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How We Use Toddler Art Trays... Really!

Montessori Toddler Art Shelves at How we Montessori  Otto 18 months

Do you have art materials freely accessible to your toddler/s? I have found it's helpful, it means the art materials get used more and there is no need for the child to continually ask for permission. We have an art easel, large chalkboard and often paints outside, but what about inside? We definitely want less messy art inside. Here is how we make it work.

  1. Art materials are stored on trays on low toddler shelves. 
  2. We keep a toddler size table near the art shelves. Otto is still learning to use the trays so it's easier if the table is close to the shelves. For most of these activities it is easier for the child to work on a appropriately size table and chair rather than on the floor. 
  3. We use mostly washable materials such as paints and stamp pads. Our toddler size table is sealed, this is so important for easy clean up. Most paints, play dough, stamp ink easily wipes off. If you have an unsealed table you want to use for art, I would seriously consider sealing it. 
  4. We keep out favourites like play dough but rotate art materials when they are no longer of interest. 
  5. We keep all the materials the child needs on the individual trays. 
  6. We start small. Two to three crayons, a small amount of play dough and build up as the child is able to use them responsibly. 
  7. We remove the art materials if they are being misused. In the past Otto has tried to eat and would continually throw the crayons. I would take them away for a couple of weeks and try again later. 
  8. Inside we use a small amount of paint. Currently we have out water colours but we only need a tablespoon of each colour, it's plenty and meets Otto's needs, if he spills it, it is super easy to clean up. 
  9. We supervise the area at all times. I don't need red dot marker all over the while rug, Otto could still potentially eat the crayons. At this age full supervision of art materials is needed. 
  10. Sometimes we join in and play together but we also allow for independent play. 
  11. We give the child time and space to explore the material. Long periods of free uninterrupted play is essential. 
  12. We don't stop the child exploring with the materials unless it becomes unsafe or disrespectful, I would step in before Otto drew on the wall but if he is squishing the paint in his hands that's ok, it's totally up to each parent as to what is acceptable. 
  13. We limit the amount of trays and activities out. It's easy to try and create Pinterest or Instagram worthy art shelves but for a toddler simple is essential, I'm constantly telling myself not to overcrowd the shelves or overwhelm the child with too many choices. 
  14. We provide materials for clean up. We have a small dust buster for vacuuming up mess (usually dried play dough) cleaning cloths and a water spray bottle for wiping down the table. There are stored on Otto's kitchen/snack shelves but they are only a couple of meters away and are easily accessible. 
  15. Be ready to be amazed. It may take time but the magic does happen. Otto frequently blows us away with how carefully and responsibly he uses he art materials and sometimes he is really diligent. He shows us what all children are capable of!! I have so much love for well considered and well presented art materials. 

Montessori toddler art shelves at 18 months How we Montessori

Today we have five art materials on our indoor toddler art shelves including play dough (with natural stamping materials), water colour paints with water colour paper, bees wax crayons, dot markers - two colours and animal stamps. Otto has started to use scissors so I need to fit a cutting activity on the shelves too. You can see a list of the types of art materials we use on this previous post. I'm always changing how I present the materials, if something doesn't work I keep moving things around until it does work, perhaps using less materials, a different tray or different size paper. 

Otto using water colour painting tray at How we Montessori  18 months

Otto will often play with his art materials on the toddler art shelf. The play dough case he will take to the table, play and most of the time he will put it all back in the case and put it back on the shelf. With the rest of the materials we are still teaching Otto to take the tray to the table, and pack up when finished. It takes time for it to become habit. If Otto doesn't clean up, I invite him to help me put it away, if he doesn't I just put it away without any fuss.

Otto  water colour painting at 18 months at How we Montessori

There are just so many benefits of freely accessible art materials. Otto is so engaged, he uses them everyday. There are benefits for developing creativity, the use of fine and gross motor skills, they are all excellent pre-writing skills. There are also lots of practical life skills exercised during art such as opening and closing containers, carrying a tray and cleaning up spills. 

Otto using water colour painting tray at How we Montessori  18 months

Second to play dough, dot markers are Otto's most used art materials. Otis loved them too but it too me a long time to see the benefits, why wouldn't you just use paint? I love to observe my children and if you look at Otto's arms, hands and fingers, you can see why dot markers are so fantastic. Coordination putting on lid, rotating the wrist to twist the lid closed, crossing the midline, two hands working together, use of dominant hand, use of non-dominant hand, concentration and a ton of experimentation.

Otto dot marker at How we Montessori  Montessori toddler art trays at 18 months

"It is fun to do special art projects in the home and infant community, but even at this young age children benefit from having a variety of art materials available to them at all times and a space to work, uninterrupted, when they are inspired... The best we can do for our children is to prepare a beautiful environment, provide the best materials, and get out of the way." - Susan Mayclin Stephenson, The Joyful Child: Montessori, Global Wisdom for Birth to Three

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