Painting with your Toddler

The benefits of painting for toddlers, when and how to get started


  • The importance of painting for your toddler 

  • The difference between craft and process art 

  • At what age should I start doing painting activities with my kid 

  • Setting up for toddler painting activities 

  • How to get started painting with your toddler

  • Why doesn’t my toddler like painting?

  • Does painting online or using painting apps have the same benefits? 

  • Suggested items for a toddler painting kit

selection of stamps, qtips, pompoms for painting with toddlers

“We have been following a tot school curriculum and it has been so much fun. It has some really cute crafts each week. Last week we were supposed to do painting for a father’s day card. I bought the paints but we didn’t do it in the end. Honestly I’m nervous. It was just a picture of a butterfly with a handprint but goodness paint and a toddler… a toddler with paint. It sounds messy.

My dear friend, a mom of a sweet 3 year old, expressed what I think most moms of toddlers have thought: “How on earth am I going to pull off a toddler painting activity without my entire house being covered in finger paint?”

I get it! Painting with babies and toddlers at home seems pretty adventurous at first and like a big commitment to one activity. On top of that there is the question of what to paint:

  • should you start with finger paint, watercolors, poster paint or a paint kit?
  • Should it be one of those cutsie pinterest painting craft activities you have seen?
  • Or free painting on foil?
  • What size paint brush should you use? Should I do painting activities with my baby or wait until they are 2 or 3 years old?

But let’s start at the beginning. Is all this potential mess really worth it? 

OTHolly is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program. As an Amazon Associate I earn a few pennies when you purchase from my links. You can find more in my disclaimer

baby paint in bag activity
  1. Painting opens a new play opportunity for toddler

I’m sure, like me, you look forward to a day of your child happily playing (while developing their brain and motor skills) while you sip HOT coffee. I want you to imagine, maybe 2 or 3 years from now, setting out paints, handing your kid their painting smock, some paper and a paintbrush and then… leaving the room.

Yes mama, leaving the room, drinking your coffee or finally having a moment to clean the house. 

Once young children have mastered the skills they need in order to actually put paint to paper this will be an activity that can totally captivate their attention and hearts. 

Equipping your toddler with the ability to paint independently is opening up a big door for independent play. 

             2. Painting is a multi sensory activity for toddlers

Painting is a multi sensory experience. It’s not only about the feel of the paint on your hands when finger painting. 

Often we think of sensory as just tactile/ touch, what we feel with our hands. But it is so much more than that. A huge component of sensory development is understanding where our body is in space and how it relates to or can influence the environment around us. 

You know how when you learn a new movement your body feels a bit clumsy? Like learning a new zumba routine, or how to sign your name on a digital surface. It kind of feels like you are wearing oven mitts or big clunky shoes. This is your brain learning how to use sensory feedback from your muscles and joints (proprioception) in order to get your body to move in the way you want. 

For toddlers and young children, every time they experience a new movement their brain is interpreting the new sensation (how the muscles and joints feel and need to respond) and making NEW NEURAL PATHWAYS. Literally their brain is developing. 

         3. Painting develops toddler fine motor skills 

Painting also develops your toddlers fine motor skills. Finger painting is a great activity for teaching your toddler how to use one finger in drawing (isolated finger movements). 

Holding a paint brush helps develop good pencil grip and painting with other instruments (like stamps, pasta, sponges etc.) develops other essential hand grasps. It also develops grip strength and strong internal muscles of the hand

Painting activities also give your tot a chance to practice moving their wrists while holding a paintbrush and holding paper still while their other hand (help hand). These are both essential skills they will need for drawing and later handwriting. 

You may also like: Toddler stickers: When, How and Why

         4. Painting is a calming activity for toddler mindfulness  

There is a reason why art therapists use painting as therapy… It is extremely calming. While engaged in a painting activity you may notice your toddlers shoulders drop, breathing slow, or they may even start humming. 

            5. Painting can build your toddlers self esteem

I think we all want to parent in a way that builds our toddlers self esteem so that they can be confident and secure adults. Painting is one great tool to do just that. 

In this study kids were seen to show improved self-confidence after a 10 week creative arts program. The idea being that while doing open ended creative art the kids felt they had created something good and that had a ripple effect over into general self esteem.  

      You may also like: Toddler development: what to look out for in ages 1-3

          6. Painting develops creativity in toddlers

Creativity is an attitude not an aptitude. Meaning it’s not something that should be given a grade, it is more like an openness and state of mind. 

It is not about training your 3 year old to be an artist but rather allowing their brain to develop divergent thinking skills. Skills like identifying a problem and problem solving. Innovation in a nutshell. 

This is the reason that STEM has changed to STEAM. Studies have shown that in order to raise a generation that will not only be book smart but also able to use their intelligence to create and innovate… art has to be a curriculum focus. 

toddlers enjoy painting cars and bubble wrap

The difference between craft and process art

So, after reading the above benefits of painting for toddlers you may have questioned if those cutsie pinterest painting crafts, or handprint activities really offer all these benefits. The short answer is no.

But first we have to understand the difference between crafts and process art: 


  • Describe activities with multiple steps that create a type of “product” in the end. 
  • If steps are not followed correctly, the craft won’t be a success
  • Older kids learn tons from crafts (like sequencing, cutting, pasting etc.)
  • Toddler crafts are often done mostly by mom while toddler watches (let’s be honest)
  • Young toddlers don’t have the ability to follow complex instructions or paint in a specific way in order to make the product a success. 
  • An example of a toddler painting craft: handprint activities, painting a picture of an insect or a specific pattern on a canvas. 

Process Art

  • Process art is art that doesn’t necessarily make a product (although it can). 
  • There isn’t a clear wrong or right in process art
  • The activity is about the process and not the end product
  • Process art doesn’t have a list of instructions
  • For example: painting the walls of the bath, paint in a bag activities 

In order to get those great multisensory, fine motor, calming, self-esteem and creativity benefits of painting for your toddler the activity itself should lean more towards process art that a craft

            You may also like: 10 tips for getting your toddler ready for preschool

toddler painting with pom pom

At what age should I start doing painting activities with my kid?

I say the sooner the better! If you want to start “paint in a bag” activities with your baby, go for it! Check out the “how to” section below to get an idea of what painting activities toddlers can do according to their age and developmental abilities. 

If painting activities only just crossed your mind and your toddler is already 3 years old- don’t sweat it! You can start at step 3.

Setting up for a toddler painting activity

Like any sensory activity, it’s important to have clear expectations before and to prepare your space beforehand to set yourself and your toddler up for a win. 

When just starting out, expect that the activity might get a bit messy, it probably will be pretty shot (5-10 minutes) and you probably will have to be present and hands on but also have hope that this will all change as your tot develops his painting skills. 

Before you start also be in the attitude that there is no pass of fail in painting with toddlers. Create a space for them to explore and enter into play.  Check out these great tips for painting with your toddler without going crazy.

I would just add to also think about what you are wearing- there is a big chance you might get some paint on yourself. So you might want to stay in your mom jeans that already have mud, wiped noses and leftovers from breakfast on them (or is that just what’s on my jeans ?) or get a painting apron for yourself too. 

     You may also like: Stay calm while parenting toddlers

toddler painting with various types of paint brushes

How to get started painting with your toddler

Here is how I recommend getting started with teaching your toddler to paint.

You might have already started at step 3 and see that your young toddler is managing just fine. That’s great! Use these steps as guide- they are not set in stone or the only way to teach your tot to paint by any means. 

  1. Hands as the instrument 

Teach your toddler the feel of paint and how it spreads and changes the color of a surface or mixes together by letting their hands and fingers be the painting tool.  Some simple ideas of activities that do this: 

  • Placing a piece of paper in a ziplock bag with a few spots of paint in it and letting your baby or toddler smoosh the paint around to cover the paper. 
  • Edible finger paint: this can be done on the walls of the bath, on butchers paper or on canvas
  • Rolling car wheels through paint 

This type of painting has endless possibilities for fun and because its process art for toddlers you don’t have to break your brain trying to think up ideas. You just give the toddler the paint and let them have fun- easy!

Here are some great ideas for diy finger paints you can make from ingredients you already have at home. 

You can start doing these types of painting activities with your baby (probably relevant from about 9 months and up) and honestly your Pre-K is also going to enjoy them. To start off with they won’t grab your toddlers attention for very long, maybe 5-10 minutes but this will grow over time. 

        2. Learning to use a paint brush 

Next up, somewhere between 18 months to 2 years old you may notice that your toddler is holding a coloring marker well and that they have started to spend more time in art related activities like coloring or those water painting books (like these amazing books). This would be a good time to start teaching your toddler to use a paintbrush

At this stage you want to provide painting activities that have the paint already on whatever surface your toddler is painting. In other words, they don’t have to carry paint on the brush from a pallet to a page, the paint is already on the page. Like the step before, this is really more process art based and it doesn’t matter if colors mix or if what they paint turns out to be pretty or not. 

Some easy ideas for these type of painting activities: 

  • Painting an egg box with the paint already inside it 
  • Painting on paper or cardboard or canvas with paint already on it 
  • Painting on ice with paint already squirted on the ice 
  • Painting with water 
  • Painting a box with paint already on the box 

       3. Transferring paint from palette onto paper

Once your toddler is pretty comfortable with how paint works and how to spread paint around using a paint brush you can start painting in a more traditional way: with various colors in paint pots or on a pallet or plate and paper or another surface for them to paint on. This could be at around 2 or even 3 years old. 

I would say start with just a few colors and a paint brush for each color so they don’t have to worry about washing the paint brush every time they want to change color. 

It’s also a good idea to start out with the paints being very close to the paper and butchers paper underneath everything for spills. 

Some simple ideas for things to paint

  • Natural materials: Pine cones, sticks, rocks, leaves
  • Kitchen supplies: foil, baking paper
  • Toys: painting cars, dolls

Easy ideas for painting with different types of brushes or paint stamps

  • Spaghetti paint brushes
  • Sponges
  • Pompoms
  • Q-tips
  • Old toothbrushes
  • Various kitchen utensils (like potato mashers) 
  • Potatoes stamps
  • Bubble wrap
  • Small balloons

You may also want to mix it up with different types of paint. Tempera paint, watercolors, finger paints, puffy paints, fabric paint or paint ice cubes. 

painting egg boxes is a simple toddler painting activity

Why doesn’t my toddler like painting?

There could be many reasons as to why a toddler does not enjoy an activity like painting. I would ask these questions to understand the root of the problem a bit more: 

  1. How many times has she tried or been exposed to painting activities? If it has been several times- in what manner? For example: was it more craft based and she possibly didn’t do the craft correctly and therefore experienced failure? Was she told she has to do the painting? Or was it presented as a gentle and open invitation? 
  2. How severe is the dislike? Does she not actively engage or ask you to do the activity for her? Or does trying to paint seem to have a dramatic emotional response (crying, running away, screaming)? 
  3. Does she like other creative art activities like coloring, playdough etc? Or does she seem to favor other types of play like building lego, playing dolls, kicking a ball? 
  4. How is she generally with sensory play? Does she initiate playing in mud or with sand or does she shy away from it? Are there any other areas in her sensory development that are a concern? For example: fussy eater, doesn’t like clothing or will only wear certain items of clothes. 

As you may have understood from the above questions, the reason that your toddler that doesn’t like to paint could be because of: 

  • Painting being a new thing that they need to get comfortable with or a previous bad experience

If you think that this is the reason I would recommend offering simple process art as a play invitation several times in a gentle and open way. Chances are your toddler will slowly start responding. 

  • Art activities might not be your child’s first choice for play 

First off, this is totally okay! Every child shines in their own way. We don’t have to all like painting or art. For the mama of the toddler who is less inclined to initiate art activities I say: don’t sweat it but also keep offering it as an option for play. I have found time and time again in occupational therapy that by offering lots of opportunities to play and explore all different types of art activities and materials, even the most hardened “anti-painters” start choosing paint above other activities. Think about offering invitations to play using play dough, crayons, markers, pastels, paint, finger paint, watercolors etc. 

  • A sensory sensitivity 

If you have ruled out the first two above options and you have noticed marked sensory sensitivities in other areas (like fussiness around textures in general, food, clothing, bath water temperature) I would advise seeking professional help by a pediatric occupational therapist. 

If you are still not sure if what you are seeing is really sensory or something else and would like to do a distance coaching sensory screening- check out my coaching page.  

     You may also like: Developmental Delay: 10 red flags you should never ignore in toddlers

Does painting online or using painting apps have the same benefits?

Nope. The sensory and motor aspects of painting are critical to each of these benefits listed above. I’m sure there are some benefits to certain apps but in order to tap into all the important developmental boosting properties of painting you need real, messy, colorful paint

toddler painting with stamps, chalk and balloon

What supplies do I need to start a painting kit for my toddler?

If you want to get started on painting and don’t have any supplies you can start with cornstarch and food coloring while your toddler is in the bath. But if you would like to invest in some painting supplies here are some ideas of what you will need: 

  • Paints : Primary colored (red, blue, yellow) and white tempera paints are a great place to start because you can mix them to make tons of fun colors.  Also watercolors, finger paints and puffy paints are great for toddlers. Keep an eye out that the paints are non-stain and non-toxic and finger paints should be edible. 
  • Smock/ apron/ overalls: If your toddler really doesn’t like putting on a smock,apron or overalls for painting, you can try using an old T-shirt instead. 
  • Paint brushes : Toddlers are just in the beginning stages of learning fine motor skills therefore it’s good to get short, thick handled paint brushes that are easy to hold onto. 
  • Painting table: Do you have to have a small table for your toddler to paint at? No! Actually varying the positions that your toddler can sit in are great for developing their core strength- like painting on the floor, wall or in the bath. You can also let them sit at a regular table. Just make sure that their legs aren’t hanging in the air- crossed legs on the chair or sitting on knees on a regular chair are a good option. 
  • Painting easel: A painting easel for toddlers is a great purchase because working on a vertical surface does great things in terms of developing posture, shoulder and core muscle strength. But if you don’t have one, don’t let it hold you back. You could always tape paper to the wall. 

I hope this article has been helpful for you and has given you confidence to try painting with your toddler at home.

On a personal note, I am so thankful to have the option of painting with my toddlers. On those days when we are stuck indoors, grumpy and can’t seem to find any play activity that sticks for more than 5 minutes, I take out the paints. For my family it always seems to give us a chance to reboot and reconnect. 

Happy Painting,