Category Archives: supplies

The Importance of the Proper Tools (II)

My first post on this topic discusses my then-two-year-old daughter’s desire to cut fabric, and my search for proper fabric scissors that would be safe in her hands. (I’ve since shown her the business end of a pin and how to use them safely, since naturally, after cutting a bunch of fabric pieces, you want to pin them together.) I didn’t necessarily intend this subject to become a series, but here’s another post in the same vein nonetheless.

N (age 7) and I signed up for a parent/child art class at a local museum. We both like art, and art museums, and I think he, as my middle child, is really in need of some one-on-one time with me. This class seems like a great way to do that. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it seems (we’ve only had one class) that we’ll be working on one collaborative project over the five sessions. The first day, part of what we needed to do was sew the shoulder straps that will connect to the rest of the project. Rectangles of craft felt were pre-cut, and we were to choose two rectangles, and fold each in half and sew the two halves together, to make two straps. Easy enough. N and I looked around for needles…

…and all they had were tapestry needles. Those are the large, blunt-tipped needles you use, generally, with yarn, which is exactly what we were to use them with too. But they don’t pierce felt, so we were supposed to punch holes in the felt with hole punches first, and then weave the yarn through the holes to “sew.” Which is a pretty good method, except that anyone who cuts fabric knows never to use your fabric scissors on paper because it dulls the blade, and boy did it look hard to punch holes through craft felt!

N really wanted to use a “real” needle, which I thoroughly support. I don’t know if the tapestry needle/hole punch/yarn method was chosen out of expediency or safety. I got the sense it was safety, but the class is geared for kids ages 6-9, and any six-year-old can use a real needle if shown how. And I’ll be honest: I really didn’t want to try to punch holes in craft felt with a paper hole punch, so we took our pieces of felt home to sew.

Here’s N, using an embroidery needle and floss to sew his felt.

(That is a rare TV-on sighting in our house! It was Sunday afternoon–football was on.)

N used the chalk that you see in the photo to draw a line of what he wanted to sew, and then he followed the line. I showed him how to backstitch and helped him around the corners and sorted it out when he forgot and sewed around the edge of the fabric instead of back and forth. After a few times, he figured out himself how to fix that, even re-threading the needle himself. Since this is a collaborative project, we each sewed a strap. Here they are together (click to embiggen).

N’s is on the bottom. He backstitched that zigzag himself. With a real needle. And he is pleased. And yes, he poked himself once or twice with the needle, but he didn’t even bleed (so he’s doing better than I am; I usually draw blood from my thumb at least once per embroidery session).

Kids are so capable.  Let them prove it to you!

(PS: We also made the shirt he’s wearing, many years ago. It’s printed using a vinyl fish replica and liquid acrylic craft paint.)

Building a Writing Center

Towards the end of the summer, I ordered Playful Learning. While I’ve gone through and marked numerous pages with sticky notes, this was my first goal: to set up a little writing center. We have loads of materials in our art area, and the kids can get to lots of them on their own, but I wanted one place that held a variety of paper all in one spot. I loved the hanging thing that’s pictured for the writing center at the beginning of the book, but the book didn’t seem to say where it came from. I Googled for a while and eventually found it–The Container Store! We don’t have one near to us, so I had to order that too. But look!

It’s a canvas magazine holder, and a perfect solution for storing paper vertically, something I’d been trying to figure out since we put together our art/craft area. The table takes up most of the space, so anything that allows me to use the walls is great. From top to bottom, I have card stock of various colors, plain copy paper, lined writing paper (it’s that thin brownish stuff, so I put a piece of card stock in front to help prevent flopping), some letter paper printed out from the Playful Learning website, some alphabet stickers, envelopes and index cards, and a bunch of blank books, waiting to be filled with stories. Most of these I made using plain paper, but some I alternated sheets of lined paper with the plain*. I added some pencils (nobody can seem to find one when they need one) and some colored pens. The kids can reach other supplies–colored pencils, crayons, scissors, hole punches, paint–on their own, and they’re stored in other areas.

The sheet on the right is this one, found via Pinterest. I plan to add and/or rotate what hangs there. At the same time I ordered Playful Learning, Rip The Page! fell into my cart, and I’m thinking the best way to use it may be to simply leave provocations up near the writing center. I’m going to have to wait and see if writing is something the kids want to do all together, like we often do with art experiences, or if it’s a more solitary activity. (Can you tell, for me it feels better to write on the sly and then, maybe, let it see some light?)

I’m not quite done here–I’d like some better alphabet stickers, for instance, and some shape stickers for my youngest. (Any source suggestions? I’m not finding any locally.) I also want some lined paper more suitable for my nine-year-old. I hope it evolves through use, that it shapes itself according to what the kids need. My oldest, especially, seems excited about it.

I’ll keep you posted!

*To make simple blank books: Fold copy paper in half for the inside and card stock in half for the outside. Staple close to the edge (middle, top, and bottom). Cover the staples with duct tape. I had some sheets of it, so I just cut off strips that were four squares wide (there’s a grid on the back) and used that.

Scented Play Dough

The idea of adding scent to play dough isn’t new; I’ve seen it scented with peppermint more than once. N’s teacher let me know on Sunday that he’d need some play dough for a class activity on Wednesday–we keep him on a gluten-free diet, and even though he’s not eating the play dough, there’s something about having him play with a ball of wheat that seems not-so-smart. He only needed a small amount each of three colors, but of course it’s made in batches (I used this recipe). I also wanted to double the recipe so G could play with some at home and there was extra to keep on hand in school for next time.

I placed all the ingredients for a double recipe in one pan. When it had warmed and mixed to reach the consistency of pancake batter, I added a couple drops of lavender oil–such a calming, soothing scent. Then I ladled some of the batter into two more pans, and then I added the food coloring, one color per pan. The beautiful (and beautifully scented!) result is in the picture above.

The Importance of the Proper Tools

I’ve always believed that kids deserve as good-quality art supplies as we can manage. This doesn’t mean the most expensive, but the tools and supplies we provide for our kids shouldn’t lead to frustration. The pencils and crayons should draw smoothly, the pastels should feel good against the paper, the paper itself should hold up to whatever’s being applied to it, and for goodness sakes, none of the teeny tiny paintbrushes and the watercolors that stay dry and colorless no matter how much water you add to the measly little block. (I always wondered, as a kid, how famous artists created such amazing watercolors. Learning about tubes of watercolor paint was a revelation, I tell you.)

Many products and supplies geared towards children are just not up to the task of carrying out the child’s ideas. But when I notice I need, I try to fill it; when a child has a desire, I try to make sure he or she can carry out the task. I don’t want an idea to fail simply for lack of the proper tools.

Not too long ago I decided to try sewing while G kept me company at the art (and sometimes sewing) table. I hadn’t tried this in a while, but I was making an apron for her and she was invested in the success of the experiment! She played with buttons, looked at some sewing books, and then wanted to play with, and then cut, some fabric scraps. I have a pair of fabric scissors set aside for this use, but they’re much too large for small hands, so I gave her some scissors from the art table. But cutting paper dulls scissors, and it was hard work to cut the fabric. She was very patient with it, but I decided I needed to get her scissors with blades that were sharp enough to meet her needs and desire.

After some research and asking around, I decided to try to find Fiskars 5-inch blunt-tipped scissors. Unfortunately, my local Joann’s (where the scissors were 50% off this week!) didn’t have those exact scissors, so I bought a 5-inch pair with slightly sharper tips than I wanted, and the 7-inch student scissors, which are also blunt-tipped. I’d thought the 7-inch ones might be too long, but they actually are just fine.

Can you see the small smile on G’s face? When we tried the scissors and she realized how easy it could be to cut fabric, she was so, so pleased. So satisfied. Like I said, she’d shown remarkable patience with the dull scissors, but I have a feeling using scissors that cut so easily was a revelation akin to my watercolor discovery. It is amazing to realize that something you want to do doesn’t actually have to be difficult.

We worked on how to safely hold the fabric and the scissors. (Her fingers are a little closer than I’d like here, but she was careful the whole way through.) I made sure she was always cutting away from herself, not towards her fingers or her body, and I didn’t take too many pictures because I was more concerned with holding the fabric to make her cutting work easier. She was intent on cutting small pieces, and then she needed a place to put them.

She was happy for quite a while, cutting up scraps and putting them into a glass jar. I think I’ll keep the smaller, sharper scissors for me and the student scissors will be hers. They enable her to do what she wants to do.

In the course of asking around to figure out what sort of “real” scissors would be appropriate for a two-year-old, I know I ran into some who disagreed with the idea outright. Here are some things I considered:

* This is not G’s first experience with using scissors. She’s been experimenting with cutting paper for a while now.

* The desire came from her–she had a plan and a need, and when a child (or anybody else) wants to do something, that person is likely to be invested in learning how to do it safely.

* I’m willing to sit with her and take the time to show her how to use the tool safely and supervise her at all times.

And, of course, respect–I respect her needs and desires and recognize it’s my job to help her fulfill them to the best of her ability. G, being the youngest of three, has always done things a bit ahead of schedule, and I’m not saying every 2 1/2 year old is ready to cut fabric with sharp scissors. I am saying that it’s so important to know the kids we are working with, provide them with the best and most appropriate tools that we can, and never underestimate their abilities.

(G, happily modeling her new apron!)

Working With Found Materials

I recently purchased Beautiful Stuff! Learning With Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. This is not a how-to book; it’s a documentation of how the authors and teachers worked with early childhood students, in a Reggio Emilia-inspired classroom, collecting and exploring found objects. As the authors say in the preface,

Rather than focusing on the creation of products, this book is based on observation and recording of children’s and teachers’ processes.

Fabulous. That’s what I try to do, too. I bought this with our natural collections in mind–mostly rocks and seashells–although the book covers all found materials, mainly recycled, and not just natural ones. Our collecting really ramps up in the summertime.

kids + nets + salt pond = summer as it should be

Documenting is an integral part of the Reggio Emilia philosophy. Here, the authors share the process of collecting and organizing the materials, exploring them, and working with them.

The kids are involved in every step. The first chapter begins with the authors acknowledging that it’s “crucial” to involve the kids and parents right from the beginning, thus with the collecting. Anyone who spends time with children knows they are natural collectors anyway. N picks up rocks everywhere. I find acorns in pockets, sticks on the floor, and G’s buttons absolutely everywhere.

We did not collect these jellies. We just observed them and let them go.

The kids in the book collect, clean, and categorize their materials. They spend time getting to know these items. How many ways can you classify something? They sort by material, by color, by shape. They work with them in temporary ways and in more permanent ways. They re-create self-portraits using found materials, they create 3-dimensional pieces, they study blue and circles and metal, with materials and through drawing and in paint.

The latest haul, rinsing in fresh water

It’s impossible for us to visit the beach without bringing back treasures, and we visit the beach at least weekly in the summertime. (The crabs in the left-hand bucket, by the way, were dead when we found them. They were supposed to be left behind, but G slipped them in.) On the way home, N was considering what we could do with some of our items–we can make rubbings of the Irish Moss, we can try printing with the underside of a crab (although, he pointed out, the paper might smell bad afterwards), we can make rubbings of scallop shells, with all those wonderful ridges.

Beautiful smooth purple piece of clam shell

I also collect at the beach, and I’m fond of the small polished pieces of broken clam shell. This visit, I found several purple pieces. (The bits that became the most valuable wampum, N pointed out. See here; scroll down to #9.) Aren’t they beautiful?

The main idea to take away from this book, I think, if you’re looking for just one, is that collections are not necessarily meant to be displayed and looked at, or, alternately, turned into some end product in order to have value. They can be living, breathing things, to be touched, to be rearranged, to be worked with. We have, literally, buckets of quahog shells, and I’ve been thinking they need to come inside and take their place on the shelf next to the tree blocks. Some of our rocks need their own basket on the play shelves as well (some live in the sandbox). Some items (oh-those-purple-pieces!) may become works of art to be worn; others may find their way into collages or sculptures; others we may love so much we give them a place of honor on the shelf for a while. But the best collections of found items, I think, are dynamic, just like the children who collect them.

Note: This particular beach is a barrier beach. We found most of the rocks and clam shells on the ocean side; we found living (and dead) crabs and jellies, as well as oyster and scallop shells, in the protected salt pond. It’s a fantastically neat place.

Traveling Art Box

Quite a few items live in my car during the summer–beach toys, picnic blanket, long-sleeved shirts (just in case), wet wipes–and at some point during the busy week that just passed I realized we need some art supplies in the car too. Not for keeping busy during long car trips, but in case we want to make some texture rubbings at the playground or draw the tree next to the library. You know, impulse art. I’m sure we’ll be packing more specific art supplies for particular destinations–we live, hands down, in one of the most beautiful parts of the world during the summertime–but this is what I decided we needed to have with us, at minimum.

The brown and blue at the bottom is a folder, and inside is regular copy/printer paper and some heavier drawing paper. I have a package of basic sketching pencils (no erasers, though!), and inside the pouch are some ultra-fine Sharpies for drawing and a set of colored pencils. My daughter arranged the crayon cakes, which we made the other day to use for rubbings. Just because they’re so pretty, here’s a closer look:

We’ll be making more of these so we have some at home, too. It’s the basic recipe of melting peeled, broken crayon pieces in an old muffin pan for about 15 minutes at 250 degrees, letting them cool, then popping them in a freezer for a few minutes so they slide right out.

With these supplies, we can make rubbings and draw in either color or black and white. I’m going to throw a couple clipboards in the car, too. The case, by the way, I found at Joann’s, and I chose this one because the handle was on the top, rather than the side, so the paper can lie flat when we carry it. I’m sure we’ll be bringing nature journals, pastels, and paints to other destinations as well. (I have this paint case on my list of possible supplies.)

So what would be on your bare minimum list? Do you keep an art kit in the car?

(And can you believe my kids have another month of school? It’s killing me.)

Basics: Supplies: Drawing

What drawing materials do we generally have on hand? Here’s a list. Anything to add? Leave a comment!

Crayons: While beeswax crayons are great, especially for smaller hands (we have both sticks and blocks), there’s nothing wrong with a box of Crayola crayons, either. We have a couple of baby wipe containers full of standard crayons. They get used all the time. (But cheap, no-name crayons are just frustrating, and the block crayons really are the best for doing rubbings.)

Colored pencils: This comes down to preference, but definitely have some on hand. They’re easier to draw with than crayons. I can’t remember my six-year-old ever drawing with a standard, erasable pencil; he sets right in with his colored pencils. I love the confidence displayed with that decision. He’s been working with a set of Faber-Castell pencils that he was given. The supply list from the boys’ school requests Crayola brand, because, they say, they’re easier to sharpen. (I’ve never had a problem with others, but perhaps they’re easier for the kids to sharpen?) I do like the Lyra chunky pencils, especially the shorter ones for smaller hands.

Markers: We don’t use these often, but we have a set of Prismacolor permanent markers, the kind with a fat tip on one end and a skinny tip on the other. I also have some extra-fine Sharpies for drawing. I don’t like washable markers; they smear. We’ve had a set of permanent markers since my oldest was about four. At first he used them with supervision, as did his younger brother when the time came. But it didn’t take long for either of them to be able to use permanent markers on their own in a completely trustworthy way. Right now, they’re on a shelf my two-year-old can’t reach.

Pastels: Crayola oil pastels are inexpensive and easy to hold. Pastels also come in a chalk variety. We all really enjoy drawing with the pastels.

Colored chalk: We have both the blackboard kind, and the drawing kind. Be aware that anything that says “drawing” generally isn’t recommended for chalkboards.

Conte crayons: I just like these, and they’re a nice addition if you’re experimenting with various media.

Charcoal: Black, white, pencils, sticks, vine, willow. Get an assortment and experiment.

Drawing pencils: I’m not a big fan of erasable pencils. I think it can lead to overthinking and trying to reach perfection—I think when the option to erase exists, it will be taken, until a child gets so focused on getting that one detail just right that he loses perspective on the drawing as a whole. That’s not to say that your child might behave differently, or that at some point a drawing pencil really is going to be just the right tool for the job. (We used them, for example, for our shadow drawings.) So what you need to know, if you are looking to buy artist drawing pencils rather than the standard office-supply #2 pencil, is that they’re rated according to hardness. If you like a very soft pencil, go for the B side of the scale; the higher the number before the B, the softer it is. If you like a hard pencil, go towards the H end of the scale–again, the higher the number, the harder it is. 2H roughly corresponds to a basic #2 pencil. (For another take on not using pencils, see this post–and comments–on Deep Space Sparkle.)

One of our sets of sketching pencils (out of order)

One of our sets of sketching pencils (out of order)

Explanation of pencil hardness from inside the tin of the pencil set.

Explanation of pencil hardness from inside the tin of the pencil set.

I think that covers the basics. Please add to this list in the comments, if you have a favorite drawing material I haven’t included. And happy drawing!

Basics: Supplies: Paper

Just about any book on making art with children (or adults!) is going to include a supply list, and there are posts about this throughout the web as well (such as here and here). It really boils down to personal choice and what projects you might want to do, but I thought I’d list some basic supplies. Then when I thought about it a little more, I thought I’d better break the categories down. Eventually you’ll be able to find all the supplies posts in the “Basics” category on the sidebar. And I really am trying to be very basic here and explain as much as possible, because it can all be overwhelming if you don’t know where to start.

I love art supplies. I maybe go overboard a little. I remember how I used to walk into art supply stores and feel like an impostor, like I didn’t belong at all, mostly because everything seemed so confusing. I lived in a city with three or four art supply stores at the time and no shortage of art students, and I’d walk in and be too intimidated to even ask a question. Then I began taking art classes, and I walked in with my class supply list and I still felt confused and intimidated. But eventually I turned into somebody who knows her way around an art supply store, whether in person or online. All this to say, I probably have more art supplies than anyone really needs, so I’ll try to list what I think is good to have, plus, where applicable, some favorite extra items. (Also, keep in mind that when I began making art with my kids, I didn’t have lots of stuff. You don’t need lots of supplies; you’ll work up to it based on interest and desire.)

So, paper. At minimum, buy copy paper by the ream. I’ve given my kids reams of copy paper for Christmas, and they’ve been happy about it. It’s great for drawing with pencil and crayon. (I often give my two-year-old the backs of printed-on sheets, too.) Some heavier drawing paper is useful for using with charcoal, marker, and pastels, and some can handle watercolors. And watercolor paper is good for heavier painting, and you’ll need it if you want to try wet-on-wet painting. Finally, a large (18×24) pad of newsprint is super useful. It can go underneath your painting to protect the table a bit, you can sandwich your charcoal drawings in between pages to catch the dust, you can set paintings out to dry on it, you can use it for quick and multiple sketches, and you can tape it up on the wall for when your toddler really needs to color vertically. And that’s just the uses I can think of in two minutes!

Paper is categorized by weight in pounds, with the heavier paper being thicker. But it also has different surfaces. If you browse paper, you’ll see it’s broken down by what medium you want to use (with some overlap), and then there’s a variety within each category. For instance, the Strathmore 300 Series is less expensive than the 500, but the quality is still going to be good.

For drawing paper, I think the basic 9×12 is a good size, but for watercolor, I like to buy the 18×24 sheets and cut them in half (for the wet-on-wet paintings) or leave them as is for larger paintings. You can also buy paper by the sheet, but I’ve found it’s more economical to buy a pad of watercolor paper rather than purchase individual pieces.

Paper also, obviously, comes in different colors. A fun extra would be black paper to use with white pastels, or colored paper as a background instead of white.

I also have a roll of paper that fits into our easel. I use this for my toddler’s painting, but not all the time, since it’s not heavy and it crinkles up once it has paint on it. A roll of paper is also a good choice if you’re planning on mural work.

Collage is a whole ‘nother ball of, well, paper. Save interesting bits of paper, wrapping, tissue paper, and the like. Tissue paper in sheets for painting (a la Eric Carle) is another fun extra. I have a weakness for decorative papers, too.

Where to buy? If you don’t live near an art supply store (or, if like me, your closest one charges super high prices), you can order online or try one of the chain arts & crafts stores. Our nearest AC Moore has a few aisles of “fine art” supplies, including drawing and painting papers, and you can use those 40% off coupons. An office supply store is the best bet for copy paper, and ours has a “classroom supply” aisle that includes some basic art supplies.

In other words, you don’t need to walk into the art supply store feeling all intimidated. But if you happen to have an art supply store nearby, hopefully this helps you walk in with confidence!