Unstructured painting with toddlers is one of my favorite things. You will never find a group of kids more exuberant and crazy with paint. :)
To get the full toddler painting experience, I suggest the following three things:
I. Always (or nearly always) paint on the ground.
Toddlers are wiggly little creatures. To keep their attention, they need to be able to move. They are just learning how to move their bodies well, and painting on the floor gives them an opportunity to refine those fine and gross motor skills. I feel that being able to move around on their canvas and interact with hands and feet is key to their experience of art at this age.
If they are on the floor they can paint big sweeping motions with hands and arms, or very refined delicate strokes with little fingertips.
They can experiment with different body positions and stretch or squish their whole bodies.
As you can see from the photos, we used a splat mat for any accidental slip ups. To be able to do this sort of painting, S had to follow the rule that she stayed (hands and feet) on the splat mat or paper until she was done. Depending on the amount of paint and type of paper you are using, it can get slippery, so be sure to be within hands reach and remind your child to move carefully.
II. Their body is a canvas.
Paint is a great sensory experience. The cool, squishy, smooth feeling of the paint on their hands, feet, or on their skin is something toddlers enjoy.
Seeing the explosion of color as you paint yourself blue is something to behold!
This is one of my favorite photos of S - she asked for some paint and made this on her tummy. I asked her what it was and she announced that it was baby X! This was just a few months into my pregnancy (she had just turned 2). So adorable.
S has sensitive skin and we found that Crayola brand paints would give her a rash. We switched to using Lakeshore Learning fingerpaints and tempera paints and had no trouble. I hear that Discount School Supply and Melissa and Doug also have some nice paints (though we have yet to try them). We always washed the paint off as soon as S was done, but with some colors (mainly reds/purples/blacks) we did notice a faint stain. It would usually come off with a good soak in the bath, and didn't bother us enough to discourage her from painting her body.
III. Painting something BIG is extra fun
Painting was such a big part of S's life that one of the stations at her 2nd birthday party was a big swath of muslin that the kids could paint with their hands/feet/whatever!
On other occasions I would tape together several pieces of poster board and encourage S to experiment with different painting techniques as she walked across her canvas.
She painted with her hands, with her feet, and with a paintbrush.
She also painted with just a single finger.
And finally, for your viewing enjoyment, a clip of adorable little toddler S demonstrating all three elements of painting with toddlers that I've mentioned above:
Those of you with a toddler might also enjoy my friend Stephanie's "Toddler Art Tuesdays" series here on her blog, Twodaloo.
Please always supervise your infant/child at play. Please stay within arms reach and never leave infants/children unattended.