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Baby Picasso: Art with Infants and Toddlers

Baby Picasso: Art with Infants and Toddlers
Natasha Crosby Kile, MS
June 12, 2018

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Learning Outcomes

After today's course, participants will be able to:

  • Identify how art experiences affect brain development
  • Name specific developmental skills acquired through art
  • Distinguish between creative art and craft projects

Introduction and Overview

Thank you for joining me for this webinar on the topic of participating in art experiences with infants and toddlers. We're going to begin with a quote from Pablo Picasso that inspired this entire training:

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

I believe this statement to be true. It is a tenet that I live by, and I try to incorporate this idea in my trainings. Early childhood educators have an ability to encourage and facilitate this natural-born artistic curiosity that infants and toddlers have, so that they might carry that curiosity into their adult lives. We have the power to either encourage creativity, or to stifle it. Early art experiences are all about the process of sensory exploration, and are important part of young children's development. Every child is an artist: they just have to be given the opportunity to create. We also have to make sure that children are given a safe space to make a mess and do that exploration, and it is our job to foster and nurture that curiosity.

Very young children are almost totally dependent upon their senses to gather and acquire data about the world around them. They use their senses to determine whether areas are safe to explore. To infants and toddlers, the world is huge and it's full of wonder and amazement. Their senses are constantly firing, and they're acquiring new information while their brains are processing what they're experiencing. That's a lot going on at once and it's a big responsibility for early childhood educators to facilitate that as well.

Benefit of Art Experiences

We also know that art experiences embody and involve the senses in ways that other activities cannot. Other activities in which young children participate in (e.g., rolling a ball, learning how to walk, etc.) are important for teaching things like cause and effect. However, there are certain senses and certain parts of the brain that cannot be affected or touched like they can with art experiences.

Art activity stimulates the senses, and therefore the brain, creating connections and wiring for the brain for future successful learning. At birth, babies have about 50 trillion connections, or synapses, within their brain. In the first three months of life, that number multiplies by almost 20. At one year, the number becomes about 1,000 trillion synapses. That is a huge number of connections being made within that first year of life, before children even learn to talk or walk. The young brain is so amazing.

Art provides children with many valuable experiences. First, using art, children can express themselves openly. There's no right or wrong way to do art. It allows them the chance for self-expression. Especially in the toddler stage, children are seeking their identity, and seeking to assert themselves as people. Art gives them a great avenue to do just that. When a toddler makes an art project and feels proud about what he's done, he's able to say, "Wow, I did it. I'm a person of importance and I did this project."

With art, children can experiment with color, shape and texture. Later in life, those skills translate into math skills and mathematical thinking. Art also provides children with the ability to use visual expression as a means of communication. For example, I once worked with a young toddler that was very angry and upset about something. We ended up giving him a crayon and letting him scribble on a piece of paper. At first, his crayon markings started out very hard as he was getting all of that aggression out. The more he colored and the more we talked through that process, the lighter the strokes got, and he was able to use art as a communication tool to express his feelings and release that emotion. 

Using art, children can experience pride in their accomplishments. I've had children bring me an art project that was nothing more than a basic scribble, but the look on that child's face was priceless because he was so proud of that accomplishment.

Children can develop an understanding of cause and effect using artistic expression. For example, when they write or paint on a piece of paper, it leaves a mark that wasn't there before. How did that happen? Or, when painting at an easel, they might put a big gloopy glob of paint on the paper, and they will notice that it runs down the paper. Those are the first steps of learning cause and effect.

Art provides children with the ability to work with a wide variety of materials. There aren't many homes that have chalk pastels or paint readily available to their toddlers. I remember one parent who once said, "I don't know how you have this paint out for these children, and how they don't just paint everyone and everything around them." But sometimes, making a mess is part of the process of learning how to handle different materials. In addition, by using the different materials and media, children experience sensory pleasure through artistic activities. There's something to be said for children being able to squish a ball of clay, or push and roll a paintbrush around, or move a crayon over rough paper.

Children develop their small muscle skills when they make art, by using all sorts of fine muscle groups. They're getting a chance to develop and refine their hand-eye coordination, by figuring out, "Okay, how do I get this crayon in my hand to the paper? And then how do I move my hand to make the marks?" There are a lot of synapses that are firing through the process of art, as young children are using so many different combinations of skills.

Art gives children a chance to enhance, develop and nurture their innate creativity. Going back to identity development, art also gives them a chance to assert their individuality. "This is my picture, I made this. This is special and specific to me." They get a lot of pride from that as well. In addition, through art, children can solve simple problems, develop planning skills, and so much more.

As a child explores art media, there are millions of synapses connecting and firing, which leads to the formation of well-rounded personalities, good attachment, self-esteem and better mental health. When they feel good about who they are, then they tend to have better mental health, and they also tend to feel better about the others around them.

When it comes to art experiences with infants and toddlers, it's important to remember that the process of allowing them to manipulate and have an effect on the raw material is so much more important than the final product. Many times, I've worked with teachers who become frustrated when they're trying to get a child to work on an art project, and the product doesn't come out looking like the teacher felt it should. Once upon a time, I worked with a young teacher who was new to the field. When we would do projects, she would go back behind the children and move things around so that it would make more sense. However, we have to avoid falling into that trap. Respecting the children's art and creativity is so much more important.

With art, the goal is to make it possible for children to explore and experiment freely with a wide variety of materials in a safe way. The childcare environment, where children have a committed and observant caregiver, is designed to encourage this exploration. Oftentimes, children spend more time in the child care environment than in their home environment with their parents. As ECE providers, we need to be willing to explore with them, to provide that safe environment for early art experiences.

Abraham Maslow, who established the theory of the hierarchy of needs, is quoted as saying, "Almost all creativity requires purposeful play." It's important that early childhood educators know that all play is purposeful. On the surface, a child's actions may not appear to be meaningful (e.g., an infant banging on the shape sorter), but to the child, that's very purposeful play. They are learning cause and effect. Our job is to be facilitators of that play, facilitators of experimentation, of curiosity, and as a result, facilitators of learning.

Tips to Encourage Young Artists

Caregivers and the environment must be prepared to support the activities, in order to make art experiences positive ones for young children. I've included a few tips to get you started in the process of encouraging young artists.

Prepare for a Mess

Frequently, as early childhood educators and as adults in general, we see the word "mess" as a negative. To a child, mess is a product of work. Mess happens. We need to make sure we're setting up a space where children can be free to be creative and messy. We don't want to limit children's creativity in order to prevent making a mess. Making a mess is half of the purpose and 90% of the fun. We want to remember that it's their space, and it is to be used for their needs, which sometimes means making a mess.

How do we teach parents, and sometimes other caregivers, why getting messy is so important? First, we need to teach parents about the process. Sometimes, I take pictures of the children creating their art projects. That way, the parents can see their children making a mess and having fun, and thereby understand the process that was involved in making their art. You may work with other teachers or caregivers in the classroom who don't want the children to get messy because they don't want to deal with it. Explain to them all of the benefits that a child receives from art experiences. We're awakening their senses, we're causing thousands of synapses to fire in the brain, simply by allowing them to jump in paint and not being afraid to make a mess. 

Sometimes parents are against their child getting messy because they don't have a lot of clothes for their child, or they don't want to have the few clothes that they have stained with paint. As a mom, I understand that. One thing you can do is to bring oversized t-shirts to the classroom. Ask your parents if they have any big t-shirts they are going to get rid of that they could donate to the classroom. We have used old button-up shirts with the sleeves cut off as smocks to put on the children when they are painting. These smocks would cover up the majority of their clothing all the way down to their knees. If you're doing project that is very wet, use a waterproof smock, or even take the children's clothes off (as long as they're comfortable with that). It's important to be respectful of parents' wishes, of course, but we also want to be educational with our parents and make sure that they understand that this is purposeful play, and making a mess is a part of the process. 

Avoid Giving Direction

Directing children as to what to do or what to make with their art removes the creativity from the process, and essentially removes the child from the process. It's not your art; it's their art. Instead of telling toddlers, "Why don't you make purple by mixing that red and blue?", you might instead encourage them by saying, "I wonder what would happen if you mixed the red and blue together?" And let them discover what happens. 

Speak Specifically

Speak specifically about the child's art, and make sure that you're leaving out your personal opinions. For example, instead of saying, "That art is so beautiful!", make observational comments, such as, "You sure are using a lot of blue in that painting." It is not an opinion. It is not a positive or a negative. We are simply stating what we notice. That way, the child does not become dependent on your opinion to develop and determine the worth of their art. They should be the one telling us the worth of the art.

Explore the Child's Process

We went to explore the child's process. Ask the toddler to tell you about their creation, if they're verbal. Sometimes, the toddlers aren't verbal, and that's okay. You want to be very careful about saying things like, "What is it?" Or, "Oh, I see, it's a _______." Oftentimes, it's not what you think it is. I've stuck my foot in my mouth more times than I care to admit. In fact, once I had a little girl that brought her picture up to me and said, "Miss Tasha, Miss Tasha, look at my picture, look what I made!" And I said, "Oh my gosh, that's the cutest cow I've ever seen!" She got this weird look on her face and informed me that it was a picture of her daddy. Needless to say, it was a little bit of an awkward situation. Be careful about assuming that you know what it is, and allow the child to tell you about the picture and the process of how he got there.

Provide Natural or Found Items

Children are drawn to items from nature. In nature, we usually don't have to encourage them to explore, as they often do so without direction. You could incorporate simple items into a child's art activities, such as using a flower as a paintbrush, using a shell to make prints, or making a leaf rubbing. It could be something as simple as using mud to paint with, or painting rocks. All of these natural items are great suggestions to incorporate the natural world into art.

In addition to items from nature, we can use found objects in art projects. Things that are normally found and seen around the child's environment. For instance, you might find sponges from the kitchen, or a variety of utensils that could be used for art (e.g., potato mashers, wooden spoons, spatulas). You might use disposable containers and lids that you would have otherwise thrown away. Even things like balls, blocks, Legos and cars can be incorporated into artistic expression. I have found that using unique items helps to draw in children that don't tend to go to the arts center. I have had boys that would resist going to art until I started bringing the cars over, or we started doing slide painting (which we'll talk about later). 

Avoid Food

Allowing children to play with food and use it in art can be very confusing. While it is desirable to use items that are edible as infants and toddlers are still in the oral stage of development, it is not advisable to use food products as art materials (pasta, yogurt, pudding, etc.).  I was guilty of this with my own child. At home, I let her paint with pudding in her high chair because if she eats it, it's no big deal. However, in the child care environment, we want to avoid letting children play with food, and especially using food as art, because a lot of times as children get older, it does become confusing. We don't want to instill the idea that food is something that you should play with, or that you should "waste" on an art project.

Be Patient

We want to make sure that we're being patient. Lining babies up in high chairs to complete the weekly art project is not creative, nor is it fun! You want to let the process happen naturally, and let the baby tell you when he's done. Oftentimes in the classroom, as teachers we think, "Oh my gosh, we have to get this art project done and on schedule. Everybody come to the table and everybody do their project!" That mindset makes the child feel rushed and it makes the art experience feel rushed. I don't know about you, but when I'm rushed, I'm usually not having fun. Remember that it's all about the experience for the child. If the experience is hurried, then we know that the art experience probably can't be very much fun.

Provide Options

You want to provide options. Some children don't like to get their hands or feet messy. Provide other options for them so that they can participate. Back 15 years ago, when I was working with toddlers, I had a little boy that despised anything about art. He did not like Play-Doh, he didn't like playing in sand and water. We didn't know back then what we know now about sensory processing and sensory integration issues. Just be patient, provide options. What I did for him was I would let him finger paint with a rubber glove on so that he still got to participate. If we did something, such as walking painting (where we let the children step in paint and walk across a big mural paper), I would let him do it with a spare pair of socks on so that he could still participate and feel like he was part of the group, but I didn't force him to do anything that he wasn't comfortable doing. Slowly, you want to try to encourage these children to try activities where they can feel the art, because art is so much tied to the senses. If they can't feel it, then they're missing some of that process. However, there is fine line, because we do want to avoid making it a negative experience for the child. You have to know your children well enough to know what's the right thing for them and what isn't.

Praise, Praise, Praise!

Lastly, praise, praise, praise. Sit with the children as they're creating and praise their work, but be specific. Celebrate their creativity and their willingness to try new things. Sometimes for a new child, simply the act of trying something new is a feat. We want to make sure that the art experience is a positive one. We want to make sure that children feel good about who they are and that they feel good about trying new things. There have been times where I've had young children doing some sort of art experience, and they felt like they did it wrong because they got something on their paper where they didn't necessarily want it. We want to make sure that we're not setting children up to fail, but instead setting them up to succeed and feel like art experiences are fun and that they can be successful at them.

Art and the Developmental Domains

Children develop all kinds of skills when they're doing art projects, as art touches all the domains of development:

  • Fine Motor
  • Gross Motor
  • Cognitive
  • Social-Emotional
  • Language

Fine Motor

There are many art experiences that develop children's fine motor skills. For example, grasping chubby crayons, chalk, paintbrushes, feather or leaf paintbrushes -- all of those things help children develop those fine motor muscles. This development will help children later in life with tasks that require controlled movements (e.g., writing, buttoning). In addition, while doing art activities, children are also developing and refining their hand-eye coordination. 

Some examples of art activities that encourage fine motor development include:

  • Cotton ball painting
  • Finger painting
  • Clothespin-sponge painting (using a piece of sponge clipped into a clothespin)
  • Stamping
  • Print-making
  • Cutting activities: Some people hear the words "scissors" and "toddler" in the same sentence, and they go running. I understand that, but toddlers do have the ability to start learning how to cut. They have some great adaptive scissors now that have a spring in them, so that they spring back after the child pushes them down. This is great, because often toddlers have difficulty opening the scissors back up.
  • Ziploc baggie painting: Ziploc baggie painting involves putting the painting inside of a Ziploc baggie. You tape the baggie shut and then tape the baggie to the table or to the floor. This is even great for babies that aren't sitting up yet. They can have tummy time and pat on that paint and watch it move and swirl around. You could even put oil and liquid watercolors in there with a little bit of water, and it makes the coolest bubbles. It almost looks like a flat lava lamp.
  • Paint dobber art
  • Paper tearing art: After Christmas, we would ask parents to bring in all their leftover Christmas wrapping. We would set up a small baby pool and put all this crumpled and torn wrapping paper inside there, and that was the paper tearing station. My toddlers would love to go sit in that baby pool and just tear that paper up. It was also beneficial for my toddlers when they were having meltdowns. They would go in there and tear some paper, and that would allow them to relieve some of that frustration.

Gross Motor

Art activities can encourage gross motor development. Painting on large pieces of paper using large tools, making huge arm movements and using both hands to push a paint roller up and down -- these all help children's large muscle groups to develop. We want to make sure that we are not limiting our children by only providing the standard 8 1/2" by 11" pieces of paper. Give them huge mural paper and tape it to the wall, or make an easel outside on the fence so that they're not limited to just the size of the easel either. Plus, there is something fun and different about standing upright to paint or color, rather than sitting at a table. Using a paint roller up and down engages different muscles than using a paintbrush. The paintbrush uses different muscles than using a sponge or a cotton ball. Those are great ways that you can encourage gross motor development.

  • Fence mural painting
  • Painting with water: Painting with water is something my children love to do in the summertime. We fill buckets with water, and give the children big paintbrushes. Then, we go outside, and they paint the building and the sidewalk, and then they watch it dry. This activity also incorporates some cognitive development.
  • Johnny jumper painting: Johnny Jumper painting is a favorite where you put the baby in the Johnny Jumper, and put paint on a piece of paper taped to the floor directly under the jumper. The child gets to jump into the paint and make a creation out of that.
  • Playdough creations
  • Clay work: Working with clay is beneficial for gross motor development, because it's so much thicker and denser than Play-Doh. The toddlers really have to work those finger muscles to get the clay to do something. I probably would not do this with an age group younger than two to two and a half, because it might be frustrating for younger children.
  • Paint roller art
  • Paint scrapers: You can make your own paint scrapers out of thick cardboard, by cutting a design on a side. Let the child experiment with it and experience it, but you might also show them how it can make designs in the paint.
  • Spray bottle art
  • Full body painting: For infants and toddlers that wanted to, we used to take their clothes off and leave them in their diaper and let them roll around on a piece of paper in some paint. We can always wash them off later and they've made some really great art. As stated earlier, we want to make sure that we're taking pictures of the process, so that parents can understand the process behind the product.
  • Under-table drawing: Under the table drawing was one of the best ways that I discovered to help children with their gross motor development with art. We would tape paper under the table and allow the children to lay on the floor and color upside-down. I would have toddlers that would lay there probably for 30 minutes just coloring under the table. It was so popular, we had to open more tables to color under. Now, it did backfire when one parent came in and said when they went to a restaurant that had crayons at the table, and there was a little bit of under the table coloring. But I think that's a small price to pay. 


In addition, by encouraging art activities, children are getting some cognitive development. Art can help even very young children learn cause and effect. For example, they discover that pushing hard with a crayon makes the colors darker, or they realize that pushing down on this paint makes it squish out all over the sides. They're learning all of these cause and effect concepts. Through art, they can also practice and develop their critical thinking skills. Older toddlers are beginning to make a plan of what they might want to make, and sometimes they are able to follow through on that plan.

Here are some specific ideas to encourage children's cognitive development through art:

  • Wet chalk painting: It is fun to use chalk in other ways, especially wet chalk painting. When chalk is wet, the color looks so much more vibrant and vivid than when it is dry.
  • Foam paint: Using foam paint is fun. We've taken baby shampoo, and used a beater to whip it up really thick, and used that as our foam. Then, we add liquid watercolors in with that. 
  • Ice painting: Ice painting is where you freeze water-diluted paint and then put a stick into it and then they use the ice to paint with.
  • Shake it up: Shake it up (a.k.a., marble painting) is where you put a marble with paint in a box, and let the child shake it up and it makes a design on the paper. 
  • Drawing with cars
  • Shaving cream color mixing bag: Shaving cream color mixing bag. Since children are not supposed to use shaving cream itself, you can put it in a clear Ziploc bag with paint (like we talked about earlier with the paint mixing bag). It adds a neat color and a sheen to the paint that's inside there.
  • Spikey ball painting
  • Secret shapes (crayon resist): You can draw secret shapes on a paper with white crayon and let the child paint over them, so they can discover those secret shapes.
  • Bell ringer paintbrushes: Attaching a bell on to paintbrushes so that when the child paints, the bell rings, teaching cause and effect. 
  • Slide painting: Slide painting is something my boys really loved. We would put a big piece of mural paper all the way down the slide, tape it at the top and at the bottom. Then we would dip items in paint, such as balls, cars and other found objects, and roll them down the slide to see what kind of pattern and design it would make on the paper.


Children that are encouraged and supported in artistic endeavors tend to feel good about themselves and what they have created. They're using art to develop identity and develop their self-confidence, along with a sense of accomplishment and capability. It gives them a lot of pride.

Some specific ways to develop social-emotional development with art include:

  • Painting to music
  • Coloring to music
  • Painting with nature
  • Self-portrait art: encouraging children to paint what they think they look like
  • Life-size me: We trace around the entire shape of their body and they get to decorate it.
  • Family posters: We would have parents to bring in pictures from home, and we would encourage the children to do some art on their poster and then we would put their parents and their family's pictures on there. This encourages a whole lot of diversity and representing all types of children and families.
  • Mirror painting: The children would have an unbreakable mirror on the table in front of them, then we would give them paint, and they would be looking at the mirror as they were painting on it. This provides the child a great opportunity to look at themselves, see what they look like and kind of represent themselves. As a product of that process, we would press a piece of paper down onto the mirror and lift it up, and make a print of what the child had painted on the mirror. 
  • Emotion playdough: We did this with our toddlers, where we had placemats that had faces on them. The children would roll the Play-Doh out and make things like a smiley face, or a sad, down-turned mouth, or they would make angry eyebrows. I had one child tell me, "These eyebrows are angry", which I thought expressed great communication, and encouraged vocabulary development. They can use the Play-Doh to make all kinds of things with the face, anything that they can use to make an association to themselves and how they are in their real life.


As children engage in art processes and experiences, they're developing language skills that teachers and facilitators can encourage by actively listening to what they have to say. Listening to children can never be discounted. Many children today don't get listened to, and so they need to find a way to be heard. It's important that we take the time to not only listen to them, but also ask open-ended questions. One open-ended question that I tend to use a lot, especially when I can't think of something to ask, is, "I wonder what would happen if...?" That's a great one that you can use with almost any situation in any center with any child. I also sometimes use the phrase, "What do you think about x, y and z?" You'll be surprised at some of the answers that you get. 

Also during art processes and experiences, children are exposed to a lot of new vocabulary words. For example, as a child is coloring on sandpaper, we should be using words like "rough", "coarse", "bumpy" and even "abrasive". Saying things like, "The paint is smooth and slippery", or "The sponge is porous" -- those are great vocabulary words. If you're using cardboard with toddlers, you might even use the word "corrugated" and tell them what that means. It's not a matter of the child being able to turn around and immediately use that vocabulary word in a sentence; it's about exposing them to all these different creative and high-level words that later on, they'll connect with some other learning.

Some ideas to encourage language development include:

  • Texture collage
  • Sandpaper coloring
  • Puffy paint clouds
  • Size stamping
  • Snow painting
  • Sticky art (putting contact paper upside down, and letting children stick items to the sticky side of the contact paper)
  • Salad spinner art: We put the paper on the outside layer of the salad spinner and put the paint on the inside of the salad spinner. Then we put the lid on and the child gets to push the salad spinner down, and it slings the paint all over the paper. Not only do they really love that art activity, it also teaches cause and effect. 
  • Nature paint brushes: Using things such as flowers and leaves, and talking about the qualities of those natural items (e.g., "This is green", or "This is soft", and "How does it smell?").

MaryAnn F. Kohl has authored some wonderful books about art and young children, such as "Big Messy Art" and "First Art for Toddlers and Twos". Her philosophy is that, "Art is as natural as sunshine and as vital as nourishment." How amazing would that be if we had teachers and caregivers that truly shared that philosophy and exercised that in their classroom? If we arranged and orchestrated our classrooms to demonstrate that art is as natural as sunshine and as vital as nourishment, our children would truly benefit from that environment.

Distinguishing Between Art and Craft

How do we know the difference between a creative art experience and a craft? This can be touchy for some people, and so we want to make sure that we're being clear about what we're trying to do. We're not saying that crafts are bad; we're just making a clear distinction between a creative art experience and a craft.

There are a few ways that I've listed to help you distinguish between activities that are considered art, and those that can be construed as a craft. 

  • An art experience is considered open-ended; there's not an end product that the teacher is looking for or that it has to look like. On the other hand, a craft is goal-oriented. Often, the main purpose behind a craft is direction-following. While direction following is a good skill to learn, we just don't want to call that a creative art activity, because it's a direction-following activity.
  • Creative art is usually unstructured. There's not someone saying, "Okay, now mix that red and yellow together, and now you have orange." It's just kind of allowed to flow, whereas a craft is definitely more structured in that way.
  • Creative art tends to be more process-oriented, as opposed to crafts, which tend to emphasize the end product as the main purpose or the main goal.
  • Creative art uses basic materials, and it usually depends upon what the child likes or what the child wants to use. A craft uses specific materials, which are often set up and created by the teacher. An example might be a sunflower, where the teacher has cut out the middle, the teacher has cut out the petals, the teacher has cut out the stem, and then the children glue it all together. That's not considered a creative art, but that's considered a craft, or a direction-following activity.
  • Art tends to have open-ended instruction, where the teacher's more like the facilitator, using open-ended questions like, "I wonder what would happen if you did this?" Or, "What do you think if we tried x, y or z?" In contrast, a craft is very closed-ended (e.g., you put the middle of the sunflower here, you put petals around the middle of the sunflower, the stem goes at the bottom, the stem has to be green, the leaf has to go on this side). Again, that's not a bad thing; it's just not considered creative art.
  • Creative art develops feeling skills, including self-expression. Sometimes I will tell my teachers that if the child can't pinpoint his own art, that's a craft. On the other hand, crafts develop coordinating skills, like manipulating materials. Crafts follow a specific process, and they are good for developing those direction-following skills.
  • With creative art, the goal is the process of discovery. The goal is the opportunity to try new materials and feel new media; to see what it looks like on the paper and what it feels like when I squish it between my toes. The goal of the craft is the end product (i.e., every child has a sunflower to show their parents at the end of the day).
  • Creative art outcomes will look different across all children. Often, with creative art, as an outside person, you can't even tell what it's "supposed" to be. That's why we want to be careful about saying things like, "What is it?" Or, "It looks like a cow." With a craft, the outcomes will basically look the same. If I've got a bulletin board of snowmen pictures, they all have three white circles and they all have an orange triangle, and they all have two black eyes. It really doesn't matter that the orange triangle's coming out of the midsection; what matters is that they all pretty much look the same, which indicates that it's a craft, or a direction-following activity.
  • Creative art is often individualized. The individualized process leads to an individual product. A craft or a direction-following activity is more of a "cookie-cutter" process, leading to a cookie-cutter product.

How Creative is Your Art?

How creative is your art? This is kind of like a self-test. This is not intended to put anyone down, or to minimize what you've been doing. This is meant for you to take a look at your classroom, if you want to increase and encourage more creative art, and to be aware of what is considered craft-based, direction-following art. 

  • With your art experience or your art project, is there a right way or wrong way to do it? Does the sunflower have to look a certain way? Is there an end product that's supposed to be to be seen? Or is it open-ended? Is the child free to explore as he will and do with it what he wants?
  • Do all of the pieces look basically alike? Or is every child's piece unique? Can you walk down the hall and see that we're studying sunflowers in the classroom? Then they probably all look alike.
  • Does your art experience require a great deal of teacher prep or assistance, or can the child work independently? A good test is to assess whose hands are busier: the teacher's or the child's hands? If the teacher's hands are busier, then that's probably a direction-following activity, even if it's during the preparation. If it's something that's taking you a long time to prepare, that's probably a teacher-led activity and it's more of a craft.
  • Does the activity emphasize an end product? Or is it the process in the experience? A good rule of thumb for me and my teachers is if you need to take pictures of it to show parents how it was done, then it's typically a creative art more than a craft.
  • Is the experience teacher-directed and initiated? Is this something that you as the teacher thought, "I think my children would really like this"? Which is fine, because sometimes that's how we have to do it. Or, is it child-directed or child-initiated? If the child said, "What if we put paint on the slide?" what would you say as the teacher? Would you encourage that non-traditional way of thinking? Or would you discourage it because that's not what the slide is for?

Summary and Conclusion

After today's presentation, when you go back to your classroom, take another look at your lesson plan. Are your infants and toddlers getting enough creative art experiences? Are they being given enough opportunities to assert their independence and their identity, and develop their self-confidence in these creative art experiences? Or do you have a lot of teacher-directed, lesson plan and direction-following activities? If so, I would suggest adding a few more opportunities.

To reiterate, art is an invaluable way to help young children's brains develop. There are so many synapses firing; we need to make sure that we're getting all of those senses stimulated. We also must make sure that we're giving infants and toddlers a lot of opportunities to experiment and to explore. Get out of the rut of using the same old paint and paper, and use different materials. Let them paint on foil instead of paper. Get creative! Use the internet and social media sites, such as Pinterest, as resources to seek out creative activities for children. Also, think about how to draw those children into the art center that don't normally gravitate there. Bring the cars and the Legos in there. Bring dolls that can be washed if they get paint on them. Think of unique ways to encourage artistic expression.

Lastly, one of the most important things to remember is that the mess is part of the process. Children are 100% washable! Additionally, you are the architect of these children's worlds. I hope you get out there and come up with some creative art experiences for your infants and toddlers.


Bernstein, P. (2016). Why art and creativity are important. Parents Magazine.

Reyner, A. Seven good things for you to know about how the arts help children grow. Retrieved from

Sousa, D.A. (2006). How the arts develop the young brain. School Administrator, 63(11), 26.

Zero to Three. (2017). Brain development in infants.  Retrieved from


Kile, N.C. (2018). Baby Picasso: Art with infants and toddlers. - Early Childhood Education, Article 22866. Retrieved from

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natasha crosby kile

Natasha Crosby Kile, MS

Natasha Crosby Kile, MS is a Program Coordinator for Bentonville Schools in Bentonville, AR, and works as a certified trainer, writer, coach and consultant for both the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University. Natasha has over 25 years of experience working in the field of Early Childhood as a teacher, supervisor, trainer and mentor. She holds a Bachelor's of Science in Child Development from the University of Arkansas and a Master's of Science in Childhood Services from Arkansas State University. Natasha has served as a leader in many areas including serving on the board of Arkansas Early Childhood Association. Natasha has a passion for training early childhood professionals and finds herself right at home in a group of 5 to 5,000 teachers that are eager to facilitate the growth of young children and support their families. She is a distinguished expert, and was named Arkansas Early Childhood Professional of the Year in 2012.

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