Finger Painting With Toddlers: Debunking My Own Myths

Finger painting helps toddlers learn about color, texture, and more.
By Meghan Burch




My new order of finger paint arrived from Discount School Supply in time for one of our drop-in art explorations designed especially for toddlers: Materials Play.  To get the kids started I put dollops of warm colors in a tempera cake palettes (you could use muffin tins) and invited them to paint on the windows.

As they needed more paint I offered a few more colors.  A couple of children preferred painting in large white trays placed on our low table.

Finger painting paper was available for making prints from the paint if desired.

Everyone enjoyed their experience! To those who are thinking "no big deal, people have been finger painting since forever," here is my confession: For YEARS (a decade) I have been avoiding finger paint.  However, now that I have my own 19-month-old, I see what I've been missing!

My previous rationale for avoiding finger paint stemmed from my view of children, my approach as an artist/educator, and honestly just not having many extended experiences with 12- to 30-month-olds under my belt. I believe that from the start, children are learners, capable of making sophisticated meaning of their experiences and the world. My goal as an artist educator is to craft approachable creative experiences that help people discover how the visual world works, observe like artists, solve problems like artists, and explore ideas through materials. My thought was that if young people think like artists and are capable of discovering that red mixed with blue equals violet, why would I not give them materials that operated like artists' materials? Somehow, painting with fingers seemed beneath my students. Beneath me. I perceived finger paint as cheap, producing dull colors, and too basic. In other words, not a "real" artist's material. I had successfully offered "more sophisticated" painting experiences for older toddlers with brushes and either liquid tempera, tempera cakes, or watercolor paint in a limited palette of colors.  Creating the right physical setup was important in those experiences too. While they weren't wrong, those experiences weren't designed for a young toddler whose sensory interests don't always mesh with brushes and a palette of paint.

A few times I've tried making homemade finger paint. The recipes I tried were inexpensive and offered a nice sensory experience, but proved not ideal for discovering how color works. The color was faint, they got chunky if I cooked them too much, they separated in the refrigerator and stained my daughter's hands. Not impressed. Then, a little while ago, I saw pictures by my daughter and her classmates on the wall in the toddler room at daycare. The colors were bold! There were areas where the colors were light, and areas with intense, saturated color. There were areas where colors mixed, and areas where they weren't. Surprise, surprise. They were made with  finger paint! Sure, other non-toxic water-based paints could be and have been used as finger paint, but toddlers can really get messy! This is something I, of course, knew and experienced, but didn't actually KNOW until I started painting with one in my own house. With white walls. Many of the teachers I've worked with know that I'm the last educator to choose paint for its washability. Often the pigment in washable paints becomes pale when it dries. I'm generally a process-over-product person, but I do want colors to be satisfying, so I've usually chosen non-washable paints for my classes. As a parent, however, I've come to realize that washability in some of our home supplies allows me to relax and be in the moment with her.  I've learned that finger paint can grant many of my wishes!

I'm still a finger paint novice. So far, I like Discount School Supply's Colorations Finger Paint but I'm interested to try Crayola's because I like their tempera paint. I'm also willing to give this homemade recipe a whirl.  I'm not excited about finger paint paper, so different kinds of paper need to be tested. Are there other brands of finger paint or types of paper you'd recommend? Any recipes you're happy with? My daughter and I have lots of experiments to conduct!

The Learning Toolkit Blog
Age 2
Age 1