Top Eight Tips for Teaching Art to Children

I love teaching art to children. My philosophy is quite simple: To engage, inspire and teach art with age-appropriate techniques and subjects. I’ve only been teaching art to children for eight years but it feels like I’ve been teaching my whole life. I remember what I was attracted to as an artistic child: how-to-draw books, colorful illustrations and art supplies (especially the jumbo pack of Crayola Crayons with the built-in sharpener). I keep these things in mind when I’m front and center amongst thirty kids. Over the years, I have tried many techniques and found some more effective than others.

Top tips for teaching art to children

Here is my list of top eight tips for teaching art to children:

#1 Ban pencils and erasers.

Sounds harsh, right? I rarely use pencils and erasers in my classrooms with the exception of a few lessons for upper grades. The reason is purely practical: small pencil leads encourage small drawings. If a kinder is drawing a portrait and then is required to paint that very portrait, using a pencil will surely lead to frustration. It’s hard to paint tiny eyes! There is another reason: pencil markings can be erased, which leads to second guessing, which leads to lots of eraser action, which leads to class being over before the child has anything on his paper. Using oil pastels and/or markers allows the artist to move quickly, commit to the drawing and forgive their “mistakes”. This is a big part of art for me; giving into the process and not worrying about the details.

#2 Mix paint onto paper, and not in paint palettes.

My top 8 simple tricks and tips for teaching art to kidsGive a child paint and an individual palette and they can spend hours mixing paints to find the perfect color. If you have all the time in the world, then by all means do so! But if you are in a classroom setting, with 30 kids and a short amount of time,  encourage the children to mix paints on their paper. Use the double-loading technique when you can. It produces very cool results and clean-up is much easier!

#3 Forgo art smocks and aprons

My top 8 simple tricks and tips for teaching art to kidsGathering art smocks, getting them on, storing them, organizing them, etc. takes time. Sometimes by the time the children get their smocks on and get seated, 5-7 minutes of a 30-minute art class is gone. Get ’em in, get ’em settled and begin the fun stuff. I swear by Oxiclean, too. A good soaking in this powerful stuff can wipe out most stains.

#4 The ten-minute quiet time

After instructions are given, the paper handed out and the children are engaged in their project, begin a ten-minute quiet time. This is their time; the chance to reflect on their work, the opportunity to lose themselves in their art, and perhaps the most important of all, the permission notto speak to their best friend. This quiet-time method only works if there is no transition involved. If the children are on day 3 of a project, I can expect that they will finish up at different times. Helping them transition to a new project or free-choice activity is not going to work during quiet-time.

#5 Learn how to draw well and make mistakes

My top 8 simple tricks and tips for teaching art to kidsThis is a fun one. I love to draw and demonstrating simple drawings for my students really helps them engage with the lesson. I give lots of examples so if we are doing a lesson on chameleons, I draw a few different ones; some realistic, some silly, some animated. In the process of drawing on the white board, I always incorporate mistakes. Always. I laugh at my “mistakes”, tell the kids to expect them and then I show them how to turn mistakes into something else. I include many how-to-draw sheets in my PDF art lesson plan booklets. These are mostly for the teachers (not necessarily for the kids). I think it’s critical that you show your artistic side, no matter what you think of it, and inspire your students. You can do it!

#6 Pick fun subjects

You probably know this by now, but I think its imperative that you chose the subject of your art lessons carefully. I want my students charging into the art room anticipating a fun lesson and bearing a can-do attitude. I love watching their faces as they look at my white board to catch a glimpse of the next art lesson. Often, kids will smile and say, “Oh, that looks hard!” but I know from their expressions that they know they will be able to do it. They have confidence! And if they have that, you have an eager and engaged crowd.

#7 Use 1/2 sheets to save time

I use the standard 12″ x 18″ drawing paper for most projects but if you cut that paper in half, children can complete the project in much less time. Not only does it save time, but it saves on supplies as well. All my projects can be done on smaller sheets, so don’t feel by using a smaller paper size you are compromising.

#8 Outline, outline, outline

My top 8 simple tricks and tips for teaching art to kidsThe trick to making an art project look completed is outlining. I’ve talked about outlining before and it’s because it really makes the art piece pop. If you are doing a drawing in pencil and then decide to paint with watercolors, it’s really hard to keep the contrast unless there is a dark line in there somewhere. Use a sharpie waterproof black marker, oil pastel or even black paint and a small brush. It really makes a difference. And it doesn’t always have to be black…try a blue or even a red. Cool.

Now, it’s your turn…what are your best tried and true tips?

What do you think?

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  • sue

    thanks for these tips…..i teach kindergarten and we do a lot of art in class. I love your ideas…..your blog is helping me have more art and not just crafts.
    Sue 🙂

    • Dody

      i am a first time reader and freelance artist loving the honesty in children’s artwork.As an art instructor for an after school program, it’s frustrating to have a large group of kg thru 5th graders together. I found your tips very helpful and will return.
      I loved the outlining and losing the pencil bit. I too have been trying to encourage the children to rethink their opinion of mistakes.

    • Irene

      Thank you for your great tips.

      I teach K-4 art to 850 students weekly. One of my best tips is to go small. Children have a hard time filling up a 9×12″ paper, so it helps to cut it in half. Many projects can be reduced in size and are easier to complete in a 45 minute period. The children are happier and I am happier.

  • Lobroo

    Best tip I was given was never waste paint or paper. So if you have left over paint in palettes or lids tops etc paint onto scrap paper and let dry. Keep this collection and when you want some free activity children use the variety of spare painted paper to cut up into shapes and place onto other spare painted paper. Makes some great artwork. Lots of other things you could do with it too eg. Wrapping paper etc.
    Thanks for your tips.

  • Paula

    Thank you for your techniques.
    I love the NOPENCIL technique I spend too much time erasing with my firstgraders. They tend to draw very small. I’m going to use it on my next proyect!!!

    My favourite tip is outlining. It really makes a difference. But I always used black markers. I will try the black paint too.

    What I do when we finish a project with oilpastels is aply some “shine” on it with oilpastel-fixer or hairspray(cheaper and quicker). So it shines a little and doesn’t get ruined when touched. You can see the results in my classroom blog.

    Thank you for your tips again!

  • Lori

    I don’t have to worry about putting on smocks with my kiddies as they are stored in their homerooms and come with them on. Although, I found the most time saving tool is the use of the ELMO- and electronic teaching tool. It’s a camera that is attached to a projector so the kids can see me easily create their project live on the big screen. It’s eliminated me having to repeat the how to steps throughout class and promoted more confident artists.

    Part of my top ten would have to include the use of leaders. I find the more involved the kids are in the management of the room the more respectful they are of the rules, the materials, and the easier the flow. I wrote about my leader jobs in my blog actually.

    Outlining is a must! I agree! As are the fun topics! Also promoting that “There are no Mistakes in art, just new opportunities!” helps!

    High quality paper! Buy the best, then you get the best results!

    • Patty

      Excellent tips….and the ELMO camera is on my wish list!

      • Kellie D

        Patty,
        I had a Kinder teacher who sent her students to art everyday with a white t-shirt (their name was on the front) their parents supplied. Not only did I learn names (this was terrific for classroom management) it did keep them from being messy and I didn’t have to deal with the apron/smock/”Mrs. D, can you tie me?” that started every paint class. This is one of the best tips I could pass on!

        On the ELMO, my school could not afford that wonderful piece of equipment AND the projector to utilize it. I did a fundraiser and bought the projector and a local education foundation granted me a IPEVO document camera. This little gem was only $69. It does not have all the cool features of the ELMO or other doc cameras out there, but I didn’t want to wait another year or two before getting one. I’ve adjusted to the slow refresh rate (I don’t move under the camera as fast as I might normally would) and the kids LOVE it. They are more engaged with what ever lesson I am showing just because of the ‘cool’ factor. They really thought it was cool when all I had was the classroom television to view it on.

        So 2 tips, white shirt with their name on it and doc camera + projector. Don’t wait, ask for one soon!

        Kellie

    • Kristen

      Lori, what is your blog? I absolutely love your concept of having leaders, and I’d love to read your thoughts!!

  • Robin

    My biggest hint is to keep them laughing and keep encouraging.

    I love my kids, I teach over 1,000 students at two different schools , so there is no way I can learn all their names. But I DO try to find something special about each child. I try to find something positive to point out. I give lots of hugs and high fives and comment on their fun shoes they are wearing or a bow in their hair or a color that looks nice on them. Sometimes I feel like I am the only positive word those kids get all day.

    I also tell funny stories about my mistakes I have made in art or in life. It helps the students to feel more comfortable about making them themselves. When drawing on the white board as my example, I try to purposely make a mistake and then point it out to them and ask how I can fix it without erasing it. That gets the whole class involved as they are calling out answers.

    My favorite trick to get them laughing and relaxed is to draw something purposely wrong but very exaggerated. For instance we were drawing reindeers and I said,”Now don’t draw the head TOO big or you will end up with teeny tiny antlers”. Which of course I just HAD to draw a Giant head that filled the whole paper and then preceded to make little mini antlers. The whole class laughs but they also get the message by seeing my mistake.

    • Patty

      Couldn’t agree more Robin. Laughing, relaxing and enjoying art is the ultimate goal!

    • Klair

      I love all these great tips! As a brand new teacher this year, a blog like this can really save me some time trying to figure things out on my own. What a wonderful community to join.

      I would only add one critique to Robin’s tip. Although complimentary words to students can brighten their day and make them feel special, I would avoid compliments that have to do with clothing/accessories. As a student who grew up in a low-income family, I remember other students with nicer clothes getting compliments, and feeling embarassed about my own attire. Character/behavior/artistic compliments seem to be more meaningful, anyway.

      Thanks again for the great discussion, and have a great school year!

  • Mary

    This is great, thank you!

  • Ally

    Seriously can not get enough of your site!!!!

    aMaZiNg~*~

  • Lizzie

    I too have a “Silent Time” when students get involved and focused on their artwork! It is so peaceful and you can see by their facial expressions that they are really into the project!

    Sometimes during the demonstration if the project is simple enough (like if I do a guided drawing) I will be completly silent. I hold up my black crayon (or whatever medium I’m using) and wait until all the students are holding up their black crayon and it’s completly quiet. When I do a silent demonstration I exagerate my actions and my facial emotions. They get a kick out of it! This leads us up to a well focused work time later in the class!! And it really has brought less headache to me as an art teacher because they are into their work they will “stop look and listen” quicker for their clean up instructions.

    Keep it real, Patty!
    Your site rocks!

  • Elizabeth

    I was just reassigned from high school art to elementary. I love my kids, but they also seriously stress me out because I have to spend so much more time managing and so much less time teaching. I have 500+ kids I see only once a week for 45 minutes at a time, give or take. I would love to get an idea of how other teachers manage their time (especially clean-up) and/ or any tips they have for keeping 40 kinders under control while their 80 hands are being watched at one sink. I am also seriously stressed over only having 5 minutes between grades (non-sequential grades, I might add). Does anyone try to use the same materials or projects for different grade levels to cut down on set-up time? Any advice offered would be very much appreciated!

    Love your site, btw! You have been a lifesaver!

    • Patty

      You should read everything in Inside the Artroom (menu bar), especially Art Room Organization. You are not alone in your struggles. My readers have posted great comments that you’ll be able to relate to.

    • Anoush

      On the hand washing thing, I don’t let my little guys wash their hands in that type of scenario. Here’s how I do it:

      I have two sponge buckets-one labeled “Clean Sponges” and the other labeled “Dirty Sponges” (they’re just plastic dish washing pans). I have enough sponges for all my students to have one. I start the day with a pan of clean damp sponges which I’ve squeezed all the extra water out of. Students can get a clean sponge to clean up their area when they’re done painting, and put it in the dirty sponge bucket once their table is clean. But before they do, I have them wipe the extra paint off their hands with the sponge. (Remember, their classroom teachers have them wash their hands before lunch, they get bathroom breaks, and a little paint residue never hurt anybody!)

      As they’re lining up I fill the dirty sponge pan with hot water, squeeze out the paint, squeeze out all the water I can, and toss them back in the clean sponge bucket by the handful. (I do like 8 sponges at once, it seriously takes me 30 seconds to wash all of them.) Now they’re ready for the next class.

      Every so often I soak them with some cleanser and microwave them damp for a few minutes to disinfect them. I also dry them spread out on the counter every night.

      The benefits are: they don’t need to dry their tables (the sponges are just damp, so they air dry very quickly). They don’t drip water on the floor from soggy sponges. Your sink area is not a disaster zone. You don’t have 40 kids trying to wash their hands at one time. And you don’t need to wash the tables. Huzzah!

      If they’re doing something supremely messy (more than just painting), have them use a sponge at the sink to scrub their hands. Kinders can take 5 minutes to let the water gently run over their fingers–if they use a sponge, they are a lot faster.

    • Erica

      Elizabeth, I am sure after a year you have figured a lot out on your own. I was also a high school teacher and now am teaching elem. I actually love it, but do not love that transitions bring conversations up and listening down. I hate how hard it is to get all kids to hear directions so I don’t have to repeat them 10000x’s yet, I feel like I am doing it anyway. It just wasn’t this hard in a HS setting to get kids to listen to directions.
      If you still have 5 mins between classes, then you are doing better than me. I have no mins and I used to think that was crazy, but now it is normal.
      I think it’s all about timing clean up. Assigning table leaders and utilizing table folders. If it’s especially messy, assigning random people to do jobs when you know table leaders aren’t doing a great job.
      There are so many great tips to do things better, but also so many ways to make things worst. I would love to discuss noise levels further. How hard do people come down on the non-hand raisers, the constant non-listeners? How do you deal when you feel (and sometimes do) snap?
      Also, I am moving to circle tables and I am not sure how to deal with assigning table leaders. I am considering just going to have a table be my helpers for the day…rather than table leaders. I am looking forward to my new tables, but also know clean up might not go as smoothly.

      • Patty

        Great points you bring up. I’m listening and have written down a few to inspire a few future posts!

      • Heather L. Huettner

        I have one table be helpers for the day. That way only 4 kids are up moving about rather than 7 or 8 depending on the number of tables you have. I also strive for a traffic flow around the room so we don’t have people going in all directions. My favorite thing is my color coded drying rack…red table sitters place their work above the red coded section, and so forth. That way, handing back artwork is chunked by table which is so much quicker AND if a kiddo did not put their name on the work (and there’s always at least one!) it’s easier to narrow down who it belongs to. I do use t-shirts for paint shirts that they grab on their way in the room and put on as they are getting settled. I have a basketball backboard over the bucket, so putting away paint shirts is a fun shot into the goal. As for clean up, I have a rag bucket with enough small washcloths that have been soaked in a disinfectant and squeezed out that kids use to both clean their hands and their tables. We avoid the sinks because of the time, noise, and propensity for horseplay. Also no time between classes for me and 5 different grade levels per day. I don’t plan according to materials to be used for grade levels, I just plan according to what materials, artists, periods etc. I want kids to use/learn based on our curriculum and their classroom curricula. Studying China in second grade? Then we are doing symmetrical Ming vases with complex patterns which meets my criteria and ties nicely to their classroom.
        Elementary is hard work, yes! But it is so rewarding. There is beauty from the chaos. Keep looking for it and know that you are doing a great service to children by providing them hands on opportunities to create and walk away with an experience, a process, or a product that they can use long into their future.

    • Sharon

      Hi
      I made the switch from middle/high school to elementary
      And one lesson plan per week for all grade levels
      I adapt the lesson so that it meets the criteria for each grade level by how it is presented

      With kindergarten and grade one we do motor memory movements for each name of artists
      So that by certain gestures they remember week to week

  • Ami

    A great tip for clean up is to use wet paper towels for hands and tables instead of having kids visit the sink to wash up (you get a loooong line, kids taking forever to wash hands, and a VERY messy sink later on). I individually criss cross the brown paper towels the school provides for us into an “X.” I then toss them into the sink, run water over them until they are completely soaked through, and wring out the excess. The criss-crossing helps you be able to peel them apart easier! I hand each child a wet paper towel as they are bringing a painting to the drying rack and tell them to use it on their hands first, then wipe their spot. If its washable paint, water is all you need. I also find it easier to just have kids drop their brushes into the sink and I clean them myself later. I pick one or two kids to pick up water bowls and empty them, and pick up paint containers and take them to their designated spot in the room. My kids pretty much have the clean up routine down: drop your brush in the sink, take painting to drying rack, and wipe up!

    • Ami

      I also wanted to add that I tell kids that I will only pick students who are following clean up directions to do water bowls and paint containers. That is a good motivator for kids to stop what they’re doing and make the transition into clean up!

    • Patty

      This is a great system….I think this will work for me. Love the simple instructions. Thanks!

    • Priscilla

      I’ve used the wet paper towel method before and loved it because it was free and easy! However my current school doesn’t supply the “c-fold” towels – ours are dispensed in a roll & it doesn’t work quite the same! I asked our PTO for a donation of baby wipes and so far they are working pretty well! I don’t like the idea of using so many wipes, but they really do get those little hands clean!

      I have only 25 minutes with grades K – 4 so clean up after painting can feel rushed! I have the students bring their papers to the drying rack one table at a time and then stand in line. (I have 1 table clean up the water cups, ect. which changes every week.) When the students are standing quietly in line, I hand them a wet-wipe (or half of one if their hands aren’t too messy 🙂 They stand in line and wipe their hands until their teacher arrives & drop the wipe in the trash on their way out the door!

      I know wipes can get expensive, but as long as they are donated to the art room I will continue to use them!

  • annette.moring

    Priscilla, just use an utility knife to slice through the roll then turn it over and slice on the opposite side. It is much easier than trying to pull off pieces and is very fast. When the roll get small than only one slice is needed.

  • Lindsey

    I’m a 2nd year teacher at a K-8 school and just recently discovered how handy baby wipes are! Last year, I painted with K/1 only one time, and it was a disaster! On top of the mess, waiting for them to wash their hands just about killed me! Luckily, my school is very small with only 2 classes per grade level, so I bought a case of baby wipes at Sam’s Club for about $13 and had several boxes donated from an oversupplied K teacher. Now when I do “messy” projects (which isn’t really that often), the kids line up at the door to leave & I just go down the line with the box, then they toss them in the can on their way out. Wipes also work great when the older kids use chalk pastels; they each get one at the beginning of class to wipe their fingers on, and then use them to wipe up their table at the end.

    Also– thanks for saving my butt more than once! I know it’s terrible to say, but with teaching 9 grade levels, I sometimes forget one of them. Your site is one of my “night-before panic” go-to sites. THANKS!

  • Carissa

    Wow! Thanks for the website… I teach primary children in New Zealand, and your website has soooo many great ideas!!

  • Staci

    I teach k-5 to about 500 kids, once a week for 60 minutes. I find the best way to wash is to line the kids up in the hall sitting against the wall playing a quiet hallway game and send them a few at a time to use the bathroom sinks. Four sinks is better than one sink!

    My favorite drawing tip is one I picked up as a student teacher. Draw with erasers first!! Pink erasers will leave a pink trail on the paper. This helps with the “draw big” problem because the erasers make big lines. If they’re not happy with the line they drew, they just brush it away and try again. No frustration! Then just trace over the eraser line with a pencil.

  • Brooke

    Wow! Everyone has some fabulous ideas! I have been an elem. art teache for 3 years now, i was in a first grade classroom before that.
    to Elizabeth: love your name first off! that is my daughters name:) On cleanup, I have found that we need to start 5-7 min. before class ends. It depends on what we are doing and what grade level. My classes are not in sequential order either and i also have 5 min. in between. I try to plan my lessons so that the grades that come after one another are using the same supplies. However, this doesn’t always work. Also, I assign 2 helpers for the day, they are in charge of putting up supplies if needed. One of my BIGGEST helps are my “assistants”. I have a third grade class (i chose them because it works in their schedule best) that sends me 2 helpers each day to assist with kindergarten. 30 kindergartners and 1 teacher makes for a very stressful 45 min! my helpers don’t stay long, usually they come in a few min. after class starts and leave about 10-15 min. later. Their teacher uses this as a big incentive for them and I have others walking around to help with writing names at the beginnng of the year or sharpen pencils. Sometimes they clean up from the previous class if we ran out of time. It gets easier every year. My first year was a definate learning experience!
    To everyone else: I love your ideas, thank you for sharing! I hadn’t thought of the no pencils. I will have to try that since my little ones will spend the whole class sharpening pencils or erasing if you’d let them!

  • julie

    I use 20oz clear plastic containers with lids for tempera paint and store them on a cart. When color gets brownish, I let it air dry and then crumble it into the trash and fill it with new paint. We live on an island, and I hate the thought of pouring paint down the drain, plus it reduces clean up time and waste by storing paint.

  • Lara

    Hi :). Thanks a lot for these great tips. They help a lot. Just I am not sure what you ment by “Double-loading technique”. If you could tell me would be grateful. Lara

  • Evie

    I am a part-time art teacher. Thanks for the tips.

  • Janet M. Flores

    This website was very helpful, and I enjoyed the video on double loading of paint. Thanks for the great tips.

  • Lauriston Watson

    I have always broken down the art project to its base, if Drawing a particular image is key to the students vocabulary, then,we “work” lines. Not setting a particular formula, but suggesting that line evolves into shape, and when one breaks down the basic shapes into the parts that best fits their subject then the construction lines become the parallel to the transformer.
    The outlining principle for me is tricky. The “light” source,I use to encourage the tone of the ‘edge’ line. Kinder to grade 6 could be encouraged to match their outline to their colour of choice of the area to help the ‘finish’.
    Very good tips you have presented.
    Thanks Larry

  • Liza Calkins

    Hi Patty,

    I have recently tried banning pencils for some of my kids’ lessons. I did this for a first grade class and third grade class. Both times it was extremely stressful. I tried to let them know that it’s okay to make a mistake and they can always work with it and turn it into another shape. One third grader said I was a mean teacher to her friend, and mean is something I definitely am not! Many students complained. A first grader burst into tears working on a portrait of his mom. Have you dealt with this fear and resistance in your experience and if so, how did you work through it?

    I love your site so much — it has been a life saver to me as a second year teacher!

    • Patty

      It’s really about baby steps and how you present it. If you have conditioned your students to use pencils, then they may not be receptive to switching. But, if you approach it with a project that is more forgivable (not portraits) then it might work out to be less stressful. Let me know how it goes.

  • Barbara Barkey

    Brilliant I teach art to adults and doing a child course very informative .thanks would love other tips please

  • Stefania

    Hi! As I am setting out to plan an after school art class for a small group, I am experiencing difficulty in deciding how to approach my planning. I struggle with rigid lesson plans (we are all painting a flower!) and I wonder whether children should be allowed to express their own thoughts much as they do when they write, for example. If art is the creation of symbols with certain mediums, should I not let children create their own instead of dictating the topic and all the steps? I was horrified after a guided drawing activity that nobody recognized which piece was theirs although all the birds looked pretty great from a grownup perspective.
    I love all your projects but I have to figure out their purpose, as opposed to letting the children explore the materials and asking them to think about something that means a lot to them and let that be the subject of their art. I keep going back and forth between the two approaches.

    • Patty

      There is no wrong way to teach art.You have a great curiosity of how children interpret their art, so bring that into your teaching. You’ll do great. Just get started and let the children be your barometer.

  • Daniel G.

    im about to be considered to teach art to children up to highschool, in Shanghai

    can you give me some advice?

  • Karissa

    Love the tips. Thanks for reminding me to have fun with my kinders.

  • Tanya

    Hi There,

    What would you recommend as an appropriate time period for classes held after school time?

  • Amusi Michael

    Good teaching steps

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