was a lot of exploring!

And it was a learning lesson for mama. Watercolor cakes (or many other art materials) may just be a perfectly wonderful material for toddlers to use and explore. Who am I to say that they shouldn't use them just because they don't use them "properly." And I have to admit that she had a wholly satisfying painting session, even though the paints were muddled together and not very bright.

It's the process, not the product. Sometimes I need a reminder.

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Comments

  1. says

    She is so cute. I have one watercolor cake tray for each kid (names printed right on the top) — my son mixes all the colors like crazy with lots of water but after he is done, I just take a paper towel and dab off all of the mixed up colors so he can start fresh next time. I’m not sure he will ever be a keep-the-colors-separate kind of guy. :)

  2. says

    Perfect! I love this! I let my 3rd child, my 1-year-old, paint for the first time this past week. Painting with toddlers can be a tad chaotic…but I too have a hunch that it’s so valuable.
    I’m so happy to have discovered your blog! I’m a big Mary Ann Kohl fan. Will be checking back for art project ideas for the kids this summer!

  3. says

    Excellentreminder. My toddler gets most excited about playing with the water and brush and could take or leave the paints. I guess that counts as productive exploration, too!

  4. says

    This is so cute. I have a Daphne too. She loves coloring with her sister’s crayons, but we haven’t tried paints yet (she’s 2, and a former preemie, her hands are tiny). I may give the watercolor gels a try, I think she will love them.

  5. says

    Wonderful. I love being reminded that it is all about exploration and not just mess making! Must have a go with my own little explorer.

  6. says

    A lovely post that reminds one to just let little one’s explore…like you said…process rather than product! It’s a philosophy I’m trying to live by a bit more!
    Take care,
    Georgia

  7. katie says

    Well said! I will save this post so I can refer back to it. I am a mom to a toddler and while I supply him with art supplies I have a hard time leaving him alone so he can explore it on his own. Instead I hover and “help”. I will try to remember this post in the future!

  8. says

    i like your blog a lot! i’m an “art mom” too. and i’d like to ask you one question: how your little one react when u take the camera to make pics of the art session? i ask taht cuz when i start painting with my daughter all is going well untill i pik my camera to start taking pics. when i do this she start to being no more interested in the activity…and she come hug me. strange, isn’t it?
    btw, i like the one colore/one brush, this is very Montessori, indeed :-)

  9. says

    love the photos! love the spirit in which exploration is allowed and encouraged :) Have you seen the large paint ‘cakes’ that are available in sets of six – great colors and definitely a bit heftier for younger children to “dig” into the colors (instead of the traditional flip-open case of 8 watercolors) :)

  10. says

    i’m always taking pictures so mostly they don’t react / don’t really seem to pay much attention to it. although sometimes maia doesn’t want me to look at her artwork until it’s finished, especially if it’s for me, then i’m “forbidden” to take photos.
    that’s interesting about your daughter’s reaction to the camera. how old is she?

  11. Jenny Tsomides says

    Jean- I love the way you captured Daphne ‘in the act’. Beautiful shots!

  12. says

    Isn’t she cute exploring those watercolors! Such a good reminder, too!
    When my youngest was a toddler I would put the watercolor tray in a cake pan with just enough water to cover the bottom. She had a great time dipping a brush in the paints and swirling the colors around in the water – no paper at all!

  13. says

    Water colours are our favourite item in the art supplies kit. We just run them quickly under the tap to “unmuddy” the colours. We take them to the park, on the plane….everywhere and they take quite a while to wear down too = value for money!
    It is great to witness the development from muddy to mixing the water in properly, through to mixing colours.

  14. Jennifer Smyth says

    I run a multi age care center in Terrace BritishColumbia and can have 8 children at one time in the center which is located in the lowerlevel of my home the children thier age range is 1 threw 5 then after and before school age 8. i always provide the same materials for the children they just use them in thier own way!an i am very intreaged on how they may take the experence into thier own hands !! wow ! the toddlers lead way!but look up to the others as they schaffold thier learning styles.but the best teacher is the child sitting be side them . love my job and my little learners.

  15. says

    When my 21-month old son tries watercolors, he only lasts a minute or two (during which he mixes all the colors together, of course) before he wants to chew the painty bristles on the brush. He also wants to dump out all the water in the cup. I am impressed by Daphne’s restraint!