Get Your Students to Stay Longer at the Art Table

I can’t tell you how many times I have gone through the trouble of setting up a really cool art activity only to have my students come to the table for 30 seconds and then announce, “I’m Done!”

“Wait a minute!” I say. “This is a really cool idea. Don’t you want to stay a little longer?” But I’m pretty much talking to myself because the children are already off doing something else. So, I sit down and try it myself (you know, model the process), wait to see if anyone might change their mind and come back only to realize that I’m the only one in the room who thinks the idea is super cool.

And then there are those simple art activities. The ones that I would feel lucky if the children spent at least 30 seconds at the table but instead, the children scramble to take a seat and stay so long that I have to beg them to wrap it up. Those days make me so happy, but they also leave me shaking my head.

Why on earth do the kids want to stay all day for this simple idea but I have to beg them to stay for the ones I think are really cool? The answer is hidden somewhere in between the project and the process.

Really Cool Art

Whenever I set out an idea that I think is really cool, I tend to overdo it. I have this hidden agenda of what it should look like and exactly what the children should do to make it look the way I want it to look. The next thing you know, my idea has specific materials, steps, and an outcome (like making that really cool cardboard tree I saw on Pinterest). In the end, the children are essentially being asked to focus on the outcome even though the process is really cool. But since young children are not naturally driven or inspired by the outcome, they often do just enough to ‘finish’ the project and then move on to something else.

Simple Art

Whenever I set out something that has no intended outcome (like painting with cars), I don’t overdo it. I just arrange the cars, paper, and paint on the table and let go of the results. The children dive in and explore, experiment, color mix, create lines and circles, make noises, go fast, and go slow. There is no “end” to the process; no finish line, nothing that indicates the process is done. The children stick with the process until they have satisfied their curiosity, exploration, or interest.

Take Away

I provide all kinds of art in my classroom and am willing to take the risk that not every idea will turn out the way I hope it will. I try to keep in mind that there is a difference between what I think is really cool and what the children think is really cool. If I can let go and keep the process simple, open to their interpretation, and let them run with their ideas (open-ended), the children almost always stay at the art table longer.

Here are a few simple art ideas and why they almost always keep my students at the art table for more than 30 seconds J

  • Painting with cars or marbles (they like to paint with things that roll around or feel like play more than art)
  • Painting with watercolor paints (they like doing things themselves like filling up their own water cup and the freedom to mix all the colors on the slate)
  • Painting at the easel (it’s just a blank slate which is why they like it but also love to mix colors)
  • Painting outside (it just feels free and open)
  • Creating with clay or playdough and a variety of loose parts (active, hands-on, and love the feel of squishing and molding plus they can make things that look funny or just plain strange)
  • Collaging with glue and loose parts (love to use lots of glue and stick lots of things in the glue)
  • Colored and clear tape (they like to tape everything together or just use the tape to decorate).
  • Folded blob painting (they like surprises and to guess what it turned out to be).

Key Take-Away

If you are wanting your students to sit longer at the art table, ask yourself, “How can I simplify my ideas so the children can focus on their ideas instead?”

Now it’s your turn!

Take a second and share your take-aways or ideas in the comments below.

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About the Author:

Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. has been working and teaching in the field of early childhood education for over 30 years. Deborah currently owns and teaches in her own part-time, private preschool called The Children’s Studio. Deborah’s deep passion for teaching and working with young children is documented and then graciously shared with millions of readers around the world through her blog and other social networking communities. Deborah believes that young children learn best through play and exploration and embraces this belief in all that she does in her own classroom so that she can effectively and passionately share rewarding, real- life, tried-and-true practices with other teachers, parents, and leaders across the field of early childhood education.


  1. Nancy December 31, 2018 at 6:40 pm - Reply

    My student’s loved to paint the bottom of a muffin tin and use small paper squares to make prints from the bottom of the tin. I thought it wouldn’t be a hit. Wow! Was I wrong! They all loved it!

  2. Margaret Welwood January 1, 2019 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    Tina and I put bits of old crayon on an old aluminum plate and melted them in the oven on low heat. We were amazed at how the colors ran and blended, and we added more to mak e a gorgeous landscape.

    • Deborah Stewart January 4, 2019 at 11:17 pm - Reply

      Love it Margaret!

  3. Judy Weinrich January 2, 2019 at 2:33 pm - Reply

    Hi Deborah, I was not able to access the Discover Conference. Can you help, please?

    • Deborah Stewart January 4, 2019 at 11:18 pm - Reply

      Hi Judy,
      The Conference is not live yet. Were you able to fill out the form above to be notified? The conference will begin on January 23rd. More information on how to sign up coming soon!

  4. Gerianne January 4, 2019 at 7:16 am - Reply

    That’s the beauty of process art, there IS no intended teacher outcome, other than allowing children to explore and discover on their own! If there is a specific intentional look at the end, it’s NOT process! You can’t say, “The children decorated the turkey feathers anyway they wanted, it’s process art.” No, it’s a product. The TEACHER decided what it would be. If we want to encourage thinking, we need to give them the materials and let them soar! Need an intentional objective? Ask the children about their creations when they’re done. The stories will be magnificent!

    • Deborah Stewart January 4, 2019 at 11:15 pm - Reply

      Love your passion Gerianne!

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