Running a Productive Art Center

In preschool, the art center is all about developing fine motor skills, creativity, and independence. These are ways that I help my art center meet those needs for each of my students!

classroom art center

Rotating Supplies:

Young children are easily overwhelmed when there are too many choices. Some kids may dump every box, while others will avoid the center because they can’t figure out where to start.

For this reason, I only keep out one kind of drawing supply at a time. Each week I swap out markers/stamp markers/smelly markers, regular crayons/fat crayons/molded shape crayons, and colored pencils/regular pencils, etc.

This helps to draw their interest because everyone wants to use the new supplies. It also teaches them how to use their little hands to hold different sizes and shapes of writing tools.

This also gives them different sensory feedback each week. Think about the different ways it feels when you write your name with a marker, a crayon, and a pencil.

Finally, my selfish reason for rotating like this is that it protects my limited resources. Crayons aren’t broken as quickly, markers aren’t smashed down

Paper, Paper, Paper!

I keep three piles of paper in my art center. There are larger pieces of colored construction paper, scraps of paper, and blank white paper.

One thing you won’t find in my art center – coloring pages. There is absolutely a time and place for learning to color inside the lines, but that isn’t the main purpose of our art. The construction paper and white paper are both great bases for drawing and coloring pictures from their own imaginations.

Our scrap basket has led to some really exciting process art! Kids will cut, tear, glue, and color whatever their hearts desire. Allowing them to explore like this is such an important part of the process.

I also like to introduce other materials that light up their senses. Craft foam, cardstock, tissue paper, magazines, etc. Anything out of the norm is sure to get them excited! Raid your recycle bin for some really interesting variety to add to your art center!

art center paper supplies

Do You Let Them Use Glue and Scissors?

So many kids come into my classroom with no idea how to pick up a pair of scissors. More often than not, this is because they don’t have regular chances to practice using them.

This lack of exposure is usually because parents don’t know when it is appropriate to introduce scissors. But it’s also because they don’t want their child giving themselves (or their cat) a haircut, or taking some artistic liberties with their clothing.

For parents at home, I would start letting them use scissors and glue with a LOT of guidance as early as 1-2 years old. Don’t set them free with these potential disaster-inducing tools – but do show them how they work and begin teaching appropriate expectations.

As your child gets older, allow them some more independence with scissors and glue. Shredding a magazine with scissors isn’t just making messes, it is really reinforcing their confidence and skill with scissors!

Don’t feel bad keeping them out of reach – I hope to never find my daughter “washing her hair” with liquid glue! But do make sure that they have regular opportunities to cut and glue.

Teach Expectations So Scissors and Glue Aren’t As Scary!

My art center is always monitored by myself or one of our fantastic paraeducators. We are encouraging the creative process, but also monitoring safe and appropriate use of materials. Commonly heard phrases are “thumb on top”, “open, close, move forward, open, close, move forward”, and “just a dot, not a lot”.

When teaching scissor skills, we start by teaching them the right way to hold scissors. They put their “thumb on top” in the small hole of the scissors, and we show them how to hold the paper with their other hand. We use thin strips of paper (.5-1″ wide) to teach snipping, and then move on to cutting the edge of a large piece of paper.

Once they can snip the edge of the paper into construction paper fringe, we start working on advancing the scissors. “Open, close, move forward” reminds them to advance the scissors across the paper. Start with strips of paper that will only take 2-3 snips to cut in half, and then move to larger paper as they are ready.

Finally, the glue. This can make a huge mess, and fast! Which is why we focus a lot of time at the beginning of the year on the expectation “just a dot, not a lot”.

I have glue sticks, white glue bottles, and colored glue bottles available in our art center every day. So many creative things happen with this glue! I have had students glue a stack of 20 pieces of scrap paper on top of one another, another student glued strips of paper together until it was as long as the table. Don’t fear the mess, embrace the process!

drawers with scissors and glue

What Exactly Is Process Art?

It’s right in the name – we are focusing on the process of creating art, not on the finished piece. This is so important in preschool because they need that exposure to materials and tools, as well as the opportunity to learn how everything works and expand their sense of independence.

This open-ended work gives children the perfect set of circumstances to develop so many skills! In the article “How Process-Focused Art Experiences Support Preschoolers“, NAEYC states that process art supports learning in the following areas:

  • Social-Emotional Skills – Growing self-confidence, taking risks, and expressing their feelings about their work and others’
  • Language and Literacy Skills – Asking and answering questions about their work, labeling objects, and describing their work with oral or written language
  • Cognitive Skills – Using reasoning skills to make decisions and solve problems
  • Physical Skills – Improving strength and coordination of fine motor muscles, exploring sensory input

There is so much in this world that we dictate for our kids. It is so exciting and empowering for them to be let loose with these supplies, and encouraged to do their own thing!

Do You Make Structured Art Projects?

We usually have one structured art project each week (two per two-week thematic unit). This plants the seed that they can create all kinds of cool things. But it also ties into our thematic unit and broadens their background knowledge about the subject and the art materials.

These projects tend to be those Pinterest-worthy crafts that look great on your fridge or hanging on the wall outside my classroom. The kids love creating a recognizable final project, but we still focus more on the process of creation.

In our classroom, we don’t “correct” a child’s artwork. If we are making construction paper traffic lights and they put the colored circles in the “wrong order”, nobody is lifting a finger to fix it. Instead, we are praising them for their hard work and asking them to tell us about their project.

You can check out some of my thematic unit posts (coming soon) for an idea of what these structured art projects look like. Sometimes it’s a 5-minute craft, and sometimes it takes 2-3 days to complete all of the steps. Either way, the heart of the project is the fun that we have making it!

We also love to decorate our classroom windows with beautiful sun catchers. Every month we make a new window cling with contact paper. You can read more about those here!

There’s More to It Than Crafts

I have two shelves and two tables in my art center. One shelf and table are dedicated to everything crafty mentioned above. The second shelf and table are set up to develop fine motor skills in other fun ways! Here are a few of our favorites…

My students love our collection of wireless keyboards. They play office and pretend to write emails, or examine the keys to find the letters of their name. It’s so fun to watch them scan the keyboard and exclaim “That’s an ‘E’! ‘E’ is for Evelyn!”

I also alternate having dry erase boards and markers or chalkboards and chalk here. With the chalkboards, the teachers can use a damp paintbrush to draw a picture or write the child’s name, and then they can use chalk to “trace” the damp outline.

I love chalk and dry erase for learning how to write letters and draw shapes because we can practice over and over again without wasting tons of paper. They also give a different kind of sensory input than other tools and paper, which helps them generalize those fine motor skills.

Then there is the play-dough! Check out my play-dough post (coming soon) for THE. BEST.  RECIPE. EVER! I send it home with parents a few times each school year, and we never run out!

I rotate out different kinds of play-dough mats to urge the kids to do more than just roll and stamp. But we do always have a great stash of rolling pins and cookie cutters out too.

additional art center supplies

Tell Me About Your Art Center

In my very first undergrad class, I was told that teachers are the best thieves! We grow by “stealing” from one another, and figuring out what works and doesn’t work in our unique situations.

What parts of my center do you love? What parts haven’t worked for you? And PLEASE, tell me what you do differently! I want to know!

Gallery of Additional Photos

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