Article Type Making Art Together Making Art Together Categories Infants and Toddlers Painting Theory and Resources

Fingerpainting with Toddlers: Debunking My Own Myths

Meghan Burch

My first order of finger paint arrived from Discount School Supply in time for Materials Play, one of our drop-in art exploration times especially for toddlers.  To get the kids started I put dollops of warm colors in a tempera cake palettes (you could use muffin tins) and invited them to paint on the windows. As they needed more paint I offered a few more colors.  A couple of children preferred painting in large white trays placed on our low table.

Finger Painting with Toddlers - The Eric Carle Museum

Finger painting paper was available for making prints from the paint if desired.

Finger Painting with Toddlers - The Eric Carle Museum

Everyone enjoyed their experience! To those who are thinking “no big deal, people have been finger painting since forever,”  here is my confession: For YEARS (a decade) I have been avoiding finger paint.  However, since having my own young chilren, I see what I’ve been missing!

Finger Painting with Toddlers - The Eric Carle Museum

My previous rationale for avoiding finger paint stemmed from my view of children, my approach as an artist/educator, and maybe even a few hidden memories of low-quality fingerpaints from my childhood. I believe that, from the start, children are learners, capable of making sophisticated meaning of their experiences and the world. My goal as an artist educator is to craft approachable, creative experiences that help people: discover how the visual world works; observe like artists; solve problems like artists; and explore ideas through materials. My thought was that if young people think like artists and are capable of discovering that red mixed with blue equals violet, why would I not give them materials that operated like ‘artists’ materials? Somehow, painting with fingers seemed beneath my students. Beneath me. I perceived finger paint as cheap, producing dull colors, and too basic. In other words, not a “real” artist’s material. I have successfully offered painting experiences for older toddlers with brushes and either liquid tempera, tempera cakes, or watercolor paint in a limited palette of colors.  Creating the right physical setup was important in those experiences too. While they weren’t wrong, those experiences weren’t designed for a young toddler who’s sensory interests don’t always mesh with brushes and a palette of paint.

Finger Painting with Toddlers - The Eric Carle Museum

A few times I’ve tried making homemade finger paint. The recipes I tried were inexpensive and offered a nice sensory experience, but proved not ideal for discovering how color works. The color was faint, texture chunky if cooked too much, separated in the refrigerator, and stained skin. I was not impressed. Then, one day, I saw pictures by my daughter and her classmates in the toddler room at daycare. The colors were vivid with areas of lovely translucence and areas with intense, saturated color. There were areas where colors mixed, and areas where they weren’t. Surprise, surprise! They were made with  finger paint! Sure, other non-toxic water-based paints could be and have been used as finger paint, but as we know, toddlers can really get messy! This is something I of course knew and experienced,  but didn’t actually KNOW until I started painting with one in my OWN HOUSE. With white walls. Many of the teachers I’ve worked with know that I’m the last educator to choose paint for its washability. Often the pigment in washable paints becomes pale when it dries. I’m generally a process over product person, but I do want colors to be satisfying, so I’ve usually chosen non-washable paints for my classes. As a parent, however, I’ve come to realize that washability in some of our home supplies allows me to relax and be in the moment with my kids.  Good quality finger paint grants many of my wishes!

  Finger Painting with Toddlers - The Eric Carle Museum

So far, I like Discount School Supply’s Colorations Finger Paint but I would like to try Crayola’s because I really like their tempera paint. I’m also willing to give this homemade recipe a whirl.  I’m not excited about how finger paintings look when dry on finger paint paper, so I’ve been testing different kinds of paper. Are there other brands of finger paint or types of paper you’d recommend? Any recipes you’re happy with? Happy finger-painting!

Authors

Meghan, smiling and wearing a grey shirt with a blue background.

Meghan Burch

Art Educator from 2003-2016, Meghan has a BFA in Illustration from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She tries to think with materials and work with her hands every day.