Toddler Art Activities

Benna Crawford
Little girl showing painted hands

It's never too early to unleash a child's inner Picasso, especially on a rainy afternoon when a meltdown is just a bored whine away. From about 18 months to 3 years old, kids can make an artful mess to help you decorate your house.

Fabulous Footsies

Girl and mother making footsies

What could be more fun than coloring an outline of your feet on a giant piece of paper? This project takes an initial tracing and cutting out by a parent, but the "fabulous" part is pure kid. Pasting a trail of those decorated footprints to a secret location is almost as fun as following that trail, one dainty tip-toe after another. Making these fabulous footsies is suitable for toddlers ages 2 to 3 years.

What You Need

  • Construction or white craft paper
  • Washable markers, non-toxic crayons or paints
  • Scissors
  • Low-adhesive painter's tape

What to Do

  1. Have the child stand on the paper.
  2. Trace around both feet with a crayon or marker. Repeat steps 1 and 2 to make lots of footprints.
  3. Using painter's tape, secure the paper to a table or flat surface and let the child color her feet.
  4. Encourage older kids to draw and "paint" toenails.
  5. Cut out the feet and tape them to the floor with a piece of folded painter's tape under each footprint. Make a path to the table, fridge or nursery.

Washi Tape Thumbprint Trees

Cute craft tape creates an imaginative trunk and branches for a tree about to spring into leaf. Get crazy with patterns and colors for the tree and use several art techniques for the leaves. These trees are suitable for kids ages 2 and up.

What You Need

  • Washi tape
  • Large piece of white craft paper or oaktag
  • Scissors
  • Stamp pads
  • Small leaves
  • School glue

What to Do

  1. Make one tree trunk with branches, per child, on the paper using one or more colors of washi tape. Ask the artists for suggestions.
  2. Gather small leaves from plants in the yard or a nearby park.
  3. Set bare tree forms on a flat, protected surface.
  4. Open non-toxic stamp pads and show kids how to stamp their thumbs in the ink and then on the branches to make leaves.
  5. If your tree forms are large enough, kids can use entire handprints for some of the leaf clusters.
  6. Press small leaves on the ink pads and print them on the tree.
  7. Glue a couple of real leaves to the tree, or falling from it, and let the print dry.

Yummy Yogurt Painting

Baby with yogurt

Younger artists still tend to taste first and ask later, so yuck-proof your project by making yogurt paints. Yummy yogurt painting is safe for 18 months and up.

What You Need

  • Plain paper sandwich bags or uncoated white party bags with handles
  • Vanilla yogurt
  • Small, unbreakable dishes
  • Food coloring
  • Cookie cutters
  • Card stock
  • Craft knife
  • Glitter or sanding sugar
  • Scrap paper or newsprint

What to Do

  1. Trace and cut out a cookie cutter shape in a piece of card stock, using a craft knife or scissors.
  2. Cover a table with paper and place two or more small dishes of plain vanilla yogurt in front of each child.
  3. Add one or two drops of food coloring to each dish and stir to color the 'paint.'
  4. Set a bag in front of each child.
  5. Let the kids fingerpaint one side of the bag with the yogurt. Model one-finger design-making and monitor excessive blobs. The "paint" shouldn't be a pudding-thick layer on the bag.
  6. Hold the cut out shape over a still-wet bag and help the older kids to sprinkle glitter or colored sanding sugar on it to make a raised shape on the bag. (Glitter works better.)
  7. Open each bag carefully while it is still wet, stuff the open bag with crumpled scrap paper or newsprint to stabilize them, and set the open bags aside to dry.

Bunting Banners

You have a crucial role to play in the completion of this project, but your little artist will happily take all the credit when it is fluttering on the porch or in the nursery window. Give the tried-and-true method of making homegrown sun catchers a new interpretation by creating pennant shapes or clip sun-shaped circles to a string for hanging where the colors will catch the light. Suitable for 30 months and up, although you can encourage some fiddling around from younger siblings.

What You Need

  • String
  • Iron
  • Crayons
  • Kitchen grater
  • Clean egg carton
  • Waxed paper
  • Scissors
  • Tiny craft clothespins (optional)

What to Do

  1. Help the older kids to grate crayons, color by color, into small piles of wax shavings.
  2. Place colors into individual sections of a clean egg carton.
  3. Lay 4-inch wide pieces of waxed paper vertically on a work surface, one at a time.
  4. Show the artists how to sprinkle small amounts of crayon shavings on the half of the paper closest to them.
  5. Sprinkle with your youngest, or just let a too-small kid scribble on paper with ungrated crayons.
  6. As each section is complete, carry it to the ironing board, lay the string across the middle of the waxed paper, fold the paper in half and iron it. (Place waxed paper between two sheets of regular paper to protect your iron.)
  7. Be sure to leave an inch or so of space on the string between each ironed segment.
  8. Once you have enough segments to make a banner of pennants, allow the ironed paper to cool and cut each segment into a triangle, point down, with the string running across the top.
  9. Have your kids help you pick up the bunting by both ends of the string and tie it in place on a sunny porch or across a window.
  10. If you opt for sun-shaped sun catchers, use six-inch square pieces of waxed paper; sprinkle crayon on one; place another piece of waxed paper on top and iron them together.
  11. Trim each square into a circle once the wax is cool and the colors have melded together. Clip the circles to a string, with tiny craft clothespins, to make the bunting.

Feather Painting

Child painting with feather

Paint brushes are so ordinary. Instead, dip a feather into your favorite colors of tempera paint and experiment with different techniques to create special effects. Feather painting is suitable for 18 months to 3 years.

What You Need

  • Feathers (at least one per child)
  • White craft glue
  • Liquid tempera paints
  • Sheets of paper

What to Do

  1. Squeeze paints into small saucers or containers. Old applesauce cups work well.
  2. Add a bit of glue to each cup and mix it into the paint to help the paint stick.
  3. Dip feathers into the paint and dab, brush, swipe or press paint on the paper.
  4. Trail curvy lines of different colors on the paper and use the edge of a feather to make a marble design, by zigzagging the feather through the paints.
  5. Add tiny found objects if you wish. Items that work well include acorn caps, flower petals, ribbons, autumn leaves, or the feather itself.
  6. Let the paintings dry completely so the objects will stick.

Bubble Wrap Printing

Bubble wrap painting

Recycle some old bubble wrap into art prints that take minimum effort and are guaranteed to work. This project is so simple you could do it in your sleep. Kids love to keep printing and printing, so you get a pleasant, no-stress activity, and a lot of homemade wrapping paper. Kids of any age can do this activity, but by age 2, your baby O'Keeffe will really get into it.

What You Need

  • Bubble wrap
  • Paper
  • Fingerpaint
  • Painter's or masking tape

What to Do

  1. Tape a few pieces of different size bubble wrap, small or large bubbles, to a protected surface. Painter's tape is low-adhesive and easy to remove. Stickier masking tape will hold better.
  2. Set out fingerpaints and encourage kids to finger paint the bubble wrap. Show them how to brush it lightly with color but don't get too fussy about random globs of paint. It is after all, their art.
  3. Help children to place a piece of light construction paper or white art paper on the painted bubble wrap, tap it gently to impress color on the paper, and then peel it off without blurring the design.
  4. Keep experimenting with color combinations and bubble sizes as long as the artists are engaged.
  5. Hang the art on an indoor clothesline to dry.

Water Painting

Chalk on sidewalk

Teach your budding Buddhas the meaning of impermanence with disappearing water paint. A chalkboard or a shady patch of the driveway is your canvas. Chalk and plain water are your mediums. Drip and dab or practice letters. Draw a house or an Apatosaurus. It's all good, and none of it lasts. Magic for 2- to 3-year-olds.

What You Need

  • A chalkboard or shady patch of driveway
  • Sidewalk chalk of any color
  • A plastic pail or shallow dish to hold water
  • Two sizes of craft paint brushes

What to Do

  1. Rub sidewalk chalk over the whole surface of the chalkboard or driveway. You want to cover it completely. Kids can help.
  2. Give each child a container of tap water and a couple of paint brushes.
  3. Demonstrate how painting with water creates a negative image by washing away the chalk to show the drawing.
  4. Guide tiny hands to delicate drips rather than massive sloshes.
  5. Let 'er rip. The image lasts as long as there is some chalk surrounding it. You can always move to a different patch of the driveway or dry the chalkboard off and start again.

Scribble Stained Glass

Stained glass

Replace your windows with vivid stained glass the temporary way. Little ones don't need very fine motor control to manage something impressive and lovely. Preschool kids will be more precise and proud of their creations. When the thrill wears off, the art peels off -- and a vinegar-soaked rag has your windows sparkling in a heartbeat. Kids ages 2 to 3 are well-suited for this project.

What You Need

  • Art paper roll or large sheets of white art paper
  • A mullioned window or washi tape and a ruler
  • Scissors
  • Wax crayons or oil pastels
  • Liquid watercolors
  • Paint brushes
  • Vegetable oil

What to Do

  1. Cut a paper template the size of one mullioned pane of glass, or divide a single-pane window into equal sections with washi tape and make a template.
  2. Let kids scribble a free form design on the paper roll or art paper sheets with non-toxic crayons or oil pastels.
  3. Place the template over the scribbles and trace individual panes on the paper.
  4. Give kids liquid watercolors in small cups, plus one brush per color.
  5. Show them how to paint right over the scribbles. (Staying within the lines is not important as you will be cutting the art out.)
  6. Help your exuberant 2-year-old to paint more-or-less on the scribbled paper.
  7. Allow the painted paper to dry and cut out the rectangles.
  8. Brush vegetable oil on the back of each rectangle and stick the finished artwork to the window glass. (Older kids can help.)

Ice Cube Painting

Ice cubes in colors

Watching colors deepen and slide together is endlessly fascinating to a busy toddler. Playing with ice cubes is mad fun, and making a controlled mess is something both of you can get behind. A cut-down cardboard box, powdered paint and a couple of ice cubes are the start of a great adventure. This activity is ideal for toddlers ages 18 to 24 months, but your 3-year-old may want in on the fun.

What You Need

  • Ice cubes
  • A large shallow baking pan or a cardboard box cut down to about four to six inches high.
  • White craft paper
  • Powdered tempera paint in several colors

What to Do

  1. Layer a piece of art paper in the bottom of the pan or box and set the box on a flat work surface. The box contains the mess, keeps the ice cube on the paper, and can be tilted and shaken to "create" the painting.
  2. Shake some powdered paint on the paper. Vary the colors and use a scant amount, so you end up with a design, not mud.
  3. Put a single ice cube in the container and show your child how to move the box around, so the ice cube slides over the paint and makes a pattern. (Tilt it, tip it, lift it up and gently shake it.)
  4. Use colored Jell-O instead of powdered paint if your toddler's hand is quicker than your eye and the art medium could end up in his mouth.

Roller Bag Painting

When you want to save the last unstained t-shirt and it's time for art class, get out the oversized sandwich bags. A gallon bag is a good size, but you can work with smaller bags, as long as the bags seal with a zipper lock. Roller bag painting is real touchy-feely art that won't redecorate the dining room, the rug or the wardrobe of the artist. 18 months to 3+ years can play.

What You Need

  • Large closable clear plastic sandwich bag
  • Craft or construction paper
  • Scissors
  • Liquid tempera paint
  • Small wood dowel -- short enough to fit in the bag.

What to Do

  1. Cut out easy paper shapes such as a heart, star, pumpkin, paper snowflake, square or circle.
  2. Slip the shape into a large, closable plastic baggie. Squeeze drizzles of bright tempera paint over the shape, inside the bag.
  3. Place the short length of a wooden dowel on top of the shape, inside the bag, and zip the bag closed. The dowel takes the place of a paintbrush and adds a level of focus and challenge to the activity.
  4. Set the "project" on a generous amount of protective paper where your baby genius can stand or kneel over it to get some traction.
  5. Show him how to roll the dowel around, inside the closed bag, so the paint squishes in blobs and shapes over the form. Prepare a couple of baggies and swap them before each one gets too murky.
  6. Remove each paper shape carefully, to avoid smearing the artwork, and let it dry.

Art Is a Win-Win Activity

Art activities promote imagination and sensory processing skills. Plus, it's a field in which even the youngest kids excel. Getting into the materials helps with mastering the environment, working on gross and fine motor skills, and developing focus and good hand-eye coordination. The smallest artist is exploring self-expression as she struggles to manipulate those unwieldy fat crayons. When your toddler is finished with her art session, the bath is over, and the results are displayed around the house, your little artist will revel in a tall order of self-esteem, and Grandma will have even more ammunition for the brag book.

Toddler Art Activities