My husband is mess-a-phobic. If it were up to him, all paint, glitter, glue and any toy with more than 4 pieces would be banned from our household. However, as the one home with the kids all day, I know the value all these things provide. It’s important to expose our little ones to as much as we possibly can – and there’s a reason they love all these mess worthy things, as much as parents hate them. As important as it is for babies and toddlers to explore, I’m also a big fan of the contained mess. I strive for activities that engage the child for more time than they take to prep and clean-up… or if they don’t last long, can at least be leveraged for repeated use. Along the way, I have discovered a few things to contain the mess and make clean-up as streamlined as possible. My crafting with kids survival guide!
Crafting with Kids – A Survival Guide
Designate a Craft-Friendly Area
This seems obvious. We do all our crafts at our kitchen table while she is strapped in her booster seat or in her highchair. You don’t end up with paint covered handprints on the wall if they can’t get up and run away with paint covered hands. Also, as kids thrive on routine, when I ask if she wants to paint or color, she gets excited, runs right to the craft closet and then to the table.
Three of my daughter’s favorite crafting activities are not mess inducing at all. She loves to color, which unless you hand them a box of colors in the middle of your living room and leave them unattended, is not messy at all. She loves stickers – again, as long as they are in a designated crafting area, the stickers end up on paper or their shirt, not on your walls or furniture. And she is obsessed with sidewalk chalk – the mess stays outside, and even when she decorates her face with blue chalk ala Braveheart, it washes off with a little water and completely washes out of all clothes.
… Before Progressing to the Messier Stuff
Master crayons, before moving on to markers. Use a glue stick or contact paper before busting out the bottle of Elmer’s. Try ink dobbers or stamps before giving them paint and a brush.
Use a Trashable Layer
Before you put out the craft materials, lay down a “trashable layer” to cover the surface they will be working on. A few of our favorites that fit this bill are:
Dollar Store Plastic Table Cloths – this is great for projects during playdates too, as it covers the whole table and creates a craft space for multiple kids. This is great for crafts with wet media, like paint, shaving cream, water, egg dying, or for crafts/baking projects with lots of tiny pieces, like glitter, sprinkles, or confetti. When it’s just my toddler, I often cut them in half or quarters, since I don’t need to cover the entire table.
Cut Open Paper Bag – for single craft stations, cutting open a paper grocery bag and laying it out flat is usually a large enough surface to contain any mess within their reach.
Roll of Craft Paper – you can buy a roll of craft paper at most craft stores, or in our case, we received a TON of brown paper that was used as stuffing in a package we received. I just straightened it all out and rolled it up on an empty wrapping paper tube. We literally ended up with 30+ feet of free craft paper. You can also buy a 140 foot roll of heavier builder’s paper for ~$10 at Home Depot. Unroll a few feet and lay it down before they go to play.
Craft Outside – while the outdoors isn’t “trashable,” it is easily hoseable. When the weather cooperates, do the really messy stuff outdoors and when they are done, spray away the mess – on them and the ground – with the hose!
Limit Accessible Materials
Until your child demonstrates that they won’t chuck the paint cup across your kitchen, don’t give it to them. For our first painting forays, I would give her the brush with paint on it. She would hand it back to me when she wanted more. Then, I would put some paint on a paper plate and give her that with the brush and paper. As soon as it ends up on the floor (only happened once) or the brush is thrown (happened 2-3 times), craft time is over. I use the same method with food and mealtimes.
Child Protection Gear
Another way to create routine around craft time is by having a designated craft “outfit.” It can be a smock, one of Daddy’s old button down shirts, an old t-shirt, or strip them down to their diaper. For us, it is a smock. We use it every time, so she doesn’t protest putting it on because she associates it with fun, craft activities. It’s part of the routine.
Our first smock was a Crayola Art Smock. While cheap ($3), it was less than effective. It’s really too big for a 1 year old, and the neck opening and lack of arms made it relatively ineffective.
We found an upgrade to our smock while on a craft shopping trip at AC Moore. This long sleeve variety will run you a little more (~$10), but is much more effective. The smaller neck opening and elastic openings on the end of the sleeves keep the long sleeves from getting in the way of their hands, while fully protecting their clothes. It also still fits at age 3, with more room to grow.
Lead by Example
My toddler does best when I show her how to do something by doing it first, and then let her imitate me. I put the brush in the paint on the plate, then apply it to the paper… then hand her the brush. She realizes that’s how you paint. I dip the brush in the water, then touch the water colors, then put the brush on the paper… then give her the brush. That’s how she learned to use crayons, and how she learned to use water colors for the first time… That’s not to say she doesn’t use her imagination, rub paint between her fingers, hands and occasionally her hair or give paint, crayons and glue the occasional taste test, but it eases potential frustrations before you even get started.
If it were up to me, I would keep every piece of paper she ever scribbled on. She could be the next Picasso in 20 years! My husband is totally anti-clutter – I’ve stopped saving her playgroup crafts to show him because he just asks if he can throw it away. Artkive is the greatest app ever because it allows us to both get what we want. I take a picture of her masterpiece with my phone, Artkive allows me to tag it with her name, date, a title and any comments, and save it for posterity. I can share it with friends and family, and sometime down the road, I can have her whole “portfolio” printed into a bound book. Oh, and Dad is happy too because he gets to throw away the paper.
It’s important to let kids get messy, but if fear of mess prevents you from even trying creative activities with your kids, hopefully these tips encourage you to at least give it a shot. Kids love crafts, the mess can be contained and you can both end up happy. If you have any other great tips for making crafting with young children even more enjoyable, let us know!