It's a beautiful day. The sky is blue, the sun is shining,
and a gentle breeze ruffles the leaves on the trees, urging
you to come outside. So you organize... and go! With a little
planning and preparation, you can turn your outdoor area into a
place where children can express themselves creatively — a wonderful,
outdoor art center. One of the best reasons to do art outdoors is the
space it offers children. Their paintings can be large and expansive, filling an entire
sidewalk or fence. Their thoughts, imaginations, and even
their actual strokes can be broad and exciting. This is
especially important for younger or less mature children
who haven't yet gained control of wrist or finger motions.
For example, a five year old who avoids the indoor art area
with great determination may be uncomfortable with regular-size paper and the space confines of the area. Without
realizing, it may be due to her level of small-muscle
coordination. Outdoors however, she turns into an enthusiastic, expressive artist. With a gigantic sheet of butcher
paper and an oversized painter's brush, she experiences
the freedom of using whole-arm, sweeping motions. Eventually her outdoor art experiences will help her refine
muscle control and lead her to create and enjoy art on a
Creative Art Is A Growing Process
Children come to us with their own strengths and unique
perceptions, based on their experiences with the world.
Given sufficient time, adequate space, psychological safety, and
freedom to explore and experiment, their natural
creativity will flourish. One way to inspire creativity is
through art, but the potential for artistic self-expression is
fragile — its development dependent on self-confidence, a
positive self-image, and a sense of independence within an
At the same time, creative art is a process that develops
with each child — physically, cognitively, socially, and
emotionally. Physically, children develop control of their
body movements from the shoulders out, gradually moving
toward fine-muscle control in their hands and fingers. As
children grow, their physical development also progresses
from the head downward. For example, we can't expect a
two year old to have the same mature grasp and finger
control as we might expect from a five year old. Instead,
the two year old will tend more toward whole-arm movements,
resulting in broad, sweeping strokes when he or she
uses a paintbrush or a large crayon. Through hundreds of
opportunities, experimenting with arm, hand, and finger
control, and with maturation, children become capable of
making tiny marks on paper using thin pencils.
Creative art is also tied to cognitive development (and
neither can be hurried). Very young children aren't yet able
to think in abstract terms and can't be expected to draw or
paint exact representations of abstract thoughts. As they
create art, many cognitive concepts are enhanced. Through
experimentation, children leam about line, color, form,
shape, and texture. They leam about cause and effect
relationships when they find that glue makes cotton stick to
paper. They leam about big and little, thick and thin, in
and out, as they work with various materials.
Creative art is also an expression and extension of social
and emotional development. Children can paint angry pictures
or draw family portraits to express their feelings
about themselves and their families. Through art experiences,
they also leam rules for living in the world with
others. Concepts of "mine" and "yours" become very
clear when one child tries to paint another's paper.
What's Important To Children
Adults tend to judge the worth of an art experience by
the end result, but that isn't what really matters to young
children. In fact, for them the finished product is relatively
unimportant. Four-year-old Adam, for example, went to
the easel to paint. He stood looking hesitantly at the paper.
His teacher came over and after talking a bit, Adam decided he
would like to paint the sky. With broad sweeps of his
brush, he painted a great expanse of blue. White circles
came next as he remembered the fluffy, white clouds he
saw that morning. The sun was shining so he added a
yellow circle with giant rays all around. Of course, the
yellow mixed with the blue and turned green, but that
Adam's teacher had been watching but moved on to
another area in the room. As Adam continued to paint, he
thought about how yesterday the leaves were blowing. So
he added brown and green streaks to his picture. Then he
remembered a thunderstorm with very dark clouds, so his
picture needed black blobs of paint — and lightning, so he
painted bold yellow and orange streaks! In fact, the rain
came down so fast and hard that the whole sky seemed to
be the same shade of gray so he put hard gray lines all over
the paper — pelting the ground! Just a little more yellow
because the sun had come out again — and the yellow
turned to grayish brown as it mixed with all the other
Finished! Adam had worked very hard to show the sky
and felt quite satisfied. Walking by the easel, his teacher
stopped. The picture didn't look at all like the one she had
walked away from, but rather than pronounce judgement or
focus on the finished product (which at this point looked
like a big, dripping gray mass), she shared his positive
As you know, the goal of creative art is much greater
than producing identical art projects or something cute to
hang on a wall or send home. The goal is to facilitate the
development of creative thinkers; problem solvers; self-
confident, independent human beings who will grow up
able to find new solutions to old problems.
Let's Go Outside
Outdoors is the perfect place for all those wonderful,
creative ideas you may have been avoiding because they're
difficult to clean up. Clay, plaster, soap, and other sculpting
media are easy to manage with a hose or a bucket. Fingerpaintings
can cover a whole tabletop and, at the end of the
day, the table can be turned on its side and hosed down.
Easy "mess management" makes outdoor art inviting and enjoyable for everyone.
Children who prefer a quieter activity or those who need
a "breather" from more active play can choose an art
activity to participate in. Children who may have found the
art area inside too confining may join in willingly when art
is presented in the familiar and comfortable territory of the
Playground. So when the day is too beautiful to be ignored,
put your schedule aside,gather your paints and bucketsand head outdoors.
An effective outdoor art area does require advance planning.
First, look at your outdoor space with a critical eye. Do you
have a chain-link or wood fence? A wall? Why not
use them to string up a clothesline, use clothespins to
attach butcher paper, and encourage children to paint
draw, spray, color, or print what they see around them or
how the outdoors makes them feel. Or one day, draw on a
wood fence or wall using colored chalk and paint it away
with water the next day to clean it off. Hang butcher block
paper on your chain-link fence and use "twist ties" to
attach a HulaHoop™ so that it hangs over the paper. Challenge
children to create a work of art using basters or spray
bottles to spray water (colored with food coloring) through
the hoop. Or, attach paper circles all over the fence so
children can try spraying them in a variety of colors Take
time to stand back, discuss, and admire the effects and
colors you've created.
If you have a grassy, low-traffic area, try moving your
woodworking materials outside and encourage children to
create three-dimensional art. Also, consider moving a table
to a shady area to give children a place to work individual-
ly. Use your sidewalk as a large "canvas" so children can
use large-muscle movements to draw and paint with washable materials.
As you evaluate your outdoor area, decide where to put
a convenient drying area. You might use clothespins on a
chain-link fence so children can clip their paintings up to
dry themselves. If your fence is wood, a clothesline
stretched between cuphooks offers the same advantage.
You might also want to collect cardboard boxes and cut the
sides down to about three inches so children can lay their
projects inside — safe from the wind.
Make sure you plan for easy cleanup — for children
and your area. Smocks are still a good idea outside You'll
also need to place two buckets — one with soapy water
and the other with clear water—close to work areas so
children can wash up. Keep a roll of paper towels on hand
and a cardboard box for trash. Store smocks, buckets and
paper towels in a special box near an outside exit so they
will be ready when you are. To clean up your area you
may need a hose nearby to spray down worktables. Keep a
handy cleanup bucket with a small amount of soapy water
and a sponge, plus a broom and dustpan so children can help.
You may need to have a few alternate plans up your
sleeve for windy days. For example, if it's windy but still
great weather, tape butcher paper to a wall or pavement
and make a group collage of outdoor rubbings and tracings;
tape the paper to the easels so children can enjoy the
blustery outdoor weather; or plan activities that don't require
any paper at all such as chalk drawings, water paintings, or mud sculptures.
Let's Do It!
Here are suggestions for creative art experiences to do
outside. Some take advantage of natural materials; others
use the weather; and still others offer children opportunities
to use broad, big movements and be messy to their
heart's content. As you plan which ones you will do, help
children understand why it is best not to pick living things;
encourage exploration and discovery, and enjoy the sunshine together!
Get ready: Help children dig up dead plants and save the
roots (with the stems attached). If this isn't possible, ask
families to gather roots that children can use. (Be sure that
you have nontoxic roots that are bushy, with stems sturdy
enough to serve as "rootbrush handles.") Mix a variety of
colors of tempera paint to a medium consistency and pour
it into juice cans, paint cups, or ready-to-use frosting
containers. Gather paper — any kind will do —and put it
in a basket or box to take outside. You'll also need paint
smocks, clothespins, and a string to use to create a clothesline.
Get set: Set up easels on a grassy area and put out the
paper. If the day is windy, you'll need to tape the paper on
all four corners. Prepare a drying area, using clothespins
on a fence or string a clothesline. Hang the paint smocks
on the easels.
Go: Give children plenty of time to experiment and create
designs and pictures using their root brushes.
Get ready: Fill a dishpan with soil (high clay content works
best but any "clean" soil will do). Fill another dishpan
with water. Provide several large, washable trays and several
plastic scoops for the soil and the water. You'll also
need paint smocks. Get set: Set up a table on a grassy area, preferably near a
water faucet with a hose. Place the trays, dishpans, and
scoops on the table with the smocks nearby.
Go: Help children put on smocks and scoop soil and water
onto their trays — then let children enjoy and experiment
with the new kinds of "fingerpaint" they've created. At
cleanup time, children can help you spray everything off
with the hose.
Get ready: Cut several long sheets of butcher paper and
roll the sheets up. Prepare fingerpaint so that it's a creamy
consistency or use commercially-prepared fingerpaint. Pro-
vide spoons or scoops. Fill two buckets — one with soapy
water and one with clean water. You'll also need paper
towels, smocks, and a trash can.
Get set: Set up a table in a grassy area, near a water faucet
with a hose. Put the buckets, paper towels, trash can,
rolled butcher paper, and paint smocks near the table. Put
the fingerpaint and the spoons or scoops on the table.
Go: After children put on their smocks, encourage them to
use the fingerpaint to create designs directly on the table.
You might suggest that they incorporate natural items such
as interesting twigs, leaves, and even rocks by laying the
objects on the table and fingerpainting them as well. When
children have had plenty of time to experiment, unroll the
butcher paper and together smooth it over the fingerpainted
table. Press down gently and then lift up the paper to see
the mural you've created. At cleanup time, turn the table
on its side and rinse it off with the hose. You can use the
buckets to wash and rinse the scoops.
Get ready: Ask children to help you gather a boxful of junk
and gadgets with interesting shapes such as spools, forks,
cookie cutters, seashells, primary scissors, and even stray
puzzle pieces. Be sure that the objects are heavy enough to
stay in place when the wind blows. Go outside together and
continue your collection of objects to add to the box.
You'll also need several sheets of bright construction paper.
(Make sure you don't use construction paper that is
guaranteed not to fade. Dark blue, purple, and green work
very well.) Attach the construction paper to one side of a
large flat sheet of cardboard.
Get set: Ask children to choose shapes from the box and
place them any way they'd like to on the paper. Then leave
everything in the sun. Ask children if they can predict
what might happen.
Go: In a day or two go outside and remove the objects
together. (When the objects are removed, the sun will have
bleached the paper, leaving dark silhouettes in an interesting design.)
Take time to admire your work.
Get ready: Mix thin tempera paint in large juice cans or
child-size buckets. Gather butcher paper, smocks, several
basting syringes (the kind you use for basting a roast),
clothespins, and string for a clothesline. Partially fill a
bucket with soapy water for cleanup time.
Get set: Hang the paper on a wall, fence, or between two
trees. Set out the paint containers and prepare a drying
area. Put the buckets of soapy water nearby.
Go: Ask children to put on their smocks and help them fill
the basters with runny paint by squeezing and releasing the
bulb. (You might want to practice filling the basters with
water first. The paint will be very runny and drippy.)
Encourage children to experiment with different effects
using the basters and various colors. (You might want to
"assign" a baster or two to each color of paint.) When
children have finished their mural, take time to step back
and admire the work. Then let your mural dry.
Get ready: If children have been enjoying dramatic play
outside or if you are interested in inspiring additional
dramatic play, try this project. Start with a large appliance
box. You'll also need markers and a strong, sharp cutter
like an X-Acto™ knife. Mix a large amount of tempera
paint and pour the colors into big buckets. Provide large,
housepainting brushes and don't forget to bring the
Get set: Choose a fairly flat, grassy area to place the box.
Set up the paint buckets, paint brushes, and the smocks
nearby. Keep the knife with you in a safe place.
Go: Sit down together and talk about the various features
of a house. Ask children to help you draw the features
you've discussed such as windows and doors on the box.
Then use the knife to cut them out. (When you're finished,
be sure to put the knife out of children's reach.) Next,
invite children to put on their smocks and get to work as
housepainters. Your open-ended questions and involve-
ment will help to inspire dramatic play.
Get ready: Together collect various items that are fairly flat
and have various textures such as small pieces of sand
paper, a variety of leaves, pieces of corrugated cardboard,
and wood chips. Cut several pieces of butcher paper (four
to six feet long) and collect a supply of broken, peeled
crayons; masking tape, and material like "sticky tac" to
temporarily fix the items to the pavement. Keep crayons
Get set: Help children use the sticky material to attach the
objects to the sidewalk anywhere they choose. Place the
butcher paper over the objects and tape it into place.
Go: Suggest that children use the sides of the crayons to
rub over the objects and make a group rubbing. When the
paper is covered, lift it up and look at your work of art.
FENCE OR WALL PAINTINGS
Get ready: Collect several buckets, several housepainting
brushes, some liquid detergent, and painting smocks.
Get set: Fill each bucket with soapy water. (Use about four
"drips" of detergent to 1/2 gallon of water.) Place the
buckets with a brush or two in each, along a fence or a
wall. The soapy water will clean the surface and if there is
a bit of wind, make small bubbles.
Go: After children put on their smocks, help them choose
brushes and just enjoy the experience of using big, bold
strokes to "paint" the fence or wall. (These areas dry
quickly so children can enjoy repainting them.) You can
also use spray bottles (the kind used to mist hair or plants).
RAINY DAY PAINTINGS
Get ready: Wait for a day that promises rain. Put several
colors of dry tempera paint into separate shaker jars. Cut a
long sheet of butcher paper.
Get set: Before the rain begins, gather children and together
lay out and anchor the butcher paper on the ground. (A
semisheltered area near a window is best.) Invite children
to sprinkle the dry tempera on the paper. Then go inside
before the rain begins.
Go: When the rain begins, call children's attention to their
painting outside. Together, watch what happens to the
paint as the raindrops fall. Then put on your rain gear and
go out to rescue your work of art before it gets too wet!
Get ready: You'll need a roll of string or yarn and a box of
thumbtacks. Ask children to help you collect natural materials
such as vines, grasses, corn husks, and dried wildflowers.
(They may also have items to bring in from home.)
Get set: Build a simple loom by lining up tacks along the
bottom of a wooden fence or wall, about four inches apart.
Put another row of tacks about three feet above the bottom
row, making sure they're lined up with each other. Older
children can help you stretch the string from one tack on
the top to its mate on the bottom, then tie off the ends.
(This will form your warp for weaving.) Put the natural
items in a box or basket nearby.
Go: Help children weave the materials in and out, making
various designs as they choose. This activity can be an
ongoing project, children can add to it over several days or
weeks. (You might want to make several looms so children
can work side by side.)