My Perfect Classroom
By Dawn Buckingham M.A.

If you are like most teachers, you are feeling a great deal of pressure to make sure that children have ample daily language and literacy experiences, as well as time for math and science. But what about the Art Center in your classroom? Have you given it the same thought and planning as other learning centers? 


Assessing Your Space

Take a good long look at your Art Center. Does it reflect your knowledge about teaching and learning practices? Have the children grown tired of the center and are you tired of the mess? Do you ever wonder if an art space is really all that important? How do you decide what to put in that small corner of the room? How do art activities support learning in other areas?


By taking a thoughtful look at the Art Center and the way that you provide art experiences for children, you can support and extend learning across the curriculum domains. The Art Center is one of the most important spaces in the early childhood classroom. Using art materials is an essential way for children to share ideas and feelings as they begin to develop and demonstrate creativity.


Learning Through Art

Open-ended art exploration provides opportunities for self-expression and communication, and also supports everything from fine motor development to problem solving, literacy, comprehension, and social skills. Children learn as they manipulate, touch, and experiment with materials. A well thought out plan for the Art Center will help you create an environment that extends learning across most other curriculum areas in an inviting space. The center can be suited to the available area and stocked to reflect individual interests of the children with whom you work.


Process, Not Product

Young children are much more interested in the process of exploring materials than they are in the final products. Observe as some young children dribble white glue out of the bottle and onto the tabletop in a gooey swirl instead of using the glue for that special craft project you had planned. Think about the child who continues to add paint to a watercolor painting until they have a gray blob of sodden paper. Many children come to us without those early opportunities to explore things that drip, feel gooey, or make a mess. This type of exploration leads to scientific observations about the properties of materials, and as children put words to the experiences, they experience a growth in vocabulary and comprehension. Is it soft or hard, wet or dry, warm or cold? What does it mean to be sticky? How does it feel on your hand? The Art Center should provide a safe space to play and experiment with these materials.


As children hear stories or have new experiences, they often want to express those feelings or ideas; art materials provide ways for them to share those ideas long before they have words to attach to them. Children may express a visit to a pumpkin farm in the fall with large blobs on orange paint on the easel or irregular orange paper cutouts decorated with bits and pieces of construction paper, or form spheres of orange play dough carefully placed in order by size on the table. These activities provide opportunities for teachers to engage children in discussion: Tell me about your picture? What color is it? How many pumpkins did you make? Which one is the biggest? How do you feel about the picture that you created?


Make Your Space Work For You

Once you understand the importance of art experiences for children, the next thing to consider is how to create a space that works for both you and the children. Art activities can be messy, so the best solution is to have the Art Center located in an area with a tile floor and water supply. If this is not possible, purchase heavy plastic shower curtains, table cloths, or several yards of cloth backed vinyl from the fabric store to place under easels and tables where liquids or other messy supplies will be used. These can be wiped clean or placed in the washer each week. Aprons, oversized shirts, or other protection should be provided to cover children s clothing. Paint ponchos can be cut from the same materials you use to cover the floor. In addition to an easel, you should provide a table or flat surface for modeling and building. 


Art Center materials should allow children to experience a wide variety of textures, colors, patterns, and should include tools to manipulate the materials. Think about the many ways children can cut, fold, illustrate, sculpt, and model their experiences and ways of thinking about the world. Rotating the materials keeps the center interesting for children and helps to reduce clutter if you have a small space. Make sure that each material has an organized place in the center within the safe reach of children; label the containers with the picture of the object as well as the name. If your space is small or you lack shelves for storage, find creative storage solutions: A vinyl shoe organizer can be suspended from the ceiling and the pockets can be labeled to hold materials. Kitchen gadget containers work well to hold brushes or sculpting tools. Teach children to organize the space after each use by matching the material to its container. This sorting and categorizing is an important skill as children learn to describe and name attributes of materials. Have children take responsibility for cleaning up just as you do for the other centers in the room.  



Incorporate your Art Center into your classroom environment. Post information in the Art Center to inform parents and others about what children are learning. Observe and document the art process and celebrate the creativity that will appear as children freely explore materials. A well-organized Art Center will support all areas of the curriculum by providing children with opportunities for expressing feelings, sharing ideas, and extending knowledge.



Dawn Buckingham, M.A., is an educator, curriculum developer and independent consultant specializing in educational staff development for school districts, child care organizations and others in support of early care and elementary education. She can be reached at 



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