“But the Mess!” Making Art with Young Children


I recently polled friends and family on social media to ask their thoughts on creative projects with kids, and what keeps them from doing these projects with their young kids. Here’s what they said:

  • “It’s messy.”
  • “I wind up doing more than the kids.”
  • “Set up and clean up take so long, it’s not worth the hassle.”
  • “The mess! I usually shy away from art projects because the clean up is too much.”
  • “I’m not artsy. I don’t know what to do!”
  •  …and one more time for those in the back: “THE MESS!” 

Sound familiar? I know I have said all of those things before, and my husband and I are both artists. Even we, a painter and a photographer/crafter, will occasionally choose another activity over art for our kiddo because of the dreaded mess. However, I have learned some tips and tricks that can help making art with young children feel much more manageable.

A watercolor paint palette, viewed from above.

First things first. Don’t fear the mess. 

Making art with young children can be a messy affair, but it does not have to be. You don’t have to ruin your floors, or your walls, or really anything in your home. One of my favorite mess-free art activities is to put some paint on a piece of cardstock, then put that into a gallon freezer bag. The child can draw and squish the paint around between their fingers all while keeping paint inside the bag. After they are finished, take the paper out, and put it out of reach to dry. If you are doing this activity with an older toddler, I’d also recommend either taping the zipper shut or taping the entire bag to a table or the floor.

Some other tips to help keep art-making messes at bay:

  • Clean up all supplies when finished. I have had stray crayons and markers create more damage than I care to admit.
  • On the same note, Magic Erasers will get pretty much anything off of walls.
  • For babies or young toddlers, consider doing activities in the highchair. If your toddler is strapped in, they can’t crawl all over and turn the beige carpets in your rental a lovely shade of emerald green. (This definitely happened to me). 
  • Crayola Color Wonder products are a game-changer and especially helpful for travel. These markers and paints only work on the paper they’re designed to be used with and not the places you don’t want colored. The only downside is that these products can be expensive.
  • Choose projects that don’t involve paint, markers, or glitter. One of my favorites is to roll out some salt dough and have my daughter stamp it with cookie cutters. These make great holiday ornaments or gifts for family.
  • Paint with water on construction paper. It’s not permanent but involves almost no set up or clean up.

A child pulls chalk out of a bin.

Accept that there is great benefit to the mess.

Getting messy with artmaking is a great way for children to build skills in numerous areas. Artmaking encourages skill development in the areas of gross and fine motor, problem-solving, self-expression, and sensory processing. 

If you choose to go the messy route, here are some ways to make containing the mess easier on everyone:

  • Take off your child’s clothes before the project. No clothes on means no washing the paint off clothing!
  • Do art projects right before bath time.
  • Use an oversized long-sleeve shirt as a smock.
  • Take the project outdoors. Bonus points if it’s summer and you can do some water play after, then you have a self-cleaning toddler. Couldn’t we all use one of those?

Lastly, if you use a washable, water-based fingerpaint, it will come out of virtually anything. One thing we love to do is put out big pieces of paper on the floor and some washable paint, crayons, and markers, and let our child do her thing. We gate off the carpeted rooms and keep her on the linoleum. Her paint footprints can easily be cleaned up from our floors with water and a towel.

Choose short and simple activities that are low stress for you and allow for flexibility.

Given that I am an artist, imagine my horror when my child wouldn’t participate in an art activity for more than five minutes, at best. As it turns out, when making art with young children, this short attention span is completely normal. According to quite a few sources, including my child’s pediatrician, you can generally estimate a child’s average attention span for any given activity by multiplying their age times 3. Remember, this is an average, meaning they might spend 30 seconds on it, or 20 minutes. But I wouldn’t count on 20 minutes if I were you.

Because of this, I don’t spend much time coming up with ideas or setting up. One way to achieve this is by keeping supplies simple. Three tools max per project is my limit. We’re not trying to make the next Picasso or Rembrandt here, we’re making art with a baby or toddler. My view is that if it takes me longer to set up than she’ll spend creating, I won’t enjoy the project either. And for me, that’s part of the point: to involve her in doing something my husband and I love (being creative), together.

Along with choosing short projects, I also tend to set things up that are open-ended and that my child can return to later. This helps a lot with the lifespan of a project. For example, I might put out some chalk to color with on our driveway, knowing that she will rotate between that, the sandbox, and the water table.

A man helps a toddler apply fingerpaint to paper taped to the floor.

Being a Pinterest mom isn’t worth it.

Yes, all of the art projects you see on social media are the absolute cutest, but if you wind up doing more work than your child, is it even worth it? To me, the answer is no.

I work for an arts-based non-profit where we place emphasis on process, not product. This means that the end-result of what a project looks like is not as important as the process of creating art. I find this philosophy particularly applicable to making art with young children. If more emphasis is placed on the enjoyment of making something, rather than working towards a specific end result, it’s likely that a child will get more out of the activity and remain engaged for a longer amount of time. Also, a child will enjoy art more if less emphasis is put on the final product than on the creation of the product. 

A coworker of mine, who has been making art with young children for more than 20 years, wrote an excellent article that includes a list of activities for young kids that sound simple and fun.

One of my favorite take-aways from the article is Peggy’s advice on how to focus on the creative process:

Show children how to begin exploring rather than what a finished product looks like. Encourage children in the artistic process by questioning and commenting on their explorations… Avoid asking questions such as “What are you making?” and instead comment on the process, using observations such as “I like the purple in your picture,” “Tell me about those lines,” or asking questions such as “I wonder why….?” or “Can you tell me about your picture?” Your goal is to help the child feel comfortable, confident, and successful.

Your kid doesn’t care if you’re “good” at art.

Along with thriving in a process-focused art environment, your baby or toddler does not care about whether or not you went to art school. They definitely don’t mind if the inspiration for your activity was something from a quick Google search. For a list of fun and easy project ideas for making art with young children, check out my Pinterest board.

How do you store it?

One question I see repeated on various mom Facebook groups is how to store and display children’s art. It can create lots of clutter, and in a time where tidying up is all the rage, clutter creates a problem for some. 

My favorite way to display children’s art projects is on the door of the refrigerator. I took some picture frames, removed the glass and spray painted them, and hot glued magnets on the back. As she creates new things, we rotate pieces through. Everything looks more elegant in a frame and suddenly a finger painting that took two minutes is elevated to a new level. 

There are lots of storage options too. I have also heard of parents taking their children’s art pieces and turning them into photo books, which is something I plan to eventually do. It’s one of those to-do list items that is continually pushed to the bottom. Until the day I have the time, the artwork is all organized by year in cheap shoebox-sized bins from the Dollar Store. 

Do you like to make art with kids? Share some of your favorite project ideas!

"But the Mess!" Making Art with Young Children


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