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Don’t Be Afraid to Make an Artful Mess with Toddlers

We would like to advocate for making room for messiness with art materials when it comes to developing creativity and problem solving for toddlers. As scary as that might sound, it is more important than you might think to the cognitive growth of a young child. Beyond the obvious benefits of sensory development, making a mess with art materials helps young ones to become more independent and better problem solvers.

Think back to your memories of kindergarten, and many of them are probably sensory. Perhaps you recall the sticky texture of school paste or the enticing smell of crayons and Play-doh. As standardized testing has become more central to measuring academic achievement in schools, much of the time that early learners in grades K–2 used to have for cutting, pasting, and drawing has been replaced with preparing for tests. The lack of sensory and creative play has become even more of an issue with the shift to remote learning.

Making an artful, creative mess doesn’t have to take over your home space. Here are some tips for developing space for artmaking with toddlers:

  • Designate a special spot for artmaking with your little one.  
  • Keep art supplies together in a bin or box. You can change out some supplies occasionally to keep things interesting.
  • Encourage your toddler to make choices. Keep it simple with a choice between two or three options. This can be an opportunity to develop language and social skills.

  • Be patient once your toddler starts making art—it takes longer for little fingers to manipulate art materials. 
  • Keep it open ended—focus on the process and not the end product.
  • Resist the urge to do the art project for your child. If they are struggling to learn a fine-motor skill, demonstrate alongside of them on your own paper.
  • Release the idea of perfection when it comes to artmaking for little ones and yourself. Be like everyone’s favorite frozen princess and let it go. You’ll have more fun, and so will your child.  
  • Life isn’t always perfect, so helping little ones understand that things can go awry and there are solutions they can find is an important life skill to start practicing.
  • Have your toddler help with cleanup—make it part of the fun!

There are many wonderful articles for learning more about the benefits of making a creative mess for toddlers and the importance of materials exploration, independent decision-making opportunities, and developing fine motor skills.
Practicing these skills now in a nurturing, familiar space will prove beneficial when your toddler transitions to more independent school work and their confidence is strong, thanks to the artful and creative messiness you allowed them to experience as a toddler.

Noël Bella Merriam
AT&T Director of Education, Diversity, and Inclusion 
Published February 9, 2021