I am sometimes asked how I handle my children doing messy arts and crafts. I'm not entirely sure if the askee is wanting to know what I do physically to facilitate and contain the messy activity or how I keep from going boinkers as paint works it ways into every exposed orifice on a toddler's body. Thinking about it further, both are probably so interconnected that I think I to talk about both. I hope the following discussion helps someone out who is trying to figure out how to set up a practical environment and mentally weather the challenge of a messy activity with small children.
My messy supplies like paints, glitter, and indelible inks are stored out of reach. The kids have to ask before they can get a hold of them. This way I can decide if the time is right and also to enforce the pre-messy craft rule: first tidy the house. As a family we all blitz the house, straightening, putting away, and sweeping for about ten to fifteen minutes. This quick tidy usually helps with my whole attitude towards my home and children and helps to alleviate feeling overwhelmed with mess. Afterward, setting out the paint pots, I always feel calmer and better able to focus on facilitating the kids creativity. Watching the way the children handle their art when we finish up and put away all other activities versus when we skip this step, I'm convinced they are also more purposeful and enjoy their art activities more with their environment being orderly. A blank canvas, so to speak.
Most of my art and craft supplies are grouped together by activity so that they can be brought out and used at a moment's notice. I also have a basket with the craft mats, newspaper and art smocks under the table so we're always prepared to protect surfaces and clothes.
I think the most important skill for helping children with their art is my attitude. For me, keeping my head in the game instead of fretting about the glitter getting in hair or sleeves dragged through paint pots is very challenging. There is usually no way to cut down on mess when mess is required, so I just try to roll with it. Also, if I'm not directly needed, I'll pull out the camera and take a few pictures. Partly this is for documentation and partly to keep my attention on what is important: the kids and the process, not the mess.
Most of the time clean up is done by all. Today, however, we stopped painting prematurely when I offhandedly told Birdie, "Oh sweetie, you need more water for your paint," and he took it as his cue to dump his entire glass of brush water over his painting. (Must always keep the literal frame of mind of toddlers when giving instructions.) Rivers of watercolour and acrylic paint were running off the table and down into the cracks in our flooring. To clean up what had started out as messy and turned into a small scale disaster zone, I shorted out the clean up process and hustled the kids into another room to watch a dvd while I brought out the mop and cleaning rags.
I have learned this so far with my kids: sometimes they can learn along side me and sometimes they need to get out of the way. As long as there is enough of the first, the second makes sense when my sanity is on the line.
When dealing with wet, drippy works of art, depending on the project, I have several ways to set aside the results of a messy activity until it is dry enough for display or storage. For wet pictures that need to dry flat, our previously tidy comes in handy.
I also have a number of clothes pegs ready to hang non-drippy projects out of the reach of kitties (an ongoing battle with the original curious creatures).
One last note about finished projects: label them with the child's name and date (or age) as soon as you can. It's hard to believe it now, but there will come a time when you will not even remember when this particular bit of brilliance was brought into being and by whom. I write on the back in a light pen the child's name, the date, and a title or description if one was given by the child.
"Dragon" by Birdie, age 2 1/2