Whether this title makes you think of Tom Sawyer or Karate Kid, you probably share some old-school notion that encouraging your children to paint something can teach them a lesson. It turns out what was true for Tom and Daniel-san is true for our preschoolers as well. Nearly all preschoolers love to paint, so engaging them is effortless. Give kids natural paints in a variety of colors and be sure to provide both plenty (enough for everyone to paint at once) and scarcity (just one of each color). This killer combination makes for productive practice with sharing. Set up the situation the right way, and there is actually a lot for kids to learn as they brush paint on a stick, a log or even a rock.
We focus on three main goals here, none of which are to, necessarily, create something lovely to look at (sorry, Martha Stewart). First, hippy-dippy as it may sound, we seek to free their minds to paint outdoors as a precursor to thinking “outside the box.” To our children, nature should feel like a limitless canvas that comes with unlimited art supplies (provided we make no harmful impact). Second, holding, dipping and using a paintbrush is a wonderful way to develop the hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills that enable all kinds of important work in and out of school. And last, but certainly not least to this age group, is to build communication skills as they navigate sharing with their peers.
Prep materials: Nature-based paints (especially for a group of kids) take some preparation, but they are truly safe for kids, and we don't want to teach kids that it's okay to put the chemicals found in non-natural paints (e.g. tempera, acrylic) into the environment. We’ve had luck using Earth Paints but there are other great options out there too. Note: these are made from plants and milk proteins, so need to be made and used or saved in the fridge for no more than one week. Don't have/want to buy natural paints? You can also DIY and make natural paints and pigments of your own. We use medium sized brushes and no-spill paint cups, but you can use any brushes (even natural grasses) and recycled cups of any kind.
How much paint per kid again? Have enough cups of paint so that there are 1 or 2 more than the number of kids you have and only one of each color, which means they will have to share. For example, we had 11 kids, so we made two cups for each of the six colors in the Earth Paint kit (red, blue, yellow, green, brown, orange) with two cups of each color. Plus, we brought two empty cups and made a few batches of purple to explore color and spice things up.
Set the stage: Let kids know that today they get a chance to use natural paints (i.e. paints that won’t hurt the environment) to add color and design to the nature around them. What fun!
Support sharing: Before you hand out the materials, ask kids, "What will happen when two friends want the blue at the same time?" Agree on and practice language that kids can use to ask for a color someone is using and agree that everyone will need to take turns. As they paint, listen to the back and forth. Praise kids for smooth transactions and encourage them to remind you, and themselves, how to ask for and hand over paints to their friends.
Support fine motor skills: Model a bit yourself. Help kids who may need to adjust their grip on the brush or who struggle to hold the paint cup and paint.
Get them painting: Hand out paints and brushes and encourage kids to start painting small objects like sticks without the bark, wood chips and small rocks. Once they get rolling, you can transition to painting something large like a log, tree stump or a large rock. At the end, they can admire the colorful marks they've made while you admire how even those who are quiet or who struggle to share made it happen.
Why is this activity great for kids?
Regardless of whether your child is on a path to be the next Picasso, as they grip, dip and glide a paint brush over various surfaces, they develop fine motor control in their hands. In other words, they build the strength and skill they'll need to perform tasks like using fork and knife, catching and throwing a ball or tasks essential for higher-level learning like hand-writing and typing on a computer. It sounds like basic stuff, but if they enter school without solid fine motor skills, learning can be very frustrating, causing kids to develop lasting negative attitudes towards learning.
As kids share and negotiate the use of limited resources, they develop the higher-level communication and collaboration skills they'll need to navigate life as a learner, friend, family member and teammate in both school and the workplace. It's never too early to start becoming a sweet talker!
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