Sensory Exploration with Paint in the Twos

By Mary Munday, Head Teacher 

We’re painting with our hands! –Avni 

You have to use your fingers to move the paint around. –Beckett 

I’m finger painting, but my elbows are getting paint, too! –Brin 

Children in the MWF AM Twos classroom take an interest in painting every year, but this past year their interest was especially high—particularly when they could paint with their fingers. 

Beginning in the fall, teachers set up painting activities indoors and outdoors. Every day, children engaged in table activities with small brushes, large brushes, rollers and various paint mediums. They worked at easels both indoors and outdoors, using colors chosen to represent hues seen in the environment. Their interest in painting was apparent from the abundance of artwork waiting to go home at the end of each day. 

The teaching team noticed the painters occasionally painted their own hands with the brushes, exploring paint on a sensory level, so we decided it was time to explore finger painting. We tried this in the beginning of the year on a large circular table. Teachers placed primary colors directly on the table for the children to explore. As only a few came to try the activity, we quickly realized that although the table was great for large body movement, due to the darker wood, the colors were not very vibrant or visually engaging. 

We revisited this painting experience in the winter with a new set-up. We brought in two light wood rectangular tables from outside to create a long banquet-style table and squirted lines of fingerpaint on the table in two primary colors. A teacher sat nearby letting the children know that they could paint with their fingers. The first participant asked for a paintbrush. A teacher gave him a few choices of brushes and he picked a small brush about the size of his finger with a medium-length handle. He placed the brush on the table and moved it around in the paint slowly. Another child approached the paint and quickly put her hands in the medium and began swirling the paint, mixing yellow and blue together. “Look! I made green!” The child holding the brush then let the teacher know he was done using it. He observed for a few more minutes and then carefully placed one finger into the paint and swirled it around. Soon, he had both hands in the paint swirling side by side and all across the long table stating “I made green, too!” More children approached the table. Some chose to observe and some jumped right into the activity, mixing colors and using the large table space to explore whole body movements while spreading the paint. 

The teachers were eager to see where this would go. Would the same children continue to return? Would children who observed a few times eventually participate? We continued this activity for many weeks. Week one, we offered the sensory exploration right on the table. We continued this into week two and noticed more children became interested in the activity. The following week, we covered the table with foil to create a different experience for the painters: The feel was still smooth, but the surface was mirror-like and cooler to the touch. Following this, we added bubble wrap on one length of the table and foil on the other side. This encouraged language development as the children discovered the bubble wrap was “bumpy” and the foil was “smooth.” Children painting on the bubble wrap tended to stay in one section of the table, poking the bubbles. An occasional pop was met with laughter as they realized the bubbles could potentially pop. Children moved in larger and longer movements across the foil as they explored the smooth, cool, shiny material. At the end of the final week, teachers offered paper so the children could make prints of their designs and see how the bubbles and the lines through foil looked on paper. “I made circles!” “I made mommy!” “I made pink!” “I made purple!” 

The process of finger painting soothes young children. The pleasant feeling of painting with hands and exploring different textures and mark-making skills is fun, creative, and helps to develop both physical and social skills. Some children dove right into the activity while others observed first. Having the material available over the course of many weeks gave children the gift of time to explore the material in different ways and at a deeper level. 

Finger painting encourages fine motor development and eye-hand coordination. The set-up of our project, on a very large table, encouraged full body movements, which used skills of balance and large muscle control while developing spatial awareness. As children revisited this activity, many conversations ensued regarding color mixing, shapes, lines and textures. Through this tactile experience, children conveyed ideas, expressed emotions, used their senses, explored color, explored process and outcomes and most of all, had a pleasing experience.