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Visual Arts

Segments show how visual arts activities can foster literacy, self-esteem, problem-solving skills, and parent-child bonding. Fathers and preschoolers work together to create concrete steppingstones at a rural Kentucky Head Start center; two St. Louis schools implement ideas from the art-focused Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education; students in Louisville create bird paintings inspired by the work of John James Audubon; preschoolers at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School learn a visual “alphabet,” and youngsters in Philadelphia and Washington, DC explore books and art at museums. Martin Rollins, associate curator of education at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum, explains the stages of drawing development.

In the Program

  • Make a steppingstone
    Parents and children make steppingstones together at the Head Start Center in Leitchfield, KY.
  • Key points
    Educators discuss the benefits of visual arts activities.
  • About Reggio Emilia
    Students and teachers work on art projects at two St. Louis-area schools that use ideas from the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.
  • Audubon in the classroom
    Students at Byck Elementary in Louisville create bird paintings in the style of John James Audubon.
  • About visual literacy
    A teacher at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School helps preschoolers learn to see the world in terms of a visual alphabet.
  • Ideas to use
    Children explore books and art in activities at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution’s Early Enrichment Center.
  • Viewing Guide
    Martin Rollins, associate curator of school programs at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum, explains the progression of drawing development. (For more information, see pages 12 and 13 of the downloadable viewing guide.)
  • Visual arts basics and terms
  • Activity suggestions from a mother and art teacher

Visual Arts (Video)

Explores how visual arts activities can foster literacy, self-esteem, problem-solving skills, and parent-child bonding. Examples spotlight a rural Kentucky Head Start center where fathers and preschoolers create steppingstones, the art-focused Reggio Emilia approach in two St. Louis schools, a Louisville art class, a preschool class at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School, and activities at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution that connect art to books. Martin Rollins of Louisville’s Speed Art Museum explains the stages of drawing development.

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Making a Steppingstone


This activity can be done at home or, as shown in the program, as a classroom activity involving parents and children.

Here is a a PDF version of Making a Steppingstone

Have children put on the gloves and safety goggles or glasses. The adult should add 22 cups of Portland cement to the bucket, then add 7 cups of water and stir well. The concrete should be mixed to the consistency of peanut butter (not too wet). Line the pizza box with the plastic, then fill the pizza box with concrete. Let the child press the concrete with their gloved hand to smooth it. Let the child choose items to decorate the steppingstone and press items into the concrete. This can be an opportunity to practice counting skills and color knowledge. Let the steppingstone dry overnight and remove it from the box.

• medium cardboard pizza box (1 per steppingstone; for classroom use, ask a local pizza restaurant to donate boxes)
• small garbage bag or b piece of plastic to line the ox
• Portland cement (22 cups er steppingstone)
• water
• bucket
• paper towels or towel
• 1 cup measuring cup
• plastic gloves
• safety goggles or glasses tick or shovel to stir concrete
• beads, shells, rocks, trinkets, blocks, old keys etc., for decoration (anything that can withstand weather will work)

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Key Points

Educational Ideas


“Art is a process-oriented activity and it takes stages to get something done, so patience is needed. I think that’s a really good activity for kids, definitely in this TV- and computer-driven world where everything’s instantaneous.”

Melanie Walker, art teacher, Byck Elementary

“Art can be wonderful therapy—what nothing else can do, art can do. I think of it as the refinement of the human soul, the most powerful tool.”

Won Jung Choi, art teacher, Settlement Music School

“The arts represent a set of resources for learning how to see, how to imagine, and how to feel. Their absence in the school is a form of educational deprivation. As long as we think about ‘children in the round,’ so to speak, and their full array of capacities, we need the arts to actualize what is latent, but which doesn’t develop on its own very far unless it has the support of environment and teachers who know what they’re up to.”

Elliot Eisner, professor of education and art, Stanford University

“The artistic languages and poetic languages allow the other subject matters and disciplines to develop in a terrain that’s very fertile for development of a more human kind of knowledge where rationality, expressiveness, and emotion are all linked.”

Vea Vecchi, curriculum consultant, Reggio Children

“Children this young learn with their bodies—they learn by doing things. The arts are just an endless, rich source of ideas for learning. I really can’t imagine teaching children this young separate from the arts.”

Marla Shoemaker, senior curator of education, Philadelphia Museum of Art

“I really believe that any of us, and children certainly, construct knowledge based on their personal experiences and the input of new information. And art is one of those avenues that children respond exceedingly well to.”

Sharon Shaffer, executive director, Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center

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About Reggio Emilia

The Reggio Emilia Approach


Reggio Emilia is an approach to early childhood education, developed in the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy after World War II, that focuses on children’s symbolic languages. Components of the philosophy include exploring and entering into relationships with peers, family, teachers, the environment, and the community.

Some refer to Reggio Emilia as the “project approach.” It emphasizes involving students in an in-depth study and exploration of a topic, using many different tactics to learn: reading, creative arts activities, handling related objects, and more.

The quality of the physical environment is also very important; in fact, the environment is often referred to as the child’s “third teacher.” Reggio teachers take on a co-learner role in the classroom, serving as a resource and a guide to the students. Educators become teacher-researchers to support their students’ individual and collaborative work and thinking. Teachers also pay close attention to what the students are doing, creating, and discussing as they work on the project and document individual and classroom community growth and exploration.

For More Information:

  • The Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting has basic information and links.
  • Reggio Children is a mixed public-private company established in 1994 to manage the initiatives taking place between the early childhood services of the municipality of Reggio Emilia and teachers and researchers from all over the world. The web site includes a magazine called Rechild.
  • The North American Reggio Emilia Alliance is a network of educators, parents, and advocates.

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Audubon in the Classroom

John James Audubon


In Program 2 of Art to Heart, students at Louisville’s Byck Elementary study artist John James Audubon and create their own paintings of birds. One of the reasons teacher Melanie Walker chose Audubon was this famous artist’s local connection: He spent 12 years in frontier Kentucky, first in Louisville and then in Henderson (in Western Kentucky), sketching and painting birds in his spare time.

To conduct a similar activity, research your community’s history for a connection to an artist. Or you might choose Audubon no matter where you live because even if the artist didn’t live in your area, some of his painting subjects—the birds and animals of America—undoubtedly do. You can use Audubon’s paintings of birds from your region—or birds of national interest, such as the bald eagle—as examples.

This art activity can be tied to science activities exploring birds and how they live or with activities such as feeding birds for the winter or observing birds’ nests in your neighborhood.

Explain that Audubon watched animals to create his work. Have your child or students look at pictures, photographs, and real birds they see around them. Talk about their observations.

About John James Audubon

John James Audubon was born in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (known today as Haiti) on April 26, 1785. Raised in France, he moved to Pennsylvania at the age of 18. In 1808, he married Lucy Blakewell. Audubon spent 12 years in frontier Kentucky, trying his hand in the business world while sketching and painting birds in his spare time. By 1820, he had given up on business and decided to study and paint birds as a career. He published his monumental book Birds of America, which featured life-size portraits of 1,065 individual birds, in four volumes between 1827 and 1838. Audubon was a self-taught artist and naturalist. His paintings show birds in their natural state. In 1886, a bird preservation organization adopted the artist’s name, eventually evolving into the National Audubon Society.

Audubon Resources

  • The Museum of Nebraska Art web site includes samples of Audubon’s work and a biography.
  • The National Audubon Society web site includes educational materials, home activity ideas, and a listing of Audubon-related resources and organizations by state. (Check with your local Audubon Society for family events relating to birds and nature.) The site also features an online version of the artist’s most famous work, Birds of America. Audubon paintings of 30 state birds are included and listed by state.
  • The Musee de la Civilisation web site includes another viewable catalog of Audubon’s bird paintings.
  • The Kentucky Virtual Art Museum CD-ROM, included in KET’s Visual Arts Toolkit, includes images from the John James Audubon Museum in Henderson, KY.

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About Visual Literacy


Art teacher Won Jung Choi teaches young students at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia to draw by teaching them to see the world in terms of a visual alphabet. In the activity featured in Art to Heart, she focuses on five basic elements of shape:

  • dot
  • circle
  • straight line
  • curved line
  • angled line

The chart she shows of these basic elements comes from the book Drawing with Children by Mona Brookes, whose “Monart” method of teaching drawing has drawn national acclaim. It begins with the observation that since the contour edges of objects are made up of patterns of these five elements, being able to isolate and observe these elements provides the information needed to re-create any shape in a drawing. Students then move on to filling in the contour drawing with volume and shading.

Brookes recommends beginning by looking for these elements in your environment. In working with young children, her book recommends handling objects that you discuss. For example, after discussing and looking at dots on the chart, “You might go to a doorknob and feel it in the palm of your hand, pluck a grape from a bowl of fruit and feel it in your mouth, or throw a ball back and forth.” She also recommends making a game of moving through space in patterns that replicate the elements. Have children pretend they are straight lines as they walk, make angles of their arms and legs, or hop in dot patterns around the room.

Why Is It Important?

Teaching her students to “see,” Won says, is an important skill beyond the arts classroom. She is helping her young students become visually literate.

“Literacy” usually refers to the ability to read and write, but it can also refer to the ability to “read” communication other than words—like images or gestures. Visual literacy is the ability to “read” images and to create images that communicate. It is a life skill that is needed every day.

Think of all the images you encounter in the course of a day—from street signs to television. Images surround us in newspapers and magazines, in advertising, on television, and on the Internet. When we read street signs or a map to find our way, follow instructions and fill out forms or applications, read the labels on grocery products, or evaluate advertisements, we use visual literacy. All of these tasks combine written and visual information to make meaning, and all are organized along elements and principles of art that can be taught explicitly.

In every classroom, there are students who might be described as “visual learners.” For them, visual communication is key to learning in any subject area. But most teachers agree that at times all students are visual learners and that learning to communicate visually is a basic and vital skill.

Find Out More

For more information about the Monart Method and the book Drawing with Children, visit Mona Brookes’ Monart web site. It includes a color version of the elements of shape chart.

Reading Images: An Introduction to Visual Literacy, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, includes an overview and links to more articles.

The Visual Literacy K-8 site has information and resources for teachers.

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Ideas to Use

Books and Art


In the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Museum Looks and Picture Books program—geared to ages 3 to 5—books serve as a way to link art works to young children’s experience as well as tools for exploring works in the museum collection.

The program activities are developed around themes, such as shapes and colors in art, clothing and art, and chairs and art. The activity shown in Program 2 of Art to Heart—reading Who Is the Beast? and looking at the sculpture Lunar Bird by Joan Miró—was part of an exploration of animals and art.

Each session begins with the book. Teachers planning to bring their classes receive a copy in advance, so the class can read it several times before the museum visit. “When children arrive at the museum on the day of their visit, they have something they’re familiar with to bring them into what’s probably a pretty unfamiliar setting and a new setting for most of them,” explains Sarah Cardwell, coordinator of the program.

Books as a Frame

In addition to functioning as an “anchor” for the museum experience, the book becomes “sort of a frame for the artwork that we look at,” Cardwell says. “So there may be a theme presented in the book; the artist who illustrates the book may use certain colors or shapes that the children then look for in paintings or sculptures or other art works at the museum.”

After re-reading the book at the museum, children take part in related hands-on activities. “We can’t just sit children that are ages 3 to 5 in front of a painting and talk to them. We have to have activities that link the child to the work of art. Children are very object-oriented. They’re used to being able to physically interact with the world around them, and they gain a great amount of knowledge through touching things and experiencing the textures and shapes of objects in a tangible way,” Cardwell says.

Hands-On Activities

With that in mind, the museum offers activities that encourage touching. For example, children may look at a painting of sheep and then get to feel a piece of fleece. Or, as seen in the Art to Heart segment, they might look at an imaginary creature an artist created in a sculpture and discuss what it might be, then make their own creature. “Without telling them at first that Joan Miró thought he was creating a lunar bird, we had them talk about the different parts of the animal. And some of the children really saw different animals, like a cow or a bird because of the wings. They saw a person because the wings looked like arms to some of them. And then they may learn more about what the artist thought he was creating.”

Then the children become the artists by building their own creature, using different parts of a variety of animals—a frog’s leg, an elephant’s ear, the tail of a monkey. These pieces are cut out of felt in advance, and each child receives a piece to place on the creature. “It allows each child the ability to participate,” Cardwell explains, “so those who haven’t felt comfortable talking with the group can participate and become drawn into the activity that way.”

More Art in Books

Aspects of this activity are similar to one at the Early Childhood Enrichment Center at the Smithsonian. There, children begin by reading Eric Carle’s The Very Busy Spider. Then they talk about spiders and their experiences with and ideas about them. The class seen in Art to Heart went to view Louise Bourgeois’ Spider in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden and talked about the artist’s view of spider as a protector. Then, using Model Magic molding material and pipe cleaners, each child made a spider amulet. The lesson encompassed ideas in science (spiders and how they live), spatial awareness (most spiders are very small, but the spider sculpture is very large), and creative expression (each child made aesthetic decisions about his or her amulet, from the colors used to the placement and number of legs).

These examples can be adapted to bring together books, art work, and art making in your home or classroom. For another book and art activity, Make a Painting with Dots, see Arts Activities.

For more ideas:

  • Author Eric Carle set up the Caterpillar Exchange Bulletin Board for parents and teachers to share ideas.
  • Another author’s web site by Jan Brett includes many activities, games, and coloring pages. Her books often use pictures to recall what happened on the previous page and predict what will happen on the next one.
  • The International Reading Association’s Read/Write/Think site includes a study unit based on books by Leo Lionni.
  • has still more lessons using Lionni books.
  • Activities using Ezra Jack Keats’ books can be found at the author’s web site.
  • PBS offers a variety of series focused on reading, often with art activities. Check the PBS Kids web site for series your child enjoys, such as Clifford the Big Red Dog, Between the Lions, and Curious George, and look for activities in the Parent/Teacher sections.

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Drawing Development


Martin Rollins, associate curator of school programs at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum, explains the progression of drawing development. (For more information, see pages 12 and 13 of the Art to Heart downloadable viewing guide.)

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Visual Arts Basics and Terms


Whether it’s a painting, a drawing, a sculpture, a collage, or a photograph, every work of visual art is made up of some basic building blocks. These are called the elements of art and principles of design.

Under Kentucky’s education standards for arts and humanities, by the end of 3rd grade, students are expected to be able to describe art works in terms of the elements of art and principles of design.

Elements of Art

A line is a mark made on a surface by a moving point. The element of line has a wide range of qualities and expressive possibilities: curved lines, diagonal lines, dotted lines, straight lines, etc. Lines can vary in width as well as length; they can be thick or thin.

A shape is an enclosed space formed by other elements such as lines or colors; shapes can be geometric or organic. Geometric shapes can be measured and defined, such as squares, circles, and ovals. Organic shapes are the more free-flowing shapes that occur in nature, such as clouds, puddles, and leaves.

A form is a three-dimensional shape. Cones, spheres, and cubes are geometric forms; waves and tree branches are examples of organic forms.

This term refers to the real or perceived surface quality or “feel” of an object; its roughness, smoothness, softness, etc.

Whether we see an object as red or brown or yellow is the result of the reflection or absorption of light.

One tool for organizing color is a color wheel. It shows the visible light spectrum organized in a circular format. The color wheel is based on three primary colors—red, yellow, and blue (or, more precisely, magenta red, yellow, and cyan blue)—spaced equidistantly on the circle. Between the primary colors are the secondary colors that can be mixed from the primary colors—orange (a mixing of red and yellow), green (a mixing of blue and green), and purple (a mixing of red and blue). Tertiary colors are made by mixing a secondary color with a primary color that is adjacent to it on the color wheel (such as red-orange or blue-green). A wide range of colors is possible by mixing adjacent colors.

Colors are thought of as warm, cool, or neutral. Warm colors are those that lie between red-violet and yellow on the wheel. They are associated with the sun and fire. Cool colors range from blue-violet to yellow-green and are associated with water, leaves, and shadows. Neutral colors are black, white, and gray.

In teaching young children to draw, Settlement Music School art teacher Won Jung Choi, featured in Program 2 of Art to Heart, begins by focusing on five elements of shape: dot, circle, straight line, curved line, and angled line. A pattern of these five elements represents the shape of every object, so being able to recognize these elements will help you re-create anything you want to draw.

Principles of Design

These terms have to do with the organization of visual art works.

Emphasis (focal point)
This principle of design is concerned with the dominant feature or center of interest of an art work. It’s what your eye is drawn to first. Artists use placement, color, shape, proportion, and contrast to create emphasis and catch your eye.

Pattern is the repetition of an element such as lines, shapes, or colors.

Balance refers to the arrangement of the elements in a work of art to create a sense of visual stability. Balance can be symmetrical (the same on both sides), asymmetrical (different on both sides but still in balance), or radial (branching out from a central point).

This design principle emphasizes differences between the art elements. For example, a painting may have bright colors that contrast with dull colors or angular shapes that contrast with rounded shapes. Sharp contrast draws attention and can direct a viewer to a focal point within a work of art.

Exploring the Elements and Principles

  • Even before your child begins to talk, you can help him or her become familiar with the elements of art by talking about what you see and do. Point out examples of different kinds of lines, shapes, forms, colors, and textures. (In the “Playing in Paint” segment in Program 1 of Art to Heart, for example, teachers let infants touch bubble wrap and aluminum foil and point out that they are bumpy and smooth, respectively.)
  • As your child’s language ability grows, ask him or her to point out types of lines, shapes, forms, colors, and textures. Make a game of it: “Can you find a curved line?” “Let’s count how many red things we see on the way to the grocery store.” Or have a “shape meal.” For example, for a triangle meal, cut sandwiches into triangles and serve triangular-shaped crackers. Take a walk with a camera and let your child take photographs of everything of a particular color.
  • Make exploring the arts basics physical, in keeping with your child’s gross and fine motor skills development. Have your child hop or march in a straight line, then a curved line; make shapes with his or her body.
  • Allow lots of open-ended arts experiences. Let children mix Play-doh or paint to create secondary colors. Play different kinds of music and let your child paint or draw lines to the music. Make collages using construction paper cut into a variety of shapes and yarn to make lines. (See Program 2 of Art to Heart for an example of this activity using a Stuart Davis painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) Gather together empty boxes and containers that represent a variety of forms and allow children to create creatures, robots, spaceships, buildings, or whatever else they can imagine. Make rubbings (by placing a white piece of paper over an object and rubbing it with the side of a crayon) to create different textures on paper.
  • Ask your child to point out elements and principles in book illustrations or works of art you see at the museum. Again, keep it light and fun. “Do you see a curved line in this picture?” “What color is the bird in this painting?”
  • Do these kinds of activities alongside your child. Practice together seeing objects and art works in terms of the elements of art and principles of design.

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Activity Suggestions from a Mother and Art Teacher

Art at Home: A Mother’s Perspective


Cyndi Young, shown doing art at home with her youngest daughter Georgia, is an art teacher in Louisville. But as she explains in the following article, you don’t have to be trained in art to plan and enjoy art activities with your child. You just need the desire to give your child opportunities to create and some simple materials.

I think the fact that I am an art teacher is a testimony to the importance I place on the production of art. However, I was a parent long before an art teacher, and it was that experience with my children that most likely guided me into my career.

My fondest memories from my own childhood were the rainy days on which my mother would pull out the empty containers, toilet paper rolls, scissors, glue, paint, wrapping paper, scrap fabric-whatever-and she would play with us. We created dollhouses, cities, race courses, cars, dolls, game boards, anything we could imagine. She was terrific at letting our interests guide the activity. Upon reflection, this event was astonishing, because my mother did not tolerate a mess. Yet she always provided us an opportunity to create. As we got older and messier, we moved our projects outside or to the basement. Naturally, I wanted to duplicate these types of memories for my children.

Going to the Museum

I believe that children need to be exposed to art over and over again. Children-all of us, actually-need exposure to something visual that isn’t on a TV or video screen. Georgia and I frequently go to the museum. However, our stay may be only five to ten minutes long. Georgia leads the way by finding an artwork that fascinates her and tells me about it. If she asks, I will share any information that I think she may want to know. We can then leave or look at something else of her choosing. Either way is great fun. It’s enjoyable to find out what Georgia sees in a particular piece of artwork (color, lines, etc.). She had an awesome experience with a Mary Cassatt painting of two little girls at Louisville’s Speed Museum when she was just a little more than 2. She talked to the painting. It was charming.

When we visit the Speed Museum, we always venture down to Art Sparks to let Georgia play. (Her first trip to Art Sparks was at 3 weeks old.) On our way out, she often wants to see one last piece of artwork. I have found that these types of experiences inspire her own creativity.

What About Materials?

Georgia has had access to pencils and crayons since she was old enough to sit up. I try to keep the process and materials pretty simple. We have painted on the sidewalk with water, played with finger paint, and modeled with play-dough. Probably the most complicated thing we did was when I took a roll of butcher paper and traced her body outline and let her make marks on it.

As far as working these kinds of activities into our daily routine, I don’t allow Georgia to watch TV during the week, which creates an opportunity for her to entertain herself. She draws, decorates her room with Post-its, sculpts with play-dough, or plays in her sandbox. We have a designated area (including bins) for painting and play-dough. Her easel was a junk-day find; you can find one used at a consignment shop or yard sale or new at a discount store. Craft and hobby shops are great sources for materials, along with online sources such as Dick Blick. We also use found materials from around the house or yard.

Drawing can happen anywhere, and we have a backpack filled with sketchbooks, markers, pencils, and crayons. We have worked in terra cotta clay (or Mexican self-hardening clay-look for it at a local art store or online at Dick Blick), which is relatively inexpensive and messy fun. We also love working with plaster (you’ll find it at a building supply center for around $7.00 for 25 pounds).

Here are a few of our favorite activities:

Plaster Masks: Casting in the Sandbox

Create a depression in moistened sand. Dig out a star, flower, cactus, handprint, or footprint or any shape desired. It should be no more than 12 inches in diameter and 2-3 inches deep.
Lightly press objects (such as bottle caps, sea glass, marbles, twigs) into the sand facedown. Or draw a face or patterns in the sand with sticks.
Mix plaster: Put two parts dry plaster into a ziplock freezer bag, add one part water, and seal. Mix plaster by gently pressing out all the lumps. You don’t have much time; it sets in 3-5 minutes.
To pour the plaster so you don’t destroy the mold, place your hand (or your child’s) a few inches over the mold. Cut a bottom corner of the freezer bag and pour the plaster onto the hand and then into the mold.
Rinse hand in bucket of water. NOTE: Never rinse plaster out in a sink-it will clog!
After the plaster has set a bit, make a wire loop and place it in the back of the plaster.
After it is hardened (20 minutes), carefully dig it out around the edges.
Rinse your plaster piece in a bucket, gently rubbing off sand. It can be painted if desired.

Plaster Bag Sculpture

Mix plaster in a ziplock bag (two parts plaster to one part water) and let set for 3-5 minutes.
Gently push and press the plaster bag into desired shape. This can be a relief or a free-standing sculpture.
Let it set for 30 to 60 minutes.
Remove the sculpture from the bag.
Paint it with watercolor paints.

Painting Together

Either you or your child makes the first shape. Then take turns embellishing around it until you have filled the page. Connect one shape to another using pattern and line. This can be done on any size sheet of paper, and is also a fun way to decorate and fill in body outlines made on kraft paper.

Helpful Hints

Use small brushes. I don’t know why we always seem to give the huge monster-size brushes to little hands (no wonder young children get frustrated about losing detail).
Use a separate brush for each color. With early supervision, you can teach your child not to muddy the paint by keeping each brush with its color. That way the color experimentation is on the paper where your child can see it and control it.

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Other Programs in this Series

Why are arts experiences important in the early years of life? How do music, dance, drama, and visual art contribute to growth and learning? How can parents and educators foster young children’s creativity?

Art to Heart is an eight-part KET production that explores the importance of visual arts, music, dance, drama, and literature in the lives of infants, toddlers, and young children, providing useful ideas and information for parents, caregivers, and early childhood teachers.

Visit the Art to Heart Collection

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