What to do with Early Finishers

What to do with early finishers in the art room

It’s funny how questions come in waves. I just received this question from a reader and within a week, I had two similar questions in my inbox. I guess there are some antsy kiddo’s in the art room this time of year!

Here’s the question:

” I am a pre-kindergarten teacher and have been a fan of your website and blog for a few years.  My children have a wonderful art teacher here at school.  We are having a problem with pre-k students finishing their projects early.  We have tried “free time” paper and materials for students who finish early, but this sometimes causes other students to rush through so that they can have free time too.  What do you do with your students who finish projects early?  Thank you for any ideas! “

Does this sound familiar? I know it does because every teacher experiences this no matter what subject they teach. Children are different and they respond to lessons in their own way. Still, there are a few variables that need to be considered before I can address this great question:

  • How long is the art class? Pre-K kids generally don’t have a great attention span so any lesson that is longer than 30-minutes is probably way too long. And although I don’t teach Pre-K (I’m strictly a K-6 art teacher), I’m guessing that these little cuties are about 4 years old so sitting still, following directions and implementing a lesson is best done in short spurts.
  • What type of “lesson” are you teaching? Again, I’m not a Pre-K teacher but I did have a group of Transitional Kinders this year and I know that I had to adjust my expectations and lesson objectives very quickly. At first I wasn’t sure how this group would differ from my other Kinder classes, but it turns out that their overall development and fine motor skills were at very different levels. I focused on art projects that reinforced necessary fine-motor skills such as cutting, tracing (holding a marking tool) and basic coloring. Here are some painting tips for working with Transitional Kinders and a cutting and pasting project that is perfect for little hands.
  • How much are you “helping”? Over the years, I have noticed that adults have the tendency to want to help children in Kinder classes. And the younger they are, the more the adult thinks the child needs help. And while I know it’s difficult, I would try very, very hard to let the child trace, cut and color all by himself. This stepping back will pay itself ten times over in confidence and skill level of the child. When it is necessary to step in, try to do so by teaching the child a skill. Sometimes, I help by holding a paper while the child cuts, or showing a child up close how to cut out a circle but I try not to do any of the steps for the child. This opens up a lot of philosophical debates over tampering with a child’s creativity, but I’m not interested in judging, I’m just reporting what I have observed.

So having gotten the variables out of the way, here are a few things to help little ones stay put a little bit longer:

  • Offer a new piece of paper and have the child make a second piece of art. It doesn’t have to be a nice piece of paper, just regular copy paper is fine.
  • Just this year I tried an experiment with my Kinders: I stopped putting out free choice drawing paper, which is something I’ve done for years. Just like my reader, I had found that a few Kinders were rushing through their projects to get to the free choice (mostly boys). Believe me, my free choice is not exciting at all. So to keep them in a learning environment without taking away their need to do free choice, I allowed them to cut papers, use the supplies available on the table groups but basically, the children had to sit/stand at their tables until it was time to clean up. This seemed to curb the desire to run to the back of the room to the join the “Yay! I’m finished gang”. On the same note, some times it was better to have the kids start clean up activities such as pick up paper scraps from the floor or tidy up the art supplies: something productive but not entirely desirable.
  • Offer a stack of books and place on the carpet in the front of the room. This is something that I have tried once and although it worked very well, I don’t keep my art books in my classroom and since I bike to work, hauling them to and from my house was becoming a chore. It might work for you though!
  • Art puzzles/origami/coloring pages/blocks/dry erase boards are all suggestions that my readers have offered over the years. Personally, I find these too enticing. There may be kids in your class that have no interest in art but working on origami or putting a puzzle together is much more appealing. I prefer not to offer the choice whether to do art or not, as my responsibility is to teach art.

Overall, the very best solution is to know the class very well. Find out what the average attention span is in minutes and then develop the lesson very carefully. If you need to break at a certain part in the lesson because it make sense prep-wise, then do so even if you have a lot of time remaining. Read a book to the class or allow all the children to do free-choice after the art room is clean.

Do you have any suggestions? I know you do! List them in the comments below….

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  • georgia

    I teach 9 classes of what is effectively preK, although at my school they are called Kinders. We have one 40 minute art class per week and I travel to their rooms. I am very familiar with early finishers. In their classrooms they have art sketch books, and as they finish their task they can draw in their books, however those that are early finishers also are quick (scribbly) drawers. The biggest problem I have is giving those kids who want and need to take the time to finish their work (because they are careful, add detail etc) the time to finish their work. I’d love to have a stack of art books for them to look at, even animal books, but as I go to their classes, I have to rely on any books that may be in the classroom. It’s a dilemma for sure.

  • Jennifer

    I am surprised Patti didn’t mention reading a story! Most of my kindergarten projects are connected to a book in some way. It breaks up the time well. Story and directions on rug, move to seat for project, clean up table, return to rug for journal if time allows.

    I too keep ‘art journals’ for the kids in K-2. Used to include third, but they rarely got to it, so a waste. Gr 1 and 2 are workbooks from NASCO with idea starters (which some kids follow and others do not) with additional blank pages. Whenever my race to mark up each page artists claim their book is done, I skim though and find blank or barely used pages and send them back to add details.

    When I taught from a cart, I carried a few How to Draw books with me as well. I now keep many books organized in the rug to inspire early finishers or occasionally reference during class. I often encourage those who race through a paper and throw it away to just read instead. Even the kindergartners pore over the how to draw books and the older kids still like the I Spy series. Every book was arranged by an artist and the kids are building their observational skill, so it’s win win.

    I used to also have puzzles and blocks, but those got to be an issue (rushing, sharing, etc), so those are rare treats.

    • Patty Palmer

      Yes, I agree, reading books is a good filler (I think I mentioned it above) as a way to calm down and transition to art class and as a way to fill in some extra time at the end of the class.
      I love the idea of art journals and after 12 years of teaching, I still haven’t found a way to fund them. I need to experiment with some fundraising as I think journals would probably be the best free-choice activity.

      • Sarah kranz

        To answer your question for funding art journals… I ask my principal to cover the cost. She took money from the curriculum budget since it is directly tied to my classroom instruction. Otherwise, check with your PTO. Ours is great for helping out in these cases. Lastly, if you use Artsonia to share your students’ work online, you can earn money every time families purchase products from the website. I usually earn hundreds of dollars a year to supplement the budget, but it is a ton of work!

        • Patty Palmer

          You have just given me the boost I need. I’m going to start fundraising for next year! Thanks!

      • Melissa

        I just started art journals or “idea books” with my K-5 grade. We fold 12 x 18 colored paper, insert 10 pages of computer paper, and make “binding” with 3″ x 12″ strips of wallpaper. I usually am in charge of stapling. Cheap, easy and it’s a great project for the first or second day of class in the beginning of the year. I have kids use a ruler to divide each page in half so they will have 40 sections in which to draw or sketch ideas. THis is also great for showing growth and used as evidence/artifact for standards and assessments.

        We have discarded wallpaper books from interior designers, Kids love to choose their favorite color and a cool design. I make the older students (4-5) use a ruler and cut their own strip. It always amazes me that students forget how to use a ruler ( measure. and make line).

        I use Original Works every year as a fundraiser for our 175 students (including PK). I organize it so it is one of the first projects of the year, ready so that parents may purchase for Christmas gifts. Even in our very small school, I make hundreds of dollars.

  • Marion McIntyre

    For years I have had a stash of construction materials such as Lego and wooden blocks for early finishers. Recently I have some students who rush their work so they can “play”. I am thinking about making them disappear for a while, and provide a different activity instead. I am open to some new ideas.

  • dtonsoline@lancaster.wnyric.org

    I too have the same issues with early finishers, again, usually the ones who don’t take their time with their artwork. I have tried many different ways to keep them engaged. If I let them do a free-draw or color sheet, others then rush to get that extra art piece to do. Unless we are in the throes of messy painting, I let them choose and I-Spy book, or a how-to-draw book to take back to their seats. Sending them to read books or blocks in the corner, or the art rug, always ends up with the others rushing their work to join them! If I let them to a color sheet, or free-draw, I have the policies of “one per customer”, and “If you choose it, you use it”

    • Patty Palmer

      This feels similar to me. I do find that one system works better with some classes more than others. It really helps to know the motivation level of each class because they can be slightly different.

  • Laura Dodson

    I teach mainly 2nd-12th (sometimes k/1st) and what I have found that works with 2nd-8th students is that when they finish early, the get to choose what they want to make with supplies on table. Mostly, I have a select few who are early finishers in each class. It has not created a problem thus far with others racing through their work. Fingers crossed!

  • Anoush Cowles

    I have a freedraw table with paper (1 piece only), markers, crayons, rulers, how to draw books, glue sticks, scissors, a dish of extra marker caps, a pencil sharpener, and a globe. They are in charge of finishing their work and putting it away (folder or drying rack), getting a sponge to wash their table, washing their hands, and then they can freedraw with anything from the freedraw table (at their own spot).

    • Anoush Cowles

      Ooh, I forgot–I also have a bookshelf of donated/discarded books that kids can read if they’re done, and they can use anything in the recycling boxes!

  • Mark

    This seems like a good discussion to jump in and mention one of the benefits a choice based pedagogy provides. I used to have this same problem when I used a teacher-centric teaching style. Now that my classroom is student-centric, I don’t have this problem. When students can pick thier own materials and projects, instead of having the teacher pick for them, the problem of what to do with “early finishers” dissapears. Children who work quickly can make more than one project during one class period while children who are more methodical might take the whole class, or multiple classes to finish thier work. One student might make four artworks in the same time another makes just one. And that is ok! Artists naturally work at different speeds. There is no need to hide the free drawing paper, drawing simply becomes one of the choices available to students along with painting, collage, sculpture, blocks or whatever else the teacher decides is appropriate and managable. No more “filler” or scrambling to figure out how to get everyone done at the same time.

    • Patty Palmer

      I agree. A choice-based art program sounds awesome and I totally can see how it would benefit the kids. How would you make a choice-based classroom work when perhaps you teach infrequently or in rotations? I don’t have to do this, but how do you incorporate standards?

      • Mark

        Standards are easily covered in a choice classroom. My lessons cover a multitude of skills, techniques, and concepts. In fact I would say I can cover a broader range of ideas now that every lesson I teach is not tied directly to a project that students are required to make. Of course the big news in art education right now is the new NCCAS document, which I think is going to affect a lot of our curricula. These standards, which I’m just starting to pick apart, ask students to explore, play, brainstorm ideas, use multiple approaches to solve problems, innovate, experiment, engage in artmaking without a preconceived plan, invent techniques and discuss and reflect on thier choices. All of these are the bread and butter of a student-centric classroom. So I’ll turn your question around. How do you cover these standards using teacher formulated projects?

        • Patty Palmer

          Thanks Mark. It’s not so much about Standards for me personally, but I thought my readers would like to hear how you handle that (because I know that’s what most people would ask).
          I’m very intrigued with your approach but sometimes the logistics of teaching only 2 days a week and only a few weeks per year daunt the process!
          Anyway. I didn’t intend to get into a debate. I certainly appreciate your comments and I’m hoping to learn more about choice-based art when I go to the NAEA convention tomorrow. Thanks for commenting!

  • Kim

    Sounds great in concept, but how would project grading, rubrics, and general assessment tasks of teaching be completed based on curriculum outcomes without significant time, effort and management of completed art work?

    • Mark

      Setting up a system for the flow of in progress and finished artwork did take some time but now flows very smoothly in my classroom. There is a place for each class to store paintings and other 2D work, 3D stuff, and ceramics, both wet and dry. I don’t collect and grade artwork per se, but instead a keep a daily chart of all the information I need to evaluate each student individually. Who is working with what material, who is on task and who is not, who is pushing themselves and who is not, etc. I use the 8 studio habits as a basis for this. Several times a year a do “have to” project with each class and grade them using a formal rubric that our department developed, to track growth over time. It works well and only occasionally do I have to come home with stacks of projects to grade on the weekends.

      • Maggie

        Mark, can you explain what you mean by the 8 studio habis please?

  • Sally Salazar

    I’m new to the wonderful world of teaching art. I just graduated this past fall and I’m hoping to obtain an art teaching position soon. One of the ideas that I was thinking of trying out, when I finally have my own art classroom, is to have an Art Task Center for early finishers. When the students are done with their art project they will have to go to the Art Task Center and choose a task card from one of the many subjects I will have provided. I will have a set of drawers with the following subjects listed: Vocabulary, Writing, Math, History, Science and Reading. All of the supplies they will need will be in each drawer. If they choose vocabulary, there will be lists of vocabulary words to choose from all pertaining to art and dictionaries as well. They will have to look up the words and their meanings and write them down. There will probably also be a vocabulary matching game. If they choose writing, they will have to write a couple of paragraphs about what they learned in art that day or they might choose to do a story using art specific writing prompts. If they choose math, there will be worksheets with math word problems related somehow to art. There might also be math facts worksheets with clipart. If they choose history, there will be books to read about art history and the task card they choose will have questions for them to find the answers from the book that they chose to read. There will be worksheets with the questions for each book. Not sure yet about science tasks, probably will include stuff on animals and whatever else I can think of. They might have to draw an animal in their habitat or fill out a worksheet with related questions to an animal they picked. If they choose reading, I will have a few books provided such as books on artists, social books, manners books, cultural books and books related to art. I would probably switch out tasks every six to nine weeks or so. Of course I would have grade appropriate tasks. It may take some time to put together, but I think it might be worth it in the long run because if they do finish early, at least they are still learning. And if the kids know what their options are for finishing early, they might spend more time on their art project, which is what I want them to do in the first place.

    • Patty Palmer

      You have some awesome ideas and I know they will be valued in the art room!

  • Ronda

    The kindergarteners who finish art projects early, in my classes, are invited to use the materials of the day to create anything that captures their imaginations once the project has been completed………….we also always have a variety of ‘How To Draw” books, paper and pens available once the project has been completed.
    They seem to love these drawing books……….some trace and some really enjoy the challenge of trying to draw.
    I found many age appropriate books on Amazon.

  • Lisa

    I am loving reading what all have to say about this topic. I teach art and ceramics to about 90 3-5 year olds with developmental delays, as well as about 40 adults of various ages and developmental issues, downs, autism, etc… I am a new teacher, though I am older, so I have plenty of experience with kids in general and also with the disabled.

    I have early finishers in both groups although the adults are not a problem in this regard! It is true that the kids do best with choice… However…for the age group that I teach…if I offer a bunch of choices at the outset, they all want to do all of the choices in a 30 minute class…lol. Age appropriate, of course, makes for almost impossible cleanup with back to back classes. That span between 3 and 5…wow….big difference. My projects are generally open ended, but even so, “I’m done” is still inevitable. I usually have available paper, pencils/crayon/markers, as well as a box of wooden scraps like blocks and popsicle sticks. (a local carpenter saves scraps for me.) It’s interesting to see what they do with that combo. Construction, tracing around the sticks and wood, coloring the wood. It seems to keep them occupied and creative while others finish the main task.

  • Kari

    I recently began teaching 2.5-hour art classes/camps for 4-6 year olds. While I incorporate breaks such as outdoor play and reading books (but cannot incorporate snacks or even toys, really), I still feel the classes are too long for this age. At any rate, the length of the class magnifies the “early finisher” problem. Not only do I have the traditional early finishers who are “done” early with a project, but as the class moves past the halfway point, even the other children begin to rush through their projects, until as a whole the class feels “done” with art for the day. What I find is that while theoretically I’d love to begin the class period with simple exercises that build up to a main project, the kids are most focused and most passionate about whatever we begin with and that their interest (or at least their attention span) drops off toward the end of the class, even if I leave the most exciting projects till then. I’m exhausted by early finishers and worry that “done” mentality will drain their love for art over a class of this length unless I can find ways of keeping them engaged. Thus my search for ideas . . .

  • Shelby

    Hi! I am looking for some advice! I recently started in a new district where expectations are VERY high, parents are very involved and teachers’ classrooms look like something out of a magazine! I teach kindergarten and first grade only so I have 16 classes of 5-7 year olds.

    I like to do QUALITY art projects (things that their parents want to keep) with my students that usually take 2-3 classes to complete, as there are several steps involved in each project. For example, I had them make a mixed media landscape using sand, ripped paper and watercolor. Each step we did on a different day. Typically, students were taking about 20 minutes total to do each step so there was no way t o combine steps on the same day and allow for clean up. Therefore, I was giving students coloring pages (I tried to make them related to whatever we were working on), I also give them free draw paper and I have a group of shelves I call the “Kid Zone” that is full of supplies students can use for their free drawings. The problem I am running in to with this is mainly with their teachers. They have told my principal that they see “too much coloring coming out of the art room”
    So, I stopped giving them coloring pages and told them they could only “free draw” or use supplies from the Kid Zone. Now, there is an increased amount of paper fans and airplanes as well as heaps of ripped up newsprint taped or glued to another heap of newsprint. I feel like the kids need this time to be able to create what they want to create during their free art time, however, I’m worried about what the other teachers think when these things leave my classroom. I honestly thought the coloring sheets were more beneficial as they were at least working on fine motor and coloring skills.HELP!!

    What other meaningful things could I give for students to do that would allow me time to monitor those students still finishing but would allow for those that are finished with their projects, know exactly what they are to do when they are finished?

    This is my biggest challenge as a teacher!

    • Patty Palmer

      Such an interesting question. I appreciate your problem, because we’ve all been there. The timing of lessons is something you learn to master over time. You may have given yourself and the kids a bit too much time at the end of the lesson. Almost every single kid will prefer to do a free choice drawing, coloring page, play with puzzles, etc, over the actual art project because they are kids. Don’t assume they need this time. I get the sense that the parents and teachers at you school want you to teach as much art into your session as you can. That’s how it is at my school. I was hired as the art specialist so I could do things with the kids that classroom teachers had no time to do.
      I would re-think you lesson structure and try to push the learning just a wee bit more. Aim for 80% of your class to finish. If you plan your lesson for 100% completion, you will run into problems.
      If you aren’t willing to do this because you like how your lesson progresses, then take the 10 or 15 minutes at the end of the class to teach a quick learning skill to the kids who are finished. The kids who aren’t done can work independently and will be motivated to finish.
      Doe this help?
      Remember, be flexible. Don’t think of the teachers as judging you but instead work with them for support, suggestions and encouragement.

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