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Providing choice-based art supplies and experiences is a wonderful way to support children’s creativity, skills, and self-expression. However, this type of open-ended art can be challenging to facilitate. The first step is to choose the open-ended art supplies for choice-based art-making. Even then, concerns about mess can make it difficult for adults to support free exploration. At the same time, children can experience overwhelm when faced with so many choices and possibilities. In this article, I’ll share some of the simple processes I use in my own teaching to help children use, mix, and combine art and play materials in a way that overcomes these challenges.

Begin with choice in mind

Finding the right balance between providing too many materials and too few can be a challenge for both parents and educators. To manage this challenge, it is helpful to focus on the goal of choice-based art. Here, the goal is for children to use their art supplies with their own sense of purpose. In other words, in a choice-based setting, our aim is for the child to both develop and follow their interests, experiment with different techniques, and express themselves creatively.

Art Supplies To Build Children's Autonomy Through Choice-Based Art. Image of a young child painting their body with paint, against a colourful background of paint splashes and spills.

Use a step-by-step process for introducing choice-based art supplies

In choice-based art, our emphasis is on fostering the development of crucial skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, self-expression, self-advocacy, and decision-making. To provide children with these learning opportunities, I use a four-step process for introducing new art materials. By following this approach, we can create a context for meaningful and engaging exploration and experimentation with art supplies.

1. Start with one material at a time

Introduce a new material on its own or in a controlled manner. This allows the child to become familiar with the material and explore it at their own pace, without the distraction of other materials. Depending on the material and context, you may like to show the child how to use the material (but be careful not to focus on what they ‘should’ create). For example, when I introduce acrylic paints, I show the child how to put the paint on the brush, and to put the brush back in the ‘same colour’ pot. I might also model different ways to do some strokes, such as lines or dots. But I avoid showing them ‘things’ to paint.

2. Observe closely

Watch closely for the ways your child engages with the material. Rather than worrying about if they are using the material ‘correctly’, instead pay attention to what they seem to be trying to do. Make some guesses about their underlying intention…are they exploring how the material moves, or feels or looks? Does this intention change? Are they ‘inventing’ their own ways to use the material, or are they using the material in the same way – over and over? When their interest begins to wane (which can happen anywhere from a few minutes to several hours) you can move on to the next step.

3. Gradually add new choice-based art supplies

Once your child is comfortable with the material, and they have finished exploring you can extend their attention. This can be done by adding a new material to include or combine with. For example, if you are introducing acrylic paints, add a jar of water, some different sorts of paint brushes, or a different type of material to paint on. Repeat this step a few times times, by introducing something new each time their interest wanes. This process of combining new materials not only helps build familiarity with the original art supply. It also helps the child rehearse extending their attention, as well as elements of the creative process itself.

4. Make the art supplies freely available

Once the child is confidently using the material, I then make it freely available for them to manage on their own. For example, I place the acrylic paints in a place where the child can access them when they choose.

A practical example: Introducing white glue

White glue is a helpful example for illustrating this process. It is a material used in many choice-based art activities, but can be challenging for both children and educators. Concerns over waste and estimating the right amount often underpin these difficulties. Using the above steps does not necessarily eliminate or ‘stop’ children from spilling or over-using the glue. However, it does provide a process to support children to both learn how to move to ‘gluing independence’.

To illustrate this process, when first introducing white glue, I start by providing a small amount of glue in a bowl with a brush for easy application. I even invite them to use their fingers to apply the glue if they want. My initial goal here is for the child simply to experience using the glue and to begin feeling familiar with how it works. Ideally, they will use up all the glue during their activity. When they ask for more, they have the opportunity to practice pouring or squeezing more glue into the dish. This is a complex skill involving visual input, neuromuscular feedback and processing, and proper sequencing of steps. As a result, the aim is not for the child to pour the perfect amount of glue the first time. Rather, the aim is to provide plenty of opportunities to develop – over time – the skills to become confident in using the glue with purpose and intention. Once they have mastered the basic steps, the glue can be made freely available for them to manage on their own.

The importance of an autonomous mess

Adults may feel uneasy witnessing a child pour too much glue or mix paints into a brown mess. However, these messes play a crucial role in the learning and development process. Autonomy, or the ability to make choices and manage materials independently, is a key factor for well-being and engagement in learning.

Additional strategies for using art supplies to support artistic autonomy and choice

As parents and educators, art-making provides us with valuable opportunities to support children’s autonomy, and all of the learning benefits that come with this. However, it is not only the art-making activity that offers these benefits. Many additional strategies can be used to help make art materials freely available to children, and to expand these benefits.

  1. Teach routines. By introduce new materials gradually, children not only have the opportunity to learn how to ‘use’ the material for art-making. They will also gain the skills in the routines of managing the material – for example, in skills like rinsing brushes, wiping up, re-filling, packing away.
  2. Purchase in bulk. Consider buying supplies in bulk. Then, transfer them to smaller containers, such as squeeze bottles, to make them more accessible and manageable for children.
  3. Keep art supplies within reach. Once your child is able to self-manage the material, keep art supplies within reach and accessible.
  4. Allow exploration and experimentation. Children may repeat the same activity over and over, or they may jump between many different uses of the material. As long as they maintain interest, both of these types of art-making are valuable. Provide support and encouragement as they find their own unique voice and style with the materials.

The way we introduce, use and present art supplies can have a profound impact on children’s art-making experience. Freedom to choose and manage their own art materials, provides children with the scope to explore their interests, experiment with different techniques, and express themselves in unique ways. This helps develop key life and learning skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, self-advocacy, and decision-making.