Friday, July 26, 2013

Finding Truly Toddler-friendly Art

We opened our "toddler fun stuff kit" from a certain company to find: stickers (yay!), a foam door hanger, a small foam sticker magnet craft :( , a beaded key chain craft :( :( , and a letter tracing workbook :( :( :( . Hmmmm...not what I had in mind for my (at the time) 15-month-old even though the description on the web site was clearly developmentally appropriate! Needless to say, we discontinued that club's service and took our money out into the wide world to start a path of discovery when it comes to toddler-friendly art supplies and crafts.

Since I already had a couple of favorite parenting sites, Pinterest was on the rise, and we live within five miles of several arts & crafts stores, I had a good starting place. My evaluation criteria had to evolve through this process, and that's what I want to share with you: how do you know that an art supply or craft will work for your Little Scribbler?

1) It's safe. This is a biggie and really depends on where a child is on the developmental spectrum. Is your child still exploring things with his or her mouth? Does your child play with things around his or her neck? Does your child eat non-food items? My Little Scribbler went through all of these phases at different times, so it felt like an ever-changing need...kind of like baby-proofing. 

Industry has standards already in place for things that are made for children (ASTM), but we naturally use all kinds of things in art that aren't meant for children and therefore aren't labelled with warnings. A few things to consider for safety:

  • Anything that can fit through a toilet paper tube can block an airway. (P.S. Don't use toilet paper tubes as they can be contaminated with fecal matter; use paper towel rolls instead.)
  • Things that are really small (glitter, beads, rice) can be inhaled into the lungs, or can collectively block an airway.
  • Any string over 12 inches (yes only 12!) is considered a strangulation risk, even more so if anything is attached to it because they can tangle to form a loop. This is why hardly any pull-toy these days actually reaches a child's hands without them stooping over. Also, anything that forms a loop (such as a necklace) has a greater risk of catching on something and becoming more of a strangulation hazard. For Little Scribblers, tape the ends of a necklace together instead of tying; this allows an easy release if it snags on something.
  • Things that aren't labelled as non-toxic, could have poisoning possibilities if swallowed or absorbed through the skin.
  • Sharp items (such as pipe cleaners) can obviously poke skin and break it, but if swallowed can also perforate the esophagus or other parts of the digestive system creating space for infections.
  • Magnets pose a strange risk that you may not have considered: according to one manufacturer's warning "swallowed magnets can stick together across intestines causing serious infections and death."

That said, a parent or caregiver that is very aware of risks and very present during art time can safely use many of these items with a child that is not yet ready for the recommended age or developmental stage. Several of the projects we have done at home are put up out of reach when not in use and pulled down for supervised play only because of my awareness of the possible safety risks. Protect your Little Scribbler accordingly.

2) It's "washable." Or at least it says it is. I am not yet brave enough to use acrylic paints or unleash my child with regular crayons in her art box. Even with supervised art time, we end up with splatter and stains. The fact that even the supposedly washable products are not 100%, makes me nervous about others that don't boast that benefit. Also, the fact that Crayola has 60+ pages of stain tips at the time of this writing also says a lot about both the fun and potential messiness of art with kids! I'll take the washable label right from the start, thank you!

3) It's developmentally appropriate.  Little Scribbler art is about the process first and foremost. There should be no expectations of staying in the lines, cutting perfectly, creating something that is a copy-cat craft with really specific directions, etc. Toddlers, Twos, and children with special needs can scribble; draw vertical lines, horizontal lines, and circles (depending on the age or stage), tear, crumple, snip with scissors, stick stickers, stack stickers, paint with whole arm action, paint with wrist action, stamp, swipe, blot, string, and more. They should not be expected to go beyond their abilities. Doing something that is frustrational rather than fun for a Little Scribbler is a good indication that it is not yet developmentally appropriate. Sometimes the difference between developmentally appropriate is one day, sometimes one month, and sometimes a year. 

4) It's tested. I always check super-art-blogs for pictures of children actually doing the art. Was it just an idea somebody saw somewhere and thought a toddler could do it, or was it actually an experience they tested out? Sometimes knowing the developmental abilities of my Little Scribbler will already nix an idea, but sometimes I know I need to stretch her. Above all, I need to know that it's possible before I dive in. I don't mind getting involved to make an art experience successful, but I shouldn't be the only one participating! This leads to my last point...

5) It's authentic. No adults pretending to be toddlers. (This is especially annoying to me in teaching catalogs where they have included fake children's writing. Blech.) I don't want to see pictures of an adult's nice, tidy, easy art; I want to see some authenticity. That's not to say the art can't be guided by an adult, done together with an adult, or made into a final product to which an adult added the finishing touches. I love that! Just don't present a final product done by an adult and expect me to believe a Little Scribbler was involved in any way. I want to see what an 18-month-old is actually capable of doing with the experience presented to him or her. It gives me an idea of what my own Little Scribbler might be able to do.

Pictured here: actual, toddler-created examples of 2 of the 4 art experiences from the "Year I-Colors" subscription at

What tips have helped you decide something is appropriate for your Little Scribbler?

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