Ingredients: Paper or an old sheet, paint, all size paintbrushes / sponges, a messy plastic sheet underneath + a toddler or two. (Try painting in the garden if you feel too anxious about mess inside)

The Big Sell:  Shall we do some splashy paintings?

Strategy:        It can be hard to know where to start with creative play at toddlers. Their mark-making can seem incredibly chaotic, short-lived and messy and as adults we can find it hard to know how to react or encourage their next steps. (Let’s face it, how many times have we spent 15minutes laying the table with plastic sheeting, paper, paints in pots, toddler dressed in apron… only for them to get bored after 2 seconds and wander off?!)

Tip: If your kids hate aprons (as both mine did) just sacrifice an old t-shirt or shirt (put on backwards) to the God of art and keep in the painting box for these occasions.

So I wanted to share some ideas for how to keep them interested and you from pulling your hair out. Young children naturally gravitate towards circles in their early mark-making.

You can develop this by combining their mark-making with their favourite nursery rhymes, for instance ‘Round and round the garden goes the teddy bear’ (round and round with the paintbrush in circles) ‘one step, two step’ (jab the paintbrush to make sploshes twice), ‘tickly under there’ (squiggly mess! Child giggles). Combining the narrative with the marks starts to enable the child to understand there is a connection between themselves and what they have made and this is the earliest step to introducing narrative into their paintings.

Other ideas include making “footsteps up the garden and splash in the muddy puddles!”, adding their favourite nursery music tape in the background and painting along to the singing, or painting ‘train tracks’ and using some washable cars / trains to run along the messy tracks and then make their own tyre tracks.

The Verdict: Youngest son (now age 2 ½) has been painting like this since he was around 13 months and now paints most days. Time spent sitting at the table has gradually increased from 2 seconds to more than 10 minutes! He soon moved on to painting the palms of his hands and making splashy hand shapes which is a real milestone I remember from older son’s childhood. He’s also started to make early face shapes, building on his confidence with circles to add eyes. I believe from these small acorns, big oak trees will grow!

Catchphrase: “More paint muddy puddles?”

Left wanting more?

  • If you are interested have a look at the history of Mandala circles which have been recurrent throughout many cultures and show that the circle is a powerful symbol that carries a universal formative language.
  • Try the same technique in other media such as sand, play dough, porridge oats or flour or dyed rice in a tray, etc…
  • If you want an adult inspiration for the potential for drawing in sand, check out the Youtube clip of “sand drawing for the Ukraine’s Got Talent competition”.