Tried & True Teacher Tricks For Classroom Art With Young Kids

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School Bus Print by Blanca Gomez. Check out all the lovely prints she has for sale in her shop

Imagine you are an art-loving parent volunteering to teach an art lesson in an elementary school teacher’s classroom. You want the kids to have fun, learn a new skill and complete artwork they feel super proud of.

But maybe you’re a little stressed by the thought of teaching 30 kids at once, and possibly trashing the room in the process? Here are a few things I do to make my lessons run as smoothly as possible and motivate better listening.

Plan something appropriate for the age group.

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(From top left to right, one row at a time) 1. Playful Learning 2. Art For Small Hands 3. Arte a Scuola 4. (6 year-old Grace’s self portrait — my lesson) 5. Color and Collage 6. Diversity in Eyes for 6th graders — my lesson) 7. Arte a Scuola 8. Art With Kids 9. Brown Paper Bag

This is probably the most important part of a successful art lesson with a large group of kids. When planning your lesson, think about their interests and abilities at a particular age. What would they be excited to draw or make? What is a concept they need to learn about at this stage? Depending on their ages, would your students benefit from lessons on creating different kinds of lines, mixing paint colors, value and blending with pencil, symmetry, drawing facial features, or understanding perspective? Maybe it is as simple as creative practice with scissors or folding paper? Do you think they’d love something funny, fancy, or spooky? Is there a holiday-themed project you could do for the season?

If you feel lost or want some inspiration, I recommend searching Pinterest for ideas. Check out the links above for a few great ones! You can also check out this Pinterest board I made for my past job as “art specialist” for a local elementary school. You’ll find art lesson ideas for preschool-6th grade in there, and also a few ideas for teaching special ed art classes. This Pinterest board might also come in handy if you want ideas for art projects to do at home with your own kids.

Make the project yourself ahead of time.

Want to avoid hiccups and be really prepared? As you make the project yourself, consider doing the following to adapt it for teaching:

  • Write a step by step list for yourself to follow (like a script).
  • Time how long the project takes to make.
  • Figure out EXACTLY what, and how many supplies you’ll need, and in what order to pass them out (I found this to be pretty crucial… if everything is on the table at once, kids get distracted or try to work ahead and don’t follow instructions). 
  • Think about how the room might need to be set up. Will you be using the whiteboard? Is it easy to walk through desks and help students individually?

If you make it first, you’ll have a finished product to show so the kids have an idea of how their finished projects will look. Talk to the teacher about any special things you need to prepare, and come in before class to set them up if necessary.

Do a “draw-along.”

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Kids LOVE surprises. When I was the art specialist at a school in our district, I used to get the kids’ attention by having them work along with me as I drew something mysterious on the board, and they would try to guess what it was. I mixed up my drawing steps to keep them unsure as long as possible, haha. This made them focus really intensely on what we were doing. After we finished our line drawings, I’d show them what my previously finished project looked like so they could get an idea of what we were doing next. Read the next point to get a better idea of why I loved to teach in this order.

Create simplified steps for students to follow.

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I think this mural project from Why I Love Art is awesome! What a cool, interactive collage idea to do with kids — I totally want to organize something like this.

Your students will be much more concentrated and confident if you give them very clear directions. Simplification is key! You can simplify even a very complicated project to the point where anyone feels good about trying it. Check out this drawing project I’ve done with 5th graders and adults — both were scared to start, and then blew themselves away with how well they did!

One thing I’ve found is that showing students what my previously finished project looks like at the beginning of their lesson is usually a mistake. It intimidates them because they are seeing something they may think looks way too hard for them to make. I still like to show them how I completed the project so they know what is expected of them, but I always wait to show them until after they have completed several foundational steps first. They need to see their own work taking shape before they get motivated to finish it beautifully.

Maybe find another helper to come with you that day.

This is extra helpful if you are using a messy medium like paint. I’ve had a lot of younger students mention that they never get to use paint at home. Truthfully, that makes me so sad… but as a mom I totally understand that paint can be a nightmare. Don’t shy away from letting students use paint if it fits in well with your lesson, but make sure to come prepared. Prep all palettes, brushes, water, etc before class starts so materials are easy to pass out when it’s time. Have paint shirts available to prevent messes. If the project is a little more complicated ask a friend or another parent to accompany you. If you are volunteering at a public school, you’ll probably have around thirty kids. It’s nice to have another person available to walk around the room so all the kids feel supported, and so you don’t get overwhelmed.

6) Use your sense of humor, be uplifting and don’t be a grump.

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Source: Vintageous Paper Goods

Yes, you should expect the students to be respectful, but don’t take it personally if they get chatty or restless. Give them rewards for staying on task. Tell them a funny or exciting story if they stay working quietly, or make some inexpensive creative gifts for the table who is best behaved. Tell the kids what a great job they are doing when you see them rocking it. If they don’t seem interested in the project or are acting up, maybe they need some positive, direct attention. Spend a couple minutes catching them up or assisting in their drawing (for example). If kids don’t feel proud of what they’re making, they are more likely to stop trying and become disruptive. I don’t like to take over my students’ projects, but there have been a few times I’ve jumped in to help a frustrated kid who was putting their own work down. With a few minor adjustments and special direction, we got it to a point where they thought it was pretty good, and…  MIRACLE! They actually wanted to sit still and finish their project!

Side story — I once had an 11 year old boy in one of my regular drawing classes who could not put his phone down, or stop distracting other students. It was totally frustrating. I got so tired of asking him to keep trying. It took some patience and practice, but I found ways to connect with him so that he felt encouraged about his own abilities. I tried so hard not to make him feel like the “bad kid” in class. Over several weeks his productivity improved, and by the end he had finished a really awesome project that he was proud of. He signed up to be in my class again the next term! 

Expect students to help clean up, and prioritize time to do so.

Kids need to learn to clean up after art projects, and you shouldn’t have to do this all yourself. Make sure you know how much time their regular teacher can give to you, then plan to be done by a certain time so projects can be finished and the room can be cleaned up. I’ve had a few projects which I taught over two class days because I knew the kids would be happier with the finished product if they had more time. Do a nice job cleaning up and and the teacher will more likely have you back!


Our kids need your creativity.

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Painting on the porch in 1991. Thanks for letting me play with paint, Mom! 

Art is a brain exercise and emotional outlet for all ages, and that combination is unbelievably important for young people! Please never hesitate to volunteer any time or resources you have to support arts education in schools. You DO NOT have to be a professional artist, musician, actor, writer or dancer to share artistic experiences with others. Plan a lesson about something creative that you know about, or get to know something you wish you knew about! Then do the world a solid and share it with the little people in your life. Some of the happiest, most vivid childhood memories I have of my mom came from the art projects she sat down to do with me. If you want to hear about the love and confidence which grew out of that memory, check out My Mom the Art Teacher.

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