Is the art room the new playroom? It would be if Megan Schiller of Mill Valley, Calif., had her way. After time spent in early childhood education, and then experience running her own children’s art studio, Schiller now helps parents design mini art studios for their kids in their homes. She calls her business “The Art Pantry” because she believes that it’s just as important for kids to have room to do art as it is to have room to store and make food. “It’s about letting kids develop a creative confidence at a young age,” she says. Schiller wants to help all families have a dedicated creative space, even if it’s only a drawer in the kitchen for storing markers and crayons. “It’s a long process and it takes time but it’s really worth it,” she says. We talked to Schiller, whose own daughters are now 7 and 4, about the why’s and how’s of an in-home art corner and where she goes for creative inspiration.
Q: Why is it important for kids to do art?
A: It’s about letting kids develop a creative confidence at a young age. They don’t have to have a passion for the arts … it can develop into growing up and using power tools. It’s about knowing how to use supplies and take them into their life. For example, if they’re playing with their toys and they want to have a rocket ship, they can go and build one. It’s not about the product and what it looks like in the end; it’s about letting them touch things and get messy. A lot of kids like to squeeze a whole glue bottle out because they’re learning to use their muscles. I like to let them do that, because it teaches them what’s too much glue. If they’re allowed to explore, then they learn why, and that will carry with them as they get older.
Q: Why is it important to have easy access to art?
A: In general, if kids have access to supplies, then they can develop confidence—though, I don’t let a 2-year-old have complete access to paint and things. If kids always have to ask permission, they won’t feel confident and they might not use the supplies very much. If supplies are accessible but disorganized, they might not use them either. In a dedicated space, with easy access, art becomes a part of their life. Imagine if kids had to ask permission to play with a stuffed animal—that would change the way that they play.
Q: What is an ideal place to set up for art? What’s too small, too far away?
A: It really depends on the family, the kids, their ages, and their personalities. For young kids, or kids who want to be close to their families, it’s important to have it close to you. The kitchen is great—the kids are more likely to use the space while you or other kids are engaged in other activities. If you don’t want to see it all the time, or if you have guests over, then you might dedicate a cabinet in the kitchen. Or even have a portable caddy—one of those plastic boxes with different compartments, and carry it around in the house. You can also have closed cabinetry that’s just dedicated to art supplies; an armoire or something. For older kids who like to have their space and don’t mind going into another room without their parents, a bedroom or someplace with the most room would work. Except basements! Even if a kid is seven or eight years old, they don’t want to go into a basement without their parents.
Q: Do kids need easels? Why kind do you recommend?
I don’t think easels are essential. But it is different for kids to try to draw or paint in a vertical way [rather than flat on a table]. I like to have things against a wall so that you can save floor space, but I like to mount something onto the wall. If you like easels, there are also some that are adjustable or smaller for toddlers, or even tabletop easels, that give them the experience of painting or drawing, but you can put it away when you need to.
Q: Where do you go for art project inspiration?
A: The Artful Parent has been my go-to resource since I started teaching art. She’s always been an inspiration. Meri Cherry is a great blog, because it’s fun and simple and easy to do with kids. She’s also an art teacher. TinkerLab is great for more science and making. Babble Dabble Doo is good for art and engineering combinations. The Art Bar Blog is also just beautiful inspiration. She’s an art teacher too. You can see the kinds of projects that she does in her living room—big, messy art projects. It’s inspiring to see that you can still do messy art projects in a nice home.
Q: How do you balance instructing your kids on art projects with letting him or her just play with paint?
A: A lot of kids will explore, but they might not know what to do with something. I explain what it is and explore it with them. We might do painting, and I’ll teach them a technique, like printmaking, or watercolor and crayons. Then I’ll just leave the materials there and let them explore on their own.
Q: When are good times of day to do art?
A: My girls have a lot of creative energy in the morning. I set up art prompts at night and that will keep them busy in the morning. In the afternoon, after being at school all day, they like to have some downtime. Being messy with their hands and playing with Play-Doh and toys is helpful for that.
Q: Talk to me about art prompts. What are these?
A: I call them “invitations to create,” because they’re a way of inviting a child to explore materials. I like to set out about three to five different things, displayed really nicely and inviting on a tray or in the middle of a table. I let them come across it on their own. Usually they’ll walk in and notice it on the table and they’ll want to work with it. It’s a good way to get them excited and engaged with their materials in a different way—I might pick out something they haven’t used in a while.
Q: What do you say to parents who feel a little apprehensive about the mess and the expense?
Definitely pick a few things that you feel comfortable with. If you get something that you’re not comfortable with, like finger paint, and you’re terrified to use it, you might put it off and not try it. Then just sit and play explore the material alongside your child. It’s amazing to see what they do and it gives them encouragement and excitement to try new things.
Q: What five items should each art space start with?
When I taught art classes, I always had four to five supplies I would always start the kids off with. Washable tempera paint, because you can do finger painting, paint on an easel, mix colors and do color theory. Liquid watercolors are really fun because toddlers can mix and pour and stir as if it was water; older kids can use droppers or do resist projects with crayons. For drawing, I always start off with beeswax crayons because they’re softer and have more vibrant colors so they’re easier for kids to use. And then markers. And for modeling, either Play-Doh or clay. Parents probably feel more comfortable starting with Play-Doh, because it’s easier to clean up, but if they’re ready to try clay, it offers a different sensory experience. Also try glue and collage. That’s the other thing I always introduce kids to, even if they’re one-and-a-half. Squeezing glue bottles is good when they’re learning how to use their motor skills. If you wanted to know one organizing tool I always start with, it’s a caddy to organize drawing tools. My favorite one is from Land of Nod. It has four cups, so you can put markers, crayons, colored pencils, and one other thing in it, which gets kids to branch out.
[This interview has been condensed and edited.]
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