Tips for Art-Making With Various Ages

Making art together, January 2012 (ages 3, 7, and 10)

Making art together, January 2012 (ages 3, 7, and 10)

In the comments to the last Art Together post, Sunny said she faces challenges trying to do art with all of her kids given their age range of 4 through 9. I can relate; my kids are 4, 8, and 11, and we began really making a habit of art time together when the youngest was 2. I wanted to share some things that have worked for me in trying to juggle the different needs of three kids, and I’m hoping others will share their experiences and what has worked for them as well.

When we’re in the studio all together, we have several choices:

Same activity, same materials: This choice is pretty straightforward. If we’re using materials everybody can use and doing an activity that works at all levels, we don’t really need to do anything differently. This doesn’t mean everybody is working at the same level. When we’re creating observational drawings or paintings, there may be a huge difference in skill level, but as long as the atmosphere is supportive of this, it shouldn’t be a problem. If younger kids are feeling less confident next to older ones, or older ones are feeling competitive, this doesn’t work well. In that case, I’d step back and set expectations beforehand, both for one’s own artwork and how to talk about each other’s artwork. (Is anyone interested in a post about talking about artwork, both to and amongst kids?)

Same activity, different  materials: You could choose to give a younger child different materials than an older child; for instance, tempera paint instead of acrylic, or oil pastels instead of chalk pastels, but you’re all heading in the same direction as far as the activity goes. Sometimes, my kids choose different materials anyway, because they’ve spent time exploring them and often know what they’d like to work with or experiment with to get a desired result.

Same materials, different activity: Perhaps a younger child is still at the point of exploring a material, while an older child wants to use it for a more directed purpose. If you can tolerate the messiness that is bound to accompany a toddler or preschooler’s exploration, this can work out well. My daughter began using charcoal at age two; she got a bit dusty. My middle child still most loves charcoal for the way he can smear it all over the paper with his hands. It does wash off skin, so this doesn’t bother me too much.

Different activities, different materials: This, of course, is the most difficult set-up for the facilitator (that’s us, the adults!). Sometimes we just all want to be in the studio together but we’re doing different things. My daughter might need paint, my son is using watercolor pencils, my other son is drawing with Pitt pens, and I have paint out, too, but different paint. Or I present a bunch of ideas and they each pick something different (as described in this post). We’re still all together, but I’m hopping a bit more to make sure they all have what they need.

Same activity, tweaked for age level: As much as possible, I try to adjust the activity so all the kids can participate at whatever level they’re currently at.  So, when we tried our hand at a Matisse-inspired collage (an activity chosen from a book), the youngest joined in by cutting and gluing.  When we carved stamps, the boys used the carving tools with my supervision, but my daughter, who was a bit past three at the time, made her stamp using craft foam and scissors. It definitely takes some creative forethought to tweak activities, but I have found that most open-ended art activities can be adjusted for various ages and stages. It’s simply going back to the idea of starting where you are.

Have a helper: If I’ve planned something more complex, it helps to have another adult around. The first time we printed with scratch foam, my husband was around to assist as well. Having an extra set of hands during a more intensive activity makes it so much easier to help anyone who needs it.

So it really depends upon the specific activity—but flexibility is key to facilitating art-making as a family activity with multiple ages. If anyone else has tips to share, please leave them in the comments! It will be helpful to us all.

12 thoughts on “Tips for Art-Making With Various Ages

  1. Kayte

    A hiccup I have noticed with multi-aged artists (with materials or goals in any mix you mention) is the littlest among the group touching the project or materials of the others (much to the over chagrin of the older artist). ‘Hey that’s my glue. Don’t touch that! Mom!’ To help I often present materials on individual trays, giving everyone a sense of ownership. (I have also been known to define workspaces with colored washi tape on the tables) Little ones are often so proud to have their own defined space and materials that it helps head off problems before they start. And with a little practice they can begin to ask to have any materials try want ‘for their tray’ instead of helping themselves with little paint dripping fingers.

    1. amy Post author

      That’s an excellent idea…thanks for sharing! I haven’t noticed that tendency with mine, but I have no idea why not?!

  2. Lori

    i’ve always worked with multiage groups and in my after-school and summer programs we would sometimes have kids age 3 through 10 working in the same studio. your guidelines sound perfect to me. one thing i would add: if kids are familiar with their studio, the materials and tools they’re allowed to use independently, and they know how to clean up after themselves, a lot of problems are avoided from the start. teach them to respect one another’s work (no touching someone else’s project, no drawing on someone else’s paper, etc.). then it’s just a matter of putting on some relaxing music and working alongside one another.

    unless we are exploring a new material together, there are probably as many different materials being used as there are children in the studio. the kids show each other their work, inspire one another, copy one another, teach one another. working with a mix of ages is my favorite. <3

    1. amy Post author

      I love how we all inspire each other. It’s one of my favorite parts of making art all together. I could write reams (and perhaps will, some day) on how creating an art habit with my children fed my own creativity.

  3. Sunny

    Thanks for all of the suggestions! We are getting better about doing things together, but it’s been quite a learning curve for me. My oldest and youngest can be quite independent and competitive, so … 😀

    We mostly do “same activity, same materials” because we have a small working space, but what they do with the materials is generally up to them. We were supposed to make yarn eggs for a club presentation a couple of weeks ago (so, more focused than is typical), and that was a mess. Last night, the older 2 were gone, so 4yo and I made a big, fun mess with paints. Even his paper towel ended up being called art because it had so many colors, lol!

    I am rambling, but I did just want to say thanks again for all of the ideas. I will be checking out lots of your links!

    1. amy Post author

      You’re welcome! I do hope you find some ideas that work for you all. Competitive is really challenging…it does come up now and then here depending on what we’re doing. And working one-on-one in between the all-together sessions is great, I think. My youngest got quite a bit of that when both her older brothers were in school, and I think it increased her confidence in feeling at home in the art area, especially when we’d do something that we thought the boys would like too, and then later shared it with them. That’s a nice way for the younger child to feel on level with the older ones (maybe help with the competitiveness?).

  4. Catherine

    It can be challenging working with different ages – I find it hard with only two children. What helped me (and seems really obvious), similar to Kayte’s suggestions, is making sure that everyone has enough supplies. For example, my eldest does not like to have the paint colours mixed up, but my youngest still forgets to wash or change the brush. Simple solution is they both need a palette of colours. Sometimes you forget to do this at home though, because of lack of resources. For example, it meant I had to go and buy a whole new set of brushes.

    1. amy Post author

      I agree, it does make it easier when everyone has control over their own materials, but as you mention, that can be cost-prohibitive. We have an easel and when my daughter was a toddler that was often “her” space, while the boys worked at the table. I still need to remind my kids how to treat some of the materials. We share everything, and I don’t want the paintbrushes ruined either!

  5. Elizabeth

    Well, you know how our last family art session went and I haven’t done one since but that has more to do with all the activity we’ve had lately of looking for a home, packing etc. A few weeks ago I was flipping through Kohl’s book, First Art and mentioned to my 10.5 year old daughter that I wanted to try to get her brothers (4 and 22 months) as interested in art as she is. I asked her if she might be interested in helping me work with the boys in exploring materials and she seemed interested, even flipping through the book for a bit. So, I think that’s going to be my tact. She really just got terribly upset the first time that I would teach her something alongside her “baby” brothers.

    How often do you all meet together in the art studio?

    P.S.- Love the new look of your blog!

    1. amy Post author

      Thanks! I think getting an older child to help/lead younger ones is a great strategy. My oldest recently picked out an activity he wanted to do from and I had him write up the materials list and then lead the rest of us in creating it.

      Our frequency varies. For a long while I tried to make sure we were meeting all together at least weekly, and of course we pursue our own things in between. My kids really looked forward to it as a family activity, and I’m trying to make that a habit again.

      1. Elizabeth

        I failed to mention that I got the idea about my daughter assisting me from you so I just wanted to Thank you for that suggestion.

        So if I were to do a weekly family session with my boys again, would you recommend that I leave the art materials we worked with out on their small table throughout the rest of the week? I’m trying to figure out a way to get my boys immersed in art on a daily basis. The other idea I have is to spend a little bit of each morning project time experimenting myself with some medium; maybe collage for a few weeks, then watercolors and just be prepared to have materials on hand for the boys to join me if they wish. Right now morning project time is basically spent with me working with my daughter at the computer typing up her stories or I’m documenting or checking out library books. The boys play with their vehicles usually during that time (or fight). Basically, there’s no exploration of mediums and I’m not using that time to be an example of artistic pursuits.

        1. amy Post author

          Oh, I definitely encourage taking time yourself to experiment. That was my sneaky selfish reason for making family art a priority to begin with–I wasn’t getting any time (my youngest was about 2 and glued to me still) to do anything creative. At least if I was doing it with them I got a few minutes in here and there! I wholeheartedly support finding something YOU want to try and making it accessible to your boys, too. That might work best for you all. (It’s sort of like how my daughter always wants to eat MY lunch…the same principle might kick in!) But seriously, if you are authentically interested in whatever activity you have going on, that’s just so much better for everybody (at least I find this true for myself) than setting out what you think you *should* do and getting frustrated.

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