Beauty on a Budget: Choosing Art Materials

Charcoal, in a metal container.

I am so happy to be back to blogging after an unexpected hiatus last week- the result of total exhaustion. Anyone relate?

In my last post, I talked about art materials and why I feel it’s important to offer high quality tools for children to work with. This brought up an underlying ethical consideration in my practice: it’s my responsibility as an ECE to create spaces where “all children can experience a sense of belonging and inclusion,” (Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, p.7). If I offer art materials that many families can’t afford, is that really inclusive practice? Could expensive art materials be considered unethical? This deserves some reflection.

I know of several private schools where children are given the highest quality art materials to work with, many of these schools having their own art studios and art teachers. These studios are enviable, but they are not a reality for all children. In Reggio Emilia’s municipal early learning centres, where their art studios (or ateliers) are at the heart of their schools, this has been done in a more accessible way- with the added bonus of using repurposed materials that were destined to be trash. I’m happy to see Ontario’s early years curriculum heavily influenced by the educational projects of Reggio Emilia, with regulated play-based learning that is rich with child-led art experiences in most centres. But art and art training should not be elitist for our youngest citizens, and even centres running on minimal funding can facilitate children’s engagement with authentic materials.

We use the term universal design for learning (UDL) to describe ways we can reach all learners from the beginning, rather than looking at a program or curriculum and adapting it to fit individuals with different needs. This is relevant when I think of belonging and inclusion from a financial perspective, and specifically to this conversation about art materials. The majority of early learning programs run on a limited budget. Compare this to a privately funded program and there may be drastically different aesthetics based on what they can afford. We should be looking at how to bridge this gap. In Reggio terms we talk of the hundred languages, an idea presented in this poem from Loris Malaguzzi (translated by Lella Gandini):

Children’s interactions with materials builds literacy. The child who is exposed to clay and wire will have a different aesthetic vocabulary than the child who is only exposed to playdough and pipecleaners. I don’t mean to present the idea of materials in a hierarchy, but rather draw attention to the fact that the materials children use hold knowledge. Educators should consider how the materials offered to children can help them realize their own capabilities and potentials in an equitable manner. Whether I splurge on expensive paper or a set of pens, or I visit three different dollar stores to find what I need, I make it work. Because I value aesthetic knowledge and prioritize accessibility, I ask myself ‘how can I create art experiences that emphasize beauty for all learners while sticking to a tight budget?‘ It’s not always easy, but it should be something educators keep in mind.

This is the tip of the iceberg in a much deeper ocean, and my point here is to shed light on what’s below the surface. If I advocate for quality and authentic art materials, I also have to consider if that’s financially reasonable. In an effort to show how this might look in practice, I offer some tips on sourcing materials and curating a beautiful art space. I also suggest a few budget-friendly art activities, followed by a list of some of my favourite art materials to use with children. ✨

Tips for curating a beautiful art space

  • Include a variety of materials and textures. It is easy to go with plastic because it can tolerate the intensity of children’s exploration, but there are more dynamic materials. For example, glass teaches children to be careful, and they will learn through experience how it needs to be handled. Metals teach children about weight, they make a different sound and often feel cold to touch. Offer some diversity.
  • Thrift! There are hidden treasures buried in many a second-hand store or yard sale, and they really don’t make things like they used to. An old dessert tray, chunky costume jewelry, or all that green and orange coloured glass from the 1970s can really amp up you art space.
  • Divert waste from your garbage or recycling and turn it into art! “Honey, are you keeping this for some reason?” A phrase often uttered to me by my partner, after finding washed out styrofoam trays (for print-making), tin cans, uniquely-shaped bottles or collections of lids and corks. It will save you money and it’s good for mama Earth. Pluuuuuus, you teach resourcefulness and stewardship while challenging children to see objects in more than one way. Win-win-win-win-win!
  • Only put out what you feel comfortable with children accessing on their own. For example, if your child isn’t familiar with permanent markers or acrylic paint, these should be kept out of reach and introduced when you are ready to take that on. Removing barriers means thinking about children’s independent access to the art space.
  • Choose materials that you find beautiful. Sharing your own vision of beauty is a lesson in itself.
  • Changing containers is one of the quickest ways to present materials in an aesthetically pleasing way. As somewhat of a bag/container lady, I love to keep pretty jars, coloured glass, baskets, bags, boxes…and they always come in handy when it comes to displaying materials.

Colour-coding materials

I remember treasuring the little tubes of watercolour or acrylic paints given to me by my aunts or relatives. Countless birthday gifts included fancy paints or fine watercolour paper pads (something I really value now). While those memories are special, today I find satisfaction in taking what is accessible and making it as special as it can be. Inexpensive paints can easily be displayed in a manner that is organized and free from visual clutter. One of the easiest ways to do this is by changing containers. I love these little glass jars (sold in a pack of 3 at Dollarama, in the glassware section) because they are small, sturdy and have a nice seal that keeps paints fresh. Encouraging literacy by including a label is wonderful, and this can be done tastefully by using a small piece of tape to make your own labels (whether it be colour sample, braille or standard alphabet).

Similarly, markers and crayons can be beautifully displayed by organizing them by colour or shade. From a practical perspective, this can be easier said than done. Children will learn to discern colours from one another, and over time they will come to learn where each one belongs. If a child finishes their independent cleanup and the colours are mixed-up, no worries! Give them specific praise for cleaning up all the markers and crayons they used. You might leave it at that (and then organize them on your own later, depending on their age), or it could become a sorting activity for children who have already mastered those skills. There are many ways that organizing colours this way can be used as a teachable moment- from providing consistency and predictability, to piquing curiosity about rainbows and why the colours always appear in the same order, or introducing colour theory at early age.

Here are 3 demonstrations of how to create authentic art experiences using recycled and inexpensive materials.


This is an art setup using only dollar store materials and a recycled plastic lid. I love the reflective tray for it’s weight and shimmer. Materials used: Q-tips, a metal paintbrush, paint, and cardstock. I love printmaking, and using a plastic lid from the recycling bin to print with was super easy. With a paintbrush, apply paint to the side of the lid that can sit flush to your painting surface. Then use a Q-tip to wipe some of the paint off, and then press it onto your paper. Voila! You have a simple mono print.

Tinfoil Painting & Printmaking

Another variation on printmaking, this one is easy to execute. Materials: tinfoil, paint, paper, paintbrushes. First, I painted an image onto tinfoil. This is a wonderful activity on its own- explore both sides of the tinfoil for different effects! Or, to make it a print…quickly (while the paint is still wet) press a blank piece of paper onto the completed tinfoil work and lift the print carefully. Children are often excited by this step. It can also be extended into a mixed media piece by offering a marker or Sharpie, once the paint has dried.

Mixed Media Beading & Weaving

Because I have access to a woodworking shop, this bead-base was pretty easily to whip up. That said, if you don’t have a piece of wood, a drill and a drill press…you could also use a heavy rock for your base (or get creative with other alternatives!). Materials: wood off-cut/log, beading wire, assorted beads, ribbons etc.

This could be a stand alone invitation using only wire, which is an excellent medium for sculpting- keeping in mind that thin wire can be sharp! I chose black wire, from the dollar store, that comes in 12 inch lengths. I’ve seen exquisite creations made by many a-preschooler (who learn quickly about the sharp ends!). *Consider the use of safely goggles, too, as this is more of a threat for eyes than little fingers. I used dollar store beads that were wood, and some translucent plastic ones because they looked like glass. Another thrifty trick is to collect beads from thrift stores by salvaging old necklaces or bracelets. Sheer and satin ribbons are one of my favourite dollar store resources, but yarn or twine would also be perfect.

These are a few of my favourite things…

This list is not definitive, by any means at all. But here are some of my favourite art materials to use with children:

  • Crayons. Inexpensive, with so many to choose from. Children love the fine motor activity of peeling the paper off the crayons, too. Broken pieces are perfect for encouraging a pincer grasp, and can be melted down to make new crayons like this.
  • Pencil crayons are especially great for shading. These woodless ones from Crayola are a neat alternative for younger people, as they don’t require sharpening.
  • Watercolour pencils. These can be pricey, but Crayola makes a more accessible variation, too.
  • Markers: I like to offer a variety: standard Crayola fat tip, fine tip, and Sharpies. Spent markers can be repurposed to make liquid watercolours, too.
  • Gel Pens. Like Sharpies, gel pens offer a really saturated colour, and can be used to create different effects.
  • Chalk Pastels. Worth the money if you can shell it out, but coloured chalk can also offer similar effects. Wonderful to use on dark paper and for teaching how to blend.
  • Oil Pastels. A classic, offers a different sensory experience than crayons and is perfect for creating resist technique masterpieces.
  • Charcoal/Conte. Similar effect to chalk, but excellent for dramatic impact and contrast. It can be great to pull a piece of charcoal from a fire pit and draw on rocks. Create a different effect by dipping it in water first. *Be prepared for kiddos to look like a chimney sweep- this is a messy one!
  • Liquid Watercolours. Endless fun with these, whether in spray bottles or shaving cream. Or, make your own- like this!
  • Tempera Paint. Tempera paint is ideal for children to use because it usually washes out quite easily.
  • Cardstock. Different from construction paper, having good, heavy cardstock on hand is great for making cards around holiday or for using with watercolours in general. You might also go for a pack of blank envelopes and cards (I mean,who doesn’t love a personalized card?).
  • Clay. A thousand mudpies later, and I still love the feeling of working with clay.
  • Gold Leaf Foil. Can add dramatic effect to special pieces. I use this one sparingly, but it can be rrrreally fun. Depending on the project, tinfoil might work as an alternative.
  • Wire. Perfect medium for sculpting, doing line work, beading.
  • Beads (wooden, glass or translucent). Beading is one of my all-time favourite activities for preschool to school age children. It requires such focus, and is a perfect mindful offering in busy classrooms. It’s also rich with cultural and historical significance.
  • Ribbon and Yarn. Excellent addition to mixed media, for beading on, creating borders, or even for math activities. I always choose cloth over plastic, if I have the option. *Many kiddos are drawn to glitter and sparkles. There are sparkley, sheer ribbons at most dollar stores that satisfy this desire for children while offering a diversity of texture and medium to their art works, like this beautiful ribbon weaving activity.
  • Clipboards. I love clipboards with paper ready to go in all areas of my classroom, as it encourages emergent writing, spontaneous representation and literacy skills. Can also be used in the car, for plein-air art, or to create easily changed art galleries.

Happy art-making!

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