baby proof: kids’ art supplies.

September 3, 2019
kids art supplies | reading my tea leaves

As a kid, I kept my most special art supplies in an old wine box, with a hinged top and a latch that always went askew. Watercolors and modeling wax and chalky pastels all fit more or less neatly into the box and when I was hankering for creative expression, I opened the lid and found what I needed. But there was also a kitchen pantry with a whole wall of shelves more or less devoted to art supplies: yarns and looms, stencils, stickers, tins of markers and crayons, kits for paper making, rows of coloring books, boxes full of beads, glue guns and glue sticks, and stacks of construction paper. Thirty years later, many of those supplies are still at my mom and dad’s.

I’ve tried to replicate a similar ease of access and artistic encouragement for my kids, repackaged a bit for fitting neatly into a far smaller space, with nary a pantry in sight.

Earlier this summer we rescued an old school desk from the sidewalk in our neighborhood. We were excited about the slim profile and side-by-side seating arrangement, and most especially for the storage. We peeled off layers of contact paper and remains of stickers, scrubbed it down with wire brush, gave it a coat of direct-to-metal primer, and painted the desk and two chairs in a few coats of Farrow & Ball Calamine paint in their Modern Eggshell finish. The desk transformed from something old and rusty into something shiny and fresh. I painted the insides of the desk with leftover F&B Plummet paint from the kids’ dresser project.

kids art supplies | reading my tea leaves

The desk gives us the space to store paper, coloring books, and notebooks alongside all of their supplies. We keep only a small selection of basic art supplies that both kids can manage without too much adult supervision or hovering. For us, that’s watercolors, crayons, colored pencils, markers, and most recently a set of gel pens given to an utterly jubilant Faye. We have an assortment of rubber stamps and a collection of beads. We always have a tub of play dough, which we keep along with an assortment of child-sized tools in the kitchen.

kids art supplies | reading my tea leaves

We took a cue from one of Faye’s teachers and use two small sheet trays to help the kids wrangle supplies and keep their work stations neat (and separate).

kids art supplies | reading my tea leaves

To save on space, we store pens, pencils, crayons, and markers in assorted pouches, but we also keep an empty jam jar at the ready for kids to plop their supplies into while they’re working on a project.

A few specific supplies:

Notebooks: We’ve experimented with a lot of different canvases for our kids, but the system that works best for us so far (and right this minute) is spiral notebooks. I like to buy Muji recycled paper notebooks because they’re inexpensive but the paper quality is nice. Something about the fact that they’re bound means that my kids are (slightly) less likely to wantonly strike a colorful dash on each available sheet and declare them used.

kids art supplies | reading my tea leaves

Watercolor paper: We try always to have a pad of watercolor paper. It’s not inexpensive to buy in local art supply shops, but nothing compares to it when you’re painting with watercolors and the kids generally honor the specialness of the thick sheets. We’ve had a few different watercolor sets, but our favorite has been this Fredericks and Mae set shown above.

kids art supplies | reading my tea leaves

Colored Pencils: We’ve found that all colored pencils are not created equal and many kid-specific brands bend under pressure and break easily. We really love this set of vibrant and sturdy recycled colored pencils.

Crayons: As have most families with young children, we’ve experienced lots of different crayons. 100-percent beeswax crayons sound and smell lovely but they can be tricky (and sticky) to use. Classic Crayola Crayons have been given to us on a number of occasions and while they snap fairly easily in little hands, they’re admittedly nice to color with and affordable to buy new. (I took a tip from my instagram pal, @myndid, and soaked ours briefly in a bowl of warm water to easily remove the paper labels.) Stockmar Crayons are by far the sturdiest crayons we’ve owned—and the most expensive—and they don’t have quite the same easy glide over the paper that Crayolas do, but they’re very long-lasting. Most special of all, is the not-quite-a-crayon, not-quite-a-pastel, Caran D’Ache Wax Pastels. I found them in a local art store after writing this piece and I couldn’t resist. They’re good. Not cheap, but very good. (The very cheapest freebie crayons given to kids in places like airplanes and restaurants are just truly terrible and should probably never be made.)

Pens and markers: I have a fraught relationship with pens and markers because they generally not recyclable and they’re often not washable, so you get two different kinds of environmental hazard. They’re also often a bit too delicate for the not-so-gentle toddler hand. We’ve had classic Crayola Washable Markers which are certainly kid-friendly and do indeed wash out, though the current set we have have caps that are hard for Silas to close all the way, so we’ve had more accidental dry-ups than before. I’m not sure I’d recommend a purchase. Refillable markers do exist, but they’re expensive and I’ve mostly found refillable dry erase varieties. What are you guys using?

kids art supplies | reading my tea leaves

Inside this old tackle/tool box, which I painted white, we keep other assorted art supplies like a pencil sharpener, erasers, scissors, origami paper, dice, a fuzzy, sparkly pom-pom, assorted instax mini photos, used carousel tickets, and other small treasures that must not, under any circumstances, be lost or moved.

What are we missing?

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  • Reply Kim R. September 3, 2019 at 12:56 pm

    This is a timely post for us because my daughter has been insistent on painting every day for a couple of weeks. I’m apparently lazy because getting down the paints and putting them into jars and washing all the brushes afterward was too much for me. I headed to the art supply store a few days ago and bought a simple Crayola watercolor set for her and it is SO much easier. As you said though, what to do about paper? She was using up some thicker than normal drawing paper but I found our big stack of colored construction paper and she’s been loving seeing how the watercolors look on the different colors. The Kid Made Modern brand they sell at Target has cheap pads of thicker white paper that would be great for watercolors.

    I also bought some cray-pas pastels. She pushes SO hard on them but the colors are so vibrant, she just loves it. We’ll see how long they last. I’ll have to see if I can find the wax pastels.

    We use an ikea art box to keep supplies. It’s plain wood and easy to tote. Did you happen to mention where you got those pouches in a different post?

    Thank you for the great ideas as always!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE September 3, 2019 at 1:07 pm

      I have this old post on pouches which might be helpful! The three canvas pouches in the back I got a local art supply shop, very inexpensively! I’d look to see what you might find there! The red one came from local shop, Acorn Toy Shop!

    • Reply Kat September 3, 2019 at 3:42 pm

      For thicker paper, I’m also a fan of scavenging my local thrift shops for partly used packets of resume-weight paper. Goodwill always seems to have some (which I guess makes sense… even back when printed resumes were more of a thing has anyone in history ever actually needed to use up a full package of resume paper??), and while it’s not as fancy as the good stuff, it’s usually only a couple of bucks for a big stack, holds up to watercolors pretty well, and is really perfect for toddler art adventures.

      • Reply Kim R. September 3, 2019 at 6:07 pm

        Ohh that’s a great tip. Thanks!

      • Reply steph September 11, 2019 at 12:12 pm

        yes! i’ve collected thick resume paper people were getting rid of and it’s perfect for watercolors. my reuse store also has an array of amazing supplies. i found a brand new sustainably made notebook which i turned into a planner for my mom – our yearly gift tradition personalized, sustainable and so much more affordable than what i used to get! more here:
        also, in terms of markers – if you do already have them and they dry out, i’ve made watercolors by sticking them in a little bit of water. not exactly recycling but extending the life and making free supplies 🙂
        ps. i looooove this post. i will never tire of art/school supplies and that pale pink is just wonderful!

  • Reply Tabitha September 3, 2019 at 12:56 pm

    This is a great post. I love sun print paper, it helps us take a closer look at plants.

  • Reply Alex September 3, 2019 at 1:02 pm

    What a timely post. I’m planning this week to [attempt to] wrangle art supplies for our children. I have particularly enthusiastic artist and keep things readily at hand. We’re working to teach responsibility and tidiness in the work area though. I love your idea of the trays; we tend to spread out everywhere across our table. In answer to your question, I simply don’t buy markers. My kids love them at friends’ houses but so far they know we don’t keep them on hand. My 7 year-old son has been asking for pastels. I’ll look into your recommendations!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE September 3, 2019 at 1:09 pm

      Trays help! And yes! I’ve never bought markers (or pens) for my kids either, but we’ve been given two different sets as gifts!

  • Reply Kirsten September 3, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    I somehow acquired a used set of Caran D’Ache water soluble pastels when I was about 7 years old. I TREASURED those things. I would only use them for the most special-est of drawings. I think I still had them when I when I went to college because I was so reverent of them – they really are the best.

    At our house our art supplies are mostly limited to crayons at the moment, which we generally just get used at our local thrift store. I melted the nubs in a mini muffin tin – not great for detailed drawing but they are really pretty and also now double as pretend cookies and stacking blocks. My daughter is generally only interested in whatever pen I happen to be using though, so we haven’t really had to worry about a huge pile of art supplies yet. goddess help me when she discovers glitter gel pens though.

    • Reply Emily September 4, 2019 at 9:40 am

      The carandache water color pastels also make the best face paints! We used them when we were kids and I’m pretty sure we had the same exact set for decades.

      • Reply Nicole September 5, 2019 at 12:29 am

        We love the Lyra Ferby colored pencils—they lay down color so nicely, and they last longer than other brands. I even love the triangular shape, and the kids prefer them to crayons! There’s always a few rolls of wasabi tape floating around as well.

        • Reply Nicole September 5, 2019 at 12:30 am

          Wasabi?? Silly autocorrect…washi, of course!

  • Reply Sid September 3, 2019 at 1:42 pm

    I love the sweet side-by-side school desk. I personally can heartily endorse the metal craft trays – we also use them to keep slime experiments and under-construction Lego sets contained. In terms of art supplies, my kids have loved using solid tempura paint sticks (Kwik Stix etc) but I’m not sure if those can be recycled in most places. Erasable pencil crayons have been a great find to help reduce paper waste by tiny art perfectionists.

  • Reply Lauren September 3, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    I love all of these ideas. We usually keep some washi tape around as well. It’s a great stocking stuffer! I also noticed that my daughter loved rummaging in my desk for index cards and post-its to make tiny notes and artworks, so sometimes I leave out those things or a stack of small scrap papers – to mix it up.

  • Reply Elizabeth September 3, 2019 at 2:03 pm

    I love this so much! Art supplies + kids are just so much fun! We have mostly the same sort as you! I love the idea of labeling the pouches with stamps/ink as I love using pouches, but never remember what is inside 🙂 I would highly recommend Stockmar modeling beeswax and or modeling clay. So much fun and especially with beeswax doesn’t really get messy into clothes/etc. My daughter also loves having a little jar (mini mason) for glue along with a mini paintbrush. Somehow this is more fun (and much less messy usually) than using a big container of glue to pour. We like to glue all the things lately. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply M. September 3, 2019 at 2:06 pm

    I’m done buying markers as well (my kid is almost 5). I don’t like the waste and I don’t like that they can’t mix or blend the colors very well, unlike crayons, pastels, watercolors, colored pencils, etc. They’re just not that great of an art supply. When my kid gets some as a gift she’s over the moon, and that keeps them special and rare.

  • Reply Tamara September 3, 2019 at 2:30 pm

    I also really love Caran d’ache water soluble crayons because you have watercolors and crayons all in one! When my kids were little, I often had a tin of those and a couple small brushes and tiny notebooks in my bag for keeping them busy at restaurants. So much better than those silly freebie crayons.

  • Reply Jessica September 3, 2019 at 3:00 pm

    Have you tried the stabilo woody 3 in 1 pencils? Chunky and right for toddlers hands, vibrant colors (though I’d recommend removing the black from the pack as that color does get everywhere!)

    The sheet tray is a genius idea. My children are like Pig-Pen with art supplies, and I’m wondering if that would help some. Thanks!

    • Reply Stephanie September 3, 2019 at 5:37 pm

      I want to get those, too. They’re supposed to be so good.

  • Reply Jay September 3, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    Crayola has a program, ColorCycle, to recycle markers. You can also send all kinds of art supplies for recycling to TerraCycle.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE September 3, 2019 at 5:03 pm

      Yes—have read mixed reviews about the Crayola program and how much is really being recycled! Need to investigate more!

      • Reply Jess September 5, 2019 at 6:47 am

        How did you label the canvas bags? Love how those look!

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE September 5, 2019 at 2:57 pm

          Rubber stamps!

      • Reply Lauren September 13, 2019 at 3:38 pm

        Ooo please post when you do! I just justified a marker purchase “because Crayola has a recycle program”, but will be putting in my TerraCycle box if it’s not reliable (though that zero-waste box space is sooo scarce and valuable, I’d much rather send to Crayola when our current batch runs dry!) My other thought of a half-way substitute for markers is the water-color pencils. You can dip the tip in water and they make beautiful paint without the mess of paint (my three year old has thoroughly tested them in our all white room, and it survived!)

  • Reply Emily September 3, 2019 at 3:55 pm

    I’m not sure everyone would consider this to be in the “art supply” category, but my 4-year-old loves doing the occasional stitching as shown on this website:
    I happened to already have the shelf liner and yarn and chunky needles and embroidery hoop, so I didn’t need to buy anything for this project. I’m sure there are other loose weave fabrics that would work well for a beginning stitcher, too!

  • Reply Rebecca September 3, 2019 at 4:57 pm

    We just spent an afternoon testing markers and setting aside the dried out ones to make ink. We grouped them by color and put them in tiny jars of water and left them in a windowsill to leech their color into the water. A few days later we’d created some nice homemade drawing ink.

    • Reply C September 10, 2019 at 1:52 am

      As with the dyes used in clothing, I’ve been wondering lately about crayons, watercolors, markers etc. I’ve not had a minute yet to delve deeply into researching but I fear the worst! I think it may be possible that even the best of the best are made of toxic dyes…? I’ll look soon but if someone has done the research, please share.

  • Reply Elizabeth September 3, 2019 at 5:05 pm

    My daughter is now 20 – but we had a similar set-up in our tiny apartment – a book shelf of supplies such as different types of paper, with a shelf devoted to supervised crafting supplies and then she had a large (ugly) tackle box filled with her own set of supplies. In there were brads – which are great for sticking things together and are re-usable – and we were also able to find bags of odds and ends of scrapbooking paper at our Michael’s. They were all sorts of colors and sizes and she loved creating things with that heavier weight paper. Also pipe cleaners were used to make sculpture, as well as stringing beads. We used to have such a lot of fun.

  • Reply joana September 3, 2019 at 5:14 pm

    My daughters public school participates in a marker recycling program run by Crayola Markers. They take old markers and repurpose them into clean fuel and other building materials. I am not sure if this program is available in all states, but it may be worth looking into your local public school to see if they have a donation box. Personally, my kiddos prefer pastels, watercolor and pencils for at home projects, however marker work happens a ton in the classroom and I am grateful that our school is attempting to be environmentally responsible.

  • Reply Amélie Mancini September 3, 2019 at 6:16 pm

    We just discovered Wikki Stix and it’s been the perfect craft for my 3 year old to take on trips this summer. They’re so cool! Basically just string coated with food-grade wax that can be used to make shapes or build little things. Great alternative to pipe cleaners and super fun to play with.
    And I love the tool box as art supplies organizer! Might have to steal that idea.

  • Reply Darcy September 3, 2019 at 7:35 pm

    Love this!! I corral our fairly extensive and space consuming collection of tempura paints and brushes in those “old” wood clementine boxes. Never see anything other than cardboard now though. May I ask what set of lettering tools/ stamps you used for the pouches?

  • Reply MissEm September 3, 2019 at 8:20 pm

    I love seeing how you wrangle these things AND honor your kids’ treasures and creative needs. I’m in the midst of trying to figure out how to store all the treasures and random erasers and excellent art supplies and gifted sticker books…this is helpful. I have a soon-to-be 9 year old and feel the increased need for a tiny workspace of her own, somehow. I keep thinking of designing a beautiful, portable desk for her, for our smallish space. As for markers…mostly we avoid them. Once my kids hit 5+ I ordered some tombow watercolour markers that we could all share (I dabble in art) which felt a little more justifiable. It’s hard to make kids miss out on *every* part of the plastic deluge that is modern North American childhood!

  • Reply Audrey September 3, 2019 at 10:39 pm

    We bought a set of Pentel markers for our kids and the quality is sooo much better than your basic crayons type markers and they don’t dry out very easily if a child forgets to put the top on. I would recommend if your kids are ready for something nicer.

  • Reply Melkorka September 3, 2019 at 11:21 pm

    if you want a way to save nubs of crayons the “CrayOn” silicon molds are a fun craft to do with kiddos where you can make rainbow / swirly sturdy crayons out of old crayon bits. The free crayons do not melt well and will not work – but I have had great results with regular crayons and they are our go to “travel” crayons as they are very sturdy.

    Love these thoughtful and helpful posts – the canvas pouches for the bits and bobs are genius!

  • Reply Joana September 4, 2019 at 4:16 am

    This was amazing to read once again, I enjoy reading your blog while I’m having my morning coffee, you are company to me, have a great, healthy life.

  • Reply Marie September 4, 2019 at 9:00 am

    Caran d’ache !! We’re in love. Not only with the pastels (which she also uses to make scratch drawings: first put color pastels all over the sheet, then cover it all with black, then scratch the black and get a magic rainbow colored drawing) but also with their color pencils ! They also adjusted to environmental friendly productions. I grew up with caran d’ache and am hooked, though.
    Small envelops/thrift store finds are a big hit at our art supplies desk. Plus stamps we collect from real mail (peeled off with the help of water) to re-use with the little envelops.

    • Reply Mo November 11, 2019 at 5:11 am

      I remember running out of black block crayon due to scratch drawings when I was a child, my mum, was happy to supply more!

  • Reply Rita September 4, 2019 at 9:46 am

    Am I the only one who wanted a picture of the inside of the tool box ?

    • Reply Mihela September 5, 2019 at 1:42 pm


  • Reply Emily September 4, 2019 at 3:00 pm

    I recommend reaching out to friends who work in offices: I’m a professor and I bring home stacks of scratch paper from our office recycle bin. The kiddos love it because it looks kinda important (! adult work on the backside!) and sometimes comes in pastel colors recycling is important but reusing first is even better!

    Also we love the Sakura Koi travel set of watercolors and the refillable water brushes, too! Made of plastic but very durable: we’ve been using the same set for over four years!

  • Reply Margie September 4, 2019 at 4:05 pm

    Hole punches are a staple in our house, as are popsicle sticks. With all the weaving art you do, I’m surprised I haven’t seen friendship bracelets make a post yet!

  • Reply Barbara September 4, 2019 at 5:17 pm

    Our school recycles every kind of marker we use – even whiteboard markers through Crayola’s recycling program.
    It might not make sense for individual families to do, but perhaps your preschool could set up a similar program and individual families could participate as well?

  • Reply MW September 5, 2019 at 2:07 am

    We picked up a little drawstring cotton sack of Crayon Rocks at Eco Carmel, an awesome green general store on California’s central coast, while on vacation. They are very smooth and my three kids treasure them- they were developed by a special ed teacher looking to help children develop fine motor skills- they’d make a great gift. I appreciate the thoughtfulness behind their creation and production methods and how special the packaging feels- I’m already preparing to referee the argument over who gets the little sack to hold found trinkets once the crayons are used up!

  • Reply Ashley September 7, 2019 at 10:05 pm

    For markers, also Caran D’Ache:

    The are vibrant, washable, and have been accidentally been left uncapped more than once overnight without drying out. (And the caps are easy for little fingers to pop off.)

  • Reply Amanda Krieger September 14, 2019 at 10:49 pm

    what’s the thinking behind removing crayon wrappers? just so they look pretty in their bin?
    simply curious! 🙂

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE September 15, 2019 at 8:40 am

      my kids love to use the whole crayon, especially for rubbings, etc! I also find it helps them to continue using the crayon for longer! they don’t get stymied by the wrapper once they’ve reached it!

  • Reply Mo November 11, 2019 at 3:56 am

    I can wouch for the longevity of Stockmar crayons, with some additions due to new colours, lost crayons and usage I still have and use the two sets (block and stick) I received as a child, about 35 years ago.

  • Reply Jessica Ji December 4, 2019 at 3:10 pm

    Would you be able to share a link to the stamp set you used to label the canvas pouches? Thanks!!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE December 4, 2019 at 4:35 pm

      Bought this a few years ago at a tiny stamp store in Manhattan. I’ll try to do a search for something similar, but I don’t have one handy right this minute!

  • Reply liz January 13, 2020 at 10:08 am

    Another question on art supplies – do you find watercolour blocks preferable to tubes? I’m thinking about putting a basic art set together for my daughter’s 4th birthday, and wondering whether to get a small set with blocks, with the possibility that the colours get muddied up, or go with tubes and just squeeze out a little as needed.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 13, 2020 at 11:39 am

      Haven’t used tubes with kids, so can’t speak from experience!


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