Painting with Toddlers: It’s only mess in our eyes

I often take Sarah (19 mths) to a local free community playgroup. Last week she was happily painting when a mortified mother gasped at the sight of Sarah’s paint covered shirt and face.ย ‘Oh no! She has paint all over her face!’ ย 

This comment weighed on my mind for longer than it should have. It was just paint after all so why did this comment bother me so much?

I was watching Sarah paint the other day; she was completely and utterly absorbed by her motions, there was nothing careless or messy about it. And it occurred to me, only in our eyes, the eyes of those who inevitably clean it up, is this messy.

It was pure harmony.

Yes, she gets paint all over her shirt, that’s why she wears an old shirt.

Yes, she gets paint on the floor, that’s why we have an old mat.

Yes, she sometimes eats the paint, that’s why we have non-toxic paint.

Yes, she often needs a good wipe down, that’s why we have wash towels (or even better, the hose).

But to Sarah, this is anything but mess. This is very serious work she is doing; she’s playing, she’s exploring, she’s creating.

She is a child, and this is what children should do.

24 Replies to “Painting with Toddlers: It’s only mess in our eyes”

  1. mariliaescarlate says:

    Beautiful post! Do you think that I can start painting ativities with my 10 months baby? Do I need some special paints? Thank you so much!

    1. Absolutely! I’m sure they would love it. I’ve always used non-toxic washable paints so I didn’t mind too much if they put it in their mouths or got it on their clothes.

      At 10 months, your little one will love just exploring the paint. Finger painting is ideal. Just put some paint down on a sheet of plastic and let them play. Try to step back (or get in there too) and not worry about the mess. It washes off ๐Ÿ˜€

  2. I began taking my daughter to a local “kinderscience” when she was 2, and right away noticed another mother/daughter pair with the daughter about my daughter’s age. She’s always impeccably dressed and the mom is very careful to keep her perfectly clean. Some activities (the shaving cream & food coloring comes to mind!) are not at all compatible with staying impeccably clean. I wish the daughter got a chance to explore more freely; I also feel bad for the mama, who seems a bit trapped by her own standards, if that makes sense–I mean it kindly. The funny thing is, my daughter has been exposed to the paints & art supplies from a very young age, and she rarely gets it on more than her hands, and often not even that. (She’s 4 now.) When it gets on the table she *still* points it out to me and asks if it’s okay, and every time I tell her, “It’s okay, that’s why we have an art table.” ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I can definitely relate to what you are saying Amy. Quite often it is always my kids who are covered in all kinds of dirt and paint and water. Sometimes I think, ‘how do these other kids stay so clean?’ But it all just washes off. I can’t however imagine Sarah painting anything less than a whole body experience anytime soon ๐Ÿ˜€ That girl sure does love the paint.

  3. lovely post. this is so familiar to me as well. i taught an art class for two-year-olds and the parents (all mothers) were *so* concerned about their children making a mess โ€”ย not only on their hands and clothes (and theyโ€™d been requested to wear old clothes and wear a smock, but they still wore nice clothes) but also *in the space*. they were in an art studio with a paint-spattered floor surrounded by easels and childrenโ€™s artwork and they *still* couldnโ€™t relax and let their kids just create. they hovered over the kids and tried to control their choices, keep things small and neat, keep it on the paper, have it make sense … itโ€™s no wonder kids are losing their ability to be creative earlier and earlier.

    1. That’s what I loved so much about the Reggio playgroup we used to go to; the parents would observe from the sideline while the kids were free to paint and explore to their hearts’ content. It’s so nice to be around like-minded people, to feel comfortable.

      I am saddened when I see a child who just wants to paint and has someone holding their hand, their brush, showing them what to paint and where.

  4. I totally agree with you. When I was a about 3 or 4 years old, I remember getting really muddy outside and being afraid when my mom discovered what I’d done. When she found me, instead of being upset, she laughed and told me to go all the way. It’s one of my earliest childhood memories; probably because it was so exhilerating. I think it’s because of this memory that I’ve always held the messiness of play close to my heart.

    1. My hubby has a similar memory. He was eating watermelon in the backyard, I think he was about 4 or 5, he had it all over him. When his mum came outside he just burst out crying thinking he was going to get in trouble for having watermelon all down his front. She just smiled and told him to eat up ๐Ÿ˜€
      She is one of the most wonderful hands-on mums and nannas I know. Lots of mess and lots of time spent outside. Couldn’t ask for more.

  5. Beautiful, beautiful post! I’m so glad I found your page and can’t wait to see what else you do! Sharing on Facebook and Pinning right now. Welcome to the KBN!!

    1. Thanks Amanda. I am really looking forward to checking out the KBN blogs.

  6. You are so right, that’s how they explore and discover the world. I have had my share of looks in the park when my son jumps in mudpuddles, like I’m setting the bad example :), he’s having so much fun though, covered from ear to ear in mud! Always feel badfor the kids who so clearly want to join but aren’t allowed.

    1. This is exactly how I felt, like I was being irresponsible. But then I had another experience at the farmers markets while Jack was jumping in mud puddles. Lots of smiles from passersby as Jack ran and jumped. That’s the good stuff. That’s the things they’ll remember, being happy and free.

  7. So lovely to find your blog (dropping over from KBN)…always love finding other parents that embrace the mess as something important. My girls love many of the same activities you have been writing about…be back to explore more…unfortunately nap time is over here now ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Hope to see you again next nap time ๐Ÿ˜€

      I’ll pop on over and say hi.

  8. Beautiful post! I am a teacher and a Reggio inspired preschool and I want to share this post with parents who often have the “what a mess” reaction to the work that the children have been doing.

  9. My 2.5 year old wants all the colors on his palette when he paints. And he doesn’t want to wash his bushes before picking up the next color. All his paintings turn out black. It takes every ounce of self control from me to not correct him!

    My first comment here – Love your blog

    (I am fairly new to Montessori and Reggio, I have no trouble embracing these philosophies, but quite some trouble implementing them. Working on it)

  10. What a gorgeous post. Delighted to have been introduced to your blog. I’m already a fan ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Hahaha. My little guy flatly refused to paint until just recently. It wasn’t me concerned about the mess, it was him. He hated the feel of anything not, well, dry…so we relied on chalk. Different story now! Thank heavens for a BIG vinyl tablecloth repurposed as a floor mat.

    But if it makes you feel any better, I hang out with professional artists in my studio building. We wear our paint proudly…hands, faces, completely encrusted clothing…

    1. I have a friend who wished her son would get a little messier but he just doesn’t like it ๐Ÿ˜€ My two clearly don’t have that aversion.

      I am glad you wear your mess with pride. How wonderful it must be to be creative like that, to have such a talent. Must be such release for you. I’m still trying to find my creative outlet. I think I need to just put aside some time every week and focus on something just for me.

  12. This is a great post! I am a clean Momma who is constantly battling her own borderline OCD to let her toddler get messy. I know she loves it and it is an important part of her discovering her world. I have to chant to myself: she is washable…her clothes are washable…she is having fun….

  13. When my son was at 8 months old, he had his first finger painting and he didn’t mind to touch it. However at 15 months old, I set up a first painting on his table with brushes, he didn’t show any interest at it! Sigh.. Thought of having some big painting project with him. He is okay with the crayons.

  14. Can you tell me what paint you used for this project? love the variations of purples. am working on colors with my twin girls right now and like the idea of working in one color, but different variations to help them understand shades of color. Thanks!

    1. Hi Tiffany ๐Ÿ™‚
      These are just Crayola Washable paints in blue, red and white that I mixed up. I put a squirt of each into a few different containers and then Sarah mixed them. You get some nice different shades and even when she mixes all the paint together (as she inevitably does) it is still a pleasing colour. I always try to put colours out that even when mixed still look nice. White is a nice colour to have because you can get so many different shades of the one colour.

  15. Love this post. I only wish more parents felt the same as you. ๐Ÿ˜‰ (I’m a teacher at a Montessori school and I have some parents who don’t want their children to paint, because of the mess. ::sigh:::)

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