3 Toddler-Friendly Art Hacks

toddler art hacks
Tea and coffee drawings, flatbed scanner photography, and substituting play dough for bakeable polymer are three quick tips for young artists from toddlers to teens. All images by Lisa Kay Tate.

I live in a house of busy hands.

Both of my girls are on continuous searches for the next creative project. Although I am proud of my girls’ creative passion, I’m also in a constant struggle to keep supplies on hand to meet their latest whims. Not to mention, the need to come up with safe, age-appropriate ideas.

A flatbed scanner and small found objects make some clever photography projects.

This is especially true with my four-year-old, who is extremely hard to corral when her artistic urges get the better of her. Fortunately, through working with my older daughter, repeated trial and error, and many instances of panicky rifling through craft closets, I picked up a few little “life hacks” over time.

Here are three of the simplest:

Flatbed Scanner Photography. When kids bring in their small “treasures” from outside, a regular flatbed home office scanner is a good way to display them in a more permanent manner. Place small flowers, leaves, feathers, or other flat items on the scanner and hit the “photo” setting. Make sure there’s no dew or moisture on the items. Once scanned, print out on regular letter-sized paper, or as an instant “snapshot” if the scanner includes a print setting for 4-by-6-inch photo paper.

tea paint
Out of watercolors? Brew up some tea and coffee paint.

Tea and Coffee Painting. My daughter goes through watercolor paints alarmingly fast. In those instances when no paint is available, use small cups of very thick tea, coffee, fruit drinks, or other beverages to make natural paints. Anyone who has dyed eggs with natural dyes should know how much variety in color there is from different tea types (green tea, Earl Grey, etc.). Textured manila paper works best for this, and gives the drawings a natural, rustic look. They also smell wonderful while painting.

preserve playdough
Sealing play dough with decoupage on smaller projects is a good substitute for polymer clay.

“No Bake” Play Dough Sculpture. Bakeable polymer is the best medium for small-scale sculpting, but when it’s not on hand, kids’ play dough works just as well as a “no bake” version. As this type of clay tends to crack when it’s dry, use a little school glue thinned with water or decoupage to seal it. This will preserve the projects much longer. For smaller sculptures (like clay beads, flowers, etc.), this will look about as good as anything made with bakeable polymer, minus needing to use the oven.

All of these tips take little-to-no preparation and clean up, and are quick boredom busters for weekends or after school.  Toddlers can manage these tasks with the help of parents, and older siblings will want to try as well.

Plus, kids love to tell others how they made things, and watch the impressed looks on Grandpa’s face when they declare, “I drew this with coffee!”

Paint a Steampunk Driveway

Image By Rebecca Angel
Image By Rebecca Angel

Several years ago, my mom spilled some paint on the driveway and just went with it. The kids and I joined in with whatever paint we had in the garage until the whole driveway was a colorful ocean-themed picture. It was fun and bright, but our driveway was in bad shape, and the paint faded and chipped at different rates, creating an colorful crumbling mess.

Last summer we redid the driveway; the colorful paint was gone. I missed it. So this year, instead of sealing everything with blacktop (which is horrid for the environment and smells terrible) we decided to paint it again. But this time, it was planned out. All that we needed was four days that we were home and had no rain.


Image By Rebecca Angel

It wasn’t until mid-July that we were able to do the project and we love how it came out! Here’s a step-by-step guide to doing it yourself. It doesn’t have to be a steampunk ship in a cloudy sky; do whatever gets your geek on. And you don’t have to be an artist, just look up images you like and copy them as best you can. Or just do colorful swirls or stripes. Here is my very non-professional design for our driveway.

Image by Lilianna Maxwell

FIRST STEP: clean the driveway. This is really fun with a group! My driveway is about 30 feet by 30 feet. We used an entire bottle of dish detergent, the hose, and brooms to scrub. I applied the detergent to the greasy spots ahead of time to help break them up. We don’t have any photos of my mom, my kids, and I dancing around with bubbles all over the driveway because we were having too much fun to stop and take photos. But my daughter got me rinsing away the soap.

WAIT FOR IT TO DRY COMPLETELY. This depends on where you live. In the northeast, where it is humid, we had to wait a day in between the washing and coats of paint.

By Rebecca Angel
By Lilianna Maxwell
By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel

SECOND: Put down your first coat of paint based on what your theme is. We chose blue for the sky. I went to the paint store and asked for latex/acrylic paint. I told the guy about my 30×30 driveway and he predicted that we might need four gallons for a first coat. Second “ha” for this project. In the end it took fourteen gallons. And going back and forth to the paint store made them very interested in my project, making suggestions and comments on my progressively blue splattered self.

Image by Lilianna Maxwell
Image by Lilianna Maxwell

WAIT FOR IT TO DRY COMPLETELY. This actually took us a couple of days because we painted a small amount of blue but weren’t sure about the shade. We waited till the next day to make a final decision, didn’t like it, and started all over.

THIRD: Now you can play with chalk. I traced a rough outline of the skyship. I put down circles for where I wanted the clouds to be. Then I climbed on top of my car to survey the placement and made a few adjustments.

By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel
By Rebecca Angel

FOURTH: Start painting the design. I did the clouds, and smoke from the ship. My son and mom took over the wooden planks of the ship. My daughter did the pipes, gears, and portholes. This took two days because some of the paint would be layered on top of others.

WAIT FOR IT TO DRY COMPLETELY and then wait some more. If you put in that much work and then mess it up by putting tire tracks on it…sad. Actually, what’s really sad is that we now have three cars, a table, and chairs filling up our driveway.

But when I step out of my car, I step onto clouds, making my way to my house, which is really a steam sky ship off on adventures. Added bonus is the paint that splattered on my toes looks like a very fancy nail polish design!

By Rebecca Angel

Balancing Board Games and Babies Part II

My Pokemon mentor once said to me, “The family that games together, stays together.” He couldn’t be more correct.

A few weeks ago I shared with you how my husband and I balance being parents and gamers. My husband and I encourage our kids to play games as well. It doesn’t matter if it’s a game we made up with balls, an educational game, a board game, or a video game. Don’t get me wrong, video game play is earned and the time spent playing them is monitored.

Educational games for kids are fairly easy to find. Several companies focus on educational games for kids. Kid appropriate games that are just like mom and dad’s are a little harder to come by.

Our kids often are more interested in the games we play instead of their own. So, here are some kid friendly ideas that are related to the adult versions our little geek 2.0’s might not be ready for.

Pokémon instead of Magic the Gathering

Try Pokémon instead of Magic the Gathering: The mechanics are very similar. The artwork is amazing without being as graphic as Magic. I know some parents cringe at the thought of letting the cute little animé creatures into their homes. The truth is, I used to be one of those parents. Then Call of Legends was released and my then 4-year-old daughter fell in love and was inspired to read. She can now read the cards and count by 10’s and she isn’t even in Kindergarten yet. I think these skills were greatly helped by playing Pokémon. Strategy skills and other math skills are also exercised by playing. Card packs run $4-$15. Most leagues are free and some even offer decks to check out and play.


RPG Kids instead of Dungeons and Dragons


Try RPG Kids instead of Dungeons and Dragons: RPG Kids is a simpler version of Dungeons and Dragons for kids age 4-7. It only uses two dice and the characters can be as simple as attacking only, all the way to having feats and resistances (if you want them). This game also offers an opportunity for parents who have never been a DM before to do so. The game is very easy to run and set up. It comes with pieces that you can cut out, or you can make your own. It can be purchases for $2.99 from RPGNow.com. RPG Kids uses math, reading, and strategy skills.
















Try Hero Quest instead of Warhammer or other war games.













Try Hero Scape or Hero Quest instead of miniature war games like Warhammer: Over a year ago, my husband and I were both very much into playing Warhammer. Since we spent a decent ammount of time painting our miniatures and playing the game, our daughter also became interested. We found a copy of Heroscape at our local second hand store. We took all of the miniatures out and let her play with them while we were playing Warhammer. Now she’s ready for Hero Quest which has a similar turn style to RPG Kids. If you have crafty kids, why not let them paint a spare miniature?


Computer games aren’t evil, but computers might be (the cake is a LIE)!: We used to be into playing World of Warcraft and other MMO’s. Now, if we actually have the time to play on the computer, we tend to play games like Minecraft, Spore, and Portal 2. The skills used in these games have a huge range but include building and following directions in Minecraft, budgetting money and strategy in Spore, and strategy in Portal. These games are fun for the entire family. It has been debated how much time kids should be spending playing video games, and how young is too young, but computer games have been an asset in our house when played in moderation. There are also some great websites that offer educational and fun games such as Starfall, PBS Kids, and a favorite at our house – Pokémon.

Do you have a Leapster or DS?: The games offered for the LeapFrog Leapster system are themed after popular characters our kids like (such as Star Wars and Pixar characters). The games are FAR more educational than games played on the DS systems, but the characters and desirableness are comparable. We have used Leapster gaming time as a reward for helping with chores without being asked or, as a quiet gaming activity while mom and dad are playing with other adults.

I hope the ideas shared here inspire you to share a gaming experience with your kids. They don’t even have to be old enough to read in most cases, all you both need is some imagination and patience. What games have you found recently to play with your kids?

Backyard Watercolors Anytime Activity

At heart, I’m really kind of a lazy mother. If I have to go to a lot of trouble to set up a fun activity, I’m apt to find a million excuses for putting it off until tomorrow. But that tendency conflicts with my desire to be a mom who says yes, a mom who makes anything possible. Take, for instance, painting. My kids love to paint—the younger set especially. A couple of years ago, I realized that the muss and fuss of set-up and clean-up was causing me to say “Not now, sweetie” more often than “Sure!”

That’s when I assembled the Art Bag.


Taking a tip from a friend, I cut large sheets of watercolor paper into postcard-sized-pieces. (Real watercolor paper is pricy but much more satisfying to paint on than drawing paper, so cutting it into smaller pieces economizes and reduces waste—and the postcards are the perfect size for tucking into an envelope later, with a little note on the back.) I stocked a sturdy, wide-mouthed bag with the paper, several sets of watercolors, a couple of blank books for sketching, some pencils and good colored pencils, a pencil sharpener, some plastic cups for water, and a few paper towels for blotting mistakes.

I tend to use cheap trays of watercolors because they are quick and easy—the tube paints allow a wider range of color-mixing, of course, but you’ll need jars or trays to serve as palettes. We save tube paints for fancier projects; our backyard Art Bag is all about convenience.

I keep meaning to pick up some of those special watercolor brushes with the fat, hollow handles that hold water; all you do is squeeze a little and the water drips out. For now, we make do with regular brushes and cups of water.

For a surface to paint on, we like dry-erase markerboards. They’re flat and smooth, and spilled paint wipes off easily.markerboards-475x429

I try to keep the Art Bag stocked and ready, so that any time one of the kids wants to paint, he or she can grab the bag and head outside—or to the kitchen table. The bag makes set-up and clean-up easy for indoor painting, as well; even my two year old can get himself set up to paint. He only needs help filling his cup with water.

(Actually, I have a trick for the toddler: instead of giving him a cup of water to dip the brush into, I pre-moisten all the paints in his tray. He doesn’t care if the colors get mixed. In fact, that is generally his primary objective. Because really, when you’re two, is there anything nicer than a nice gloppy, muddy brown mess?)

I’ve also noticed that if I grab the bag myself and spread a blanket under the trees, the sight of Mom painting a picture is a powerful magnet for children of all ages. Before I know it, I’ll be surrounded by four or five busy young artists—and only one of them is likely to be drinking the paint water. At times like that, I don’t feel like a lazy mom at all.