I've received several e-mails recently asking for tips on starting a children's art group. I responded to a couple of them promptly but let a couple of others languish in my in-box. Sorry! I've decided to give the whole idea some thought and write up something that might be helpful for anyone who is interested in starting an art group similar to ours. So here it is -- pretty much just a brain dump.
Our group is basically a playgroup with a regular art component. We meet once a week to play (and snack), but always incorporate an art activity. The children are roughly the same age-between two and three. Our youngest, a sibling of an almost-three-year-old, is 17 months. However, we started with a group of one-year-olds and have just kept meeting. A couple of families have moved on and a few more have joined us in that time. Ours is a group of toddlers/preschoolers, but you could form an art group with children of any age and just modify the art activities to suit.
I started our art group because I wanted to make art a priority in our family and wanted to meet other families who were also interested in introducing art activities to their young children. I thought that if my daughter had an art focused playgroup that she would grow up thinking of art as a fun and valued part of everyday life.
Also, I wanted to do art with my daughter (who was 12 months at the time) but she was still putting the crayons in her mouth and I was willing to settle for doing art with other people's children for a while. :) Although (less tongue-in-cheek), I did want to see how different children responded to a variety of art projects. I had just read a couple of great books about doing art with children, which I'll talk about below, and was gung ho about getting started. But, probably the most important at the time, I was new in town and just wanted to meet other families and make friends.
So... what kind of group you want?
Do you want a playgroup for your child (and a mommy/parent group for yourself) as we do? Or would you rather have a more structured art class? Just remember that young children are not likely to stay focused on art (or anything) for very long.
How large or small do you want the group to be?
We currently have eight families, but smaller might be better, especially to begin with. Even just two or three families who get together regularly can be good. An ideal size might be closer to four or five families, just because on any one week someone, and sometimes two someones, probably won't be able to make it.
How do you find other people who are interested in your art group?
You can ask current friends and acquaintances. You can put an e-mail out to a local listserv, Yahoo Group, homeschooling group, or local mommies group. You can post a flyer in a coffee shop, coop, library, or any place where other parents and kids hang out. Describe the kind of group you are hoping to start and ask interested families to contact you.
How will you pay for materials?
When I buy art supplies for the weekly project or just to replace basic materials such as paper or tempera paint, I tell the group how much I spent and what their contribution will be to help pay for the materials. It generally isn't much. Some weeks it is $2-3, some weeks nothing at all.
Another option (which I've decided to start doing) would be to ask each family to bring a set amount each week such as $2 or $3 to go toward art supplies as well as other things you use such as masking tape, paper towels, soap, snacks, etc. The money could go into a jar and used as needed.
A third option would be to set it up as a class with the idea of being paid for your time in addition to materials (especially if you are confident in your level of experience in doing art with children). Just remember that there will be a whole different level of expectations to be met if you are calling it a "class."
Where and how often will you meet?
Will you meet weekly? Or every other week? Will you meet in your house each time or will you alternate hosting with one or more other families? Or will you try to find an alternate space to use-such as a community center?
What else do you need?
A space to get messy: You will probably need a space that you don't mind getting messy, especially since so many great art projects for young children involve paint or glue. It can be a space in your house such as a kitchen, laundry room, garage, or any other room with easy-to-clean floors. We use our large laundry room which we've turned into a studio. You can also use your backyard or deck if the weather is suitable. If you don't feel like you have a good space for messy art group activities, you could opt to meet at a playground and do the art at a picnic table, or even arrange to use a community meeting space. Or, you could choose to do art activities that involve less mess, such as drawing, collage (glue sticks aren't very messy), playdough, etc. Or a mix of the above.
An art table: You will probably need a low table for the kids to work at. We used coffee tables at first, but now have a large (low) table from a now-defunct preschool.
Art supplies: You'll need a few basic supplies, but to start off you only need whatever you're going to be working with the first week (fingerpaints and paper, for example). You don't need to have a completely stocked art supply cabinet before beginning! We've accumulated our supplies slowly over time. I've also made many purchases with coupons in hand. Large chain art supply stores such as AC Moore and Michaels regularly offer 40- and 50%-off coupons either through the local newspaper or on the internet.
Art clothes: You may want to suggest that kids either come in clothes that they don't mind getting messy (even "washable" paint doesn't always wash out completely), or a smock, or a large t-shirt that can cover their regular clothes. They can also paint in diapers or nude of course (Maia often does).
How much art will the children do?
Remember that young children, and especially toddlers, often have short attention spans. They may paint for five minutes and be finished. Or they may paint for twenty-five minutes. It will likely be different each time depending on the project, the child's mood, and the group dynamic. However it is not likely to be a full hour! I don't think a child has ever painted for a full hour in our entire year and a half of meeting! So what do you do with the rest of your time?
For our group, people start arriving at 9:30am on Wednesday morning. The children play for a while and the moms chat (and sometimes the dads and/or grandmas too). Once everyone has arrived and we've had a chance to reconnect (after about 45 minutes or so) we head back into the studio, which is generally set up ahead of time, for the art project of the week. The kids paint or whatever for 15 or 20 minutes until they've had enough, then wash up and have a snack and play some more. Some kids want to paint for 5 minutes (or not at all) and some kids stay in the studio painting after everyone else has gone back in to play and eat. After the art activity, I generally set out some snacks on Maia's low table (easy stuff to share such as sliced fruit, dry cereal, veggie booty, crackers, etc) and often other moms will add a snack to the table as well.
We have good days and bad days. Sometimes it feels like chaos. Sometimes everything seems to go smoothly. Sometimes sharing toys is difficult for the kids and they seem to fight over everything, and sometimes it's more peaceful.
What kinds of art projects do you want to do with your group?
I've found that open-ended, process-oriented art activities are the most successful with our group. (You can read my post on art versus craft if you like. If so, make sure to read the comments.) Over the past year and a half we have done all sorts of activities including fingerpainting, painting with tempera paint on paper and on canvas, painting with watercolors, printmaking with fruits and vegetables, making a variety of collages (nature collages, pasta and cotton ball collages, sticker collages, paper shape collages, etc), body painting, paint dancing, making playdough, a messy party, melted crayon suncatchers, and a variety of holiday-related arts and crafts. There's no need to get fancy though. We could probably just paint every week and it would still be fun for them.
I read a couple of books before starting our art group. I think Young at Art by Susan Striker is an amazing book on the developmental stages of the young artist with lots of good basic art activities. First Art by MaryAnn F. Kohl is the other book that I bought and used from the beginning. It's full of fun and easy art activities that are appropriate for one and two year olds. Many of the activities in the book will be enjoyed by older children as well, but if your group is going to be composed of older children you might want to start off with one of her other books such as Scribble Art, Preschool Art or one of her many other books. You can read my interviews with MaryAnn F. Kohl or Susan Striker if you want to get a sense for their approaches to art. I'm sure there are other great books out there as well that can help you get started. However, if you're the kind of person that will never start the group if you have to read a couple of books first, then just start it!!! You know how to put out some paints and paper! Just do it.
The important part is to make art activities and materials available to your child and (if you're starting an art group) to get together with other families on a regular basis who are also interested in making art materials and activities available to their children. You don't have to be an artist yourself and you don't have to have a Masters in Education. You do need some degree of enthusiasm for art, a willingness to deal with messes, a space (either yours or someone elses), and a few basic art supplies. You may also have to be willing to organize and plan. I send out an e-mail a few days before our Wednesday meeting saying what our art activity will be that week, anything group members might need to bring, whether or not I had to buy materials and, if so, what their contribution will be. Sometimes we talk about future art activity ideas during our meetings and sometimes I send out a list of possible future activities and ask for votes. You could also take turns planning and organizing the weekly art activity. I know a group that alternates hosting, as well as planning the activity, among members.
You can also read Small Hands: Big Art, the article I wrote for Mothering magazine, if you'd like to hear more about our art group. Just keep in mind that I wrote it over a year ago (even though it was published last July), so is reflective of the group when it was still fairly new.
Do you have any questions that I didn't address in this post? If you start an art group I hope you will keep in touch and let me know how it's going! I look forward to hearing from you! If you have an art group already, what's working (or not working) for you?