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Un-Recipe for Paint

Age: 0 to 8 Time: 1 hour+
Materials: berries, spices, water, buckets, brushes, watercolor paper
Skills: Creativity, Problem Solving, Behavioral Schema, Self Esteem, Fine Motor

Getting artsy with young kids is good fun that yields great stuff -- practice following directions, hands-on motor skill development, and (of course!) quality time together. But it can be hard to let kids own the activity. Most 3 to 6 year olds aren’t ready to read directions or wield a hot glue gun on their own, after all. We love projects where kids can really “do the making” -- take control of the process and the results -- because that’s how they develop problem-solving skills and creativity. Take this simple paint project, for example. There's no shortage of paint recipes using natural materials, but in this one, kids can run the show. All you need are berries, a few brightly colored spices, water, and some open earth -- and then let the kids loose. The experimentation and creativity that follows is as lovely as the art that results.

The Guide

  1. Gather paint-making materials: Our favorite paint ingredients require no heating or heavy processing but still yield brilliant color, like raspberries, blackberries, turmeric, and paprika. If your area has berries for the picking, great -- but keep an eye on what kids find, and be clear that they should not eat anything unless you tell them it’s safe. Along with berries and spices, gather a gallon of water, buckets or containers for mixing (2 or 3 per kid), brushes, and paper (watercolor paper is ideal at grabbing color).
  2. Head outside: Yes, you could do this in the kitchen -- but that’s a parent’s domain. The world outdoors is a mess-friendly, wide-open space where kids can be in charge. Plus, it comes with endless materials and the invitation to experiment! Head to a spot with plenty of exposed dirt.
  3. Set up the situation: This is key to allowing kids direct the project. Suggest that it’s a great day to paint outdoors. Bring the paper, brushes, and water -- and then, looking aghast, announce that you forgot the paints! Ask, “What can we do? How can we make our paintings?” Allow kids to mull the issue -- you may be surprised at their ideas -- and drop some hints. “Hmm...for a long, long time, paints were made from plants and the earth. Do you think we could use things from nature? What kind of colors could we get?”
  4. Let them mess around: Put out the paint-making berries and spices you brought. Make water, buckets and sticks accessible, then welcome kids to start making paints! Rather than direct the kids, work alongside them, making your own mud, berry, and spice concoctions (it’s fun!). When you make a color you like, announce that you’re putting it aside to save for painting -- they’ll get the idea. Given the opportunity, kids will mash, mix, stir, and experiment for a while. Give a shout-out to kids who employ inventive strategies or test new nature materials.
  5. Make art! After allowing plenty of time to make paints (around twenty minutes or even longer), lay out some watercolor paper and brushes and start painting on your own. Welcome kids to join you when they’re ready. Don’t forget to display the results! We use twine and clothespins to dry and display kids’ paintings—a great way to celebrate everyone’s work.
  6. Have young kids in tow? For kids between about 18 to 30 months, this is less about problem solving and more of a sensory experience. Give toddlers a chance to make a holy mess -- let ‘em mash, mix, stir, dump, and repeat! Keep paper posted at their height and leave brushes within reach. Without saying a word, pick up a brush and paint a little, either from the mixes they’ve made in buckets or from pools of mud-berry-spice paint they’ve dumped on the ground. They’ll likely follow your lead.

Why is this activity great for kids?

This isn’t just another painting project. Switching from “let’s follow this recipe” to “we have a dilemma -- what should we do?” not only gives kids experience with how to solve genuine problems, but allows them the freedom to invent the solutions -- the very basis of creativity. This activity’s colors, scents, and textures (maybe even tastes!) help kids develop multiple senses -- and also make it extremely engaging. The deceptively simple acts of stirring mixtures and transferring paint from bucket to bucket support universal patterns in brain development known as behavioral schema. Meanwhile, fine motor skills get a boost from holding sticks for mashing and grasping brushes for painting. Most gratifying of all, you’ll likely hear, “Look what I made!” When kids take pride in their artwork, that’s hard evidence that making things on their own boosts self-esteem -- a true masterpiece.


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