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The Eric Carle Museum
of Picture Book Art
  • 125 West Bay Road
  • Amherst, MA 01002


  • Thursday, Friday10 am-3 pm
  • Saturday 10am – 4 pm
  • Sunday 12 pm - 4 pm

Closed Monday,Tuesday, Wednesday

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Making Art Together

On Limitations...

If you've ever visited The Art Studio at The Carle, you may have noticed that we have out only a select set of materials for you and/or your family to play around with. For instance, you may have come when we've offered collage paper and glue, but no scissors.  Maybe you:  a.) wondered if we misplaced our scissors or b.) thought we wanted to play a bad joke . The answer is actually c.) none of the above. We intentionally limit the variety of materials offered in our projects for many other  reasons. I'd like to discuss those reasons here and invite you to respond.

playing with paper

One reason we offer specific or limited materials is to inspire creative problem solving. When a guest asks for a material we’re not currently offering, our response is to ask, “what is it you’re trying to do?” After hearing about their idea, we might follow up by asking “how might you do that with what’s here?” and then help them come up with ways to explore, or alter their idea. The goal is to help our guests, kids and adults alike, see the possibilities inherent in materials, and use them in ways they hadn't thought of before.

the Art Studio at The Eric Carle Museum

It's like the idea that you could have lots of friends that you know only a little, or a few friends you know really well. When we have fewer materials to work with, we have the opportunity to get to know each of them really well. An unlimited choice of materials has its place in certain settings, of course, but our goal is to help people really get to know how materials "speak" with and through them. Since the majority of our guests are young children and their families, we encounter many (kids and adults alike) who are new to looking at and making art, so in our setting, limiting materials makes sense.  Our Every Day Art Program projects last for multiple weeks, in part, so that regular guests could have multiple experiences with a set of materials.  It's possible that during each visit the materials could be used in very different ways.

Limited materials also encourage our guests to take risks.  Recently, during a project in which we offered  tissue paper for collage with oil pastels, a boy (maybe 10 years old?) asked for “regular” drawing materials. When I asked him what he meant by “regular” drawing materials, the other kids in his group chimed in (with a tone that suggested they admired his abilities and respected his interest) to say that “he is a drawer”. My response was to start a conversation with him. I learned that drawing was his preferred way to work (perhaps his artistic safe zone), and that he especially liked the Manga style. I asked him if he already had an idea for a picture he’d like to make today, and let him know that collage was about making things with shapes. So, I suggested, “I know you like drawing, but what if for today, you made your idea with shapes? Maybe you could just give it a try?”  He did. He worked for a long time, and he was pleased with his work. 

Cool and Warm markers

Sometimes we offer limited colors to help our guests make discoveries about color or color relationships. For instance, if we offer just blue and yellow paint, a new artist (young or old) might mix them on their paper and “discover” green. In the Studio, we try to watch for these moments and help them be noticed.  For another example, if I’m going to select materials inspired by a picture book about a visit to the beach, I might offer all colors, but sort them by temperature: warm colors (red, yellow, orange to suggest the sun and sand) and cool colors (green, blue, violet to suggest the water). Offering limited colors is a way for our guests and students to learn about color without us saying “today you are going to learn about color temperature” when they walk in the door. Cathy Topal and Lella Gandini also make an interesting note in reference to working with found objects in their book Beautiful Stuff (pg. 90): “As soon as we limit children to one color, the possibilities open up. Children become much keener and more discriminating observers- and so do the teachers.”

So, this is where I hope you will weigh in. How do you approach materials choices with children or students of any age? Do you offer specific materials? Let them have access to all their materials all the time? Something else?

If you liked this post, you might also like: Labeling Materials for All Ages and Helping Children Problem-Solve.



We enjoy exploring materials and ideas in the Art Studio, and we’re excited to share our process with you! Please consider the following factors when adapting these posts for your learning environment: 

We facilitate a variety of programs within the Art Studio for a wide range of age groups. Please carefully consider the age appropriateness of each individual activity in your own learning environment.

Our projects are always done with adult supervision and proper safety precautions. Be sure all of your projects are overseen by adults who likewise follow proper safety precautions. The adults overseeing your project must also be responsible for handling or assisting with any potentially harmful equipment or materials. 

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is not responsible for any damages, injuries or liabilities that result from any activities contained within this website, and we expressly disclaim any responsibility or liability therefor. From time to time, we reference materials that we have found to be particularly important in our projects. We do not receive any monetary compensation for recommending materials. 



by Meghan Burch

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 16th, 2012 at 11:05 am and is filed under By Meghan Burch, Collage, Drawing, Elementary School, Every Day Art Program, Found Materials, High School, Toddlers, Middle School, Mixed Media, Nature, Our Approach, Painting, Paper, Preschool, Printmaking, Professional Development, Sculpture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


Thursday, February 2, 2012 - 12:36 pm
I have this right in my "about" page: "I’m providing materials, some inspiration, and a place to make art. I’m purposely limiting the materials, so the kids don’t suffer from choice overload." I agree, obviously! There are times when my kids have an idea and I feel it's my role to say, "Okay, what do you need to see this idea through?" But there are lots of times when we're trying something new, and I feel it's much more appropriate to limit what we're working with. And a provocation of just certain materials is always interesting, too. Part of my goal is to introduce my kids to different methods and techniques (in an open-ended way), and then when they have a specific idea, hopefully they have a varied enough technique "vocabulary" to achieve their idea in the best way they can. (Also, in general, I feel eliminating choice overload, no matter what we're doing, is the better choice.)
Wednesday, March 3, 2012 - 1:12 pm
Amy, Thanks for your comment. This is obviously a really late reply, but, yes! I like the term 'choice' overload. And as you note, choice overload can happen anywhere. I'm reminded especially of shopping malls (I don't love going) and my own home studio (I do love). I could make more if I didn't get so caught up in the collection of things with which to make!

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