If you have a toddler, you need art supplies! With my grandson, we started working with art supplies at a little over a year. These are great art supplies beginning at age one. We began adding more around 20 months.
ANY paper will do. Really. If you’ve got a printer, you can use paper from that – even the back side of prints you no longer need. Have newspaper (preferably with out large pictures)? That’ll work. Packing paper? Yep. Even Amazon boxes. It doesn’t really matter.
You still may need or want to buy paper. For toddlers, buy cheap paper. I like 12×18″ manila paper. It’s like a very light yellow-tan construction paper. It’s usually inexpensive. However, if there’s another large format paper that’s cheaper, by all means, that works! The 18″ wide paper is just about the reach of the toddler, so there’s a much better chance of the marks staying on the paper instead of the table.
Thicker paper, like the manila paper, does a better job of absorbing a bit of extra ink (helpful with dot markers) and doesn’t tend to buckle and wrinkle under big, excited scribbles. For thinner paper, if you tape it to the table on the edges, this helps keep the paper from moving and wrinkling.
There are plenty of other papers, like watercolor paper, finger paint paper, drawing or sketching paper, and others. All of these will work. Your budding Picasso isn’t quite a Picasso yet, so much of their early work will end up in the recycle bin or trash. No need to spend extra money while your little one learns important skills.
A Note on Colors for Toddlers
Depending on which medium you use, whether it’s paint, crayons, markers, or something else, at this age, less is more. Despite our adult desires to use lots of colors, a little one doesn’t tend to need more than 4 or 5 choices in front of them. Two or three is usually plenty.
Sometimes cheap, off-brand products have muted, diluted, or off colors. For this age, it really doesn’t matter unless you are helping them learn colors. If the green is too bluish, yellowish, or just not green, it makes learning green a bit difficult. Likewise, a set of 20 or more colors has many lovely colors, and the red-orange, the magenta, the blue-green, and the teal/aqua make it really difficult to help your little one learn colors. While you’re in the store, show you toddler the markers and name the colors for them. You’ll soon find that “persimmon” and “magenta” are too much for a toddler to say, and the light greenish turquoise leaves you struggling for a simple color. Put that one back and get the basic set for now.
Try the items on paper. Note that the white crayon makes barely visible marks on the paper. Sometimes yellow and pink (particularly crayons) don’t show up well. Put these on the side. When learning how to make marks on the page, highly visible marks are better.
Everybody knows and loves crayons! The smell of Crayolas reminds most of us of our childhood. Crayola now makes washable crayons and they are fabulous! They color and smell just like regular Crayolas. They also dissolve in water. And little mouths — have that camera ready when your little one is chewing on the crayon and makes their own lipstick! (Then clean it up with a dry towel or wet wipe.) Dogs also seem to love these and will find the least washable place on which to lay to chew them into tiny pieces and drool onto that inconveniently-washable place.
Do yourself a favor and put the white, yellow, pink, and other light colors on the side. They don’t show up well on paper. When your little one can push down hard and get a thick line, then you can introduce the light ones.
A note on broken crayons: the first time my grandson broke one, he was quite confused. He tried to put them together again. Ah, life lesson learned about breaking things. After a few more broke, he became disappointed and frustrated. Start early by explaining that it’s okay, now now you have two red crayons! Take the paper off and show how you can use the sides. Use the broken end and show how that end works and it eventually changes shape. Don’t try to keep crayons perfect or you create neurotic children who try to always keep sharp points and possibly stored in ROYGBIV order (not that I’m still like that or anything!).
Little ones LOVE markers! Be sure they are non-toxic and washable. There are short, stubby markers that fit little hands well, as do standard size markers. The thicker barrels fit little hands a little better than thin, pencil sized barrels, but they still work just fine.
Crayola’s Color Wonder markers look really appealing, as they are clear markers that develop when used on special paper. However, it takes a second or two for them to develop. When a child who has never learned to draw tries these, they understand that they are controlling the color. Color mysteriously appears where their marker isn’t. These are perfect for older kids who already know how to color and you want to let them color without total supervision. For now, get a small, washable set then graduate to the Color Wonder markers. (For older kids, this isn’t a long-lasting medium. Within a week, the masterpiece will have continued to develop and darken to an off color. If your child wants to keep the artwork, they will be disappointed quickly.)
Painting with paintbrushes is really fun for beginning artists. There are many paints for kids. There are two basic kinds: bottles of liquid paint and pans or containers of nearly dry paint that needs water to make it liquid.
The first kind of paint, the liquid paint, can be called tempera paint, children’s paint, or some similar name. They’re all basically pigments in a water-based thick liquid. They are not acrylic craft paint, which is washable only when wet and quite permanent when dry. Be certain to stay in the children’s craft aisle and ensure that the paints are non-toxic and washable. These paints are colorful and can paint on many surfaces, like paper, cardboard, wood, even pumpkins (but not glass or plastic).
The second kind of paint is in pans or separate containers that requires swirling a brush loaded with water on the paint cake or pan to reconstitute it. Most of us used these kinds of watercolors in school and they can be extremely transparent to almost opaque, depending on the amount of water one uses. There are other kinds of paint, too, like cakes of tempera paint, that are available.
A third kind of paint is finger paint. It’s usually a thick, almost gel-like paint that comes with coated paper. You put a few blobs on the paper and let the child push it around with their hands (you can do it, too…it’s surprisingly stress relieving!). This is probably the best first art project. Strip your little one down to their diaper, put the paper on the table outside or inside on the high chair tray, line you high chair with a bath towel, and let ’em go. Keep the camera ready! Then go right to bath time. An alternative for the tiniest ones: use yogurt or vanilla pudding tinted with food coloring and put it directly on their tray if you think they will spend more time with it in their mouths.
There are a dizzying array of brushes at the craft store. Go to the children’s aisle and get brushes that are no less than 1/2″ wide. They can be chubby round brushes or flatter brushes. Smaller brushes made for painting trim in your house can be good, too. Chunky is good. Since toddlers don’t know their own strength, smaller brushes will be happily pounded into useless messes all too quickly. They shouldn’t be expensive — if you see matching delicate brushes, there are probably cheaper ones in the kid’s craft aisle.
Dot or Dab Markers
These little bottles of vibrant, inky fluid have a flat sponge top. When inverted and pressed down on the paper, the valve is depressed and lets ink flow to make a nice little circle. Budding Picassos can happily dot-dot-dot (or pound-pound-pound) lots and lots of dots until their heart’s content. They also can make lines when the tip is dragged. They don’t spill, though particularly excited pounding can cause them to make little splashes which is fun to make. If they are inverted and held in place, some pooling can occur. I recommend an absorbent paper, like manila or construction paper, or several layers of newspaper or cardboard underneath.
Once the little ones figure out that they can press their fingers onto the top or dab their skin, it can get a bit messy. But if you watch them closely, little ones have lots of fun making dots.
Pipe Cleaners (or Chenille Stems)
Pipe cleaners are so much fun. Actually, real pipe cleaners have extra little wires to clean out a pipe. This led to inventing chenille stems, which are more colorful, fluffier, longer, and less prickly. Whatever you call them, they are a lot of fun to bend and twist into shapes. They are also useful for learning fine motor skills, like trying to poke them into the holes of an overturned colander or learning to bead with pony beads, both of which are fun for the under two set. The ends of pipe cleaners can be sharp, so these require supervision with tiny explorers until they are able to deliberately manipulate it into shapes, probably around age 2.
Stickers of any kind should be readily available nearly anywhere. Those sold in the papercrafts section can get very pricey as do those sold by the cards. Twelve to 18 month olds don’t really care what they look like, so find them at the dollar store or in the kid’s craft aisle for a dollar or two for a pad of 6-8 sheets. Don’t buy a whole bunch of one brand until you figure out if that brand sticks well to paper, or if it loses its sticky when the little fingers pick them up and then won’t stick well to the paper. Handing a toddler stickers to happily stick on a piece of paper can amuse them for an amazingly long time.
Stickers of about an inch or so work best for little fingers. smaller stickers of about a half inch or smaller can get frustrating, though worthwhile as a challenge.
What About Pompoms, Googly Eyes and Such?
You’ll see a lot of other fun things like pompoms, googly eyes, beads, glitter, felt, fun foam, and all sorts of glue. Don’t go nuts buying these, as your novice artist doesn’t quite get the idea behind glue yet. Not that you can’t spend some quality time gluing pompoms on your projects, but the concept of glue permanently sticking things together is beyond their comprehension. They don’t quite understand what glue is, they don’t know where to put it (or why), and they really don’t have the patience to leave it alone until it dries. Most of these become a craft for you, not them (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).A lot of these are choking hazards, too.
The really large pompoms can be fun to drop through toilet paper and paper towel tubes. And a small package of multi-colored pony beads can be threaded onto pipe cleaners, then removed to do it again. There are stickers made of fun foam that are age-appropriate, too. All of these can also be used in sorting games, sorting beads by color, pompoms by color or size (if you have multiple sizes), or learning shapes and colors with a bag of fun foam stickers. The rest, particularly glitter, has to wait a while.
You only need a few things to start art with very young children. Lots of paper plus stickers and things that can make marks can provide hours and hours of fun.