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Outdoor Art: The Sky's the Limit

by Dianne Jurek and Sharon MacDonald

Originally published in Pre-K Today May/June 1990

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 smaller scale.

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 accepting environment.

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 wasn't important.

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 colors.

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 feelings.

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.

Clean Up!

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 smocks.

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 nearby.

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.


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).


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.)