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  • Writer's pictureAliza

A Week of Painting at the Art Table in Preschool

I have described at length, how we approach painting at the easel.

Here is a closer look at one of those weeks. First, a simple story with words and photos.

Well, not really "the end." We changed up the colors on subsequent days. Repetition of activities with a little change thrown in is a useful tool for extending children's engagement. Repetition helps children become experts. It gives them opportunities to approach an activity in more than one way. It provides more flexibility for those "slower to warm" children; you know, those who needs to observe an activity before jumping in. It makes it easier to plan your days, too.

And now, here are way more words on the topic. More details of the process, management, and the why of it all.

The Why

  • As paint is one kind of medium, in addition to painting at the easel, we use paint at the art table too. Sometimes we vary the tools for spreading the paint; We might use q-tips, yarn, a toy car, or simply, paintbrushes. All of these introduce the idea that paint can be spread on paper with a variety of tools, and each of those tools can be manipulated to create different kinds of lines, shapes, and textures.

You can also paint on all sorts of surfaces; paper, fabric, cardboard, wood, foil, etc.

  • Painting at the table, as opposed to a standing easel also creates a new sensory experience. How children hold their bodies, how their hands move, and the perspective with which they view their artwork will be different based on where they are painting.

  • This activity is all about mixing colors. Sure, children do that at the easel too, every day. But here, the method is slightly different. At the easel, to create a new color, children usually use more than one brush, mixing a small amount together on the paper. Here, they get to watch the new colors go in to the jar. In fact, they are the ones to decide which color, and how much to add.

  • Because the easel is shared by many, and colors get mixed on the paper, it is not often that a child approaches the easel with a fresh cup of paint. Usually, a child arriving at the easel will be using paint from a cup that already has some other color mixed in. Here, we provide more chances to work with pure primary colors.

  • As the children work at this activity, they begin to see the colors that others at the table have created. "I want to make the same color as you!" I have heard children say to each other. And so, we start to talk about what colors we might need more of, how to make their paint lighter or darker.

  • This is the epitome of "process art." There is no goal to create any specific item or object, but as they work with colors, with brushes, and with paint, children are deeply engaged in the artistic process. It is the squeezing, the pouring, the excitement, the questions, the conversation that is the curriculum. When this week is done, you will likely have dozens of pieces of paper, painted with one or two colors. (Hang a bunch together on a a bulletin board, and it will look lovely. Send the rest home! ) Take note of how each child approached their work. What steps did they take? What did they say? What did their face look like while they were working. This is the information that can be shared with parents when it is time for parent teacher conferences.

  • This activity offers children a level of independence that they don't always get. Being in charge of squeezing paint into a jar!!! That by itself, makes this activity a blast.

It is also the aspect that makes this tricky. And so, now I present to you...

How to set up and manage this color mixing activity:

This is an activity that works best when you are well into the year, you know your students well, and they already have many classroom experiences under their belt.

For me, it helps to remember that this will be an activity that requires a lot of teacher attention, and to plan the rest of the classroom activities accordingly.

Here are the materials we use:

These 4 oz. mason jars are a great size, and the lids mean you can save paint for the following day. But any small container will do.

We use these trays for all of our art activities.

Large squeeze bottles for paint come in handy all year long. Of course, it is possible to try this activity with these small 2 Oz. bottles. I have never tried it with such small containers, but I wonder if that would make the process feel easier to manage,as it limits how much paint each child uses. I think we have some of these at my school, and so I definitely want to give it a try. They can also be more useful during the Covid-19 pandemic; while one bottle is being wiped down and sanitized, others can be handed to other children.

Day One:

The key to any activity that has the potential to be chaotic and messy is to think about the class you have right now (are they ready?), and to start small.

  • If you'll notice from the above photos, we started with just blue paint, set out in paint jars, and some small brushes. The children were happy to arrive at school, and begin painting at the table with paint that was already set up for them. We sat and we waited for them to discover the bottles that were well within their reach. There was no need to rush the process. In a world where we are entertained and stimulated all the time with electronics and things that are shiny and new, watching children engrossed in "just blue," is nothing short of magic. Let the magic last as long as it lasts. Of course, they discovered them eventually.

  • On the first day, there were only two colors available. Blue and white. They got used to squeezing and mixing and painting with their new color creations. They took turns passing the bottles to each other.

  • We made sure to have lots of empty jars available, so that anyone who wanted, could experience the full process of starting with one pure color, and adding a little (or a lot) at a time.

If it looked like someone was spending too much time pouring paint, and no time painting, I would say, "I am going to ask you to take a break from squeezing paint right now. Let's just paint with the color you made for a little while."

Whatever paint did not get used by the end of the day, I combined all together into a jar or two. They can be placed at the easel the following day.

Day Two:

This time, the children arrived knowing what to do. So we made three colors available. Now there were so many more colors and shades that could be created. This is when children began to work together to try make new combinations. Sometimes they combined their creations together. Children worked to make the same color as one of their friends, which led to hands on experimentation.

And when everyone had many turns at squeezing and mixing, and we had more paint then we needed, I simply put the paint bottles away for a little while. Sure, if someone was desperate to make their color lighter, or bluer, or greener, I handed them the bottle that they needed. But by then, most children were happy to paint, and paint, and paint.

Day Three:

We repeated the process, but with red and white. And then sped up the process, and we pulled out the yellow too. And when we had jars and jars full of red and pink, and orange, we pulled out leftover jars of blue and green and yellow, and children continued to paint.

Usually, by the end of day three, I am glad for activities to come to an end. On Thursdays, we always work with found materials/loose parts, to create temporary designs. Friday is always a day where we have "free art." The table is empty when children arrive, and they pull out what they would like to use.

And, just like that, a week of art planned and implemented.

If you have any questions, please ask below. If you like this blog post, please share it with your friends and colleagues!

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Question: So if you start this a little later in the year. What do you do before you start the paint mixing? I would love to start to do more free art in the classroom.

Aliza Deutsch
Aliza Deutsch

Thanks for your question!

I would start with just painting at the table, with small brushes. (We have an easel with large brushes available. So this is a different experience.) I have just done this in my own classroom; they are young 2 year olds, and we are not quite ready for me to leave squeeze bottles out for them. (They need more experience being at school, and I need to feel comfortable giving them that much freedom.) So I filled small containers, with a small amount of paint, and small brushes. I started with just one color on the first day, and then the next day I used a different color. On day 3, two colors could go out…

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