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Want To Do Art With Your Kids But Afraid of the Mess?

October 5, 2021
By Beth Herrild

I often hear from moms that they’d love to do art with their kids but are afraid of the mess! Do you hesitate to do art with your kids because of this? I totally get it! My mom was a clean freak when I was growing up; and I felt that her inability to allow messes really impacted my learning and development as a creative kid. I’ve really tried hard not to be that kind of mom. And I wanted my own kids to have a different experience. But then the reality of cleaning up kids’ messes all day every day set in and it was hard! Don’t despair, there IS a way to let your kids express themselves with some mess but not let it get out of control. It just takes a little pre-planning:


Set yourself up for success by choosing your materials wisely.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever use materials that can stain. You’d be eliminating a large segment of art mediums. That being said, there are still a few supplies I never use- like GLITTER! Most kids love glitter, but how often do you see glitter in serious art? I rest my case. Glitter is often referred to as the herpes of arts and crafts because once you unleash a tube of glitter in your home, it’s there to stay. You can never get rid of it! Your kids will have to deal with your glitter ban. Let them use glitter at school or a friend’s house.


Take precautions with clothing and your home.

Mediums like acrylic paint become permanent on clothing, carpet, and furniture if not cleaned up while wet. A little planning will minimize the mess and make clean-up easier. Insist that your kids ALWAYS wear old shirts over their clothing, cover your work surface and floor, and attend to spills immediately. I cannot tell you how many times I have walked past one of my paintings and decided to add just this one thing, and ended up with stained clothing because I didn’t take the time to put on my apron!

Recycle and Reuse.

We’re all for using recycled and sustainable supplies as much as possible and for making clean-up as easy as possible. For instance, you can use the Styrofoam trays that meat and vegetables come packaged in as paint-mixing trays/palettes. These are things that would have just ended up in a landfill, so if we can repurpose them, that’s great. Then, when the art project is completed, they can be just thrown away instead of having kids wash them out. This also protects your drain and/or septic system from large globs of acrylic paint! (Your plumber will thank you.)

For your table and floor, old shower curtains, sheets, and tablecloths work well. If you don’t have any, they are often found very cheaply in thrift stores. This way, you are again repurposing something and if they become too stained or have holes in them, you can toss them. I don’t recommend newspaper as a table covering because the newsprint will rub off on kids’ hands and on their artwork. The heavy paper that is often used as a packing material in boxes you receive (Amazon etc.), is great to smooth out and use as a table and or floor covering. We encourage our box subscribers to cover their work surfaces with the brown paper in the box. Then again, when the project is done, the paper can simply be folded up with all the mess inside and discarded. You can even use flattened out cardboard boxes, but they are a little more difficult to use than the paper.

Think through how you dispense materials like paint and glue.

Will you give each child a blob of each at the start of the project?What if they need more?

A lot of unexpected mess happens when kids start doing things like refilling their own paint trays. It helps to agree before the start of the project how you want that to work. Some possible solutions may include:

• Only adults can dispense things like paint and glue.
• You demonstrate the process of using a spreader or scoop in each of the containers. Then make sure that the container they’re filling from is right next to the container they’re filling, and all of this takes place on a piece of plastic or heavy Kraft paper.
• You could also make sure that everything is in a squeeze bottle that is easy for little hands to control.

Create a drying space for finished artwork.

The last really important planning aspect for a project is where completed projects go to dry. Some art projects obviously don’t require this, but for those that do, planning ahead is critically important. This has often been the mistake I’ve made that created the most mess. It may seem like a good idea to set your artwork on the floor to dry, because that gets it out of the way and off the table, but do you have a dog or cat who might step in it? Will you step in it? Pick a spot where the art will be safe and you will be safe from the art! Also, especially in colder months, don’t forget that when furnaces kick on, there is often a current of air that can cause paper to be blown and flipped over. Choose surfaces that are out of the way and aren’t in front of an open window or heating vent.

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Set boundaries on messy creativity.

There’s a difference between the creative mess that happens while engaging in art making and just being messy. Less mess typically occurs when kids are actively engaged in an art project and concentrating, as opposed to when they are done, or not as interested in the actual project and they begin goofing around. The goof zone is where most of our messy accidents happened!

It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition! These boundaries can be as simple as, yes, you can paint with acrylics using your paint brushes and other tools, but you cannot fling or splatter paint.

Or maybe you don’t want kids using their fingers in the paint (although I’m actually a big proponent of letting kids experience the materials tactilely). If you do let kids get their fingers in the paint, there needs to be a clear and simple process for cleaning hands before they touch something else (or each other).

Make cleaning-up part of the artistic process.

When the art making is done, kids can and should help clean up! That’s why we say in our box inserts “Clean-up is part of art!” It’s important to plan and communicate to kids ahead of time, what the process for cleaning up will be. If you don’t have a sink right in the area you’re doing art, then perhaps the process is that an adult will carry everything to the sink and then the kids clean things using soap and water.

This is also the time where you would say: When you’re done, the adult will fold up your table covering with the mess inside and dispose of it. Your job is to go wash your hands immediately and then use the designated sponge or rag to wipe off all of the surfaces.

This quote from Emeril Lagasse about cooking hits the nail on the head. “Cleanliness is very important. If you let kids make a total mess in the kitchen and then leave, you’re not really teaching them anything.” We need to let kids make enough mess to express themselves, but not allow our homes and clothing to be ruined, and then give them the responsibility of helping to clean up!

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