Painting for Every Age - 5 Helpful Guidelines for Preschool Painters

29 October 2019

Painting for Every Age - 5 Helpful Guidelines for Preschool Painters

As an early educator, I know that preschoolers really do love to paint! And, painting is perfect for strengthening your preschooler’s early literacy skills. The left-to-right eye tracking and hand-eye coordination skills involved are vital for learning to read and write. Painting not only develops these physical skills, but gives your little one another wonderful way to their express creativity and original thinking.

Sadly, I find it’s not an activity a lot of parents plan to do. And when your little one gets to formal school, painting won’t be regularly included in most curriculums. Granted, painting is messier than drawing with crayons or markers. But the benefits outweigh the mess when you know what type of painting activities work best for your kiddo’s age and growth. 

So today, I want to share 5 guidelines for painting activities that will make them easier for you and more beneficial for your preschooler-- from toddlers to 4 years and older.

1. For all ages

Be ready for creative expression! Cover your table or surface with a reusable, plastic tablecloth like this one on or use your old bed sheets or shower curtains as “drop-cloths.” Cover your child with an apron, old shirt, or Art Clothes (which you can read about here in our FAQ). Having paper towels and a damp sponge handy are also key. And even cleaning up can be fun-- when you do it together! Ask your child to help you straighten up when the painting is over, it will stretch their social and small motor skills too.

2. Toddlers - 18 months to 2-year-olds

The best type of painting for very young ones is finger painting. For this age and type of painting, preparing your area in advance is very important. Mastering this new material called paint will mean lots of experimentation, so be prepared!

Use just one or two colors of non-toxic, water-based finger paint sets like this one. Keeping things simple will help your child focus on learning how to work with their hands and paint at the same time! Toddlers can finger paint directly on any type of paper or even directly onto your plastic tablecloth.  It’s fun to finger paint on wax paper and even on tin foil. Experiment with different kinds of painting materials, like water or shaving cream. Shaving Cream Finger Painting and Zip-a-dee Painting are two painting activities for perfect for toddlers to 2-year-olds.

3. Two-year olds

After your preschooler has had experiences with finger painting, the next kind of painting appropriate for 2's is with a brush and seated at a table. Also know that 2 years old is just too young for easel painting. Because your little one is just achieving their control over the paint and the brush, easel painting will be very messy. It will also not be very satisfying or fun for your child, because it can be frustrating and difficult to control the paint at the easel at their skill level. 

The best starter paint is round, watercolor paint sets with just a few colors like this example. They’re convenient for you and best for your child’s early learning. Your child will enjoy using these more than square sets because they're easier to use, encourage color mixing, and help them focus on enjoying the process of painting! Check out our Materials Guide for more information and our recommended paint sets. And throw away the brush that comes with the paint set,  For 2’s, the best brush to invest in is a natural bristle brush 8”-9” long with 1” wide bristles, like this 10-piece set of boar bristle brushes.

Painting with brushes will also require you to get involved. You’ll need to demonstrate how to use this new thing called a brush! Encourage your preschooler to paint directly onto a piece of paper, using full, free strokes. Use the point, side, and flat surfaces of the brush. Show how to make wide lines, thin lines, zigzag lines, dots and dabs. Show your preschooler how to mix colors on the paper as they paint. Try dipping one side of the brush in one color, the other side in a second color to blend paint in one stroke. 

For beginning painters, it’s also important to take the time to show them how to clean the brush in water before changing colors. Be sure to have clean water in a small cup or bowl and paper towels on hand for this purpose. Most 2-year-olds probably won’t remember to do this regularly, so expect some muddy, mixed colors. The more experience your preschooler has with painting, this habit of cleaning the brush will become second nature!

4. Three-year olds

By this age if the painting process has become more routine, you can provide watercolor sets with more colors (like this round set with 16 colors) because more colors will no longer be as distracting. Three’s being threes, they will often want to use specific colors for their own specific reasons, and more colors will empower their self-expression!

It’s still a bit early for easel painting. Sitting down and painting at a table is still the most appropriate position for painting at this age. But you can mix things up! Since your 3-year-old has mastered painting with a brush, go beyond paper and try painting everyday, 3-D objects like recycled styrofoam, boxes, or try our tin Foil Formations

And at this age, the same size brush 8” long with 1” bristles recommended for 2’s above is still perfectly ok to use. But if your 3-year-old has been painting for a while and you’re looking for something new, you can move up to two new sizes: 12” long with ¾” bristles and 6” long with ¾” bristles, included this set of 24 natural bristle brushes. Trying these new sized brushes will encourage new brush strokes and create different effects. 

If necessary, keep encouraging your child to clean the brush between changing colors. 3’s will be more interested in keeping their colors clean and clear, so gentle reminders may be all that is needed.

5. Four years and up

Most 4-year-olds will want to paint specific pictures or scenes using colors that reflect their ideas. At this age, painting begins to be a true form of communication and your four-year-old will be purposeful in their painting. They’ll often want to paint-- or ask for your help in painting-- their name or explanatory words on their paintings. It will be important to your child that it is seen and understood correctly. For example, your child could ask, “This is our house, so put numbers 3403 on it for me.”  Our article series, Scribbling Stages is a great way to understand how and why children express themselves now and at earlier ages. 

Having the ability to create individual colors is important to 4’s. So, now is the time to add white and black paint. Show how to add white to other colors to make pastels. Or, mix a bit of black in colors to make them darker. Our Mixed Media Batik or Paint and Chalk Mirror Prints are very fitting for your 4’s colorful expressions.

And now is the time that easel painting can be introduced successfully. This is because your child has practiced painting, learned how to control the brush and how much paint to put on it. This mastery means no more drippy and frustrating easel painting. So go for it!

4-year-olds and up can also use two additional sizes of brushes: 12” long with ½” bristles and 6” long with ½” bristles, included this set of 24 natural bristle brushes. Painting detailed objects is also appropriate at this age. For example, your child can paint objects like pinch pots or sculptures that they make with clay that hardens, such as non-toxic, air-dry sculpey modeling clay.  A brush with ½” bristles work especially well for this.  

Now that you have these 5 guidelines, I feel confident that you can easily give your preschooler the gift of painting experiences! I hope you get to paint a few colorful strokes yourself, too. Speaking of, we’ve got lots of Painting Activities for every age right here! And don’t forget to let us know your feedback & how it went right here!