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As a play-based teacher who values children’s autonomy, I am frequently asked what are the essential supplies needed to support children’s creative play and open expression. The truthful answer is that creativity can be supported with whatever you have on hand. Having some open-ended materials is important – but there really is no special or specific equipment that is absolutely essential. Likewise, children’s autonomy emerges out of their interactions with people and places in the world…not from having the ‘right things’. However, for families, co-operatives or play-based classrooms who want to get started setting up a creative space, I am sharing my list of essential art supplies that I find most useful in supporting the type of creative arts play that nurtures children’s autonomy and expressive confidence.

List of essential art supplies. Image shows a range of colourful art supplies including pastels, paint bruses, feathers, yarn, googly eyes, jewels and origami.

Art supplies for creative discovery

This list of essential art supplies encompasses around 85% of all the materials that I rely on to spark the type of exquisite play that nurtures maturation, creativity, imagination and autonomy in the children I work with. These materials are my ‘staples’. The other materials not included on this list are the unexpected discoveries that I make at yard sales, dollar stores and our local trash-and-treasure markets. You can’t plan for these things, and part of the joy is in discovering them. The remainder of the joy comes from witnessing the ways in which children invent to use them. As you build your collection of art staples, don’t forget to keep to keep your eye open for these unexpected delights…after all, that’s what creativity and play is all about!

I encourage you to modify this list. For example, it is fine to substitute some items for cheaper variations or found items if you can. Also, consider how you intend to introduce, present and store your art supplies. Likewise, keep in mind that some art supplies may not be suitable for your specific situation. Small items are not suitable for younger children who may still be putting things in their mouth. Some materials contain allergens or harmful chemicals that could cause an allergic reaction or illness if ingested. It is important to familiarize yourself with the contents of the art supplies you use and to take appropriate precautions, such as keeping them out of reach of young children or using non-toxic alternatives.

Essential Art Supplies List

All-purpose art supplies

  • Art trays (an unused pet litter tray makes a good all-purpose art tray. A ‘horticultural tray’ (without holes) is a cheap alternative for a large art tray)
  • Bulk container of white/ PVC/ school glue
  • Cold glue gun + cartridges
  • Tacky glue
  • Bulldog clips (variety of sizes)
  • Glue sticks
  • Canary cardboard knife
  • Sticky tape
  • Masking tape
  • Child-friendly scissors
  • Mod Podge
  • Art varnish (spray can)
  • Pipettes
  • Easel ( a desk easel or a standing one)
  • Twine
  • Washi Tape
  • Plain/ unscented tissues
  • Tweezers
  • Hole punch
  • Stapler

Loose parts/ found items

  • Interesting twigs, leaves, bark
  • Other natural materials such as non-toxic seeds, pinecones, and acorns.
  • Shells
  • Feathers
  • Buttons
  • Ribbons
  • Googly eyes
  • Biodegradable glitter (ordinary glitter wreaks havoc with the environment)
  • Sequins
  • Fabric scraps (cotton, burlap, whatever you find)
  • Cardboard tubes
  • Bottle caps.
  • Natural fibres such as yarn, twine, and raffia.
  • Unusual objects like clock parts, keys, and old jewellery.
  • Natural stones, pebbles, and rocks.
  • Pinch pegs
  • Pom-poms
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Craft sticks
  • Skewers
  • Split pins
  • Paper straws
  • Cotton balls
  • Cotton buds
  • Beads
  • Wood cuts/ blocks/ chips

Drawing supplies

  • Colour pencils
  • Oil pastels
  • Wax crayons
  • Colour markers/ textas
  • Sharpies (a good collection of black sharpies, plus any colours if you want them)
  • Posca paint pens (if budget allows)
  • Chalk
  • Pencil sharpener
  • Stencils, rulers, and tracing shapes

Paper and canvas supplies

  • White print paper (A4)
  • Other A4 and A3 paper (80gsm) – assorted colours
  • Construction paper – various colours (115 – 200gsm)
  • Watercolour paper (Mont Marte Watercolour Discovery Books are an affordable option for a home studio)
  • Roll of cheap children’s art paper (Ikea sells a good version) and/ or butcher’s paper
  • Overhead transparencies and/ or clear hard plastic saved from food packaging
  • White terry cloth (cloth nappies are ideal)
  • Cheap canvas boards
  • Tracing paper
  • Origami paper (variety of sizes)
  • Recycled junk mail
  • Newspaper
  • Graph paper (can be printed free from the internet)
  • Old magazines
  • Bulk roll of tin foil
  • Cellophane (if budget allows)
  • Bulk roll of wax paper
  • Bulk roll of baking paper
  • Sandpaper
  • Paper bags
  • Tissue paper
  • Other interesting paper finds (e.g. doilies, textured paper, saved wrapping paper and cards)
  • Stickers

Painting and print-making supplies

  • Bulk poster or acrylic paints
  • Tempera paints – discs last a long time, but can also be purchased ready-made
  • Water colour palettes/ trays
  • Containers or jars for water
  • Liquid water colours (make your own using water with food colour added, or you can buy more expensive liquid water colours if you prefer)
  • Paint brushes (various sizes, “chunky” or “stubby” brushes are ideal for those still developing hand grasp skills)
  • Sponges (supermarket sponges are fine, you can also look for loofah or body sponges in the personal care aisle or art store)
  • Paint trays for mixing and applying paint to rollers (recycled meat/ vegetable packing trays of various sizes are perfect)
  • Rollers – start with a linoleum roller. Add more roller types including foam roller, brayer rollers, rubber rollers, texture rollers.
  • Collection of balls/ rolling objects: e.g. golf balls, ping-pong balls, marbles, tennis balls.
  • Ink pads and replacement ink

Sensory art & play supplies

  • Plain flour
  • Corn flour (known as corn starch in the US)
  • Shaving foam
  • Gelatine powder
  • Sand pit sand
  • Sorghum seeds (milo seeds)
  • Different spices – e.g. peppermint, cinnamon, ginger
  • Apple sauce
  • Alker seltzer tablets
  • Epsom salt (plain)
  • Table salt
  • Vegetable oil (sunflower)
  • Hair conditioner or body lotion
  • Vaseline/ petroleum jelly
  • Soy wax flakes

Clay supplies

  • Air dry clay
  • Modelling clay/ plasticine
  • Clay wire tool
  • Clay mats
  • Set of clay tools
  • Beeswax modelling clay

Cardboard and packaging supplies

  • Some sheets of cardboard
  • Old/ recycled/ saved cardboard packaging
  • Old recycled/ saved plastic packaging
  • Bubble wrap
  • Any interesting sheets or bits of cardboard
  • Paper plates, utensils, cups, etc.

Storage, presentation and clean-up supplies

  • Squeeze bottles
  • Pump packs, squeeze bottles (recycled sauce bottles work well)
  • Water spray bottles
  • Small bowls
  • Smocks/ aprons
  • Biodegradable wipes
  • Sanitizer/ pump-pack soap
  • Paper towels
  • Hand wiping – old face washers or terry-cloth nappies  are ideal
  • Table protection (tarp, plastic table cloth, etc.)
  • Floor protection (tarp, outdoor mat, ‘splat mat’, or search for “spill resistant mat” with rubber backing)