baby proof: kid art.

April 4, 2018

If you’re very lucky and you have a small child living in your midst, your home will soon be overrun by their masterpieces. Crinkled chef-d’oeuvres come home from school or playdates or are created right under your nose, sometimes twenty of them in as many minutes. Parents and caregivers bear witness to the mad genius of tiny artists unencumbered by expectation or concern about technique. Amorphous shapes in blues and oranges emerge on paper and then multiply at a rate that falls somewhere between impressive and truly alarming. Finding a way to honor the output and accommodate the extreme proliferation is a challenge faced by many parents. (No doubt the challenge evolves as the artists themselves continue to grow.)

As far as I see it, kid art, much like any art, faces three main fates: display, storage, or, mea culpa, destruction. Who knew that a central role played by parents of preschoolers is art curator?

I’ll surprise no one by saying that I try to take an unsentimental approach to this particular responsibility. I have friends with dedicated child art walls: a riot of color and shapes and textures papering kitchen walls. The displays are cheerful and bright and no doubt a point of pride for both child and parent. But as a parent constrained by both a particularly small gallery and by a particular aversion to a lot of visual clutter, I take a slightly more conservative approach to in-home art display (and storage).

A few specific strategies:

+ Encourage repurposing (and recycling): Without quashing strong feelings about any particular work, I try to cultivate a general attitude of delighted detachment around art projects. At the risk of sounding callous, not every single piece needs to be treated with reverence and housed in the permanent collection. In our house we paint on both sides of the paper, we cut up past paintings to make collages, or cards for Aunties, or to decorate boxes to send to cousins. And we recycle. A lot. Sometimes I run paintings by their creator before recycling them. Other times, I don’t. Often, the creator herself decides she’s ready to recycle something and she carts it to the recycle bin herself with a flourish.

+ Dedicate a display space: If it doesn’t work for you, this needn’t be an entire wall. We have a large wooden magnet that we keep on our steel apartment door. It creates the perfect spot for a rotating display. You might alternatively try hanging a length of twine and some clothespins at kid level and rotate the art on display in that space. Currently Faye has one large painting displayed on her bedroom wall, held up by washi tape. When she tires of it, or if she wants to hang something else gargantuan, we’ll swap it out.

+ Deaccession: Give your love away. Aunties receiving care packages of toddler art shouldn’t feel compelled to save every piece of art entrusted to them. The process of stuffing it into an envelope and sticking it in the mail is cathartic enough for the artist and the rate of production so high that it’s unlikely, especially among the three-to-five year-old set, that any particular work will be remembered, let alone looked for.

+ Create an archive: Saving some special or favorite or especially poignant pieces of kid art is something most parents will eventually find themselves wanting to do. Some folks choose to digitize artwork, others digitize and print photo books. My sister recently got my nephew a paper portfolio for saving his favorite originals. In our house, we’ve saved a few favorites in a tote hanging in our closet and we’ll likely upgrade to a portfolio come the new school year. 

NB. As with every other effort related to children, you will sometimes be foiled in your attempts to curate. There will be a collage of increasingly dry and crumbling flowers that you will not be able to convince your child to recycle (or remove from its precarious perch on her windowsill). It will desiccate slowly, every day requiring patience and relocation as it sheds its herbaceous decoration. Win some, lose lots (encourage Grammy to accept more than a few permanent loans).

Other things:

For those who have asked, the kids’ table and chairs that we have is no longer available from the manufacturer, but I recently came across this set (table & chairs), which looks solid and simple in case you’re looking for a place for your kid to make art.

For more on how we store art supplies, see: Baby Proof: Toy Storage

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  • Reply Anna April 4, 2018 at 10:37 am

    I used to make envelopes out of my son’s paintings. Now he is less interested in 2 dimensional art and prefers to horde all of the recycling and trash to make things with cardboard boxes and tape. His creativity is amazing, but the mess in his room is not. Still trying to figure out the best way to deal with that.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 4, 2018 at 10:44 am

      Ha! I feel you. Faye likes to hoard toilet paper rolls. Love the envelope idea!

      • Reply Madeleine April 5, 2018 at 1:01 pm

        I think the toilet paper rolls are a universal thrill. My daughter loves them! In the past we’ve hung on to two at a time and made them into little binoculars. Great rainy day project!

    • Reply MissEm April 4, 2018 at 2:46 pm

      My daughter’s teacher mentioned that 4 is a huge stage for collections and that this is really important. It helped me anyway!

      • Reply sasha April 4, 2018 at 3:50 pm

        Missem, as a preschool teacher, I agree!! I think it’s a way for their brains to learn about categorization and make sense of their little universe.

    • Reply Lucille April 4, 2018 at 2:53 pm

      Toilet rolls have come back into my life in a big way with a three year old grand-daughter. And once more the fridge is festooned with artistic output. I have not yet been offered any collections on permanent loan. I’m still the custodian of two large boxes of work from my own two adult sons. I really should have been more ruthless. Thanks for the tips!

  • Reply Jennifer April 4, 2018 at 11:38 am

    When my son was younger, our ugly rental refrigerator was entirely covered by the art he’d make at home or bring home from preschool. It was a very cheap (nearly free) way to deal with a problem we already had. He’s 13 now, but we actually still have a series of his abstract watercolor paintings framed in the kitchen with no plans to take them down. I think he was 2 when he painted them.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 4, 2018 at 1:04 pm

      So sweet.

  • Reply Cynthia April 4, 2018 at 12:02 pm

    My at-the-time 2 1/2 yo granddaughter went through a period of almost daily watercolor painting. These were big 9×12 sheets of paper and she filled them well. Her mother saved every one and soon had a shopping bag full of crinkled but lovely work. She offered them to me. First I flattened them over the course of several weeks under heavy weight and then cut them into 3×5 rectangles. This produced 150 modern art cards which I used for my Xmas mailing that year. I make my Xmas cards and this was BY FAR my best ever. Each one was uniquely delightful! I also have filled a large shopping bag with toilet paper rolls and keep it in the basement for the grandchildren to use in their taping masterpieces.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 4, 2018 at 12:59 pm

      I love that!

  • Reply NC April 4, 2018 at 12:32 pm

    Story of my life! I ended up buying a large sketch book with heavy weight papers for my two year old…it can withstand most (at times super thick applications of) paints and glues, and reduces hordes of paper and loose parts. It has a perforated line up top so that I can keep some pages once he’s finished with the whole book 🙂

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 4, 2018 at 12:59 pm

      Yes! We do the one sketch book thing at home, too! (But that doesn’t stem the influx from other places…;))

  • Reply Audrey April 4, 2018 at 1:49 pm

    We have two wooden wine crate boxes with lids (one for each kid, ages 7 and 5), and I put most of their artwork that they bring home in the boxes. Then about once a year (before the school year), we will go through the boxes and I let them choose what they want to recycle in order to make room for the next year’s worth of projects. They love going through and revisiting their projects from when they were younger, and also seem to have no problem parting with pieces that at one point they deemed worthy of keeping. I think they get excited about making room for the new artwork that they will make in the upcoming year as well.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 4, 2018 at 1:52 pm

      Love that idea. Filing away!

    • Reply Susana C. Galli April 4, 2018 at 2:58 pm

      We do that too and have I have found that they love go revisit and choose what to keep!The only difference is that we got throw it when the box is full, then they choose what to keep and put it in their treasure boxes.

  • Reply delphine April 4, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Great post (every parent will relate !) and beautifully written, as always !
    I’ll just say I’m glad our 6-year-old has finally agreed to yield part of his prolific production to our fire pit kindling stash !!
    PS : chef-d’oeuvres 😉

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 4, 2018 at 2:51 pm

      ha! so great. (and thanks! i *always* do that!)

  • Reply MissEm April 4, 2018 at 2:51 pm

    My daughters insist on covering their walls with their artwork – it makes me crazy but they are so proud to show guests their “gallery” so I try to swallow my minimalist panic. My youngest likes to hoard everything – bits of trash, drawings, trinkets from who knows where – under her bed, so I’m buying her a vintage wicker picnic basket to keep tucked under there – when it’s full she can decide what she will keep to make room for more. I do keep some artwork in a binder portfolio by year and like to see how their art changes as they grow.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 4, 2018 at 2:57 pm

      Ha, totally. I’m bracing myself 😉

      • Reply MissEm April 4, 2018 at 9:49 pm

        Ha, she (cringe) kept her old toothbrush. And candy wrappers from Easter. And a plastic bag. I’m trying to think of it as charming?

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 5, 2018 at 7:06 am

          A regular magpie!

  • Reply Maryann April 4, 2018 at 3:20 pm

    Love this post – I can totally relate. We do the paper portfolio storage thing. We’ve also recycled lots into cards, wrapping paper, kindling, worm bin carbon…I actually was busted a few days ago trying to start a fire in our woodstove with someone’s art. I thought it was past it’s prime, but apparently not. Win some, lose lots!

  • Reply sasha April 4, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    I was so sentimental as a mom, every last thing was super precious, and since we live in a small house, and I was often overwhelmed by life, I ended up with bins of *art* (and a whole lot of other stuff too), in our crawl space and garage. Two years ago I Marie Kondo-ed, and Lord have mercy, I was my own victim. I ended up making a fire in our back yard fire pit and burning a mountain of children’s art (and birthday and holiday cards, letters, homeschool work, programs, you name it). It wasn’t curated or organized, half the time I didn’t even name and date, I just couldn’t throw it at the time. Lesson learned. Very late. It felt wonderful letting it go, and I saved one tiny box. I think I thought we’d all sit around reminiscing someday, but really it was just a giant dusty mess. I feel so good I have saved my children from going through it all when we are gone. I started picturing what that would look like and was embarrassed, at my mess, at my inability to let things go, at the work I was just passing on. I’ve since gone through 26 years of photo albums and pulled all the bad photos and re-albumed the keepers.

    If you think you might be like me, get Marie Kondo-ing ASAP. It’s so freeing and life changing. And when in doubt, toss it out (into the recycling).

  • Reply Bailey April 4, 2018 at 4:27 pm

    I used to be a preschool teacher, and one of my favorite tricks for dealing with an overwhelming amount of kid drawings was this: get a small dry erase “lap board” (basically just a small dry erase board, like $5-10 ), some dry erase markers, and let your kid go at it. So many kids are “process-oriented” as opposed to “product-oriented” when it comes to art–they really just wanna make and draw and experiment, and are generally quite happy to erase their drawings afterwards! It also taught them to be intentional with their resources–if they had an idea for a drawing that they wanted to keep or give to someone, they could come get a piece of paper. Otherwise, they drew on whiteboards and embraced impermanence 🙂

    • Reply MissEm April 4, 2018 at 9:51 pm

      That’s kind of brilliant.

  • Reply Debra April 4, 2018 at 4:46 pm

    Buy a Buddha Board. They paint with water and watch it evaporate .

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 4, 2018 at 4:59 pm

      Ooh! Like this one? Fascinating.

  • Reply Karen April 4, 2018 at 5:09 pm

    These suggestions are great…thanks, Erin! We have a few large bulldog clips hanging up; new “pieces” go on the top, older favorites are tucked beneath. Also, there are Etsy shops that can make pendants out of children’s drawings…my older daughter’s first self portrait around my neck is pure joy.

  • Reply Audrey April 4, 2018 at 5:15 pm

    I noticed your note at the bottom about table and chairs. I highly recommend this set for anyone looking 🙂

  • Reply Melissa April 4, 2018 at 6:17 pm

    Have you found a way of recycling pained paper?! I run an after school art program in manhattan and the recycling litature provided to us by the city stated that painted or previously wet paper is not recyclable. It has been making me crazy for the years!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 5, 2018 at 7:07 am

      Oh! Haven’t encountered that! Have to investigate!

  • Reply MissEm April 4, 2018 at 9:52 pm

    I did tuck a favorite little drawing into my clear iphone case with one of her many “I love you, Mama” notes – I love that my little one’s drawing is my phone decor.

  • Reply Allison April 5, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    Great post! I saw that bird mobile in Denmark, but cannot recall who makes it. Where is it from?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 6, 2018 at 6:59 am

      It’s made by Haptic Lab! We got ours from Acorn Toy Shop here in Brooklyn!

  • Reply Lee April 5, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    As the oldest cousin of 4 girls (I’ve often been viewed as an aunt), I have always loved receiving art as a gift! The youngest is now 7 and every time I get a new piece of art (for my birthday or just because), I swap it out on the fridge (the old piece goes in recycling). It’s the best and my littlest cousin loves knowing that I have a “note” from her on my fridge that I look at every day! : )

  • Reply Bridget April 6, 2018 at 9:48 am

    We used to write messages in sharpie on top of dried watercolor or thicker coloring book pages, then cut up the pieces to make a puzzle, put them in an envelope, and send them to cousins or penpals. It was a fun way to send a secret message!

  • Reply Jocelyn April 6, 2018 at 4:16 pm

    As a librarian, I loved your usage of the word deaccession 🙂 I’m always impressed by the thoughtful content on your blog.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 6, 2018 at 4:23 pm

      Thanks, Jocelyn!

  • Reply Michela April 8, 2018 at 11:31 am

    Hi, totally agree, even if you don’t leave in a tiny place kids arr can be overwhelming. I recycle on a daily basis but if the piece looks worth it or shows a milestone, first human figure etc, I take a picture and load it in this app. Artkive. It is sweet to look back at the pictures.

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