artsy ideas for kids and families

Abstract Art by request

One of my little artists has a request, that we work on some abstract art. I ask her to show me abstract art. She chooses vibrant paintings full of color and abstract shapes by Bruce Gray and Reggie Laurent.

I print out these paintings and others by Laura Noel and of course, our inventor of abstract art, Kandinsky.

As an intro to the older art class, we discuss the artists, the titles of their work, what we notice about the paintings, repeated shapes, symmetry and asymmetry. We read the Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock and Mary Grandpré. This book describes the young Kandinsky, how he could hear two colors as they mixed, and how he could see shapes when he listened to music, and tells the story of how Kandinsky stops painting houses and flowers and starts painting what he feels.


On the table for materials, we offer large rectangles of cardboard painted black, colorful paper circles, glue sticks, hole punches. On the back burner, I have saved, sponges soaked in white paint (to be used as ink pads), circle-shaped found materials (to use for stamping) and thin paint brushes.


Some of the best art teacher advice I have ever received was to offer an initial provocation, but to always save something special behind your back, to take out at just the right moment, to extend/excite the art exploration. Half way through class, when the kids started getting bored with paper circles, I offered the paint and stamps and paintbrushes.

We added some Kandinsky Effect from iTunes radio, and the kids moved and glued, and punched holes and arranged shapes and painted abstract art.


Sausage and Rice : Easy, Healthy Family Recipe

We’re busy. School, work, chores, art class, swim, homework. But a family’s gotta eat, and healthy food helps a family grow strong, keeps the energy levels steady, so we can keep up with our routines.

I’d like to share a handful of quick, healthy recipes that the whole family can help prepare, eat and enjoy together.
We’ll call it the Easy, Healthy Family Recipe Series

Sausage and Rice
1 onion, chopped (we love red onions)
1 pepper, chopped
1-2 crushed garlic cloves
5-6 sausage links, but into small pieces. (we buy the sun dried tomato chicken sausage from Trader Joes)
green leafy veg like spinach, swiss chard, beet greens (we use kale) The amount is to your taste, but chop it up.

brown rice (or whatever rice the family prefers), olive oil, salt


Set your rice to cook according to your rice package’s directions. I add a tablespoon of oil or butter to my rice and a 2 teaspoons of salt. We use a rice cooker. The rice cooker we own has an awesome steam tray that fits above the cooking rice. We usually add broccoli or carrots or beets to the steam tray for a side. I love the rice cooker because you set it up and it turns itself off when it’s finished, keeps the rice warm and fluffy until you’re ready to eat.

In a large pan, heat the oil on medium high. After the oil heats for about 5 minutes, add chopped onion and peppers. Sauté until vegetables become soft and somewhat translucent. Add and mix in crushed garlic. Add the cut up pieces of sausage. Let this mixture sauté, stirred occasionally, until the sausage is cooked through. Add the chopped greens, mix and cook until the greens become a little wilty.

Serve the sausage on a bed of rice with a side of veggies.
My kids will eat everything here but prefer the rice and sausage separate on their plates.
Sometimes, we’ll have leftover sausage mix. I’ll add it to my eggs the morning after we have it for dinner. Tastes great in a quiche.

Profile Portraits, Collage

To celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, we begin happy little messes with a discussion about our 16th president. He was tall, he wore a cool hat, he helped to end slavery. Many artists have been inspired by honest Abe. There’s lots of portraits made of President Lincoln…statues, paintings, photographs and he’s even pictured on money. His profile is on our penny.


In the 5+ class, I trace each child’s profile onto paper, using an overhead projector. The children will collage their silhouettes using magazines, construction paper and mod podge. There are 2 centers: one space for cutting with scissors and one space for collaging the paper using Mod Podge in little pots with paintbrushes.


In the 2-4 year old class, we focus on our scissor skills. When we’ve gathered enough snippings, we move to the glue table.


For scissor skills, we hold our hands out as if we are going to shake someone’s hand. We insert fingers and thumb and talk about how the scissors are like alligators, hungry for paper. The scissors open, the alligator mouth is open. The kids say, yum yum yum, chomp chomp chomp. Their hands get tired quickly so they move between snipping with scissors to gluing, back and forth.


Etching: Making Our Own Scratch Art


The kids of Happy Little Messes are challenged to use their arm and hand muscles to fill a paper with wax crayon marks. This challenge requires some endurance. The kids need small breaks and a little help to “leave no white behind.”


We mix black tempera paint with a drop of dish soup.

This mixture is painted over the wax crayon marks.
While the black paint dries we work on making tin hearts.


When the black paint is dry, we use toothpicks to scratch away the black, to reveal the marks underneath.


Etching: Tin Hearts

Me: What is etching?
Me: Yes


We prepare many cardboard hearts ahead of time. In class, we all wrap the hearts in tin foil and secured the back with tape.


We etch lines and patterns and letters into the foil with a toothpick. We fill the spaces in between the etching with sharpie markers.


I offer the same provocation to the 2-4 year old class, and they busy themselves with tearing the foil with toothpicks and unwrapping all the hearts. This is not what I had anticipated or planned but sometimes art is subtractive and involves deconstruction. I laid out and taped a larger piece of foil on the table and the littles colored the foil and the cardboard hearts using crayon, sharpies and toothpicks.

Oil Pastels and Watercolor Resist and a Monster Truck

The boys sneak toys in their pockets. A little piece of home on the go.
Three monster trucks get smuggled into Happy Little Messes. The trucks are added to the table full of large papers, oil pastels and tempera cakes for watercolor painting.


I offer the oil pastels first. Once we wet the paper with watercolors, the pastels won’t be as vibrant or effective. I ask Child Art what they do to offer these materials. The answer was this: offer the oil pastels during one session, offer the watercolor paint in another session, revisiting and adding onto their work.
Little K sets one monster truck in front of his paper and draws a still life of the object using the oil pastels.

He adds more detail to the drawing with the watercolors, and finishes off the work of art with some tire marks, made by dipping and painting the color onto the wheels of the truck.


The kids see how Little K is using the truck and pass the three trucks around the table using them in the paint to make tracks on their papers. Friend O fills a paper with tire tracks. Friend P uses the wheels to create the flames of a fire.


I ask the boys if I can keep a truck for the 2-4 year old class, and they reluctantly agree to leave one truck behind. The littles also enjoy using the monster truck on their papers. Friend C loves trucks. He uses beeping noises when the truck is backing up.
Paint and monster trucks are a complimentary art pairing.


If you like this, you’ll love the color resists from child art! Looking at their photos of children’s oil/watercolor resists, I was inspired.

Tempra Paint, Invented Colors

I always ask the kids of HappyLittleMesses, “What is your favorite art material,” and “what would you like to do next week?”
While, I don’t find it hard to please these little artists, I want to make sure we’re doing what they like in class. Most answer, that they love to paint.
Last week, we took out our paintbrushes, large paper and our little glass baby food jars and filled them with paint.


The 5+ class is asked to paint a picture or design using black paint. As the black paint dries, the kids are challenged to “invent” their own paint color.


We have white red, orange, yellow, green and blue-filled paint jars and pipettes lined up on the table. The kids are each given their own empty glass jar to fill and mix. Many kids make different shades of green, grey and brown. They use and share their invented colors to finish their paintings. One child compared her invented color to her mom’s morning coffee.


The 2-4 year old class, is given free range of many colors. Some choose to focus their work on one corner of their paper. Some are intent on seeing what happens when 2+ colors mix, some keep their paper organized into varied colors and paint brush strokes.
One little guy, this being his first class ever!, makes small marks between observing every little thing that’s going on in the class. We add pencil marks towards the end of the 30 minutes of class


Friend O paints a design in black. He “invents” two shades of green (olive and lime.) He uses these colors, plus more black and some borrowed colors, invented by friends, to fill in all the spaces on his paper, leaving only a small window that peaks into the original design underneath.

Jello Play Dough is Dope

At HappyLittleMesses, we test out a new play dough recipe from modern parents messy kids.com.


white flour – 1 cup
warm water – 1 cup
salt – 2 tbsp
cream of tartar – 2 tbsp
cooking oil – 2 tbsp
Jello – 1 3oz pack

Mix all ingredients in a pot on the stove, medium heat, until thick dough forms. Set dough on a floured counter to cool, then knead.

We brewed up 3 batches of jello play dough, using cherry, blue raspberry, lime and orange flavored jello. The colors were vibrant and the smells were so fun. I’ve tried lots of a play dough recipes as a teacher and mother. This recipe is a winner.


I knew the kids in happylittlemesses would LOVE these people play dough mats, from picklebums.com, so we printed out a bunch of copies and laminated them for class. We also threw some googly eyes on the table because google eyes make everything more silly. The laminated pages have now become a permanent part of our play dough tool collection. I love reusable supplies.


Friend K used the head and shoulders play mat to make a portrait of his dad. He took the play dough off the mat when he finished showing off the portrait, and made another of his mom. Takes, “mom has eyes on the back of her head,” to a whole new level.


The 2-4 year old class enjoyed the feel of the dough without using the mats as much. They rejoiced in the addition of google eyes, mixed colors and shared tools across the table like they were at Thanksgiving dinner.

Hot Chocolate Cupcakes

Little K’s friend birthday party needs some favors and some good cake, so we come up with this idea to make hot chocolate mugs filled with delicious devil’s chocolate cupcakes, frosted with italian meringue.


I score some small coffee mugs from a used restaurant supply store for $1 each.

We make devil’s food cupcakes following a recipe from Martha Stewart.


Using a glass paint pen, I draw a snowman on each mug. We cure the drawing for 8 hours and bake at 375 for 40 minutes to make the drawings permanent, following the instructions on the pen.

When the cupcakes are cool, we pop them into the mugs, frosting with an Italian Meringue, adding 3 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa, dolloping with 2 marshmallows each, to make it look like hot chocolate.


Italian Meringue Icing
1 c (200g) caster sugar
*(you can use granulated sugar that been put through a food processor)
1/3 c water (80 ml) water
2 egg whites
3 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa

1. Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan, and stir over heat without boiling until the sugar is dissolved.
2. Boil uncovered without stirring until the syrup reaches 116 degrees on a candy thermometer. The syrup should be thick but not coloured. Remove from heat and allow the bubbles to subside.
3. Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer to soft peaks. With the motor running, add the hot syrup in a thin, stead stream.
4. Beat on high speed for about 10 minutes, adding the cocoa while beating, or until the mixture is thick and glossy.

We attach some simple instructions for hot cocoa and a sharpie so kids can add details to the snowmen. You may choose to bake the sharpie drawings, much the same way you would cure and bake the glass pen marks. You may choose to allow the sharpie drawings to wash off so you can redraw/redecorate your snowman over and over again.


Spooning Muffin Batter

We made banana muffins today. Whenever we make muffins, my little K wants to help with every step. He’s got the measuring and dumping down, as well as cracking the egg and managing the controls of the mixer. The trickiest part for him is spooning the muffin batter into the tins.


I could just let go and not care about the messes he makes in his efforts to aim with accuracy. Sometimes, I do let go. Today, we really wanted muffins, but only had an hour to accomplish the mixing and baking, so letting go wasn’t in the schedule. We came up with a compromise.


Little K helped with every step, then when it was time for me to spoon the muffin batter, Little K, in the sink, spooned a mixture of flour and water, the same consistency as the muffin batter, into a mini muffin tin. Little K was given the chance to practice his spooning techniques.


In the end, his hands ended up totally submerged in the flour/water batter. He pretended he was a monster. The sensory experience kept him busy while the muffins cooked. The flour and water mixture can also be used to paper-mache after batter spooning practice.


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